MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. This month we talk to George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam – better known as Boy Meets Girl, the writing duo behind some of Whitney Houston’s biggest hits and much, much more. 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.
Meet cutes don’t come any cuter.
Originally from Seattle, George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam first met at a wedding they’d been hired to perform at. They went on to not only get married themselves and have a child together, but also form a band and write the songs that would soundtrack a million other fledgling romances and lifelong matches. No wonder their band is called Boy Meets Girl.
After that initial meeting, Merrill brought Rubicam into his band Sparrow to provide a third-part harmony alongside him and his then-songwriting partner. But it was only when Rubicam heard Merrill playing music down the hall and wandered over to spontaneously sing lyrics over his melody that they realized the musical chemistry between them.
When Sparrow broke up, Merrill and Rubicam formed Boy Meets Girl and moved to Los Angeles. They ended up signing a publishing deal before a record deal which meant that, while they recorded their debut self-titled album (featuring Top 40 hit, Oh Girl), other songs of theirs were also being shopped around.
Janet Jackson turned down a little ditty called How Will I Know, but it was passed on to a then-relatively unknown singer called Whitney Houston. Houston later came back for another song, I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) meaning that, by the time Boy Meets Girl enjoyed a monster hit of their own, stone-cold 1980s classic Waiting For A Star To Fall (originally intended for Houston after it was inspired by seeing a shooting star at a Whitney concert at LA’s Greek Theatre), they’d already featured on two No.1 US hits.
Their songs had also been recorded by the likes of Dolly Parton & Smokey Robinson, Bette Midler and Deniece Williams (the pair even sang backing vocals on Williams’ No.1, Let’s Hear It For The Boy) and, for a while, pretty much everything they touched turned to gold, or even Platinum.
Promoting second album, Reel Life, Boy Meets Girl headed off on a world tour, which mainly served to teach Merrill and Rubicam that they were much happier in the studio. But, just after they’d delivered the third Boy Meets Girl album, New Dream, staff changes at RCA/BMG saw them unceremoniously dropped before it could be released.
Shocked, they largely walked away from the industry to concentrate on family life, until a knock at the door from UK songwriter/producer Eliot Kennedy got them back in the saddle, co-writing early 2000s hits for the likes of OTT and Girl Thing.
Around the same time, the pair divorced – or “transitioned out of our marriage”, as they put it – but while they’re no longer a couple, they clearly still have a rapport, constantly finishing each other’s sentences and laughing at each other’s jokes.
Their songwriting partnership, meanwhile, is now into its fifth decade and still thriving: they released the 5 EP in 2021 with another EP in the works; Waiting For A Star To Fall remains a radio perennial; and their Whitney songs continue to be rediscovered via the recent Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody biopic. They sold most of their publishing catalog to Primary Wave in 2022.
“The two of us are hungry to write again,” declares Merrill. “We’re hungry for what the next one’s going to sound like. When Shannon plops down her ideas in front of me, we still access that same wonder.”
One day, their life story will probably be turned into a rom-com blockbuster. But for now, as the duo Zoom in promptly – no waiting for a star to call here! – from separate California locations to answer MBW’s questions, it’s time to talk about perhaps the greatest love of all: songwriting.
ARE THE SONGS YOU WRITE TOGETHER DIFFERENT NOW THAT YOU’RE NO LONGER A COUPLE?
Shannon Rubicam: Well, we’re not writing about us so much anymore! But we have a similar feeling within us as we always have, tempered by longevity and life itself. We’re writing about a broader spectrum of feelings, with that overview you get with age and experience.
George Merrill: It’s helped me define the word ‘intimacy’ in a different way. Whether it’s a co-write or you’re on your own, you have to go to an intimate place to get the nugget that’s meaningful to the outside world. Shannon and I figuring out a way to continue to write has required another level of intimacy for the two of us. It’s actually been very broadening for the relationship.
SR: That sort of friendship requires a lot of trust, and songwriting together always has. You really have to trust your co-songwriter. You’ve got to be honest in your lyric writing – I’ve written lyrics that aren’t really honest to myself and they’re usually really crumby songs. You can’t finish them because you’re not starting from a real place, and you don’t have anywhere to go.
ARE YOU ABLE TO TELL EACH OTHER WHEN YOU DON’T LIKE A SONG?
GM: It’s part of the editing process, sure. We’re at another level as far as that goes. I have a pretty good idea of what and who she’s talking about when she wants to express herself, so there’s a safe room we go to where the two of us can say anything to each other.
SR: We’re kind editors, but we’re straightforward. We both usually know when something is really not working, one or the other isn’t relating to it. We’re pretty good these days at just moving on.
DO YOU KNOW WHEN A SONG IS FOR BOY MEETS GIRL AND WHEN IT’S FOR SOMEONE ELSE?
SR: Our intention was always to write for ourselves. It just so happened that we ended up with How Will I Know hitting first, as we were recording our own album.
GM: There were certain songs where we knew it was really a Boy Meets Girl song. Funnily, we assumed Waiting For A Star To Fall would be a Whitney Houston song, just because of the divinity of how it came about. But when Clive Davis passed on it, we realised it was definitely a song for us.
DID JANET JACKSON REGRET TURNING DOWN HOW WILL I KNOW?
SR: Well, Janet was working on her Control album at the time so I don’t think anyone could be disappointed having created that body of work, that was pretty ground-breaking. She made a good call that How Will I Know wouldn’t have fitted in, and it certainly benefitted us, because it ended up with Whitney.
You just can’t say enough about how powerful and beautiful Whitney’s voice is. When we first heard the recording of her singing How Will I Know, we could hardly believe it, because you don’t imagine that little song you wrote will come out with this giant track and this magnificent voice. It ended up in just the right hands.
GM: We didn’t know what Whitney Houston could do, and I don’t think Narada [Michael Walden, producer] did either. But, just as Janet Jackson came up with a new sound, so did Whitney Houston. The song that we sent wasn’t the song that ended up being recorded. The whole process was a metamorphosis.
HOW MUCH PRESSURE WAS THERE ON YOU TO WRITE A FOLLOW-UP?
SR: Obviously, we did manage to write I Wanna Dance With Somebody, but there’s certainly no guarantee from song-to-song, day-to-day, that you’ll come up with anything of interest ever again! That’s always the fear, ‘Oh my God, I don’t think I can write…’
GM: It was that moment that many writers who are as fortunate as we were with How Will I Know’s success know, how do you follow that? Can you follow it? But the two of us have never embraced writer’s block. We have our own methods of avoiding that. When we were faced with it, Shannon just went to the well and came in with the lyrics and, just like they always do, the lyrics told the tale.
ARE YOU PLEASED TO SEE THOSE SONGS BEING REDISCOVERED IN 2023?
GM: Absolutely. Telling that tale [in the biopic] was not going to be an easy thing, because we could all key on the salacious details. But they held true. I’ve seen it more than once now and it got deeper the second time. It really worked well. The first time I saw it, the subtitles were on and when Whitney’s listening to How Will I Know in Clive Davis’ office, Shannon’s name comes up because she is singing the demo. That was cool!
SR: It’s surprising too. You certainly don’t expect that, decades later, your music will have any kind of resurgence or be continuing on with revised versions and mixes and various uses throughout those decades.
TO GO FROM ALL THAT SUCCESS TO BEING DROPPED MUST HAVE BEEN ROUGH?
SR: Yeah, the dream got all tangled up. It was highly disappointing for us. Eighty groups got the axe in one week from RCA/BMG at the time and we were one of them. We only heard about it because somebody called our manager and said, ‘We read in the trades that Boy Meets Girl has been axed’. It was very discouraging. We were a week away from doing the video for what was going to be the initial single.
We’d spent eight months writing and recording, so getting our heads around the brakes screeching to a stop wasn’t easy. You hear about these things happening at the record company, a few people leave and then their whole team leaves or they’re fired – I don’t know how it works, you never really get a straight story.
Then there’s someone else in charge and they’re not attached to your album or you as a group, so they don’t feel that connection with you and that’s what happened. They also said they didn’t hear a hit on that album – that’s something I’ve never been a very good judge of.
HOW DID YOU DEAL WITH IT?
GM: Well, the two of us tried to deal with it from a business standpoint with our managers. But emotionally we didn’t understand it, we were angry. We felt we’d done our work creatively. But I stand here now and look back and yeah, I can hear some changes.
SR: If we’d been able to be more mentally, emotionally and creatively flexible we could have sat down to try and give them what they thought they needed for a complete, marketable album. I suppose that if we’d already had the right songs on the album they would have said, ‘OK, we’ll keep this album’. Unless it was just an ego thing – and we’ll never know that.
We could have re-written some songs or written a couple of new ones and that might have helped, or it might not have. But it was hard. I felt depressed, I really didn’t want to record anymore, I just wanted to be a Mom. So we exited that record company and we didn’t pursue another record deal. We just focused on family and the personal.
GM: Because of the songwriting and the success, it wasn’t like, ‘We’ve got to get out there and tour to make ends meet’. I feel a huge amount of gratitude for the situation we were in at the time, that we could walk away and redefine life as it might have been prior to the success we’d enjoyed in the 1980s.
HOW DID ELIOT KENNEDY TEMPT YOU BACK?
SR: He was just this breath of fresh air that literally blew in the door. We started doing some co-writing with him. He’s such a big-hearted, generous, excellent songwriter. He was on his way up, so everything was fresh and new to him. And he brought that back to our lives, we started writing with him and a few other people, with a modicum of success.
He got us writing again and I’m so thankful to him for that. It was one of those serendipitous things in our lives. We laughed a lot working with Eliot, he floated our boat – he probably didn’t know he was doing that, but he did.
MOST SONGWRITERS SAY IT’S EASIER TO WRITE SAD SONGS THAN HAPPY SONGS, BUT YOU SEEM TO EXCEL AT THE UPBEAT…
GM: That’s at the core of Shannon and my beliefs; you’ve got to dig that hope out and find it somehow.
SR: We both inherently trend towards optimism. That’s what we did the 5 EP, because we had a few songs that fitted our brand of optimism. They felt personal, bright and hopeful so we just thought, ‘This sounds like Boy Meets Girl, let’s record again!’ Although our previous album, The Wonderground, was very subdued, because we’d written it while we were separating and divorcing. That was our therapy!
WHAT MADE YOU DO THE DEAL WITH PRIMARY WAVE?
SR: George and I chose a career in songwriting and there’s a lot to learn about publishing. It takes constant management and oversight and you have to do it yourself or hand it over and trust the vicissitudes of life and the integrity of other people.
Our kids are grown up now, they’ve chosen their careers, they didn’t chose songwriting and they don’t want to carry on the Mom and Pop business. So, it seemed like a good time to sell, so that we’re not always tending the past, we’re moving into the future and there’s a refreshment of creativity in that.
GM: The sale has also made us aware of the breadth of what we’ve done along the way. We’re so fired up about writing, we’ve been charging forward, but it’s fun to look back now and get a sense of the really cool things we were involved in prior to the iconic moments. There’s an obvious attention put to the Whitney Houston hits and Boy Meets Girl of course, but Dolly Parton and Smokey Robinson sang a song that we wrote, Deneice Williams sang our songs. So going back has been fun.
IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE THING ABOUT TODAY’S MUSIC INDUSTRY, RIGHT HERE AND NOW, WHAT WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
GM: Fair rates for all, so that people don’t have to work three jobs to make ends meet and be a songwriter. We had the good fortune to be part of an era when we had unions and various things that made sure we got relatively well paid. Now we’ve entered the digital age and the structures are in place, let’s pay people what they’re worth. Everybody can still have a big piece of the pie – but more of it needs to go to the songwriters.
FINALLY, DO YOU WORRY ABOUT THE IMPACT OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE ON SONGWRITING?
GM: Who knows where we’re going, but we’re going to have to have a relationship with it and guide it, rather than it be guided by nefarious humans.
SR: Everything keeps rolling forward. You can’t stop it, so you find places to jump in and hope the brighter forces are more in command.
GM: I like to think all eight billion of us are necessary and unique and truly individual. And now we’ll find out!
AMRA is the first of its kind — a global digital music collection society, built on technology and trust. AMRA is designed to maximize value for songwriters and publishers in today’s digital age, while providing the highest level of transparency and efficiency.Music Business Worldwide