Dwight Twilley

by Dan MacIntosh

Along with his collaborator and follow Tulsan Phil Seymour, who succumbed to cancer in 1993, Dwight Twilley scored a hit with his first single, "I'm On Fire," which went to #16 in 1975. The typical record industry drama kept him from achieving his commercial potential, but despite what the charts suggest, it hasn't stopped the music. How do you describe his sound? As Dwight points out, he's been called "The Father of New Wave," but Power Pop also seems to fit.

We had a chance to talk with Twilley about his 2010 album Green Blimp, his old songs, and some of his famous friends. The man sounds just as enthusiastic today as he did the first time he heard The Beatles on the radio and started making music of his own.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): "I'm On Fire" is your signature song, and probably a song that you can't play a concert without doing, correct?

Dwight Twilley: That's correct.

Songfacts: And do you still love to sing that song?

Dwight: You know, I'm fortunate, because I know a lot of people who had hits, maybe they had them when they were younger, and they sang it like real high or something, they have a terrible time going out and having to sing this song for the rest of their lives. But in that area I've been fortunate. My biggest hits, "I'm On Fire" and "Girls," I still find easy and a lot of fun to perform. Some people, they have this big hit record, and at the end of the day when nobody's looking, they say, "I hate that song." (laughing) But I'm fortunate because I'm proud of both of those songs, and it really is a lot of fun to get out there and do those songs.

Songfacts: Take me back to when you first created "Girls." Do you remember where the idea for that song came to you?

Dwight: Well, as I sit and look back over the years, I've written quite a damn number of songs. So to specifically go back and think of the stories for each and every one of them... But I'm a songwriter, so I'm always thinking about what is a song, what does a songwriter do, and really, a person who writes songs is just a communicator. A song is a communication. Sometimes it's the simplest way that you can say something that everybody knows but hasn't been said quite the same way. And so it catches their attention, and you make that little bit of communication.

I remember at one point thinking to myself, it's so basic, but how many people have ever said just "girls"? And what is that all about? What are all the good and bad and the problems, and what is that whole really confusing but really simple problem all about? And after maybe two or three weeks of going around and asking people in a dumb way, "What's this about? What's that about?", it was like summing the whole thing up to three and a half minutes. And so it's sometimes just that simple.

Songfacts: The video for that was also pretty popular, as I recall. Were you comfortable with the whole video medium, or was that just sort of a necessary evil?

Dwight: Well, we were kind of focused at the time, and really having a hell of a lot of fun. And what a lot of people don't know or remember is that video, there was also an R-rated version.

Songfacts: Oh, I didn't know that.

Dwight: The Playboy Channel put up some money, and a lot of the lovely ladies that were featured in that video were actually Playboy bunnies; that made it kind of an interesting shoot. And also it was a promotional tool, because the promotional guys would go to the radio station and say, "We'd really like you to play this Dwight Twilley song, we'd really appreciate it if you'd add it to your playlist." And they'd go, "Oh, I like the song, but I don't know if it fits into our format," or whatever. And then the promo guy would say, "Well, tell you what, we've got a great video. Maybe that would spark you guys up, and you could go take a second look at it, go ahead and add it to your playlist." They'd say, "We'll I don't know." And then our guys would say, "Well, would you like a copy of the R-rated video?"

SF: How do you feel about the term "power pop"? Are you comfortable being called that?

Dwight: You know, I don't hardly think about it at all, because I've had a whole bunch of different names over the years. At one point I was the "father of new wave." These names just kind of come and go. I certainly don't take it seriously at all. If they want to call it power pop, I don't have any problem with it. To me, it's just like pop/rock and roll records that I make. And if they want to call it power pop, that's fine with me. If I look back and think about it, probably the best power pop band that I can think of would be the Beatles. So if they want to compare me to the Beatles, that's okay.

Songfacts: You could do worse than that. It's interesting, some of the people that you've worked with over the years, like Leon Russell. He did a project with Elton John, because Elton John feels like he's underappreciated. What are your feelings about Leon?

Dwight: I learned a lot from Leon. We were a Tulsa-based band (the Dwight Twilley Band) when we were originally signed, and Leon lived here. And we ended up being signed to his label. A lot of people thought that Leon was the driving force behind it. But we didn't really meet Leon until after we'd had our hit single "I'm On Fire." And I guess the surprising thing was just what a kind man he was, and how generous he was. He invited us into his own home studio and had us recording in his 40-track studio. And for little kids who six months ago had only been in a 4-track studio, that was a big deal. He was very kind and super talented, and he really didn't say much. Just by following and by example we could see some of the things that he did that were just amazing. And I think he's a terrific talent. I'm really proud of the way that he has sustained, that he's out there still doing it.

Songfacts: Now, you worked with Tom Petty as well. How did you hook up with him?

Dwight: It was just that we were both signed to the same label, and we had a hit before he had one, so it was his little band and my little band, and we just tried to help each other and move forward.

Songfacts: And it's interesting that you're very much alike in a lot of ways.

Dwight: There's probably some similarities.

Songfacts: One of the things that I noticed, and I didn't notice this until I'd listened to the new album a few times, was that you have the song "Ten Times" as the tenth track.

Dwight: (laughing) I didn't even notice that. Is it, really?

Songfacts: Yes.

Dwight: (laughing) That's funny.

Songfacts: My next question was going to be, you probably put a lot of thought into the sequencing of your albums, but if you didn't even notice that, I wonder if you do.

Dwight: No, I absolutely put a lot of thought into the sequencing, but I don't do it with numerology, and such.

Songfacts: But then the song is called "It Ends." And that ends it.

Dwight: That was intentional.

Songfacts: Susan Cowsill sings on this album. How did you meet her?

Dwight: A road manager. I was out on tour and he invited me to come out and see a show, and we just became great friends. And we've been friends for many years.

Songfacts: Were you a fan of The Cowsills?

Dwight: I think I was more a fan of her voice in particular. We ended up singing together, and at that time I just separated from my original partner, Phil Seymour – we were Everly Brothers-esque harmony type singers. And when Phil and I separated, there was a little void there. It was a magical little match vocally that we had.

Songfacts: I read somewhere that you don't do any of Phil's songs that he sang lead on?

Dwight: Well, I've recorded a couple that aren't out yet for a digital release. I think it's coming out at some point. Somebody just asked me to do it. So there was something about it that doesn't feel completely right. And the main reason being that I wrote those songs specifically for him.

Songfacts: Really? For his voice?

Dwight: Yes, absolutely. In some cases, they're kind of hard to perform, because they're not written for my voice. And now that he's not here anymore... I don't have a big voodoo against it or anything, but it's not top of my list as what I want to do. Nada Surf covered the song "You Were So Warm," which was a Phil song. And I think I saw in one of their reviews that their singer was saying "that was really hard to sing." So it would probably be hard for me to sing, too.

Songfacts: You mentioned Nada Surf; do you keep up with some of the bands that you've influenced?

Dwight: No, not really. I never have really been a listener. I almost don't have time for it. I have found if there was something important out there that I need to hear, it ends up right in my face. I don't ever have to search for it. And I'm not really keen on looking around at people's records and trying to see what everybody else is doing - I don't want to be influenced by that. I had all the influences I needed when I was a little kid growing up, with Elvis Presley and the Beatles, so many great artists, that now that I've become an artist on my own two feet, I like to stay on my own two feet at this point.

Songfacts: Right. I noticed that you have done albums where you've covered Beatles songs. Do you still listen to those to get inspiration?

Dwight: You don't even have to anymore. I think they're pretty much burned into everybody's mind. I did a couple of albums of cover songs, and that was really fun. It was fun to get away from the Dwight Twilley mould for a while. And it was fun picking which songs to do, and things like "Town Without Pity."

Songfacts: Right, Gene Pitney.

Dwight: Yeah, Marty Robbins "Big Iron," and songs like that which are about as far away from being Dwight Twilley as you can get. But in between all that, I'm secretly off in my laboratory working on Green Blimp.

Songfacts: Is there something environmentally conscious about the title "Green Blimp<"?

Dwight: Well, I hadn't really thought about it that way. Actually, I had the idea for the song many years ago, like when I was a little kid, practically, with my friend, Phil Seymour, and we would play the song occasionally. And in those days they didn't talk about anything being green.

Songfacts: So it was kind of pre-ecological?

Dwight: Yeah.

Songfacts: And you say you've had that song hanging around since you were a kid?

Dwight: Yeah, I just kind of liked the refrain of it. Of course, I've upgraded it and re-wrote it. I don't know why I did it. (laughs) But you know, it kind of is a hats off to "Yellow Submarine," and the whole album and the song really has a kind of an anti-war theme. And when I say that, I don't mean like any war in particular. Just the violence in the world. And then it's kind of a tranquil place where you're floating through the sky and not having to deal with all the terrible things that are after you in the world.

Songfacts: Well, you know, with the kind of economy that we have now, I'd love to be able to float over this world in a blimp and be away from it all.

Dwight: I think a lot of people would. And they're all welcome on board.

Songfacts: Well, there's only so many people you can fit on a blimp there. It's not exactly a passenger vehicle.

Dwight: Right. And the thing is, too, it floats, it just meanders and drifts through the clouds. It's not like a jet airplane that just shoots through the sky, or a speeding car. It's just tranquil, relaxing, through the breeze and through the birds and the clouds. It's a tranquil place for everybody to be.

Songfacts: You mentioned the Beatles, and there's a lot of really nice jangling guitars in your music which is beautifully retro. Have you ever been pressured by record companies and music executives to modernize your sound to try to sell your music better?

Dwight: Well, unlike a lot of artists, I was kind of fortunate in my career. I had the luxury of working with a lot of great true record people. And so I kind of skated around that. Because I know that a lot of artists have had that problem, where they'd be pressured to change their art, and really get pointed in some direction to go. But I was lucky. Just dumb luck that most of the time, the people that I've worked with, out of appreciation for what I was trying to do, allowed me the artistic freedom to pursue it. And now I'm pretty much a free agent. I have my own record label, and I'm pretty self-contained. I have my own studio, my wife is my engineer, and one of my best friends and the original lead guitar player for the Dwight Twilley Band, Bill Pitcock, is right here in town. And so I'm pretty much free to cause as much havoc as I can. (laughs)

Songfacts: Well, that's a good place to be, and I guess a lot of artists are becoming more like that with how the music business is going now. But you've been kind of an independent artist even before maybe it was cool to be independent, right?

Dwight: That's probably true.

Songfacts: So what do you have on your plate now?

Dwight: I'm almost done with a soundtrack album.

Songfacts: Oh, really?

Dwight: Yeah, it's for a documentary film that's being made about the misadventures of this crazy life I have. And I don't have a lot of control artistically in whatever they're doing with the film, but I am doing the soundtrack. So probably by the first of the year I'll be done with the soundtrack, and when it starts getting cold I'll probably start doing a little bit of rehearsing and thinking about getting out and walking around on some stages, like next spring or something.

Songfacts: How do you feel about a documentary? Do you trust the people that are creating it?

Dwight: Who the hell knows? (laughing) I look at it this way: it's like I don't have any control over it. All I do is provide them my video archives and do interviews for them. But it's not my job to tell the story, it's theirs. So I kind of look at it like it could be a great film, it could be a terrible film. But I know one thing, the soundtrack's going to be really good.

Songfacts: Are you writing new songs for the movie?

Dwight: Yeah, I'm writing new songs. It's sort of retrospective autobiographical songs.

Songfacts: So you're kind of telling your story a little bit with the songs.

Dwight: Which is kind of an interesting challenge.

Songfacts: When will it come out?

Dwight: I'm thinking spring-ish (2011). Usually it's three or four years between full-on studio albums, but fortunately this is a little period of history, it's going to be a little more Twilley-heavy than usual. It's not going to be a year before a new studio album for me.

Songfacts: You seem awfully productive. It doesn't sound like you suffer from writer's block.

Dwight: No. (laughing) I'm actually kind of a mad scientist. I have my little laboratory, and I'm pretty bad about it. I kind of work seven days a week. I'm just into recording rock and roll records, I love the whole process.

Songfacts: You were talking about the misadventures of your life. How would you sum up the adventure?

Dwight: I don't know. I think somebody ought to make a movie about it.

Songfacts: How much of Spinal Tap can you relate to?

Dwight: Tons of it. I don't think it's crazy enough to be what it's really like.

We spoke with Dwight on September 15, 2010. Get Green Blimp at dwighttwilley.com. Photos are by Kelly Kerr.
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 1

  • Violet from Athens, GaWait, Dwight has no control over a documentary about himself? Does that mean some of the documentaries/biographies I've seen of some of these artists might have been partially made-up? I mean, if it's about Dwight, he should have some control in the documenary, right? Good interview by the way.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Jack Tempchin - "Peaceful Easy Feeling"

Jack Tempchin - "Peaceful Easy Feeling"They're Playing My Song

When a waitress wouldn't take him home, Jack wrote what would become one of the Eagles most enduring hits.

Phone Booth Songs

Phone Booth SongsSong Writing

Phone booths are nearly extinct, but they provided storylines for some of the most profound songs of the pre-cell phone era.

Phil Hurtt ("I'll Be Around")

Phil Hurtt ("I'll Be Around")Songwriter Interviews

Phil was a songwriter, producer and voice behind many Philadelphia soul classics. When disco hit, he got an interesting project: The Village People.

Chris Fehn of Slipknot

Chris Fehn of SlipknotSongwriter Interviews

A drummer for one of the most successful metal bands of the last decade, Chris talks about what it's like writing and performing with Slipknot. Metal-neck is a factor.

Janis Ian

Janis IanSongwriter Interviews

One of the first successful female singer-songwriters, Janis had her first hit in 1967 at age 15.

Pam Tillis

Pam TillisSongwriter Interviews

The country sweetheart opines about the demands of touring and talks about writing songs with her famous father.