Songwriter Interviews

Richard Marx

by Carl Wiser

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In the late '80s and early '90s, Richard Marx saturated the airwaves with 14 Top-40 hits from his first four albums. He even wrote hits for other artists: "Edge Of A Broken Heart" by Vixen and "Surrender To Me" by Ann Wilson and Robin Zander. Then, like Phil Collins, he suffered the inevitable backlash.

The thing about Richard Marx is that he gets it. He admits that we should have been sick of him around 1993. He knows the industry is ridiculous (his first single was "Don't Mean Nothing," an attack on superficiality in the world of entertainment). He knows that American Idol and those other reality music shows are idiotic, but he still did Celebrity Duets, performing "Should've Known Better" with Lucy Lawless because Smokey Robinson and Chaka Khan were also doing it, and because he knows that you have to whore yourself out from time to time.

He knows that a Richard Marx single released today would sink like a stone, but the hits are still in him, just in the form of other vessels. His second act began when he wrote and produced the 'N Sync song "This I Promise You," then he got the Song of the Year Grammy with Luther Vandross for "Dance With My Father." Keith Urban ("Long Hot Summer") and Josh Groban ("To Where You Are") brought him in to write, and other clients include Kenny Loggins, Daughtry and Hugh Jackman.

As for the early hits, those songs weren't just scraping the charts - his first six singles made the Top 3, and three of those were #1: "Hold On To The Nights," "Satisfied" and "Right Here Waiting." These are songs that bring back memories of love and longing and possibilities. Because they are Richard Marx songs, they are crafted to last, and as we learned on his acoustic album Stories To Tell, you can unplug them and they still sound great.

Married to the actress Cynthia Rhodes (Penny from Dirty Dancing, Rosanna in the Toto video) since 1989, Marx has three sons and the challenge of writing interesting songs despite a happy home life. Good thing some of his early girlfriends didn't work out.

Carl Wiser (Songfacts): I was reading about how you come up with the music for your songs first, a lot like Billy Joel. And the lyrical influences can be all over the place. That got me wondering, was there a girl that did you wrong somewhere along the way?

Richard Marx: Are you kidding me? Have you got enough room for a list? (laughs) Yeah, of course. I don't even know if it's so much did me wrong, not in the classical sense of that expression. Just didn't love me back. I've been with the same girl since I was 21, so all the painful love songs come from girls in high school and girls that I met before I knew Cynthia. I just don't find that there's much poetry in a successful relationship. The poetry comes from unrequited love and heartbreak and longing and the girl that I was crazy about that didn't know I was alive. So I draw, still to this day, from those experiences when I was young. Because there's nothing like young, unrequited love. I just find that even as a listener I don't want to hear happy love songs. Yecchh. Let alone write them.

Songfacts: So a song like "Should've Known Better," was that a specific person that you had in mind?

Richard: Yeah, sure was. And she didn't so much do me wrong as she was young, we were both young, and she pitted me and another guy against each other without either of us knowing. It was all about her. She handled that whole situation wrong and people got hurt out of it, and I got a song out of it. But yeah, it was very, very specifically about a particular girl.

Songfacts: What about "Hold On To The Nights"? That's a very interesting song. How did that one come about?

Richard: You know, sometimes, the musical equivalent of it is the reason I don't use an instrument when I write, for the most part. If I'm co-writing I use an instrument, because it's two guys sitting in a room writing a song, so it's good to have an instrument. But when I'm writing by myself, I try not to use an instrument, because it limits what I'm able to play.

And lyrically, if I only stick to my own personal experience, I'm limited. So sometimes I put myself in a scenario that's happened to someone close to me. I've even made a first-person story out of a scenario I've read in a book or seen in a film. And "Hold On To The Nights" – a friend of mine went through exactly that. There were parts of it that I could really relate to, but this guy just thought that he was in the right situation, but he met somebody else, and he was, "Ohhh..." and the girl was involved with somebody already at the time, and they just never got together. They never made a go of it. I've lost touch with this guy over the years, but I remember him thinking, what if I had missed the right one. And all he had left was a brief time where they were hovering around each other and then they both ended up going back to who they were with. I don't know if they ultimately stayed together. Maybe they even got together years later. I don't know, because I lost touch with him. But that came through that, came through this guy that I knew and was going through exactly that.

But if I write about them, it really isn't personal, unless I'm deliberately writing a story song, which I've only done once or twice.

Songfacts: One of your story songs is "Hazard." How did Hazard, Nebraska, become the title for this song?

Richard: Well, that's the funniest part of the whole song. Because the song was all written except for those two syllables. So I had the opening two lines of "My mother came to duh-duh," and the rest of the song was finished except for the Nebraska line. And then the Nebraska line actually came because the syllables of it and the sound of it sang so well: "and leave this old Nebraska town."

They sang so well to me that I was like, Okay, I'm sold on Nebraska. This is way before the Internet, so what I did was I called the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and got some very nice woman on the phone and I said, "here's my fax number." I was in Los Angeles, and I said, "Can you fax me a list of every town and city and municipality in the state of Nebraska." So all of a sudden just page after page after page is coming through my fax machine. And I took the pages, I think there were 16, 17 pages worth of tons of names on each page. And I threw them up in the air and picked a random sheet and literally put my finger on the page, and it was Hazard.

Songfacts: Wow. You've mentioned that books and films have inspired many of your lyrics. What are some examples of those?

Richard: Let's see. I have to think about it. I'm sure there are examples if I sat and thought about it, but it's not even necessarily taking a particular scenario and scoring that exact chapter in the book. I read a book years ago that I really loved, called The Day After Tomorrow, which is really an intrigue thriller novel by Allan Folsom. There's a sexual aspect of the book, and some of the descriptions are pretty hot. I remember when I was reading that book that there were certain lines or visuals that came to mind, even if it was just one line in a song that came from thinking of that scene. I can't really think of a movie off the top of my head, but I know it's happened many times where I'll see a film or a scene in a film and it will end up informing a verse of a song later on.

There's a song I wrote years ago that, as I started to write it, I didn't even realize it, but as I started to look at the lyric, I was like, Oh, this is The Graduate. So it comes from all different kinds of places. But there's nothing that is spot-on, because without taking some artistic license, it's not fun for me. It just informs whatever I'm writing at the time. And if I sat and thought about it for a while, I'm sure I could give you more specific examples.

Songfacts: Where did "Angelia" come from?

Richard: The story of "Angelia" came from a composite of different girls that had come and gone back in the past. And the name came from a flight attendant. The extent of my relationship with the actual Angelia is that she served me a ginger ale on the plane. But there was this beautiful girl - the flight attendant. The band and I were on a flight down in Dallas or somewhere in the south going to a gig, and this girl was smiling as she was coming up the aisle with the beverage cart, and I thought, Oh, she's got to be new, because she was smiling and happy. (laughs) Really pretty girl. And when she got to my aisle, I noticed her name tag was Angelia. Actually, I thought it was ANG-e-lia, and I commented how much I thought her name was beautiful. And she said, "I actually pronounce it Ange-LI-a."

And again, it was almost like "Hazard," in that I had the whole song written except those four syllables. I knew I wanted a girls' name, because I'd never written a song with a girls' name, and every rock singer has to have one, at least. I think it's the law somewhere. And I didn't want, you know, Ethel Feinberg to be the four syllables. Nothing against any Ethel Feinbergs out there, but I wanted it to be a beautiful name. So it came just in time, because I was really trying to get that song finished, and we took that flight, and there was this gorgeous name.

Songfacts: I think it's really interesting that your first single is a song about being disillusioned with the industry. How did that happen?

Richard: Yeah, I got a lot of people saying, "Dude, you're 22. How can you be so cynical?" I think cynicism and gratitude can co-exist. And I was very grateful. I moved to L.A. when I was 18, and I definitely spent a lot of time sitting around doing nothing, trying to get something going and nothing was happening. I got rejected by every label multiple times, and I got a lot of doors slammed in my face and more than my share of rejection and all that stuff.

But when things did turn around for me, I was still really young. But it didn't mean that I hadn't already been exposed to the jive and the empty promises, and the thing that really makes up the music business in Hollywood and the film business, as well. But my chosen field was music. Guys at record companies telling me, "You're signed, don't worry about it," and then they won't call you back, and all kinds of stuff that you count on. Right down to people that sent me notes stamped "Hobby" on my demo tape.

So by the time I wrote "Don't Mean Nothing," I was pissed off. I definitely had a little chip on my shoulder at that point. While at the same time being aware that at least I was making a living in some way, shape, or form. I was doing music. I didn't have to work at McDonald's or the car wash. But I didn't want it to be all about my situation, so that's why each verse is slightly different. There's a verse about an actor and a record producer – I've had that experience where a record producer wants to change a syllable of a word and then wants to take a piece of the song.

But I think that what ended up happening, and the two things that made that song a hit, were one, somehow I managed to make the chorus, yes, about me, but pretty universal so that anybody in any field could understand. Anybody that's ever had frustration in the work place could relate to it. And Joe Walsh playing guitar. Those were the two things that propelled that song into becoming a hit when I was just this completely unknown guy putting out a record in 1987 in the midst of nothing but dance music and hair metal. For "Don't Mean Nothing," this simple Southern California rock and roll song to become a big hit, it had to have some fairy dust on it, and I think the Joe Walsh aspect was a huge part of that, too.

Songfacts: Did you write the guitar part?

Richard: I wrote the riff. And then Joe Walsh certainly played whatever he wanted. I mean, the fact that he came into the studio – and he only came in the studio because he heard a demo of the song and really loved the song. So I didn't know him. It was all for the right reasons. It was all just music. He heard the song, went, "Yeah, I really like the song, and I don't care that it's his first record." He was so gracious, and he spent the whole afternoon in there with me. We cut a couple of different solos, but I think that was the first one he played, and it was like, duh, there's nothing wrong with this at all. And then he played some other little fills and parts in the song. It was a full-on afternoon session where we really collaborated together. Usually I sing the guitar solos almost note for note to the guitar player, whoever I'm having play on a particular record. But in that case, you don't tell Joe Walsh what note to play.

Songfacts: But you mention this pixie dust and making a song a hit. What is it about you as a songwriter that is your particular strength for doing this?

Richard: I have no idea. Because I think every song is lightning in a bottle. And a song becoming a hit – one of my pet peeves is if I hear or read a songwriter saying, "We knew this was a hit." It's the most arrogant bullshit. Because you don't know. Nobody knows. There are so many great songs that make every song I've ever attempted to write a joke that no one knows, that never saw the light of day, never got anybody to pay attention. And then there are a bazillion songs that, my personal taste is that they're not even good enough to wipe my shoes on, and they're number 1 for four weeks in a row. And then there are a ton of songs that are really good songs that become big hit songs.

So there's a little bit of everything, but the fact that all those things co-exist prove to me that it's all pixie dust and lightning in a bottle. And if your motivation going in is to write a hit song, then you're already missing the point. When I was young, just trying to get something going, I knew that if I was able to come up with some songs that became hits, it would get my career going. I was aware of that. But it never changed the fact that when I would sit down and write a song, I was just trying to write something that I like, that would please me as a listener. And I've always loved Top 40 music, and I've always loved the radio. But there are a ton of people that love the radio and love Top 40 music and just haven't written a bunch of hit songs.

I'm certainly not so humble about this that I don't recognize that I must have some element in my craft that has enabled me to repeat it multiple times. But I can't tell you what that is, because it all comes down to I'm just writing songs that I like. It doesn't matter if it's something that's really personal, that's something I need to purge, or if I'm sitting in a room with Keith Urban and we're just having fun writing a song together. I guess there's a commerciality that's inherent, although I think I could show you plenty of songs that are certainly far from commercial. And there's a reason why certain songs got picked as singles and other songs got overlooked. And I don't even think that the singles - the hits - necessarily represent my best songwriting. I think my best songwriting is probably represented by the album tracks.

Songfacts: What is the hardest part for you in terms of creating a song?

Richard: Writing a lyric that is not clichéd. When I look back at the early days, it was not a priority for me. I'll just say it, and it didn't matter. I mean, there were always lines, even in some of the early songs, that were unique and were unlike anything I'd ever heard before. But they were also littered with clichés. And then there came a point, largely thanks to my relationship with Fee Waybill from the Tubes, whom to me still is one of the best lyricists I've ever known. And Fee is just deathly allergic to clichés, to the point where his lyrics are anything but commercial, because they're so full of wit and dripping in sarcasm.

A lot of times that's not a very palatable or commercial thing, but what I learned from writing with him and watching him do his thing was I figured out a way, I think, to constantly watchdog it. So I will say that in many years, if it's a song that I've written by myself, the only thing that might be cliché is the title. And that's always been an interesting thing for me; a title like "Now and Forever" is a great example. "Now and Forever" was a big hit that I wrote in the mid-'90s, and there are probably 600-700 songs in the world called "Now and Forever." But there's not one line of lyric in that song that's like anything else. Because it's really personal. Even though it became very universal, every line in that song is about me and Cynthia. It's about me and my wife. It's as if I sat down and wrote her a letter and just happened to put it to music. So there's nothing in that song that I've heard in any other song, except that the title is generic.

So there's something kind of challenging about that to me, too. I don't mind a generic title, as long as the lyrics within it are unique. And there are certain lines that you just stay away from; if I hear any other song that says something about taking my breath away, it's like I just want to kill you. It's just so easy to write something that's not been written 50,000 times.

Songfacts: What about "Satisfied"? I'm trying to figure out what you did on that song that gave it that pixie dust you talk about. To me, the guitar riff is the part that really drives it. But you made it, as you said, a song called "Satisfied" that somehow is not cliché and is very listenable.

Richard: Right. Well, the riff came first. I'm such a frustrated guitar player, because I'm so not great. But I'm really good at coming up with guitar riffs and solos and parts. I have this array of amazing guitar players and one of the great joys of my career has been working with these amazing guitar players; Mike Landau, Steve Lukather, Michael Thompson, Bruce Geitch, even my buddy Matt Scannell from Vertical Horizon. What's been great is that the collaboration between me and these guitar players is such that instead of them getting annoyed as if I'm line reading them, we always do this thing where we go in and I go, "Okay, here's the section we're going to work on. Listen to it a couple of times and just play whatever you want." And they do. And then they do a couple of takes of exactly what I want them to play. I mean, down to the length of the notes and whether there should be a vibrato on that note. I get really anal about it because I want to hear it in my head and I want to hear it through the speakers that way.

And what's really cool is because I'm not very good, there are things that I wrote that are challenging that they wouldn't come up with just as players. So there's a really great give and take, and usually what ends up on those records is some form of combination of those things, of me being a megalomaniac and then hearing them play the end of a phrase totally different than I imagine, and me going, Oh, my God, that's so much better than what I had in mind. It's so great. I've been really blessed that way.

"Satisfied" was an example of that, too. When we were cutting the track, that's all Mike Landau playing guitar. It started with my riff and some of the fills and parts came with the writing of the song. I remember the first thing I wrote lyrically was "I won't give up until I'm satisfied," and it sang so great. And then it was like, "Okay, well what the fuck is that about?" Because that can go so many different ways. And I actually think in retrospect that the lyric is vague. Maybe that's good. I look back at it and I go, you know, I was 25, I should have worked harder, I should have been more specific, but basically what I was trying to say was I was aware of the working man, because I'd been on this long tour and I would find myself in a diner or stopping at a gas station, and I was really aware that I was doing something for a living successfully that was so filled with joy. It certainly had it's prices and compromises, but it's a great gig. And I was aware of the working man around me doing shit that I know they would so rather not be doing.

And so it was sort of my homage to them, sort of a sense of if you hang in there, then maybe you get to the point where you're satisfied with the work that you've done and you can also just enjoy your life - it's not all about punching a clock. When I look back on that lyric, it's a little vague, but it sure sang well. And I think that sometimes that's what propels a song up the charts is that people are just singing along and they don't even know what they're singing. Most of the people I know, they don't even know what the lyrics they're singing along to in the car. They don't care. It's just the melody that they care about.

Songfacts: Interesting that you recognize that. Do you have time for two more questions?

Richard: Sure.

Songfacts: Have you ever needed help finishing a song?

Richard: Yeah, definitely. Rare, but it's happened. Probably my favorite story about that was on my very first album. I had written this piece of music that I really loved. I still look back on it as being a really well-crafted piece of music. And it's the song that closes my first album, it's called "Heaven Only Knows." Nothing was coming lyrically. I mean, nothing. Zero. The album was finished except for the vocal on that song. And the record company and my manager, everybody was looking at me like, "Dude, just go get somebody else to write the lyrics. You've written nine great songs, don't worry about it." But I was – I don't know, there was something – I was very protective of it.

So I finally thought about it, I thought nothing's coming, absolutely not a syllable is coming to me. So I called a friend of mine who is not a music writer at all, but only a lyricist, named Dean Pitchford. And Dean's written a lot of big hit songs that people know, like all the songs from Footloose, he actually wrote the screenplay to Footloose, as well. A bunch of really catchy, fun songs. But he's also written a bunch of songs that were never hits that are just gorgeous lyrics full of poetry and he's one of my dearest friends.

And so I called him and I said, "I'm stuck." So I was going to have him write the lyric either completely or with me. We started to talk about the song without referencing any lyrics, and we started talking about what the music said and where my life was at the time and how exciting it was that I was about to put out my first album, but I was afraid of this and how is my life going to change, and what if it's a complete disaster, or what if it's a big hit. And we talked for about 45 minutes. And at the end of the conversation, Dean said, "Now go write the lyric." And I hung up the phone and I went into my music room and I wrote the lyrics.

So that's like maybe the ultimate gift anybody's ever given me. It's such a sweet story. If you knew Dean Pitchford you'd go, Well, of course that's what happened. Because that's the kind of guy he is. He helped me go into this head space where it was effortless. But yeah, I've had a couple of examples where I'm stuck and I just go in – it's never been anything but a good move on my part. If I take it to a songwriter and then we finish it together, then they're a co-writer on the song, but guess what, it's great. They took it exactly where it needed to go, or helped me find where it needed to go. So I've never had an example of reaching out for some help to finish and being disappointed.

Songfacts: The last thing I have for you Richard, you were talking before about how many of your favorite personal songs are the album tracks. Can you talk about a few of those songs?

Richard: Sure. Let's see. On the third album I made called Rush Street, there's a song called "Calling You" that would never have been a single. I had just experienced the first real loss of someone in my life, which was my grandmother. I didn't have a relationship with my grandma like people do where you go visit your grandparents or you see them twice a year at the holidays or whatever. I was raised by two working parents and so when I was little and I would come home from school, it was my grandmother that was in my house and took care of me and made me lunch and dinner a lot of times. And then my mom and dad would end up at home either right around dinner time or in the evening. So my grandmother was almost like a third parent. We were really close. And we were really good friends. As I got older, we became really good friends. We had a lot of common interests. I just adored my grandmother.

So she died about two years into my recording career, after I'd had some success. And so I wrote that song about her, about missing her. My life had been so blessed in those terms up to that point, because I was 26, 27, and both my parents were still around, I hadn't lost anybody. And I took that loss really hard. So that's a song that means a lot to me that I'm really proud of that resonates with me to this day that was never a single.

And then there's a song from just a few years ago on the last EMI record I made, which was called My Own Best Enemy, called "Everything Good." And again, would never have been a single, but I think it's one of the most clever songs I've ever written if you listen just to the music. You know, you and I were talking about this at the top of the conversation, about how the music inspires the lyrics. The music to "Everything Good," and even the title, which is kind of funny, is this really bouncy mid-tempo shuffle. If anything sounds like a happy song, it's this tune. And the lyric is borderline suicidal. So I really love that I went, "Oh, you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to completely flip this shit. I'm going to completely write the most dark, sad" – I mean, there's even a reference to suicide in the song, contemplating suicide. Because she took everything good. So it's not like (chirpy) "Everything's good!" It's like (angry) "You took everything good out of my life." And so what I love about that song is if people are in the car and CD's on shuffle and that song comes on, I guarantee you're going to bop your head back and forth, because it's so bouncy and fun, and the lyric is so dark. So that's one of my favorites.

Songfacts: So the people in the bar that aren't listening to the lyrics –

Richard: Exactly. It's like the same thing that people come up and say they used "Every Breath You Take" as their wedding song. (laughs) Like, really? Did you listen to the lyric?

We spoke with Richard Marx on January 18, 2012. Check out for tour dates and news on his latest activities.
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Comments: 9

  • Samir from Chicago, IlI think I've read this interview twice now, several years apart, and it still resonates with me. The songs hit me when I was younger, and I even discover new meaning in them as I'm older. Been a fan since I saw 'Don't Mean Nothin'' on MTV, and continue to be a fan of the work through other artists' releases as well as the original songs that grabbed me. There's something to be said about a song that hits you just as hard 20 years later as the first time you heard it--that's just truly great art.

    Now living in Chicago, if fate has it I might somehow catch a Richard Marx performance--just to hear the great songs and stories from the man himself.
  • Saleem Izdani Khan from LondonRichard Marx is a great AOR act with wonderful love songs and videos, he is along with Toto, foreigner, savage garden, reo speedwagon, asia, rick springfield, and Michael Bolton among my best collection of CD albums. wish AOR music returns to dominate the airwaves again.
  • Arooj Qureshi from PakistanAwesome interview, this comes to show where he truly comes from and what kind of an artist he is! One of his best interviews, Richard is just amazing, a true artist!
  • Glenn from Goa IndiaRichard Marx has that passion in his singing that stirs you up. The lyrics also of most songs are beautiful ballads. Love his music
  • Cygnus-x1I always liked that guitar in "Don't Mean Nothin'." Now I know why :)
  • Charmin From KentuckyI love all music. He is a great musician. I look forward to new music from him. Authentic and humble. Smart and vibrant. I like his wife too.
  • Ennie from PhilippinesI really like most Richard Marx especially Right here waiting... Hope he could come here in the Philippines..
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaVery refreshing and interesting interview. I never paid Richard Marx much attention before but I now have a very healthy appreciation for his work and character.
  • David from OrlandoGreat interview! I saw Richard Marx perform at the Plaza Theater in Orlando a couple of years ago, and he is indeed a very smart, talented songwriter as his remarks between songs suggested. I really admire artists who have the courage to express their true feelings and not give in to the commercial demand to merely serve the fans less than they're capable of giving. Of course, there is a risk involved regarding financial support, but music is always a team effort and that's where the contacts (i.e. musicians) play their part. Along with Richard Marx's writing style (music before lyrics), I was reminded of another similarity to Billy Joel (who I'm also a very big fan of); both consider themselves "album" artists rather than "singles" artists. In many respects, the true love of an artist takes into account all of his or her material, including the "overlooked" tracks that don't get much, if any, airplay on the radio and beyond. I've been a Richard Marx fan for a quarter century now, but my appreciation has greatly deepened the last couple years.
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