Richard Marx first exploded onto the music scene in the 80’s and captivated the MTV generation with his first hit single,”Don’t Mean Nothing.” His stellar song-writing skills quickly earned the performer a string of hits including, ”Hold On To The Nights”, “Endless Summer Nights”, and “Now And Forever.” In the 20 plus years since his impressive debut, his hard work and dedication to his craft has continued to leave an undeniable mark on an ever-changing musical landscape and capture the imagination of music fans around the world. As a solo artist, he has sold more than 30-million albums worldwide, written 13 No. 1 singles and filled his mantle with a plethora of music industry awards. Even after his incredible run as one of rock’s biggest stars, Marx showed no signs of slowing down and quickly emerged as one of the music industry’s top producers working with some of the biggest names in the music business. Among those artists, *NSYNC, Barbra Streisand, Josh Groban, Vince Gill, 98°, Vixen, Luther Vandross, Kenny Rogers, The Tubes and SHeDAISY. More recently, he has written and produced records for Daughtry, Leann Rimes, Travis Tritt, Natalie Cole, Keith Urban, Paulina Rubio, Kenny Loggins, Michael Bolton and actor Hugh Jackman. With a resume like this, there is little doubt that he has incredible insight on the ever-changing music industry. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Richard Marx to discuss his musical influences, his epic career as a singer/songwriter, the projects that he is most excited about in 2012 and what the future might hold for one of music’s greatest talents!
You have influenced many up and coming artists through the years and been part of so many interesting collaborations in music. I was curious to learn about your first memories of music in your life?
Wow, that is an interesting question. I think my first memory of music is the music that my father was making. My dad was a jingle writer, producer and composer. He had a grand piano in our basement but he did most of his composing in our basement on a Wurlitzer electric piano in his office. I remember him constantly writing the following day’s session on that Wurlitzer electric piano! There was always music being played in my house that my dad was creating and composing. There was also the music that I played and my parents listened to a lot of music of the day. That was probably the coolest thing growing up, that my parents, unlike all of my friend’s parents who listened to lame music, listened to cool music! [laughs] But the music that my dad was creating was the first music that I was aware of.
I am sure that having those experiences early on began to shape the artist that we see today. Who would you cite as your biggest influences as an artist and songwriter?
The person who made me want to become a songwriter — again, it was this thing where my dad sat me down and said “I want to play this album for you.” It was Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years.” I loved that album and even as a kid I loved Simon & Garfunkel but I never really payed attention to the songwriting as much. Then I heard that record, it wasn’t a conscious thought because I was twelve years old, but I can look back on it and see the seed that started me wanting to write my own songs. Paul Simon and that record in particular where huge. But then there was everything from Billy Joel to Elton John to The Eagles and John Fogerty and on and on. My biggest influences were always those people as a songwriter. As a singer, Kenny Loggins was a huge influence on me! I was a huge fan of his voice and I still am to this day actually. We have become great friends over the years and have worked and performed together ‚ which is a real head trip for me! Aside from Kenny, there were people who were huge influences on my singing that you wouldn’t assume from listening to me, like Maurice White from Earth, Wind and Fire. I studied every nuance of his singing. I wish I sang like Maurice White but I don’t! [laughs] But I have found little things in his vocal approach that I have used from time to time. Sam Cooke, big time! And Rod Stewart, those were kind of my big influences as a vocalist. And then when I was just actually starting to become successful as a singer, I was on my first tour around the world and I was in Australia when I became aware of a singer that is really famous there but nowhere else named John Farnham. He became my favorite singer for years! It was really interesting to have someone influence me as an adult. It really affected the way in which I approached my live show and the next album I made was really influenced by John’s singing. I sorta still am. I sometimes find myself thinking “WWJD?” — “What Would John Do? [laughs]
Looking back on the early days of your career, did you think that you would be still going strong all these years later?
As a singer, certainly no and I was right. I don’t have anywhere near the career that I had as an artist that I had the first ten years but that is OK because I had ten years that I am very grateful for. The other part of the answer is that, yes, I always felt like if I didn’t worry so much about being a “rock star” and focused on being a songwriter, a producer and an arranger that I could sustain a long career. I knew that from a very young age. I did a little bit of that and that is how I started out, being a songwriter for other people. Even with my first couple of hits, in between albums I produced a band called Vixen and I produced a song for the band Poco and some stuff for The Tubes here and there — just different side projects. Then when I stopped having hits on the radio, within a year I was a full on writer/producer for other people. I think that is what has enabled me to sustain way longer than if it was just about me as a singer. It is clear that my career as a singer, a popular singer, was pretty much struggling by the end of the 90s but again that was after ten years of hits, so I can’t complain!
You have a truly amazing body of work for both yourself as an artist and the songs that you have written for others. What can you tell us about your typical writing process and how you craft a song?
The music always tends to come first. There are very few people that I know that have it happen that way. Billy Joel is one who tends to write the music first. I tend to live with the music first and it tells me what the lyrics should be about. That is always the case. Aside from that, the process depends on whether I am writing for myself or someone else. If I am writing for myself, the process is that I don’t try to write a song. I write things every day and things just come to me. It can be when I am driving in the car, in the shower, sitting at dinner or watching a movie. All kinds of things will spark a musical idea or even just a lyrical thought. It is very unconscious and it is not like I am “trying to write a song.” It is something that over the past twenty years or so has become as common as getting an itch, if you know what I mean. It happens every day. When it comes to collaborating, it is totally different. For example, Keith Urban and I have to say “Ok, Thursday, March 23rd at this place, we are going to get together and be creative!” In that case it isn’t about letting inspiration happen, because we are scheduled. What I bring into a writing session like that, with whoever it is, is a collection of previous inspiration — inspired moments. So, when I am in my car driving around and I get an idea, I will think “Oh, this would be really cool for Keith!” I might sing it into my phone or even flesh it out a little bit. I collect folders with little snippets of songs for any number of artists so that when I do come into the situation to write with them, I already have, hopefully, some inspired ideas that we can kick things off with! That is pretty much it. I try, as a writer, to stay away from an instrument. I play guitar and piano but I try really hard not to let those instruments affect the way I write because I am not that great at either one of them! [laughs] I can manage! But I think that if you constantly use an instrument to write, you are limited to what you are able to play. If you just let your imagination be your instrument then it is completely limitless. I have found that 99% of the songs that I have written that I really, really love, I wasn’t anywhere near an instrument when I wrote it.
You recently released a really fantastic Christmas EP. I was actually kind of surprised that you hadn’t done that in the past. What made you say “now is the time” to release a project like this?
I got old! [laughs] All the years where we were having hit after hit with the label, my manager would say “We should do a Christmas album!” I was like “Uhhhhhhh, really? Isn’t that what old people do?” And now I am forty eight! So that was part of it, that I was mentally ready to accept that. The other part of it was really organic as well as for the last seven or eight years, I have recorded a song with my three sons, who are all really talented musically, for my wife every Christmas as a gift for her. It started out with my kids singing a very kid-friendly, fun song. The following year I created a track of “Silent Night” and they all sang harmonies and it was great. As my kids developed musically, they wanted more input into it, so we would really do it together. They would play instruments and we would create the track together as well as having them sing. It became this special thing where every Christmas, our friends would ask “Where is the new Marx Brothers Christmas song? We can’t wait!” So a lot of this project started with the songs that I had done with them. I just simply went in and re-cut them but the arrangements had already been fleshed out by doing the arrangements with my sons which was really great. There is an all a capella song on the EP that is just the four of us singing all of the parts.
Wow! What a special project. Do you have any plans on developing this into a full album in the future?
Yeah, I am planning on it actually. In April, I will be headed back to the studio to do another seven tracks. I wrote a song a couple of years ago that I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I had this opportunity to write a song with a guy named David Grusin. He was a hero of mine when I was a kid, a teenager. He is an Academy Award winning film composer. He scored movies like “Tootsie,” “On Golden Pond,” “Heaven Can Wait,” and on and on! That guy is just amazing! He is in his late seventies now and I got an opportunity to write a song with him. We wrote a beautiful piece of music and I just wasn’t sure what to do with it until I recently thought “Oh, I will turn this into a Christmas song!” That is something that will be on the record. But it will probably be two or three originals and the rest will be the classics. We will have a full blown album for next year!
What else do you have on the horizon musically for 2012?
Early in 2010, I started these solo acoustic shows after years and years of playing with a band when I would tour. My agent had asked me about doing a solo acoustic show. At the time, I had done shows for benefits where I did four or five songs acoustically but I told him I didn’t think I could do a whole show like that. My agent called me a coward! He said “You mean you’re not talented enough? Or good enough or brave enough or what?” [laughs] He called me out! [laughs] I said “Look, let’s set up two shows somewhere and I will try it but I am telling you I can’t do two hours of this!” I worked up a show and I put it together and I was never more nervous in my life. I did the shows and I have never had so much fun! Since then, I have been touring that way and I have gone to Europe and I played the Albert Hall not too long ago. We just came back from Asia, where I played in China, Malaysia and Singapore. So we will be doing a bunch more solo acoustic shows, at least through the summer. It is great because I play basically two long weekends a month and it isn’t a grind like a huge tour and I get to come home in between. I am having more fun playing live now than I ever have!
That is great. I was able to catch one of your performances mid-2011 at a venue in my hometown. It was cool because it is a small venue and everyone there is familiar with your work. You really blew everyone away.
Oh yeah?!! Where was that?
The Avalon Theatre in Easton, Maryland.
Oh yeah! That is great and thank you for saying that. I have never had so much fun! I never would have expected to stumble into this other way of performing at this stage of the game but it has really been a blast.
You did quite a few dates with Matt Scannell of Vertical Horizon last year for the ‘Duo’ album. Will we see some more shows like that as well?
We are going to do a couple of dates together because Matt is like my brother! The shows with Matt are really different too because it is trading songs. I really love doing that with him but I love equally, if not more so, when it is just me and the audience and pulling completely from my catalog of songs and songs that I have written for other people. But yeah, Matt and I are definitely going to do some more shows and some things acoustically but we are about halfway done making a rock record! We have maybe five more songs to do. We have about half of a record in the can that we are really excited about that is a full on, produced rock record!
That sounds great! Is there a timeframe that you have in mind for a release on that project?
Well, our respective careers get in the way of that because I have a new record coming out in the spring and he is finishing a new Vertical Horizon record. We wrote a really cool song for that. So, maybe it will be in the Fall. I would love for people, in 2012, to hear this duo record and have something out in the marketplace that is Matt and I together because he is awesome!
What can you tell us about your new album that is headed our way in the Spring?
Except for a couple of really recent songs, they are songs that I have sorta collected and worked on over the past few years that I just haven’t found the right opportunity or timing to put out. Now I realize that there is no right time and I should just put it out! It is a modern, rock record. It is melodic, 2012 version of what I do, ya know? Having come off of this acoustic record and the live DVD from a show in England, it really just made me think that I wanted to put out a new pop/rock record that is representative of the stuff that I am writing right now.
Your career has so many defining moments and different aspects. Is there something that you haven’t tackled musically that you would like to pursue?
Yeah. It is only in the past eighteen months that it has entered my mind but I think I would like to write a show, like a Broadway show. I don’t think that I would ever want to be in one, never say never, but the idea of doing the same show every day of the week and a matinee doesn’t appeal to me. I would be really into it the first week but then I would be like “Wait? We’re not done?! We’ve already done this a bunch, let’s do something else!” [laughs] But I love the idea of writing something that would be performed like that. I actually have an idea, it is very embryonic, that I am working on with a writer, a screenwriter, named Randall Wallace. He wrote “Braveheart” and “We Were Soldiers”. He is a very dear friend of mine and is a brilliant writer, obviously. He and I have a little thing that we are working on and developing together, where Randy would write the book and we would write the songs together, which would be a lot of fun!
You have had a very interesting career and I am sure that you have seen a lot along the way. Any chance for an autobiography at some point in the future?
I think that the idea of that is possible, further down the line. At this stage of the game, there are a lot of stories and some of them are unflattering of other people, so I wouldn’t want to do that. That is just not something I am into. However, I have been messing around writing narratives that are similar to the stories that I tell on stage — fleshing out stories about some of the records that I have made or writing/recording with different people or funny things that have happened to me. They are all positive and they don’t reflective unflatteringly on anyone. So yeah, I am looking at maybe doing something like that, but the way in which the music industry has changed as well as the literary world where book sales are in the toilet too and book stores are closing everywhere you look, so I am looking at maybe doing a series of essays. They would be available online or something like that. We are trying to come up with the right format for it. But the answer is “Yes!” I have been doing a little bit of writing that is autobiographical but that isn’t a typical autobiography.
That leads to my next question. You do a great job with your website and the different social media outlets. Do you feel that social media has had a big impact on you as an artist?
Well, I have come along very reluctantly. I have kinda come along on this thing kicking and screaming! [laughs] It was only about two months ago that I started Tweeting because I was so against it. But then I started to think “Well, it’s not going away.” and I didn’t want to be the old guy saying “These kids today and with this Twitter thing!” I didn’t want to be that guy! [laughs] I started to think, “Is there a way that I can do it that will be entertaining for me that won’t be mind-numbingly lame?” When I would look at other people’s Twitter pages, I would just see what they had for breakfast or “Nothing like a warm chocolate chip cookie!” I wanted to go “Fuck You! Who cares!” Ya know what I mean!?!! [laughs] My whole objective is to try and be funny or if there is a band or an artist or a book or film that I am really crazy about I can bring some attention to it. I went on this rampage about The Civil Wars because I saw them in concert and I think they are brilliant. For things like that, I think it is pretty valuable. It’s here and it’s here to stay. It will continue to evolve but how it effects my career, I am not really sure. I know that in the past couple of months of really being more active on Twitter, it has created a little bit different perception. Some of the people, who for whatever reason have stumbled across my Twitter page, had pegged me a serious singer/songwriter guy are now going “Oh my God, this guy is a total goofball!” I think it is good because it kinda educates some people as to who you are. I don’t know how that translates into the career stuff though or how it translates into the most important part of it all for me, which is the songwriting and putting the music out there. Like I said, it is a learning curve for me and I just try to do stuff that I am enjoying. When I put a video blog on the website, I want it either to be funny or heart felt or sincere or entertaining in some way, shape or form and not mind-numbing.
Speaking as a fan, I think you are succeeding at that it comes across very well.
Thanks, man! I really appreciate that!
What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in the music industry in this current climate?
The bad news is that the music industry is shrinking more every second, so the opportunities for everyone. For example, my sons all want to be in the music business in one way or another. There is a huge, mind-blowing difference between when I started out and what they are looking at. The opportunities that were available to me were vast. While I was trying to get a record deal, I was writing songs for other people and singing background vocals on other people’s records, I was arranging tracks for other artists, I would produce people’s demos for fifty bucks or I would do whatever! There were so many musical jobs I could do and slots to fill and there was availability to do stuff because the business was big. There were a lot of people who didn’t know how to do all of those things, so I could stay really busy, pay my rent and wait for my shot in a happy way! My dues paying was lengthy, three or four years of being rejected and all of that but it was also a great time because I was working, I was learning and racking up credits in the music business. Today, that is pretty much gone. Now, it is all about new media. I had this record company executive tell me recently “If you and I went out to a club and saw the greatest live band in the world, unless they have X amount of Facebook “Likes” and Twitter followers, I can’t sign them.” All of that social media work has to be done in advance. The record company won’t do it for you and they won’t sign you unless you have it. I looked at this guy and I said “If you find a great band and they end up having a couple hundred thousand followers on Facebook, what do they need you for?” And these people, there record company people don’t get it. What a record company provides now is not what they provided before, back in the days of a record company being a machine, like the Clive Davis days. It’s over! And that in a way is a really good thing because now it is about people getting their music to the people that want to hear it. We all have to adjust to the fact that there was a time when people would think “If I write some hit songs, I am really going to make a killing.” Well, that just really isn’t true anymore. It is not as lucrative as it used to be. It doesn’t really effect someone like me because I have, thank God, this catalog of hit songs but if I was just starting out right now, I would need to do something else for a living to sustain myself. The advice I give people is that if you heart is in this and it is all about wanting to share your art, then it doesn’t matter if you make money doing it or not, just do it. If you have to have another job to sustain yourself, still write songs and still make indie records. But if you want to be a star and that is why you are doing this, then don’t.
In your opinion, what does the future hold for Richard Marx? What are you looking forward to most in the long term?
Ya know, if there is anything that I have learned through the years, it is to stop looking ahead. I was always “Mr. Eighteen Months In Advance,” knowing what my life was going to be and producing that project or wanting to have this accomplished by that date. I am trying to get better at living in the present and because — who knows? I don’t know what I am going to write next week, I don’t know who I am going to write for or with next month and that is kinda OK with me right now! When I look around at the music business right now, I see chaos. I can’t build the future on chaos, I just have to try and tread the waters that I am in. Again, someone like me to not have to worry about it in terms of livelihood, it’s a blessing. But I still love being on the team! I love being a part of the modern day music business as opposed to being a guy that just shows up to play his old hits every now and again. I am lucky that there are these young artists that ring me up and say “Hey, can we write a song with you!” These guys are already on my iPod, like Chris Daughtry or Jason Wade from Lifehouse, artists like these that I am a fan of to begin with! As long as those calls keep coming in from people like that, then I’ll be a happy guy!
Anything you want to tell your fans before I let you go?
I just hope that 2012 is the best year of their lives and mine too!
Thanks so much for your time, Richard. We will continue to spread the word on all your endeavors!
Thanks, Jason! And I appreciate you coming out to the show. It was great hearing that! Hopefully, you will come see us again!
Definitely, I highly recommend your show to anyone and I am looking forward to seeing you again soon!
Awesome! Take care, buddy! Happy New Year!