Writing A Song ē
Introduction by Jim Liddane
Dan Hill's ability to craft emotionally charged and relatable songs, along with his commercial success and willingness to evolve as an artist, has solidified his place in today's music industry.
He achieved notable commercial success when one of his early songs "Sometimes When We Touch," reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was covered by such stars as Tina Turner, Lynn Anderson, Marti Caine, Cilla Black, Marty Robbins, Bonnie Tyler, Vince Hill, Tammy Wynette, Barry Manilow, Rod Stewart, Engelbert Humperdinck, Michael Ball, Donny Osmond, Demis Roussos and more than one hundred other vocalists while "Can't We Try", a duet with Vonda Shepard, was another massive international hit, reaching No 6 on Billboard, becoming Billboard's No. 1 Adult Contemporary Song Of The Year for 1987.
Dan Hill has also collaborated with several renowned artists throughout his career, including singer-songwriter Barry Mann, and Celine Dion, who recorded "Seduces Me", as part of the "Titanic" soundtrack. Hill's ability to work with other artists and adapt his songwriting to different styles and voices is a testament to his remarkable versatility.
His vocal style is characterised by its sincerity and emotional depth and his voice is well-suited for delivering the introspective and tender themes always present in his music. While he may not have the vocal range of some other singers, his emotional delivery has ensured that he instantly connects with his audience.
Larry Wayne Clark spoke to Dan Hill for the International Songwriters Association's publication "Songwriter Magazine".
I lived in Ottawa, Canada, in the 1970s so I was aware of Dan Hill from the earliest stirrings of his career. His husky, romantic voice was heard a lot on Canadian radio in those days. Of course everything changed with ďSometimes When We Touch,Ē a huge hit that made Hill a star far beyond his home province and native country. The song was a hungry paean to young love that floated on the kind of candy-rich melody that Hillís grandchildren will no doubt hear in supermarkets and elevators.
His career took a dip sometime in the í80s but Hill surfaced again in 1987 with another smash,ĒCanít We Try,Ē sung with Vonda Shepard (of Ally McBeal fame).
Born in Toronto in 1954, Daniel Grafton Hill IV grew up in middle-class surroundings in a family of
bookish high achievers. A generation after his glory days (Hill has a 16-year-old son who shows signs of musical aptitude), yesterdayís curly-haired troubadour seems grateful for the opportunities that pop stardom has afforded him, but is much more focused on the moment at hand and the creative challenges it offers.
These days he mostly concerns himself with writing, and co-writing, songs for other people to sing. Heís enjoyed considerable success in that realm, with songs recorded by Celine Dion, Rod Stewart, George Benson, Jeffrey Osborne, Barry Manilow, Tammy Wynette and Tina Turner. Like many one-time popsters heís also made a seemingly easy adjustment to contemporary country songcraft, and is getting covers by some of Nashvilleís biggest stars. A couple of weeks before conducting this interview, I saw Hill perform with a small group of Canadian songwriters at the legendary Bluebird Cafť. He remains a master of the intimate ballad and ďSometimes When We Touch,Ē sung to his own soft guitar accompaniment, still brings the house down.
Hillís career highlights include four number one songs 12 Top Ten records, five Canadian Juno
awards and a Grammy. He has four platinum and two gold albums to his credit. In 1997 he received the prestigious Harold Moon Award, which honours Canadian songwriters for their international
contributions. He is the author of a novel, the appropriately-titled Comeback.
Earnest, articulate, more scholarly and introspective than might be expected of someone who tasted stardom so young, Dan Hill seems, above all, humble and hard-working, still questing for the great song that may lie around the next corner.
Youíre living now in Toronto and you were born there. Has that always been your home?
Yes, I was born and raised in Toronto.
And did you at any time relocate to New York or L.A.?
I spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, sometimes several months at a time, but I never actually formally lived anywhere but in Toronto.
I did one of these interviews with Gordon Lightfoot a few years back and same thing with him. He
said that he tried living in L.A. for a brief time and just didnít like it, and felt that with the right
management and agents he could sustain a career staying in Toronto. Sounds like you agree with that.
Well, I think a lot of it is, you know, your perspective can change a lot if you move to a place where
thereís nothing but songwriters. And before you know it youíre writing about nothing but songwriting!
Sometimes itís better to be in a place where you arenít surrounded by people who are all doing the same thing as you. Keeps things fresh.
And yet youíve been spending a fair bit of time in Nashville which of course is really the last bastion
of the Tin Pan Alley-type songwriter.
Yes, it is a great place for songwriters because itís one of the few places where artists are looking for
outside songs, and one of the few forms of music where melody and story, and chords, are really important.
You claim you were influenced a lot by the great band singers like Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, the
jazz/pop singers of yesteryear.
Yes, I love the story aspect to those songs. Thereís a certain poignancy, a certain melancholy, especially in the Sinatra songs, I think, that really, really got to me when I was four or five or six listening to [them]. I think, in a strange way, that had an effect on the way I started writing songs as a teenager.
Iím also a fan of that music and had a soft spot for it all my life. At times, growing up, I could look
around me and realise that nobody I knew shared this particular passion for those old songs and
singers. It was just such a wonderful art form, and I think what youíre exposed to as a child on every level has an incredible influence on the rest of your life. So certainly musically that would hold true as much as
Itís strange, isnít it, how melancholy children can be. I think adults sometimes forget that.
Thatís very true.
Children can be very nostalgic and have a deep sense of longing, even though an adult might look at them and say, ďWhat are you talking about? Youíre only seven years old - how can you miss
I think thereís a lot more depth to children than we realise.
Thereís an interesting program at Nashvilleís Country Music Hall of Fame called Words and Music, which interfaces with grade schools and high schools. The kids are invited to write lyrics, individually or in small groups, and these are submitted to a professional songwriter to be set to music. Then thereís a classroom presentation of the songs that takes place at the Hall of Fame.
That sounds wonderful.
It is a wonderful thing. I got involved with it recently as a songwriter and I had a grade eight class
the age would have been about 14 and some interesting lyrics came in, dealing with religion and
death. Some of it was humorous and a bit glib but a lot of it was really quite heavy.
Yeah. I can totally understand that.
So how early did you decide that this was going to be your life?
I knew pretty early. As a really young child, four or five, I was just singing all the time and I just felt this sort of passion, this longing for music, that was almost overpowering. You know, Iíd run home from school and put on a record and just sit beside the speakers and rock and sing to it. I also started playing the guitar when I was 10 or 11 and started writing songs when I was 14. That was it - I knew for sure that was what I wanted to do.
And how did this go over with your parents? I remember you doing ďDaddyís SongĒ at the
Bluebird, which is a very poignant thing, and talks about a certain conflict that arose with him
perhaps disapproving of your career choice. When you were young, was this encouraged? Were your parents musical?
I wouldnít say necessarily musical but they really loved music, and that helped. They were really lovers of words. My parents were great writers. My dad wrote books, and his dad and my momís dad, so writing was all around us. So the word thing was very natural.
And it was sort of emblazoned into us to try to do something with your life, to have an impact. So that I think had its effect on me, but certainly when I decided I wanted to be a songwriter-musician-singer, that was not what my parents thought was the right decision. So we had a lot of fights about that.
How bitter did these fights become?
They were pretty bitter.
Did you have to leave home? Did it get to where you just couldnít communicate?
Yeah, I would say thatís true. I actually had to leave home. It wasnít till a few years later that we ended up understanding each other a little bit better, and he understood that this was something I could actually be successful at.
You couldnít have been more than 19 or 20 when you started recording.
Yes, thatís right. I signed with RCA when I was 18 or 19, then left the contract a year later, then made what became the beginnings of my first album when I was 20.
What was driving you to do this? Who were you modelling yourself after, looking around you, being
that young? Was there just something in you that told you you had to do this?
Well yes, but there were also a lot of people that did that. I mean, Gordon Lightfoot, who you mentioned earlier. Joni Mitchell or Neil Young or Cat Stevens or James Taylor. They all hit the scene pretty much in their early 20s. Bob Dylan, the same thing. Simon and Garfunkel, Elton John.
They were all young. So it was quite natural to be wanting to do this at that age and, the way I saw it,
thatís the age that everybody was.
Did you know anybody else among your peer group like at school who became involved with music
at a professional level? Or were you just kind of a voice in the wilderness?
Well, a guy I went to high school with actually produced my first four albums. Though he wasnít a
songwriter, per se, he was extremely gifted as a musician and as a composer and orchestrator. And so I guess in a sense we collaborated, so far as he being the producer of my songs. And that was really a high school friend.
What was his name?
His name was Matthew McCauley.
So you were recording in Toronto?
Yes. Ironically, the third and fourth album, we were bringing in players from Nashville to help us make
those records. The piano player and drummer were both Nashville-based.
When did you first become aware of Nashville as a music centre? Were you travelling down here at
that age or did that only happen later?
No, what happened was that, through the rounds of the clubs in Toronto, I met a fellow by the name of Don Potter...
Great guitar player.
Yeah, and he was living in Nashville at the time. He was playing with Chuck Mangione. I got to know him and he actually played on my first few albums, and through him I got a real sense of the Nashville world. He was the one that opened it up to me in the í70s.
He would have been an excellent usher to have.
Yeah. I was extremely lucky.
Such a tasteful and song-oriented musician. He was so much responsible for what happened with the
Judds, I thought.
Yes, I know that.
You talk about your first meeting with Barry Mann as being brought together in almost a blind date
fashion. Describe that meeting.
Well, I was signed to ATV Music Publishing and the president of the publishing company said, ďDan,
youíre one of my favourite lyricists. Thereís this guy that writes for us whoís one of my favourite melody writers and itíd be great to see what happens if you two wrote together.Ē And it was based on his recommendation that Barry Mann and I got together and started trying to write.
Were you aware of Barry? Had you followed his career at all?
Well, not quite. I was aware of what heíd done once his name was brought to me to write with him - I
guess I kind of figured it out and looked up what heíd written, you know. I wasnít one of those guys that was that aware of the songwriting world, per se, before Barry. Because, as I said earlier, the people that I was aware of were more like The Beatles or James Taylor or Gordon Lightfoot. The singer-songwriters, the performers of their own songs, rather than people that strictly wrote for other people.
So I didnít know that much about him but I did know the songs. And I was 22 and had put out two albums already in Canada that had done quite well, and had written everything myself at the time, and was actually annoyed at the fact that someone said I should write with someone else! [chuckles] Little did I know how much I was gonna learn from working with Barry Mann.
And how much you were gonna earn!
Oh yeah, thatís true too. Learn and earn, yeah.
So ďSometimes When We TouchĒ came from your first get-together with him?
Yes, that was the first song we wrote.
Yeah. Quite an unusual moment.
And he finished the song in your absence?
Well, I had a lyric. We tried writing, you know, on the spot, sort of, and Iíd never done that before and
didnít really know how to do it, so when he kept coming up with all these melodic and musical ideas I was just kind of baffled. So as I was scurrying out of there I said, ďWell, I have this poem . . . maybe you could find something to write to this,Ē and I gave him the lyrics to ďSometimes When We Touch.Ē So he wrote the chorus, kind of, in the five minutes I was in the other room calling a cab. And then the next day he tracked me down at the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel and played me the rest of the music. [chuckles] Thatís how the song unfolded.
Did he set a melody to the lyric exactly as it existed?
Yes, the melody that you hear on the record is the melody that Barry wrote, and the chords that Barry
But what Iím wondering is did he keep your words intact, was there any alteration?
Oh, I see, Iím sorry. Yeah, pretty much. There wasnít a lot of change. The only thing was that I had the first half of the chorus lyrically ďSometimes when we touch, the honestyís too much/And I have to close my eyes and hideĒ but I didnít have a second half. And he said, ďThere has to be another three lines to make this an entire chorus.Ē So I had to go back then and come up with the second half of the chorus, lyrically speaking.
That was the biggest change lyrically was the three lines that were added.
So it really was a magic encounter between you two?
Yeah. I think sometimes itís the not-knowing, the innocence. I heard later, I think from Barry, that heíd been a fan of my earlier albums and had really kind of analysed my voice and the way I sang, and wrote the melody according to the way he sensed how I sang. Because there was a real instant connection of, not just the song, but how the melody triggered with the voice that created this sort of real impact, I guess. And looking back at it I think Barry kind of had figured that out, you know and I had no idea heíd figured it out till years later what would work for my voice.
Did you write with him on other occasions?
Yes, we did. We wrote a lot of songs. A lot of other songs that were really good songs but I think it was just such a monumental moment, that song. It was almost like having the perfect first date and itís hard to come back after that, you know.
You ended up with a platinum album in the U.S. with that one, I believe. "Longer Fuse"?
I think so. I canít even remember, it was so long ago. I know we sold a lot of records.
So how crazy was it getting for you at that time? You said you were, what, about 22, 23?
Yeah. I finished the song with Barry when I was 22. Recorded the song and the album when I was 22. It came out when I was 23, and then it got very crazy for a while. It sort of was exciting and fun and an adventure, chasing the song around the world, but it kind of got in the way of my writing ícause then youíre so busy playing the part of the pop star that you donít have the time to write that you really need to have.
Am I remembering correctly that you used to go on stage in bare feet?
Yeah, thatís true.
You and Anne Murray were the barefoot Canadians. She was doing that too.
What happened was when I played the guitar I usually was playing solo I stomped so loud that people complained that it was getting in the way of the music. So I took off my shoes ícause it wouldnít make as much clatter when I was performing, and, you know, suddenly this whole image kind of took off from there.
Well, it was very appropriate for those times.
And you were perfect for the times the curly hair, the bare feet, the poetic perspective. I remember
it well. Janis Ian was big in those days. That sort of confessional writing.
Yeah. It was really the peak of the singer-songwriter like Jackson Browne and, again like I said before,
James Taylor, Cat Stevens. Carole King had come out a few years before that with Tapestry. It was a natural time for the kind of writer that I was. Youíre right about that.
I read a really interesting interview recently maybe youíve seen this with Joni Mitchell being
interviewed by Elvis Costello [Vanity Fair Magazine]. Apparently Elvis and his wife, Diana Krall, and Joni are all quite good friends. So he did this interview with her and it was a very good one.
And she said something really interesting, and I wonít even try to quote it accurately, but something
to the effect that sheís of a certain age and is not really being heard much anymore, but people are
constantly referring to any female singer-songwriter who comes down the pike you know, Jewel and
whoever else as ďthe new Joni Mitchell.Ē She finds much of this stuff painful. I think in many cases
she doesnít like the music very much and she doesnít like hearing her name attached to it. What do you think of whatís being written now in your style of music?
Well . . . you mean in the singer-songwriter style?
Yeah, singer-songwriters, be it folk, country, whatever.
Well, I think there are some great writers out there. I think itís natural for every songwriter of every
generation to kind of look down on the next generation. You know, Sinatra really looked down on Elvis, and Elvis looked down on The Beatles. Itís just sort of what happens one generation after the other just feels that they had it and the new one doesnít.
But I think thereís some great writing in every generation. I think thereís tons of great writing happening now. Thereís tons of great country songs being written now, for example. I think it was just that the í70s was a special time because suddenly we became aware for the first time that people could make a living writing and singing their own songs. I donít think it was ever so apparent as right after The Beatles hit.
So therefore, because of that realisation, it was a very fertile and exciting time, I think, in the
singer-songwriter history, whereas now itís several generations later and itís no big deal. Itís not the same monumental idea that you can write your own songs and perform them, so I think people take it for granted a bit.
Those were magical times. Talk a little bit about your process of writing. How much training have
you had musically?
Not an awful lot. I studied classical guitar when I was about 10, 11, 12. And from there I just taught myself through reading Beatles books. I didnít know anything about how to play pop music when I was playing classical; I had to teach myself through buying all the popular music books. And then some of my friends could play that kind of style, so it was, you know, friends teaching friends kind of thing. But most of my training was just listening to the radio, listening to records, and having a really good natural ear and aptitude for music and not being afraid to spend hundreds of hours a month in my basement, just practicing.
I expect with your upbringing you were probably an avid reader?
I read quite a bit. I wasnít reading so much when I first left school and started making records ícause I was so involved in the adventure of touring and writing and recording and all that stuff. When my mid-20s hit, then I started to read a lot more.
Thatís really essential, isnít it, for keeping a fertile mind just delving into literature?
Yeah. Well, I think curiosity is really important. Thereís only so many places you can physically be, but, by reading, you can be transported to all these different places. So I find it really helps me, you know; it really helps my imagination. I love to read.
Who are some of the people that you draw from? Non-musical writers that youíre inspired by.
Different people at different times. I go through different stages, you know. I used to read John Fowles a lot in the í80s, and I used to read a lot of Graham Greene books. I used to read all the Dashiell Hammett, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. A lot of the writers from the í20s.
I canít think of what Iíve been reading lately. Actually Iíve been reading a lot more magazines and
biographies lately. I read a really moving biography of Harry Truman, for example, which I found to be very inspiring. Or thereís an incredible biography of Elvis Presley it's two books.
Iíve read that. Thatís the Peter Guralnick one ["Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley" and
"Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley"].
I think thatís it, yeah. I find those to be tremendously interesting.
I share your passion for good biographies.
It makes you feel like youíre a little less peculiar, after all, when you read about all these other people and the stuff theyíve done! [laughs] What they went through.
Sometimes I read things that make me feel very under-accomplished.
Well, I think thatís just the nature of . . . youíre only gonna be reading about people that have had an
unusual mark on the world. So itís kind of unfair to compare yourself to that.
I understand youíre a novelist yourself?
Well, I did write a novel about 20 years ago, thatís true. My brotherís the real novelist. Heís written and published several novels.
Whatís his name?
So you wrote one novel and didnít feel the need to go back to the trough?
I probably will. After that I kind of got back into songwriting with a renewed vigour. It was after that
novel that I sort of rediscovered myself as a writer for other people as well as just for myself, and, once I fell into that world, you know, it started taking up all my time. íCause before that it was like, okay, so you write for yourself, you go on tour, you make records and then you have this sort of . . . this break. But when you suddenly realise you can write for other people, then thereís suddenly no breaks anymore.
I understand there was a bit of a sour time in your career maybe late í70s, 1980, thereabouts where
you were going through troubles with a record label. What was going on in those days?
Well, itís the typical thing that happens to almost every pop artist, a confluence of events. You know, the record company I was signed to gradually started to self-destruct so I saw no sense in being with them anymore, but I had to buy myself out of the contract. So that took a few years, to come up with the $330 thousand that I had to come up with to buy myself out! And, you know, then I just sort of went through a period where I just wasnít having the same impact, in terms of popular culture, which I think every pop artist goes through.
So it was a time for, I suppose, more introspection. And then I think I was lucky enough to come back in the mid-í80s with sort of a comeback album that did really well, and by then Iíd sort of figured out that I could have just as good a career writing songs for other people. At a certain point, I said, ďWho needs this?Ē and just started writing for other people, and stopped making my own records.
Youíve had a lot of success doing that.
I find it to be a lot less stressful, letís put it that way. A lot more creative. You donít spend so much time worrying about your image and marketing and all that kind of stuff. Itís just pure songwriting.
Do you find it liberating in the sense that you can be writing songs that wouldnít be suitable for you
to sing? You can be writing songs for a woman and get into that whole mindset.
I do. I find it liberating. I think the biggest thing is that your reputation as a singer-songwriter, or your past records, gets you in the door, but then, after that, itís all based on your new songs. No one wants to talk about, or record, your old songs your old songs have just given you that reputation so what I love is that itís always forcing you to come up with something new. And the bottom line usually is that it just has to be really good, really interesting. And beyond that I donít really think in terms of any rules.
You know, I write a lot of different sort of shadings of styles I mean, Europop, which is very different
than, say, country music, very different from pop music. But, even within those realms, there are very
different kinds of country music too. So you can be a lot more versatile as a writer than as an artist.
Talk about your relationship with Celine Dion. Youíve written songs for her, youíve been involved
as a producer, youíve sung with her. When did you become aware of her?
Well, when my hit record ďCanít We TryĒ came out in '87 I couldnít get Vonda Shepard the female that
was singing the duet with me to perform live with me. So Celine was signed to Sony at the time, but
couldnít speak English. English Canada didnít know about her. So she became Vondaís replacement. So thatís how I got to know Celine is we went across Canada singing ďCanít We TryĒ together.
Which she would have had to learn phonetically?
Yes. And I think because we got along and she saw me as someone that was there at the early time, before everyone knew who she was, she has a real loyalty that way. So it was a lot easier than to approach her when her career took off, you know, from a songwriting standpoint, ícause weíd already had that history.
She certainly owns a good piece of the world right now.
Yeah, thatís true.
Another very strong Canadian success story.
What about the Nashville connection you have now, with [manager] Alan Cates and Keith Stegall.
How did that come about?
Well, as it all seems to, it comes back to the early albums, 'cause as flattering as this is to me Keith Stegall really was a fan of my early records, even the records before ďSometimes When We Touch.Ē And heís managed by Alan Cates, and he asked Alan Cates if heíd heard of me. Ironically Iíd lived one street over from Alan Cates in Toronto 'cause Alanís a Canadian and so he asked Alan to set up a writing situation.
The first song we wrote was ďYou Are The Light Of My Life,Ē which was recorded by Sammy Kershaw.
So we just sort of, luckily, really hit it off right from the start. Keith is one of the most amazing writers and creative people Iíve ever met.
So youíre now coming down here several times a year?
Yes, I probably come down about six to seven times a year. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Sometimes Iím lucky and Nashville guys come here and work with me in Toronto.
So these are co-writing trips?
Yes, for the most part. Sometimes Iím down there recording, you know, ícause to get country covers you really have to have country recordings. So Iíll go down and use great country players and hire a country singer and do all that kind of stuff.
Do you find it difficult to reconcile the Dan Hill of yesterday, when you were 19, 20 years old and
writing songs that were obviously torn from your own experience much of the time, and flashing
ahead to what youíre doing no writing Nashville style, which is usually by appointment, getting
together with people and going over titles and hooks? Do you feel that both of those are artistically
valid and get you to the same place?
Absolutely. I think whatever makes for the great song, makes for the great song. Barry Mann came out of that world of writing in the Brill Building, and without Barry Mann Iíd never have had ďSometimes When We Touch.Ē
Itís really not that different. You know, very often I come to Nashville already with an idea and then I just give it to someone and we work on it together. Or Keithíll come to me with an idea and then Iíll work with his idea. So thereís usually some kind of a great idea thatís already there sparking the other writer, as opposed to just sort of getting together at nine and, out of nowhere, just writing a song.
There might be something that Iíve hung onto for several months that I think might be great for Keith
Stegall, for example, or he might have hung onto something for several months that he thinks might be great for me. You see what Iím saying? And, because weíre so experienced in writing songs now, we can kind of tell when weíve nailed it by ourselves a hundred percent, or when we feel we could use someone elseís melodic input, or story input. And I can go up to Keith and say, ďJeez, I think this is really great here but I think Iím missing something here.Ē Or vice versa, he can do that with me.
So a lot of it is the experience [to recognise] where your song is falling short and where itís really good, and where you can reach out and get some help.
Do you still get the same buzz off it as you did decades ago?
Sometimes, yeah. Itís harder but I do. If I come up with something that I think is fresh and unusual, yeah, I can get really excited. I can tell because I just wanna keep playing it over and over again.
Do you sometimes have something recorded by another artist that you wish you could have held
You mean for me as an artist?
Not anymore because thereís certain realities to being on the radio. Certain parameters, you know, that you have to fit into, and thereís just no way that Iím gonna be able to fit into those parameters as a 50-year-old in this day and age, in my opinion. So, you know, I can always record them for myself I usually do record them ícause I have to record them in order for someone to hear it for them to record it. So Iím really still recording. The only difference is instead of them being in record stores, theyíre on the shelves of . . . I donít know, Reba McEntire. You see what Iím saying?
Yeah. I just wondered if emotionally it was sometimes hard to let a song go.
Not really. I mean, sometimes what happens is you write a song thatís just so peculiar to you but you think itís great and you just donít see how anyone else can record it but you. And then you feel a little tug thinking, ďGod, if I was still an artist it wouldíve been great. The world wouldíve loved me doing this song!Ē Sometimes you feel those kind of tugs where there might be something that is just so special, so unique, that you donít know if anyone else could record it, and you kind of feel bad that you canít put it out there so people can hear it.
What are some of the more recent things youíve had cut? Alan Cates mentioned an Alan Jackson
On Alan Jacksonís new album thereís a song I wrote with Keith Stegall called ďThere You Go.Ē Thatís on his record that came out a couple of months ago. And thereís a song on the new Michael W. Smith CD that came out maybe three weeks ago, called ďThe Human Spark,Ē that I wrote with Michael. So those are a few recent examples, I guess.
Do you write a lot with artists?
A fair amount. It kind of comes and goes. I wrote with Michael Bolton and Richard Marx and we were
writing for his record, and that ended up on Boltonís last album. So yeah, I guess I do write a lot with artists, sure. Keith and I have written with Richie [McDonald] of Lonestar. So that was a lot of fun. That was just a month or so ago.
Itís such a popular technique now for writers to try and finesse their songs onto peopleís albums.
Itís just so difficult to get an outside song recorded anymore and everybody in Nashville is scrambling
to write with these young artists.
Thatís true, yeah.
How prolific are you? How many songs are you cranking out in a year?
Uh, it kind of just depends on the year. Sometimes I wonít write that many at all. Sometimes I might only write, I donít know, ten, and other years Iíll write 30 or 40. I donít really concern myself that much with volume I try to make them count more.
You know, thereís a lot of writing thatís done over the phone too. I work a lot with a friend of mine named Jorgen ElŲfsson, whoís written a lot of hits for Britney Spears. We do a lot of work where he needs lyrics for projects and Iíll send it to him and then weíll talk about it, and he might get it recorded by a European artist.
There again youíre more active as a lyricist. Do you find that comes to you more easily than the
music or is it just circumstantial, depending on whom youíre working with?
You know, when I write by myself the lyrics definitely donít come faster [laughs softly]. But when Iím
writing with other people the lyrics do. I donít know why that is; itís a mystery to me. But yeah, with other people I tend to come up with words pretty quickly. And I also then take it back and work on it and make the words better too. I mean, sometimes I come up with íem fast but very often I like to take íem home and kind of bang it out the next day on my own. I always joke that I have this other person that really does all the writing that I keep in this closet! I bring him out when no oneís around.
Thatís what they used to say about Irving Berlin, that he had a secret black man cranking out all
these ragtime tunes for him when he was so amazingly prolific back in the day. Thereís an example of
somebody who was ferociously driven, writing hundreds of songs in a year.
Yeah. I wouldnít say Iím that driven anymore. [chuckles] You know, I love to write but I donít feel like
Iím as consumed by it.
What else do you do to round out your life, when itís not about music?
Iím a physical fitness buff. I do that about three hours a day. Today I went for a two-and-a-half hour roller blade and it was, I guess by American temperatures, about 20 degrees out there. Thatís what I do to offset the mental creative anguish of writing is I go out and run ten miles and lift weights and roller blade, and that kind of thing.
Iím very close to my family - we have a 16-year-old son, Iíve been married for 22 years so I try to do a lot of things with my family.
It sounds like youíve got a pretty stable, pretty enviable life by what Iím hearing.
Well, I would have to say I feel pretty lucky. Iíve tried to balance it, you know. I try to look at what I do as - everybody has a job and the important thing is to do whatever you do to the best of your ability, and to feel real passion and pride in that job. And I donít consider it a better job or a worse job than anyone elseís in terms of status, - say it's just what Iíve been chosen to do.
This is what I do better than anything else I can do. Thereís no way I could, you know, teach as well as I can write, or be an architect. So I feel lucky that I can do it and it just seems like the natural job for me. Iím always surprised when I donít do it for a while and then when I get back into it how fast it all comes together for me.
It would certainly be second nature after all these years. And youíve never really done anything else,
it sounds like.
Thatís true. Youíre right. I worked for the civil service for a while, you know. Had a lot of those sort of
ďJoe jobsĒ where you get paid two bucks an hour when I was starting out. Nothing that was of a skilled nature.
Talk a little bit about your parents. They seem to have an interesting story, having moved from the
States to Canada to, what, find an atmosphere of greater tolerance?
Yes, ícause my dad was black, my momís white, and they got married in í53 in America, at a time when interracial marriages were not looked upon with the greatest of understanding. My dad had been studying in Canada and thought it was a much more tolerant place, so they moved to
Canada and started their adult lives, and their family, in Canada and never looked back.
And did they in fact find Canada to be much more tolerant of their situation?
It was. I mean, Canada certainly can be very racist, and was very racist, so I donít want to suggest that there was anything utopian about Canada. It was just a little more subtle, and sometimes that can be just as bad, if not worse. So the anger and the antipathy towards blacks, or towards interracial marriages, wasnít as powerful or as overt as it was in America at the time, but it still could be there behind your backs, you know. They wouldnít say to your face, ďIím not renting to you ícause youíre black.Ē They would just say, ďIím not renting to you ícause itís already been rented,Ē you know.
Do you feel, looking around you today, that thatís changing? Is it the same or is there a true
Oh, the tolerance toward interracial marriages has absolutely, totally changed. Itís so usual now to see mixed race couples or mixed race kids, whereas that just wasnít usual, you know. People would go up to my mom when sheíd be with one of us and say, ďDid you adopt that child?Ē They just couldnít accept that it could have been hers. That would never happen now.
How many children were you?
You say your brother became a novelist. Who was the other sibling?
My sister. Sheís a writer too. Unpublished, but she is a very good writer. So all three of us sort of had an affinity for words. Itís just that I also happened to have the music thing at the same time.
Yeah, they could be quite inspiring, I must say.
I know youíve lost your father. Is your mother still around?
Yeah, my momís still doing well. Thanks for asking.
Tell that story of visiting your father in the hospital and playing that song. I was quite touched by
that [at the Bluebird performance].
Um, okay, you mean ďDaddyís SongĒ?
íCause thereís a couple of stories and Iíve written a lot of songs about my dad. That one I wrote just before he had his first leg amputated, ícause he had complications due to diabetes. And because I have diabetes too, I guess it had even more of a profound impact on me ícause I could see it as a mirror image of me. And so I couldnít express how I was feeling, just this horrible feeling of foreboding. And then I went and wrote this song called ďDaddyís Song,Ē which is about all my different relationships with my father through the years, and the fear of knowing that I was going to lose him. And I finished that song and then played it to him after his operation. He came through that operation okay. And then at another time, actually, when he was in the hospital, I went and played live on CBC radio and I sang that song, and he sat in the hospital room with my mom and the nurses and listened to the radio as I dedicated it to him.
Wow. So by the end of his life I take it he had become quite adjusted to your career choice?
Oh yeah. Once I started getting on the radio . . . radio seems to be that thing for some people, for whatever reason, that makes them think that youíre successful. So once I got on the radio all bets were off, kind of.
Didnít you say that you were the first in your family not to receive a university degree?
Yeah, my parents and grandparents, they all had PhDs, actually. Iím Daniel Grafton Hill IV and I was the first one not only not to get a PhD but not even to go to university, so that was quite a scandal at the time.
Do you regret that?
No. Not in the slightest. I think the education that you provide for yourself is probably much more valuable in the long run. Well, also thereís something about pop music. Kind of the moment is now.
You canít wait, sometimes, or the moment is past forever.
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