Songwriter Interviews

Robbie Nevil

by Amanda Flinner

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Twenty years after climbing the top of the pop charts with his 1986 debut single "C'est La Vie," Robbie Nevil was lying flat on his back at the rear of a recording studio, screaming at the top of his lungs. It's not as harrowing as it seems: he was trying to create the sound of a cheerleading section for a High School Musical demo, one of his many projects for Disney.

Robbie was used to getting creative behind the scenes: Before his turn as a solo artist, which included the release of three studio albums and a string of hits, he earned his industry cred as a session guitarist and staff writer at MCA Records, penning songs for El DeBarge, the Pointer Sisters, Sheena Easton, and Earth Wind & Fire, among others. He soon transitioned from artist to producer, opening his home studio in Santa Monica to a crop of young talent, including The Jonas Brothers and American Idol alums Jordin Sparks and David Archuleta.

Shortly after launching his musical project Freddy's Dilemma with the single "Only on a Saturday Night," Robbie spoke with Songfacts to revisit some of his most memorable tunes, including tracks for '90s heartthrob Jeremy Jordan ("The Right Kind of Love") and Jordin Sparks ("One Step at a Time"), and showstoppers from the mega-smash High School Musical series.
Amanda Flinner (Songfacts): Am I calling you in Santa Monica?

Robbie Nevil: Right now I'm in Colorado, which is awesome. I kind of go between Santa Monica and Colorado. I bought a place out here a few years back with the family, and I pretty much go back and forth these days. I kept my place in Santa Monica. Doing music, it's nice to be able to be in one of those kinds of jobs where you can do that.

Songfacts: Does environment affect your songwriting? Like when you're in Colorado versus California?

Nevil: I think so. I can write anywhere, even if it's sort of a dungeon - some studios are so dark. But it's just so nice out here, and I've always been a fan of having a window in a studio. Out here I've not only got a window, but I've got a beautiful view. It's just gorgeous out here.

I don't know that it totally changes the songs you're going to write, because once you go into that head space, you're thinking so hard. It just makes the whole thing more enjoyable to me. I think that's the same with anything in life: If you're in an atmosphere that's comfortable and you just love it, you're still going to do the hard work.

So much of music is internal in the sense that I could write anywhere. Given the choice, I'd rather have a window and at least be able to see the sun come up and go down.

Songfacts: You first picked up a guitar when you were pretty young, but were you always interested in singing?

Nevil: I never really thought that singing was going to be something that I did for a living, per se. I've always loved singing and doing that stuff, but guitar was my first instrument. I probably started singing before that and sang a couple of solos at the school graduation, that kind of thing, but I was always infatuated with guitar players.

Some of the early guitar players that I loved were artists like Glen Campbell, but then I also loved Terry Kath from Chicago. For some reason, I would always imagine myself playing like him. I think I had pretty good taste. Looking back, I still feel like they stand the test of time. They're awesome players.

Songfacts: When did you actually start writing songs?

Nevil: I guess it was in junior high, around eighth grade, but at that time I was mostly doing instrumental music. Even though I practiced and learned a lot of different types of songs, whenever I wrote stuff it was way more instrumental. I was infatuated with jazz fusion, and then also the progressive rock groups like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

The first probably four or five years that I did writing, even all through high school, my bands were always instrumental. I'd always practice singing, but for some reason just never put the two together. Later on it started coming together when I realized that I wanted to make a living doing this, too, and some doors opened up for me in that area. I would love to do an instrumental album at some point. My wife is always telling me I should, and I want to.

But I thought I was going to be a session guitarist and that was kind of my love. Then it somehow morphed into writing for other people, and then eventually I got my own deal.

Songfacts: Did you have to study song structure?

Nevil: I think you intuitively sense it, but when I got out of high school, I brought my instrumental music to a guy named Rick Shoemaker. At the time he was at ABC Music - he ended up being the president of MCA Music years later. I brought the songs in to him.

I was trying to get a record deal from the beginning. I thought I was going to get a deal doing instrumental music. He heard the stuff I was doing, and he goes, "This stuff is great, but I don't know exactly where it fits into the pop. Here, we write music for other people."

At that point I didn't understood that idea of writing for other artists. I thought, "I want to make it myself." He goes, "Yeah, but you can do that and at the same time be writing for other people. Why don't you come back here."

I used to go back there every week. He was the one who basically showed me the ropes and actual structure. That taught me to take a look at things that I probably intuitively sensed, but he broke it down. Then I got used to writing structurally with pop, and over the years you just morph into whatever feels right.

Robbie's first chart entry came as a songwriter when he co-wrote the Melissa Manchester song "Mathematics," which made #74 in 1985. The next year, the Prince protégé Vanity made #56 with Robbie's co-write "Under The Influence."

He had far more success with his first single, "C'est La Vie." Written with Mark Holding and Duncan Pain, the song made #2 in 1987. His next single, "Dominoes," made #14, and "Wot's It To Ya" followed at #10.
Songfacts: I know Beau Williams originally sang "C'est La Vie," but did you have Kool & the Gang in mind when you wrote that?

Nevil: Yeah. We did. I got together with my friends Duncan Pain and Mark Holding. I was signed to MCA Publishing at the time, and we heard that Kool & the Gang was looking. We initially sat down thinking what would be a cool song for them, and it came out of that place. Unfortunately we never got it to them - or fortunately, in the sense of how things turned out. But that's initially what we were thinking on the original demo, and instead of real piano, it was more Rhodes [electric piano] doing the eighth note part.

I had that song for a couple of years, even before I got my own record deal. Beau Williams did record it. I don't think it ever got released as a single, but I think it was supposed to. I remember going down to the studio when they cut it, and it was great. Those were the early days of starting to get cuts, and it was cool. It was a good time.

Songfacts: If you're not writing for a specific artist, do you still try to have a performer in mind?

Nevil: Sometimes you're inspired by something that you hear and maybe roughly you consider someone. For example, I wrote a song for Sheena Easton which was the first platinum record I got. It wasn't a single, but it was on the Private Heaven album. It was called "You Make Me Nervous." We wrote it with Olivia Newton-John in mind. But often you write for one artist, and maybe it inspires you to go a certain direction, but in the process it ends up becoming its own entity and good for a number of people.

I write in a lot of different styles, but R&B-pop has always been a mainstay. A lot of times if the song's good for one artist, it tends to have multiple pitches that you can do, and that's been really, really helpful.

But no, I don't always have an artist in mind.

Songfacts: At what point did you know you were going to include "C'est La Vie" on your own album?

Nevil: I remember when I got my record deal, it was in the group of songs that were taped to show me, but it wasn't necessarily one I was planning to cut. The record company and the president, Bruce Lundvall, who sadly just passed away, had said, "I definitely want you to cut this song."

An artist always looks at their own music differently and although the record company was all jumping hoops, going, "We've got to go with that for the first single," I actually fought against it.

I just didn't know how that song would be taken. You know, you get too close to it. I felt that wasn't the right first single. There were a few people at the label, particularly [executive producer] Steve Reed, who said, "If you don't go with this, you're an absolute fool." Not that he forced it, but he was just so passionate and compelling and felt so strong. And he was right.

I probably wouldn't have cut it for myself, because I had had the song for three years, and I didn't consider it one of my newer things. But we did flip it in the production and made it a hybrid, more of a rock-R&B-pop song, maybe pop-R&B-rock. It just had elements that a lot of different types of artists and different fans would dig.

It was cool to reach a wider audience. But initially, I didn't want it out on the album, and I definitely didn't it want for the first single. But I was wrong.

Songfacts: I found you on American Bandstand talking to Dick Clark.

Nevil: Oh, God. [Laughs]

Songfacts: You told him that your grandma had a hand in choosing that as a single.

Nevil: It's true. She was very, very insightful. She was always a huge fan and just really wanted to see me make good, as she used to say: "I know you're going to make good."

When I gave her the record, she listened to it. It's not necessarily a style that she would listen to all the time, but she picked that. She goes, "That's your single."

Now, I don't know that that affected the record company whatsoever [laughing], but it is true that she actually did say, "That's the one you should go with." She intuitively knew, I guess. My grandma, she was 96 at the time.

Songfacts: Did you have a different song in mind that you wanted to be the first single?

Nevil: Yeah. It was a song called "Dominoes," which ended up being the second single. When you're first coming out as an artist, you have this idea of the way you picture yourself and the vibe around you. At the time, I was thinking more about that than the commercial side: what's your best radio song that's going to be the most popular, whatever. As an artist, sometimes you're thinking about things that aren't really the most important. Looking back, I think "Dominoes" was one that I was hoping for, for whatever reason.

It was the second single. It did okay. It didn't do as well as the first. When we did the video for "C'est La Vie," that was the personality that I had in mind for "Dominoes." Some people would be like, "It seems so low-key and you seem so shy and introspective." It was me bringing the character from "Dominoes" into the "C'est La Vie" video. It was just my own perception of it.

That way I felt that I found the happy medium of putting out a single I didn't think was right. I thought "C'est La Vie" might be construed as a novelty song. When I heard the demo, I just didn't see it the way it actually was, which happens when you've been living with a song that long.

Songfacts: Do you remember how that came together from a lyrical standpoint?

Nevil: My mentor was a guy named Bobby Colomby, who was the founder of Blood, Sweat & Tears. He worked at Sony Records for years, was involved with Michael Jackson and with Quincy Jones and with numerous other things. He actually got me my record deal.

He asked me one time, "What's the common denominator on the biggest songs you've ever written?" Then I harkened back to "C'est La Vie," and I go, "It was effortless."

I'm not saying every single great song is just effortless, comes right out. But with that song, my buddy Mark had the four chords and he was playing them very legato and held out. I said, "What if we did kind of a Kool & the Gang, kind of Earth, Wind & Fire and gave it the eighth note feel." Still the same chorus but instead of just going, hold, hold, we starting going, dink, dink, dink, giving it that kind of bounce that it ended up having.

My friend started singing the sax line on top, and before you know it, we've started singing "C'est La Vie." I don't even remember how it happened. It was one of those things where it just literally came together so fast. We sat down to write the lyric, and we're all three laying on the carpet, sitting around. As we're writing the verses, we were laughing. It really was effortless: "Oh, how about this, maybe make it JJ?"

There were no crickets, where you're just standing around going, "Well, what do we write about?" It wasn't like that. Literally the whole thing came out so quickly and so easily. It was painless, and it was actually really fun. We really enjoyed the whole experience.

That's why when Bobby said, "What's the common denominator?" I said, "The ones that just sort of come out," where it almost seems too easy. There are other ones that you slave over and that's fine, too. But when I think about a song like that, it just popped out.

Songfacts: When that hit the charts, I guess it was also the 20-year anniversary of when Frank Sinatra hit the charts with "That's Life."

Nevil: Now, that I didn't know. I know there are other songs, including the Frank Sinatra one. These days you have a title, you can Google it and find how many others are there. I didn't know it was the 20-year anniversary. That's funny.

On the part where we all go, "that's life," which is basically the translation of "c'est la vie," there was so much gated reverb on it, everybody always assumes to this day that we're saying, "that's right." [Laughing] Which I don't think is as good of a lyric, but there you go.

Songfacts: Did the success of "C'est La Vie" affect your songwriting?

Nevil: Well, I had already started getting a lot of songs covered with everybody from El DeBarge to Pointer Sisters. Things were going well, so I was in that mode of writing. After "C'est La Vie" was a hit, it wasn't like that was my first experience. Even during that time, I was still writing for other artists and kept that part going. The whole process was kind of engrained at that point.

It's really funny, you have this plan for your life, and then there's what happens. I got the deal at MCA Music, not giving up on the artist thing, but you try to get into the industry however you can when you're trying to get started. I always am a believer in that.

So I don't think it did affect my songwriting, but I guess I can never totally know that. It's not like all of a sudden I go, "Ah, now I know it's this." Plus, I'd written that song long before I'd ever cut it. It's great when they take off, but I've always looked at it as it's about doing constant work and good work. Then you just have to give it to God after you do it. There's things you can control, which is signing off on something you think is really good and tight and basically the way you want it.

Songfacts: Were the other singles, "Wot's It To Ya?" and "Dominoes," specifically written for the album?

Nevil: Yes. "Dominoes" was, definitely. I wrote it with Bobby Hart and Dick Eastman, and they're wonderful, wonderful writers. "Wot's It To Ya?" is something I wrote at the very end of the record with Brock Walsh, who's also a wonderful writer.

We had already cut most of the record. I worked with two producers, Alex Sadkin, who passed away about a year after the record, and that was incredibly sad, and Phil Thornalley, who's wonderful and has gone on to produce a lot of huge artists, as well.

Alex was really the rock star. I mean, he was one of the world's biggest producers at the time, everything from Duran Duran to Thompson Twins. He went all the way back to engineering with a lot of those Bob Marley records, and Grace Jones. While we were working on my album in England, people like Robert Plant came in, and he met with them. I think he met with someone from Pink Floyd while he was there, too.

When I thought we were done - we cut every song, we were finishing up a lot of the songs - he used to say, "You know what? We still don't have it." I'd be like, "We still don't have what?" And he goes, "We still don't have the first single."

I'd be like, "You're kidding me. We've got 'C'est La Vie,' all these things." He goes, "Nope, we still don't have it."

He explained it to me: Always come from the school of you don't have your first single, and always try to the bitter end to come up with something even better.

To this day I tell that to other artists that I work with, and I believe in that as a concept, because it does push you.

So "Wot's It To Ya?" is written at the end of the record with the idea of you still don't have your first single, so write one more and try to hit it out of the ballpark. It didn't end up being the first single, but that's when and why we did it.

It was so strange at that point, because I waited two years for Alex to even produce the record with Phil. Then at the very end when I'm thinking, "Oh, it's the home stretch, we just have to add a few things to the mixes," he's like, "No, we still don't have it." And I'd be like, "Oh, my God, you're kidding me."

But I understand it now: always push, because... why not?

Songfacts: Do you remember actually writing those tracks? The ideas behind them or the inspiration?

Nevil: Some more than others. Back then my strength was probably the music side of things, and I would always sing nonsense lyrics, which sometimes ended up being the final lyrics. But back then I tended to collaborate with fellow lyricists a lot more. These days, when someone says, "What do you do?" I say, "Whatever's called for." So if I walk in and someone's got a track like they do in a lot of pop and R&B these days, I'll be the lyricist, or as they call it, the "top liner." But it's still the same thing.

I'm sure if I looked at every single song and wracked my brain to remember, I could remember elements of it. But I'd be lying if I said I remember every aspect of every song.

Songfacts: Do you ever start out with a title and then work backwards when you're writing lyrics?

Nevil: Back then I didn't used to. The guy who really got me into doing that is Matthew Gerrard, who I've done a lot of work with over the past 10 years or so with Disney. My attitude about writing sessions is I never want to go in empty handed, so I always had my book of titles. I want to have some idea: a start, a chorus, a feel, a basic something. And titles, you can never have too many titles.

Matthew Gerrard is a Canadian songwriter and producer, known for his work with artists like David Archuleta, Kelly Clarkson, Jesse McCartney, and The Jonas Brothers. He teamed up with Robbie to write music for popular Disney projects like Hannah Montana, Camp Rock, and High School Musical.
When I first got together with him, the first thing he said was, "Do you have any titles?" I was like, "Well, funny you should mention that." I pulled out a notebook, and there must have been at least 200 titles in there. His eyes bulged out and he was like, "Yay."

So he starts reading through the titles and he picked one that he liked. He's really fast, and he's very intuitive and instinctive.

A lot of times in sessions back in those days, though, I would have titles and just be able to look at them, but very rarely use them. When I started with Matthew, he didn't even want to start until there was a title. His inspiration always came from looking at the title, and then that kind of inspired the melody. So fortunately, I had lists and lists of titles.

Writing with him, though, we didn't ever write to a track. In pop and R&B these days, and even back then, a lot of people have tracks and you do the top line to the track. With Matt and me, it was old school. We'd pull out a guitar and have a title.

The good thing about that, though, is that if you have a title and a back story, and you write a killer hook, the rest almost shows itself. Whereas I've written with some people that start writing verses first, and I'm always like, "Oh, God." It really helps me personally to have the hook first. Even if I don't have the title, I want to figure out that part of it, and then work backwards from there. But with Matt, it was always a title. With all the Disney stuff I'd have to come over with a list of titles, depending on the project, and we always started from there.

I've gone to Nashville a couple of times, and it always helps for me to have a title first, particularly when I'm doing old-school writing with just guitar, piano and vocals. I love doing that. There's not one set way to write. Sometimes things sort of happen the way they happen, or you think something's a bridge and it ends up being the hook. Anything's possible, and I try to stay open to it.

In a perfect world, when you have a title that you already dig, it almost seems like half the battle is won, just because it stands alone. Particularly in country.

Songfacts: Do you actively seek out inspiration when you're listening to music or watching a movie?

Nevil: I think that happens. I'm sure I do. You just have to stay open to it. Sometimes when I'm talking to young songwriters, I'll say some of the best ideas come from the most unpredictable places.

Think about Mark Knopfler, when he did "Money For Nothing." I read someplace that he was in a music store and MTV was on, and it was just some guy in the store that was looking up at one of the videos at the time, just going, "Yeah, that's the way you do it, money for nothing and get chicks for free." That's the reality.

Whether it's a phrase, like "C'est La Vie," it could just be such a natural colloquialism that you don't even think about. But then all of a sudden if you're stuck in a writing situation, someone can say something that makes you go, "That's good."

You say so many great hooks just naturally when you talk, everybody does. I try to just keep my ears open.

Songfacts: Do you intentionally try to have a positive message in your songs? I was thinking about Jordin Sparks' "One Step at a Time."

Nevil: That was one where we did write it specifically for Jordin. It doesn't always work like that, but every so often it does, and it's great, too.

I wrote it with my friend Lauren Evans, who's amazing, as well. The track had been sent to us. It was a Danish track from my friend Mick Cutfather and JJ (Jonas Jeberg), his partner at the time. Lauren and I had gotten a call to try to write something for the winner of American Idol, and Jordin Sparks had just won. We were just thinking about what being in that position was like and wanting to get your shot.

At the beginning of the track there were sounds like footsteps, and that kind of led us to the "One Step At A Time" idea. In that case, I was the top liner with Lauren and then I produced the vocal.

I do like writing positive songs, but I'm not going to say that every song has to do that. A lot of the songs that I love are upbeat, but there are times to write songs that don't have the happy endings and all that. The ones that I've had successes with more were probably more positive, though. My favorite songs growing up, like from Stevie Wonder, were always sexy or something positive.

Songfacts: Because you started out pretty young in the business, do you feel like that gives you a little bit more of an edge working with younger artists, more of an understanding of where they're coming from?

Nevil: I do. But I also have kids, which made it really fun during the time that I was doing all the Disney stuff. I had two kids and my daughter was right around the target age during those years, probably between 7 and 14, which is perfect. These days with artists it seems like it's even younger, though.

When I started out, I didn't really get my first publishing deal until I was 21. These days the artists come over to your house, and they can be anywhere from 14 to 18 - it's a different day. It's very normal to have moms come over with sons or daughters. I never thought of going on the road at 16 or putting up my videos on a YouTube channel. That being said, if they had YouTube and all the social media, I would have been all about it. I would have loved it.

So I do have an insight probably more than most, but that's probably also because I was an artist. I understand what happens after you do the record, and it's very different than music. It's promotion, and self promotion. Being a writer, it's one perspective, but when you've done the artist thing, which is a lot of going out and basically kissing babies and shaking hands, it's like politics in its own way.

Songfacts: Jeremy Jordan was also pretty young when he started out. Do you remember writing "The Right Kind Of Love" for him?

Nevil: Yeah, I wrote it with Tommy Faragher and Lotti Golden, and they're both awesome songwriters. That kind of had a little bit of a "C'est La Vie" eighth note-y thing to it, too. It was definitely a feel-good record. But we didn't write it for Jeremy at the time. I'm not sure that we wrote it for anybody in mind, but when it was done, I just felt like, "This is a perfect for Color Me Badd." They were huge at the time.

Then when I went into the record company to play it, I think it was for Cassandra Mills, and she goes, "Oh, my God, you're right, this is perfect for Color Me Badd." So we thought we had a Color Me Badd cut for one or two months, and we were really, really excited about it.

Then I got a phone call one day going, "Well, I don't think it's going to be with Color Me Badd, but we're going to put it on this new artist, Jeremy Jordan." We were like, "Who?" At the time he wasn't known and we were a little frustrated at first.

But after cutting the song, it ended up being a great thing, and he sounds great on it. He was also involved with the 90210 thing, so we were able to get the video on 90210. That's a lot of me and Tommy doing the background with Jeremy. He got really, really good over the years, too. I think he ended up being an actor, as well. But we didn't even know who he was at the time.

When we finished that song, I remember going, "This sounds like a frickin' hit." The songwriter loves to say it, and hates to say it, because it's such a subjective thing. They just almost don't want to say it - maybe they figure they'll jinx it.

I just knew, and I remember meeting [music executive] Irving Azoff in New York. I was hanging around with a buddy of mine, Michael Ellis at Billboard. We were having lunch somewhere, and Irving Azoff was there. Michael knew Irving, and he goes, "You want me to introduce you?" I said, "Absolutely."

I told Irving, "You know what, I have a fucking smash for Color Me Badd."

If you knew me and my personality, it's not typical of me to do that, but every so often you just got one where you go, "I know what this is, I know what we got." And I did. I think people respond to that when you obviously believe in something really strongly, but at the same time, you'd better deliver when you do that, too.

He goes, "Well, come meet with Cassandra when you come to LA." It all ended up being a good thing. But I always remember that, because I almost have never said that in my life: "I've got a fucking smash for you." It's not my style, but that's how strong I felt about that song.

Songfacts: Color Me Badd and Jeremy Jordan both ended up on 90210 at some point.

Nevil: Yeah, I think they thought the song was too sweet for Color Me Badd, and they'd just come out with " I Wanna Sex You Up." That happens, but it was definitely at the time very frustrating. You always want to come off someone with a huge hit. I was really lucky with Jordin. She just came off "No Air" before we put off our single, and that's pretty much ideal. I mean, you always want that in a perfect world.

Songfacts: Where did the rap interlude come from in "The Right Kind of Love"?

Nevil: Probably a record company thing where they said, "Let's do that." It seemed like most records back then, especially with R&B-pop, you'd want something with a rap. I'm sure we didn't write it with that. I wouldn't have done a rap myself, no.

Songfacts: You talked earlier about your partnership with Matthew Gerrard. What clicked about that partnership?

Nevil: I had known about him because we were signed to the same publisher, but our publisher had never put us together for whatever reason. I don't know if it was just one of those things where I'd known his name, but I knew that he was doing a lot of cool stuff.

I think one of the reasons that we worked so well together is that we're both musicians: He was a studio bass player, I was a studio guitarist. We both studied numerous types of music. Yet at the same time, he had a fusion album out, and I used to fusion. He also did a ton of rock records.

With a lot of musicians, if you're jazz, you kind of stay at jazz. We both had a really similar path in the sense that we ultimately got into a lot of different pop and loved that, too. In other words, I don't have any kind of attitude about anything. In fact, sometimes I love the simplest records even more than ones with complex, fancy chords.

So whenever we talked about any kind of music or any kind of record or wanted to go there, we both had the ability to pick up an instrument - he's more of a piano player than me, but I can play piano, too - and we're both able to immediately have a shorthand together. I would be more the lyricist in that situation, because that's what he needed more from me.

But his instinct about pop and whatever needed tweaking, he always knew the exact right thing to tweak, or what line could be better. If I came up with a lyric and I showed it to him, his ideas were dead on.

We ended up pushing each other a lot. He didn't know at first that I was a producer, too, and that I did a lot of work in my own studio. Over time he's going, "Wow, you can do the vocals." He was great at vocals, but he enjoyed the fact that there was a fellow cohort that could do all that. So I ended up being more the guy that would go do all the vocals and I'd sing a lot of the stuff myself. Fortunately I still sound young when I sing, so I could do a lot of the demos and do a lot of the backgrounds on the actual records.

It was just easy. We lived about a couple miles from one another. I'd send him the files and he'd import them into his sessions. If I ever heard guitar parts or anything else, I'd add them. We were really well matched and not totally similar - we had different strengths. When you have a partner that can do everything - I can do drum programming, he does drum programming, I can do guitars, he can do guitars - we could do so many different projects and keep them all cooking at once. But we always leaned on each other that way and it made it easy.

Back before me I think sometimes he'd want to get into the production for something, and he'd be trying to do everything. When I came on board, he was able to keep doing what he was doing, and I could work with the artist and go outside and work on the lyric. The combination of the both of us, I felt like we had found a little all-star team together. He's one of my favorite collaborators I've ever had in my life. He's amazing.

Songfacts: For High School Musical, how far was the script developed when you guys were working on the music? How did they go about telling you about the scenes?

Nevil: The first one was definitely together. When we met initially, Matt was signed to Disney, so he had the connections right off the bat. We were doing other things for Disney, like Hannah Montana. When they came with High School Musical, it was really [choreographer] Kenny Ortega, [Disney Channel President] Gary Marsh, and Steve Reed, who were at the real helm of that.

Kenny, he's a force to be reckoned with. I'm assuming anybody that's worked with him in his lifetime knows that. He really comes in and he's just so vivacious and specific when he gets on a roll with ideas. Of course, you have the basic script, but beyond that, it's not like he's saying, "Here's the title and this is what I want the song to be."

When his ideas came, I couldn't write fast enough. He's a creative force that just starts improvising, and his ideas are so good that you don't want to miss any of them. You feel inspired. He makes you want to do something great. I can't say enough nice things about him and how much he had to do with that.

The first movie was more mapped out. Some of the High School Musicals weren't as mapped out. I remember one of them was during a writer's strike, or there was something going on. I can't remember exactly. Sometimes when we'd have the talks with Kenny, there were certain parts that hadn't even been written yet. Plus that was my first time writing songs in the sense of a musical where the lyric is pushing the storyline along.

I remember when we did the last High School Musical, the third one, it had prom scenes and all these different things that I don't think were fully scripted. We kind of had the sense of it, because when Kenny would explain it, he knew how to make you see the movie before it was even made. It was amazing.

I particularly remember the prom night song, "A Night To Remember," was a lot of fun. The trick on those things was always pushing the storyline forward. Especially that time without the script, where it was kind of like, "Okay, we have a rough idea."

That was quite a challenge. I loved that. That was a lot of fun working on those.

Songfacts: Was it more challenging to do the cast numbers versus the duets or the single numbers?

Nevil: Well, the cast numbers, when you're doing the demo, you're obviously not having the cast there, so it would be myself and my girl Lauren Evans a lot of times doing the fellow cast members. I can't tell you how many times I was creating cheerleading sections, myself and Lauren, and I'd be lying down in the back of the studio and screaming, because you're trying to make a couple of people sound as big as you can. It was pretty funny, actually. Matt's wife, Ashley, would do some of the characters, like Sharpay, on some of the stuff.

Then you always, for the actual record, add choir and all the cast and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. But even for the demos, you have to sell the idea. For some reason, my friends would always get the ballads, but we'd always get the big production numbers. Literally, they'd be like five or six-section songs as opposed to the standard structure of the song. So they were challenging.

I still listen to some of them and go, "That was really cool." It's very young, it's very cute, it's very sweet. I don't think even Disney had any idea it was going to take off the way it did. It just became this wonderful phenomenon.

Songfacts: Is there a certain song from the High School Musical movies that you're most proud of?

Nevil: All of them. There's not just one song. They were all different challenges. I think there are elements I still dig about all of them. Probably the trickiest one was when we went in to meet with Kenny on the last song from the last movie, which he goes, "Okay, it's this and this and this. And I kind of have a title in mind." We were surprised because he usually didn't have a title.

But this one he goes, "I think it should be called 'High School Musical.'" I remember Matt and I looking at each other going, "Oh, shit." Kind of like, "That doesn't sound like it's going to be easy." Especially after all of them had been done. It's just not one of those titles that make you go, "Oh, I know, that's a hook line."

But I feel like we sat down with that one and ended up writing a really wonderful song that incorporated that title. I'm not going to say it was my favorite, but I just remember that one feeling like one of the biggest challenges just based upon the title. Kenny really wanted that title to wrap it up, and looking back I totally see why. It sounds like it's supposed to be the title there.

Songfacts: What can you tell me about Freddy's Dilemma?

Nevil: It's a project that I'm releasing on my own label, Addtothat Records. The single is "Only On A Saturday Night" - check it out on YouTube! We're getting ready to shoot a proper video in the next few weeks as well.

You can put out records so many different ways these days. If you're a young artist, you can put out a record anytime you want, and you can build your own social media. That part of the industry I love, and that's something that couldn't have happened 10, 15 years ago. With Freddy's Dilemma, I wanted to develop a project similar to the idea of how Quincy Jones would put out the Dude albums - but I'm by no means comparing it to that. On the Dude albums, he could introduce any artist at any given time, whether it's James Ingram or numerous other people. In my mind it's like my version of that, if this project takes off and if the single ends up doing well. I think it's a fun single.

It's strange, because with some artists, you have to get them signed to the record deal, then you tend to write numerous songs hoping that you keep the bloom on the rose. You're hoping that you come up with the right single that everybody gets around and goes, "That's it!"

But so many artists can end up on a shelf somewhere and never get released. They get signed thinking, "This is it, I'm on my way!" and that's by no means the case. In fact, in some ways I think major record deals aren't necessarily the right avenue for all artists.

This project is like, when I like it, it's right. I don't have to go to the A&R guy, I don't have to clear it with somebody if I think this is the single.

Someone asked me one time, "What's your biggest fear? Is it being broke?" I go, "No. It's being uninspired." More than not having money, I've been lucky enough to be fairly successful at what I do. It scares me more to wake up one day and be uninspired. Not that I want either of those things.

When you're inspired, you can wake up the next day and write something that could be the next big thing. I mean, who would have thought High School Musical? Or who would have thought Jordin Sparks? You never know. But at least if you're inspired you can go do it, and it's fun. As long as you're having fun, then I think that translates.

August 19, 2015.
Get more at robbienevil.com.

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 4

  • Scott Moore from Kansas City Thank you for the incredible insight. Hands down, Dominoes was one of my favorite songs of the 80's. Who are & what did the women in the music video go on to do?
  • Yuka from Kanagawa JapanThanks, I still in love with his music always helps me stay positive. I'm glad to found him in 2015. my company name was inspired by my most favourite his song "Dreams"
  • Ian Southward from Blackpool United KingdomI remember seeing this on MTV Europe, I liked it so I went and asked my local record shop to import the album. which at that time wasnt available, he did and I loved it, but Wots it to ya was for me a better track, the vid for that also came on MTV and I now cant find a full version of it, which is a shame as I still love that track, it's staying on my iPod
  • Jeff from SaginawI worked in a record store when Robbie's first LP was released. It was well-sequenced and well-produced. I sold many copies from in-store play.

    By the way, I agree with Robbie - "Dominoes" was THE track.
see more comments

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