Q & A with Richard Marx
If, at any point during the 1990’s, you listened to FM radio, you probably heard a Richard Marx song. In fact, if you’ve ever listened to mainstream pop, there’s a good chance you’ve heard a Richard Marx song. Marx, performing at the McGlohon Theater on October 9th, is one of the most decorated songwriters (and singers) of the past two decades, with 13 number one Billboard songs, three Grammy nominations (and one win), and more Platinum records than he can probably fit on his mantle piece. You probably know some of his trademark songs, like "Right Here Waiting," "Now and Forever," and "Hold on to the Nights." He’s also collaborated with anyone and everyone in the music industry, ever. Seriously. We’re pretty sure he lent Stravinsky a few bars for what became Agon. Okay, that was a joke, but he’s definitely been around the power ballad block a few times, and we got a behind-the-scenes look at some of his career highlights.
Revue: So not too long after Charlotte, you’re headed off to Europe to tour for the bajillionth time, correct?
RM: You know, I really haven’t done a tour in 12 or so years. I’ve really just been doing scattered shows here and there. There was a long stretch of time, from around ’98 to ’04, where the only shows I did were charity shows. Really, I was almost never performing, just producing, and writing songs for other people. At that point, I had sort of partially burned out on touring, chasing another hit record, and that kind of thing. I took a long hiatus from that, and I never thought I’d go back to playing live, to be honest. But then, in 2004, I put out a studio record with EMI, and that sort of forced me to go back out. We went out to do a radio show in Kansas City. It was a bunch of track acts, lots of hip hop songs, and the only people playing live were me and Maroon 5. It was really weird. I only played, like, five songs, but I had put a new band together, and after the first chord of the first song, it was like, "Wow, this is totally different." I fell in love with it again. It was sort of a reinvention of the process. Now, I do these solo acoustic shows that are completely fresh for me. I do a bunch of shows with Matt Scannell, from Vertical Horizon, who’s one of my best friends, and I’ve done some band shows. It’s impossible for it ever to become a grind or a routine, because it’s never a tour; I just do a few shows.
Revue: But you did get to do a pretty cool tour just a few years ago, with Ringo Starr.
RM: Yeah, I got that invite from Ringo Starr to tour with his All-Starr Band in 2006. What made that so fun for me was being a guitar player in a band, and not worrying so much about getting enough sleep the night before, you know? I used to have all kinds of health issues because the road was beating the s*** out of me. With the Starr tour, it was a much more mature perspective. I was 40 when I hit that stage.
Revue: Your recording career, though, is still active. You released Emotional Remains and Sundown a couple years ago through your website, and you’ve got another one coming up, Stories To Tell. What was the story with those?
RM: Yeah, Emotional Remains and Sundown were really only released on my website, so they were never really proper releases. I had written and recorded these songs, and I did not want to do the label thing, again. I can’t stand record companies; they’re just as full of creeps as they’ve always been, but I did want to get the music out there. As for Stories To Tell, that is an album that’s going to be released in Europe next month, to coincide with a tour I’m doing there. But it’s on an independent label; I have no contract with them, and they’re really just putting it in stores and getting it on iTunes. I think we’re going to release it in America through, I’m hoping, an indie label, or just a distributor.
Revue: So the stresses of your early tours that you had mentioned…did that stem from a sense of obligation to the record labels you were with?
RM: It’s sort of complicated. With my first album, we toured for 15 months straight, with no break, but it was hugely successful. The album was triple or quadruple Platinum, or whatever. But I was more than willing to do it: I was young, and I had never done it before. Also, though, with that first album, the guy that signed me was the record company president, Bruce Lundvall, which is very rare, for the president of a record label to sign an act. He went on to run Blue Note for many years. To this day, I would lay on railroad tracks for him. He’s a musical, soulful, wonderful man, responsible for Norah Jones’ career. So I felt like this guy had taken a chance on me when no body else would, and that I was going to get it all for him. I didn’t even hesitate, I just kept going. But then, Bruce was let go from the label, and there was this new cast of characters who I didn’t have any affection for.
The other thing with touring is that your team, your crew, just gets bigger. There’s five guys in the band, five crew guys, a tour manager, a personal manager, he has a staff, and next thing you know, you’re supporting the livelihood of 30 people. That’s a huge responsibility for a 24-year-old kid. There were many times I should have said, "I’ve got to go home for a couple weeks." But you don’t do that, you keep forging ahead.
My cynicism toward major labels is based on having now worked as a producer. I’ve been on both sides, now. There are good, talented people, of course, but they’re very few. Most are either dumb, or untrustworthy, or, usually, both.
Revue: What compelled you to transition into producing?
RM: All my kids were in school when I started producing. After 8 or 9 years, every album was Platinum, and every album had yielded a hit song. And then, suddenly, it was like it just wasn’t my turn anymore. All of those guys who were my contemporaries, like Brian Adams, Billy Joel, and even Elton John, just sort of disappeared from radio in the mid-1990’s. It was a huge shift, and that never returned. I couldn’t bitch, but I still felt I had so much music left in me. Before, i had written songs for other people, and produced a little bit (I had produced all my own records), and I wanted to try and remain somewhat of a presence in pop music. It was just sort of luck from there. I got a call from the people with ‘N Sync, and they asked if I had a song for them, and I said "sure," but didn’t, so I quick and wrote something ["This I Promise You"] and Justin Timberlake asked if I would produce it. I was home for breakfast, at dinner every night, got to see my kids’ basketball games, and have date night with my wife. And it’s remained that way ever since.
Revue: What was the process like for the Grammy-winning song you wrote with Luther Vandross, "Dance With My Father"?
RM: That was completely Luther’s brainchild. We had written a couple songs before that he had recorded, like a single from his Christmas album, and he had sung background on several of my records, so we were really good friends. He called, and said he had an idea for a song called "Dance With My Father," and he started to describe it. His dad had died when he was 12 or 13, so his memories of him weren’t very precise, but the ones that were clearest were of when his dad would come into their apartment in Brooklyn, and dance with his wife and the kids, and hold the kids on his shoes, and it was this very sweet image. He wrote a song about how much he missed his dad, and how much it hurt to see his mom go through losing him. I know that part of the reason he reached out was because I had lost my dad in ’97, and he was one of the few people who knew how to reach out to me. We never wrote the song in the same room. Lyrically, he didn’t want any help. I wrote the music, but he knew exactly what he wanted to say. I certainly loved the song, but I didn’t hear it as being a big, hit song. He had his stroke just ten days after he mixed the song in the recording studio.
Revue: What was it like, winning a Grammy for the song, but not having him there with you?
RM: I mean, on the one hand, we had won Song of the Year at the Grammys. And in terms of those kinds of rewards and show biz things, that’s as good as it gets. I was thrilled, but I couldn’t really celebrate, because he was in such bad shape and he wasn’t there with me. It all felt hollow to me. I enjoyed getting up on stage, and Celine Dion sang the song there, and they had a pre-recorded statement from him accepting the award. I was just bummed. If he had been fine, we would have made the paper the next morning not from winning a Grammy, but from tearing L.A. apart. Luther had the greatest sense of humor, and I just know we would have partied until 4 a.m., but instead, I just went back to the hotel, and went to bed. I couldn’t really celebrate, because he wasn’t there.
Revue:The titles of your past few albums (Emotional Remains, Sundown, and Stories to Tell) all sound so final. With all this behind you, where do you see your career headed from here?
RM: You know, I don’t really make those kinds of plans, anymore. I’ve always got an idea for something brewing, but I don’t get too hung up on it. The more I go about my business and work on things that interest me, interesting things just sort of come my way. I found that stuff that I chase, whether it’s trying to get a song on a particular album, and so on, they either don’t materialize, or aren’t successful, or aren’t fun. Ever piece of success I’ve had has found me. So now I jsut do stuff that is fun for me. I’m trying to maintain a balance in my life. I’ve worked with so many people in so many genres, that things just sort of come along. For instance, one thing created a domino effect about a year and a half ago, when I met Chad Krueger. I’m a huge fan of his; he’s one of my favorite rock singers in the world right now. We hit it off, and wrote a few songs together. We hadn’t talked for six months, but now he’s up in Vancouver writing with Chris Daughtry. Chris said something nice about me, and Chad said, "Oh, he’s a friend of mine," and they called me to see if I wanted to write with them. The next day, I was up in Vancouver, writing. Chris mentioned that he knew Jason Wade, of Lifehouse, We flew to L.A., and the three of us wrote three songs in 36 hours for the Lifehouse album. I just know that that I love walking into the room, either by myself or with other people I respect, and write the best songs I can, and whatever happens to them, happens. I love it when songs become hits, but if I never have another hit song, it’s totally fine. I’ve had that experience many times over, and I’m grateful for it. But I’m grateful and blessed that there’s all this different music I can work on. It’s impossible for me to get bored or frustrated.