Shipley started out as a solo artist, releasing her first album in 1979. The good news is that record companies were more patient back then, so she got to make two more. The bad news: The industry was so biased against female artists that some radio stations had policies to keep female acts from being played back to back. Finding it all "gross," she was ready to leave it all behind when she got the opportunity to write for Carlisle. That's when "Heaven Is A Place On Earth" happened and she found a new calling as a songwriter for other artists. That song had a very specific inspiration, starting at a gas station.
Ellen Shipley: Well, that's an interesting story. I was in a gas station in Brooklyn where I was living at the time when that song was written. I was going back and forth to work with my Los Angeles partner, Rick Nowels, but this was the first thing we actually did together. I was standing in a gas station and I was in line and suddenly I just felt like I had to turn around to the greeting cards. And one of the cards, the first one I saw, said, "Heaven On Earth."
So it really stuck with me and I kept thinking, "Yeah, people say that, but what does it really mean?" And then I had that lyric idea. I flew to LA and I went to Rick's studio where we worked and I put the name on a blackboard: "Heaven On Earth." Rick looked at it and he put one of those little asterisk things [^] underneath it, you know, when you're going to stick something else in, and he put in, "Heaven Is a Place On Earth."
So, it just started coming really easily. Interestingly enough, we had a whole different verse once we finished the song and I knew there was something wrong with the verse because it wasn't as strong as the chorus.
I'd never written for anybody else before. This was my first song that I ever wrote with anybody in mind, because I just wrote my own songs for my albums. But Rick had approached me and said, "Let's try to write for Belinda," and the first thing that came up was this "Heaven Is A Place On Earth" idea. I went to the engineer, Shelly Yakus, and I played it. It was finished and mixed and we were going to put it out, but he said, "Your verse is not as strong. It needs to be hookier and it needs to really capture the same emotion that you have in your chorus but explain it to us."
So, I went back to Brooklyn and I came up with all of this different music, which was inspired by all the girl groups. I made a verse that was much more like I would hear the girls on the street sing, and brought it back to Rick. I was going back and forth like 15 times a year. I brought it back to Rick and we changed the whole verse. We had to have Belinda come in to re-sing it, and it was so much better. It was so inspiring and it's taught me a lesson: You don't need to ask everybody what they think about your music because that's not what's important, but if somebody you respect makes a comment that sits right with you, you need to look at it.
And so, the whole thing changed and I did a couple of other songs with Rick for Belinda. Before we knew it, "Heaven" was the first single and it went #1 all over the world. I was in shock. It started my whole writing career because I hadn't written for anyone but the three albums I wrote for myself.
It's a very special song because when I was trying to write the music part of it, Rick said, "What would you do if this was your next song?" And then I could hear the music of what to do. We worked on it and it really came pretty easily.
Songfacts: So, you had to stop thinking of it as a song for somebody else and start thinking of it as a song for you.
Shipley: Yeah, I did. I thought, How would I write the verse if I was singing it?
I'm not a crafted songwriter. I'm an inspired songwriter, which means either I've been inspired or I might as well just watch television. "Heaven" was very inspired and it was helpful for me, having been an artist, to see melodies I wanted to sing and how it would go. And that changed a lot of it. I don't know what Rick was feeling but that's what I was feeling.
Songfacts: Well, he clearly wanted you along for a pretty specific purpose, because there are some guys who can write songs from a woman's perspective, but your songs, especially the ones you wrote for Belinda Carlisle, tend to be very intimate.
Shipley: Yes, they are intimate. Maybe it was just an inspired time in my life. I was going to make a fourth album and then I decided I just couldn't do it anymore. I wanted to have a baby and I wanted to leave the music world because it was just so gross. I had been all over the place, and it's just so tacky and corrupted. So, I was leaving the business when Rick called me and it spoke to me, as long as I could write it as if it was for myself. We were a great combination because he was more heady and I was the emotional through-line, always.
Songfacts: Were actual children involved in the recording of that song?
Shipley: No, that was just a bunch of us singing and then I think he just sped it up.
Songfacts: Are you one of the people singing in that section?
Shipley: I sang on every single Belinda song. All of them. On "Heaven" I copy her lead. So, when you listen to the harmonies, the one who's got the main melody in the harmonies is me.
Songfacts: That's kind of a secret weapon because the hallmark of Belinda Carlisle's hits is that backing vocal, which I actually thought was her. I thought it was her processed vocal.
Shipley: No, there were two or three of us that did almost all of her background vocals all of the time. Everything. It was me and Maria Vidal and a third, which could be... oh my god, we had stars on there, all kinds of people. Sheryl Crow did one before she became famous. Michelle [Phillips] from the Mamas and the Papas. Amazing people came in to do the harmonies but I always was the first harmony person with Maria and then there was always a third person.
Songfacts: There seems to be a child theme in that song. The video has children all over it and there is that childlike sound to some of those vocals. Was that intentional?
Songfacts: Well, from a structural standpoint, so much of the song is that big, powerful chorus that starts it off. Was that always the way the song was built?
Shipley: Yes. The chorus came first. When we had that title, "Heaven Is A Place On Earth," we went into a studio and we started jamming on chords and singing against it and in our process we got that chorus and everything was built around that.
So, it was like a story of why you think heaven is a place on earth: because love comes first. Because the lyrics:
Baby do you know what that's worth?
Heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven love comes first
But we'll make heaven a place on earth
So, the whole idea is that love should come first.
Songfacts: The chorus sets up the rest of the song, which is why you start with it.
Shipley: Yes, absolutely.
Songfacts: And it has the added bonus of being incredibly catchy.
Shipley: That's a good thing, yeah. I had no idea it was going to do anything. I just did this song with Rick and I loved it and thought Belinda was great and that was the beginning of me doing like seven albums with her or however many I did.
Songfacts: There is one song you wrote for yourself that ended up being a pretty popular cover: "I Come Undone," which Jennifer Rush ended up doing.
Shipley: "I Come Undone" was on my third album. Nothing happened for me with "I Come Undone" but Desmond Child loved the song and he got it placed and produced it with Jennifer Rush.
My big single was supposed to be "This Little Girl," which was on my second album, but it came out on radio when John Lennon died and they put a moratorium on all new songs in radio so I lost the momentum.
Songfacts: Oh, wow. So after John Lennon died there was a moratorium on new songs?
Shipley: On radio. It wasn't official - they didn't say "this is a moratorium," but they would only play Lennon.
Songfacts: Yeah, it's not the right time for a DJ to come on and say, "Alright, here's a hot new track from Ellen Shipley."
Shipley: Yeah, the timing of it was just horrendous for my career, but that's not what was horrendous - horrendous was his death.
But "This Little Girl" got picked as the top leading single to break open, and it was going to break open my career, but that's what happened. And if you lose the momentum at the beginning of pushing the song with the promo people and radio, it just dies.
Songfacts: Yeah, that's your window and when that closes up that's very hard.
Shipley: Yeah, that's when I decided, after touring all over and after doing all that work, that I was going to leave the business. Certain things are meant to be. I made three albums. I just didn't want to try a fourth one. And it was all serendipitous because I met Rick and he said, "Let's write for Belinda." My whole career took a different turn and suddenly I became a songwriter as opposed to an artist singer/songwriter.
But that path worked like a charm and I was absolutely grateful for what "Heaven Is A Place On Earth" did. I often say my house is the house that "Heaven Is A Place On Earth" built. This is my retirement fund. It's a very uplifting song and I like it a lot. It just opened my career.
I'll tell you something about "Heaven Is A Place On Earth." Everyone was standing up at all these concerts yelling the song lyrics and I was thrilled. I got awards and stuff, but the thing that got me the most was how many different age ranges people were who loved the song. I was walking in Central Park and there was a little boy around five or six years old walking with a little girl. I was behind them, he was holding her hand and walking, and he started singing this song: "Ooh, baby, do you know what that's worth..."
It's very interesting that you picked up that thing with children because I was mesmerized that this little kid was singing the song to her and she was looking at him like, "I'm in love with this person."
Songfacts: Well, you do have the line in the song, "The world's alive with the sound of kids on the street outside," which I'm not sure a lot of people would put in their heaven.
Shipley: Well, some things just happen. My lyrics are always like something comes to me, whether it's poetic or whatever, and then I figure out what it is and I try to craft it. But, the thing with the kids, you may have discovered something that I wasn't totally aware I was doing.
Songfacts: Did you have your daughter at that point?
Shipley: Yes, she was born in '85 and we did this in '87.
Songfacts: So, that could have easily synched into that.
Shipley: You know, I think you're right. I think we were trying to express the innocence because love is pure in its form and if heaven is a place on earth then you are putting love first. It starts with the kids, all the way through.
Songfacts: Why did you say that the industry was gross?
Shipley: Oh, that's a whole conversation. I'm an advocate for trying to get songwriters their royalty payments and stuff. It's a big mess.
Songfacts: Yeah, I understand that being a songwriter makes it less gross, but when you were a solo artist and you were making these albums, was there something that turned you off in the business?
Shipley: Oh my god, yeah. It was payola to get your song on radio, it was the DJs asking for coke, blowjobs. Everything was corrupt. To get your song on radio you had to pay people, which was illegal, but everybody did it anyway, otherwise you wouldn't get on.
"There weren't a lot of women being played after other women on radio or any other programming, really. You might have a couple of women and like 12 male artists on a radio station, but they just wouldn't program you back to back and they wouldn't have a woman opening for a woman."
Shipley: Well, it was two different companies. I was managed by Tommy Mottola, so my first album was on his label but it was distributed by RCA. My second album was on RCA, then my third album was on Capitol. Then I started getting offers from Columbia to do a fourth album. It was unusual.
I was very proud of the fact that I had these amazing reviews. Critics loved what I did and people loved what I did. But they would never do that now.
Songfacts: No, that's why I was surprised. Usually you get one album and if it doesn't have big sales numbers they move on to the next thing.
Shipley: Well, when I was doing it in the late '70s/early '80s, they always had an artist development department, so every label would give someone they liked at least two shots. Now they wouldn't do it if you don't have a hit single.
Songfacts: You were talking about how a lot of your songs deal with love, and the pure love with the children. A lot of the love that you talk about is more of a lustful type love, which shows up in "I Come Undone" with "the flash of your burning eyes." Can you talk about how that plays into your songwriting and your personality?
Shipley: I never thought of it as being lusty at all. In fact, Rick used to say I was so straight.
Shipley: Yeah. "I Come Undone," it's more like someone looking into someone's eyes and that feeling that you get and then you "come undone." It wasn't meant to be sexual. It was meant like you fall apart and fall into somebody.
Songfacts: A song that's got a little of that flavor in it is another one for Belinda Carlisle, "La Luna," where you're under this spell. Can you talk about that song?
Shipley: I love that song. I was in the studio with Rick and we were recording something. They were doing drum tracks or whatever and I got bored and walked into a room that had a piano. I sat down at the piano and I just heard this music. I heard this whole sort of Spanish-flavored thing, and so I quickly got someone to record what I was doing and I called it "La Luna."
It was about a particular love that I had had, and then Rick, of course, always has to add his stuff. So, sometimes the lyrics are meant to be someplace but people interpret them as they want to. But, "La Luna," we just wrote a story based on our lives of different people that came and went and people that we wished we could see again or didn't. But we wrote a story about being in Paris and in the room, so that does have a sexual connotation - it's a passionate song.
Songfacts: Yes, and then at the end of the song she leaves him.
Songfacts: Why does she do that?
Shipley: Because in lyrics you can't explain everything, you just have to give an overall view of where you're going. She leaves him because they just met and had this incredible affair and they each had to go on with their lives and neither one had the courage to stay. That's what I was thinking when I wrote that. So it's a memory of a great love that didn't come to pass because they separated.
Songfacts: There is another song that you wrote where something like that happens, which is "Leave A Light On."
Shipley: Yes. That was very specifically a feeling that I had about people going on their own way. Even though they love someone, it's just time for them to find themselves. It's pretty easy.
In that story, she had to go find herself in order to come back and be with this person. Oftentimes people leave because they're not done growing up, and in this case she feels like she will be back so she says, "Leave the light on for me, the porch light, because I'm going to come back." But there's always the doubt that he'll be there.
Songfacts: Yeah, he might not wait around.
Shipley: Exactly, but it was more important for her to find herself first, which is my feeling in life. And if you're in a relationship and something feels wrong, if you break it down to not the guy or not the woman but in yourself, it usually has to do with finding yourself and coming into a relationship as a full authentic person. So, I tried to do that with the lyric.
Songfacts: Did you picture it being sung so jubilantly?
Shipley: Well, I guess it's the way Rick produced it but I could hear it as a ballad.
Songfacts: Yeah, when I hear that song, sometimes I feel a little disconnected because it does have these feelings you were just explaining, but the way she sings it, she's so joyful.
Shipley: Yeah, that's interesting. I think that we missed that, even though the song was a hit. See, one of the reasons why the song was a hit even though there are things wrong, is because she was delivering a certain sound and a certain whole concept of who she was: Belinda. And so, all the songs she tailored to herself and it just happened to work that way. But, I'm always thinking of re-doing songs and trying to get different demos, and I would like to do that as a ballad.
Songfacts: Would you have to adjust your songwriting based on what was going on in Belinda Carlisle's life?
Shipley: No. I never wrote anything specifically for her life. We just wrote the songs that we thought were good for her, and it worked.
It's one of those things where the artist comes together with the songwriter and it's a specific time in the music industry, a specific time in history, the way society is. In the late '80s, it was big, big, big, big, and even though it ruined our entire economy, everything was going completely great at that point. So, big music. She represented a whole sound of big, joyful music.
Songfacts: Yeah, with incredible cross-appeal.
Shipley: Yeah, I love that. I'm very proud of that.
Songfacts: Where did you get the image for the circle in the sand?
Shipley: From sitting in the beach and writing. I was sitting there one day and I was just making circles and I went home and I thought of this whole lyric, "Circle In The Sand." I heard like a Peter, Paul and Mary kind of innocent thing about it when it went: [sings] "Sun down, all around." I hear this innocence about it, but this is a theme that I have in my writing where people separate and you don't know if they're going to come back together or not.
So, "Circle In The Sand" is they met at a certain time in life and then they completed each other. It was great, and you don't know why they're not together but at some point they fell apart. I think life just takes a turn and suddenly you're not with somebody because you need to do something else but you still wish and hope that you might get back with that person. Or else you're left with a memory, and memories are very strong. In my writing, I have a lot of stuff about memories that you walk around with, stories that affected you, and then your life goes on. But you don't kill the memory. So, you may not be with the person but you always remember what it felt like.
Songfacts: You have to absorb the memory, not purge it.
Songfacts: This theme shows up a bit in the Anita Baker song that you wrote, "Body And Soul" where you need something else to make it whole. Can you talk about that song?
Shipley: Oh, I love that song. That's probably my favorite song of anything that we've done. I was sitting at my piano in Brooklyn and I just started playing this three-quarter kind of song. I had this idea called "Body And Soul," so I was writing to that. Then I flew back to LA to work on it with Rick.
"Body And Soul" has a classic old-time feel that also works now. This is where people are afraid of commitment if they don't know for sure what the other person feels. It's a really simple song where she wants to know because she's in it, she's deep in it, and she wants to know what he feels, because we don't always know. It was a pick in Billboard.
We were thinking of writing it for Hall & Oates and then all of a sudden I realized that this was much more for Anita Baker, so when we did a demo we did it with a woman whose voice sounded a lot like hers and then we pitched it to Anita, who took it right away.
I think it's a great song for me as a writer because melodically, lyrically, it's passionate. It's clear: It's got one thought and it's a lot of what people feel. It's commitment: Am I going to commit to this person? I've got to know how they feel first.
Songfacts: Did you go through a lot of these types of relationships in your personal life?
Songfacts: How did it end up working out?
Shipley: Well, I've had an amazing life. I was married to my husband for 35 years but we just divorced recently even though we're great friends. And I remarried a man that I met 38 years ago in Germany who was my A&R person and he found me through LinkedIn. We had fallen in love and we had separated and married different people - he lived in Germany, I lived here. This is an amazing story in that he found me and when he came to LA we just were in love the way it was, as if no time had passed.
Songfacts: Wow. In a way that validates many of the songs you've written.
Shipley: Yeah, that's true. I had faith and hope.
Songfacts: When you were talking before about how, for instance in "La Luna," you have this story fleshed out in your mind even though you can only express so much in a lyric, I was thinking of the song "We Want The Same Thing" where it's very open for interpretation. OK, there is this couple, they want the same thing. Did you have a back story in mind when you wrote that?
Shipley: No, it's just things that I saw in life, which is that people fight, and they fight in a relationship when there's no reason to because ultimately they're really looking for the same thing, which is what we do in relationships.
So, I guess everything related back to me in a way because some of the lyrics were more Rick-driven and a lot of the lyrics were more sort of my sentiment. And I think the whole idea of love lost and hoping that you might see the person, even as a memory, will stay and help you move on.
For me, most of the songs have real-life factual things that happen with people in relationships, and it's all kinds of relationships, like people you just meet and have some passionate affair with, or someone who's a friendship thing that's really love and sometimes you go back to that person. And sometimes – most of the time – when you feel that kind of love it's like a first love. It comes maybe once or twice, and you let go of it. And most of the time when we let go of things that we really shouldn't let go of, it's because we really want the same thing but we're not seeing it.
Songfacts: That gets me thinking of the song you wrote for 'N Sync, which I'm not sure if you wrote it kind of tongue-in-cheek or if it was very sincere and they just decided to make it goofy in the video.
But, I had three or four choices at the time with my publishing company of people who wanted to cover that and I picked 'N Sync, who were unknown. I just heard their voices and I said, "Let's give it to them." So, I like the song, it's not like one of my favorites or anything – I would pick "Body And Soul" over it.
Songfacts: But it turned out to be a pretty good call giving it to 'N Sync - that's a lot of albums. You also wrote a song with Hanson ["Yearbook"], who typically wrote their own stuff. What happened there?
Shipley: I was called in to work with them. The record company called and they played me "MmmBop" and I said, "You want me to write with them? I don't relate to this." And they said, "Just meet with them. They really want to work with you."
They came to my studio in Studio City. They were really cute, except for Zac who kept making paper airplanes and throwing them all over the place. And they brought their parents, who were interfering with the writing.
But I wanted it to come from them so I asked Taylor, since he seemed the one with the talent and the ideas, "What story in your life bothers you?" And he told me this story of this kid that disappeared, and the whole thing is real. They don't know whether he committed suicide, they don't know what happened, but he disappeared. And so it was a dark song, but I love it.
Songfacts: It's certainly not what you'd expect from Hanson.
Songfacts: And it sounds like they needed you there because without you drawing it out of them it's unlikely they would have had the confidence to write a song like that.
Shipley: Oh, they never would have written that song, no. But it was inside him and sometimes that happens if people put me with an artist to write. I believe a songwriter's job, if you're working with another artist, is to be a speaker for their thoughts, for their ideas. It's about them. When I was a songwriter writing with other people, like the artist, I always felt it had to come from them because it's not about me giving them great titles and stuff, it's about their life.
So, the Hansons were a big surprise. It was a difficult thing to do between Zac and their parents. Oh, my god! I finally threw them all out. I told them to go to a restaurant so I could work with Taylor.
Songfacts: You got rid of Zac and Isaac and just left the middle one.
Shipley: Yeah. I said, "Take your kids out to eat or something, I can't do this."
The Go-Go's went-went to #1 with their debut album, Beauty and the Beat, making them the first all-girl band to top the chart. But like many of their male counterparts, infighting and drug problems broke them up just a few years later; they split in 1985 after just three albums.
Guitarist Charlotte Caffey, a primary songwriter in The Go-Go's along with Jane Wiedlin and Kathy Valentine, stuck with Belinda Carlisle, writing songs and playing on her self-titled solo album, released in 1986. Shipley came on board for Carlisle's second album, Heaven On Earth, which also featured Caffey.
In 1989, Caffey formed The Graces with Gia Ciambotti and Meredith Brooks. Signed to A&M Records and overseen by executive producer Jimmy Iovine, the group's talents were a bit clustered, with two guitarists (Brooks and Caffey) and three lead singers. Iovine brought in a squad of top session men to fill in the gaps, including drummer Kenny Aronoff and guitarists Mike Campbell and Waddy Wachtel. Shipley was one of the producers on the album, responsible for eight of the tracks, including their only chart entry, "Lay Down Your Arms," which stalled at #56. The Go-Go's started playing together again in 1990 and have been on and off ever since, with more "farewell" tours than The Who (one was binned when Wiedlin tumbled down a cliff while hiking). Brooks broke though as a solo artist with the hit "Bitch" in 1997.
Shipley: Oh, The Graces. Well, Charlotte wanted to do an album and put together a little group, so she put together this group and called it The Graces. They were signed by Jimmy Iovine, who is an old friend, and they came to me to ask me to produce the album. I said, "Are you nuts? I don't want to take that responsibility. I've only produced demos, I've never produced an album." And Charlotte was really positive that if I did it with Ralph [Schuckett], my ex-husband, that I would bring out what she wanted to do.
It was a really good experience and I think it's an interesting album. It probably didn't have a strong enough single or strong enough something. I don't know, maybe people weren't behind it. You never know why things don't work, but I liked working with that group as a producer and as a writer. People loved it but it just didn't go anywhere, as most records don't.
Shipley: You know, that's the story of the music industry. Most things don't happen and a lot of things that do happen are not really the best.
Songfacts: And that makes a lot of artists and songwriters frustrated if they have had it happen, where everything comes together, and then they spend a lot of time trying to make it come back. But the times change, there's nothing you can do about it.
Shipley: Yeah. You know, why a song works is a combination of where the world is, and how the artist and the song gel. And the timing has nothing to do with anything anyone controls. If they push it and they promote it right that can make a difference, but it's not anything you really can control. Everything happened with "Heaven" for a reason, and it just happened. I never set out to write a song for Belinda Carlisle.
Shipley: Yes. It was an amazing experience.
Songfacts: Now, I spoke with Kenny Vance a while ago who was the music director at the time. He explained how James Brown wouldn't stop performing during his second number, so they had to cut to commercial. I believe you were later in the show but you made it on, didn't you?
Shipley: Yeah. They called me, they wanted me to go on. And it was one of the only times in the history of SNL that they had two musical artists.
Songfacts: Yeah. The very first episode had Janis Ian and Billy Preston but then they just went to one. How did that happen where you and James Brown became the musical guests?
Shipley: I have no idea. I just know that my manager came to me and said, "They want you on Saturday Night Live but they want to pick the song. Do you want to do it?" And I said, "What, are you high? Of course I want to do it."
And I don't know why there were two of us. No one ever told me. However, I was sitting in the waiting room when James Brown walked in and he said to me, "Hey, you sing good for a white girl." I said, "Thank you very much, you sing good for a black guy."
It was a great experience. I loved the performance - I think I did really well. I was a really great performer - I still am. Of all my gifts, being a performer is what I'm most thankful for because I toured all over and I just love audiences and I love singing and I love that moment. I've been a theater director, I've been off-Broadway, I've made albums, I've directed plays - I've done so much stuff. But, the path that took off was the songwriting and I just went with it.
Songfacts: Did you get to go to the Saturday Night Live afterparty?
Shipley: Oh my god, I don't remember. I think so, because I remember talking to Jamie Lee Curtis.
Songfacts: You probably would have remembered it if you did.
Shipley: Oh, I'm old, I don't remember anything. I'm glad I remember that I have to brush my teeth.
June 12, 2019
Ellen's website is ellenshipleymusic.com
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