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Writing Hits for Madonna, Celine Dion, and Demi Lovato: A Conversation with Billy Steinberg
I spoke with the inimitable Billy Steinberg, a man in a rare class of songwriters that composed hits for over 30 years.
Name a person who wrote top 20 hits at least 30 years apart during their lifetime. Offhand, the only ones I can think of are Paul McCartney (i.e., 1964: “I Want to Hold Your Hand” → 2015: “FourFiveSeconds”), Burt Bacharach (i.e., 1957: “The Story of My Life” → 1987: “Love Power”), Mariah Carey (1990: “Vision of Love” → 2023: “All I Want For Christmas is You”), and Elton John/Bernie Taupin (i.e., 1970: “Your Song” → 2022: “Hold Me Closer”). But there’s at least one more: Billy Steinberg.
Steinberg wrote Linda Ronstadt’s “How Do I Make You” in 1980. 32 years later, he co-wrote Demi Lovato’s “Give Your Heart a Break”. In between, he worked on countless hits, including “Like a Virgin”, “True Colors”, “Alone”, “Eternal Flame”, “I Touch Myself”, “Too Little Too Late”, and so many more. Last weekend, I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Steinberg. Though this conversation is available to all subscribers, I will begin having at least one interview per month only available to paid subscribers. Consider this an introduction to these winding, in depth discussions.
A Conversation with Billy Steinberg
The most striking thing about your career is longevity. From a Linda Ronstadt hit in 1980 to a Demi Lovato hit in 2012, there are really only a handful of people who have written hits for that long. Given that pop music is usually based around contemporary trends, what did you have to do to stay relevant all those years?
I have a deep passion for music. When I was a child, I loved records so much. When I put that needle down and the record would start, it was like a mystical moment for me. Everything from blues to country music to early R&B meant so much. I think that made me musically and lyrically adventurous. And the desire to write a great song persists in you for a long time if you love it.
Anytime somebody asked me, “Who do you want to write for?” I would always balk at that. I just want to write a great song. Something that was artistic and hit-worthy. I don’t want to be thinking about “What would so-and-so think?” I’ve always approached it thinking that I was going to be the artist, even if I knew I wasn’t.
It’s actually interesting that you say you were trying to write for yourself because most of your hits have been sung by women.
That’s true. “Like a Virgin” is good illustration of that. That song was inspired by a devastating relationship I was in. I felt like I couldn’t get out of it. And then I finally met somebody new. So, I wrote, “I made it through the wilderness, 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, like a virgin”.
The title came out of a stream of consciousness. This was a personal experience. People think, “Oh, that song was obviously written for Madonna or from a woman’s point of view.” But it wasn’t. It was written from my point of view.
People often think of that as a very provocative song, but hearing you tell this story makes you realize that it came from a deeply emotional experience. It doesn’t sound like you were trying to provoke.
I don’t play keyboards. I only play guitar. And I don’t play well enough to come up with a way to play “Like a Virgin” uptempo on the guitar. So, when I perform it, which I do occasionally, I play it like a ballad. That emphasizes the flip side of the song.
But here’s something else that gives me the chills. The person who won The Voice in Italy like ten years ago was a woman by the name of Sister Cristina. She is an actual nun living in a convent. If you look her up, you’ll see an absolutely beautiful video of a nun singing “Like a Virgin” as a ballad in Venice, coincidentally the same place Madonna made her video for “Like a Virgin”. This nun saw a serious side to the song. Maybe it made her think of God or Jesus or something. I don’t know. But it was interesting that someone independently came up with a very potent version of the song that was the absolute opposite of Madonna.
Now, the demo that was presented to Madonna was uptempo. It was a blueprint for her version. So, I didn’t think of it as a ballad, but the lyric does have more content to it than the average person would imagine.
Is it strange to write a song that is so personal but becomes very popular? At a certain point does it not even feel like it belongs to you anymore?
It’s very satisfying to have been able to support myself as a songwriter. I don’t have the thrill that the artist has of being able to get up on stage in front of an audience of 20,000 people singing along, but I’m aware that people love the songs I’ve written. It makes me happy.
People will write to me and say something like, “The song ‘Eternal Flame’ saved my life.” It’s very gratifying to get that sort of feedback.
Most of your successful collaborations, like “Eternal Flame” and “Like a Virgin”, were written with Tom Kelly. From what I understand, the division of labor was such that you wrote the lyrics and he wrote the music. Did you ever help with the arrangements or melodies? Or were you just handing him the lyrics and letting him run with it?
I would say that I was writing all of the lyrics, and he was writing most of the music, but we were always in each other’s presence. It wasn’t like Bernie Taupin and Elton John. I wasn’t just handing Tom Kelly a lyric and saying, “See what you can do with this. Bye!” We would sit together.
Tom was a superior musician and better singer than I was. But I feel like we were in sync. If I thought he was going in the wrong direction, I would suggest something. So, I did have some input, but most of the chords and melodies were written by Tom.
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So, you and Tom started working together in the early 1980s. In an interview you did with Louise Goffin, you described how it took 6 months of writing before the two of you hit your stride. How much of great songwriting do you think is inspiration and how much do you think is just practice?
I’ll tell you part of the reason it took us a while to get things going. I had written a batch of songs for my group Billy Thermal that included “How Do I Make You” [later a hit for Linda Ronstadt] and “Precious Time” [later a hit for Pat Benatar]. We were signed to Planet Records at the time. Then I met Tom Kelly. I found that my arsenal of ideas for songs was somewhat depleted. Even though I wanted to write great lyrics with Tom, I didn’t have much ammunition. I could tell we had the potential to write well together, but I didn’t have any great lyrics immediately. As time went on, I was able to bring in some interesting lyrics like “True Colors” and “Like a Virgin”.
Speaking of your lyrics specifically, there’s cleverness in many of them. The song you did with Demi Lovato “Give Your Heart a Break” is a great example. You have “heart” and “break” in the title, yet the song isn’t about heartbreak. Do you think cleverness or subtlety is important to a great lyric?
I loved Bob Dylan songs. I loved John Lennon songs. I think they are both inventive lyrically. I just didn’t want to write something that sounded trite and familiar. I wanted to write something that would blaze a little bit of new ground.
“I Touch Myself” by the Divinyls is a good example. A lot of people focus on the title. But the first line of the song is “I love myself. I want you to love me.” That’s powerful. All of those lyrics in that first verse are double entendre. You could hear that first line and think, “I love myself. I masturbate. I want you to do it for me.” But you could also think, “I love myself, and I’m lonely. I want someone else to love me.” You hear, “I search myself. I want you to find me,” and that could be anatomical or existential.
It seems like that lyrical depth is part of the reason your compositions have stood the test of time. And many of them have. Before this call, I looked up some of your compositions on Spotify. “Eternal Flame” is The Bangles most popular song. “I’ll Stand By You” is The Pretenders most popular song. “I Touch Myself” is the Divinyls most popular song. “Too Little Too Late” is JoJo’s most popular song. It’s crazy that you were writing many of these songs to be pop hits in their day, yet they have remained popular for decades. Do you have any sense of what gives a song the ability to stand the test of time? Is it lyrical depth? Is it the melody?
It’s really both. The lyrics need to connect with people and the music should be infectious. It also helps to be competitive when you write.
Of course. When we were writing in the 80s, we had rivals in a way. Diane Warren. Mike Chapman and Holly Knight. Desmond Child. You had to compete to get artists to record your songs. Heart is a great example of that.
They started out as a band that wrote their own songs. They wrote great stuff like “Barracuda” and “Crazy on You” and “Magic Man”. For whatever reason, they seemed to lose the ability to come up with songs that were that strong. Since they wanted to continue making records, they begrudgingly had to start recording songs other people were writing. All the songwriters of the time were trying to write songs for Heart. It gives me pride that the most popular song by Heart that they didn’t write in their early period is “Alone”, the song Tom Kelly and I wrote for them.
So, that competitive nature is necessary. But you’ve also got to continually be inspired. What kept you inspired throughout the multiple decades you were writing hits?
I would always keep up with what was popular. I can’t tell you what is popular now. I’ve mostly checked out. But you have to listen to the people who are having the most success. You have to want to write something that stands up to the best of what your heroes have done or are doing.
You have to set the bar high.
Yes. People that succeed as songwriters have to have amazing drive because nobody is paying you a salary. You could have one or two hits in a particular decade and unless one of those is one of the biggest songs ever written, you probably can’t live your whole life on that. You have to keep going.
A lot of people that were songwriters who wrote some hits in the 1970s, for example, had to go get jobs at record labels or publishing companies by the late 1980s. They just couldn’t continue to pop out hit songs. It’s not an easy thing to do.
I know that before you hit it big you worked on your father’s farm in the Coachella valley. Do you think having some financial stability made it easier for you to make it as a musician?
I mean the fact that I had a job and was paid a salary was helpful. It kept me busy. I wasn’t scuttling around Hollywood trying to knock on doors and getting my songs rejected. I was working on a farm 120 miles from Hollywood. It was probably good for me that I wasn’t spinning my wheels in frustration. But I don’t know. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Music moves me so much.
Do you remember the first time being moved by music?
Maybe not the first, but when I was a kid and heard “All I Have to Do is Dream” by The Everly Brothers it felt like a religious experience. I can remember sitting with my friends - kids that I played football or baseball with - and asking if they wanted to come over to listen to some records. They agreed. When I’d put that needle down on the record, I’d immediately feel that special feeling. And I’d look around at my friends to see if they were feeling it, and they’d be laughing at something or talking. It disturbed me that they weren’t moved by a song in the same way I was. I would think to myself, “What’s wrong with them? What’s up with me? Why do I care so much about this song? What does that mean?”
Tom Kelly, you see, was from Indiana. We had very different childhoods, but when we started talking about music, we loved the same stuff. He loved Roy Orbison and Laura Nyro and all of the artists that I loved. Our partnership was based on that.
I also love Roy Orbison. How did it feel when he recorded your song “I Drove All Night”? I believe you once said it was inspired by his song “Running Scared”.
It was surreal. When Tom and I wrote that song, we never talked about “Running Scared”. We may have said, “Let’s give this song a Roy Orbison feel.” But then when you analyze it and think what Roy Orbison song it most resembles, you’d probably say “Running Scared”.
Did that one start with the chorus?
I never start with titles or choruses. I start with the first line of the song. The first line of that song is “I had to escape. The city was sticky and cruel.” And I liked that. It was poetic. Then I continued, “I was dreaming while I drove.” It just felt powerful. When I got together with Tom, I knew there was something there.
Earlier you said much of your writing occurs in a stream of consciousness flow. I know some writers describe songwriting like it is coming from beyond you, like you are channeling something. Do you feel that? Or is it less mystical?
No, I feel like it’s definitely coming from me. It’s not coming from outside of me, but it is coming from the unconscious mind. It’s within me, and I have to find it. I have to let it out.
I know you don’t write as much as you once did. Do you ever get the urge to write a song every now and again?
Yeah, I think you used the right phrase there: “every now and again”. It’s bittersweet to be 73 years old and have less ambition and burning desire, but I was lucky. Some of my heroes, like The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Mamas & The Papas, didn’t get to do it for as long as I did.
John Sebastian wrote The Lovin’ Spoonful’s biggest hits over like a 2 or 3 year period. John Phillips from The Mamas & The Papas probably did the same. I was lucky to sustain it over decades rather than years. So, I’m quite satisfied with how things have worked out. Would I like to be 23 instead of 73? Sure, I’d take another run at it. But we don’t get that choice.
I’m sure if you put pen to paper you’d find some more hits inside you.
I don’t know. It’s like a reservoir. You drill a well and hit the water table. There’s a lot of water in that aquifer. You pump the water out and eventually it’s all gone. In the same way, the contents of my unconscious mind are that aquifer. I was pumping it out and pumping it out for so long that it doesn’t feel like the content that was there for so long is still there. I just don’t feel it.
I’ve got one more question for you. With so many hits, do you have any compositions that you feel didn’t get the love they deserved?
Of course. I wrote a song with Rick Nowels and Marie-Claire D'Ubaldo called “Falling Into You”. That was the title track for an album by Celine Dion. I think it’s one my best songs. It did well in Europe, but it wasn’t a hit in America. Maybe there is something too subtle and arty about it.
Do you think a song can’t be too subtle or sophisticated to be a hit?
I don’t think so. The hits by Burt Bacharach and Hal David were very sophisticated. You can make something as sophisticated as you want as long as it is accessible to the public. Have you heard “Falling Into You”?
I’m sorry to say that I’m one of the Americans that isn’t familiar with it.
Check it out if you get a chance. Let me know what you think of it.
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Want more Billy Steinberg? Here’s a playlist containing some of his best work.