Oliver brought the Funky Minnesota Prince sound to Paula Abdul, launching her to stardom with the hits "Forever Your Girl," "The Way That You Love Me" and "Opposites Attract." These days, he's writing songs for the likes of Adam Lambert and Ke$ha. If his name looks strangely familiar, that's because his dad is Jerry Leiber of the famous songwriting team Leiber & Stoller. We'll get into that later... it's complicated.
Carl Wiser (SF): How did you end up working on the Forever Your Girl album?
Oliver Leiber: I was born in New York City, but for totally random non-musical reasons, I was in Minnesota for the early part of the ‘80s. The music scene in Minnesota was pretty happening, and I was starting to write songs and put little demos together. I hooked up with a guy named Paul Peterson (known as "St. Paul") who Prince had been grooming. He was in The Time and the movie Purple Rain, and after that movie Prince started a band called The Family that had members of The Time and Susannah Melvoin as lead singer, and he put Paul up front as the dual lead singer with Susannah. Paul left that group to go solo, and during that time, he and I met and we went in the studio to jam. The first thing we did ended up being his first single, "Rich Man."
I had written another song called “It’s Just The Way That You Love Me,” and he played on the demo. I gave him a cassette copy of the song, and he got called out to Los Angeles to make the video for “Rich Man.” So the record company flew him out, and he was making his first video for his first solo record. And at some point they were taking a lunch break, and he was sitting there with the people that were working on the video, and the choreographer started to talk about how she wanted to make a record, even though she had never sung before. She had gotten signed by Virgin, and she had all this heat behind her because she had choreographed all this very happening current stuff. She loved Minneapolis funk and worked with Janet Jackson, and that’s the kind of record she wanted to make. Paul, who was sitting there, said, “You know, I just played on this demo for my buddy back in Minnesota, and it sounds like it might be what you’re talking about. Do you want to hear it?” He handed her the cassette of “It’s Just The Way That You Love Me,” and According to Paul, she freaked out and said, “Oh my God, this is exactly the kind of stuff I’m looking for, I love this. Can I play it for my record company?” And Paul said, “Yeah, I guess so.” Then I got a frantic call from a very high strung English lady named Gemma Corfield, who was head of A&R at Virgin Records. She grilled me, asked me who I was, what did I do, where did I come from, and was I a producer? And up to that point I had never produced anything in my life other than my demos, but I thought to myself, Well, yeah, I’m a producer. I produced this, right? And I said, “Yes.” And that was the beginning of my involvement with Paula.
Gemma and Paula flew out to Minnesota to check me out. They weren’t 100% sure about who I was and if I was legitimate. I was completely unknown, and they wanted to see if I had a real studio to work in, so I got people to lend me a studio so it looked like I was really professional. It was really funny, because I had done all this stuff on my bed – I lived in a bedroom, and I had done it all on a sequencer with a couple midi-keyboards and a DX7 synthesizer. I guess I did a convincing enough job that it was legitimate, and they said, “Work up the track, let us know when you’re ready, and Paula will come out and do vocals.” So I did that, and when she came out the second time, I played her another idea that I had started before I ever met her. And that was a three-chord idea that came about by trying to show one of my five roommates what a sequencer was. It was very new back in ’84-5, and I was showing him how you could record into the computer. So these three chords came out, and that became the basis of a track that was titled “Small Town Girl.” It was going to be about this girl I was dating from Fargo, North Dakota. It had a sort of innocence, and was very major. I played Paula this track, and she really dug it. She’s like, “Can you write something for me?” And, having spent a little time with her, and in the process of cutting vocals on “The Way That You Love Me,” I got a sense of her personality, and this track ended up being “Forever Your Girl.” It was the same spirit, a very sweet sort of major-y pop song, so it wasn’t a large departure to go from “Small Town Girl” to “Forever Your Girl.” As all of us writers do, you try and crawl inside the artist and assume their personality, and try and write something that feels germane to them. So “Forever Your Girl” was me writing to Paula’s personality and perspective. I finished that and sent a demo, and they dug it. So they sent her out again to cut the vocals on that.
SF: Were these songs always intended for Paula?
Oliver: I had sent “The Way That You Love Me” to my old man, because he was in the business. I hadn’t seen him in years. I’d moved to Minnesota, I wanted to let him know that I was working and being productive, and that demo of “The Way That You Love Me” was one of the first things I'd gotten together. So we had dinner one night with Russ Titelman, who has produced so many huge, huge, records. My dad played the demo for him, and Russ flipped out and called me and said he was cutting Chaka Khan, and he would love to cut the song on Chaka, and that Chaka loved it. You have to understand that back in 1984 Chaka Khan had done “I Feel For You,” which was Prince’s song. It was huge, and he was working on the follow-up record. Russ wanted to use my master, and he said I would get a co-production credit, which I was incredibly excited about. Chaka Khan was one of my favorite singers, but I got a bit of great advice, and I’m glad I followed it. It was very counter-intuitive, but the advice was, if you have a hit with this unknown artist, people are going to be more apt to look and say, “Who did this?” And plus, you’ll be producing it. So I turned down Russ, and I ended up cutting on this unknown Laker Girl who clearly did not have the vocal ability of Chaka. But I thought, there’s something about her. She’s current. And I just had this sense that she was what was coming around the bend. And I made the right choice. But it was a scary moment to turn down such a legendary singer, and someone who I admired so much and had grown up listening to those Rufus records. And you know, part of me for weeks thought, Oh God, I’m crazy, I can’t believe I just did that.
SF: How did "Opposites Attract" come about?
Oliver: Weeks went by, and I got another frantic phone call from the same high-strung English lady saying, “Ollie! We need another song. We’re one song shy, do you have anything?” My MPC60 had just shown up a day before, and that was supposed to be the new improved version of the Linn 9000. It was a brand new sequencer drum machine. I had programmed a two-bar groove bassline and drum part to learn the MPC60, nothing more. It was just like, Okay, let’s program and, as we all do with new pieces of gear, sort of find your way around. So I had this groove sitting there, I could press play, and I had a bunch of titles that I had written down, because my car had broken down near a second-hand cheesy bookstore, and I had like four hours to kill. It was all just drug store novels, and I wrote down all these titles, because they were incredibly dramatic. It was like “A Bloody Moon,” or “Midnight Mistress,” just really over the top. I had this list in front of me, and I had Gemma on the phone, I had the two-bar groove right there, and I winged it, to be very honest. One of the titles jumped out at me, and it was “Opposites Attract.” I was like, “You know, I’ve got this idea and it’s ‘Opposites Attract,’ and here’s the groove,” and I was pretty much tap dancing. But I played her the groove and I spun an idea that maybe it could be a duet, and here’s the melody over it. She was like, “Okay, that sounds great! I love it! How fast can you do it?” Honestly, I probably could have said anything at that point, although in retrospect, when a record sells 15 million copies everybody comes out and tells how they A&R’d everything, but this was not a whole lot of A&Ring going on, to be quite honest. So I got the green light.
I wrote it all from the perspective of one person singing it. It wasn’t initially a duet. It was saying, “I like this and you like that.” It was basically I like potatoes, and you like po-tah-toes, all from one singer’s perspective. But I had these two singers I had been working with - Marvin Gunn and Tony Christian. They’re the guys that sang on Prince’s "Kiss," and they were incredibly soulful funky singers that I had been using as part of my sound on the first two tracks I did with Paula, helping to preserve the Minneapolis sound, because they sounded very Prince-y and it really added something to Paula’s vocals.
I was sort of embarrassed by the way that one came out. I was really sure that I had completely missed the mark. I almost sent that one in with an apology – literally. Like, “I’m really sorry I let you down. I thought this was gonna be good.” It’s how I felt when I handed it in, because I really was making it all up as I went along. You know, it was a two-bar groove, there are no changes, there’s no beat section, so it’s all in how you do it and how it’s arranged. And it was such a struggle to do in some ways that by the end of the process I was more in touch with the struggle than I was with what the end product turned out to be. I couldn’t even appreciate whether it was good or not. I was exhausted and a little bummed.
SF: How did MC Skat Kat come around?
Oliver: The record company was going to put it out as the next single, and they wanted me to do a remix. They wanted – because it was very popular at the time – some kind of rap. Rap was coming into the mainstream, and every song had a rap on it. I used to listen to this local radio station in Minnesota that was the local R&B. It was a very low watt, small R&B station that was being broadcast out of North Minneapolis or whatever. And there was a DJ on there called Derrick “Delite” Stevens. I just loved his voice. I never heard him rap or anything, but I had limited resources, and I didn’t know a ton of rappers. So I got in touch with him and as it turned out he wrote rap. So I wrote my own version of the rap, we got together, and then I said, Okay, here’s the happy honky version of the rap. Take these ideas, but put ‘em down the way you would do it, because I know this is not really credible. So he took a lot of the spirit and some direct lines, and he had some of his own, and the rap came out of that collaboration. I think we recorded that at Paisley Park, out at Prince’s place. Just sort of tagged it in there. They had already come up with the storyboard for the video, and I don’t know who came up with the idea to do the cat, it could have even been Paula. Derrick turned out to be a good rapper, and he ended up making a whole record after that.
Paula Abdul's first recording for the Forever Your Girl album was a song called "Knocked Out," which was produced by LA Reid and Babyface, who would soon form LaFace Records and produce TLC, Bobby Brown and Toni Braxton. Oliver was the next producer to work with her.
SF: What was it like coaching these vocal performances out of Paula?
Oliver: Well, I was thrilled to be making a record that was going to actually come out on a major label. I had boundless energy, boundless enthusiasm, and boundless tolerance. And Paula needed encouragement - she struggled with her confidence, and she really needed someone who was very nurturing and very positive. Paula’s first experience in the studio with a pair of hit producers that I won’t mention had been very, very discouraging. They had basically told her, “You can’t sing, you can go home, we’re gonna finish this song without you.” Like, you suck, get outta here, we’ll finish this somehow. No need to keep singing and no need to come back. That was her first experience on this record, song number one that she recorded. She was devastated, because she had confidence issues to begin with, knowing she wasn’t the strongest singer. And to have these two very successful producers basically say, “Don’t bother to come back,” she was not in a very confident place. I learned after the fact that one of the reasons Gemma held her hand and flew out with her to meet me before we recorded “The Way That You Love Me,” was that this was the second song they were recording on the album, and they needed it to be a positive experience, or they were going to have a very damaged artist on their hands.
Gemma pulled me aside and explainined to me, “She had a terrible experience, we need this to be a positive experience.” So I was fueled with gratitude for having this gig – it was my first gig – and also knowing that I needed to be a really positive person. So, no amount of hours were too long, no amount of takes were too many, and there was lots of cajoling and coaxing and joking. We were going to get this one way or the other.
In some cases it took multiple days of recording, comping, reducing that to one master comp, and then wiping all the tracks, doing it again, and seeing what we could do better. There were very limited tools at the time for pitch correction, the most advanced thing at the time was a Publison sampler, which was only advanced because of the amount of sample time it gave you. It was this French sampler, and if you had to change the pitch slower or faster, you had to do it with a pitch wheel on a midi controller. So you had to really finesse things, because if something was flat or sharp and you were using the Publison to correct it, you had to get it just right or else it was going to sound sped up or slowed down. God, when I think about what we had to do to make records back then...
SF: You said that Paula isn’t the strongest vocalist.
Oliver: Right, she’s not the strongest vocalist, and everyone knew that. But when her voice is put in a certain setting, and when it’s layered, it smoothes out and it has a definite sound. A lot of people really love the way she sounds on these records. She’s not Chaka or Mariah or Christina, or any of those women who can blow, but she had a sound on those records that totally worked. Much like Madonna, she wasn’t the strongest vocalist, but Paula was a tireless worker. She flew out to Minnesota with a vocal coach who was present for the vocals on all of the first sessions that I did with her, and if I couldn’t get a word or a pitch or something, the coach would chime in with various techniques for pitch and breath control to help her sing: "tell Paula to sing this vowel sound rather than that vowel sound.” There was a lot of help from this particular vocal coach to warm Paula up and to help her to deliver the vocals.
(Oliver produced Paula's 2008 song "I'm Just Here For the Music.")
SF: Interesting that you got to watch Paula be so nice to all these people who were struggling on American Idol, and you were once the person coaching her when she was struggling.
Oliver: Well, I understand where Paula’s compassion and empathy and pathos comes from, because she can so relate to being the person having to work hard and struggle. She’s got a tremendous amount of empathy for that reason, and the irony wasn’t lost on me.
SF: It must have been really cool to hear “Forever Your Girl” become her signature song, and become the name of the album.
Oliver: It’s funny, you’re the only person that’s ever put it that way. But yeah, I think that was in some ways one of the most gratifying things about it. As a writer, you want to try and crawl inside and get in the essence of who is this person? You try and capture that in a song, and make it feel like the song is organic to them. It is really satisfying, for sure.
SF: Yeah, it brings out her personality. We’ve all come to know her because she’s been so prominent in the media, and when you listen to "Forever Your Girl," you know: That’s Paula.
Oliver: Beginner’s luck, man. (laughs) Yeah, in all honesty, making that record was as much me experimenting and figuring out how to make a record, as anything. I was by no means a seasoned producer or songwriter; I was really on the beginning of a journey. The stars aligned in a certain way, and it all just kind of worked.
Working as a team with Mike Stoller, Oliver's father Jerry Leiber wrote and produced many famous songs, including "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock" and "Stand By Me." Leiber and Stoller were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
SF: I’ve noticed that you tend to downplay your dad. What’s going on there?
Oliver: (laughs) You don’t have enough tape to record that conversation. What’s going on there? Well, I can only speak for myself, but I would imagine that sons and daughters of very successful parents have a unique struggle to begin with. It’s like you have a huge shadow over you; there’s a lot of psychological stuff that plays against you. It’s always been important for me to make it on my own merit. If I should have success, I never wanted to be the guy where it’s like, “Oh, his dad kicked open the door.” If I made it, I wanted it to be because I made it. That informed my decision not to do the Chaka cut, because that was a connection through my old man. I’ve always wanted it to be completely on my own terms and not have to second guess whether it was my talent or my Dad pulling favors. It's a really important thing for me that I stand or fall on my own merits. And thankfully, that’s what happened. All of this stuff came about in such a weird backwards unpredictable way through such a circuitous route in Minnesota. It was the universe making it happen in its own way.
My dad’s a complicated guy, and of course there’s stuff there, too. But downplaying my father thing is more about not wanting to play that card. I went into the same business as him, and I know everybody knows who he is, but I’ve never wanted to be the kid that rode on his father’s coattails. It’s not even in my consciousness a lot of the time that I have this successful dad. It’s not something that I trade on , or that I really think about. That’s the only way I would respect myself.
SF: Did he teach you how to do any of this?
Oliver: He did not. There was never the formal, “Let me tell you how to structure a song, son.” He wasn’t that guy. I think that I got it through osmosis, in his presence, through watching him as a young kid, because we’re all in awe of our dads. I think if he was a puppeteer I probably would have become a puppeteer. It was more like a son admiring and being in awe of his father, and wanting his father's approval. I think I went into it because that was the only way to connect with the guy. I mean, he was always in the studio, and he was always writing. He wasn’t particularly a family man, he wasn’t going to go out and play catch or do any of that stuff. He was obsessed about music and producing and songwriting and his career. So if I wanted to connect with him, even at 6, 7, 8 years old, I had to make appointments with his secretary to go to the studio. Literally, after school someone would have to take me to the studio where I would have to be very quiet and sit on the couch in front of the console, and not make noise if I wanted to hang with him.
I think it's part DNA, and part what I was exposed to. That’s what I saw my dad do, so I tried to do it myself. I never wanted to be a writer, and I never wanted to be a producer. That didn’t happen until around the Paula time. Growing up when I hit my teens, it just seemed super uncool. I wanted to be in a rock band, I identified way more with the Stones and the Who and Sly Stone and the guys that were performing at Woodstock. I wanted to be a musician. My dad’s job seemed kind of stuffy, and he and Mike wore suits. Producing seemed like parent stuff, it just wasn’t cool. So I stayed away from that for years, and I only started to write because I was emulating Prince and Jesse Johnson and these people in Minneapolis who were around me that I admired. It was removed from my father. I was more interested in doing what they did than what my father had done, and it just so happened that it was writing and producing. But it made it more acceptable to me that I was emulating other people, not my father.
SF: It makes you wonder if there’s some kind of genetic thing that gave you some gifts.
Oliver: You know, I have these two daughters now, a 4-year-old and an 18-month-old, and I can just see that, with both of them, there is something, when I put them on a drum set, or I put a guitar in their hand, I see something that immediately I recognize as it’s already in there. It may not even interest her, but I was a drummer all those years, and the coordination on a drum kit with my 4-year-old, she’s just so natural that I do think there is genetic stuff that gets passed on, definitely. And in my case, yeah, I think so. I don’t know where else it would have come from. There are certain things you can learn that are just mechanics of playing and songwriting, and then there’s something else that’s kind of an x-factor that I think you either got it or you don’t.
SF: I’ve heard that from a bunch of different songwriter/producers, that there’s something there that you can’t teach. Even lyricists will say that.
Oliver: Yeah, there’s something there. Obviously my dad understood pop songwriting and sensibility, and what ideas deserved to be a hook, and how to set that up in such a way that when you got there it really paid off. There’s just that understanding and that sensibility of how to make something emotionally work. It’s kind of a sensibility about how to make a song work and pay off in a certain way.
SF: Yeah. It must have been really hard for you at times not to say, “Have you ever heard of Lieber and Stoller?”
Oliver: Well, yes and no. I maybe to a fault had so dissociated myself from being someone of rock and roll privilege or royalty, that I never had a sense of entitlement around that. Just because my father’s successful doesn’t mean that I know how to write and produce a hit record. Maybe there’s a part of me at certain times that thinks, “Don’t you know who I am or where I come from?” But I don’t feel that a lot. I feel like you’ve got to prove to people continually what your skills are and what you’re capable of doing. I’ve had hits and stayed current and worked for years now, and you have to continually prove yourself. I have a song on Adam Lambert’s record, and I have something on Ke$ha’s record, which is Number One album as we speak. So the phones are ringing a little more, and certain people are calling again, and it’s funny to watch, because there’s been a couple of years where there’s been a lull, and, you know, my abilities aren’t any different. But you’re only as good as your last thing. I think there’s so many talented, capable songwriters, producers, musicians that have had success that are completely capable of doing it again, but they’re not given the opportunity because this is such a business of fad and fear, that we just go with whoever and whatever’s happening right now.
SF: Yes, but regardless of the fad and fear, if you manage to hold onto your publishing rights, you’re still getting checks.
Oliver: Well, I tell ya, Gemma was very smart, and Virgin signed my publishing before that record even came out. Virgin did. I didn’t go to my father for anything, and I don’t even know if my father and I were speaking at that point in my life, and all the deals that I made surrounding that record I made on my own, and I made such a mess of things. I got taken so badly that I signed my publishing away forever, into perpetuity. You would think that the son of somebody that’s successful and savvy in our business would never make the mistakes I made, but I made every one, and then a couple extra. So I learned the hard way. I might as well have been somebody coming out of nowhere, because I was a mark for a lot of people. They realized I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t have my father in there with heavyweight lawyers saying, “Don’t fuck with my son.”
SF: Wow, so you don’t get any royalties from the songs you wrote for Paula?
Oliver: No, I just signed away my 50% forever. They will never revert to me.
SF: 50% of them?
Oliver: Yeah. I made a co-publishing deal for 50%, which is not unheard of, that’s kind of normal. But what’s normal is that after a certain period of time, all of that 50% reverts back to the writer, and you get your song back. Well, I signed something that said that will never happen.
SF: Ugh. Well, at least you’re getting paid something.
Oliver: Yeah, it wasn’t like a Bo Diddley deal, but it was pretty stupid for somebody who should have known better. That’s one of the prices I paid for being kind of rebellious and not taking any help from anybody. I’m hoping someday to make a deal with EMI, that ended up buying Virgin, and maybe I can get them to give me my copyrights back. I’d love to be able to leave all of that to my kids.
We spoke with Oliver on January 14, 2010.