Songwriter Interviews

Gordon Bahary

by Jess Grant

Share this post

In 1975, a 15-year-old phoned Motown Records, demanding that he speak to Stevie Wonder. Far from put off by the receptionist's initial rejection, the eager teen continued to ring and ring until, finally, Wonder gave in to the request. "What do you want?!" Wonder asked the pursuant caller. It was Gordon Bahary, and he was calling with a request. "I want to produce you," the 15-year-old replied, never one to mince his words. Impressed by his sheer audacity, Wonder stayed on the phone to Bahary for the next hour, listening to the young boy's music, hopes and dreams.

One week later, Bahary found himself boarding a plane to LA, having been personally invited by Wonder to the sessions for his landmark album, Songs in the Key of Life. It would prove to be a momentous experience for the teenager, validating that he wanted to pursue music for the rest of his life.

Over the next few years, Bahary learned to play the then-emerging synthesizer to expert level, lending his talents to the likes of Herbie Hancock, the film director Francis Ford Coppola, and, of course, his old friend Stevie Wonder. In 1983, Bahary tasted solo success under the Twilight 22 moniker, cracking the Hot 100 with the sampler favorite, "Electric Kingdom."

After a lengthy sabbatical, Bahary returned to music in 2012 with his first-ever full-length album, Unbreakable. We recently spoke with Bahary about the inspiration behind this rich and multifaceted record, as well as that precious time spent with Wonder.
Jess Grant (Songfacts): You have been active in music since you were a teenager. Why is it you are only just releasing a debut album now?

Gordon Bahary: This is the first time I explored my voice and songwriting fully, after producing for other artists. I was happy with it and felt I had something to say now.

Jess Grant (Songfacts): Unbreakable is a real fusion of genres - R&B, jazz, pop, world music, etc. Why did the album turn out so eclectic?

Gordon: I think I'm influenced by many artists I've worked with or like. To me, music is music. And I've seen similarities between songs in each of these genres. I think Stevie Wonder influenced me in that regard too, with his broad writing.

Songfacts: "Angel," Unbreakable's lead single, is stunning. Can you tell us the story behind this song? Is it about a certain someone?

Gordon: Thank you so much. Well, there were a few moments when I felt that emptiness in my life. It recurs sometimes, with more than one person. It's that feeling of lack of control of bringing that special person back into your life. What do you do? Write a song, I guess?

Songfacts: "This Ocean" is another Unbreakable highlight - I think it has a Brian Wilson inflection to it. Lyrically, it is very mysterious ("Here we are in space, a number, name and face. Scientists agree, that these are all illusory, nothing seems to last, even this moment's now in the past.") Can you tell us what inspired this song?

Gordon: Yes. The day I wrote it, I was tired of the disputes in life between peoples of various countries, religions, etc. I asked myself where it all leads? Is it all worth it to hang on to identity at that high a price? I realized that after all the nonsense, love is what people special to you leave behind, that you can recall. So I encouraged myself to remember what is lasting, and wrote music to it.

Songfacts: "Break Away" is a personal favorite on the new album – it is just so fun! I understand it is an homage to Brazil. Why is this country so special to you?

Gordon: The music of Brazil is one of my favorites. Antonio Carlos Jobim, Gilberto Gil and others. I'm immediately happy when I hear their music. It's brilliant, fun and wise all at once. So I was celebrating it. I can't wait to see Brazil. The song was my fantasy to be there.

Songfacts: The album concludes with the haunting "A Prayer." Does religion play an important role in your music?

Gordon: To me, kindness and respect goes farther than anything. If they are a result of one's religion, then great. I personally love god, and owe everything I have to him. That song was written during alone time. I just ran the tape and wrote and sang it live, and it was a first take for the most part. I was shy to share that moment, and debated it. Then a few people were moved by it, so I put it on the album. Now I'm glad I did. It also taught me about sincerity and needing to be vulnerable at times in songs.

Songfacts: Do you have a favorite track on Unbreakable that we are yet to touch on?

Gordon: I haven't played the album much since I finished it. I know I will come back and play it, though. "A Prayer" is the most natural raw one. "Blue Boy" can pick me up and reminds me to not quit at anything. I like the jazz elements in "My Last Day On Earth."

Songfacts: In the early '80s, you achieved success under the Twilight 22 moniker. "Electric Kingdom," in particular, was a huge hit. It was also revolutionary in terms of synth work. Can you tell us how this song came about?

Gordon: I was 23. And I took the most seemingly opposite elements: my father's middle eastern record collection, and a hip-hop/dance beat and combined them. Then I co-wrote a rap encouraging people to make a positive life for themselves I suppose. But I was also experimenting: it was my first recording.

Songfacts: When you were 15, you befriended Stevie Wonder. How has he affected your music?

Gordon: After meeting him, and him generously playing all the songs of Songs in the Key of Life in the studio for me and experimenting with him, I was hooked on making music for life. But also seeing his genius in action, effortlessly writing classics before my eyes, was enlightening. He encouraged me to follow my heart musically and spiritually. God was not something you could joke about with Stevie.

Songfacts: You have worked with some incredible people over the course of your career – Wonder, Ramsey Lewis, Herbie Hancock and even the director, Francis Ford Coppola. What is your most memorable collaboration, and why?

Gordon: They were all great, truly. Hard to pick one memory out of literally hundreds. But I remember holding Stevie's fingers, guiding them to each synthesizer button. I showed him how. He asked why I was teaching him everything versus wanting a job doing it for him. I said: "So you can do it yourself without me!" He got quiet and was touched, and a friendship was formed. Now I look back and see why that might have been valuable to him.

Get more from Gordon at
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 1

  • Carol from VirginiaGordon certainly does have something significant to say. He's totally in touch with the heart beat of his fans. We are listening, sharing and wanting to hear more from this brilliant artist!
see more comments