Music is My Life: Episode 031
Songwriter Bonnie Hayes on Sexism, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll
Bonnie Hayes is best known as a songwriter, having contributed tracks to Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time, which won the Grammy for album of the year 30 years ago. But there were a lot of twists and turns that brought her there, from her youth in the San Francisco scene in the 1970s—her brother Chris played guitar with Huey Lewis and the News and her brother Kevin played drums with the Robert Cray Band—to escaping a cult-like commune to see the Sex Pistols on the first show of their 1978 American tour. And her career has taken several turns since, from playing as a touring keyboardist for Billy Idol to becoming the chair of the Berklee College of Music Songwriting department. This interview touches upon all of the above, as well as her frustration with sexism in the music industry (learn why she thinks the photo above is ridiculous), and the emotional rigors of touring. Her Berklee Online course, Arranging for Songwriters: Instrumentation and Production in Songwriting, which she co-authored with Sara Brindell, is live now.
Bonnie Hayes: My dad was a doctor, but also in the military. So we moved around a lot, and they were also Catholic, and they had seven kids in 10 years. So we would move, and we would not have any friends at our new schools, so we kind of formed a tribal mentality and approach to the world.
Where are you in the birth order?
I’m first. I’m the eldest and there are four boys and three girls. Four of us are professional musicians, and the other three are in the medical field.
Yes. It is because my dad was a doctor, but he was also a music nut. So he bought records and would play them. We took piano lessons from the time that I was four and I took them throughout, not very avidly I have to say, but I did take them through my whole young life. We had the French horn player from the Washington DC Symphony come and teach all the kids half hour lessons. He knows it’s going to be like . . .
Just the Hayes kids?
Yes. Just the Hayes because there we were. So we were getting this musical education. We also took French lessons. My parents were really into education. My dad was a music lover, and after dinner when most families would go and watch television, my dad would make us gather around the piano, and he’d play piano and we would sing. We sang a lot of corny folk songs, “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and “The Fox.”
[SINGING] Fox went out on a chilly night. Pray for the moon.
Also Tom Lehrer songs. My dad was really sarcastic and really intellectual, and it kind of conferred this complexity, Because it wasn’t just these simple songs. This music was sort of making fun of certain things that were going on in the world, and types of mental formations. It really formed our worldview, this Tom Lehrer stuff. We were very into it.
What is he best known for?
He writes these sarcastic songs like in the ’60s. He made a bunch of records. He set the names of the chemical elements to the tune of a song from Pirates of Penzance. So this kind of complex sort of pirating of music, with these very demented kind of lyrical ideas. There was one in the record that we were really into called the “Old Dope Peddler,” which was about a guy in a neighborhood, and it was in this kind of:
[SINGING] Here’s the cure for all your troubles. Here’s an end to all distress. Is the old dope peddler, with his powdered happiness.
This whole thing about a dope seller. You can see that’s really dark in this very sunshiny, pretty, flowery kind of melody. So, we were exposed to a lot of different kinds of music. We’d listen to classical, and Broadway, and pop, like the Mamas & the Papas, and Brasil ’66, and all of that kind of stuff.
Were you playing together?
So what happened was my parents did eventually get divorced. I was 15 when they got divorced. My mom did an amazing thing. She moved us out of the small town where we lived to San Francisco, and so the tribe moved and again, we were the shadows in the hall at our high schools or middle schools. We were just not in the culture of where we were so we formed into this tight tribe and we started taking lessons at this school called Blue Bear in San Francisco which is still there. We learned really quickly how to improvise. We started writing songs. We played jazz. I learned jazz harmony. We started writing jazz tunes. We formed a band, our band with two other of the high school bands, started playing these shows. We would rent a hall and do shows. I mean it was wild what we did, and that was when me, and Chris, and Kevin got really good. We got really good. We played a lot of gigs. We were really known as players, and so Chris especially got plucked out of that band pretty quickly by Dave Liebman and Pee Wee Ellis, Martin Fierro. So he started to play with Van Morrison when he was still in high school. He was super duper introverted, and practiced all the time.
What was your reaction when he was practicing all the time? Were you like why is he practicing that much?
We practiced all the time too. I practiced piano constantly. The only thing I had was a piano, so it was loud. So I couldn’t do it as much as Chris did it. Chris is 10 times the player I am. Right. Sorry, but he is. But I have a better grasp of harmony. We both have really sick ears, and so does my brother Kevin who was the drummer for Robert Cray for 20 years, and still he’s been a professional musician with all these different people all his life.
Was your mom also a musical influence?
My mom was not. I mean she could sing but she didn’t sing. She wasn’t into it the way my dad was. She was into us being creative, in a way that I rarely see. I feel like parents often get invested in their kids being successful. She wasn’t invested in us being successful. She was invested in us being expressive and creative, and following our own star. Wherever it went, and by the way she set up a studio. She bought us all professional quality gear. We had a studio in our basement where we were able to practice every day. She fought with the cops when the neighbors would send him over and go, “They’re allowed to play until 10.” I guess it was 10 o’clock until 10 o’clock. “It’s nine o’clock. They’re going to play for another hour.” So she was really on our side.
Do you think she saw the fact that you and your siblings didn’t feel like you’re fitting in at the school and that this was your only outlet?
Yeah, I mean, we were so engaged with music. The community at Blue Bear, the school where we started going, was this really powerful community of people who identified really as outsiders. At the time, you have to remember, now you have the cheerleader who also is a lead singer in a band. At the time, musicians were not a part of mainstream culture, and being a star, it didn’t even exist. It didn’t even occur to you that you could do that.
What year are we talking?
We’re talking 1970. I mean, 1970 is when we moved to San Francisco, so I learned everything in the years from between 1970 . . . by 1972, I graduated from high school and was a professional musician.
What was your first foray into the professional?
Well, it’s probably playing with that band, that high school band.
What was it called?
It was called Sweetmeat. The other two bands were Sass and Subconscious Power, so it’s the S bands and we basically play . . .
What is Sweetmeat?
It was some weird thing. My brothers, we were smoking a lot of dope and we thought things were funny that I now I’m like, what was funny about that? But there was this whole thing about limpets, if I tried to explain it, but if you get stoned, and think for a while, you’ll laugh. So it was just this silly inside joke stuff that we were super into because we were weirdos.
Was your mom okay with that part of the culture or was she oblivious
Yeah. I mean, she didn’t know we smoked dope. Like I think she did, but basically, after we moved up there, for the first year it was like we had a two flat building in San Francisco, and mom and the younger kids lived downstairs, and the four older kids lived upstairs, so there was a kitchen up there and a living room. So we’d basically just seceded from the union and hung out up there and smoked dope.
Culturally, I can’t think of a place or time, 1970 San Francisco that’s like more apropo for that activity.
Incredible engagement with the larger culture, even if the culture at our high schools was still, it is really rigid, classic academic. I mean, I was such a wastrel. I would bring a bottle of orange juice and dump it out in the parking lot, and fill half of it with vodka with my girlfriends and we go to the gym, and go have to run around. We were terrible kids and very headstrong, and doing what we wanted but we were obsessed with music, obsessive.
It seems like you were driven. What did you call yourself, a wastrel? But I mean, it seems you were more driven than that.
We were driven by the idea of a life that wasn’t in that rigid box, that school and that everybody’s parents were in this box of thinking that was, you grow up, you get married, you get a job, you have kids, and we were like no. And it was very innate to us, the way my dad thought is really original deal breaker thinker, and he had a lot of trouble in his life because of that, because he was always outside the box. My mom was really supportive of whatever it was that we wanted to do, and she saw us finding something that was meaningful and supported it, she wasn’t judging us for smoking dope. I mean, she knew about it but pretended like she didn’t.
So how involved in the culture at large in San Francisco did you get? I mean, was that still happening and was that still accessible?
Well, the Haight Street culture was starting to go down the tubes at that point.
Because culturally, heroin had been introduced?
A lot of that and there were a lot of people who were using heroin and meth, and psychedelics. The psychedelics were super strong and you never knew what was going to happen. So a lot of people were having mental, there was a lot of degeneration in the scene, but we were still young and we were more engaged in musician culture than we were in stoner culture. We just smoked dope in our bedrooms after school and before dinners, and then we would go on to have these wild conversations at dinner because the other great thing about smoking pot was that it just set your mind. I think it had a lot to do with us engaging in this idea of a future that wasn’t dad says you have to get married, dad says you have to go to medical school, which was what he wanted me to do, and I was like “Hell, if I’m going to medical school.” So just able to envision another future.
Yeah. So you get out of high school and you start working in the music industry, and the S bands.
The S bands were no more. Well Sweetmeat continued for a while. So I left my mom’s house when I was 17, I moved in with my boyfriend, who was a drummer, and I was in two bands that played like weddings and there was a frat party band that played like,
[SINGING] Splish-splash, I was taking a bath . . .
So it was this thing where you had to just learn seven million of these corny ’50s songs, and then another thing we had to learn was the stuff you play at weddings like “Blue Spanish Eyes” and oh, we have a Polish wedding, we have to play polka, we had to play beer barrel polka for 20 minutes while they dance around. So just that workman musicianship, where it’s just like get in there and you play for four hours, and you get your money. Then during the week, I was teaching piano and workshops, which were like running bands, so I was right away starting to get that bandleader experience and harmony, and theory because I had just eaten the world as far as understanding harmony. And I was playing jazz gigs during the week because I really liked jazz at that point, I wanted to be a jazz piano player.
Then there’s a long period of time before your name starts popping up on records and were you continuing on this rigorous course until then?
Of workman living? So yeah. I mean, I obviously went through a bunch of different bands, and I was teaching more and more. At a certain point, I went to college for a year and a half, and I got a call for a gig that was a seven night a week gig in Four Corners or Farmington, New Mexico, with a buddy of mine who had been in Sweetmeat, was playing on. This guy, Keith Allen, who’s since passed away and was in my band for awhile, called us. So we went out there and we took this gig, and we played country swing. Another one of those absorptive, where I play country swing, five 45-minute sets a night, with no charts. So it’s just the ear thing where it was like okay red sails at sunset, a one, and I would be like you know what I mean? It was like no idea what was going to happen. So I did that for a while, then that gig fell apart, and then Keith and I went on the road as a duo for a while around there, and then I connected with this gay bartender and we drove out to New York City. So I lived in New York City because I wanted to be a jazz piano player, so I started trying to be a jazz piano player in New York City, to very little effect.
What year is this, like ’76?
I want to say ’76, yeah. I lived there for a couple of years. After about a year, I got a touring gig with my first real experience where I was touring with this artist named Nick Jamison who was a producer. He produced a Bonnie Raitt record actually. Green Light. He’s a producer for Foghat. Remember that band?
So he had made a record. God, really brainy interesting cool record. I’d met him at a class that I taught at the Family Life Music School. I went on tour with them and we were opening for Bob Seger.
He was huge at that time.
He was huge. It was a big tour. We also opened for Muddy Waters and James Cotton, all these blues people. It was very interesting who they paired you with.
Were they label mates or just on the same management roster?
Management was Tony Dimitriades who was a huge manager. He manages like Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. Tony managed Nick because he managed Foghat. So we were getting the royal treatment. I mean, it was definitely a great tour. I got paid really well and I just played keyboards on this stuff. I started thinking about what was going on. I was noticing that Bob Seger could take a year off, that I couldn’t take a year off because every time that I was going to make money, I had to be playing a gig. That for the rest of my life in order to make a living, I was going to have to be playing a gig.
Well, during those years between high school and then this six or seven years, did you always know that this was your career or was it just, yeah.
Oh, I was hell bent. There was no way that I had mischosen my career. This happens to a lot of young people at Berklee where they come in and they’re like this is my career. It’s so funny because I remember I had a teacher at the time, he looked at me and said, I was in there trying to become a great jazz piano player. He said, you’re a writer. I said, “You just put me in that box because I’m a girl.” He goes, “No ma’am, you are a writer and you’re not a player.” I was like, “Yes, I am a player. I’ll show you.” I was practicing all the time. I was quite good but I wasn’t that good. I wasn’t no Herbie Hancock.
So how did they know you’re a writer, just by your mannerisms or the way that you’re writing?
The way that I approach music. I’m able to analyze, I’m able to hear really specific voicings, remember long strings of patterns. I mean, that goes with being a player too. But it’s the analytical element that often isn’t there for players and they’re approaching things often on a combination of intellect but also a great deal of intuition and fine motor response that’s outside of the mental decision.
Had you even started writing at that point?
No, I had not written anything. I didn’t sing, I was like, “No, I’m not singing.” So I started singing though on the tour because I was asked to sing harmonies. I’m great at singing harmonies because we had sung when we were kids. We would figure out harmonies to things all the time. It’s natural.
Do you think there’s something, I always thought that there was something to siblings singing together and it’s . . .
Magic juice. Yes. It’s magic juicy yum yum. I mean, it’s funny because I often think the way the Beatles sang together reminds me of the way Chris and I can sing together and it is just nailed, and my sister too. So anyway, I’m out on the road and I’m noticing that Bob Seger has a different life, and I actually talked to him about it. He said, “You get royalties when you write songs and you have hit records. When you write the songs, you get money that comes in your mailbox forever.” He was buying dinner for his crew and our crew and everybody in both bands, and I was just like, “How is he doing this?” It was like, I mean first of all, I had no idea the scale of the kind of money they were making. So I was making my little $1,000 a week feeling really rich.
Well that’s interesting that he was that accessible that the keyboardist from the opening band could just have a conversation with the headliners.
Because he was taking us all out to dinner. Also, there were very few girls. So one of the weird things about that is that’s one of those situations where being a girl actually came in quite handy, which is that people would notice you, they would go, “Hey, how you doing?” Because it was freaking weird being out there with all the guys, and that was my life for a long time, was all men all the time.
Did they treat you fairly?
Oh, yeah. They were cool. I mean, my buddy who hired me for the band Nick was an angel. An angel and he still is a freaking of an angel, one of the best people I’ve ever known. So Tony was great and Bob was great. Yeah, what are you going to say? The guys were really cool.
So he plants this idea in your head, the royalty checks coming in your mailbox while you’re taking a year off.
Yeah. Then that band, we went to cut another record, and we went down to Atlanta. Okay. So it turned out that Nick got really involved with the Guru Maharaj Ji. So without being known, I was in this. I got pulled into this weird cultish scene which I was not into. I’m like, “I am not that.”
Did you have your radar on?
Oh man, as soon as I got there, I was like “What is this?” So basically, I hung out there hoping that the record would materialize for a couple of months. While I was there, one night I was at one of these meetings that they would have with this community, where they would basically just talk about how great Guru Maharaj Ji was for hours upon hours and I was like whatever. I went downstairs and the freaking Sex Pistols are playing their first show in the United States. At a bowling alley in Atlanta, Georgia. They let me in free because I was a chick, I guess. I walked in, there weren’t that many people there.
Had you even heard of them at that moment.
No, but I saw them and I was like, “Oh, you don’t have to be good to play rock ’n’ roll.
I have goosebumps. The story is great.
Yeah. I mean, I was like, “Wait, I can do that. I’m a better singer than he is and I know I can write better songs than that.” I mean, because by the way, I freaking love the Sex Pistols, like when I listened to that first record and I’m just like, “Oh my God, this is so dope.” But at the time, I was a jazz snob, and I was like, “I can do that.” So when all of this was over and I finally left Atlanta.
So I need to know a little bit more. You just ventured out because you didn’t want to go to this meeting, and just pure coincidence right there.
Pure coincidence walking.
Oh, I guess there’s a band playing, I’ll go watch.
There’s a band playing, I go in, and here’s the Sex Pistols which were just like so different from the scene. I had just been in and also the big ’70s classic rock scene that I was touring in. This was new. It was dirty, ugly, messed up people playing dirty ugly raw music about really ugly, dirty things. I was like, in love.
They weren’t even well received on that tour, right?
No, they were hated. I don’t know what happened. It made me see that you don’t have to be good to write songs or to have a band. I was thinking that there was some division between me and everybody else that I wasn’t that good, as good as Neil Young, who I loved, or Stevie Wonder, that I could never be that good. In seeing the Sex Pistols I was like, “Well, if they can do it, I can do it. I’m better than them.” Little did I know it was going to be such a hard road to write songs. Writing songs is hard especially when you’re thinking that you’re smarter than everyone else which I most assuredly was.
Yeah, I bet. So what was the first song that you wrote and was it immediately after that gig and was it a punk rock song?
No. So all of that went away. I went back to New York for a couple of months and then I decided I was so intent on writing songs and I decided to return to San Francisco. So I basically got a driveaway car and drove back to San Francisco with another guy who was returning so we drove together.
The record with Nick never materialized?
They did make it but I didn’t. I was like, “Dudes, I can’t hang with this.” I mean, I was getting supported while I was there, but it just felt very dead end. It was like we were out in the suburbs of Atlanta and it was just really not what I wanted to be doing. I was pretty driven I guess. I didn’t have visions of being a successful rock star. It was more just like I wanted to play music for reals, and I didn’t want to be out in the suburbs pretending to play music while I listened to a bunch of people yammer about this guru. I just was not into it. Or talk about their meditation that day. Now, I’d probably be interested in it.
So you make your way back to San Francisco?
I make my way back to San Francisco. My mom has since moved to Sacramento but she left the house and my brothers. My brother Kevin had colonized the house with a bunch of dude musicians like the Corelli brothers and Ray Scott, who’s a jazz guitar player. It was all men and I moved in and they’re like, “We don’t have a bedroom for you,” and I’m like, “I can live here too.” I moved into the front room and I basically started trying to write songs.
Meanwhile, Chris is playing with Huey Lewis at this point, right?
Yeah. I think he was playing with Huey but it was called something else.
It was Clover?
Chris wasn’t in Clover but I don’t remember how they connected, and Chris wasn’t living where we were living so I wasn’t really in his world. But he was definitely going the same way I was going which is rock. We had been jazzers and we decided to go for the rock.
Had Kevin met Robert at this point?
No. Kevin was still doing jazz and he was basically doing a lot of local work going out with John and with Michelle Hendrix, John’s daughter, in these little jazz tour things. We knew all the jazz musicians and now I’m even more aware of because I turned into a punk, because I want to write punk. I want to write punky music because I was really into the attitude of it. So I discovered my friend Steve Savage who had been my boyfriend and I broke up with him and he was also really into the punk scene in San Francisco.
He’s got a great name for punk rock from the start.
He’s got this big giant Afro and he was really skinny and another total wastrel and he was basically trying to write songs but we can only write lyrics. So after a bunch of really hard starts where I couldn’t write anything. It took a long time. Steve started sending me lyrics and I started.
What was the problem? Was it that you knew too much?
I was too in my head. I made everything super fancy. It just was shitty. It didn’t have any emotion. It was too brainy. It just wasn’t good. It didn’t feel like anything. So Steve started sending me lyrics and I wrote a bunch of songs with Steve and those songs started to get a little bit of attention. We made a demo and that demo started getting around and Chris played on the demo. Chris was a monster player and he brought that incredible ability to playing rock ’n’ roll, it was some fierce stuff. It was really, really good sauce and people were freaking out about the songs because they were very weird but they weren’t punk. They were punky-intellectual songs. So we started getting hit up by producers and we started a band, Steve Savage and this guy Mark Pollard who was a graphic artist who I taught how to play bass. I go, “Play this one four times, and then that one four,” literally, and Chris and me were in this band called the Punts.
Okay. This is pre-Wild Combo.
Pre-Wild Combo. Mark left the band, drama, with some person, I don’t even remember all the personal stuff. But through all this, Steve left the band. We got Kevin joined the band, Chris left the band to be in Huey’s band. So that was this huge thing. This huge thing with me and Chris.
There was a brief time where there were three Hayes siblings in the band?
No. Kevin came in after. What happened was, it was so funny because Kevin was a jazzmo and Kevin came to see the Punts with Steve Savage and he ended up like pogoing all night and caught the punk bug and joined the band. It was great. It was so funny. Their songs were really fun. I was writing better and better songs. It occurred to me like I was writing these angry songs and I was like, “People don’t like angry songs.” So I started writing songs that were more stories and they had catchy choruses and I think a combination of like the Go-Go’s but like probably smarter and more musical than the Go-Go’s.
Was the design always going to be used singing and playing?
I had no intention of singing but I couldn’t find another singer, and finally, they were like, “You have to do it.” And I couldn’t sing it all. I had to get hammered drunk for about two years to do a gig. I was really shy of it and I didn’t feel like I was good and I wasn’t good, but I’ll tell you what, it made me good. Right around that time when I started, I was playing with the bands and I got Kevin and I got Hank Maninger and I got this guy Paul Davis. They were all really good players and they were playing my songs and it sounded like too musician-y. So I bought a TEAC four-track cassette recorder and I made demos where I would program the drums on the Roland 808. Programmed the drumbeat, play the bass on my organ bass, I would take my clavinet and plug it through a guitar amp and turn it up to 10 and record myself playing guitar parts on the clavinet and then overdub myself playing.
That sounds awesome.
They were great sounding demos. I don’t have one of them. I don’t know what happened to it. Then I would record my voice and I hated the sound of my voice so much that I would triple it. Jimi Hendrix used to do this too. I would triple my voice and I would triple all the background vocals, and I would sing them over and over and over until I got the new tune.
That’s a lot of bouncing. I remember four tracks and bouncing was not easy.
Heavy bouncing, a lot of deterioration. So I will have two tracks and then I would do vocals and I would bounce them out and then bounce them in and then bounce them out and bounce them in and bounce them out. I’d have another cassette that we’d have to, it was wild. Anyway, I did really elaborate demos and I would take them in and play for the guys, I’d go, “Play it just like this,” and they will go, “Okay. Is that all you want?” I’m like, “Yeah, except louder.” So I learned how to sing in tune from doing that and I also started producing. I was basically, “How do I make this sound good? “Was the beginning of my career as a producer because. I was a super early adopter on the computers too.
So what time in the timeline, so we’re about like 1980 maybe?
So which comes first, somebody covering one of your songs or are you producing or everything at once?
We made this demo with “Shelly’s Boyfriend,” “Girls Like Me.” The song called “Rochambeau,” and another song, and Steve Savage, who is now my manager, took it down to LA, and played it around.
So wait, he goes from boyfriend, to bandmate, to manager?
He’s a very flexible person. So am I as you can see. He went down and there was a guy at A&M at that time, David Anderle, who loved us, and David Kirshenbaum, was running the A&R department, and he hated us. Guys don’t like smart girls. It’s definitely not at the time it was like, she’s not hot, she’s not sexy.
Was there pressure to be sexy or dress sexy or anything?
That happened later. When there was a little bit of money that got made. So I was at that time, not into this. I wouldn’t write songs about love, and I was chunky, and I was just really still pretty pissed off. So Anderle couldn’t sign us because Kirshenbaum wouldn’t let him but he got me. He took me into Lance Freed’s, who ran Rondor and they gave me a publishing deal. So they signed me to a publishing deal. So that was my first foray into major labels.
Meanwhile, was the band like, what happened to our label deal?
The band didn’t care. Nobody cared. We were having fun. We basically made this single of “Shelly’s Boyfriend,” that we went around and took to college radio stations in the Bay Area, and it started getting played, and we started selling out shows, right and left. We showed up a week after KOSS started playing this single. We played a free show at San Francisco State and 800 people showed up. And that bled the whole country. College radio started playing and there’s jocks here like, “Are you the one who did ’Shelly’s Boyfriend?’” They still remember it. So we have this national success and that was when Slash Records signed us. We got signed to Slash.
Were you Wild Combo by this point?
Yeah, they made us change our name.
They made us change our name because they said, nobody knew what “punts” meant. Slash had their heads up their butts.
History has been kind to them, I feel.
They signed us because they thought we were going to be their big hit act because we were just poppy enough. Because they had all these bands like Fear, that we’re never going to get ever.
Over them. The Blasters were. But The Blasters again, they can get on the radio, and neither did X.
Was the first Violent Femmes album Slash too?
Yes. None of those bands, they were all college radio bands, they were indie bands. So Slash was making, and that was why for the cover of that record was like super clean cut with balloons.Then the back was after the party. People were passed out into the table, and it was called Good, Clean, Fun. So it was this whole thing was this sort of folk wholesome marketing approach to this band that they thought was going to be their sell out band. But we were completely not welcomed by the Los Angeles community and Warner Brothers did not pick up our record. Again, I’m going to just put that right back. The records that got picked up by Warner Brothers were records with dudes in them. Once again, I’m going to say that has something to do with me as a lead singer. The culture at the time that shortly thereafter The Go-Go’s record, made it. Then if that had happened before my record, we would have gone to be picked up by Warner’s.
Warner’s was stodgy and you had a guy making all these critical decisions on his gut. There was virtually no marketing, no kind of tracking of success, it was very loosey-goosey, and the guys that ran labels had a lot of power. So basically, we were on Slash, they didn’t put out our second record, and they dropped us when we didn’t materialize into their big sell out success that they wanted. We went back up and we were still really popular in the Bay Area. We had gone on a nationwide tour so we were. But we basically just went back, and for several years we played live all the time, all over that region, and sometimes in LA, and basically made. I supported a band. Steve was doing other stuff with the band and the crew. I had a three man crew, and we had the whole thing, it was like a unit, and we all lived on the money that we made from playing live with that band. So we had a great time. That was my 20s. After we got dropped from Slash, I was like, whatever with you guys, and I just put out another record, an indie record. I borrowed money, paid it back when in the black. I was an indie.
Did you produce the first one?
No, Steve produced the record. Remember, girls didn’t produce records.
No. I know, it’s just disappointing.
It was so disappointing because I was so. I mean I should have and would have. Again, my own mental inability to see past what was being presented to me as my options, boxed me in. I would say that’s one of the biggest things that I have to say to people is, you think that something is impossible. It’s hard because at the same time, you want to be looking at what are my skills and what am I good at. But people channel you into where they want you to go and sometimes to really get outside of the box of what you think is possible and really address . . . Look at what other people are doing and I should have looked at what men were doing and go, why can’t I do that? I did that with jazz piano, which was like, there were no girls playing jazz piano, Joanne Brackeen was the only one. So everybody else, then Patrice Rushen was coming up. She and I are about the same age, but no women were playing jazz. I remember, I was able to think outside of the box on that but not on the producer thing, and I couldn’t tell you why. I feel like I was already starting to accept the shit that the major labels were dishing out to me. You tell me I’m not hot. I guess I’m not hot. It’s like this weird acceptance of this version of reality that they were living in, and that was actually not the version of the reality that came to pass.
They were from the old reality.
Yes. What would you have done differently in the way that you think now if you had those thoughts in your 20s? What would you’ve done, and said to them?
Well, the thing is, it never even occurred to me to produce that record, and Steve wanted to produce it. But what I would have done is, I would have gone to Slash, to Mark Trilling and Bob Biggs, who granted, we’re both newbies. But they had signed some great acts and I would have gone and said, “Please advocate for us.” Because they also kept us off the Valley Girl soundtrack, because they wanted to make more money for our contribution than the rest of the artists that were on the soundtrack.
Modern English “I Melt With You” is on that.
Yes, it’s a great. It would have been an amazing opportunity for us and it would have. Again, business-wise, I didn’t think to go, “What are you doing? Do you not understand what you’re doing? You told me that you were going to help me get over and you are instead ruining my freaking career,” which he did single-handedly. So anyway, we went through playing and then I met Bob Brown, who was Huey Lewis’ Manager, and Huey Lewis in the meantime had this enormous record. I was in-between publishing deals. I got dropped from Rondor. Universal at that point, and Bob and I were hanging out because I’m good friends with Huey, and all those guys, and it was a family thing, Bob’s family basically.
He was like, “Hey, I want to offer you a publishing deal.” So he offered me a pub deal and I took it because it’s like money that was coming in and they get me to draw. I started writing and actually in-between there. Let me think about this for a second. When was the Cher cover? I’m trying to remember the timeline of this. It’s a little bit confusing. I worked with Miles Copeland for a little while. I was between publishing deals and I started working with this guy Rick Stevens who put me in some sessions and stuff and then Miles Copeland. So that was when I went to the castle. I went to the first ever castle in France for Miles. I wrote that Adam Ant song with Adam for that, “Wonderful.”
Right. He did that in the 90s though, right?
Yeah, I’m actually thinking. I think that was later. I know what happened. Bob signed me. He also got me a deal with Chrysalis. So I made one last artist record. I was like, this is a make or break. Wrote a bunch of songs. He got Stewart Levine to produce it. He was married to Jolie Jones who’s Quincy Jones’ daughter.
We got this really big advance on the record. I’m not a fan of the record. I don’t think the songs are good because I was trying to fit in to what they were telling me and that was the sexy one where I have my midriff showing and they made me dress like a tart. I was quite pretty at that point. I lost all my chunky fat and probably due to the excessive amount of drinking I was doing, but I basically . . .
Well, I do have to ask you because we’re in that time period: was blow a factor?
Yeah, because we were so popular. We would play a gig and go to a party. We stayed up all night constantly. I’m one of those people who just like, I’ll do it for a while and then I’m like, this is boring and go home. But the guy in my band, Paul Davis, he’s now deceased, basically couldn’t stop. We would just keep going and going for three days, that stinky weird blow thing. My brother Kevin just was like, no, not doing it, hated it, thought it made everybody stupid. So we had this real cultural sort of thing that started happening and I was like, sure, I’ll party with you all, but then I would just go home. I just don’t care about it and thought it was. It’s interesting for a minute and then I would get bored. So I made this record I didn’t really like. We’ve go on tour with Huey Lewis, we were opening for them, Tower of Power did the charts.
We’ve got the three Hayes again.
Yeah, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, opening for Stevie Ray Vaughan and Huey, right, which was really great. The Cher thing was earlier. I had written a song called, “Some Guys Will Do Anything For Love,” and Franny helped me write the bridge. It was on hold for Cher for the three years. Check this out, this is a great story. In the meantime, everything changed, right? I didn’t release the record, this was before that Chrysalis record came out. When I got the Chrysalis deal, they wanted me to cut that song and I took the song back. We had cut the whole song. They flew me down to LA. I did guide vocals, all the background vocals, I played keyboard on it. Then when they took the song back, dug my name through the mud.
I mean, it was a battle. John Kalodner called and screamed obscenities at me. I mean, it was insane because it was going to be the first single, and guess what record it was. If I Could Turn Back Time.
You wrote that?
No, it was the back side, the B-side. But it was going to be the first single of that record.
Oh, man. Yeah. The one with her in the . . . So that’s like ’87 or ’88.
Eighty-seven, and basically what happened was, it was written in ’85 or whatever, they had it on-hold, I took it back, to put it on my record, so I have a hit record, which did not happen, and the record died. So Cher did end up releasing the song as on the B-side of If I Could Turn Back Time, and that was the first cut that I had, and I made like a hundred grand.
Okay. So they didn’t withhold it eventually.
Okay, I thought.
They couldn’t release it until after. So my record came out and died, and then they didn’t want to have it be her first, her main single because it had already been released. So they put it as the B-side, and it still made me so much money, I was like dang this works. I’m going to do this.
So you’re like 30 at this point.
Yeah, basically, right after, and it’s so funny because it’s like the decades of the different career paths. So at 30, I’d had three records that didn’t do it in the market. My band fell apart, my boyfriend Paul was totally addicted to meth, and the band fell apart.
So meth not coke?
He started with coke, but here’s the thing about meth, it lasts five times longer, is way stronger, and costs a tenth as much.
So if you really want to get high, you pretty quickly. If you have any money issues at all and you want to stay high for a long time, you pretty quickly go over to that.
So was he still playing in the band too and carrying over to this?
We basically, after the record tanked. I realized that we just needed to do something else. So he was a mess. He was a freaking full on mess. So I couldn’t continue the band without him. I couldn’t replace him. It just felt like beating a dead horse. So I was hanging out, I wasn’t really playing out, but I was writing songs, and I wrote. I was going to make another record, and I wrote “Have a Heart” and “Love Letter.”
This is very emotional stuff that’s happening. Were you putting those emotions into these songs?
“Have a Heart,” it was my goodbye song to Paul.
It was. Okay.
“Love Letter” was my hello song to my soon-to-be husband. So “Have a Heart” was like, it was basically a real blend, but, “hey, shut up, don’t lie to me,” was the thing that you say to any addict who’s coming in with a mouth full of bologna for you every time you see them. How everything’s going to be different and how they’re not using, and you’re just looking at them. Just the biggest liar I ever saw. What we got down to is you choose between me or it. He chose it. It’s love or drugs, and he chose drugs. That to me, that says it all. I mean, I couldn’t write that song. Juliana Hatfield has a song called, “You Say It’s Me or Drugs,” and you choose drugs. It’s that story. So I was channeling deep stuff like my band, my vision, and my future was gone, and my vision of my love was gone. Then I took the Belinda Carlisle tours, I was in the Belinda Carlisle. We were somewhere and we’d been up all night.
So you were still partying?
Yeah, that’s what you do on the road. We were in a bar somewhere, in Ecuador or something, and we watched the Grammys. I saw her winning it. Like I didn’t get it, like I didn’t really know what the Grammys meant. When I got home off the tour. My voicemail was full from the first day after the Grammys.
It’s like hundreds of phone calls.
Basically, now I was like an A-list writer.
So I edited your course, the arranging course, and you included your demo of “Have a Heart.” I was shocked how similar it is.
Yeah, when she released that record. It was getting played on the radio, friends were calling me, going, ’’Hey, I heard you on the radio,’’ and I was like, ’’That’s not me.” Because she copped my vocal delivery style.
Even like the stunted start, but I thought it sounded like an accident.
Well, I did that. It’s on there, that little synth. It’s on there to give you the first note of the vocal. Which was funny because I left it on the demo because, who cares? But she left it on because she liked it. So it’s cute. But she did such a great job on that, but she also, I mean my demos are very similar. She did speed them both up by about 10 bpm’s which is very smart. So my publishing deal was up. So I was shopping publishers and that’s when I worked for Miles and went to the castle and also worked for Rick Stevenson. So I was just going around writing for different people.
Around ’90, I signed with Sony.
Okay. So you’re doing that and then the Billy Idol thing comes along, right?
Yeah. So I basically was in LA. I moved to LA with my husband and he was working at films and I was just banging around LA, writing in sessions and hating writing in sessions. At this point I made all of my demos, right? So I did those with an Atari computer.
Right, because you were saying you were an early adopter.
Yeah. So I was super early, I was using MIDI and sequencing stuff and then [inaudible] recording with a Tascam MD 88 and then I got Pro Tools when that came out. I got Cubase and learned that and then I went to Pro Tools. So I was pretty adept at stuff. So I was basically, writing and making demos and I wrote a song right away when I signed with Kathleen called “Bottomless.” It was cut by Bette Midler but it was also cut by somebody in South America that basically, had a hit with it in South America. So I was doing good.
More mailbox money.
Yeah, more mailbox money, but I was hating the sessions. I would go in these sessions with these little girls who had gotten signed and some guitar player who thought he was a songwriter and I would basically have to write the whole song and it was just awful.
It was awful. We want a song like “Have a Heart.” Can you write a song like “Have a Heart?” I’m like, “No, I can’t.” Because first of all, she couldn’t sing it and second of all, that song already got written. So it’s like this weird thing where I was trying to like replicate my success by copying myself or I don’t know, it was awful. I really hated it. I hated that co-writing scene in LA. I got a call to audition for that gig and Billy hired me and took me on the road.
Had your paths crossed before that?
That’s funny. Because he was in the original punk scene.
Yeah. Exactly. No, we had never met and I mean, I just got one of those, like what they do in LA for the touring bands, they’ll just call and say, “Hey, we need a keyboard player,” and there are these people who know the players. Because I’d been on the Belinda tour. I was in the shortlist of girl keyboard player.
Which tour was it?
It was “Cradle of Love.” Which is a big hit. So we were on the road for a long time and it was actually really fun. I was 39 at that point. It was like my last rock ’n’ roll hurrah.
Was that a very structured tour, I’d imagine, like it’s the type of thing where he finds himself as this career man and he’s got this image and it was their stylists and everything. Just all the videos I’ve seen. It just looks very . . .
I’m still really good friends with the makeup person who did our hair and makeup as well as his. We had a workout guy.
We had a chef.
We had a wardrobe person, Gwen. Basically, it was like super. We stayed at the Ritz, the Four Seasons. I was making, I don’t even, like $15,000 a month deal.
Was that the biggest tour you’d been on?
Yeah. By far. Huge audiences. We played Rock in Rio. There were like 90,000 people there. I mean, big, big, big stages.
Did you like the structure of that?
Look, what’s not to like, man? It turns you into a person who doesn’t have to do anything. All you have to do is be able to get on stage and play for like an hour and a half a night and the whole rest of the time, you’re free to be whatever, to do and be whatever. You know what? What do people do? Nothing. They use. They get into stupid affairs with people on the road. All this, they create drama. It was so silly. But it was lovely, too. It was very luxurious. It really gave me a taste for luxury and for that kind of life.
Yeah, I just wondered because I’ve been looking for videos and stuff. The movements of the show are the same night after night after night. He comes over to you and sings.
We did have a choreographer too. He did the girls. I didn’t have to do a lot of choreography because it was Donna and Carla. Carla just graduated from Berklee Online.
Right, we did a story on that last year.
Yeah. So it was a real awakening for Carla and I too, in the sexism, in the way that women were treated.
They got worse than what you’d experienced already?
We were treated well, I have to say. Basically we were just “the girls” but I think the way that women in the audience were treated or fans, it was still pretty rough, girl-wise.
Yeah. Looking back on that now. What could’ve been done?
There wasn’t any way to change that culture. Billy’s super masculine and he had a helper, this guy Art, who was old school like New Yorky kind of guy. Then there was a lot of ego. I don’t know, it’s hard to describe what was going on. But the men were very . . . I mean I was one of the players so I got to be in that club. But I felt, I don’t think you go on the road to try to change the culture. I don’t think that’s what that was about. It’s about I’m going to collect my paycheck and have a good time while I’m doing it, right? I didn’t want to lose the gig to be really frank.
It strikes me though as the atmosphere, what you’re describing is like the, you hear the Van Halen stories of, “Give that girl, that girl, and that girl backstage passes.”
Exactly. That did happen. The girls would come and they put them behind this barrier and Art would go out and pick at the map. I mean, that was just what was happening. I mean, it’s not like they were so bad. A lot of people did that. If I’m not going to put it on Billy. But I will say, because somewhat later, I auditioned for Bruce Springsteen’s band that wasn’t the E Street Band.
Oh yeah, the two album Lucky Town and . . .
Yeah. That and it was Roy Bittan, who’s a friend of mine through Gia Ciambotti and I went and auditioned for the band. I got into the band but I actually withdrew from the band because I didn’t have anything to do. Roy could easily play both keyboard parts. There was five Black gospel singers that were covering every possible harmony part. There was a girl playing tambourine who hissed at me whenever I touched hand percussion.
Everybody owned their part of the stage and their part of the show and I was standing there playing one note. Bruce goes, “Thanks for telling me.” And they gave me a couple of weeks in. But Bruce was an angel. I’m going to say there was none of that crap on that band.
That’s interesting. Was that a difficult gig to turn down?
Yeah. But at the time, I’ve got to say, the vibe was not happening for me. I had just been on tour for two and a half years or whatever with his band but the vibe was not . . . I didn’t like this being isolated. I didn’t like not being creative and I didn’t like being isolated with a bunch of people who I really wouldn’t have chosen. There were people on that stage that I disliked. I mean, Sara Lee was on that and I love her and I loved the drummer. I forgot his name but he was the drummer in B-52’s. They were awesome. Yeah.
Are we talking about Billy or Bruce?
Right. Did Sara Lee play bass for them?
Sara? Well, for part of. So it was really fun, but there were other people on that gig that I knew that was not going to be good if I went on tour with them.
Yeah, did you just do rehearsals?
We did a couple of weeks of rehearsal and then I bailed, and he was really sweet. I mean, to me I was like I’m going to save this guy a lot of money and save myself a lot of sturm and drang. It wasn’t like I was not making money so I didn’t really need to go on tour for a million years with a bunch of people I didn’t like and not write songs.
A lot of those people were considering it as their big break, I imagine.
Yeah, there was just a lot of competitiveness and bitchiness already. There were a lot of women in that band. Billy’s band, it had a lot of women and I loved them and we all got along. But this band, it was not like that.
It would’ve been around ’92 because right after that, I got pregnant. Basically, it’s a really good thing that I didn’t do that gig.
Oh my God. Okay. So you were pregnant in the rehearsals and didn’t know?
I don’t even know. I can’t figure out what the timeline of that is, but I essentially came up pregnant almost immediately thereafter. Like in January.
That would have been horrible.
The thing was happening in, I don’t know, I want to say like September, maybe August. And I was pregnant by February. I’m pretty sure I got pregnant on New Year’s Eve.
Okay. I don’t need to know that.
Yeah, but it’s for timeline, so do the math. That would have been a mess and a half. So I had a baby and I was basically just writing. I was living in LA and I have my baby and we were living there and I was writing, just doing sessions and writing for Sony and when she was about two, our house burned down.
Oh my, she’s still with us now?
Okay. I didn’t know if we are going into tragic territory.
No tragedies. Just little tragedies, but the little tragedy was that I realized that I couldn’t stay with my husband and we broke up and I also realized that I couldn’t raise a kid in LA. It’s a long story but it became evident that it wasn’t going to work. Just logistically, it just wasn’t going to work, and plus I just was really down on the whole scene there at that point. When you’re writing for money, it’s really different than when you’re writing for fun. It’s really different. And writing for money is a gift that I don’t have. I need to be engaged and I need to be authentic. I was not feeling it and I had just been on these two bands where I didn’t feel engaged or authentic and I was just basically getting paid and I realized I was destroying myself. I had no heart left. It’s a freaking philosophical awakening. Yeah so this is around, maybe around, because she was born in ’93 and I moved north in ’97. So we’re back to San Francisco and I bought a house. My father passed away and left me a bunch of money and I bought a house and separated from my husband and then I was like, “What now?” And I wrote a bunch of songs which Sony didn’t like so they dropped me. So now I don’t have a deal, again.
But there’s still mailbox money.
I have mailbox money. I’m living on that and I had to sell my house in LA for profits. Got some money there and I basically just tried to go to college for a while thinking I was going to be like a psychologist and then I met a guy who was a guitar player and we started playing and we started writing. I started writing songs on guitar. I’d never played guitar and about that same time, we started playing out and I made a record called Love in the Ruins that everybody loved and we were really popular locally. It was the same thing as before. We’re really popular locally and I had a studio in my house and I started doing records for people and I was teaching songwriting. I started making demos and then I started making records and then I got an external studio. I got this place, Ice House, and I started out, went into business as a producer. I hung out my shingle as a producer and started to say the p word. I had a bunch of gear anyways. I was a pretty big gearhead and I started making records and that was basically something that I could do. I could book a session and work from . . . I drop my kid off at school at first grade. And I’d work until three and go grab her or she’d go to somebody else’s house and I’d work till five and basically, that was our life. She grew up in San Anselmo, California with me producing records.
What one are you most proud of from that time?
I love the Rick Hardin record which just came out. It took him a long time to figure out how to release that record and what to do but it’s really quite a good record.
I did the Tommy Castro record for Alligator. So what happened was I was just starting to get label records. Like everything else was all indie. It was like a guy wants to make a record, I’d go, “Your budget is what?” I’m going to be between $15 and $25,000 and I charged them hourly for studio time and just do these. It was just totally work for hire. I didn’t take any back end. I didn’t take writers. I would fix their songs up, I didn’t take writers. I just didn’t want to have to collect from them. I just wanted to get paid. So I was doing great. I was teaching, doing a lot of teaching of songwriting. Right when I was starting to get label records was when my daughter left for college. I decided to get out of there and do something else. I applied at Berklee and got, first, I applied as a faculty. Then when the chair job opened, I was encouraged to apply for that and I did and then I got that job and moved out here. That’s the “what happened when” story. I don’t know what the other part of the story is. I think one of the heavy things about what happened to me when I left Los Angeles is I became an amateur again, and amateur is from the root “to love.” You do it for love.
I found my love of music again from withdrawing. The professional does it for money, the amateur does it for love. They’re not mutually exclusive. But they seemed to be to me at the time. I would say when what you’re doing starts stealing your joy in the thing that you identify yourself as the most profound thing that you’ve ever done in your life, I think you need to make changes and that would be just another testament to how driven I was and what I was driven to do, which was not to be successful in that sense of being rich or whatever, but to be authentic. I think having that as a drive from the very beginning, I want to be a jazz piano player. I wanted to be really good. I guess I wanted to be really good at whatever I did.