The Popdose Interview: Debbie Gibson
If you want to feel inspired, spend a few minutes talking with Debbie Gibson. Certainly, you’re probably aware of the chart success that Gibson enjoyed in the ‘80s, beginning with her first single “Only in My Dreams” in 1987, the first of five Top 40 singles that she would notch from her debut album Out Of The Blue.
The first three singles from Out Of The Blue charted Top 5 and with her fourth single “Foolish Beat,” Gibson would become the youngest artist (at age 17) to ever write, produce and perform a Billboard #1 single, an accomplishment that remains unbeaten more than two decades later.
Gibson faced challenges while working for the chance to record and release that first album and single, but she fought hard and the story of how Gibson stuck with the songs that she believed in — those very same songs that would be massive chart hits only a few years later, is a good one.
In recent years, she’s been working for a variety of causes, including her own Gibson Girl Foundation and the Electric Youth performing arts camp, using her experiences to mentor young talent from all walks of life who are now chasing their own dreams of future success.
Her latest role as celebrity ambassador for HooplaHa.com is a natural fit. The organization is dedicated to making it easy to find good content…about real people doing good things that are part of everyday life. As their website notes, “our goal is simple: serve up one inspiration that will make you think, relate and smile each and every day.”
It was a lot of fun talking with Debbie, who spoke honestly and openly about the obstacles she faced on the way to success and how she’s using those past challenges to inspire today’s future stars.
There are so many ambitious ideas, people and organizations seeking to do good things. I’m sure that you get pitched quite a few ideas on a daily basis. What was it about Hooplaha that rose to the surface and stuck out as something you wanted to do?
You know, I just feel like there is obviously a reality going on in this country right now that is not always so pleasant. There’s a lot of bad news out there and I felt like this website, there are things [on it] designed just to make you laugh and make you smile, but then there are actual pieces on real people doing great things. We can tend to forget those people and those great stories in the midst of a lot of bad news. It just felt like a really great fit.
I felt like it was a way to promote a lot of different charities I was involved in and not only just charities, but again, just cool things that kind of, you do in your life in a bubble, Hooplaha takes that and elevates it and spreads it around. You know, I recently shot a piece with them [featuring] David Jackson from Zoo To You – they actually provided the animals when I presented on the Emmys with Jack Hanna. I don’t know if you saw that, but it was one of the most fun showbiz experiences of my life, because when do you get to be on an award show stage with an alligator? [Laughs]
It was like the most bizarre, coolest thing and it’s like “oh my God, I get to share this with people.” There are different stories on different topics and maybe something will resonate with somebody out there and they’ll get involved in some kind of organization or whatever that I’m promoting. It’s just really a way to spread positive and motivational things and I’m all about that.
There’s a lot of cool stuff on the site. I particularly enjoyed getting to see the video of Randy Bertisch, someone you got to meet, who was in an awful auto accident in 1988, spent a lot of time battling back from that and now is using his energies into doing good things for similarly challenged youth, getting them into gyms and things like that. It’s very inspiring to see.
Yeah, he started a wheelchair gym program [for kids] around the country and it’s like, I was boarding a flight the other day and there literally was a woman with like a sprained wrist, pushing and shoving saying “I’m a pre-board, I’m a pre-board” and I thought about Randy. I thought “how would she have survived what this man survived? And he doesn’t look for any sympathy and he had a half a percent of a chance to live and has parlayed what some people would have seen as the death of them into such an amazing, positive thing that it really is a reminder of what the human spirit can overcome, as cliched as that sounds, it’s the truth.
Hooplaha is something that doesn’t seem to fall too far from your own personal constitution of what you’ve already been doing up until now, with mentoring young talent and things like that. What did Hooplaha want from Debbie Gibson?
You know, I just think they wanted to put a face in entertainment that people are familiar with and I was just happy to draw more attention to this site. I feel like anything in my life and in my career that I’ve ever done, has been authentic. It’s like, when I was a kid, I turned down a whole lot of money to do a whole lot of things that just didn’t feel right. This was a case where I felt like “you know what, this is just a no-brainer.” It’s a great fit and I think that they wanted me to obviously promote what they were already doing and they wanted me to bring my stories to their fans and their world and that’s what I’ve been doing.
Watching that first video with Leilah Ali, how close is her storyline to what you experienced as a young developing artist?
Let’s just put it this way, I didn’t have anybody like me, mentoring me, so that’s why I love being that person. For instance, she called me and said “hey, we wrote this song in the camp and I’d love to do it” and I’ve had friends in the business that are signed artists and published writers that have said to me, “I don’t want to work with young unsigned people, what’s in that for me?” And I thought “oh God, I never want to hear that come out of my mouth.” I want to be the person that says yes to young people and let them feel like “oh my God, I’ve got somebody with experience working with me.”
And I love that shows like The Voice have come along, because who better to be a voice and an inspiration to an artist than a fellow artist who has been there and done it? So I love that I can just be somebody motivational. I loved working with Leilah because she came in very pitch perfect and pretty voice and I shook her up a little bit! I was like “okay, now let’s get a little bit more raw emotion out of you” and I just loved the look on her face when a vocal came out of her mouth in a little bit of a reckless manner, something that she didn’t expect and it was in the moment and she surprised herself with what she could do.
I do a lot of work with the arts and I have a foundation called the Gibson Girl Foundation and I also did a benefit recently called Benefit With Friends that is also for a local arts program out here in L.A. and it’s so important, arts funding and working with young kids. Again, Hooplaha was like “look, whatever you’re organically involved in, make that what we do the segments on and we’ll help spread the word” so it’s a very, very cool thing.
You dish out some really good advice in the opening moments of that video, talking about how “you could rely on people to write you hit songs or you can take matters into your own hands and you can choose to express yourself.” The credibility of that advice is backed up in a big way when you look at the songwriting credits on your first album, all of which you wrote.
Thank you. Yeah and especially I think that young girls in the business are often made to feel like puppets and I think it’s really important to empower kids in general, but especially the girls, because when I first started, the writing and the producing side of the industry was very male-dominated. And it still is, I mean, it’s gotten better, but it was always basically like “okay, little girl, shut up and sing and look cute.”
I love being able to do my mentoring programs with kids and say “okay, what happened at school today” and they go “well, you know, I was bullied,” and I go “okay great, we’re going to write a song about bullying” and I try to get into their heads and just show them how they can start thinking in terms of songwriting as an outlet and think more like Taylor Swift. It sounds like she’s strumming her guitar and singing her diaries, you know? And why is that reserved for older male experienced writers? They shouldn’t have the monopoly on that, so it’s been really rewarding. I was lucky enough to have my parents, especially my mom, really say “you know what, those songs you’re writing are as good as anything out there, let’s see what we can do with that.” I had that belief and that support around me and if I could be that to other kids now, that’s a really cool thing.
Do you think it’s harder now for someone like Taylor Swift in comparison to what you experienced coming up? Because now, if you’re a new or newer artist like Taylor Swift, you’ve got bloggers writing mean things, harsh Youtube comments and it seems like for someone like a Taylor Swift, there’s a lot more to contend with than just things like touring and dealing with hecklers and nasty concert reviews.
Yeah, I think it’s a very different world. It’s like there are pros and cons to when I started. When I first started, I was doing three shows a night, four nights a week and I had to build my following like a hundred people at a time. Now, on one hand, there’s something great about that. Because I got to make my mistakes as you pointed out, anonymously. There was no Youtube. If I flubbed some lyrics, a million people weren’t laughing about it the next day or whatever. But at the same time, it was a blinding period of activity.
The first year or two of an artist’s career back then, you put out a lot of energy and by the time my first hit happened, I was already exhausted. Now, people come out fresh as a rose and it’s like day one, a million people hear the new song and you’re off and running. But at the same time like you said, the flip side of that coin is that you just can’t live your life. You can never be in a bubble, you’re always display. And I would think that psychologically, I’m sure that there are a lot of therapists, especially here in L.A., employed by teenagers. Because that is a lot to contend with. So I do feel for them in terms of social media.
I had wanted to ask you about that, because I saw you talk about it in one of the videos. Those club shows, were those before or after the Out Of The Blue album came out?
That was before. “Only In My Dreams” came out and everyone went “she’s an overnight sensation” and meanwhile it was actually 65 weeks after its release that it went to the top of the charts. And it was 65 weeks of pounding the pavement and shaking every radio program director’s hand around the country and singing at every free radio event and you really had to show up. Now, I think that artists do more select dates and they do the big awards shows and again, with the power of Youtube, things [just happen so much faster].
In a day, one performance can spread like wildfire, whereas it used to be that when you did a live performance, it was just live, it was just a moment in time for those people that were in the audience and no one else ever saw it. So there are parts of me that are like “dang it, I wish Youtube” was around when I was doing Les Miserables on Broadway [in the early ‘90s], because people today might go “what were you doing all of those years” and there’s a part of me that wishes everybody could have shared in that experience but that was a different time.
At the same point, wouldn’t you say that at that time, there was more energy invested in artist development?
Absolutely. Yes. I think that now it’s a little bit more of a singles world in the sense that you go on iTunes and you can buy one song and somebody might just have one hit and that’s it. Yes, there was definitely a lot of care at the major labels in developing artists and creating an album that was cohesive and sent you on a journey or told a story. It’s definitely changed a lot.
There’s a tradeoff, because there was no Youtube, but at the same time, people were willing to invest more in the career of an artist than perhaps they are now.
Yeah, you know, it’s funny. I feel like I might not have as many Twitter followers as somebody that has a hit on the radio today, but my followers are so loyal. They know everything about my career and they’re not just here when there’s hype and that’s a great feeling. I go and perform – I was in Orlando a couple of weeks ago and I was in Palm Springs last month – these fans are diehard and their loyal because they shared that building experience with me. They remember that first time that they heard “Only In My Dreams” on the radio and they remember being at some club in the middle of the country at two in the morning and out I came on stage. So I do think that there’s a depth and a loyalty factor that runs through the fanbase that started before the internet became what it is.
What did it take to convince a major label like Atlantic Records to take the gamble on an album full of songs from a songwriter whose future chart success was still unproven at that point?
Well, you know, it’s a great question. At the time, it was like, my mom helped me find my way to an entertainment attorney who happened to know someone kind of working in the back office of the dance department and they actually heard literally a hundred songs of mine, because they were like “okay, that’s a good song, but this must be a fluke” and it’s like “really?”
And even before they invested, because all they invested to begin with was like five grand and they did a dance single and they sent me on a little tour and they basically said “good luck, kid” and if this goes Top Ten on the dance charts, we’ll release it to the radio and if it goes Top Five on the Billboard charts, then we’ll do another single. They kind of set me up for failure. They set these milestones that I think they thought were impossible and I saw it as “great, I’m going to get to the Top Five on that Billboard chart, because I want to do an album.”
By the time the single was hitting, they were like “quick, we need the whole album in six weeks” and thank goodness I had all of the material ready to go. We churned that first album out in six weeks, which was crazy. There were like three different co-producers and I was running around to different studios between Brooklyn and Manhattan and Miami and you kind of hear that energy captured on that album. It’s not like this flawless album, but there are hits like “Out of the Blue” and “Foolish Beat,” which I remember being sick as a dog recording and there was no other day to record it. It had to be done that day and that ended up being my first number one. I learned a lot at that time, about that, that it’s about the power of the songs and the energy that you capture – it’s not about being perfect. I think that’s why that album resonated with people, because it was so pure. I went at it my own way and I was just doing it because I was young and excited and out it came.
In another one of the Hoolaha videos, you tell the story of getting rejected by Star Search in double digits. What kept you moving forward?[Laughs] Well you know, it’s funny, it’s a timely thing now, because we have American Idol and we have The Voice and I watch these kids feel like it’s the end of their career and meanwhile, they’ve even made it to the TV show and they’ve made it to the final round and I never even made it onto Star Search and I remember auditioning as a kid and I remember the casting director, she was the only one on my side and she was always like “I don’t know why they have not put you on this show” and I said “I don’t know either” and I joke in the video that my songs didn’t have [Gibson demonstrate the bravado of the vocal of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”] like Sam Harris, who is now a really good friend of mine.
But it’s true, I think that my voice and the music that I was doing, which was my original music, it had a little edge and I don’t mean that as in angst or anything, but my voice was never like this flawless Broadway belty voice and especially at that time, I was a little out of the box and I was like “hey, I’m going to do a song I wrote” and they were like “what? Sing us some schmaltzy ballad and maybe we’ll put you on.” So I remember them kind of going “yeah, good luck kid with these songs, you know how hard it is to have a hit these days” and all of that and thank God I didn’t listen. I was kind of like “well, they if don’t get it, someone else will.”
One of the things that you’re able to speak with authority on is the concept of dealing with rejection and turning that into a positive, which is something that you speak eloquently about when talking about the Star Search stuff and also some of the challenges that you faced when trying out for various parts that later ended up being successful jobs for you. Looking at your music career, I think it’s likely that you would have hoped to keep the musical success that you had with those first two albums going. How hard was it to redraw the business plan for where you were going, when that didn’t happen?
Obviously when you’re a kid, you think “oh my God, I’m going to have hits every year for the rest of my life.” But I think at a certain point, you also realize that’s exhausting to keep up. I look at somebody now like Rihanna and I think “how does that girl have time to breath?” She’s on the radio like every month with a new single and for me, the pop music scene, it was so saturated at a certain point and there was a huge pop backlash. At a certain point it was like New Kids [On The Block] are out, Debbie Gibson is out, Seattle grunge is in [and] welcome Nirvana, we want an alternative to all of this goodie goodie bubblegum music.
You know, I never was a strategizer and I’m still not. I always just went with my heart and my gut and I remember, I always wanted to do Broadway and it felt like “oh, well you know what, this feels like the right moment to revisit the Les Mis producers,” who I had auditioned for when I was like 15, right before I started recording. It just felt like that moment, because it was a way for me to keep doing what I love to do and be on top of my game but not to be reliant on popularity and radio and trends and hype, so it ended up being a perfect segue. And I don’t even think I ever really expected to do show after show after show the way that I did. I counted at one point, I did 17 musicals in 17 years, so when people now say “God, what have you been doing all of these years,” I’m like “eight shows a week, pretty much, for the better part of 17 years” between Broadway, national tours and regional theater.
And it’s cool, because I got out of my system, playing every dream role a female would want to play in their 20s and 30s. And now I’m at the point where I’m going back into music and writing new stuff and I feel really refreshed and invigorated and I’ve lived a lot of life now and have a lot of great things to write about again. So I’m glad that I didn’t have hits all of those years, because honestly, I enjoy being in a little bit more of a theater bubble and getting to live my life. I’m in a great position that I’ll go out and about and people recognize me and they’ll say hi, but I can still have my normal life. It’s not like I’m in this place where like a Justin Timberlake [is] who probably can’t go grocery shopping in peace. I can and I can still go onstage and perform for 5000 people. It’s like the best of all worlds for me. I think that if I had hits year after year for the last 25 years, I’d probably be insane right now and I’m not. [Laughs]