Originally published in Confessions of a Serial Songwriter available on Backbeat Books
I cut my finger on a kitchen knife slicing watermelon. I was a little nervous. I am always a little nervous before a writing session. No matter what. No matter who. Will they like me? Will I live up to their expectations? Will I be on my game? I wrapped my stinging thumb in a paper towel and secured it with a rubber band. The doorbell rang. There was Carnie Wilson, an armful of journals, ponytail bobbing atop her head, flustered, as if she wanted to tell me something immediately. She didn’t even know me. She hadn’t even walked through the door.
My publishers at Hit & Run Music had arranged this collaboration. They were coming through with their promise of getting me in the room with recording artists. Of course I knew of Carnie from the vocal trio, Wilson Phillips, which consisted of Carnie, her sister Wendy, (daughters of legendary Beach Boy, Brian Wilson) and Chynna Phillips (daughter of John and Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas). When they came onto the scene back in 1990, rumor had it Wilson Phillips was going to sell 10 million records. Record labels often say things like that when they want to create a buzz. Valerie Block and I had written a song called “Live with Pride” and SBK, their record label, loved it and had the girls record it with renowned producer, Glen Ballard. We were beside ourselves.
There was a caveat: whether or not it would make the final cut was contingent upon us handing over 50% of the ownership of the song (half the royalties) to SBK’s sister publishing company. Val was okay with it. I, on the other hand, saw it as extortion. I called their bluff. It wasn’t a bluff. They did not include it on the album, which went on to sell over 10 million copies worldwide. That would have earned Val and me almost half a million dollars in album sales alone even after “extortion.” That was a lot of money, especially in 1990. Being on that album would have catapulted us into the major leagues. “Live with Pride” never made a cent. (I’m so sorry, Val, though you look very happy on Facebook.)
Six years later, Carnie walked into my home and got right down to the business of what was on her mind. Let’s just say there was drama. I loved how Carnie’s heart was on her sleeve from the ring of the bell. Emotions melting off the surface, looking for someone to receive them...a sure sign there would be plenty of “Song Fodder.” And it wasn’t all about her. She was interested in me, my life. Why the paper towel and the rubber band?
Sister, Wendy, followed shortly. Sweet, warm, not as dramatic. That was probably a good thing. Two Carnies might have been too much. There would be no Chynna as it was Carnie and Wendy’s record for which we were writing, but it was going to be a foursome as Glen Burtnik, a super talented, upbeat, songwriter extraordinaire would be joining us.
I don’t think we actually got down to writing on day one. I have a photo of us in my living room, kicking back and laughing about something Glen said. That’s how it was back then. You got to know with whom you were working. You kissed before you fucked. It’s called “foreplay.” We weren’t in a rush. Artists collaborated with a handful of writers for an upcoming album, not dozens. Thoughts were intimate. Time spent was quality. Watermelon was served.
While we yapped and kvetched and vented and shared, I, the clandestine secretary, took note of our confessions, affirmations, and promises to ourselves, so that when we were ready to get down to business, we’d have an arsenal of concepts from which to draw. It’s not like I was being sneaky. On the contrary—the most authentic material comes from these personal exchanges and I knew that. So did they. Sometimes the process of writing a song starts before you are actually doing it.
As the most agile musician, Glen was our captain. He was tireless and never lost his sense of humor, even with three spirited women squawking in his ear. Over the course of that week (yes a whole week), we wrote five songs. One of my favorites was “Open Door,” which might have been a metaphor for Carnie’s hope that someone would walk through hers...or maybe for how she and Wendy walked through mine. In any event, somebody somewhere was being welcomed (I like to think that life seeps into art). The other was “One Bright Day,” a song about life being short and walls being built and maybe one (bright) day “we’ll climb over.” Glen sang the lead on the demo in his best Brian Wilson and the girls sang Beach Boys-esque harmonies. Carnie’s wish was for her Dad to hear it and be so moved that he’d record it himself. (Needless to say, Glen and I had no objection to that.) I remember her calling her Dad and telling him how excited she was about the song. She gave him the demo, but I don’t know what he said or if he ever heard it.
I loved everything about Carnie...her excitability, her no bullshit, her haunting and honest singing voice. There are no plug-ins for that.
Here are other things I remember from that week:
Carnie and Wendy co-wrote a lot of the songs on that first Wilson Phillips record (the one that sold 10 million), but told me they blew their small fortune on aromatherapy and scented candles. I’m not sure if they were kidding. I thought of all the candles I could have bought with the royalties I never made from “Live with Pride.”
Carnie confessed she had been through some hurtful times. She was a beautiful young woman—eyes alive and sparkling. But it was an MTV world where you could no longer tell the difference between a pop star and a supermodel, and Carnie struggled with her weight. In the Wilson Phillips videos, you’d see a full length Wendy and Chynna, but a Carnie from shoulders up. Or Wendy and Chynna in sexy strappy dresses, and Carnie wrapped in a boxy jacket with excess material, or she’d be in the background, or not on camera at all. She showed us one video where her head was simply floating around the screen in a bubble. How demoralizing it must have been.
We collectively discovered the delight of frozen grapes.
Glen and I never made much money from the work we did with Carnie and Wendy. You’ll never hear the songs we wrote, unless you search for them on Japanese imports. Sales were considerably less than 10 million, but that’s okay. The week was well spent. I met people I will never forget... people who cared and wanted to be cared about. Life is what happens when you’re busy trying to write songs that make money. From every songwriting session that you enter, hopefully you give something away and take something with you when you leave. It’s not always a paycheck or a Gold record.
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