Richard MarxHAPPY CRUISING DOWN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD 9/01/2004 8:00 AM Eastern
Richard Marx recently copped a Song of the Year Grammy for “Dance With My Father,” a song he co-wrote with Luther Vandross. But if, in your mind, that signals a comeback for the singer/songwriter, who had a succession of smash hits in the late '80s before fading from public view, you're wrong. Although his time in the spotlight may have passed (temporarily at least; he is releasing a solo album this year), Marx has enjoyed great success during the past decade as a songwriter and producer, working his magic on tracks by the likes of Josh Groban, *NSync, Emerson Drive, Sarah Brightman and others.
The son of Dick Marx, a well-known Chicago-based jingle writer, Marx began professionally singing at the age of five. By his mid-teens, he was heavily into writing and producing. His big break came when Lionel Richie, who had heard one of Marx's tapes, encouraged him to come to Los Angeles. After graduation, Marx took the advice and ended up singing background vocals on several of Richie's solo hits, including “You Are,” “All Night Long” and “Running With the Night.”
After contributing background vocals to Madonna and Whitney Houston records, Marx placed his song “Crazy” in the hands of Kenny Rogers, who recorded it and another Marx opus, “What About Me.” Both songs reached the top of the country charts, opening the floodgates for Marx the songwriter.
But he wanted more, and by 1987, his debut album had been released and embraced by the public. Richard Marx yielded four hits, including the Number One song “Hold on to the Nights.” His sophomore effort, Repeat Offender, released in 1989, went triple-Platinum. A pair of Number One singles, “Satisfied” and “Right Here Waiting,” shook loose from this album, which to date has sold more than 5 million copies.
Although his solo career lost some of its luster in the mid-1990s, Marx continued to write hits for other artists and his production career expanded. In 1999, he produced *NSync's version of his song “This I Promise You,” and in 2003, he built a recording studio on lakefront property that is adjacent to the Chicago home he shares with his wife and children.
Some people might think that you and Luther Vandross make an odd musical couple. How did you two begin writing together?
Luther and I have been friends since about 1990. I was always a big fan of his. We met at an American Music Awards show when we were both up for awards. He won and I lost! We exchanged phone numbers and would call each other from the road.
I was making Rush Street, my third album, and there was a track on it that leaned more toward R&B than anything I'd ever done. Luther was kind enough to sing backing vocals on that and another track, “Keep Coming Back,” which was a hit for me. After that, we began writing together.
“Dance With My Father” won several Grammys last year. How was that song written?
About a year ago, Luther called me up and said that he had an idea for a song and wanted me to write something to a concept of his. That's how we work. All he had was the title and a concept. Luther barely knew his father, who died when he was a child. He knew that I had a close relationship with my father, and I think he wanted a collaborator with whom the message would resonate.
I threw up a simple Stylus loop, played the most basic Rhodes part possible and put a melody on top of it. I was really surprised when Luther asked me to send him the MIDI file of what I'd done. He loved the simplicity of it. He used different sounds, but basically used the parts from my MIDI file, which, frankly, mortified me!
As producers, Luther and I part in a very fundamental way. He hates the idea of working with a drummer because he's obsessed with finding the perfect groove. I don't care if there's a bad hi-hat pattern if the overall feel is good. Luther never cuts with a rhythm section, although he always adds a percussionist or other live element as an overdub. He replaced my Stylus loop with a drum machine that sounds a lot like an old-fashioned 808. It's not what I would have done. I probably would have over-thought things.
At any rate, Luther wrote lyrics to my track. He ended up squeezing a lot more words onto my melody than I had anticipated, and so he had to alter the one I'd originally given him. It all worked out pretty well.
What made you decide to build a studio adjacent to your home?
I work a lot in Nashville and I wasn't looking to build a facility to cut basics in, at least initially. I wanted to have a comfortable room for overdubs. I work a lot with a great engineer named David Cole. David has a studio called Noise in the Attic in his Manhattan Beach [Calif.] home. David tracks all my stuff and then mixes everything in his place when we're done overdubbing. In between, I needed a place where artists could come and hang out for a week or two at a time tracking overdubs.
Vincent Van Haaff designed my facility, Renegade Studio. My main requirement was that I didn't want a space that looked like a studio. I wanted it to feel more like a beautiful guest house. As a result, we've got a stone fireplace in the control room and floor-to-ceiling windows that look onto Lake Michigan in the back of the control room. Vincent's job was to take the aesthetic requests and make them work sonically. We got lucky the first time. It's a great-sounding space that's warm, cozy and comfortable.
What console are you using?
There is no console, aside from a Mackie HUI, which we use to help us monitor. We've got a Pro Tools|HD system and a pair of Genelec 1031s; nothing really fancy. Our mic collection is pretty decent; we find mics that work for a particular application. To tell you the truth, we've found that the Audio-Technica 4060 works on just about every singer we put it in front of. It never seems to fail to do the trick. I used to use that big Sony mic — the one that looks like a rocket ship, the 800G. Luther loves it. However, I'm able to get a warmer sound out of the 4060, and I haven't found a singer who's not happy with its sound. We also have a couple of [AKG] C 12 VRs and an older Neumann TLM 170. The TLM 170 is pretty decent, but it needs a lot of servicing.
Have you recorded any basic tracks in the room yet?
We have, and the results have been encouraging. It's not a huge room, but we've got a 25-foot-high ceiling and the sound is extremely live. That can be problematic, but needing to figure out how to soak up the ambience is a good problem to have. We get an enormous drum sound from the room, and it's great for rock 'n' roll. Getting an intimate sound is a bit trickier. We've got two iso booths: one with a stone floor, the other with a wood floor. It will be an excellent space to track in once we figure out how to soak up some of its ambience.
What outboard gear do you rely on?
The Avalon 737 is my mic pre of choice these days, and I really like the Manley Vox Box — it's great for bass guitar. We're also using the Grace mic pre, but for everything else, we're embracing Pro Tools. I can't remember the last time I used an outboard synth. I rely heavily on the three Spectrasonics plug-ins: Stylus, Atmosphere and Trilogy. I really like the fact that you can set up a basic loop in Stylus and then filter parts out in real time. I haven't moved over to a G5 though, so I have to print tracks quickly or I'll run out of CPU power. Still, most of my production over the last several years has been nonsynth and unsequenced, so the G4 hasn't held me back that much.
What production deals are you working on at the moment?
I just signed a production deal with Sony Records. [Sony boss] Donnie Ienner has asked me to be a utility player for him. He wants me to cherry-pick acts, write material and help produce on a variety of Sony pop and rock 'n' roll projects. Things on the Sony family side are very exciting right now.
I'm really pleased with the record of standards that I'm cutting now with Hugh Jackman. Hugh's a wonderful singer; he was so good in The Boy From Oz [the Broadway musical about singer Peter Allen]. And my kids loved him when he played Wolverine in X-Men. We're working around his Broadway schedule. I'll fly into New York on a Thursday. Hugh will come straight to Sony after his Thursday night show and track from about 11 p.m. to 1:30 in the morning. We'll grab a couple of hours during the next day and then a couple more after his Friday show.
Hugh's never made a record before, and he's doing a great job. My idea was to take these great songs — “That Old Black Magic,” “Smile,” “All the Way,” “And I Love Her” — and slow them down as much as possible. You get these long phrases that let Hugh act the songs. We put together a great band: Peter Erskine on drums, Christian McBride on bass, Dean Parks on guitar and Billy Childs on piano. We tracked seven songs in two days out in L.A. at Studio B in Capitol.
We also spent a lot of time last summer working on a project with Emerson Drive, a band out of Nashville. It was a pleasure to work with these guys. They'd only begun to scratch the surface of their potential when we met, and they were willing to work as long as necessary to make the best record possible. The single, “Last One Standing,” has moved into the Top 30 on the country charts, and the album was released in June.
How's your new album going?
We're done! My Own Best Enemy is being released on EMI/Manhattan Records on August 11. I produced it with David Cole, who engineered and mixed it. I also wrote all of the music and lyrics, with the exception of one song, “Suspicion,” which has a lyric from [Tubes singer] Fee Waybill. Half of the album was tracked at Ocean Way in Nashville. I used a great power trio, which I use on other projects when I'm in Nashville, as well: Steve Brewster on drums, Glenn Worf on bass and J.T. Corenflos backed me on acoustic guitar.
I tend to flip things around and give the more aggressive material to the Nashville guys. They don't get to play this kind of stuff very often and so they bring something special to the effort. However, the most aggressive rock song, “Colder,” features one of the teams I put together for the L.A. session: Matt Lang [drums], Lance Morrison [bass] and Mike Landau [guitar]. I also worked with another trio out there that featured Gregg Bissonette on drums, Mark Brown on bass and guitarist Shane Fontayne. Michael Thompson also overdubbed on several tracks. His combination of sounds and the atmosphere he creates is brilliant.
The single, “When You're Gone,” which we recorded in Nashville, is a kind of throwback, almost like an old Stones track. Keith Urban played the solo and sang backing tracks. He killed it! For my money, he's one of the top five guitar players in the world.
How important is it to you that this record succeed?
Let's be honest. The world is not holding its breath waiting for another Richard Marx album. Making My Own Best Enemy was more like a hobby, which we completed while I was in the midst of making the Emerson Drive album and working on a number of other projects. Although it took almost a year to complete, if you compressed all the time into one solid block, I'd say we worked on it for two months. I'm very pleased with the results, but I'm also grateful that I have the opportunity to work on a variety of other extremely interesting assignments.
Gary Eskow is a contributing editor to Mix.