The podcasters chat with six-time Grammy-winning songwriter/producer whose collaboration with Alanis Morrisette is one highlight from a glittering four-decade career
oining Liverpudlian songwriting duo Brian and Simon on the 75th episode of the Sodajerker podcast is six-time Grammy-winning songwriter, musician and producer Glen Ballard. Across a four-decade career he’s penned a string of hits, co-masterminded one of the biggest selling albums of the 90s in Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill, and shifted 150 million records.
In 1975, after graduating from the University Of Mississippi, Glen headed out to LA and, via a considerable stroke of luck, made contact with the owner of Sunset Sound Studios who gave him free studio time, enabling him to hone his writing, arranging and production skills. He soon began working as a gopher for Elton John’s band which eventually led to him penning the song One Step for Rocket Records signing Kiki Dee. A publishing contract with MCA duly followed and was introduced to Quincy Jones shortly afterwards when Glen’s song, What’s On Your Mind was picked up for George Benson’s Give Me The Night album. Quincy became something of a mentor to the young songwriter, later signing him as a house writer and producer at his own Qwest label in 1985, and once said: “If I could clone the ideal producer, Glen is what you’d come up with.”
It was during Glen’s tenure at Qwest that he co-wrote, with Siedah Garrett, one of his best known songs: Man In The Mirror, recorded by Michael Jackson for 1987’s Bad. The 80s was a hugely productive period for him in general, and saw him write for The Pointer Sisters, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Randy Crawford, Patti Austin, Paula Abdul and many more.
Another of Glen’s major successes was with female vocal trio, Wilson Phillips – he produced the 1990 eponymous debut album and co-wrote their No 1 single Hold On. Four years later, he was introduced to a young Canadian songstress by the name of Alanis Morrisette – a meeting of kindred, creative spirits that lead to what had to be one of the most successful collaborations in pop history. Released in the summer of 1995, Jagged Little Pill has sold over 33 million copies to date, won two Grammys and is ranked among Rolling Stone magazine’s Best 500 Albums Of All Time. He was also involved in her follow-up, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie which went to No 1 and went triple platinum.
Unsurprisingly, Glen became one of the hottest producers around, forming his own label Java Records in 1996 and over the next few years working with the likes of Dave Matthews Band, No Doubt, Shakira, Aerosmith, Van Halen, Christina Aguilera, Shelby Lynne and Anastasia. He was also instrumental in Katy Perry’s early career.
Here are highlights of Sodajerker’s chat with the great Glen Ballard…
Looking back over your career, it seems like you were almost destined to become involved with music… are we right to say you started playing piano when you were still an infant?
“Well, it’s a good thing I got involved with music, cos it’s all I know how to do! Not when I was an infant, no, but by the time I could sit up I was making noises on the piano, so by the time I was five I was able to play. And I probably don’t play much better now than I did then! It kind of came to me in one piece, and I’ve been sort of deciphering it ever since.”
And you wrote your first song before you were ten, is that right?
“I’d written quite a few by then, actually! There was one called Fair Weather Man, in the key of C… I was much more interested in writing songs than playing other songs, so I was a natural songwriter from the beginning. But I wasn’t very good at the beginning, I just wanted to do it.”
After moving to Los Angeles you ended up at Elton John’s company, didn’t you?
“That was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. I moved to LA and two days later, through a very tenuous connection I went along to a legendary recording studio called Sunset Sound. Elton John had been recording there. And when I went along, the producer was playing some music by Erik Satie, the French composer, and I happened to know this music. So the producer decided he liked this young kid and I got introduced to the studio manager, who was getting ready to work for Elton John, and she needed some help so suddenly I was carrying her briefcase to Elton John’s office that they were setting up in Beverley Hills. And a week later I was answering the phone over there, making myself useful for these people, so I started working there really by osmosis. I saw my opportunity and took it!
“So I started working for Elton, or really his band and their manager. I didn’t actually meet him for about a year but I was answering the phone, and playing piano on the side. And Elton had an artist called Kiki Dee, and through Davey Johnstone in Elton’s band who was dating her, I got started doing her demos, and then I wrote a song for her called One Step and she recorded it. So Elton’s been my good luck charm from day one… I owe it all to Elton John!”
It must have been an incredible experience to end up working with Quincy Jones in the mid-80s as well…
“Quincy was like a father figure for me. In 1981, my publishers at Universal-MCA had a song of mine called What’s On Your Mind. It was slightly jazzy, major sevenths and flat fives… it wasn’t the most obvious commercial song but my publisher Rick Shoemaker really believed in it, and he got the song to Rod Temperton, who’s one of the greatest songwriters of all time… and who’s responsible for my relationship with Quincy. Rick Shoemaker played the song to Rod, and Rod played it to Quincy and Quincy liked it.
“So I was sitting in my apartment and I got a call from Quincy Jones, which was the greatest moment of my professional career! And he said I’m going to cut this song with George Benson, and they proceeded to cut with Rod Temperton arranging, and that began my relationship with Quincy. He opened up a whole world for me, because he’s such a gifted genius and he has such a deep love and appreciation for all forms of music: orchestral, West African tribal music and everything in-between. And he had this sweet, loving approach to all of it, and a soulfulness that I totally related to, so he became the guy I wanted to do well for.
“I started writing songs for his projects, and then doing some arrangements, and then in 1985 I became a staff producer for his record company and we did all kinds of records – Teddy Pendergrass, Patti Austin, stuff like that, but also pop things, and also his records and Michael Jackson’s records. It was the most fun I ever had: I was in with the greatest musicians, the greatest singers and artists, the greatest engineer in the world… and the best food! We were in the studio for weeks at a time but Quincy would always feed us well, and we were totally 100 per cent committed to making records at the highest possible level. People don’t do that any more: people don’t listen in the same way, don’t have the same kind of investment, either as a listener or as record-makers. But in those days, with Quincy and these great musicians… you listen to those records now and they still sound wonderful. And I was proud to be part of that unit of creative people.”
You’ve worked in a wide variety of genres, from rock and pop to musicals… are you just inherently sympathetic to different styles, do you think?
“Yeah, no question, I’m a chameleon! Honestly, I feel all that music. I think I’m always working back to more complex music, not just because it’s more complex but I’m always working back to the real chromatic possibilities of music, all the different deep shadings of emotion you can get if you use all the notes. So it’s been a discipline for me to write in certain ways; now I feel the things I’m writing, because at the moment I’m mostly writing narrative things for shows, give me more freedom to use songwriting in the broadest way, and expand the things a song can do.”
“But I’m still working a couple of days a month with new artists as well, still trying to find the new… whoever! I’m working with a 21-year-old singer right now called Julia Harriman, who’s just incredible. For me, when you speak of diversity, I just love music and any way a song can be involved in telling a story. I don’t really care what the genre is, it’s about using the song in that way.”
And you actually got Michael Jackson to record one of your songs… tell us about that.
“That was the greatest thing ever! I’d been working with Quincy for a couple of years, and I was part of the camp for the Thriller record and we were going to cut a song of mine called Night Line. We actually demo’d it at Westlake Studio, Michael and I, but then the very next day he came in with a couple of new songs. And those new songs were Beat It and Billie Jean, so unsurprisingly Night Line got dropped, and then later it got picked up by The Pointer Sisters, and Randy Crawford did a version as well. So obviously I was a little disappointed, because Thriller went on to sell 45 million copies! But I knew Beat It and Billie Jean were two of the greatest songs I’d ever heard, so it would have been asinine of me to get too upset.
“But then Quincy had me working on the next record, and he asked me to try writing something for Michael again. And I tried, but nothing came out. And then in the last week, they were still looking for one more song. In the meantime I’d introduced Quincy and Michael so Siedah Garrett, who started singing demos for me and went on to become a great lyricist, and she called me up one Saturday and said, ‘Let’s write on more thing’. And she came over and we wrote Man In The Mirror that afternoon, sitting at my Fender Rhodes. I didn’t think much of it but Siedah drove it offer to Quincy’s house the next day and Quincy loved it! And then Michael loved it too, so that was how that happened.”
You also wrote Jagged Little Pill with Alanis Morrisette…
“Yes, and I’m very fresh on that because we’ve just been working on the 20th anniversary reissue. That was an extraordinary period for me as a songwriter, because I spent 20 days writing with her and we got 20 songs out of it, 12 of which ended up on Jagged Little Pill. It was all written in my studio and we recorded demos every day, and I dated them all, so I can tell you that I met her on March 18, 1994. And by June 1995 she was huge.
“That whole process was perfect, because she’d been dropped by her record label in Canada and we weren’t really writing for the radio or a record company. We were just writing, and it was a very pure thing… I didn’t know any of her songs, she didn’t know any of mine, but we kind of got together like strangers on a train and said, ‘Okay, let’s write some music’. And at first everyone passed on it – no-one really heard it right away. But that was probably good in the long run, because we just carried on writing for ourselves.”
The words to You Ought To Know, in particular, are pretty unflinching. As the producer did you have to keep an eye on the commercial potential of the record?
“Not really, because there was no record company! I think at one point we thought we might have to bleep some words, but Alanis was just fearless with it, and we knew that it was artistically driven and in every way defensible as art. We actually did You Ought To Know really quickly: we started it on October 6, 1994 and three days later we were writing something else.”
Reading about your career, it seems like everything you’ve touched has turned to gold, where other guests have talked about having to write hundreds of songs to come up with a few gems. Do you know what your hit ratio is?
“It’s actually probably the lowest ratio of anyone in the world! I’ve written something like 10,000 songs, and about 500 have been recorded and 9,500 are just sitting around. When I first got a publishing deal I set out to write a song every day, and I did. Now I feel confident to write anything at any time, but there’s rarely a day I don’t write something… that’s my particular disease.”
Finally, we wanted to talk about the songs you wrote with Aerosmith, like Falling In Love Is Hard On The Knees and Pink… was that yet another dynamic for you to tackle, working with a tight-knit band?
“Well, I wrote those songs in Miami. I was living in a room at the Marlin Hotel, and above me was Joe Perry, and to the left of me was Steven Tyler. The two of them have their own dynamic, so it was easier for me to write with each of them separately than the two of them together, because they’re like an old married couple! But that was the only issue, and the songs we wrote together became the perfect combination of everyone’s juice. So it ended up being great.
“And it was probably the greatest fantasy I’ve ever had. I’d set up a studio in my room at the Marlin Hotel for six months, and there was the Elite modelling agency at the end of the hall, so you had Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell wandering around and Steven, Joe and I writing songs all night… it was really great fun.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 70 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts –including the full 60-minute interview with Glen – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.