MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. Here we meet Glen Ballard, who, in an astonishing career, co-wrote every track on Alanis Morissette’s monster Jagged Little Pill, plus Man in the Mirror for Michael Jackson and so much more besides. Ballard was inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame earlier this summer. World’s Greatest Songwriters is supported by AMRA – the global digital music collection society which strives to maximize value for songwriters and publishers in the digital age.
When it came to writing songs for Michael Jackson, it was a case of 12th time lucky for Glen Ballard.
The young songwriter had almost had a song on Jackson’s all-conquering Thriller. He was part of Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton’s crew, and Jackson got as far as recording a demo of Ballard’s song, Nightline (eventually a minor hit for Randy Crawford), only to bump it from the album when he penned Billie Jean and Beat It (“I felt like they should have knocked my little song off!” laughs Ballard. “Those songs were so much better!”).
Several years later, the team reconvened for Bad, and Ballard submitted 10 up-tempo numbers, none of which made the grade. He was about to give up on ever writing a Jacko classic when his songwriting collaborator, Siedah Garrett, persuaded him to have one more go – this time at a ballad.
The end result was Ballard and Garrett’s Man In The Mirror, a U.S. No.1 single. As Ballard notes, “the rest is history”.
It’s that combination of providence and perseverance that has helped Ballard enjoy one of the most incredible songwriter-producer careers of all time. From bangers to ballads; from the Sunset Strip to Broadway; and from original Beatles to Beach Boys’ offspring, his songs have permeated pop culture at each and every level.
Today, we find him in New York, where his Back To The Future: The Musical opened on August 3. It’s already a smash hit in London, but Ballard is not a man to leave anything to chance. He has been attending as many previews in the Big Apple as possible, eavesdropping on audience reaction during the interval and at the end (“That feedback is more valuable than any review”).
That attention to detail began when, aged four, Ballard bemused his friends by writing his first song (he can not only still remember the buzzard-centric lyrics, but even sings it to MBW).
Growing up near New Orleans, he penned Edgar Allan Poe-inspired poetry that was so good his teachers accused him of plagiarism. And he formed a High School band that raked in the dollars at proms and dances (“I remember thinking to myself, ‘If I can continue to make money having this much fun, I’ll never get a real job’. And I don’t think I ever have!”).
Aged 21, Ballard moved to Los Angeles, with just $200 and one phone number – the golf pro at the Bel Air Country Club – in his pocket.
Remarkably, the golfer introduced him to Tutti Camarata, who ran Sunset Sound Recorders. Camarata gave him a shot at the studio, which led to stints at Elton John’s The Rocket Record Company and as a staff songwriter for MCA on the Universal Pictures lot (where he worked on everything from sitcoms to big movies). He became an in-house producer with Quincy Jones, after the super-producer called him to come and hang out at Westlake Recording Studios while George Benson cut Ballard’s song, What’s On Your Mind.
That, in turn, brought him into Jackson’s 1980s superstar orbit. But it was in the 1990s that Ballard himself really held sway.
He wrote the eternal Hold On with Wilson Phillips (featuring Brian Wilson’s daughters Carnie and Wendy Wilson alongside Chynna Phillips, daughter of John and Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas), and then took a meeting with a fading Canadian teen-pop star at a publisher’s request.
That star turned out to be Alanis Morissette and together they crafted Jagged Little Pill which, despite an almost total lack of initial record company interest, went on to become the blockbuster rock album of the decade, and a 33-million seller. Yes, that’s thirty-three million.
Work with Aerosmith, The Corrs, No Doubt, Ringo Starr (which saw him writing songs as the ex-Beatle watched), Van Halen, Annie Lennox, Shakira and a million others followed, and Ballard launched his own record label, Java Records. Amongst others, Ballard signed Katy Perry but, this time, not even his formidable talents could quite find her a breakthrough, until she later resurfaced at Capitol and became a megastar.
Having won a 2006 Grammy for Believe, Ballard’s song – written with regular collaborator Alan Silvestri – for The Polar Express soundtrack and sung by Josh Groban, he moved into show tunes with a musical version of Ghost and a stage adaptation of Jagged Little Pill, before firing up the DeLorean to make Marty McFly a star of stage as well as screen. His Augury production company develops music-driven projects across film, TV and theater, with BTTF winning a prestigious Olivier Award for Best New Musical.
“AS LONG AS I DON’T GET HIT BY A BUS, WE’RE GOING TO BE FINE.”
Ballard still writes every day. And, while these days it’s more likely to be a libretto or a chapter of his upcoming novel about the 1990s music industry (“The record company parties in 1995 were so much better! Everybody wants to go back to that!”) than a smash hit single, he still follows the charts and loves St Vincent (who featured on the soundtrack to Augury’s Netflix jazz club drama, The Eddy), Post Malone (who Ballard saw play live while being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame as part of the same intake as himself earlier this year) and Dua Lipa.
“Never mind Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour threshold, I’ve got 100,000 hours, because that’s all I do – I just sit around and write songs,” he laughs. “It’s like being an athlete; you’ve got to keep doing it until it gets better.”
Not many athletes are still setting PBs aged 70 but what Ballard’s not about to do, he makes clear as he meets MBW in between BTTF rehearsals, is slow down, let alone retire. He’s working with French electro-poppers Hyphen Hyphen, while Augury has 15 upcoming projects on its books – strikes permitting – that could require as many as 300 new Ballard songs.
“This is the beginning of a new era for our company,” he declares. “I finally know how to do a lot of things I didn’t know before. As long as I don’t get hit by a bus, we’re going to be fine!”
IS WRITING FOR a MUSICAL like Back To The Future VERY DIFFERENT TO WRITING POP SONGS?
Yes. I much prefer writing for musical theater. When you’re writing with pop artists, all they want is the hit. There are so many songs that were written to be a hit that aren’t hits, and that have almost no other emotional resonance.
Most of the hits I’ve ever written have come in conjunction with connecting with an artist and not worrying about where the hit is. If they’re really good, the hit will emerge.
In musical theater, you’re writing stories. Every song has to serve the story and the character – and you might get a hit out of that. I think we have several hits in Back To The Future, but we didn’t start out saying, ‘We’ve got to write a hit song’.
Credit: Matthew Murphy / Evan Zimmerman
PRODUCING A MUSICAL CAN BE A VERY PRECARIOUS BUSINESS…
There’s a saying: you can’t make a living in theater – but you can make a killing. Most people don’t make a living.
The threshold is so high. It’s like shelf space in a supermarket – there are only so many theaters on Broadway. So we’re always fighting for a stage. And, in the streaming era, everything goes out everywhere, all the time. In musical theater, it’s one stage at a time – it’s a completely different paradigm.
But once you have something that really works and the audience responds, it’s a completely different animal to anything that’s streaming out there. The audience is as much a part of musical theater as the performers at that point, if you have a good show.
If they leave at the interval, you’ve missed it – but nobody leaves our show in the interval.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM WORKING WITH QUINCY JONES?
That love is better than intimidation. In the studio, he was never intimidating, but always encouraging, he never once lost his cool.
He fed us like we were kings – because we were in there for three days straight, he’d always bring great food in, and he just loved us. And it was like, ‘Oh, that’s the way to make records, do it lovingly’.
I’ve worked with some producers and directors who were kind of tyrannical, but he was the opposite. You don’t compromise any standard, but the best way to get a performance is to encourage. I learned that in a big way from him.
HOW DO YOU LOOK BACK ON WORKING WITH MICHAEL JACKSON?
He was the easiest person I ever worked with. He was just such a friendly guy and he was patient. We would be in there tinkering with stuff for hours and hours – he would always go out in the studio, working on his dance moves, so I was being educated by the greatest performer of all time.
He would walk around in shoes and the toes were just crushed, because he was always doing ballet stuff. He would wear out every pair of shoes he had.
DID YOU KNOW JAGGED LITTLE PILL WAS GOING TO BE SUCH AN ENORMOUS SUCCESS?
No. We got together 20 times, we wrote 20 songs and nobody wanted to release any of it. We did not have a record company, or an A&R person – we didn’t have an adult in the room. It was literally the most intuitive record both of us have ever made.
We were about to give up when a young record executive named Guy Oseary, who was running Madonna’s label Maverick at the time, heard it and said, ‘We should do this’.
“There’s a very tenuous line between failure and success.”
There’s a very tenuous line between failure and success. That record could easily have just gone into the waste bin and no one would have ever heard it because it’s really just our demos. But somehow it got out and became the biggest record of the 1990s.
Life has a funny way of helping you out, even when you think everything has gone wrong.
HOW ABOUT WHEN YOU WRITE A SONG LIKE HOLD ON, SURELY YOU KNEW THAT WOULD BE A HUGE HIT?
No, you just want it to work. I want to hear it as a song first and, if it works as a song, then it’s like, ‘Damn, I can make a hit record out of this’. If you have a great song, it’s almost impossible to ruin it as a record. You could make a good record or a really great one, but you’re already ahead of the game.
But I’ve had more letters about Hold On than any other song. People who are desperate listen to that song, they hear ‘Hold on for one more day’ – and they do. That’s all you can ask for.
AFTER JAGGED LITTLE PILL’S SUCCESS, DID YOU GET LOTS OF REQUESTS TO DO SOMETHING SIMILAR FOR OTHER ARTISTS?
Yeah. When I ran a record label, it was the worst experience of my life. Because everybody wanted a Jagged Little Pill and it was like, ‘Nah’.
[Alanis and I] did make a second record (Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie) that I’m enormously proud of, but you can’t just do it again. There’s just too much magic that happens. When it happens that naturally and you try to force it again? Not the best idea.
All I can do is make the best record possible, but there are so many other influences: the release date, the record company, the campaign, the competition at any given time in the marketplace. I can’t control any of those things – the only thing I can control is to make a quality product.
My intention is always to make something that has lasting value. Most people right now are looking for things that just have immediate value, but I don’t think I serve an artist’s long-term career [that way].
I certainly want to make sure they have a hit, but I want to give their fingerprint a place in the market so they can have a long career.
HOW FRUSTRATING WAS IT THAT KATY PERRY DIDN’T BREAK THROUGH WHEN YOU WORKED WITH HER?
That was part of the whole label experience. It was exactly like Alanis, nobody got it. It was like, ‘What is this?’ I don’t know but she’s a superstar! And so, at whatever point, my deal ran out with her – I got out of the record business and she went and became a superstar.
It was a perfect parting of the ways for me – she was the last artist I ever had on my label. I wanted out and she went on to great success. She’s the greatest. We love Katy always; she’s always going to be a dear friend.
DOES THE MUSIC INDUSTRY PLACE ENOUGH VALUE ON PRODUCERS AND SONGWRITERS?
Producers, yes. In fact, producers have become more powerful than ever right now. I’m certainly not one of those, but there’s a handful of producers that everybody wants to work with.
But the songwriting part of it is a completely different aspect. I don’t know anything about AI or having 10-15 people write a song, I’m just grateful that the authorship of my 800 or 1000 songs is well-established. Who knows what happens going forward? We have many issues.
HOW MUCH OF A THREAT IS AI?
It’s the ultimate threat to every writer in the world. It’s not just songwriters – writers of any kind are going to be replaced.
We can no longer beat a machine at chess, the machine can beat us in any maths quiz, it can remember everything we can’t remember – and now it can write songs, it can write scripts, it can make a Beatles song out of John Lennon’s voice!
“AI is the ultimate threat to every writer in the world. It’s not just songwriters – writers of any kind are going to be replaced.”
Machines already run the world – if you get on an airplane and the computer doesn’t work, you’re going to crash.
Let’s face it, they own us already. It’s a terrifying time but my name is on enough songs – they can’t take that away from me!
IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE THING ABOUT TODAY’S MUSIC INDUSTRY, RIGHT HERE AND NOW, WHAT WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
I would try to up the amount of money that people get from streaming. We’re all putting our heart and soul into it, it would be nice to get paid for it! That’s what’s going on in Hollywood right now, and the world.
“As a songwriter, how you get paid – even back in the day – is one of the most arcane things in the world. It’s all dribbling in from a million different sources – the fact that anyone ever sent me a check is nothing less than a miracle!”
There’s so much content being streamed out there and it’s all being devalued. Every content streamer [platform] is trying to devalue it all, because it’s like turning on a water tap – it’s a very tough fight but of course it would be nice to get paid more from streams.
As a songwriter, how you get paid – even back in the day – is one of the most arcane things in the world. It’s all dribbling in from a million different sources – the fact that anyone ever sent me a check is nothing less than a miracle!
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE TREND FOR SONGWRITERS TO SELL THEIR CATALOGS?
It depends on where you are in your life and career. If that’s what you want to do and somebody wants to pay you something for it, take it! But I’m so active as a writer, I am not ready for that yet.
HOW ABOUT THE TREND FOR HAVING MULTIPLE CO-WRITERS ON SONGS?
I certainly wouldn’t know how to do that with a bunch of people. The most I’ve ever had in a room is maybe two. I’m not criticizing it, but it’s not my process. I come from a strong sense of authorship, I’ve been fighting for my writing since I was four years old.
This is what I do. I don’t know how eight people do it, but I’m sure they can. It’s like how eight people have sex – I don’t know and I don’t want to know!