(The following is a short chapter from the recently published Confessions of a Serial Songwriter)
In 2006, MoZella, a quirky soulful pop artist, who (at the time) wore her blond hair in cone-shaped buns on either side of her head (Princess Leia style) was making an album on Maverick Records. She and I convened with Jude Cole—a gifted recording artist himself—to write something for it. As it was MoZella’s voice for which we were writing, Jude and I gave her right-of-way. She came with an idea that started out like a letter: “Dear Michael…please believe me, sometimes I can’t let go.” She was giving cred to her boo for teaching her how to love. Her real live boo’s name (at the time) was Michael.
“Gavin,” MoZella’s creative point person at Maverick, insisted we lose the “Michael.” He thought a personal name was too specific and the general listening public would not relate. Umm…Billy Jean, Alison, Peggy Sue? What are you saying? Only people who have those names are capable of appreciating those songs? Daniel, Jude, Cecilia? He was adamant. He said he wouldn’t include our song, “Love is Something,” on the record if we left it as is. We acquiesced. We “genericized” our song and removed the Michael, but personally I felt it was less interesting, and so did MoZella and Jude. And we were right.
Tom and I had met a few years earlier. He had reluctantly come to my house, unsure he wanted to have "SongSex." My philosophy has always been, “let’s just jam and if we don’t trip on something we love, we’ll order a pizza and we’ll have made a friend.” It’s not passive-aggressive, I swear. Knowing it’s okay if we come up empty-handed puts everyone at ease (including me). But, Tom and I did like what we tripped on that day. We called it, “All That We Needed,” and we had pizza and made a friend. “All That We Needed” became the title track on Plain White T’s debut album on Fearless Records. The last song on that record was “Hey There Delilah.” You wouldn’t have known that, however, unless you bought the whole album and listened to every song, because “Delilah” had never been on the radio. Yet.
When the band was making their next album on their new label, Hollywood Records’, Bob Cavallo (head of the label) felt Plain White T’s had missed an opportunity by not releasing the delightful “Delilah” as a single. He wanted to include it on the new album so that Hollywood Records could. Nice to know someone had the balls to re-issue the same song by the same band two albums in a row.
One night I was pulling into my driveway and something very familiar came on the radio. I knew that song (and that voice), because unlike many, I had listened to every track on that first album. It was “Hey There Delilah”—on KROQ, no less, a modern rock station where you’d rarely hear a song that didn’t feature drums and loud guitars. “Delilah” was delicate—just an acoustic guitar and Tom’s honest voice. It became a big fat hit and reached No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Apparently, a lot of people who weren’t named Delilah loved it.
About a year later, I attended a dinner where Plain White T’s performed for a crowd honoring Bob Cavallo. I was proud of Tom. (I don’t know why; I had nothing to do with the success of his song.) Maybe I was just happy that it defied the odds. After the band played, I made my way backstage and found him. I wanted to say, “Look at you with that big fat hit!” Surprisingly, Tom wouldn’t stop going on about my Grammy nominated “Bitch.” I said, “Dude, shut up. Radio wants tempo, booty calls, female empowerment anthems! You wrote this simple romantic ode to your boo (and gave the boo a name) and they’re playing it on KROQ! And everywhere else! Seriously, give yourself some credit!”
Artists have moments of brilliance, and days when they can’t find their zone. Sometimes they’re brilliant and in their zone at the same time, and they have no clue. (In my opinion, Tom was in that place when he wrote “Delilah.”) An artist is lucky to be surrounded by trusted allies at labels who let him know (tactfully) when he could do better, and who recognize her brilliance when she loses perspective. I bet if MoZella had been on Hollywood Records, Bob would have said, “Leave the Michael in.” I wish someone had been there to overrule Gavin.
P.S. MoZella went on to write “Wrecking Ball” for Miley Cyrus. I guess she knew what she was doing. Rumor has it Gavin is selling real estate in Texas.
P.P.S. This vignette is dedicated to: Alison, Elenore, Barbara Ann, Mandy, Layla, Lola, Michelle, Roxanne, Angie, Brandy, Johnny B, Abraham, Martin, John, Walk Away Renee, Jessie’s Girl, Bobby’s Girl, Rosalinda, Sharona, Jimmy Mack, Levon, Louie, Sherry Baby, Baby James, Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Robinson, Miss Molly, Bobby McGee, Ben, Marlene, Julia, Prudence, Lucy, Bungalow Bill, Sexy Sadie, Martha, Maxwell, Lovely Rita…and yes, Jack and Diane.