Brenda Russell has a talent for writing songs that evoke powerful emotion ("Get Here") and images ("Piano in the Dark"). Her ability to tell intimate stores in song was most recently showcased in the Tony-award winning musical The Color Purple. Brenda spoke with us about several of her songs, and the inspiration that drives her songwriting process.
Carrie G (Songfacts): "Get Here" is a really interesting song. I was wondering where the inspiration for it came from for you.
Brenda Russell: I was in Stockholm, Sweden, working on an album. I think it was 1984. The record company that I was signed to at the time wanted me to write some dance music, which was not really my genre, but, you know, that's what was happening, and they always try to fit you into whatever's happening, as opposed to fitting you into who you are.
So I thought, Okay… and this idea of (singing) "La da da da da da" kept running around in my head this one day. It was a beautiful day, and I was looking outside. I was staying in a penthouse in Stockholm, so I was looking out over the city, and it was just… Stockholm's a beautiful city. And then there were hot air balloons flying that day. And I was really tripping on how many ways you can get to a person. But anyway, I knew that's not what the company wanted, and I went to bed and… later, and I woke up, and the music was still there. And because I don't read or write music, it's extraordinary if a song is still in my head that I haven't jotted down or recorded. So if it's still in my head overnight, I think that's something extra special, it's like somebody trying to tell me something.
Songfacts: I saw that in your bio, that a lot of the time you think of yourself as a channel.
Brenda: Exactly. So I said okay, well, maybe I'd better finish writing that song, because, you know, this never happens to me. So I wrote it. The engineer, this fellow I was working with, came over, and he was the first person that I played the song for. And I was kind of embarrassed because I thought it was pretty corny. It was so funny, because I always hear artists say this about songs that people love. Like John Mayer thought the "Fathers and Daughters" song was really corny. When I heard that I laughed, because that's exactly what I thought about "Get Here." You know, it's so corny, and meanwhile this guy's sitting here like, "This song is great. What do you mean corny?" So I ended up recording it, and the interesting thing about it, is that Oleta Adams is the one who had the big hit on the song, and where did she hear of the song for the first time? In a record store in Stockholm, Sweden.
Brenda: Absolutely. It was so bizarre. It's like, that's where I wrote the song. And because I had written it there they were playing it a lot there. Because they were kind of proud of me, the Swedes. And she just happened to be in this record store and they were playing it, and she went, "Whoa, what is that? I've got to have that."
Songfacts: I was going to ask you how she came across the song.
Brenda: That's how she found it, in the very city in the world where I wrote it.
Songfacts: So it must be nice for you to hear it, because you can picture that day over and over again in your mind.
Brenda: It was such a game for me writing that song, you know, how many ways you can get to a person. And the visuals. Like climb a tree and swing rope-to-rope, take a sled and slide down slope, ride a trailway, railway. You know, how many ways can you get to a person. And that became a fun thing to do.
Songfacts: Right. And you said that you don't write it down, or you don't…
Brenda: Well, I don't read or write music. I never actually learned. I play by ear, as some people say. I just kind of hear it in my head, and then pick it out on the piano. So I never took piano lessons or vocal lessons or anything like that. So I have no idea what I'm doing.
Songfacts: So do you usually have somebody transcribe it for you?
Brenda: Yes, absolutely. And I will play it into a recording device of some kind. You know, I have Pro Tools recording studio set up in my house now, and I'll record the song and then someone will write it out for me for the rest of the musicians to learn.
Songfacts: That's kind of nice, though, because it's uncluttered.
Brenda: It's so perfect, because, you know, I used to be intimidated by the musicians who had theory and everything, and they knew all the stuff. But they weren't so creative, a lot of these guys that I knew that I came up with. They knew all about F sharp goes with G flat and all that stuff, but they couldn't just sit down and just make stuff up. They were locked into reading everything. They weren't creative on their own. And I thought, Hmmm, maybe I shouldn't try to learn anything technically, because I might lose the innocent ability to just hear things in my head and pluck them out on a piano.
Songfacts: I think that's very true, because I took a theory course in college, and I was surprised. It just felt very mathematical. It didn't feel creative at all.
Songfacts: And the lyrics… do you usually get the lyrics and the melody at the same time?
Brenda: I'll take it any way it comes, I usually say. Because I notice that if I don't put any rules down, then rules won't apply, you know what I mean?
Brenda: I don't limit myself by having rules, "Oh, I only write the words first," because once you say that then you're limited. And I try not to be limited.
The very first hit song I had, "So Good, So Right," I wrote that while I was washing dishes at a dinner party I was having. And I was washing the dishes and this little song came in my head, and all I had in those days – this was 1978 – all I had was a piano in the living room where all the dinner guests were. And so I knew that I had to get it down, put it on the tape recorder or I was going to forget it, and I knew it was good. I'm a very shy writer, I don't like writing in front of people. So for me to go in that living room, sit down at the piano, and write that song while they were all sitting there was really, really hard for me.
Songfacts: Oh, that would be hard.
Brenda: I know. And I did it because I knew this song in my head was too good to just keep going along with the dinner conversation. You know, it's like, I gotta get this down. And luckily I did that, because it became my first hit record.
Songfacts: I was re-listening to that song the other day and I thought, Wow, I just know this song. That song just sticks with you.
Brenda: Thank you. I always think that songs or stories that come from that special place in your psyche, when you're not really banging your head against the wall, but something just kind of floats in from the cosmos, so to speak – those things touch people in a special way when they hear it. It's almost like they sense it came from a special place, because it touches the same special place inside of them. I always think that.
Songfacts: That's really nice. I like that. Because we've talked to songwriters on a payroll. They would just have to crank the songs out. And it's a very different inspiration.
Brenda: Totally different style of writing. And I've done both, because, when you sign with a publisher they tend to want to set you up with writers -- "Oh, you would be good with this one," you know. Usually I came up just writing with pals, you know, and "Hey, let's write a song, we'd be cool together." And when you get with a publisher, they're trying to make money. So they're trying to set you up with this successful writer, and they try to create an equation that doesn't always work, because you're not always coming from the same place, you know?
Songfacts: And they're probably trying to balance you out with somebody, when what you really need is somebody who can kind of go right along with you.
Brenda: Exactly, you know? And so I've tried doing that machine-type writing, where everybody checks in at nine, "Yeah, okay, here we go, we're going to write a song today," and I hated that. Because it's not very natural for me to do it in that way. Some people work really well like that. They clock in, like an office job, sit at a desk and write. I don't work that way. I'm kind of a sporadic, "Okay, I feel it coming, I'm going for it now." And then I may not write for six months.
Songfacts: So you've had a song inspiration while you were washing the dishes, and you've had a song inspiration while you were at the top of a penthouse in Stockholm. But what was your inspiration for "Piano In The Dark"?
Brenda: "Piano In The Dark" was a wonderful experience. I had two co-writers on that song. Scott Cutler and Jeffrey Hall. And they had sent me this music. And I'm a person that collects song titles. You know, if I hear a good title, like talking to a friend or whatever, I'll write it down. I keep a little song title book. I always think that in every title there's a song somewhere, and you've just got to thin it out. So when they sent me this music, I thought, Whoa, it's so haunting and beautiful, I love that. And I was flipping through my title book and I just thought, piano in the dark, I wonder if that would go with that music I heard. That's as easy as that happened. I had that title and I thought, Hmmm, maybe that'll work.
And so one of the guys called me one day and said, "Well, what have you got? What have you got?" They were kind of pushing me. And I just blurted it out. I really hadn't thought enough about it. It felt uncomfortable, but I blurted out, "Well, what do you think of 'Piano In The Dark'?" And there was this silence. Then he said, "Well, what does that mean?" I said, "I don't know, but I think I'll figure it out." And so we just started working with that, you know, I just started writing lyrics to that and it just started to evolve. And I love it when it happens like that. You're not putting any rigid restrictions on how it's coming, you know, it's just boom – let's try that. You know? Go for it, you know.
Songfacts: When I listen to that song, it's more of an imagery song rather than a story song, if that makes sense. How do you think of it?
Brenda: Yeah, it's a total imagery song. That's exactly what it is. I love writing songs that people… create images in their minds. That's why I was so disappointed as a songwriter when videos came out. Because I thought the video robbed the listener of creating their own personal images to the music. Everyone had their own little image in their mind of what that song meant to them, or what they saw when they heard that song. And now we were creating an image for them to relate to the song.
Songfacts: It's kind of like when you read a book and it turns into a movie, and it doesn't look like what you expected.
Brenda: Exactly. You get it totally. I know now it's so passé. But when that first happened, it was like, whoa, you're robbing everybody of creating their own images. And plus the images most of the time weren't nearly as cool as what people could create in their minds, because the early videos were kind of boring, you know, they've come a long way since then.
Songfacts: Just the image that you give me from Sweden, of that one song, is so much more vivid than they could probably ever have in a video…
Songfacts: Now, did you figure out what "Piano In The Dark" means?
Brenda: Yeah, well I just started writing about this woman. Her lover plays piano. And she wants to leave him, because she's really kind of bored. But every time she does that, he sits down and starts playing. And it sucks her right back in. She's so in love with the way he plays. And he plays in the dark, theoretically. It's not that literal, necessarily. But that's what keeps her to him, basically, is his music. And I just found that was an interesting story to write about.
Songfacts: Right. It is just as simple as it sounds... So after that, it seems like you've collaborated with several different musicians/singers/songwriters.
Brenda: Oh, yeah. I've been collaborating with people for years.
Songfacts: Do you have a favorite story?
Brenda: Oh my God, I have so many. I think one of the most important collaborations I had was with Earth, Wind and Fire. Back in 1982, I started collaborating with Maurice White and a couple of the guys from that band. They would write entire tracks, poems, everything – they would record the record, basically. And the only thing missing would be the lyric. The melody. And they would give me this track – with horns and everything. I'd never written like that before. Usually, you know, people start together and create it, and then you add horns and add stuff. They did the entire track, and they gave it to you, "Okay, write a lyric." And that's what I did. That was a great learning experience for me, how to be flexible in the writing, you know. But then after a few years of doing that, I started thinking, Well, what if we want to make the bridge longer, and you already have the bridge there now? I can't change it now. So that kind of wore thin on me after a while. But initially that was just a brilliant experience to have, and Maurice was very inspiring to me.
Songfacts: Did that help you make your transition into doing some of the plays and the scoring and the things like that that you did?
Brenda: Yes. I think all of the writing that I did with all of the people that I've collaborated with over the years all over the world – I mean, I've collaborated with people in Brazil and Cuba and Ireland and, you know, Russia, and just all kinds of wild places. And it's all played into being able to write a story in a song, and that's what writing a musical is all about, is telling stories to the music. And that was all very good… a very good university for me. So that enabled me to write as The Color Purple with my co-writers. We had eleven Tony nominations. We were nominated for our music, of course. And our lead actress won the Tony for best actress.
Songfacts: And now she's being replaced with…
Songfacts: So you went to the Tony Awards and everything? What was that like?
Brenda: It was wild. I have this little poem that I wrote, maybe a lyric on a silly song, "Free me from my Oscar de la Renta," because I was in the wrong seat when they were starting to announce our names. They hadn't seated us together, the writers. So I had to climb down the row to get to the seat so I could be next to my co-writers, so when the camera flashes on you we're all seated together. So I had on this fabulous Oscar de la Renta outfit that was long and cumbersome, like a long train. So I had, like, six people fighting through this narrow row, between all the legs and the feet, and everyone's trying to grab my gown and pull me through. It was hilarious. And I was starting to sweat, and I was just so scared I wasn't going to be in my seat, you know, when the camera hit. It was like a Lucille Ball thing.
Songfacts: Here you're supposed to be at the most glamorous place, and you have to crawl all over everybody.
Brenda: I was fighting like a madwoman to get in that seat. And then I just hit the seat, and boom! – "Brenda Russell," you know. (Laughing) It was quite funny, so, yeah, it was an exciting time. That was fun.
Songfacts: I know that you have a couple of albums that have recently come out, if you wanted to mention a song or two from them.
Brenda: I will say that the most recent album that I have anything to do with is the soundtrack, of course, to The Color Purple. Which is out there, which is a beautiful thing. And the last two albums, Paris Lane and Between The Sun and The Moon are my solo albums. And I'm working on a new one…
Songfacts: Are you actually… are you writing, or are you recording it?
Brenda: Yes, I'm in the writing phase. And so, you know, recording demos, that sort of thing, you know.
Songfacts: Is this your favorite part? The writing part?
Brenda: I think it is. I really love the writing part, because we're the only judge. It's just you and God, so to speak, creating. And I love that part. This is when I have no boss, I have… you know, just do it.
Songfacts: Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.
We spoke with Brenda on April 24, 2007. Her website is brendarussell.com.