Interview: Robin Beck
Robin Beck is back with her brand new album The Great Escape due out on February 11th. Written with Tommy Denander and James Christian, the album will be released on Robin’s own label Her Majesty’s Music Room.
Robin recently took some time to give us the lowdown on her new album, the ups and downs of her storied career and everything else she’s currently working on from managing bands, running her own label and most importantly being a Mom.
Interviewed by: Roger Scales
Your new album The Great Escape features a wide variety of stylistic song choices from the ballad “Don’t Think He’s Ever Coming Home” to the hard driving “Got Me Feelin Sexy”. Was it your intent with this release to give your fans a little bit of everything on this album?
Not an intentional ‘hey now we are going to this”, it’s the just the way I write and the more I write the more prolific I get and also a little more adventurous now that I get to call the shots for what comes out on my own records. I have always just tried to stay true to me and this time around in staying true to me things tended to have a harder edge to them it’s all good right??
The guitar work from Tommy Denander on The Great Escape is some of his best work to date. Talk about his contributions to this album not only from that guitar work but also songwriting and production work as well.
Tommy is my hero. Tommy is my personal muse and he has given me a lot of inspiration to keep driving forward to continue making music. Tommy will send me the tracks (in an instrumental stage guitar, keys, drums and bass) and I will give it a listen and then bang, it will hit me and I’m then driven to write something to it. That’s how the songs begin to take shape. James (Christian, my husband and co-producer and songwriter on The Great Escape) generally then re-records all of the music with the exception of the guitar parts. In most cases, I’d say about 99% of the time, there is no editing of the tracks to try and rearrange them before we re-record them so they rarely take on a different shape. Tommy is very instrumental in carving out what the intent of the song will be and once I accept it we have a song at its birthing point.
You have two tracks on The Great Escape where you share the microphone with two legends: Joe Lynn Turner on “That All Depends” and husband James Christian on “Till The End Of Time”. Where those tracks written specifically with them in mind?
Joe Lynn Turner and I go way back to the early 80’s when we were both studio singers in NY (where we both lived) and our paths would cross quite frequently. We did become friends over time and would mingle in the same social circles. After all these years we have kept in contact and are in tune to what each other is working on in terms of his latest project or my current album. I’d always wanted to do something with him (outside of a project where we were the hired hands). I had the perfect opportunity on this record because I’m driving the car and I get to turn in any direction I want! So I called Joe and told him I had written a song for us to perform together. So my main goal when going through some of the tracks from Tommy was to find one with this in mind so that I could add the elements to it that Joe and I could share. I was absolutely thrilled when Joe said YES!! I was not 100% sure that he would agree to do the song; friends to the end but when it comes to your music you have to be picky. James produced the track here in Florida and Joe recorded his vocal at his studio in New Jersey. We went back and forth with each other until it was completed. James and my daughter Olivia actually performed some of the harmonies on that track and there you have it! Now with “Til The End of Time” I had asked Tommy if had any songs that he thought would be a good fit for James and I to sing on together. Tommy had a song that was already written that he thought would be a sure thing. Because it was already written (complete with lyrics) I was a little resistant at first to take on anything entirely created from the outside however I did end up taking two and this is one of them. I thought the song was sweet and it reminded me a lot of ABBA. I’m such a huge ABBA fan, I loved them back in the day. It’s so nice to see such a resurgence of their popularity in recent years with Broadway shows and movies. It was such a great way to sum up the album because I’m sort of a sentimental type of gal anyway!
What was the motivation behind the lyrics to ‘Cross My Heart”?
Tiger Woods! The Bastard! I will always take the woman’s side and her point of view when it comes to this sort of stuff. Sometimes people come off as a little TOO nice. This track is sort of a message not to mess around because some of us will take a stand for ourselves. My point here was that YOU are going to be the one who’s sorry in the end. There are several little subtle references to him throughout the track. “I’m fearless like THE TIGER” and some other golf references. It’s a stand up song with a slap in the face intent.
Robin your vocals have so much passion and strength in each track. You just have this uncanny knack to just belt out each tune so effortlessly. Did either your Mom or Dad have a musical background?
My father could sing, he sounded like Bing Crosby. My dad would sing “Pennies From Heaven” to me all the time, he had a beautiful voice. I always questioned myself as to why he didn’t pursue it but it is what it is. He then used to compliment me all the time, encouraging me to go for it. He would throw me up on the table turn some lights on me and there I would be his own personal Shirley Temple!! If it were today my daughter would be doing a Lady GaGa song!! I also have three older brothers and one of them had the ability to play piano and guitar pretty much anything he could get his hands on he could play. He actually lended himself more to the theatrical side of performing than I did. In the beginning when I was very young I did sort of follow down that path. I liked artists that had more to do with the stage. I think most kids prior to turning into teenagers do really seem to be drawn to that sort of thing. That’s what they see on TV, it’s what your parents listened to (from my generation) and then you evolve from there.
You have been singing professionally since the late 1970’s. Do you think being a Northeast girl gives you a tougher mentality than someone else or is your perseverance in the music business related to just your individual makeup?
I think it helps to be from meager beginnings in this business; hands in the dirt kind of feeling where you want to get out. You want something better for yourself. I think that in and of itself gives you a bit of toughness and you can handle things better. I’m from Brooklyn so needless to say I don’t curtsey! I’d punch you out before I’d curtsey! Having three older brothers that had a street toughness – that’s what I drew my own personality from early on. I could have just as easily been sheltered by them, protected as the little sister but I did what I wanted to do and hung out with the boys in the corner and there just so happened to be one with the guitar I ran that road. Being in that environment does give you privilege to be tougher. You think you’re tougher anyway!
What was the first record album you ever owned?
The first record I actually went out and bought on my own was Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young Déjà Vu (1970) with the song “Our House” on it. I want to say I was in the 9th grade when I bought it. I really loved that song and grew to love the rest of the album.
What was the first rock concert you ever attended?
When I was 13 I went to Woodstock! I think my first concert was at the Fillmore East in the East Village in NYC and it was Joe Cocker and Janis Joplin shortly before that. I would often sneak in to see shows. I even went to see Jazz great Art Blakey as a kid. I was a different sort of kid in that I was the only budding musician in my crowd. I was the only one who wanted to be a part of the music scene. Some of the guys who had a band in my neighborhood had a sign outside the door:”No girls allowed..Especially Robin Beck!” That’s because they knew I wanted to sing all the time and they had their own bands and their own agenda. I was not going to just stand there and play the tambourine!
You have worked with many different types of artists over the years from Melissa Manchester, to Chaka Khan, to Leo Sayer to George Benson. What was the best advice anybody ever gave you in pursuing your dream as a vocalist?
Never take no for an answer. Don’t let anybody tell you you’re not good enough. Pursue what you believe to be true.
Your song “First Time” was a #1 song for you in the UK and Germany in the late 1980’s yet the song was virtually unknown here in the US. Any idea why the song never broke through and became a hit here as well?
“First Time” started out as a jingle for a Coca-Cola add in the UK. Then people started to call the radio stations and requesting it. After it became a #1 hit naturally the thing to do was to go for a 2nd single. “Save Up All Your Tears” (written by Desmond Child and Diane Warren) had Steve Lukather (Toto) playing guitar and Paul Stanley did some of the background vocals and charted pretty well throughout Europe. Then I got my record deal with Mercury in their international department. They wanted the same success for it here in the US. They met with the Coca-Cola folks in Georgia and they wanted to release “First Time” as a single. I got slammed for that in the beginning because it was “just a commercial”, she can’t be a real artist. It’s odd that people were saying that at the time because it was a jingle first and then became a #1 hit. The press at the time seemed to like me personally but really wouldn’t let off the hook because they didn’t think I had paid my dues or struggled enough to warrant having a record deal. It was just a jingle she got lucky with and suddenly it became a hit. I did struggle prior to that and what the hell did they know? When it came time to release it in North America it was kind of like we want longevity. So then the thought was should we put out the other song (Save Up All Your Tears) which was more American and see if that makes a sound? Let’s make her an artist first and then release “First Time”. The powers that be were more or less conflicting how it would go down. They did release “Save Up All Your Tears” first and Coca-Cola was not pleased about it. They has sponsored this and put millions behind it, it pretty much flattened my career. In this case it had nothing to do with talent or a great song it was all about money. “First Time” never got released as a single in the US yet was a hit all over Europe. “Save Up All Your Tears” by the way was later covered by Cher on her Love Hurts album in 1991.
Your album Trouble or Nothin from 1989 contained a version of “Hide Your Heart” which was released as the first single from the KISS album Hot In The Shade from that same year. The song was also recorded by Ace Frehley, Bonnie Tyler and Molly Hatchet. Did you know at the time that multiple artists had recorded the same song and were releasing it in the same calendar year?
I did not, I really didn’t realize much about my own record because I was recording at lightning speed. I did a lot of the songs off “Trouble or Nothin” off of a meeting I had with Desmond and Diane in LA. They were playing me demo versions of a lot of songs. Bonnie Tyler may have sung on one or more of these demos but I was not a Bonnie Tyler fan at the time so it really made no impression on me at all. Funny thing about Bonnie is that we were on East/West Records together at the same time and I have since become a fan. She now lives in the UK and is friendly with a band I’m managing called Kane’d from the UK..more on that later! One day when the album had been completed I was sitting in the NY office and someone told me that KISS was putting out “Hide Your Heart” as the first single off their new album. We were label mates at Mercury and I had known that Paul had co-written it with Desmond and Holly. Although I did enjoy the KISS version I was a bit puzzled that as a new artist at the time that the label would do this to me. KISS was a household name and I was the new kid on the block. The Ace and Molly Hatchet versions simply just didn’t make sense to me at all. I don’t think those versions give the song any justice. Had Melissa Etheridge done a version then maybe I would been more receptive to the idea at the time.
You really did get to work with some true giants in the industry at the time being with Mercury. Desmond Child, Diane Warren, Holly Knight and Paul Stanley were song writing machines and had hits with a lot of different artists. Did you know any of them personally prior to signing w Mercury?
I had met Desmond Child in 1978 when he was working with his band Rouge. He was in the downstairs studio and I was in the upstairs studio working on my first album “Sweet Talk” which was released in 1979 and was a disco album. Another Mercury release…boy they just love me..yet never saw me through!! We would bump into each other a lot in the studio and you feel like you know them more than you really do because you’re cut from the same cloth. I really didn’t see him again until 10 years later and we were selecting tracks for “Trouble or Nothin”. We then started to get to know each other on a personal level. Holly and I became friends years after my record was done but during this period we were not real close. I used to hang out at the China Club in NYC and I would see him there from time to time over the years and we would party in the same circle of various musicians that would frequent that club over time. I really never got to know him that well other than being in the same areas and clubs over the years. Because I was friendly with Michael Bolton we did get to meet a few other times but just on a hey how are you level nothing more. Paul is a very quiet guy and not the easiest to talk to.
When you look back at the late 80’s and you saw bands like Vixen or Femme Fatale or Fiona or Lita Ford on MTV did you identify with them at all or did you see yourself more in a pop vein?
I did a little bit because they were women and they were strong. They had the courage to do what they were doing and be successful at it! I was never a girl’s girl. I was always the girl hanging out with all of the guys. I was never in a band setting with all girls. The whole pop vs. rock thing can be very confusing because you’ve got powers that guide you. This will be a hit, this will be on the charts, and this is where we see you. You have all that to contend with and what’s the goal here? The goal here is to get your foot in the door so that once you get your foot in the door you can do anything you want. I know I’m a great pop singer. I know I can sing soul, rock, metal, jazz and in different languages as well!! I was never confused as to what my favorite thing was and that was TO SCREAM! I did respect all those acts but never really wanted to focus or change my shift in that particular direction.
What’s tougher for you as a performer: songwriting or singing?
Wow. I never thought about it. They both take a good amount of energy and dedication. They both bring a different type of satisfaction. When I’m writing a song and the melody and the lyrics come out great and I feel something, I usually come away with a feeling like aren’t I great!!! When I’m singing that’s not a place where I need anyone else’s approval. That’s where I close my eyes and dig in. I feel very at home with myself. You have left your body sort of feeling, I’m in a place where no one can bother me or get in your face with problems. Singing for me has always been like taking a vacation. I’ve had such a charmed life because I get to do what I want to do and make a living at it. They are different feelings for sure. With songwriting I have to stop and start over and over again, make changes and it can sometimes be an ordeal. With singing my first take is often my best. Singing does come easier to me that’s for sure.
Are there any touring plans for The Great Escape?
I will not be going out to support anyone else as an opening act or anything, however nobody has asked me so if that happens I’ll let you know! For me, I’m always wanting to go out and play. The thing that has stopped me in recent years is my daughter who is now 13. I have to be a Mom first and foremost and wanted my daughter to have a childhood and roots. As long as I’m able to still do my music, some TV appearances and the occasional gig here and there I was always happy with that. I want to do a tour this summer and Tommy and I are working like dogs to try and put it together, possibly a lineup including Tommy, myself and James as well. If we were to get any UK gigs Kane’d would more than likely support us as well. We are trying like hell to make it happen but because we are stateside it makes it difficult to our in my biggest markets which are in Europe so the economy plays a major factor.
Your daughter Olivia is a budding musician as well. Do her talents tend to lean towards you or James?
She’s so past us it’s not even funny. She does sing but she’s also a budding actress. She just headlined a play Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” where she played the lead and I was totally floored and James and I kept looking at each other saying..did she get that from you or did she get that from me? She can sing rock, showtunes, pop whatever. She definitely fell off the Robin tree from that standpoint!
Speaking of James when can we expect the next House of Lords record?
It should be done by the end of March. It should be out on Frontiers again. He’s been in the studio for quite awhile with this one. I’m sure he will give you a full update very soon.
Robin what other music related projects are you involved with?
I did want to mention that I’m managing Fiona right now. James is producing her new album and we are half way through it right now. It is so true to her and maybe even a little harder than what fans have seen in the past, very entertaining and melodic. She still looks great. She still sounds great and has hardly changed in any way physically from 20 years ago. Once her record is done we will find it a home or she will put it out on her own. I’m also managing a band from the UK called Kane’d( http://www.kaned.co.uk/index.html) and they will soon be a household name. Funny story – James produced a 14 song record for them and it’s being shopped around right now in NY. When I was living in Malibu in the mid 90’s I was walking along the beach with my dog Dokken and heard this band playing in a big beach house and was amazed at what I was hearing. I went on in and asked them who they were and they Said “Kara’s Flowers”. They were all around 14 or 15 years old at the time. I asked them if they had a record deal and they said no not yet, we have some demos. I asked if I could have them. I brought them to my then boyfriend indie producer Tommy Allen. After he heard them playing and offered to manage them and record a complete record with his partner, songwriter John DeNicola (Dirty Dancing). While shopping for a deal for the band, Bob Cavallo’s management team heard the record Tommy and John produced, which eventually led to their deal with Reprise Records and producer Rob Cavallo. That band became Maroon 5. I really enjoy finding talent and managing other artists and watching them grow.
Robin any final message for your fans?
Please visit my homepage www.robinbeckrocks.com and qualify for a very cool Mega Prize Draw I’m having that coincides with the release of The Great Escape. I have an audio clip outling all the details. I hope all you enjoy the new record which is coming out in February just in time for Valentine’s Day!! I hope to see you all on the road in the summer of 2011!
For more on the amazing Robin Beck: