Popdose Q&A: Richard Marx on Breaking Rules and His New Album, “Beautiful Goodbye”

Written by Music, Popdose Interviews

Richard Marx joins us to talk about his new album Beautiful Goodbye, writing songs with Ringo Starr and why it’s okay to break all of the rules.

In the ‘80s it was hard to imagine that there would be a time that Richard Marx would be anywhere but all over the radio. By the time he wrapped up touring for his self-titled 1987 debut, Marx had sold more than four million copies of the album, which charted in the Top 10 of the Billboard Album charts, lodging four consecutive hit singles inside the Top 5, including his first number one single, “Hold On To The Nights.”

But even then, Marx was already multi-tasking, having done plenty of work singing background vocals with folks like Lionel Richie and Chicago, while co-writing hit records for other artists like Kenny Rogers, who charted high with “Crazy” and “What About Me,” both early co-writes with Marx. Even as Marx shifted into his own career, he was still finding success with songs that he had given to other artists, like Vixen’s “Edge Of A Broken Heart” and the Tequila Sunrise soundtrack smash “Surrender To Me,” sung by Heart’s Ann Wilson and Robin Zander of Cheap Trick.

As Marx’s own album sales began to cool off a bit in the early ‘90s, he found himself in a position where he was able to break out of the box and focus nearly exclusively on songwriting for others which gave him the freedom to write for nearly any genre of music that he could conjure up a song for. It was a smart move that in fact, kept Marx all over the radio — writing successful singles for other artists. When it goes to number one and you wrote it, does it really matter if your name is next to the title?

Marx acknowledges that it was a leap of faith of sorts, but at the time, it was one that he felt perfectly comfortable with.

“On one hand I think it was one of the smartest things I could have done. Because I essentially reinvented myself as a writer/producer for hire and potentially extended my musical career by any number of years, because I’m still doing it — I’m still co-writing with people. I think that had I not done that at the time, I might have…I mean I could have maybe always ultimately done it, but I felt like the timing was what it needed to be.”

But he’s also continued to find time to be an artist himself, which brings us around to Beautiful Goodbye, his latest studio album, which was released at the beginning of the summer. (You can check out the recently released video for the title track, which features Daisy Fuentes, who co-wrote the song with Marx.) The album finds Marx exploring the more sensual side of his songwriting and incorporating some sonic influences from both Latin and EDM music that have been a heavy presence on his own personal playlist in recent years.

We got in touch with Marx to find out more about the album and also discuss his current activities including some of his latest songwriting collaborations. As always, it was an engaging conversation that touched on a lot of different subjects.

The last time we spoke, you had just written a tune with Ringo and you were just about to write another one. How did that experience wrap up? Did you guys stop at two?

Yeah, we stopped at two. I don’t know what’s going on the record yet, but he sort of broke protocol and wrote two songs with the same guy, I guess for the first time, so I was thrilled. The first song we wrote was sort of based upon a track that he had already created and we just sort of wrote to the track. But I had an idea for a totally different kind of song, so he was luckily open to me just bringing over my guitar and showing it to him for the ground up. Then we just dove into the lyrics — so I hope they both make it, because I really love both songs. One of them’s just a really fun blues-rock song and then the other is kind of a mid-tempo song we wrote about his relationship with his wife, so I’m hoping that they both make it.

When you start writing a song with him from the ground up, where do you start?

Well, I approach it the same way that I approach anybody that I’m writing with, which is to do my homework before. Look, we all know Ringo’s voice and we all know…you know, a lot of the people that I’m lucky enough to collaborate with are people that have had hit records with and have been around. So you’re aware of their past, but I always like to go in and try to add something to their catalog that’s different than what they’ve done. So I approach it as a fan and I go into it thinking, “What’s missing from their repertoire that I can maybe come up with that will still fit.” Then you’ve just got to be aware — like, I’m very aware of Ringo’s range and where he’s comfortable singing — and then you just go from there. Then it’s just bouncing ideas off of people and it either vibes or it doesn’t.

Were you actually around when he recorded it and fleshed it out?

No, he pretty much does that with his production team and he kind of does it very piecemeal, like when he feels like going down the hall to the studio in his house, he’ll go down and work and he works at whatever hours he feels like. Sometimes, he’ll get different people over to play on different things. He had me come over and sing background vocals on stuff, but it’s very piecemeal. He’s smart about it, he’s like, “Fuck it, I’ll do it when I feel like doing it.” He doesn’t feel any pressure to get a record done. He does it whenever he feels like it.

You described your new album as the first time that you’d consciously made a new collection of songs in a long time and in a real focused way. What was it that really got you inspired to make this new album?

Well, in between the writing that I do with other artists, I’m always writing ideas and fleshing out songs for myself. They may not ever make an album or they may take a different form altogether down the road. But I’m just always writing — I’m never in a lull period. It was right around when I was writing with Ringo, I think, last year. I just realized that I had written a few songs that felt like they really went well together. I didn’t do it consciously, I was just listening to songs that I had recorded and written and I realized that there were a few songs that kind of were in a direction and it was a much more sensual, sexy vibe than I have traditionally written.

You know, perhaps less romantic and less classic poetry romantic and just more about the pursuit of someone and more about the early stages of a relationship where it’s hot. You know, not like I’m trying to make a Barry White record or something like that, but I just found that both musically and lyrically, I had a few songs that felt like they were teammates. So then I just thought, “You know, I think there’s a lot of material to write in that vein,” so I just got really inspired and wrote another seven or eight songs and I ended up collaborating on a couple of songs with different people and just recorded as I went. Again, there was no sense of pressure or [thoughts of] putting a record out, I was just going to get it as I felt like doing it and the next thing I knew, the album was done.

When I got to see you play “Turn Off The Night” earlier this year, that was one that instantly hit me as, “Wow, he’s done it again — there’s another one of those songs that just sounds like a signature Richard Marx song.” I was really interested to hear that was going to fit in context with the rest of the record. How easy was it for you to make all of this stuff fit together as an album?

Well, I think if I’m really being honest, the reason that “Turn Off The Night” is on the album, is because of the reaction of people, like you just mentioned. I do love the song and I played it live a few times, but I never really intended it to be on the album, because i doesn’t really fit the album. It’s not sexy and it’s not sensual and maybe in retrospect, I wouldn’t have put it on the album, just for sheer consistency sake, but there was just something so hypnotic about that song and so simple about it and people’s reaction to it was so strong that I just felt like, “Okay, this is just a different chapter — this is the end of a relationship and this is the aftermath.”

You know, I wrote that song with David Hodges, who is a great songwriter and a friend of mine and we weren’t writing that song for me — we were writing just a song to pitch to somebody and I didn’t realize as we were writing it, really until I sang the demo, how much it was hitting home for me. You know, sometimes that happens, you just unconsciously write stuff that you don’t realize in the moment is really resonating with you until later. So I guess even though it doesn’t really fit the concept of the record, because it does resonate with me emotionally, that was the other reason I put it on the record. And I love it, I think it’s a good song and hopefully it’s one of those songs that will last for a while.

I think so. When you have somebody like you who has written a lot of songs, I think that sometimes you’ll hear songwriters talk about how they struggle to write that next song that’s in that vein that’s going to make the kind of impact that whatever one of their hit songs in the past has made. How much do you struggle with that element of songwriting?

I think when you’ve been writing songs as long as I have, you do find yourself convincing yourself that you have a formula — not to write hit songs — I’ve never written a song that I thought was a hit at the time. Every song that’s become a hit, all of those songs that I wrote were just songs that I liked. Whatever happens to them — there are so many songs that I’ve written that I liked more than the songs that were hits. So I’m never going to be somebody who is going to sit here and bullshit you and tell you that I think I know what a hit song is — I don’t know, I just write songs that I like. But along the way, when you’ve been doing it for decades, you do fall into….not routines, but there’s a way that I write songs, generally.

Once in a while, you break out of that and that’s when I think the magic happens, is when you kind of break your own rules or you just don’t pay attention to your own rules and that’s kind of hard to do when you’ve been doing it as long as I have. You know, it happened on this album with the title track, “Beautiful Goodbye,” which is a song that I wrote with Daisy Fuentes, who is a very successful model and TV host and she has a clothing line — she is a very successful woman, but she’s never written a song before and we wrote the lyrics together. But because she didn’t have any concept of lyrical rules of songwriting or a message — she’d never done this before, so she was just sort of saying things, stream of consciousness.

It was really liberating for me to collaborate with her, because instead of trying to make her apply the rules to what we were doing, I was like, “Let’s just completely approach this with no rules whatsoever.” So I just wrote it from almost the same perspective, like, “Let’s just say it — let’s just say whatever comes to our minds” and I’m not going to overthink it or over-songwriter it. I think for that reason alone, it’s probably my favorite song on the album, just because it doesn’t sound like any other song I’ve ever written.

How did she wind up writing that one with you?

I had written a piece of music and she heard it and she said, “You know, for whatever it’s worth, when I hear this music, it makes me think that it would be really cool if you wrote a song that’s a break-up song, but it’s not a mournful suffering song that’s mourning the end of a relationship, but rather celebrating that you had this beautiful time and yeah, it came and it went and it was over. It’s almost like, if you as a man could sing a song to a woman saying, ‘Look, it is over between us, but it was beautiful and you know what? Why don’t we spend one more night together and really celebrate it and then tomorrow? Peace out!’”

I’ve never heard a song like that, that’s certainly sexy or doesn’t sound like the guy is being an asshole. So that was the whole point of the song, was to be really brutally sexual about it and to not hold back and at the same time, be tender and sensual with it. I think the fact that we pulled it off is quite a feat. I wouldn’t have come up with the idea — it was Daisy’s idea, so as she was describing the idea, I said, “You know, why don’t you just write the lyrics with me — you’ve got a lot of great ideas already that you’re saying.”

Since you mentioned songs that you liked better than some of your hits, what would some of those be that come to mind? Is there one that got away?

Well, it’s funny that you say that, because I wrote a song called “The One That Got Away,” with Kenny Loggins, about six or seven years ago, which he recorded. That’s as special of a song as I’ve ever been part of. You know, we wrote that song together because he was estranged from one of his sons and it was really very painful for him. He and I are great friends, so we had had many dinner conversations about it. So I wrote this piece of music one morning and Kenny was at my house hanging out for a couple of days and I woke up with this melody in my head and I played it for him and he said, “Oh my God, it’s beautiful — let’s work on it.” We started to write it and he said, “You know, I really want to write this about Cody.” Once we knew what the song was about, it was such a heart wrenching experience…I’ve never experienced anything like this, where it was like a therapy session all day, pulling the truth out of the lyrics.

I think it’s an absolutely breathtakingly beautiful song, but the best part is that when it was finished, he took it and he played it for his son and they mended their relationship because of the song. To me, that’s about as good of a reason to write a song as I’ve ever experienced. So that’s definitely one. But there’s songs I’ve recorded over the years that I’ve written — there’s a song from 10 years ago called “One Thing Left To Do,” that I’ve played live many times and that’s one of those songs that always gets an amazing reaction live, but people don’t know it if they didn’t buy that album, My Own Best Enemy, then they don’t know that song. There’s a song from my third album Rush Street called “Calling You” that I wrote about losing loved ones that again was never a single, but I would hold up as arguably a better song than some of the songs that became the hits. There’s quite a few others — there’s always album tracks on every album that I prefer to the hits. But I think that almost any artist will tell you that.

Speaking of Kenny Loggins, I was interested to see your name in the credits of that Blue Sky Riders album for “Little Victories.” What was the origins of that track?

That was just a song that Kenny and I started at my house one day, years ago. We knew we had something started that was really great, but we’d just never gotten around to finishing it. We’d get distracted and we ended up writing a couple of other songs and not coming back to it and it was just one of those things that we knew there was something there, but neither of us cracked the code on it. But then he played it for Georgia [Middleman] and she loved the beginning of it and she ended up having some ideas, so he called me and said, “Is it okay if I finish this with Georgia” and I said, “Yeah, absolutely,” so it ended up on the Blue Sky Riders record.

Your love for EDM music partly inspired some of these new songs. As a songwriter, how easy is it to listen to stuff like that and then put your songwriting into a similar zone that you have an idea will probably work for what you do artistically? Did you feel like you could go walking far out on the wire, or were there some limits as song ideas started to percolate?

No, I think it actually helped my songwriting, because it kept it more concise. The one thing about EDM music that I love is that it’s not trying to reinvent the wheel. It’s very rare that you hear chord changes that are surprising or adventurous. It’s really pretty simple, but the musical and sonic landscape is what’s so compelling about it. So I thought, “If I stick to really simple chord changes, then that’s going to force me to write better melodies to keep it interesting.” I really sort of took a page from that production and that kind of sonic approach and I felt like it was just good for my voice.

You know, there’s just a couple of songs, the single, “Whatever We Started” is very much influenced by some of those record that I had been listening to and loving and it’s definitely an area that I want to keep going deeper into, now that I’m hearing more and more of that music and I’ve done a little bit of work with Morgan Page — he’s a great EDM DJ and artist — we actually wrote another song that will be coming out at some point later that I think is really cool. It’s very much an EDM track from beginning to end, but it’s still very much a Richard Marx song at the same time — not to talk about myself in the third person. [Laughs] So yeah, I’m really fascinated to continue that hybrid of what I do naturally along with the sonic landscape of EDM music — I think that there’s maybe a whole another album of that left in me.

For many years, you’ve worked within the traditional landscape of guitar, bass, drums — the traditional instrumentation. How comfortable were you as you started to incorporate more electronics into your compositions?

Well, I mean, it was a decision based upon a love for a sound, just like the other records I’ve made. I’m definitely a product of my influences, so a few years ago I wrote songs because I was listening to Foo Fighters nonstop and some of them sound like they could be from Foo Fighters records. I just happened in the last couple of years to be listening to predominantly EDM music and more synth-pop stuff, so it influenced some of this record. But I think the majority of this record, you know, there’s only a couple of tracks I think that really apply to that. I think the biggest influence on this record was Latin music. There’s a song called “Suddenly” that’s essential a samba — very classic samba, almost like old Antonio Carlos Jobim and Sergio Mendes. So I kind of embraced that more than I did anything else, because you know, Latin music tends to be pretty sexy and that’s kind of what I was going after with this record.

One of the highlights of your recent shows is how you use a bit of technology to fly in your boys to play a song with you. Did you get a chance to collaborate with them at all for any of the stuff on this record?

Not really. The only thing that I did do was when I was working on a track called “Forgot To Remember,” I played it for my middle son Lucas and he loved it and he said, “You know, I love the drum program you came up with, but I think you could combine that with more of an EDM beat and it will still work.” So he came up with a drum groove that we incorporated into it that I think really kind of took it to a higher level. But aside from that, no. I did most of the record in L.A. and my boys are scattered, you know, they’re in Chicago and my youngest son, Jesse, is in a band called For All I Am and he’s touring, so they didn’t really contribute much. It was really just Lucas on that one track.

With the new record out now, have you been working more of the material into the live set?

Well, I haven’t really done any band shows yet except for the Today Show, where I played “Forgot To Remember” with a different band altogether than I’m used to working with. I did a little bit of work on the album with a guitar player named Jay Blynn and he has a band called Mosco Rosco, formerly Harper Blynn. I met them through Sara Bareilles, who is a friend of mine, and they’ve done a lot of work with her. I love the band and Jay and I became pals, so he came and played guitar on “Whatever We Started” and a couple of other tracks. When it came time to do the first round of TV and I had to go to New York to do the Today Show, I just….my approach is ask for the world and whatever happens happens and I thought, “How bad ass would it be if this band was my band for the Today Show?”

They all jumped at it and they went, “Yeah, totally — we’re in!” So it was such a thrill to have them be my backing band on that show. So that’s the only band performance that I’ve done. I just came back from China, where I was doing a solo acoustic show with a string quartet. So I only did one or two songs from the record and I did a very different arrangement, obviously. So when I start touring in October, my guess is that the band and I will incorporate at least four songs from the new album. I tend to not do much more than that. As much as I’m excited about the new record, you know, the people who are paying the money to see me, they want to hear the hits. I get it, so they’ll get a little taste of the new record, but pretty much, they’ll be hearing the songs that they can sing along with and they love. The good news is that I love all of those songs too, so it’s fine.

I spoke with Glen Phillips about a year ago and he was talking about how he had been writing a lot of songs that were more acoustic in nature, prior to the Toad the Wet Sprocket reunion album, just because of all of the acoustic shows that he plays. Do you find yourself in similar writing situations, based on what you’ve got going on at the time that you’re writing songs?

No, I haven’t found that. I don’t let anything handcuff me. I figure that whatever’s in my head that needs to come out will find its avenue. I find that I don’t let my current activities or touring situation affect….nothing affects the songwriting, except my imagination. I’m working on a new song over the last couple of days that I know is not really for me — I think it’s probably for a girl artist and it’s just a big pop anthem. It’s got nothing to do with anything I’m doing really, it’s just that’s what’s in my head, so I need to purge that and then the next song will take on whatever life it takes. But no, I don’t find that any of my activities, touring or any of that stuff, affect the songwriting.

As you’ve alluded to here and there, you’re always writing. Who have you been writing with recently, collaboration-wise?

The thing I’m most excited about, and again, I don’t know if this song is going to make the final cut, but I sure hope it does — I wrote a song with Vince Gill and a girl in Nashville named Jillian Jacqueline, who I’ve been working with and producing — she’s a young singer/songwriter. I had played some of her stuff for Vince and he loves her voice, so he was kind enough to include her in the songwriting session and we wrote a song called “Take Me Down” that is my favorite thing I’ve ever done with Vince and you know, he and I have known each other a long time. I was there when he recorded it and he produced it with Justin Niebank in Nashville and it’s stunning. It’s just incredible and I can’t wait for people to hear it. I hope it makes the record. Then, Vince and I wrote another song that’s really just a fun uptempo song for his record.

Working with him is always an honor — we’re great friends, but I just have so much respect for him. I wrote with Darius Rucker, which was surprisingly fun and easy. Again, I don’t know what’s going to happen with those songs, but we wrote a couple of songs when I was there in Nashville six or eight weeks ago. I just wrote a song for Dave Koz, the instrumental artist. He’s doing a Christmas album and we go back a long way. He was actually the sax player in my very first touring band. So he asked me to write a song for his Christmas album and I wrote a song with a great Nashville writer named Trey Bruce. I ended up singing the vocal on the track and Dave’s playing sax. I think there were a couple of other things, but those are the ones that come to mind that are the most recent.

When you look back at your first couple of albums, there were some things like the live video that came out from that first album. Has there ever been any talk about doing expanded editions of your records? Would there be stuff, such as songs from the period that we haven’t heard, to flesh those out?

Not really. I pretty much wrote for the record and there were very few castaways. Certainly, there was nothing from the first album — everything that I recorded for the first album is already out. The second album, there was a song that I had recorded and mixed that was “the ballad” for the record and then I wrote “Right Here Waiting” and I didn’t want them to both live on the album, so I took the one big power ballad off the record and that’s never really been heard. I’m trying to think beyond that, you know, I didn’t write and record songs much [that weren’t released] — there may be a couple of songs here and there, but they ended up being B-sides to singles or used on the European or Asian releases, so no, I don’t think there’s much to expand. I think it just is what it is.

Fee Waybill was one of your collaborators for a number of years — how did you first connect with Fee?

I had just moved to L.A. and I was 18 or 19 and I was a big fan of David Foster’s and I knew a guy who knew David. David was nice enough to invite me to a studio where he was recording and this was before David really kind of broke big as a producer, but I was a fan of his already. He invited me to come meet him at the studio and he was producing “She’s A Beauty” for the Tubes and I was a Tubes fan, so when I walked in, I was thrilled that it was a Tubes session. Fee and I just hit it off immediately. We met that day and he was really cool and we traded numbers and then David actually suggested that Fee reach out to me to write with him for his solo record, because right after the Outside Inside Tubes record, Fee did a solo record for Capitol and David said, “You know, that kid you met at the studio, he’s a decent writer, you should see what you guys come up with.” So we wrote a song together for Fee’s solo album and I ended up singing background vocals on the whole album and working on it. He just became my lifelong best friend — I was on the phone with him last night for an hour.

I don’t know who gets the credit for the lyric from “Too Late To Say Goodbye,” “It’s too late to say goodbye/ I’m all out of lies,” but the way that lyric is delivered and the inflection and where it’s placed in the song, it’s awesome.

Fee! My music and Fee’s lyrics and you know, that’s another one — it was a moderate hit. It wasn’t a massive hit, I think it was Top 10 or Top 12 or something like that, but yeah, I love that song. I used to open my tour with it. Fee Waybill is as good of a lyricist as I’ve ever known. My best friend aside, he is just a brilliant writer.