Richard Marx has written a No. 1 single in each of the last four decades.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY AGUA CALIENTE RESORT CASINO SPA
There was a moment when music producer David Foster told Richard Marx to consider not singing.
The same Foster who has won 16 Grammys and been nominated 47 times. “He said I shouldn’t even try to get a record deal,” Marx recalls. “And so, there was a minute there where I thought, ‘Well, what if he's right? Maybe I should just not even try this and just keep writing for other people, and producing, and stuff.’ And luckily, my desire to prove him to be wrong and full of shit was the choice.”
Not too long after that moment, Marx released his self-titled debut album in 1987 which yielded four hits singles including “Don’t Mean Nothing.” Thirty-five years later, Marx has sold over 30 million albums as he embarks on a tour to debut his 13th release, “Songwriter” when he appears July 30 at Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa in Rancho Mirage.
The new album reflects the versatility of Marx’s career both in music genres and collaborations, featuring pop, rock, country, and ballads with contributions from Burt Bacharach, Keith Urban, and Darius Rucker, and Chris Daughtry among others.
“So I've always told people the same thing that my heroes told me, which is, ‘Do as many things as you can,’” Marx says. “Play as many instruments as you can. I write, and produce, and arrange, and perform, and play guitar, and play keyboards, and know how to program shit, and do great background vocal part. When I was starting out, that's one of the reasons I made a good living, was I could do a lot of different things in my chosen industry.”
Marx chats with Palm Springs Life about the recent mass shooting in his hometown of Highland Park, Illinois, his reputation on Twitter, the song that surprised Marx for its commercial success, and his fascination with Frank Sinatra.
What was your initial reaction when you heard about the shooting in Highland Park?
I thought it was Highland Park, California. And so, in a way it was just as horrifying because Highland Park isn't that far from L.A. And I thought, “Here we go again.” It’s like, day in and day out. Of course, who are any of us to think it’s not going to happen down the street from us or at our hometown. And then, I realized as soon as I started to look at the news feed that it was Illinois, and I reached out immediately to a handful of people I still know there and everybody was safe. But then the details just kept unfolding and it's just horrific. And I see the footage or photos and it's like, I walked those streets thousands of times.
How do you feel about your platform as an entertainer and addressing issues like gun control. How do you walk that line between ‘Do I or Don’t I say something’.
There was no question when it comes to issues that I think impact all of us and that are issues of not politics but decency and lawlessness. And I'm going to speak out about it, not as an entertainer, but as a fucking taxpayer, as an American citizen. It's got nothing to do with what I do. What you don't see, I've already been tagged because I've been so anti-Trump. I'm so anti. This modern GOP for very specific reasons, not just across the board, but for very specific reasons, I've been labeled this super lib and I always just say, show me on my Twitter feed where I've praised the Democrats, where I like get behind someone. I'm so distrustful of all politicians.
And I think that the whole Washington machine is just disgusting. So it's just I'm definitely going after what I consider to be the worst of the bunch. And that's for me, easy to pick and choose in the modern GOP. So I go after things that matter to me and the people who say, “Well, why aren't you afraid of alienating people?” No, I don't care. Because I'm a human being first and foremost.
When social media first came out, did you think at that point, maybe I should just use this to talk about my music, talk to my audience, and just leave it at that and not go the other side?
Well, I did that. I was really late to the Twitter party. Everybody I knew was on Twitter for years before I joined it. Every time that they would mention it to me or show me a tweet, I would go, "This is exactly why I don't want any part of this." And I thought, I've got plenty to do. I've got plenty on my plate. I've got songs to write, shows to do, kids to hang out with.
And so, it was my friend, Matt Scannell from the band Vertical Horizon. He kept pushing me to use it, to promote what I was doing. But also he said, “Look, man, your sense of humor, I think will come across really well on this. And I think you might have fun with it if you stopped judging it.” And so, I just waded in very tentatively and then I got into it and I realized, “Oh, this is not only a creative outlet for me in terms of trying to create things that make people laugh and think.”
I read a factoid that you have written a No. 1 single in each of the last four decades. So what is it like for you to not only hear another artist perform your song, and was there any time where you thought maybe I should have sung that song instead of Keith Urban or somebody else?
No, never. I've never had that thought because first of all, the songs that we're talking about were written deliberately with or for another artist. So, "Hey, do you have a song for NSYNC?" "Oh, I don't, but I'm going to write one." And Keith, "Hey Ricardo, can we write a song for my new album?" "Well, of course." It's already in my mind, not for me. It's got nothing to do with me as an artist. It's just about me fulfilling someone else's desire to have something for their record.
And once those songs are done, especially if they've become hits, to me, that's like the greatest, that was the mission, and we accomplished the mission. It doesn't mean that I don't love those songs and enjoy singing them live. And like you said, I've done some cover versions just for different projects, but it's never been like, "Oh, I wish I'd kept that for myself."
And the line I use, which is absolutely true, it's... My wife hates it when I say it but it's really true is I go, "I write, sometimes, these songs waiting for other people, because I want them to be hits." I'm not on the radio anymore, really. So I want these songs to have the biggest chance of being hits as they can. And they're going to have a bigger chance being a hit with a younger artist or somebody who's really all over the charts than me.
You said “Songwriter” is the most collaborative album you’ve ever made. You even wrote songs with your sons Lucas and Jesse. How was that experience?
It's unlike anything I could have imagined. I mean, my third son (Brandon) is also really talented, but he's off into some other stuff and we didn't collaborate on this record, but he's a real cheerleader for it. But writing songs with Jesse and Lucas and especially in the case of Lucas who produced these tracks, and I just gave him the keys. It's like, I've never done that with anybody. I've always produced my own stuff. Mainly because it's my favorite part of what I do. But Lucas is such a masterful producer and engineer and I just was like, "You do it, just tell me what to do."
And really, the first time in my career, I've had a producer say, "No, sing it this way and sing that line this way and do this." All the stuff that I tell other people to do, he's telling me. It was awesome. I’m so happy with what we came up with.
That's not always easy to do, to tell your father what to do.
They've been waiting their whole life. (Laughs).
Has any song ever surprised you in terms of the way it became popular?
Well, “Hazard” was probably the No. 1 perfect example. I never viewed that song as remotely commercial. It was an experiment for me. I'd never written a story song with a narrative and characters. And so, the more I worked on that song, the dumber I thought I was. I thought it was just, "Nobody's going to give a shit about this story."
But I liked the music. I thought the music was cool, which is really what prompted me to record it on the third album. And then, the record company, and the promo department, and all these people were saying, “We love this song. We want to put this out as the second single.” And I remember thinking, “Good luck with that. I was probably going to sink my career, but I'm going to finally have my first non-hit.”(“Hazard” went to No. 1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, and was either No. 1 or in the top 10 in seven countries).
Have you ever visited Palm Springs to hang out?
We're going to stay an extra day or so at a hotel after we perform (July 30), but we looked into getting a house for a week. First, we looked into the Frank Sinatra Twins Palms estate because I'd love to come and spend a week there. My wife, Daisy and I are both complete Sinatra fans and she was like, “Why don't we stay in the Sinatra house?” I was like, "Great idea, but we couldn't. It wasn't available when I’m there, so we're going to try to come back later in the year and spend a week there and bring some friends and do it up.”
What is the connection for you with Sinatra?
I think he was a fascinating guy. He certainly made a ton of records that I thought were brilliant and in his prime was as great an interpreter of song as anybody's ever been. I was always a casual fan, I loved some of his films, and I was always impressed that he used his opportunities. Elvis Presley, I think would have become a really fine actor, but he really didn't get the chance. He didn't get the material, didn't get the opportunity to prove that. Whereas Sinatra got some really great scripts and projects to show that he was not only a master singer performer, but a really great actor.
And so, I was a fan, not like a super fan, but like always respected his career. And then, about six or seven years ago there was a two-volume biography that came out called, The Chairman and The Voice by James Kaplan. And holy shit, I got so upset. I was on tour when it came out. And I found myself... I mean, believe me, I always give 110 percent, but sometimes when I'm on stage, I think about things that has nothing to do with what I'm saying. And I would be on stage fantasizing about getting back to my hotel room, ordering up some room service and reading at least another five chapters of those books because I got really into them. I think that's one of the best biographies I've ever read.