July 14, 2003
Interviewed by Tony Fenton for Radio 2 FM, Dublin, Ireland
In Conjunction with Dermot McEvoy
Tony: As a kid, what was it like growing up in Palm Springs, CA?
Billy: I grew up in Palm Springs, California which is in the desert about 100 miles southeast of Los Angeles. It's mostly known as a tourist's town where people go to get away from LA. It was fun growing up there. You sort of felt like a real insider. I had a group of friends and we felt like we kinda owned the town. All the locals knew each other. It was great fun. I meet people in LA and they ask where I'm from and I say Palm Springs and they always say very predictably, "I didn't know anybody was from Palm Springs." But it was a great place to grow up.
Billy to Ezra: You just have to sit quietly or you can sit out there.
Billy: I started singing in rock bands when I was about 13, 14 years old. My first band was called the Fables. And that was in Palm Springs. Two guys in the band, their dad was the music instructor at Palm Springs High School. Our group, the Fables, we used to play at private parties, at the Youth Center, at high school dances and it was great. We did covers of the Kinks and the Animals and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. That's sorta how I got my start in music.
Tony: Were you from a musical family, you know, were your parents musical at all? Did you have instruments around the house: pianos, guitars? What was going on?
Billy: I don't really come from a musical family. I had a next-door neighbor who was a little older than I was and he had a big collection of 45's. As soon as I started hearing those records; the Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, Buddy Holly, I just fell head over heels for pop music. I still have those records. I, you know, just the look of the labels, see the title, "All I Have To Do Is Dream", the Everly Brothers on Cadence Records. Everything about it is just magical for me. Nothing has ever touched me the same way.
Tony: What was the first record you ever bought?
Billy: The first record that I can remember owning was "Poor Little Fool" by Ricky Nelson. I had a very small record collection to begin with, and I used to play the songs over and over and drive my parents crazy. My father used to joke that the records were stacked up in my room like pancakes. Every nickel I got, I put it towards buying 45's.
Tony: You know, my dad was the same. (laugh) "Turn it down, turn it down." Repetition, repetition.
Tony: At that early age when you were buying records and listening to songs over and over, did you have any aspirations at that stage to be a star?
Billy: You know, I think as a child, it never occurred to me that a person could have a musical career. It was just something, it was like from outerspace for me. It was something very special and very magical, but my dad was a farmer and it didn't occur to me that people could have a career in music. It wasn't until, it really wasn't until I got into high school that it occurred to me that people could have a career in music.
Tony: What were you like in school?
Billy: Well, when I was in school, I was interested in sports and I was interested in music. So, I sorta had a foot in both worlds. At that time, it was hard to do both because in the 60's if you wanted to grow your hair long, you were not allowed to participate in athletics. So, a lot of people had to make a choice; did they want to participate in sports or did they want to grow their hair long and be part of the counter-culture. So, I tried to keep a foot in both worlds. I played baseball, I played tennis. But singing in the rock band was, those were my two passions, the sports and the music.
Tony: When you were 15or 16, what was it like in Palm Springs, California, in terms of musical outlets, you know on the weekend and stuff?
Billy: Well in Palm Springs, there weren't really clubs to go to. The only thing we had was something called the Youth Center and they had a great jukebox in there. And it was really the first place I can remember seeing guys and girls interact, dancing together. I can remember sitting in that Youth Center and hearing the song "Walk On By" by Dionne Warwick and seeing some of the girls that were a little older than I was and just sorta dreamin' about how cool it would be to have a girlfriend like that.
Tony: I think the old Burt Bacharach and Hal David certainly does it to kids when they are growing up at that age. You know, what did you study? You went to college, what did you study in college?
Billy: I went to Bard College in upstate New York. That was a big departure from Palm Springs which is in the desert. As you know, upstate New York is very much part of New England. I went there as a literature major. Although, by the time I was in college, I was writing songs day and night. Singing them to anyone who would listen to them. Walking around campus with my guitar, performing in the basement of the chapel and different areas of College for me was just a chance to hangout with friends and write songs.
Tony: We'll get to the writing in just a few moments time. Tell me about being a farmer. You were a farmer at one stage with your dad's business, weren't you? Tell me about that.
Billy: When I got out of college, I went right to work with my dad in the vineyards. My dad had a company called the David Freedman Company based in Thermal, California. Thermal is about 30 miles from Palm Springs near the Salton Sea. We grew grapes, table grapes.
Tony: The farming business.
Billy: The farming business, right. So my dad had 1,300 acres of table grapes in the Coachella Valley. I went to work there after college. My father had never really groomed me to be a farmer. A lot of kids whose parents are farmers are told, "well you're going to be a farmer like me." My dad really never said that. But, when I got out of college, I went to work in the vineyards and I found that I really loved it. We had seasonally over 1,000 workers. My dad by that time was kinda worn out of being out in the desert heat and he sorta welcomed my participation. And I learned to speak fluent Spanish. All the workers were Mexican. And I grew to really love the process of growing grapes, training young vines.
Billy: So, I got into my late 20's and I was working in the farming business and I had been writing songs consistently for 10 years by that point. And I really hadn't been able to interest anybody in the songs. I took journeys up to Los Angeles, played my songs for publishers, played for record company people. One little anecdote I remember when I was still at Bard College in upstate New York. Somehow through a friend of a friend I was invited down to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's office in New York City. And I remember going in there, goin' up the elevator and getting out and seeing all their gold and platinum records all over. You know Leiber and Stoller are legends. So I played for people whenever I got the chance in Los Angeles, in New York. And I really had a hard time getting my foot in the door. Of course, that's par for the course. It is hard to get a start. So by the time I was in my late 20's, I sort of had come to the conclusion that it wouldn't be the worst thing if I just spent my life in table grape growing like my dad. Fortunately, for me, I started to get some attention for my songwriting.
Tony: What age were you when you started writing songs?
Billy: I think I wrote my first songs around the age of 17. But, like I told you, for years before that I had already been the lead singer in a rock band and just doing cover songs.
Tony: Tell me about the name of the rock band and how they got their name?
Billy: Well the very first band I was in was called the Fables. I think we just chose the name because it sorta sounded like the Beatles. You know it has that vibe. That sort of slightly baroque 60's vibe. And then I was in another band called Dirt. Dirt was different. We played more like Blues. It was sort of modeled after Paul Butterfield Blues Band or one of those kind of things.
Tony: You were in a band called Billy Thermal as well.
Billy: Oh, yeah.
Tony: Tell me about that.
Billy: Oh, okay.
Billy: Well when I was already working in the vineyards, the songs I was writing were influenced by what they called New Wave music. New Wave meaning Elvis Costello, The Talking Heads, Blondie, Graham Parker. That sort of thing. And The Knack. So the songs I wrote, all of a sudden started to get guess when I was in college I'd written more folky kinds of songs. I was influenced at that time by Donovan and Dylan. It was kind of a folky thing on the acoustic guitar. But, then in my late 20's in the New Wave era, I started to write rock songs. And so I thought, well how am I going to demo these songs? So I met a bass player and a drummer from San Bernardino and they used to travel down to Palm Springs to play on my demos. And I met a guitar player from Los Angeles. And these guys were kind enough to travel down to a friend of mine's garage in Palm Springs and make demos with me. And we enjoyed each others company so much that we decided to call it a band and I named it Billy Thermal. As I mentioned to you earlier, our vineyards were in Thermal, California. So that's how it got its name, Billy Thermal.
Tony: What was your parent's reaction to you becoming a songwriter? Did they want you to do something different?
Billy: My father was very involved in politics. He was the President of the State Board of Agriculture, for the state of California. And he worked closely with John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Adlai Stevenson and other well- known Democrats. I think they liked my dad, because my dad was a "rare critter" in that he was a Democrat and he was a Jew and most farmers aren't Democrats. Most of them are conservative Republicans. So he was helpful to the Kennedys and Johnson. So my dad's point of view about my music was that music would be for me what politics had been for him. Essentially, sort of a constructive hobby. I don't think he ever thought I would succeed in music. My mom used to be great at listening to my songs. I'd play her every song I wrote on the acoustic guitar. She was a pretty good critic in terms of the lyric. She would tell me which songs she liked, which ones she didn't. At that age I found that it was really important to have somebody just to sing the songs for. So my friends, my parents, my friends' parents, anyone who would listen, I'd say, well "What do you think of this song? What do you think of this song? What's better, this song or this song? What did you like about this song? What didn't you like about it? What was your favorite part of the song?" I would always be quizzing people like that. So my parents thought it was great I was writing songs. But I don't think they dreamed that it would supercede the farming as a career. When I actually told my dad that I was thinking of quitting farming to pursue music full time, he was a little upset for a short period of time. But by that time I had already had some major successes.
Tony: You got involved with a band and at what point did it change from wanting to be famous in terms of the band to accepting a role, you know in the background?
Billy: There are very few people I know who are songwriters who didn't set out to become stars in their own right. I think most recording engineers, most producers, most people in the publishing world, everybody starts out in a band and we all have this dream of being famous. And I think that people who have strong enough feeling about music but somehow can't quite succeed at becoming famous stars in their own right, sort of get channeled into whatever area they are most suited for. For me it was songwriting. At one point it was very hard for me to accept that. But I have to confess that I don't really sing that well and I don't really enjoy performing. So if you put those two things together, songwriting is really what I am cut out for.
Tony: Tell me about how you met Tom Kelly?
Billy: I was living out in Thermal, California still working in the vineyards. And I had had a little bit of chart success. I wrote a song for Linda Ronstadt called "How Do I Make You," that was a Top 10 hit for her. I had a couple of songs covered by Pat Benatar. These are songs that I had written and recorded for my band, Billy Thermal. And I hadn't really tried to pitch the songs to Ronstadt or Benatar but they had heard the songs and recorded them. The guy who produced the Pat Benatar songs that I wrote was named Keith Olsen. Keith was a very well known producer because he had produced Fleetwood Mac. That was his biggest claim to fame, although he did many, many well-known records. It was Keith who knew Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks and introduced Buckingham and Nicks to Mike Fleetwood and the McVies. Keith Olsen had produced 2 songs of mine for Pat Benatar, but I had never met him. In the month of August, after our grape harvest, I would traditionally rent a house in Pacific Palisades to get away from the heat, to be near the ocean and to meet as many people as I could in the music business. So I was in Los Angeles and I was thinking "well who do I know, who could I meet?" And I thought well, Keith Olsen produced a couple of my songs, why not call him? So I called Keith and I said "Keith, this is Billy Steinberg," and he goes "oh, I know you, you're one of my favorite songwriters." And I was flattered of course cause I had never met him. And I said well I'd love to meet you and he said that he was having a housewarming party. He had just moved into a new house. So, I was still a bit of a hayseed. I took my acoustic guitar to his party. There were a lot of stars there and people in the music business. And it was a little unusual to arrive with an acoustic guitar and want to sing for people at a party. One of the people I met at the party was Tom Kelly. Tom Kelly, at the time, was mostly known as a background singer. Tom was the most sought after male background singer in LA. He used to sing with Richard Page and Bill Champlin. They sang on everybody's record, from Motley Crue to Barbara Streisand. They were much in demand. I had never really co-written, but it occurred to me to ask Tom if he wanted to write a song together. And after he investigated a little who this freak was walking around with his acoustic guitar, he said, "Ok, lets give it a try." And you know that's history. Once I started writing with Tom, I pretty well stopped writing by myself.
Tony: What is the first song the pair of you wrote together?
Billy: The very first song that Tom Kelly and I wrote together was called "Just One Kiss." And it was recorded by Rick Springfield. It's not a very well known song. The first massive song that Tom and I wrote together was "Like A Virgin."
Tony: We'll get to that in just a few moments. Was it difficult to find who you should pitch your songs to when you guys got together?
Billy: Well approaching recording artists with songs is a very hard thing to do. Nine out of 10 times you know, you get rejection. Either they don't like the song or more often they don't listen to the song. But slowly I started to learn how to contact record company executives, A-and-R people, record producers, publishers, managers, the artists themselves, just to find whatever way I could if I had a new song to try to get it heard.
Tony: It was difficult. It's always difficult in the very beginning isn't it? When did you know you could cut it as a songwriter? What was the defining moment?
Billy: Really the defining moment for me, that convinced me that I could be a commercially viable songwriter was before I ever met Tom Kelly, a song called "How Do I Make You." The guitar player in my band, Billy Thermal, his girlfriend at that time was singing backup for Linda Ronstadt. And unknown to me, he played Linda our demos and she loved the song "How Do I Make You" and wanted to record it. But by that time, I had so much rejection and so much disappointment that when I first heard that she was going to record the song, I really didn't believe it. I was reading the Los Angeles Times and there was an article about a fundraising concert that Linda Ronstadt sang at. It was a fundraising concert for Jerry Brown, who was running for Governor of the State of California. And Linda was his girlfriend at that time. And it said in the article in the Los Angeles Times that Linda sang many of her hit songs and that she included in her set some new songs including a New Wave rocker called "How Do I Make You." And when I read that in the newspaper I thought, wow, it looks like it's really going to happen. And then, shortly after that, I was working out in the vineyards and it was, you know, it was all under the desert sun, working outdoors and the farmworkers often carried portable radios as they worked. And I actually heard "How Do I Make You" sung by Linda Ronstadt on one of the workers' radios while I was in the fields. And that really drove it home. There it is, my song.
Tony: Beautiful. Was there ever a moment when you thought: ah, sod this, I'm going to give it all up, it's not working?
Billy: At one point in the 1970's, it was probably sometime between 1977-1978, around that era. I'd been writing songs for quite a while. Right before that New Wave period in rock and roll I was really running short on inspiration. I just hadn't written many songs and I was working so hard in the family farming business and I remember thinking at one point, "well, I guess the music thing's not for me. I guess I'm really going to be a farmer the rest of my life. And it was kind of a real melancholy feeling cause music had meant more to me than anything else in life. But like I said, the New Wave music came out and I started to hear Elvis Costello, and The Knack do "My Sharona," and Blondie with their early hits. And it really inspired me and I wrote a batch of new songs and the rest is history.
Tony: What makes a regular guy from Palm Springs, who worked on a farm, write songs like "Like A Virgin", "I Touch Myself", and "True Colors"?
Billy: Well, I wouldn't really consider myself a regular guy. (laugh). I don't know if anyone's a regular guy, really. I think each of us are individuals. Creativity has always been a great outlet for me. For most of my life I hardly ever knew what I felt about anything. I'm a little more expressive now (laugh) in my personal life. But, as a teenager I remember just sort of being in a little bit of an ivory tower, and looking at people and thinking that they were burdened with emotion. I remember thinking that I'd see couples like, guys and girls having, sort of very emotional relationships, and I remember thinking: "God, I'm glad I'm not like that." And I remember I would rarely feel sad, or rarely feel mad or, I don't know, I just repressed all those things and it just came bursting out in songwriting. So, that's just the nature of who I am. Whether I was from Palm Springs or from Dublin, Ireland or Moscow, you know, that's just how I am.
Tony: You're writing songs, you're recording and it was working. What was it like when you first heard your #1 single? You know, was it on the radio, on the TV, where were you when you heard your very first #1? What was the feeling like?
Billy: In 1985 when Madonna released "Like A Virgin", I was still commuting back and forth between my job in the vineyards and Los Angeles where the music business was centered. And "Like A Virgin" came out and there was a lot of anticipation there because her very first album was already out. And when she started to record "Like A Virgin", they really felt that the first album was winding down. It had had a modest hit on it called "Holiday". And they figured they'd can that album and work on her new one. But Madonna had such an appealing voice and such an appealing image that they couldn't stop it. And she had "Borderline" as a hit and then "Lucky Star" was a hit and that first album of hers didn't want to stop. So by the time they released "Like A Virgin", I'd been waiting for quite a long time. They had that song in the can for a while. Even before it came out, she came on television, I think it was an MTV awards show and she sang "Like A Virgin". And this was before anyone had heard the song, it wasn't released yet. There she was, a little bit pudgy and very voluptuous and the camera followed her rolling around on the stage singing "Like A Virgin" and I thought, "Oh, now I was doomed." I really thought, "Oh, it's just my luck, she's ruined everything." But the song came out and it shot to #1 so fast. I remember the big pop station in LA; it's KIIS FM. I remember everyday for months, it was the most requested song. And it was so requested that they'd play it twice in a row. The song would end and they would play it again. It was bliss for me. That was the most exciting time of my life.
Tony: Did you write that song with her in mind specifically?
Billy: The song "Like A Virgin" was definitely not written with Madonna in mind. It was written before anyone had ever heard of her. It was written in 1983 before Madonna had surfaced. And Tom Kelly and I got together to write. And we always start our songs with lyrics that I write. So, I would come in and I had a stack of lyrics and one of them was "Like A Virgin". The verse to the song is a very heartfelt story about somebody who's been through a very difficult relationship and met somebody new. It says "I made it through the wilderness, somehow I made it through. I didn't know how lost I was, until I found you. I was beat, incomplete, I'd been had, I was sad and blue. But you made me feel shiny and new." And so I had that lyric sitting on Tom's piano and it sounded so heartfelt to him that he would write these sensitive melodies to it. As soon as it got to the title, "Like A Virgin", it sort of (laugh) fell apart, because the title was so irreverent, that it didn't sound right singing sort of poetically. And out of frustration, Tom started to play the bassline to "Like A Virgin". Of course if you know the song, the bassline to "Like A Virgin" is quite similar to some Motown songs. One in particular, "I Can't Help Myself". Tom started to sing falsetto, and as soon as he started playing that bassline and singing "Like A Virgin" falsetto, I said that's it. And he looked at me sort of incredulously because he had really never sung falsetto before. At least not professionally. And I said that's it. That's definitely it. And very quickly we wrote "Like A Virgin" and we demoed the song. At that time we had an 8-track recording studio at Tom's house. I think the keyboard parts were played on a Jupiter 8 Synthesizer. All that we had on the demo was a Linn Drum Machine, the Jupiter 8 Synthesizer parts and I think Tom just played synth bass too. And he sang the demo falsetto and I did some background parts. In fact, it was me in the background going "hey" and she did that. She really copied our demo exactly, which was a tribute.
Tony: Did you ever get to meet her?
Billy: I met Madonna once. It may have been 5 or 6 years after "Like A Virgin".
Tony: How did it come about? What was she like? You know.
Tony: I'm the bloke who wrote your song. (laugh)
Billy: When I met Madonna, it's kind of a funny sorry. Tom Kelly and I had been invited to Madonna's managers 50th birthday party. And it was a black-tie event at his Beverly Hills mansion. So, Tom and I were both wearing rented tuxedos. And we were standing on a terrace at Freddie DeMann's house in Beverly Hills. And we were talking to Steven Bray. Steven Bray is a songwriter who wrote some of Madonna's hits and had, I think at one time been her boyfriend. So Madonna comes walking towards us across a terrace and she's walking with Warren Beatty. And I thought, "this is perfect, what a great time to meet Madonna because we're standing with Steve Bray, a great person to introduce us." So, Warren Beatty and Madonna walk up and Steve Bray starts to introduce us. And Warren Beatty starts to laugh and I think he's laughing because he thinks that it's a joke, that she must know the people that wrote "Like A Virgin" and that it couldn't be a first time introduction. But anyway, Steve Bray says to Madonna, "This is Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly. They wrote "Like A Virgin"." And before anyone could say anything, I said, "Ooh, Madonna, it's so great to meet you. I've wanted to meet you for so long." And she said, "Now you did." Then she turned and walked away.
Tony: No way!
Billy: So, Tom and I were both a bit in shock. I was kind of devastated and Tom was very amused because he always pokes fun at me for being kind of gushing and very sort of impulsive. And so I, I don't know. That's the way it goes.
Tony: After you wrote that, and when it became such a huge hit, you know, did your phone start ringing a bit? Were people like, "Please write for me? Please write for me?"
Billy: Well once "Like A Virgin" had been a hit people started to come to Tom and me for songs. And fortunately for us, we had them.
Tony: Your songs areou're lucky cause they're hits more than once, aren't they?
Billy: Well, you know, there are hit songs and there are hit songs. I think the one very gratifying thing in my career is that some of the big hits that I have written have really proven to be memorable songs. Hopefully memorable like the songs that moved me when I was a kid growing up. "Like A Virgin", "True Colors", "Eternal Flame", "I Drove All Night". These are songs that have already been re-recorded and have been, well "Like A Virgin" has only really been done by Madonna. Well that's not true, cause Weird Al Yankovic did a (laugh) parody of it. But these are songs that really have sort of proven to have staying power. They are songs that people remember. There's a few more that we've written that are in that category. I don't think it's luck, but I feel fortunate to have written songs that people remember that don't go, seem to go out of date.
Tony: And staying power of course. You mentioned "I Drove All Night", which was a hit twice.
Billy: Three times, no four times.
Tony: Really. One of them was of course Roy Orbison. Did you ever get to meet Roy Orbison? Because I mean, you were growing up at that stage and listening to songs that, you know, at an early stage when Roy Orbison would have been huge.
Billy: Umm, hmm.
Tony: Did you ever get to meet him at all?
Billy: I'll tell you the whole story of "I Drove All Night" if you don't mind. I'll tell you the story of "I Drove All Night" cause there's a lot to tell really. When Tom and I used to write songs together we would call on the muses that inspired us most. Whether it was John Lennon or Holland, Dozier and Holland or Prince or Roy Orbison. Those are some of the people that influenced our songwriting. We wrote a batch of songs that were influenced by Roy Orbison. One of them was "I Drove All Night". So we wrote that song and we did a demo of it. It was a 16-track demo and Tom sang the demo very much imitating Roy Orbison. We finished the song and we really didn't have anybody wanting to record it. So we just set it aside, just kept on with our songwriting. At that time Roy Orbison didn't have a recording contract. He used to tour and he used to play in supperclubs. I happened to notice in the Los Angeles Times an ad saying that Roy Orbison was going to appear at a supperclub in Orange County. And I think it was a club that was owned by the Righteous Brothers. So we went down to the club and we got in. Mostly there were middle-aged housewives at the club, waiting to hear Roy. Roy was such an idol of mine that I really braced myself. I said to myself, "His vocals on his records are so stunning. It was like 25 years after his biggest hits. There is no way he could sing those songs the way I remember them." I was trying not to expect too much. The band came out on stage and the background singers started to do the background vocals for "Only The Lonely". You know, the "dum dum dum dum be do ah." Out came Roy and from the moment he started singing it was so powerful. He actually sang all his hits better than they had been recorded. He sang "Crying" and "Running Scared" and all the hits, "In Dreams" and "Pretty Woman". And Tom and I were just looking at each other like school kids. It was just so impressive. Afterwards we tried to go around to his trailer behind the club and meet him. We didn't meet Roy but we met his manager. So we managed to contact the manager later on and we said "Geez, we've written a song that would be great for Roy." That was "I Drove All Night". To make a long story a little less long, Roy came over to Tom Kelly's house. Tom and I were out in front of his house and we saw a bright red Ferrari driving down the street and it was a convertible and there was a guy wearing sunglasses. And it was a suburban street, so who could it be. It was Roy. I tell you my knee started to tremble. Roy came into the house and Tom and I were just falling over ourselves, "Oh my God, Roy we're such big fans, we love your music, we love your voice." And he was the most gorgeous, modest, generous guy. I remember him saying (in a southern accent) "Billy, I really love your work too, you guys are great." You know, just trying to make us feel like we were equals. And then we played him our demo of "I Drove All Night" and he learned it and he put headphones on. There were three of us there on headphones, Tom Kelly, myself and Roy Orbison. And Roy sang twice "I Drove All Night". There's a part in the song where it goes, "I was dreaming while I drove the long straight road ahead, uh huh, yeahǢ and that bit when he goes "Uh huh, yeah," we really had just done that as a parody of Roy Orbison and when he sang that "Uh huh, yeah" part on the mic I nearly melted. It was unbelievable. So then he went off and we have the demo with Roy singing it. But Roy didn't have a recording contract. Right around that time we had a big hit with Cyndi Lauper, called "True Colors". So we had this great opportunity there to play songs for Cyndi Lauper. So we went to New York to meet Cyndi and we played her "I Drove All Night" but we didn't play her the version with Roy Orbison singing, we played her the original demo that Tom Kelly sang. She loved the song and recorded it. It became a Top 10 hit for Cyndi Lauper. A number of years went by. Roy got signed, he made some big hit songs like "You Got It" that he wrote with Jeff Lynne and he put together the "Traveling Wilburys" with Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne and George Harrison. And then that tragic moment came when Roy Orbison passed away. It had already been several years since Cyndi Lauper's version of "I Drove All Night". And Tom and I knew Jordan Harris at Virgin Records. We called Jordan and said, "Jordan, did you ever hear the version of "I Drove All Night" that Roy sang?" He said no he hadn't heard it, but he said he was trying to scrape together enough material to put one last Roy Orbison record together. We said, "Oh, you've got to hear this." So we sent him the demo of Roy singing "I Drove All Night" and he loved it and he organized for us to give the 16-track tape to Jeff Lind. And Jeff used the vocal that we had recorded at Tom's house, needless to say, and recreated the track behind it, and the song became a hit for Roy. It wasn't a hit for Roy in America but it was a big hit for Roy in the UK, and many parts of Europe. Then recently, just to finish the history of that song, a country group from Nashville called Pin Monkey had a country western hit with the song. And then I played the song for Celine Dion, and she's just had a hit with it. And it's being used as a Chrysler commercial right now in the US. So the song had a lot of life.
Tony: It certainly has. Just before we continue, do you want to take a break for a drink or anything like that?
Billy to Ezra: Are you alright?
Ezra: Ah, I'm kind of tired of being quiet.
Billy: Well, do you wanna go out there where you don't have to be quiet? (Ezra shakes his head "no.") Well then you have to sit and wait a few more minutes.
Ezra: How many?
Billy: About 10 more minutes.
Tony: You produced "Falling Into You" for Celine Dion. How do you find the transition from writer to producer?
Billy: Well, the transition from writer to producer for me isn't really seamless because I'm a much better songwriter than I am a producer. I've learned that some people are better writers than they are producers. Some people are great producers and can't write a song. And some people are really fortunate to excel at both. "Falling Into You" is a song I wrote with Rick Nowels and Marie Claire D'Ubaldo. We had written it for Marie Claire. She was signed to Polygram Records or Polydor, one or the other. And Celine heard the recording that we had with Marie Claire and she liked it and I suggested that Rick and I produce "Falling Into You" for Celine. Her people were in favor of it, so we did, and they loved the version of it that we did and it became a hit for Celine. And actually Rick and I won a Grammy for it. But, I don't really enjoy production. I mean, I loved producing Celine Dion cause she's such a great singer. I don't seek production work. Doesn't really suit me.
Tony: As a successful songwriter, you're both creative and commercial; which gives you the greatest feeling: a number one hit or a very large royalty check?
Billy: I think the most fun part of the whole process for me is songwriting. I know that when I'm writing a good song, whether I'm writing with Tom Kelly or Rick Nowels or different people that I co-write with, just that moment when you know you're writing something and you know it's good. You just laugh, you're so happy. There's a happiness there that isn't like anything else. Because you probably walked into the room and you had nothing and you walk out and there's either a song that's nearly written or it's completely written. It's like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. So that's the best part of the process. Then the second best part of it would be if someone records the song and it becomes a hit. That's just so exciting. The money part of it is satisfying, but in a different way. You know that's good too. But I wouldn't say I get a thrill out of it like I do the hearing it on the radio or actually creating the song itself.
Tony: Okay. You seem to write predominantly for females.
Billy: You know it's been pointed out to me that most of my hits have been recorded by female artists and people often ask "why, why is that?" And I've asked myself that question. There are a lot of possible answers. One answer would be that as a songwriter there are more female artists open to recording songs that they didn't write themselves. That's one possible answer. Another answer would be that maybe there's something about the songs that lend themselves to female artists. I know that when I was writing with Tom Kelly, Tom has a very high tenor voice. And sometimes the melodies that he would write would be hard for a guy to sing. I mean a Roy Orbison could sing them cause Roy had an amazing range and a high voice too. But some male singers wouldn't necessarily hear Tom singing and think; I want to record that song. And then there must be something in the lyrics that I write. You know, I didn't write "Like A Virgin" or "I Touch Myself" thinking that these were necessarily songs for a female to sing. I'm sure that that will make some people laugh, but they were really written from my own point of view. (laugh)
Tony: You always partner with people when writing. Why do you choose to work this way?
Billy: I haven't always partnered with people when I write. The first half a dozen songs that I wrote and had recorded were songs that I wrote myself. It was only after I started to write with Tom Kelly that I realized the advantage of collaborating. I didn't have a notion when I met Tom Kelly that I was stronger as a lyricist than I was as a musician until I started to hear him play the piano or the guitar, cause he plays both quite well. Or when I work with Rick Nowels, who also plays keyboards and guitar quite well, and I realized my own limitations. So, I sort of learned that I could write better songs co-writing then I could by myself. If I could write them by myself, like say a Prince or Stevie Wonder or people who've written very well by themselves, I would choose to write by myself. But I'm writing with people because I think I'm writing better songs that way.
Tony: What's the method of writing?
Billy: All the songs that I have written have been written lyrics first. And that's a bit of a deviation from the norm. It started out that way for me because I used to write poetry. And then I started to learn to play the acoustic guitar and then I started to try and put some of those poems to music on my acoustic guitar. I was pretty ingrained in that method. So when I met Tom Kelly, I said "well here's how I do it, I write these lyrics." And he had never tried that method before but I was pretty stubborn about how I wanted to work. And he adapted to it beautifully. He would now say that he wrote better using that method than he had trying to write melody first. So that's just the way I go about it.
Tony: Did you have an artist in mind or do you have an artist in mind when you sit down with Tom or whatever to write tunes?
Billy: I don't really like to write songs with artists in mind. Cause I find that for me it's kind of limiting. Then I start to censor things that I might think or write. I'd rather just get together with my co-writer and write a great song as if we were going to be the artists. And if we really succeed at it, then somebody's gonna wanna sing that song.
Tony: Of all the songs you've written, which is your favorite?
Billy: I think in a funny way, the favorite song I've ever written is "I Touch Myself" but you know, there's more to that song than meets the eye. It's not just a cheap masturbation song, (laugh) although it certainly is that too. But I love that song. I love it because it's recorded by the Divinyls, you know. As songwriters, our greatest outlet is pop-artists. And I love pop music and there are fortunately people like Celine Dion who don't write their own songs, who will record my songs. But, on the rare occasions in my career when I have had a chance to write with or for people whose records I buy or people who were idols of mine, that's really special. Like rock bands often write their own songs so it's hard to getȳometimes it's hard to have songs recorded by rock bands. But I've written for the Pretenders and I've written for the Divinyls, and that makes it special to me too. I think the lead singer for the Divinyls has such a great voice singing "I Touch Myself." But there are other songs that I've written that I like as well.
Tony: You've mentioned a couple of legends there basically, and you've written for quite a few. If there was one person that you could write for, dead or alive, who would it be?
Billy: If there's one person I could hear sing one of my songs, dead or alive, it would have to be John Lennon. I guess he's my favorite. Needless to say, John didn't need one of my songs. I love his voice, I love everything about him.
Tony: If there was one person today you could write for that's alive today an artist today that you admire, whom would you write for?
Billy: See, if I'm asked who I would write for who's recording right now, I'm skewed a little bit by commercial consideration, cause I'd want it to be somebody who's tremendously popular. I don't know exactly who that would be. You know, I guess, just the other day I heard the new Beyonce Knowles single ("Crazy In Love"), and I thought it was really hot and I'd love to have her sing one of my songs.
Tony: Is there a song you wish you had written?
Billy: There are so many songs that I wish I had written. One of my favorite songs is "Like A Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan. Another one of my favorite songs is a song that many people don't know. It's called "Pretty Ballerina" sung by a group called Lefte Bank. Wish I'd written those songs. Most of the Holland, Dozier and Holland songs or the Burt Bacharach, Hal David songs I'd give my right arm to have written. You know, I just can't believe those songs.
Tony: Fantastic. You've written a pile of songs and you maintain a level of independence in business orientation. Is it important for you to retain control of the music that you write? The songs that you write?
Billy: When I started writing songs, I was much more of a control freak about it then I am now. When people started to record my songs, if I didn't like the way they sounded or if they changed a single word, I would be devastated. I would think, well that's not what I wanted. And it would really hurt. Now I'm more philosophical about it. I sort of feel like there are times when people are going to record my songs and I'm going to be surprised by how great they are. A good example of that is "True Colors," by Cyndi Lauper. Her version of the song doesn't resemble the demo we did. In fact, it's much better. So sometimes you get a gift like that. Other times, people record a song and you're disappointed. In fact, sometimes you can barely stand to hear it. But I no longer feel like I want to control it or can control it. You know, I'm happy to be making a living as a songwriter.
Tony: You sold your catalog to Sony Music. Did you have writer's remorse after you did that?
Billy: I sold the publisher's share of my early hits to Sony Music. Everything I have written since, I still own. The biggest regret in my whole career is having sold those copyrights to Sony. If I could take that back I would. But, I try not to dwell on it.
Tony: Did you try to buy them back?
Billy: I once called somebody at Sony and said I'd like to buy them back. And I had to sit and listen to them laugh for about 5 minutes before they said "we buy catalogs, we don't sell them." (laugh)
Tony: It's been 20 years since your 1st hit, did you ever think you would have a career this long?
Billy: It's been 23 years since my 1st hit and I never really thought about would my career last this long. I guess I'd have to say yes, I've always believed in my own abilities. You know, I was a kid, 17-18-years-old thinking I was going to be the next Bob Dylan. You have to kinda crazy, confident to even set out in this business or else you get disappointed and rejected so fast that they decapitate you. So, I guess I did, I had the kinda confidence that was necessary at the time. I still do. It doesn't surprise me that I have this kind of success. It pleases me. I'm humbled by it, but I'm not surprised.
Tony: Do you still get a buzz today, you know, when you see one of your songs on MTV, heard on the radio or whatever?
Billy: My family was just on vacation in Italy, and I went into a little market in a very remote part of southern Italy, if there is such a thing, (laugh) as a remote part of Italy. It was relatively remote. And I was in the market and I hadn't heard English spoken too much and "Eternal Flame" came on in the market. I got so excited that I said to the checkout girl, "I wrote that song." I tried to say it in Italian, I said "compositor." I said that's my song. You know, I know it was stupid to do that but I just felt like doing it and she just sort of looked at me like she didn't know what I was saying. But yeah I get excited. I get very excited.
Tony: Are you precious about your songs? I mean do you write them and let them go, or are they like children to you, always a part of you, I mean they always seem to be there?
Billy: I'm kinda precious about my songs, I mean they mean a lot to me. But having said that, I can also let them go. People can interpret them the way they want to. And if I like it, great, and if I don't like it, I can be accepting of that too.
Tony: A songwriter once told me that a song he had written for Tina Turner paid for a new house. Do you look at songs in that light, and if so, have you ever bought, you know, something fancy with the proceeds? What was the biggest thing you bought as like a gift? Do you look at it like that at all?
Billy: I don't really look at songs as being pots of gold. I guess, you know, if I have a song that's a hit. Like recently, Celine Dion did "I Drove All Night" and it was a Chrysler commercial. That gives me a certain confidence that I can maintain my standard of living, and that I can take a vacation if I want to, or buy a new car. But I don't reward myself with some material reward because there's just not anything I want that much. A song means more to me than anything I could buy with the proceeds.
Tony: Do you feel there's a time in every writer's career when he or she's most prolific and that other periods are frustrating by comparison?
Billy: Most artists seem to do their best work within a period of time. Whether it's 2 or 3 years or a 10-year period. I don't know what the reason for that is. I think it's true with just about anybody. If you look at the best Burt Bacharach/ Hal David songs, they were probably all written within a certain short period of time. Same thing goes for Lennon/ McCartney or anybody. Bob Dylan too. So I guess we all have our best periods. But, I like to think the best song I'm ever gonna write, I haven't written yet. That I can write songs as good as the ones I wrote in the 80s. I guess the biggest hits I've written were in the 80s. But, there's been a few good ones since then. Hope there still will be.
Tony: I think that's most of the stuff. There's just the songs we're going to feature within the program, Billy.
Billy: Okay, can we take a quick break so that...
Tony: Absolutely, perfect, perfect.
Ezra: How many minutes 'til we stop?
Billy: About 10 minutes.
Tony: Less than 10. Where'd you get those baby blues?
Tony: Brilliant. Okay, here we go.
Tony: How do you feel about being anonymous? Your work is famous, but people don't know what you look like.
Billy: Well, I think some songwriters would tell you that one of their favorite parts about it is that they are anonymous. And if I wanted to be really cool, I could tell you that I like being anonymous. But, in fact, I guess I wouldn't mind being famous. I set out wanting to be a star, you know, singing my own songs. So, a little bit of recognition is fun. I'm sure it would drive me insane to be instantly recognized and things like that. I guess parts of the anonymity I really take for granted and do like. I don't know, sounds like fun to me, having a little bit more recognition.
Tony: Okay. Let's talk about the songs then, okay, the big hits. I'm gonna start with "Like A Virgin", people hear it and think it's a sexual song, what's your take on it?
Billy: Well, "Like A Virgin" started out being a pretty heartfelt song about a relationship ending. One that had taken a lot out of me and a new one beginning that felt "shiny and new" like the song says. I think at the same time, I have certain pop instincts in my writing. When I came up with the concept of "Like A Virgin", I got this feeling, like a tingling feeling, like "ooh" exciting to write a song with "virgin" in the title, ya know. And I loved the way it works together. It's more than just a sexual song, but certainly once it was recorded by Madonna, who was so sexy-looking, it really became more tongue in cheek even than I had intended.
Tony: How long did it take to write the song?
Billy: I don't really remember how long it took to write "Like A Virgin". You know, sometimes writers say, "well I wrote that song in 20 minutes." I think you could say it was written in a matter of a few hours or you could say it took my whole life up to that point to write it. It certainly contains in it the best of what Tom Kelly and I could do, so, I don't know, I can't remember exactly how long.
Tony: "True Colors", what was the inspiration behind "True Colors"?
Billy: Well, "True Colors", the inspiration behind that song is an interesting story. It started out having a different lyric. And I think it was written kind of about my mother. It started out with a different first verse lyric. The original lyric went like this:
"You've got a long list, with so many choices
A ventriloquist with so many voices
And your friends in high places
Say where the pieces fit
You've got too many faces in your make-up kit
But I see your true colors shining through."
And then it went on to sing the chorus, you know the one that we all know. So, Tom and I got together and the melody was written to it. And Tom said to me, "you know Billy, that chorus is so universally appealing, but the verse is very specific, it seems to be about somebody with friends in high places." He said, "why not rewrite the lyrics to the verse so that it could have the same universal appeal as the chorus?" Even though I was proud of the original verse lyric, I agreed with him. But then it was really, really hard to do. It took about a year. And Tom was always naggin' at me. "When you gonna write the lyrics for Ӕrue Colors'." And I just felt like I got writer's block. It was hard to change them from what they originally were.
Tony: The inspiration behind "I Drove All Night".
Billy: "I Drove All Night" was written at a time when I was commuting a lot between the Coachella Valley, where our family vineyards were and Los Angeles. So that song really is about driving on the Interstate 10 between Palm Springs and Los Angeles. There's a line in the song where it goes "I was dreaming while I drove the long straight road ahead," and it's about that piece of road and driving it to see somebody.
Billy: Can you hold on a second?
Ezra: I was just about to sneeze.
Billy: Well go ahead.
Ezra: But I, but I holded it in.
Billy: Oh. Well if you need to sneeze just sneeze, okay.
Tony: Did it take long to write "I Drove All Night"?
Billy: You know, I can't really remember how long it took to write certain songs. I mean "I Drove All Night" was written over 15 years ago and I can't really remember how long it took to write. I know that one section of the song was really a little bit like the song "Running Scared" but Roy Orbison. I remember we were really channeling Roy Orbison when we wrote the song, but I can't remember how long it took to write it.
Tony: "So Emotional", what was it like writing for someone like Whitney Houston?
Billy: Well, "So Emotional" is an interesting song, because it's the only song I can think of that Tom and I wrote under a certain amount of pressure that we actually succeeded at. Clive Davis, who's a great friend, a great A-and-R man and a great supporter of songwriters advised me that they were looking for an up-tempo hit for Whitney Houston. God, you know, you'd love to write it, but sometimes it's hard when you're given an assignment to actually come up with the goods. But Tom and I wrote "So Emotional" really aiming it at Whitney. If you heard our demo of it, you would see that the verse was styled in a way like a Prince song. The writing of that song was definitely influenced by Prince.
Tony: Did you ever get to meet Whitney Houston?
Billy: Every year before the Grammy's, Clive Davis has a pre-Grammy party, and at that time he was at Arista Records. And I met Whitney briefly at one of Clive Davis' big parties. We just said hello and she said she loved the song "So Emotional". That was it.
Tony: Was there a particular inspiration behind the song?
Billy: I wouldn't say that "So Emotional" is one of the deepest things I've ever written. I mean, there's bits of it that I really like. I like it when it goes "when you talk I just watch your mouth." (laugh) I like that line. And I like the section musically and lyrically when it goes "I remember the way that we touched / I wish I didn't like it so much." I don't know, I think it's a cute song. It's very much a pop song. Probably not one of the deepest songs, but a good pop song.
Tony: "Eternal Flame", the inspiration behind that.
Billy: Well, "Eternal Flame", Tom Kelly and I wrote that with Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles. And Susanna and the Bangles love the Beatles. Tom and I had written another song called "Unconditional Love" for Cyndi Lauper. And Susanna just loved that song and said "Oh God, I wish we could write something that's half as good as that." And I said to her, we're gonna write something better than that. It was sort of a McCartney-esque ballad. Something like "Here There And Everywhere." And "Eternal Flame", the idea for itȩt's funny, cause it sort of comes from two places. Susanna was mentioning that she had just been at Graceland and that she had seen some kind of shrine for Elvis. And she may have mentioned the words "eternal flame." But, I also remembered that when I was a kid, I attended Sunday school at the synagogue. My family is Jewish. And they used to have this little flickering light bulb and they called it an eternal flame. (laugh) I always thought as a kid that that was like looking out at the stars. How can anything be eternal, last forever you know. So when she mentions the eternal flame that she saw for Elvis Presley at Graceland, I thought well, that's a great title for a song, "Eternal Flame". And we wrote that song with that sort of Beatles musicality. The bridge to "Eternal Flame", the part where it goes "say my name," that bit is very Sergeant Pepper- era Beatles.
Tony: Did you know that it would sell so well as a single the second time around?
Billy: You mean, when Atomic Kitten...
Tony: Atomic Kitten, yeah.
Billy: When I heard that Atomic Kitten was going to cover "Eternal Flame", I was pleased about it. I didn't know what it would do, I know it did big business in the UK and in Europe. You know Atomic Kitten is not known in the States.
Tony: Tell me about the inspiration behind Heart's "Alone".
Billy: "Alone" is a song that Tom and I actually wrote before we wrote "Like A Virgin", even though it was released by Heart several years later. Tom and I briefly had a recording entity. We were signed to Epic Records. And we did a record for Epic and our band was called I-Ten. And "Alone" was one of the songs on there. So we heard through the grapevine that Heart was looking for a "power ballad." And Tom said to me, "what about "Alone"? And I had a bad reaction to it. That whole I-Ten project was a painful one for me. It wasn't much fun. I know there was one line in the song "Alone" as we had written it that I didn't like so he said, "Come on, we can just rewrite the part you don't like." And what I didn't like was the first line of the chorus. So we got together and rewrote the first line of the chorus, submitted it to Heart, and they did a great recording of it. Ann Wilson's vocal on it is really stunning.
Tony: And finally, one of my favorites, and I got to interview her actually, Chrissie Hynde, Pretenders, "I'll Stand By You". Tell me about the writing of that. The inspiration and placing it with Chrissie.
Billy: There is a guy in Los Angeles who likes to arrange collaborations and if he manages to arrange a collaboration successfully, he gets a commission on whatever he's organized. And he said to me "well, who would you like to write with?" And I sort of rolled my eyes and I thought, I don't wanna get involved. But I just said, "well, how Ӣout Prince or Chrissie Hynde or Bob Dylan," thinking that ought to shut him up. (laughing) So he ran off and then he called me back and said, Chrissie Hynde wants to write a song with you and I thought "Oh really." So then I got a phone call, "Billy, this is Chrissie." And Chrissie is real business-like in a way. She lives in London but she's very much a girl from Ohio, you know. And I just couldn't believe it was her but sure enough she came from London to Los Angeles and Tom and I write a whole batch of songs with her. She was doing an album at the time called "Last Of The Independents" and I think Tom and I must have written 5 or 6 songs with her on that album. One was the up-tempo hit "Night In My Veins" and then the big hit was "I'll Stand By You". Just like the other songs that Tom and I write, it all started with a lyric idea that I had. But Chrissie has a very strong point of view, so she would take my lyric sheet and she would score out with ink the blasphemous lines that she thought were terrible and she would rewrite them. So she did a really good rewrite on my lyric and added some sections. And that was how "I'll Stand By You" was written. She was a joy to work with.
Tony: I think that's it, Billy.
Tony: Ezra, thank you very much. (laughing)