The Popdose Interview: Richard Marx
by Jason Hare
In 2000, he had a #5 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with “This I Promise You.” He reached #1 on the Adult AC chart with “To Where You Are” in 2002, and sat at the top of the Hot Country Songs chart for six weeks in 2005 with “Better Life.” He also won a Grammy for Song of the Year in 2004 for “Dance With My Father.”
You might be more familiar with these songs as represented by their original performers — *NSYNC, Josh Groban, Keith Urban and Luther Vandross, respectively — but what they all have in common is a producing, writing or co-writing credit from Richard Marx. Though you may no doubt remember him for his ’80s and ’90s chart prowess (14 Top 20 hits between 1987 and 1994) and his extraordinary hair, Marx has continued his relevancy in the business, becoming a highly sought-after producer, writer and arranger. He’s behind those hits above and many others, and you’d be hard pressed to find an artist he hasn’t worked with in some capacity. Ringo Starr? Check. Kenny Rogers? Check. Popdose favorite David Foster? Check! Vixen? VIXEN? Check! He co-wrote “Edge of a Broken Heart” with Fee Waybill from the Tubes!
And despite his busy schedule on the other side of the studio glass, he continues to record and release music, and performs regularly — with a full band, solo (initially against his will, as you’ll see below), and as a duo with Vertical Horizon frontman Matt Scannell. Marx and Scannell perform at South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC) in South Orange, NJ on Friday, February 11th — and as someone who’s seen the “Duo” project live three times, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Scannell and Marx fit together brilliantly, and you’ll spend as much time laughing with them as you will singing along with their hits.
Unsurprisingly, I jumped at the chance to interview Marx, hoping he’d be as affable and down-to-earth as he appears on stage, and I wasn’t disappointed. I kept him on the phone for at least fifteen minutes past the time allotted for us to speak, and he never said a word about it. If I hadn’t looked at my watch, I’m pretty sure I’d still be on the phone with him.
Enjoy as we discuss Marx’s career, past and present, why he’ll never do one of those ’80s mega-bill shows, his favorite musical role these days, and why one of his biggest 2011 career goals involves Daniel Tosh.
I’ll say right out front that I’m a big fan. I’ve seen you five or six times in the past few years. I also saw you in the ’80s and ’90s, and something that I noticed this time around — and I don’t think I noticed before — is that you have a really great sense of humor. You don’t take yourself too seriously on stage. Was that always there, or did I miss it because of the big venues back then?
No, I don’t know if it was that. When I started out, I was really young — I was 23 when my first record came out — and I had very little…y’know, whereas a lot of guys, if they do get a record deal and they go out on the road, their background is in playing to fans and playing clubs and having that as their experience; I didn’t have any of that experience. My whole background was in the studio and being a songwriter, so it was really baptism by fire when I went on tour. And there was a lot of scrutiny because I went on the road with a hit single the first time out. So I was sort of learning as I went, and I had a manager at the time — for quite a while, actually, for probably the first seven years of my career — and he had a philosophy that was completely the opposite of what felt natural. What felt natural to me is what you see now, which is me not taking it too seriously. I take the music seriously –I want to deliver the best show I possibly can — but I really don’t think that’s what people come to see people do live. If people just want to hear the music replicated, they’ll stay home. So I know for me, as a fan of other artists, what I love is feeling like I got a glimpse into that person a little bit in those two hours. And my mission, every night when I go on stage, is to make people feel like they just hung out with me for a while, y’know? So back in those days, those were my instincts, but I was told to fight them, even to the point where my manager told me — are you ready for this? — not to smile.
My manager used to yell at me for smiling. He’d come to a gig, and if I was looking out in the crowd and I was smiling — ’cause I was having a blast! — he would go, “Dude, you gotta stop smiling. It’s so not ‘rock.’” He was so all about maintaining this “rock” credibility. I haven’t worked with him in many, many years, and he’s still sort of in the business, but the only people he works with are sort of, like, hair bands from the ’80s that he’s still trying to pump out there. That was the philosophy. It was all sort of posing and sinking your cheeks, and the only thing that’s a drag about it is that the audience missed out on my sense of humor those five or six years, and I didn’t have as much fun. Once I got away from that guy and I just sort of started trusting my instincts, I could palpably feel a shift in the audience reaction. I just knew in order for me to evolve as a performer that I needed to bring my personality into the show. For me, it’s all about laughing. It’s all about taking the piss out of things.
You seem to have a great grasp on where you were in the ’80s and where you are now — you’re playing more intimate venues and your gigs are mostly focused on your hits, and you’ve maintained this really dedicated and loyal fanbase. Does that change your priorities as an artist? Do you focus more on touring and revisionist projects like the Stories to Tell album, or do you still place a high priority on recording and releasing new material?
That’s a really good question, and the real, honest answer is that, for the most part, what I’m interested in more than anything else is the same thing I was interested in when I was 18: I like writing songs. I like the idea of “new.” I never want to look back, if it’s up to me. So I’ve always resisted anything retro. Not that I don’t love playing my hit songs, but really when it came down to the last year — a little less than a year ago, I started doing these solo acoustic shows. And I was really frightened of it because I used to say, “Y’know, I can do 20 or 25 minutes, but I don’t think I can do a whole show like that.” And my agent Terry at ICM basically called me a pussy. He just said, “You’re a chickenshit.” He kind of threw down the gauntlet, and I said, “Okay, fine. Book three shows like that, and I’ll show you that I suck at that for two hours.”
So I go down to Florida and the shows sell really well, which was really nice. They weren’t big venues, they were 800 – 1000 seats. And I did these shows, and I’ve never had more fun in my life. And part of it is being frightened; I’m sure this happens to you too, but when you embrace something that frightens you, usually something good comes out of it. And so I realized that when it comes to singing and performing my old hits from the ’80s and ’90s, in this way with me and just a guitar or piano, that’s pretty exciting to me. Because it’s really letting that group of people into almost what it was like when I sat in that room and wrote that song. And I get to talk so much more. I get to tell stories and kid around and screw up and all kinds of stuff. It’s not polished at all, it’s really just “come and hang out with me for a couple of hours,” as if you came over to my house.
But that said, it’s a real battle for someone like me because — the good news is that I’ve managed to stay current as much as I possibly could by writing and producing current artists. I wasn’t able to do it as an artist because my window was that ten years or whatever it was, and then you’re just sort of known for what you did back then. And I haven’t had a new hit song other than one in 2004 on the Hot Adult Top 40 chart [“When You’re Gone” from My Own Best Enemy], other than that, it’s pretty much been radio silence as a singer for ten or eleven years. But that’s okay, because I’ve released so much new music through other singers that I can sort of get my rocks off that way.
But the real truth is, it’s a really interesting…I don’t know if anybody’s been honest enough to really kind of tell you, and maybe their experience is different than mine, but it’s a constant, sort of torturous battle. I would love to always be known for something new. I would always want people to go, Oh, did you hear that new Richard Marx song? That would thrill me to no end. But I’m also very realistic about my place in the industry; what is a 47-year-old white male singer-songwriter going to do? He’s not going to get on the radio. So it’s kind of like, how do I do this? Do I approach this as if I were a 20-year-old white male singer-songwriter, and just try to do a grassroots thing where I’m just releasing music online and doing gigs? I’m kind of doing that a little bit, but I can tell you this: once you’ve sold millions of records and you’ve had tons of hit songs, it’s hard to make yourself understand that that time has passed. And I have friends who I have deep respect for, who were very famous back when I was making records, and I hear it in their voice. I hear it in the things they say. They really do think that they’re one song away from being back at the top of the charts. And I think that’s just so delusional. And to me, it’s not about that.
And I tell my kids this all the time, because I have two sons who are young singer-songwriters, and looking to figure out what they want to do with their careers, and I said, y’know, if something happened and I had a number one record tomorrow, I wouldn’t be able to celebrate it like you would think because my thought would be, Well, what now? It’s not like I ever feel like somebody like me is ever going to be “back,” and back for a long time, and I think you have to pay so much attention to image and stuff that I don’t really have interest in paying attention to. (Laughs)
So for me, it’s tricky, because I wish I knew that there was a really substantial audience that I could make a new record for every six months. Because I’m very prolific — I would put out a record every six months of twelve new songs, all different sort of vibes, and I have all these ideas for albums I would love to make, but I’m also realistic about it. And my real job is always trying to find another job as a writer and producer for other people. I’m just finishing up an album I produced for a country artist, and I wrote a song with Keith Urban on his new record, and I wrote a song with Chris Daughtry for an upcoming project. So I feel grateful that I still get calls from people who are on the charts and who are doing really well that want me to be part of their thing. So that’s great. I’m not going to lie to you, if I wasn’t coming up with stuff that I was really excited about, it wouldn’t be an issue, but I’m constantly writing songs that I think “Fuck, man, I sure wish I could sing this. I wish I could put this out.” And it’s not that I can’t put it out; it’s just that I’m realistic about what would happen if I did. I definitely have no delusions of grandeur.
But yet there are certain songs that you do keep yourself, like everything on Emotional Remains. So is it a matter of a song hitting a sort of personal chord with you, or you going, “this song would be really good for such-and-such an artist that I’m working with”…? What’s the decision making process?
I appreciate that you even know that Emotional Remains record, and that’s a great example of what I’m talking about. I wrote those songs, and probably a few more as well, in this really prolific chunk of six months or something. And there’s a song on that record called “Through My Veins” which is about my dad –
I was going to ask you about that song. I saw you perform it live — it was beautiful.
Aw, thanks. Well, that’s a perfect example of something that’s so personal to me that I wouldn’t think of pitching it. Although shit, man, if Faith Hill wants to cut it, go for it! But I just found that I had written this collection of songs that were personal to me, that were songs that I wanted to sing. And I kept thinking, well, maybe an opportunity will open itself up — let me just hang on to this and I’ll keep working on it and mix and tweak it here and there. So I just kept waiting for an opportunity to open up and that opportunity just didn’t come. So finally one day I thought, I’m just going to put it on my website, because this is stupid. I really love these songs and I think it’s the best record I’ve ever made. So it’s okay with me that my place in the industry is what it is. It’s totally okay with me. I was very blessed. But it is frustrating when you have a collection of songs that you really feel represent the best work you’ve ever done, and you go, “well, I’ll just put it on my website.” That’s a little bit heartbreaking, I’m not going to lie to you. But then again, I’m talking to you, and you know that record, and that’s great.
I actually wanted to talk to you about your website. You’ve released something like six records since 2004, but I’ve had a hard time tracking some of them down. I feel like the promotion and distribution of some of them has been a little inconsistent. I didn’t know about the Duo Live release until I went and saw you and Matt [Scannell], and then I heard that Stories to Tell was only available at some of your solo shows, but not at the Duo shows. And you’ve done a great job on the website in terms of keeping in touch with fans through news and the vlog, but as far as I can tell, you can’t buy anything, and My Own Best Enemy is the last thing on there.
(Laughs) I know! It’s kind of funny. And you’re right, there have been a lot of records between Duo and Duo Live and Stories to Tell…the truth is that almost all of them are things I get excited about and go in and record, like the Duo record, which you can get on iTunes — but we’ve never promoted it. Aside from playing shows together, we’ve never properly promoted that record. So these are all little secrets. And it’s not a conscious effort to keep them a secret, but I can also say that we haven’t done the stuff that you’re supposed to do. Matt is sidetracked with his stuff and Vertical Horizon, and I’m busy doing all this other stuff, and we just don’t put our eye on the ball the way we would if your livelihoods depended on it, which, thank God, it doesn’t.
Those records are just fun for us to do, but when I have a conversation like the one I’m having with you, I’m sitting here realizing we’re really shortchanging ourselves. Because if you put a gun to either of our heads, we’ll tell you we think those records — especially the Duo Live record — we’re as proud of it was we can be. It’s a really, really great record. And I’m really proud of the performances that Matt and I deliver, and so I want people to know and hear about them, but we’ve just sort of…our representation and us individually…we just haven’t paid attention to it the way we should have. We haven’t been taking care of the business part of it. So people come up to us all the time and go “I heard you have this record out, I can’t find it anywhere.” And I go, “Yeah, I know, I haven’t really distributed it.” Well, then, why the fuck did you make it? If I were on the other side of that conversation, I would think that I was a total nitwit. I don’t know. I’m slowly building a team to work with me in terms of marketing and distribution and all that stuff, and I’ve sort of made a commitment that this year I’m going to get a little more serious about it and just see what’s out there for me. And that’ll include the stuff with Matt, too. We’re doing these shows in Canada so we actually have Universal in Canada putting out both the Duo records. But in Canada only. So if you want to drive across the border…
Well, I got the live one at one of your recent shows, but I wasn’t even planning on visiting the merch table, because I figured I had everything that was out there. But then you guys happened to mention it in a short, “Oh, by the way, we’ve got this new record at the table…”
(Laughs) There’s another Stories to Tell record in Europe which is actually a proper record that’s out in stores and has done pretty well, actually, because I went and toured there in November. And that record is the same as the solo acoustic record I made that I was only selling at my gigs. I didn’t even look for a distributor for it. When I started doing the solo shows, I thought, well, I should have a CD that represents this show, so I went into my studio and I just recorded ten or eleven songs like that. This company in Europe, Wrasse, heard about it somehow and knew I was coming to do these shows that were selling well, so they made me an offer to put out the record. I’m pretty glad I did, because I think I now have an ongoing relationship with them. I’m going to go back in May and play the Royal Albert Hall and Paris and they want another record. They want to keep going.
What was it about your relationship with Matt specifically that brought this long-term collaboration together?
It comes from the absolute best place, which is that I was a huge fan of his. Huge. And I met him serendipitously. I was playing a show in Tampa with my band in 2000, and we were getting ready to go on stage, and my tour manager came up to me and said, “There’s a band here outside that would love to meet you, they’re called Vertical Horizon.” And I went, “Are you kidding me?” That’s like the fuckin’ Beatles, dude, for me. I was such a fan of the Everything You Want album, and especially of Matt’s. So they came in and I met the guys and told Matt what a fan I was of his, and he went, “Oh, yeah, man, I’m a huge fan of yours, too,” and me being me, I was kind of like, “Yeah, right, he’s just saying that.” But then he starts mentioning these album tracks from the first couple of albums that you’d have to be a fan to know. So I thought, wow, that’s weird. They stayed and watched my show, and I went and watched their show, and we exchanged numbers and stayed in touch, but we didn’t really become friends. Maybe once every six months, we’d shoot an e-mail or something to each other.
And then the band put out a record called Go which I thought was really great, and they kind of got screwed by their label and got dropped. And I had heard about it like any other fan would, so I reached out to Matt and said, “For whatever it’s worth, I know you’re having a rough time with the band right now, but I thought the record was great.” And as he puts it, he said, “When you reached out to me, my phone was not ringing at all.” And so it meant so much to him that somebody had his back, even somebody he didn’t even know that well. So they came through to do a club date here in Chicago, and he came over to my house. I’m a pretty private person — and so is Matt, actually — I don’t have a lot a friends. I have a lot of people that I like, but I have a very small circle of friends. And it was very out of the ordinary, because Matt and I both really connected with each other, and really clicked. It just sort of went from there.
It became this amazing friendship, first and foremost, and…it’s almost like you meet a girl — and this happened with my wife; we were best friends for quite a while and we were afraid of what would happen if we took it any further, we didn’t want to ruin the friendship. The same was true with me and Matt when it came to songwriting. We’d become such good friends and we were thinking, what if we get together and wrote a song and it sucks? It would really bum us out. But it wasn’t the case. We went in to the studio and started writing and we just never stopped. He’s my favorite co-writer, because he’s really one of my favorite songwriters in the world.
So when we write together, we’re pushing each other, we’re beating each other up, but we’re having so much fun and we have great respect for each other. And he’s like my little brother. He’s someone I always want to hang out with. And so everything we’ve done creatively together, from writing songs to especially doing these shows, is really just an excuse for us to hang together, because he lives in L.A. and I live in Chicago, and we don’t get to hang. It really is coming from the most selfish but most pure place. It’s kind of nice that the music that’s come out of it is something we’re so proud of, but it’s really just an extension of a great friendship.
How is your songwriting process different from when you’re working with Matt — or any other artist — versus when you’re on your own?
That’s a difficult question to answer. The key, obvious difference is that for as long as I can remember, I just write all the time. I don’t really make a plan to write. I write when I least expect it. I can’t remember a day that’s gone by where I haven’t written something — either a melody or a lyric or couplet will come to me every day. And sometimes it’s a lot, I’m just in the zone and I didn’t even plan to be, and I find that I’ve just spent hours writing a song. But it’s pretty effortless. And when you co-write, you have to make an appointment to co-write. You have to say, “Okay, we’re going to be inspired at 2:15 on Wednesday.” And it’s a different process altogether, a different headspace, a different set of tools. It’s a craft.
There are people, though — and Matt is certainly at the top of the list, and a friend in Nashville named Trey Bruce, who is another one of my favorite co-writers — there’s a group of us where we know when we walk in that room that we’re gonna write a good song. It may not be a great song, but it’s going to be a good song, for sure. So there’s no pressure that we’re not going to come up with anything. It’s impossible, because I’m always going to come up with something, and Matt’s always going to come up with something. And sometimes one of us is draggin’ or one of us isn’t quite in the same zone that the other one is in, but we help each other and it’s a really cool thing. And I’ve found that when I co-write with somebody like that, it’s a fuse that is lit. If I write a song with him on Wednesday afternoon, by Sunday I’ve written four songs by myself after that, because it lights the fuse. And he says the same thing happens to him, after we write together he goes off and writes more songs on his own because he’s in that zone. But it’s a different dynamic, obviously, and I think both Matt and I prefer to write alone. We love writing together, but I’ve always written primarily by myself and I still think that’s where I write the best songs. But I’ve written some songs with Matt that I’m really proud of. And it’s nice, because there are some guys that just can’t collaborate or cowrite, and then are some guys who just cannot write a song by themselves.
You’ve written a lot of songs with other people, and a lot of them have become hits. Do you have a sense of which one tends to surprise people the most?
Not really. I guess the ones that aren’t as obvious to people are the Josh Groban song (“To Where You Are”) and probably the Keith Urban stuff, like “Better Life,” because it’s country. I mean, to me, a lot of country now is ’80s pop with steel guitar (laughs), and Keith is a really modern country artist. He can do the traditional thing all day long, but he’s really more of a crossover artist, so I think that what I do lends itself to Keith pretty effortlessly. And he’s never trying to get me to be a country guy, he’s always wanting me to just be me and write melodies that I would normally write, and we go from there. But I don’t know. There are some songs that I’ve written with other artists that haven’t come out yet that I think would be more surprising. I’m hoping those happen, because they’re off the beaten path. That’s what I’m really most proud of in my songwriting career — except for polka (laughs), I’ve pretty much written songs in every genre and had success in every genre. So that’s probably something that I hold up that’s unique in terms of my career. It’s probably the only thing that’s unique about my career. But it’s kind of fun. It never gets boring. This record I just finished producing is really a country record. The artist, George Canyon, is very big up in Canada and he’s a real sort of George Jones kind of voice, real old-school country. And it’s really fun to go in and live in that world, because it’s not a normal place for me to be.
I’m putting my vote in for a studio or live release of “Better Life.” I’ve seen you do that one live a couple of times.
I love playing that one live. We’ve been talking about doing that one, actually. I’ll put it in the suggestion box, for sure.
I first heard Keith’s version, but when I heard you play it live, I thought, “Of course that’s a Richard Marx song!” There was something that sounded intrinsic to you, somehow.
It was a chorus I had sitting around for a little bit, and when Keith came over, I played him that melody hook and he said, “Oh, dude, we have to write this song right now!” And that’s pretty much the way it’s always been with us. And this new song on his new record, I’m really thrilled with that too. It’s called “Long Hot Summer” and it was a pretty easy song to write. He and Dann Huff did a great job producing that song.
The staff wanted me to ask you about some of your other collaborations. So, Lucy Lawless.
What was going through your mind when you were singing “Right Here Waiting” with her?
Well, she was really sweet. I can’t say anything bad about her. She couldn’t have been sweeter. But that whole thing…I’ve been asked to do a variety of those music-based reality shows, and I’m pretty much a hater on all of them. I’ve never been a fan of American Idol, though if they asked me to do it tomorrow, I would be on it in a heartbeat. They did ask me once and I was on tour in Australia, so I couldn’t do it. But I would do it just to be a whore. I would absolutely whore myself for it. But I’m not a fan, and I don’t like any of those shows.
But it was when we had the My Own Best Enemy record out, and they came to me and said Simon Cowell is producing this new show called Celebrity Duets. And I went, “I don’t want to know about it. Just the title of it makes me want to puke.” So a week later, they come back to me, and they go, “We know you’re against this, but we just want you to know that the list of confirmed singers are…” and they go down this list of Gladys Knight and Kenny Loggins and Smokey Robinson and Al Jarreau and Chaka Khan…and suddenly I’m thinking, Hold the phone! Those are really good singers! And the list was even more extensive than that. So I said “I’m in! If those guys are doing it, I’ll do it.” So they line up all these singers before they announce the “celebrity duet partners.” I’m friends with Kenny Loggins, so I called him and said, “Are you really doing this show?” And he said, “Yeah, I want the exposure.” And I said, “Well, do you know who the celebrities are going to be that we’re going to get paired up with?” And he said, “No, they’re supposed to announce it next week.”
So next week comes, and they reveal this list of celebrities, and the most famous of whom is Cheech. And so immediately Kenny Loggins and I are on the phone going, “We got fucked!” And so it became exactly what I feared it would be to begin with. It was a good band — Rickey Minor and his band are all really talented — and so from a musical standpoint, it was okay in terms of playing with them. And Lucy was sweet. But if you want to know the truth, I was up there thinking to myself, “I really shouldn’t be doing this. This is exactly what I hate.” The whole concept of it is what I hate. So, y’know, live and learn.
A couple of weeks ago, Tiffany and Debbie Gibson did a double-bill here in New York where they sang “Don’t Stop Believin’” together. Have you been approached to do any of those big ’80s nostalgia shows, those mega-bills?
Yeah, absolutely. And again, it’s on the list of things where I’d rather get root canal than do it. And I don’t knock anybody for doing it. There are people doing that stuff for a variety of reasons. They’re doing it possibly because they just love to do those songs, and they want to be a part of it, so yay for them. And then there are those people who feel like that it might be at ticket to a resurgence of some kind, and this kind of circles back to the very first thing we talked about: I don’t know how I would feel if I didn’t have this other career where I have the opportunity to remain current behind the scenes. I mean, I’m really happy to be “the guy who wrote and produced that song” and didn’t sing it. Totally happy to be that guy. And some people are not okay with that. They need to be the person out there.
I used to laugh all the time when I had that big *NSYNC song [“This I Promise You”] and they did all these TV shows which I had done a million times, and it was the first time I had ever experienced sitting there watching *NSYNC do my song on Good Morning America, and I know they got up at four in the morning, and they had a line check at 4:30 and then they had to sit there for two hours and then do the pre-interview, and I’m just sitting there with my coffee at 9 AM watching them on TiVo. And I’m thinking, “Okay, this is cool!” I don’t miss that part. I would probably miss it if I had never experienced it, but I don’t miss that. And people like Debbie Gibson, she’s really talented and really sweet. I know her a little bit. But I also know, because we’ve talked about it, she’ll say yes to any of that stuff because she loves it and really wants to be a part of it, and I just don’t.
You’ve been approached for some fun projects like “Little Dancing Man” with Zach Galifianakis on Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!. How did that come about?
I was so happy that they asked me to do that. I guess it comes back to one of our earlier conversations — I guess the guys who produce and write that show either saw an interview with me, or somehow they thought “he totally doesn’t take himself seriously.” So they figured I would be a good target for that. And they reached out to me and sent me the song, and it just completely cracked me up. They pitched me the whole idea of it and the guy said, “Look, if you’re going to do this, we can cut the track and you can just come in and sing or whatever,” and I said, “Why don’t you do it, because you’re going to overdo it and make it insanely ridiculous, and I’m going to try and, like, make it good, and it shouldn’t be.” And he said, “No, we don’t want it to be good!” So they cut the track and I just sang it, and went to L.A. and filmed it. And I think I was there in the studio for 40 minutes. They made it really easy and I’ve had more people come up to me and say, “Oh man, I saw you on Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!” and I love it. I would do more of that all day long. My wishlist for 2011 is that Daniel Tosh says my name on his show. If I could be on Tosh.0, that would mean I had a successful 2011.
So how about your collaboration with your sons? All three of them have great voices — I saw that nice video on your site of the kids at Christmas, and I heard you did a concert together. What’s your role in working with them?
Well, my role is a tightrope, because on one hand [Brandon] has to do his own thing and find his own way. There’s a part of me that wants to make everything easy for him and if I could sort of hand him a career, I would, but on the other hand, I want him to struggle. I want him to appreciate it and know what goes into this stuff. The only thing that’s a drag is that it’s not the same playing field as when I started. I had so many opportunities available to me — being able to do a variety of things as I could — when I moved out to L.A. when I was 18, I took work as a keyboard player, as a guitar player…I would produce people’s demos for 50 bucks. I would do background vocals on people’s demos or records. That whole menu of possibilities is gone. People do everything in-house, and the studio system as we knew it, where recording studios, you could literally just…I remember when I was making my first couple of records, Rod Stewart was down the hall making a record and David Lee Roth was down the hall making a record, and sometimes they’d go, “Hey, can you come and sing a part for me on this?” It was very collaborative, and like a community, and it’s completely not like that anymore.
So I worry about that for my kids, but they’re really good. I mean, they’re really talented. Brandon, my oldest, is probably my favorite singer out there. All nepotism aside, I really think he’s an incredible singer. And his songwriting is leaps and bounds ahead of what I was doing at that age. But he’s gotta kind of find his own way, and especially if he’s associated with me, I don’t think it’s a good thing for him. It’s something where I want him to just do his own thing. So he’s trying to find his way. I thought [the concert] would be good because he has very little performing experience, and I thought, well, it’s gonna be a friendly crowd, because my fans are going to want him to be great, so he came up before me and did four songs by himself. His brother helped him out on one or two, and it was great. The audience loved him. He did great. It was his first time out. This weekend, he’s opening for an act at some venue in Chicago, which kind of came through a friend of a friend of his. It’s with him and his band, and we’re going to go out and watch them. It’s exciting, but it’s also scary. I wish I could wave a magic wand.
What would you say your greatest strength is as a mentor?
I’ve been told I have infinite patience. Recording can be a very tedious process, especially producing vocals. It’s not a tedious process if you really don’t know what you’re doing, because you can just go in there and make the most of what you have, but I think what I’ve found is…I’m pretty hard on singers, and I think part of it is that, being a singer myself…I’ve had a lot of singers tell me that of all the producers they work with, it was such a great experience to have somebody on the other side of the glass be able to show them what they meant. If I’m going to suggest something, I can actually sing them what I have in mind. I’m not trying to give them a line reading at all, I’m just showing them the mechanics. I want them to do it their way, but if I hear a turn or a scoop on a note or whatever, a lot of producers can’t describe that and can’t verbally tell a singer what they want. But I can just show them, and it’s really helped out. And it might take them 55 takes to get it the way I want it, and they might get frustrated, but I don’t. I just go, “Nope. Again. And again.” I’ll beat the shit out of them (laughs), but I don’t lose my patience. Because to me, it’s worth it. It’s worth 55 takes to finally get it. And I think…I don’t know. I’m totally the last person you should ask about it. You should probably ask people who have worked with me. But I think I’m pretty patient in there, and I think the people I produce feel, 100% of the time, I have their best interests at heart at all times. That it’s just about making them sound great. I do have a love for producing. It’s probably my favorite thing that I do.
So apart from Daniel Tosh, is there anybody you’re still just dying to work with?
(Laughs) Not really. I finally started to learn from my history — if you had asked me this ten years ago, I would have had a list, but then I was thinking…a couple of years ago, it really dawned on me that every artist or project that I have pursued, I’ve either not gotten to work with them, or I have worked with them and it’s not been a pleasurable or successful experience. And every single time I’ve had success with someone, it came to me. I didn’t reach out to *NSYNC. I didn’t reach out to Josh Groban. That was a great example of…talk about something that falls in your lap. Luther [Vandross]. None of that stuff was me pursuing any of that. So I sort of finally got to the point where I thought, “Y’know, it’s pretty consistent, so I’m not going to chase or go after anything.” The only exception to that is if I hear a new or young artist that’s never made a record or doesn’t have a record deal, then I’ll probably take the initial steps to try and help them or get them a deal or throw my hat in to help them out or produce or whatever. But when it comes to, do I want to work with this person or that person…there are tons of people I’d love to work with, but I don’t chase it at anymore at all. I just see what floats my way, because that’s usually what’s going to end up being a good thing.
Richard Marx and Matt Scannell play South Orange Performing Arts Center in South Orange, NJ, on Friday, February 11th. Tickets available at the SOPAC website or by calling 973-313-ARTS. For future concert dates, visit RichardMarx.com.