When a Man Loves Music
Singer-songwriter Michael Bolton visits the Y on Sept 9th to serenade us with stories of his career
Many people tell Michael Bolton that his songs are part of the soundtrack to their lives. Behind this powerful statement is a tumultuous journey that Bolton endured to finally make it as a world-renowned artist. In the memoir he released this year, The Soul of it All: My Music, My Life, Bolton, 60, does bare it all. He sets the scene, which begins with him as a child writing songs in his closet during his parents' divorce, and ends onstage with some of the greatest names in musical history. His path was not an easy one, but thanks to people in the industry who assured him that his voice was something special, he persevered. And now, the entire world can enjoy his soulful sound in classic love anthems such as, "How am I Supposed to Live Without You" and "When a Man Loves a Woman." On September 9th, Bolton will be at the 92nd Street Y, which is fitting since the Connecticut native has a rich history in New York City which includes playing for money on the streets of Greenwich Village and closing down city studios with his all-night writing sessions.
You started your career in New York City.
When I started out professionally, I learned the discipline involved in making the most out of whatever gift I had-my work ethic- during my time in New York. New York is the toughest place to succeed. On the other hand, when you do succeed there, every other city, every other country, is moving at a slower pace. It's the greatest training ground in the world.
Before that, you actually sang in the streets of the Village.
I did. Because people gave me money. It was a way of panhandling without asking. I was also aware when I was in New York, that a lot of great bands and artists started out there. At that point, I was broke and staying at a friend's house. It was beyond broke, I think. [Laughs] To be respectful to the journey, that was not a time when I was focused. It's such a haze, that period of time. People were smoking banana peels. Everyone you knew was basically high most of the time.
When did you know you were going to make a living out of music?
Just before I was 16, a record producer from Epic Records came to see me audition in Connecticut in this karate studio above Cutler's record store, which is the record store in the New Haven. We auditioned for him and he wanted to sign us immediately. I was the lead singer and writer of the band. We were signed for one year. During that time, I met people who worked their whole lives in the industry, who kept repeating this sense of confidence that I could make it. That I had this element in my voice that people were looking for. At 16, that goes a long way.
What were some obstacles you faced?
I was with production companies that ran out of money- they just went bankrupt while we were making an album. It's almost crazy to keep going. It's so out of your control. There's nothing you humanly can do to control a lot of these factors. Some of the best musicians on the planet earth in the studio and no hits. For me, a large part of not giving up- it didn't come from some superhuman feeling of courage-was really like a carrot that was dangling somewhere in front of me in the form of yet another producer, owner of a production company, or record executive.
And you had three children to support at the time.
By that point, I had three kids, so rent checks and food- they were problems to solve. And you never want your kids to feel the angst you're feeling, knowing the reality of the last conversation with the landlord who was fed up and wanted us out.
Then you started writing songs and giving them to other artists.
In the early 80s, some friends talked me into meeting with publishers. I started doing that in order to put food on the table and have some sense of stability and security for my family. I started writing out in California and all the songs I wrote got recorded. They were all covered by other artists. So they kept flying me back and forth. They were saying, "We hope your solo career happens, but in the meantime, we're convinced you can have a career as a professional songwriter."
You were writing a dozen songs a year and having countless hits.
That didn't make me feel like I should dive all into the song writing, that made me feel more confident that if I wrote hits for other people, I could probably write one for myself. What was obvious to the president of Columbia Records was not obvious to me- that I was giving away songs I should have been recording myself. I made a promise to Columbia Records- I did two more albums for them- that the third album would consist of songs that I kept for myself. And the first hit I had was on that album. It was called, "That's What Love is All About."
In our book, you say you've written over 220 songs. Take us through the writing process.
Something like that, yeah. [Laughs] There are no rules, but there are theories that are applied. In general, you want to have a theme that speaks to you and you feel will resonate with others. A song has to speak to a certain amount of people, and it has to speak to artists in order for them to decide, "Yeah, I want to cut this track. I've been through this." If you write a great song, it will always find a home."
So the title is the first step?
One of the things I learned when I was working with Desmond Child and Diane Warren was that if we start with a title, the whole process is going to be expedited because when you know what the theme is, you have something to live up to. You have to pay off the title with the rest of the lyrics. A song like, "How Can We Be Lovers if We Can't Be Friends," is kind of a lighthearted expression, but it's really got a lot of truth to it. A lot of times, people treat their friends better than they treat their loved ones. There's a lot to work with in that title and it's basically about respect, forgiveness, and reciprocity in a relationship. When people have had long relationships, and I know this has been true in my life, especially if you're busy and have a career that you love, you don't necessarily need to fill your space with someone. But you lose your best friend when you lose a real relationship. The title may seem simple, but the reality and application of that title is really big.
I'm in Italy right now and in your book you talk about your deep connection to this country.
I was in Italy twice this last month. It's my favorite place to spend time. Any excuse I can get to go there for promotions, performances, or a stop-over in between other European shows, I try to get to Italy. Most of the work, promotionally, is done in Rome. I've done Christmas in the cathedral in Assisi, a show of opera in Catania.
You vividly describe singing Nessun Dorma with Pavarotti in Italy in 1995.
That was a life-altering event.
More recently, you teamed up with a then-unknown Lady Gaga.
I got a phone call from her label who said they had a great, young artist who is a big fan and would really like to write with me. I had never heard of her, so I said, "Send me some MP3s so I know what she does." The first thing I heard was, "Just Dance," and I said, "This is a smash." We worked until about 7 in the morning, the first time we wrote together. I loved her work ethic; it was exciting to see it happen.
Information on Michael's 92 Y appearance can be found here: www.92y.org/Uptown/Event/Michael-Bolton.aspx
Follow him on Twitter: @mbsings
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