Holly Knight

by Carl Wiser

Few songwriters have peppered the pop charts like Holly Knight. She played keyboards in the '80s bands Spider ("New Romance") and Device ("Hanging on a Heart Attack") before breaking out as a songwriter with huge hits for Pat Benatar, Tina Turner and Aerosmith.

Holly was honored for her accomplishments with a 2013 induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. One of her insights on how to make a great song: Do something way out of the ordinary. A good example is her hit for Animotion.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): What's the story behind the song "Obsession?"

Holly Knight: I wrote many songs with Michael Des Barres, but that's the only one we ever went and tried to get a cover on. I came up with a sequence riff, and Michael came up with some lyrics, and it was the perfect marriage. It's very simple.

Songfacts: It's a very unusual song.

Holly: (laughs) Well, I write unusual songs, and so does he. I mean, all our songs are weird and unusual, and you should see the ones we're writing now. But they're done in a commercial way. You come up with something that's very infectious and anthemic, and the key is to try and put something out of the box on top of that, throw a wrench. That's sort of been my style all along. And it's funny, I've lived so many of the words I've written after I've written them. It's sort of like meditation, you're on another level where you're just waiting for something to go through you. Michael's actually quite different, because he listens to people in life and says, "What a great title, I'm going to write a song about that." I don't remember why he wrote about obsessions. I certainly wasn't obsessed with him. People always say, "How did this song come about?" And my truthful answer is, I don't know. And a lot of times if I start questioning it, I don't want to know. Because if I question it, then it'll be deliberate, and then it won't be coming from a pure place.

Songfacts: Holly, what's an example of one of these songs that ended up coming true in real life for you?

Holly: Oh, that's a personal question. Well, let's see, "Obsession" did.

Songfacts: Really?

Holly: Many times. You know, you get obsessed with something. I guess it comes with the territory, you have a very creative imagination, therefore your life can be wonderful, or a living hell. Because your mind is so creative it goes to places that aren't necessarily realistic. You feel things a lot. I can't imagine anyone in their life never having a moment where they're not obsessed with somebody or something. Also, "Simply The Best," I would say.

Songfacts: Really? Tell me about that.

Holly: "Simply The Best" is one of those rare gems that's a positive song, and it's not cheesy. But the hard part is to write something in a positive mode that really is sincere - that's a tall order. I wrote that with Mike Chapman. I was playing the music, and I don't even remember whose title it was. I remember the title "Love Is A Battlefield" was Mike.

Songfacts: How did that one come together?

Holly: I was at his house, I was just starting to write with him, and Pat Benatar called up and said, "Mike, I would love for you to write me a song. I'm doing an album, will you write me a hit, please?" And he goes, "Well, I'm here with one of my writers, Holly Knight, and we were just going to sit down and write. So we'll write something for you." So he hung up, and I started playing the chords to "Love Is A Battlefield." He said, "That's so great, I love that, keep doing that." He says, "Now, what we really need" – and this is something I learned from him - "This song is very catchy, very commercial, let's write something really, really weird on top of it. That'll make it special. And it'll be that much better." I said, "Oh, I like it." He says, "We're going to write something really sick, like…" and he just spit out "Love is a battlefield," as an example. I said, "Well, that works for me." And we wrote that song. It was just like free association.

Songfacts: Did you and Michael record "Obsession" before it was Animotion?

Holly: Yes, we did. And it was in a movie called A Night In Heaven.

Songfacts: Was it written for that movie?

Holly: I don't think so, but it fit perfectly in the movie, because it was about an older woman being obsessed with a young guy.

Songfacts: You also did the song "Invincible," which ended up in The Legend Of Billie Jean.

Holly: Yeah, I had a script for that.

Songfacts: And you just wrote around it.

Holly: Yeah.

Songfacts: How do you feel about that song?

Holly: I love that song. It's one of my favorite songs. I'd love to hear that song cut by an alternative band, like Foo Fighters or something. See, I think a good song's a good song. And that's my whole point about re-cutting these, is that in any form, a good song can work. It may not work necessarily as a Latino song, but it can certainly work in an acoustic form, a built up form, probably a country tune. "Simply The Best," easily it's a country tune. Actually, it was cut as a country tune by Wynonna Judd.

Songfacts: When you wrote that song, who did you write it for?

Holly: I wrote it for Paul Young. Remember Paul Young, who did "Every Time You Go Away?" At the time I was wanting to work with him, and we got together a few times. I wrote that song for him, and he passed on it. And so someone got it to Tina Turner, and she just fell in love with it. She'd already been cutting some of my tunes. She said, "You could have written this easily for me." And the funny part is I just recently was in touch with Paul Young, and I said, "I don't know if you remember this, but the song that defined my career and helped me buy my house is a song you passed on." And then I thought, Oh, that was really bitchy of me to say that. So I sent him another email, and I said, "Was that really bitchy of me? I'm really sorry." And he said, "No, no, it's okay." So thank God.

Songfacts: Well, that came to be Tina Turner's theme song.

Holly: Yes, it did. And it's become a lot of theme songs to people when they're getting married and stuff. Because it's a positive song.

Songfacts: Tell me about the song "Rag Doll."

Holly: "Rag Doll." Aerosmith. I hate to say that song was very, very much already written. I was brought in to sort of fix it, be the doctor. And I don't really like doing that. I don't like just walking in and changing something that someone felt was the right thing to write, and then I'm supposed to come in, because sometimes they can be resentful of that in the future. But it used to have another title, and I came in and changed a few words. The song was written, and I always was regretful of the fact that I didn't get to write more with them and show them what I could do. But I've had many, many people tell me that the contribution I made is what made it a hit. Sometimes just turning the screw is what makes all the difference.

Songfacts: One of the other songs that you did for Tina Turner was "Better Be Good To Me," which I've always thought was an interesting song. Can you talk about that?

Holly: I was seeing a guy at the time who kind of had this adorable little crush on me, this German guy. He came to my house and left me some flowers and a note, and it said something like, "If you're good to me." And I'm thinking, you know, if I can twist that around I can make it into a song. It's the first song I ever wrote with Mike Chapman, and this was the song that put us together as writers. We wrote it for the band I was in, which was Spider. On my MySpace, there's a video of my band Spider performing the song on a German show. And it's real interesting, because right under that is Tina's video of "Better Be Good To Me," and you can see how much she respects the original way the song sounded, because she's not a writer. Although in my opinion the only song she wrote was one of her best. She's very good at hearing something and appreciating how it was done, and leaving it that way. So you can really hear the original singer doing it, who's a white girl, that had a very soulful voice. And you know, our record didn't do anything. The production is similar, but ours is more like Lou Reed's "Take A Walk On The Wild Side," hers is a little bit more upbeat and stuff. But nonetheless, it's very similar.

That's one of those tunes where I walked in and Mike said, "Let's write a song for your record," and I'm like, "Great," because I really wanted to write with him. I mean, from the day I heard his name I set out to work with him. Because he was having #1's after #1's. That song is very similar to "Obsession" in as much as it's two chords. It shows you the ability to write a hit song with very little, sometimes the fewer chord changes you have the better, because then you can really write anything you want on top of it. And when you start writing a lot of chords, you have to follow the chords with the melody and you're limited. So it's a very simple tune where the chorus and the verse are the same, but the melody is different, and the instrumentation's different, and the chord inversions are different. So it doesn't necessarily occur to you that it's the same chords.

It's got three names on it, but the third writer wasn't even in the country when we wrote it. That's a whole 'nother side story, but that was a partnership that Mike Chapman had with another person named Nicky Chinn, so whatever he wrote their names went together.

Songfacts: I don't know if you're an American Idol person or not, but did you see Brooke do "Love Is A Battlefield"?

Holly: I did. I thought it was interesting, because Paula said, "Whoa, it's a different version than we're used to hearing." And they were like, "Yeah, but you did something cool with it, I kind of like the direction you took with it." I think Randy said that. That's kind of what made the lightbulb go off in my head to start doing this, because the way she did it is really how it was originally done. It's not that she changed it, she just tapped into the vibe that it was supposed to be. The song was never meant to be a fast upbeat shuffle. And I'm not knocking what Benatar did, because she did a classic version, which I ended up loving. When Mike and I first heard it we were horrified, we hated it, because it was so different. But then it became such a huge hit, and we had to step out and say, You know, they did a very good rendering of it, and that's how it was meant to be. But I'm going to put it out there, and I really believe it's going to be a hit all over again. The version I'm doing is more like the original, with some urban flavor to it, then I'm going to do an unplugged sort of alternative version with a guy singing it. So, there's lots of ways you can hear that song, and they're all good.

Songfacts: What's one of the songs we haven't talked about that's pretty special to you?

Holly: There are a lot of them that are really special, but no one's ever heard. Still waiting for them to get cut. But I would say "Pleasure and Pain," by the Divinyls. It was #1 everywhere else in the world, didn't see the light of day here.

Songfacts: Tell me about that one.

Holly: It's a great song, I'm a big fan of the Divinyls. This is before they did "I Touch Myself." I just like the lyrics. I like that it's a little bit darker and still very sort of poppy. And I was a huge fan of Christina Amphlett from the Divinyls. And I just liked the tune. It's sort of more in the line of "Invincible," but a little bit darker. I have a lot of songs that I feel that way about, like "The Warrior." I've had people come up to me over the years time and time again, the deepest darkest bands with every piercing and possible tattoo on them, and they're like, "Dude, that song was so good, I want to re-cut that song."

Songfacts: You have a fair amount of songs with these big choruses and these very heart wrenching type of overpowering lyrics, where does that come from?

Holly: I'm a very dramatic, passionate person. I'm a total drama queen. And I can be like the most excited, upbeat, happy person, and everybody thinks I'm probably on something like X or I can be the queen of doom. So that provides a background for a lot of emotion. There's a very different side to me, and I'm into all kinds of things out of the box. I just went on a vacation a few months ago with a friend, and we went to Prague, and outside of Prague we walked into this church that was decorated in 40,000 human bones. It was because there had been a Black Plague in the Middle Ages, and all these people died - their lives were ended very quickly. It wasn't creepy or anything. If you saw the photos you'd think, Oh my God, that's so goth. But this is the real thing. So I sort of crack up - everybody's out there with their skull and crossbones, and there is a real goth, if you go to those countries like Prague and Budapest. I'm very into history. And I like to be interested in things. I guess that's where the lyrics come from.

Songfacts: But you don't go and then write a song called "Church In Prague."

Holly: I may. I'm into photography. The picture may be my next album cover. But I'll find something, and I might turn it into something beautiful. It could be about how when you die, I believe your spirit leaves your body very quickly. And your body dies, but your spirit doesn't, and your spirit lives on. And it could be a song about that. It doesn't have to be something negative.

Songfacts: Or something literal.

Holly: Or something literal, exactly. I mean, I wrote a song on the Device record with Mike Chapman that was called "Sandstone, Cobwebs, and Dust." To this day I have no idea what it's about, but it sounded cool. Sometimes I like to write things that sound cool, and I don't know if they mean anything. Some of my favorite songs, I've asked the writers, "What's that about?" and they're like, "I don't know." It doesn't matter. I mean, how many times have you sung along to a song, you like the way it sounded, and you have no idea what it's about.

Songfacts: Yep. Plenty.

Holly: Yeah, so all of the above is what I say. There's no rules, there's no boundaries, and there's room for growth and change, and my thing is to always picture a box and to think outside of it, but still make it palatable enough that everybody needs to have it on their radio, or their iPod. People think that pop is a bad thing, but pop comes from the word "popular." And what makes something popular can be something very left field. It's just gotta be good, that's the hard thing. To write something commercial and really, really different and really good is hard to do. You can write something really commercial, or you can write something really artsy that nobody's gonna ever listen to. But to do both together and do it well, that's the challenge.

Songfacts: Do you think the structure of the song has a lot to do with that?

Holly: Absolutely. I think everything does. When people say, "It's all about the song," well, yeah, it is all about the song. But it's also about the person that comes in and sings it, and the production, and the arrangement. Because I've had great songs, and people have come in that couldn't sing, and they killed the song. I'm sitting there almost crying, just so depressed, and then someone walks in and just nails it, and everything clicks into place. It's part of the whole. I think the song is the foundation, but it's not only about that. I think arrangement can kill a tune, and you've gotta sit there and really be very surgical if you want it to be on the radio, and just trim the fat and get to the point.

Songfacts: How much of this stuff is just innate talent, and how much of it did you learn?

Holly: I would say that 90% of it is innate talent, and 10% of it is learned.

Songfacts: So it's gonna be pretty hard to teach somebody how to structure a song like you do, and create a hit.

Holly: You can teach them how to structure a song, but that's not what makes a great song. It's like the magic dust that's the ingredients, and then making the song, which is the arrangement and production. It's like putting it in the oven and just timing it right, which is also very important. But without the magic dust, what do you have? I think a lot of people are born with talent that they don't know they have.

Songfacts: Have you ever come across somebody who ended up discovering that later in life?

Holly: Sure. Absolutely. Jim Morrison didn't know 'til he was in college and was writing poetry. And to be honest, I didn't know I was a songwriter 'til Mike Chapman told me I was. I was playing keyboard since I was 4, but I only wrote because everybody else in my band Spider was doing it, and they kind of sucked.

May 8, 2008. Learn more at hollyknight.com.
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 3

  • Kirk from Orange County, CaAs I collected music and kept running into these massive hit songs being written by the same person, I was in awe. Writing one song of that quality would be amazing. She's written a dozen! I really love the 22b3 Device album and her solo album with Heart Don't Fail Me Now, Baby Me and Nature Of The Beast.
  • Paul from Washington Dc AreaShe makes many excellent points, one of which bears repeating:
    "You can write something really commercial, or you can write something really artsy that nobody's gonna ever listen to. But to do both together and do it well, that's the challenge."
    --This is why good songs and good songwriters are so rare!
  • Harecat from Everywherehow come we don't know Hollys birthdate? she seems like an Aries or Cancer & may be 50+ years old & Italian/Jewish? oh well
see more comments

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