Interview: Billy Steinberg
The writer of legendary songs such as ‘Like A Virgin’ and ‘True Colors’ looks back on his highly distinguished career
Songwriter Billy Steinberg’s discography houses some of music’s most iconic hits. Through his prolific partnership with Tom Kelly, they composed tracks like So Emotional, Like A Virgin, Eternal Flame, True Colors, and many more songs that would define the 80s and 90s and endure in music history.
Steinberg has additionally had powerful collaborations with songwriters Rick Nowels and Josh Alexander. Alongside Nowels, he’s written successful tunes Falling Into You and One & One, and with Alexander hits followed such as Too Little Too Late and Give Your Heart A Break.
Born in Fresno, CA, and raised in the grape growing community of the Coachella Valley, Steinberg’s love for music developed in his youth through listening to his collection of 45 rpm records. Music from artists like The Teddy Bears and The Everly Brothers emotionally moved Steinberg, who went on to form his own group after studying literature at New York’s Bard College. He shifted his focus primarily to songwriting once his early music was recorded by artists like Linda Ronstadt and Pat Benatar, getting the ball rolling in his legendary career…
Now still bringing his distinguished songwriting abilities to the music world, Steinberg talks about his career and his love for the creative process of forming songs.
What was your upbringing like, and when did music start to play a role in your life?
“Well, I was born in Fresno in 1950. And my father was in farming. He was a grape grower and we moved from Fresno to Palm Springs in 1958. My father continued to grow grapes in the Coachella Valley. The word Coachella has great meaning in the world of music today, but back in those days, it was just a small agricultural community. So 1958, we went from Fresno to Palm Springs, but even in Fresno, I had already developed a great love for music. Not playing music, not as a musician, but just as a listener.
“I had a collection of 45s, vinyl singles, The Everly Brothers and Ricky Nelson. Songs like Come Softly To Me by The Fleetwoods and To Know Him Is To Love Him by The Teddy Bears… I also loved baseball. That was an equal passion of mine. I was a good ballplayer, but I was also kind of an anxious person. I had a lot of anxiety and I found that music soothed the anxiety.
“I noticed this very early on because I would have my friends over…and I played the records and enjoyed being the DJ… If I was playing these records for my friends, I would watch them as they listened and I found it discouraging that they didn’t have the same response to the records that I did. To them, it didn’t mean much, but to me, these records were everything and they just stacked up in my bedroom and I accumulated more and more records as I headed towards my teenage years.”
When did you begin to become more involved in music performance?
“When the Beatles came out, I was about 13 or 14, and there was a guy in my class who did come from a musical family. He had this surf band, an instrumental surf band, but the Beatles came out and he realized his band would probably prosper if they had a singer. So he knew that I sang in the school choir and he asked me would I like to try singing in his band, so I said I would, and pretty soon we were singing songs like, You Really Got Me by The Kinks or We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place by The Animals, Louie, Louie by The Kingsmen… those are the kinds of songs that we sang. And that was a lot of fun for me. I didn’t play an instrument in that group, I just played the tambourine and sang. It wasn’t until I was 18 and my grandmother got me a high school graduation present of a Gibson guitar that I started to play guitar and write my own songs.”
How did your time studying at Bard College reveal your career path of songwriting?
“Well, when I was at Bard, I was a literature major. Back in those days, if you were a music major, it probably indicated that you were a pretty serious classical musician. There were no pop music classes or anything like that, and I certainly wasn’t a classical grade musician at all, or a singer. So I just sat in my dormitory room and wrote songs based on poems that I had been writing.
“I started to write poetry before I ever wrote songs, and then I figured out that I could adapt these poems into songs. That was a moment of great revelation for me because I realized, ‘A songwriter, that’s me.’ But of course, at that age, I wasn’t really thinking, ‘I’m going to write songs for other artists,’ I wanted to be the artist. And I was a great lover of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, and Donovan was popular at that time, and I wanted to be a singer-songwriter like those guys.”
What was your next move after attending Bard College?
“I left Bard College after three years. I had a lot of anxiety issues and wasn’t really able to go back to college for my senior year, which was extremely demoralizing to me. But nonetheless, I find myself back in Palm Springs…[in] the summer of 1971. I kept writing songs, but I had a pretty miserable 12 months around that time. My father’s business was located in a place called Thermal, California. I started to work with my father and I got involved with the pruning season, the thinning season, the harvest season and negotiating our contracts with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union. So I was very engrossed in that, but I kept writing my songs on the side.
“Then, sometime around ‘76, ‘77, some great records came out by Blondie and The Cars, The Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, and I was really inspired by those records. And it helped me focus on my songwriting. I stopped writing folk-type songs and I started to write rock songs. I knew that to record them I needed a band. So I met these two musicians from Santa Ana, Bob Carlisle and Efren Espinosa, and a guitarist who was from Los Angeles, a guy called Craig Hull, and I hired these guys to come to Palm Springs to play on my demos.”
How did this lead to a focus on songwriting?
“One of those songs was called How Do I Make You? So we made these demos and we all enjoyed the experience and I said, ‘Hey, do you guys want to form a band?’ And they did. So we decided to call the band Billy Thermal, Thermal being the place where the grapes were grown. The guitar player in the band, Craig Hull, at that time was dating a woman named Wendy Waldman, and she was signed as an artist to Warner Brothers Records, but she also used to tour with Linda Ronstadt as a background singer. Without telling me, Wendy and Craig played the Billy Thermal demos for Linda, and she loved the song, How Do I Make You? and recorded it, and that was my very first cover.
“I wasn’t really trying to get a cover. I was trying to make a record. But lo and behold, Linda Ronstadt wanted to record the song and it was a Top 10 hit, which was wonderful for me. It sort of put me on the map in the Los Angeles music business. I started to get a few contacts, but I was still living and working in the Coachella Valley. I just had so very little time to really network in the music business.”
How did you meet Tom Kelly and begin writing songs with him?
“After Billy Thermal broke up, I was a little bit lost and thinking, ‘Well, what am I going to do next?’ And after the grape harvest of 1981, I was renting a house in Pacific Palisades. I had two reasons to want to rent a house. One was to get out of the heat in the desert, and the second reason was to give me an opportunity to come to Los Angeles to pursue my music career and to network with people in the business.
“Two of those Billy Thermal songs had been recorded by Pat Benatar. One was called I’m Gonna Follow You and one was called Precious Time. So I called my friend Jeff Aldrich and I asked him to introduce me to Keith Olsen, because Keith had produced one of those Pat Benatar songs. He gave me Keith Olsen’s telephone number, and I called Keith and I introduced myself and he said, ‘Oh, Billy, you’re one of my favorite songwriters.’
“I was so flattered by that because I wasn’t sure if he knew much about me at all. He invited me to a party at his house and at that party, Tom Kelly was there. I introduced myself to Tom and I heard that he also wrote songs and I just said spontaneously, ‘You want to write a song together?’ Tom was a little bit more of a music business professional, and he did a little research, and when he found out that I had written How Do I Make You? for Linda Ronstadt, then he said, ‘Sure, let’s write a song together.’ And that’s how Tom and I met and started our writing together.”
How did you and Tom work out how to write together?
“When I met Tom, it was interesting because I went over to his house, took my acoustic guitar with me, and I had not had the experience of co-writing really. So I didn’t think to myself, ‘Oh, I’m going to be the lyricist, and he’s going to write the chords,’ I just thought, ‘Well, we’re going to write a song together,’ however that came down. I started to watch Tom play the piano and play the guitar and I realized, ‘Hey, this guy plays a lot better than I do.’ I was a very basic guitarist. I could strum chords, do a little fingerpicking, but nothing fancy. And Tom was somebody who had the musicality that, if we were taking a break and I said, ‘Oh, let’s sing, A Day In The Life he could hear the chord changes in his head. He’d just play it. I always thought, ‘Wow, how does he do that?’
“We had the conversation about writing lyrics and he said, ‘I hate writing lyrics,’ I said, ‘Well, I love to write lyrics. I’ve got notebooks full of lyrics.’ So we never wrote in that Bernie Taupin/Elton John way where I just handed him the lyric and that was the end of it. We always sat together and wrote songs and I gave input musically. And sometimes I would write portions of songs musically. But for the most part, Tom was writing the chords, and I was writing the lyrics. But we had this great way of collaborating on the song. We sort of became one person, the songwriting team. And we were shaping that song together.”
You and Tom collaborated to write many hits, like True Colors, Alone, So Emotional, and Eternal Flame. What was it like to have so many songs of yours get to No 1?
“Well, it was a lot of fun, of course. A lot of fun and we had a lot of confidence because…Tom and I had a common ground musically. We were very different as people, but we loved the same music: The Beatles, Roy Orbison, Smokey Robinson, Motown, Al Green, we had all these artists that we both loved, and I loved Dylan and he loved The Beach Boys. We would channel all those influences when we were writing songs and there was a period of time there, probably about a 10-year period, where it just felt like anything that we wrote could be a big hit.”
How did you and Tom write So Emotional, which Whitney Houston ended up recording?
“Well, Tom and I didn’t usually set out to write songs for certain artists. We usually just wrote songs and then if we felt if they were good enough songs, somebody would want to sing them. But with So Emotional, it was a little different because the great Clive Davis called us and said, ‘I need an uptempo song for Whitney.’
“I had a lyric I had been working on called Emotional, and I remember it was unusual because usually, we worked at Tom’s house because we had our studio at Tom’s house, but on this occasion, he came over to my house. I had a little keyboard there for occasions like this, and we used to always work with the little Walkman cassette player. Now people, of course, use their phones. But in those days, so you wouldn’t lose any good ideas, you just recorded on a cassette as you were writing.
“We did a demo of it, kind of channelling Prince a little bit. Tom sang the demo falsetto, like he did on Like A Virgin, and we sent it to Clive Davis. He really loved it and said, ‘This is perfect for Whitney,’ so we were over the moon…[saying] ‘Oh man, we got a Whitney Houston cut,’ and it had such a great chorus that it just felt like, if they produced this right, we’re going to have a hit single. And it did. It worked out.
How did the finished song compare to the demo?
“When I first heard the production, it was quite different than we had conceived the song and very different from our demo. Sometimes when you’re a writer, you get demo-itis. You want it to sound just like your demo. But it was charming, on the Whitney Houston record that the song starts and she sort of improvised, she said, ‘I don’t know why I like it, I just do,’ and that wasn’t on our demo and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s cool!’…
“It’s funny because when the record was done, Tom and I didn’t have the input into the production. They had renamed it So Emotional…Usually, if someone changed a title I wouldn’t have liked it, but in that case, So Emotional felt more specific than just Emotional, and of course, So Emotional is the lyric of the song, but they just decided to use it for the title. I thought it made it a stronger title.”
You’ve also worked with Rick Nowels and Josh Alexander, writing hits like Falling Into You, Too Little Too Late, and Give Your Heart A Break. What was it like working with other partners?
“Well, the one constant for me was writing lyrics ahead of the music. After Tom and I stopped writing together, some people would say, ‘Oh, I’ve got this melody I’ve written. Would you write lyrics to it?’ I tried to write lyrics for [melodies], but I really couldn’t do it. To me, I felt like I was back in school doing homework or something and I didn’t enjoy that process. So I knew that I needed to work with people that were open to the idea of starting with my lyrics.
“When I started to work with Rick Nowels, he was open to that and we met a woman from Argentina who was signed to Polydor Records. Her name was Marie Claire D’Ubaldo. She lives today in Buenos Aires, but she was a wonderful melody writer. And Rick and I did a lot of writing with her. Rick would play chords and she would improvise melodies, but all to lyrics that I had written, and we did some really good songs together.”
How has your songwriting evolved over the course of your career?
“Well, one thing that did evolve in my career was the ability to rewrite a song. Even at the point when Tom and I wrote Like A Virgin in 1983, I had been writing songs for 15 years, but I had never rewritten songs. I always felt like the first thing that I wrote had authenticity. And I remember [with] one of my Billy Thermal songs, Richard Perry suggested that I rewrite it and I just was challenged, but also slightly offended, and I was averse to rewriting it. But it was only when Tom and I wrote the song True Colors that I actually had to rewrite something. That was a big learning experience for me.”
Have you seen the music industry change over the years?
“Well, [a] big change for songwriters is that it used to be that if you are a songwriter, you are either writing lyrics, melodies, or chords. And nowadays, producers are getting songwriting credits. So instead of there being two or three writers on a song, sometimes there’s seven or eight because the guy who came up with the beat is getting 15 percent of the copyright. And then somebody else who played the keyboard part and then bass, maybe he’s getting 15 percent. That’s different. That’s the biggest difference to me.
“When Tom and I were writing, for example, we would make a demo. We weren’t trying to create a fully-produced master, we were just making a blueprint of what we thought the song should sound like. But nowadays, like with Josh Alexander, when we wrote Give Your Heart A Break, Josh fully produced that track, and we had a woman called Jaden Michaels sing that demo…But the track that she sang to became the record. Demi Lovato came over to our studio, we took Jaden’s vocal off, we put Demi’s vocal on, we remixed it and that was it. That was the record, and that’s how things work today. People aren’t really making crude demos so much. I’m sure it does happen, but mostly you’re making the record when you’re writing the song.”
Tell us about your most recent projects?
“I’ve been writing my memoir,…but I’m not really planning to publish it. I’m just going to put it in a book with some song demos and give it to some friends and family members. I don’t want to go into the business of marketing something. I recently wrote a song with Rick Nowels and Madison Love. Josh Alexander and I are continuing to write now and then.”
What was the experience like of being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame with Tom Kelly in 2011?
“It was a great honor to get into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. One of the first conversations that they have with you after you get chosen to be in it, they say, ‘Well, we’re going to have the ceremony and who would you like to be there to induct you?’ Tom and I put our heads together and we asked Chrissie Hynde, the lead singer for The Pretenders, because we wrote I’ll Stand by You with Chrissie. We asked her would she do it, and she said she would. So that was huge for us because she was the coolest of the cool.
“Then Chrissie was so wonderful because, at the induction day and the ceremony, they have this red carpet event and songwriters don’t often get in that kind of situation – we’re more behind the scenes. So we’re walking on this red carpet going into the induction [ceremony], and all the photographers and all the writers, they’re all saying, ‘Chrissie, Chrissie, Chrissie!’ And Chrissie just put her hands up and said, ‘This is their night. If you have questions, you ask Tom and Billy, this is their night.’ She was so lovely and so generous that it felt like a great event for us because she was there with us. It meant a lot.”
What qualities would you say make a great songwriter?
“There’s a lot of qualities that I think are important for a songwriter. One of them is, you’ve got to really believe in what you’re doing, because with a song like Like A Virgin, it was rejected by a lot of people and I could have easily thought, ‘Well, these guys don’t like it, so it must not be very good.’ But instead, I thought, ‘These guys are crazy. This is a great song.’ You’ve got to have that kind of confidence in what you’re creating. And also you have to have a thick skin where, when you get rejected, you’re not totally depressed or deflated by it.
“You have to be able to just suck it up and keep writing. I think that’s an important quality. But then another thing that I think is really important to realize, it’s like being a pole vaulter. A lot of people can jump over that bar at a certain height, but if you’re going to win the Olympic gold, you’ve got to put the bar higher and go over it. It’s like that for songwriting. Sometimes you’ve got to raise that bar and write a song that’s going to stand out. And you can’t really control that, but you’ve got to be there and you’ve got to aspire to do that. I know that when Tom and I wrote songs like I Drove All Night, Eternal Flame or I Touch Myself, somehow the bar got raised.
“We wrote songs that were memorable. So that’s something [that], you can’t really consciously do it, it’s not advice you can give as a songwriter, but you’ve got to hope that occasionally you’re going to raise that bar and do something that’s really, really great instead of just really good.”
How does it feel to see how much your music means to listeners?
“Well, I have to say, it’s extremely gratifying knowing how much people like some of the songs that I’ve written in my life. When I was a child and I put the needle on the song, All I Have To Do Is Dream by the Everly Brothers and how that made me feel…it means a lot to me when I know that other people feel that way about Eternal Flame or one of the songs I’ve written, that it’s their favorite song, or they just love that song, or a couple says, ‘That’s our song,’ it’s very gratifying and it makes me feel like I’ve done something meaningful with my life and we all hope to do something [meaningful] in our lives.”
Interview Devin Herenda