We get to know George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, the American pop-songwriting duo behind two of Whitney Houston’s biggest hits
Originally a Seattle band, keyboardist and vocalist George Merrill and singer Shannon Rubicam first met while performing at a wedding, before getting married themselves and forming Boy Meets Girl. After moving to Los Angeles, the duo released their eponymous 1985 debut album that featured the single Oh Girl, but it was their penning of two hits for Whitney Houston – How Will I Know and I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) – that established them as one of the most sought after songwriting duos of the 80s.
In 1988, the pair released their second LP, Reel Life, with the hit single, Waiting For A Star To Fall, that reached the Top 5 in the US and topped charts throughout Europe and Canada. Through the 90s, Shannon and George continued to work as songwriters for other artists including girl and boy bands in the UK, achieving two Top 10 hits with OTT and Girlthing. Then, despite their marriage ending, in 2003 they revived Boy Meets Girl with the self-released album, The Wonderground, but then went relatively quiet…until now.
As the duo return with the 5 EP – their first new music release in more than 17 years – we took the opportunity to chat with them both on a Zoom call, to reflect on the early days and the invaluable lessons they learned along the way…
How did the two of you start writing together?
Shannon Rubicam: “I auditioned for a duo that George was a part of long ago (in 1970-something) and I was accepted into the group. They wanted to have a third harmony and I’m all about harmonies, I love them. We toured around the West Coast Seattle area, playing clubs, playing some of our own songs and the usual cover songs. And then we were down in Southern California, at a rental house because we had a string of gigs. George had sat down at the piano, in the living room – which is about the only furniture we had. He started playing and it just brought to mind a set of lyrics – I just started writing from stream of consciousness. It was such a seamless writing session, really it wasn’t even a session, it was spontaneous. And I think that was really the start of us going, ‘Wow, we actually can write together and this is mine!’”
George Merrill: “I had been writing for quite some time. I’d written with my partner in a band called Sparrow. But then Shannon dropped this beautiful page of lyrics down and it just held together so beautifully. I could just see how the music was going to go to it. It was obvious and it was so simple. It was such a good exchange, right off the bat, and it’s fitting and prophetic that it was the first one.”
Where did it go from there? Had you started writing for anyone else at that stage?
GM: “This was the early days. Shannon and I quickly grew out of that union and went off on our own as a duo. We played clubs for a little bit longer, but then found that it was getting in the way of our writing. Then she took a job as a housekeeper and I took a job as a janitor for about a year. The two of us came back and wrote songs and barely slept. That was when we really studied the craft and wrote some really good songs.”
SR: “We eventually signed with Thom Bell’s publishing [Bellboy Music] in Seattle. He was trying to start a company there and have his own scene away from his previous Philly sound that he’d been associated with. Then we ended up moving to Los Angeles and sent our demos around, and were hoping to get a record deal. But we ended up first getting a publishing contract, which segued into a recording contract.”
GM: “When we were with Bellboy, Thom signed us to his publishing company, we had a cover with Phyllis Hyman and I think that was our first – it was a song called Your Move, My Heart. I don’t think it was ever a hit or anything like that, but it was a big moment for us.”
Were you modelling your ambitions on any other duo or songwriting partnership at that time?
SR: “Not initially, but of course, then we became aware of Buckingham Nicks.”
GM: “Yeah, they have this ground covered pretty well! All along we had aspirations of having a band, you know, being not just songwriters. But, even though we had the success with Phyllis, I don’t think we’d quite embraced the idea of writing for hire. Then we got signed to A&M Records, which was our first record deal with Boy Meets Girl, and part of the contract was that they signed our publishing.
“So then we were part of Almo/Irving Music. We had an office and a little tape recorder, and we’d go in and were hanging out with Paul Williams and all these wonderful writers. Those were heady days but I think we started to understand the structure of it, and it was around that time that we were asked to write for Janet Jackson. We came up with the song How Will I Know but Janet passed on it.
SR: “So it got passed on to Whitney Houston’s people – Clive [Davis] and Gerry Griffith – and that was a brilliant stroke of luck.”
You were certainly in the right place at the right time, but then you had to have the ability to take advantage of that opportunity, right?
GM: “Yeah, you have to be ready. You have to have done your work as a writer, to develop the tools. I definitely agree with that.”
SR: “And back then we were ready. But there weren’t the social media opportunities that there are now, so it was probably even more luck than because you didn’t have any way to show yourself, except by your persistent efforts and being prepared.”
GM: “It was partly luck. But it was [also] dogged persistence.”
What advice would you give to somebody who is trying to make it as a songwriter now? How do you make sure you’re ready?
GM: “Well, I would say one of the biggest things is to develop your craft. If you’re musically inclined, to be able to kind of whip something up. And combining those things, being able to have a depth of understanding of music – to get a strong overview of what’s possible. So when you go into a room, you’re ready for the unexpected. Then I would say the other thing is being willing to listen, because things could go a way that you hadn’t expected and, if you go in with a rigid perspective, you’ll miss it.”
SR: “I totally agree with that. Yeah, embrace whatever the opportunity is. We didn’t have to know how to do it, we just had to say yes and then give it a shot. So I would say that also give it a try.”
What advice would you offer to budding songwriters who might be struggling with writer’s block? Do you go through any rituals or follow a process to get things going again?
GM: “There are all manner of scenarios that we find ourselves in and sometimes it’s just, ‘Let’s write a song, bang!’ But sometimes when you have those moments where you’re stumped, or you’re feeling pressured in some way, I would say the first thing you do is alleviate the pressure – go for a walk, go get a meal together, go to a movie, go and do something unexpected. Take yourself out of that place, physically. Take yourself out of that and end up in a whole different situation. Have a life moment and out of that moment will come the song.”
How about for people who are in lockdown and can’t go to the cinema or meet with friends?
GM: “Yeah, it’s hard, but the main crux of what I’m saying is that you just have to [take a] break. Go for a walk, I’d say that’s probably the easiest thing. Find an outdoor place that you can go and spend some time – feel the wind in your hair. There are things that happen when you physically shift out of that place that you were feeling confined.”
How about you Shannon, do you have a different approach?
SR: “I do. I think the brilliant thing about creating anything is that you get to reach as deeply as you want to inside yourself and bring something up. It’s all your own perspective, your own emotional terrain. And it’s bound to be relatable if it’s real to you. So I would say reach deeply. Then when you get stuck, what I love to do – and it’s especially COVID-friendly – is crank up the music and have a dance session in the kitchen! Fling your limbs around!
“And like George was saying, there’s something about motion, so I love going for a drive in the car, just looking at the landscape because I happen to be in an area where the landscape is beautiful. Motion really shakes you up and changes your brainwaves, I’m pretty sure of that. And sometimes, because I am lucky and have a plane, I just go fly!
“Also, I’ve never done this, but it strikes me that it’s something you could do – because it’s kind of an extreme world now – you could think of the most uncensored thing that you could conjure up and just start writing about it. It would free up so much inside of you. Then you can pick and choose what you would like to follow up.”
That’s great. Now, let’s talk about the new EP, 5. How did that come together?
SR: “We started writing More Deeply (In Love With You) and right away recognised that it sounded like vintage Boy Meets Girl. George was experimenting with some sounds and synth things and drum figures, and things to modernize it a little, but we did recognize that it was really a throwback sort of vintage sound for us.”
GM: “I think the ground had been tilled with The Wonderground album. The two of us had written since then and we’d gotten ourselves to a point of being thankful, we felt light of spirit, so I think it really started coming out in everything we were starting to write. I’m thinking of some of the ‘song starts’ we had from that time – that at some point we’re gonna probably develop – that didn’t end up on the 5. We were already setting the stage, you know, tilling the soil for the songs.”
But The Wonderground was released way back in 2003. You’ve both clearly kept busy in the years since, but why has the EP only emerged now?
SR: “We had been writing songs, we did a brief project with Thom Bell and it didn’t end up going anywhere. We’ve been writing but it’s been sporadic. I lived in Southern California, while George lived up here in Northern California for quite a long time, then I moved up. So part of it was proximity, which made it easier to be more spontaneous – we really experimented. We weren’t very fired up to experiment with internet writing.
“A lot of it is like what George was saying, you know, we reached a point of lightness. And I guess it just takes a while, becoming comfortable with the friendship between George and myself, and knowing that our spouses are comfortable with it as well. I think it made it easier to get together and write, do the vocals, lay the tracks down – it’s intimate work in many ways because it’s personally expressive work. And I think we just reached that point where it became fun again.
So rather than being contractually obliged or duty-bound to create music together, you’ve come back together simply because you wanted to?
SR: “We just craved it, yeah. To get in the studio, because we’re studio rats and we just love it, it’s just so exciting. Because you’re a songwriter, when you get onto a good idea you just want to finish it.”
GM: “We had had such a good experience with The Wonderground, recording-wise. It was a transitional album for us, personally, but when we looked back at it after it was done, we were very happy with what we’d done, sonically. So I think that there was a curiosity for both of us – it’s like, ‘What follows The Wonderground?’”