When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the 80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.
This time that awesomeness is Oliver Leiber. He is a musician, songwriter and producer who would be best known by '80s fans as the writer of three big Paula Abdul hits from her debut Forever Your Girl album. Find out about the interesting stories behind those hit singles “Forever Your Girl”, “The Way That You Love Me” and “Opposites Attract” and much more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Oliver Leiber…
Q: When and how did you get your own start in the music industry? Then when and how did you end up moving into a career of writing and producing songs for other artists to perform?
Oliver: In my case, I was pretty much born into music. My dad, the Leiber half of Leiber and Stoller [prolific songwriting team who wrote “Hound Dog”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Kansas City”, “Stand By Me” and many other hits] left me very little choice in the matter. If I was going to get him to spend any time with me, I better be a musician! I really started writing and producing in 1984 when I landed in Minneapolis, Minnesota for completely non-musical reasons. The scene was so inspiring what with Prince and the Time and all the great music that was exploding out of that town at that time. The universe just plunked me down there. It was not due to any plan or foresight on my part… funny that.
I was around a lot of really inspired and creative people at the time and I became infected. Eventually I found myself playing in a band (Ta Mara and The Seen) formed by Jesse Johnson, guitarist for The Time who was making wicked funky records out of his townhouse in the whitest neighborhood on planet earth – Blaine, Minnesota (Very ironic!). I watched him like a hawk and listened and saw how he was putting his tracks together. We hung out many late nights and talked about Hendrix and Prince and played blues guitar. I soaked up as much as I could when I was in his presence and tried to bring what I learned to my own material. It was watching Jesse put together tracks, programming bass lines and keyboard parts that gave me the confidence to try to do the same.
Up until that point, I was simply a drummer and a guitar player. I bought one of the earliest sequencers, the Yamaha CX5 or something like that, a DX7 and a DX drum machine (then later when I had a little more money, an OB-8 synthesizer and Mirage keyboard) and began banging out Minneapolis-flavored grooves inspired by Jesse, Prince and Terry [Lewis] and Jimmy [Jam] from Flyte Tyme. One of these grooves eventually became my calling card song which led to my writing and producing the hits for Paula Abdul.
Q: Do you use a certain process every time when writing songs? Does the melody come first or the lyrics? Do you start with a song title or end with a song title? Where does inspiration come from?
Oliver: For the most part (though there are always exceptions to the rule), I start with either a song title or a chord progression. Those seem to be the two things that most focus my writing the best. Genre will often determine the jumping off point. Many times I will start a track and before it gets too developed I will step back, make a CD or put it on my iPhone and just drive around in my car belting out melody and lyric ideas into a lick saver until something feels “right”. I think I got that from Jesse, too.
If I happen to have a title that I’m kicking around in my head, I’ll either try to write something with that title in mind or else (and perhaps more frequently) I will match the title to a track or chord progression that I already have if the fit is organic and working. Inspiration for me has generally come from two places: someone calling and saying, “We need a song for so and so”, or from a busted heart. Probably sounds cliche’ but those are the times I really feel like writing.
I’m not the kind of guy that pops out of bed and just HAS to write a song in order to feel okay – that’s just not me. In the case of the three Paula Abdul hits I wrote, each song came from a slightly different motivational place, practically and artistically. I will go into those a little when we discuss each of those songs.
Q: Let's go there now. When and how did you end up working with Paula Abdul on what would end up being her Forever Your Girl album?
Oliver: The way I actually ever showed up on Paula Abdul’s radar in the first place (and subsequently Gemma Corfield, head of A&R for Virgin Records) went down like this: The same week I recorded the demo of “The Way That You Love Me” for Jason Flom, then at Atlantic, I had been put in the studio with St. Paul (aka Paul Peterson), then a young kid who had already played keyboards in The Time for the Purple Rain movie and had been the lead singer in the Prince creation “The Family” which had members abducted from The Time (Jellybean Johnson and Jerome Benton) combined with Wendy Melvoin’s twin sister Susanna and Eric Leeds. St. Paul had recently quit The Family to pursue a solo career and, for all intents and purposes, had finished recording all the songs for his debut album for A&M records. But for some reason we were put in the studio together by his manager at the time because he thought we just might click.
So St. Paul heads out to L.A. to make a video of “Rich Man” and at some point in the video shoot (I think it was a lunch break), Paul and the choreographer (Paula Abdul) are chatting and she mentions that she’s branching out from the dance world and is about to make an album. She mentions the kind of music that she wants to do and Paul says, “Ya know, I’ve got this cassette of a song my friend back in Minneapolis just wrote which I played on!” and he plays her “The Way That You Love Me” and the rest is truly history. Next thing I know I get a phone call from a very energized, if not hysterical English woman (Gemma Corfield) saying, “Olly, Olly, Olly!! Who are you and what have you done?? I’ve never heard of you… are you a flake? Are you a producer?” I mean seriously, she was on fire and grilling me instantly. When she asked me if I was a producer I almost answered no, but something in me caused me to pause for a moment before answering. I thought, “Well, f***, I produced the demo and that’s what they’re excited about!” So I said yes and listed some credits that may have been real… or maybe not. So that’s how I got in the driver’s seat. My good friend Paul handed a cassette to Paula Abdul during a lunch break on the making of the “Rich Man” video. Thank you, Paul!!
Q: So it was “The Way That You Love Me” which got everything started even though it really was the third single to become a hit. Please take us back to when you wrote the song. What is the back story about how that song came together?
Oliver: Several months before I ever got a call from Paula’s record company, I received a phone call from an old friend and then A&R man for Atlantic Records, Jason Flom. He had an artist named Alta Dustin that he wanted a dance single for. He called me and asked if I could please write a song for this girl (the phone call-motivation I spoke of) and I said, “F***, I’ll try Jason!” No one else on the planet was requesting those services of me at the time so THANK YOU, JASON!
“(It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me” was written and produced by Leiber and released in August of 1988 as actually the second single off of the Forever Your Girl album. It didn’t attract much attention at that time, but after the next two singles, “Straight Up” and the album’s title track, became #1 hits it was re-released in September of 1989. This time was a different story and the single reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in December of that year. Here is a music video for “(It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me” by Paula Abdul…
Q: How did that lead to you writing and producing “Forever Your Girl” which went on to become the title track for the album? What is the back story about how that song was conceived and written?
Oliver: So, “The Way That You Love Me” was my calling card song and soon after that original phone conversation with Gemma, she arrived with a very diminutive and soft spoken Paula Abdul at my doorstep in Minneapolis to check out my “studio” which of course I didn’t have. So I convinced a local studio in town to let me conduct the meet and greet there so that I could appear legitimate (ya know, put my feet up on the Sony Digital console and look the part of a real record producer). I had another track that I had labeled “Small Town Girl” which I was writing for my then girlfriend Cindy Cobb who was… well, a small town girl from Fargo, North Dakota. The track came about as a result of me showing one of my four roommates at the time how this amazing MIDI sequencer worked. The chord progression in C (later to be transposed to D for Paula’s vocal range) was simply the first thing I played and recorded to show him how it all worked. The chords were undeniably happy and major!
I played the track for Paula and she really liked it. I said I would finish it and play it for her when I was done. “Small Town Girl” soon became “Forever Your Girl” based on my short experience that afternoon with Paula and the kind of person I felt she was: sweet, sincere, loyal. I just extrapolated from that initial impression of her to create this story about a girl reassuring her insecure boyfriend that he had nothing to worry about, that she loved him for who he was and no one else could or would possibly ever come between them. It was easy for me to imagine the Paula Abdul I had met that afternoon saying those things and it made it very easy to step into that role for her and write the lyrics of the song. I guess I was on point in some ways since that became the title of the record and to this day Paula identifies strongly with those words as a moniker and has even used “Forever Your Girl” as a brand and line of jewelry, etc. When I sent the demo to her, she loved it (as did the record company).
“Forever Your Girl” was released in February of 1989 as the fourth single from the album. It became her second #1 when it spent two weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100 in May. Here is the music video for “Forever Your Girl” by Paula Abdul…
Q: What did you do to give the track more of a dance feel?
Oliver: Around the time of recording “Forever Your Girl”, I had been in contact with two of the members of the band Mazerati, a band formed by Prince’s bass player Brown Mark and signed to Prince’s label.
Q: Did you have any feeling that “Forever Your Girl” was going to be something special when you wrote it?
Oliver: To be honest, I never thought that the song would get much attention or do very well. It was in a major key and just seemed too damn sweet to me. So I was pretty surprised when they made it the title track of her record… I think I’m still surprised! I never imagined the night I finished the mix with Keith Cohen at Larrabee North that it would blow up like it did… never thought that for a second. But so pleased that it did!
Q: So how did it work out that you would contribute a third song, “Opposites Attract”, to the album?
Oliver: In retrospect, three important things all happened in the same few days that led to the creation of this song:
1. My car broke down in some tiny little town somewhere in Minnesota
2. The Akai MPC-60 arrived in music stores and I bought one!
3. Gemma called saying “Olly, Olly, Olly, we need one more song and it needs to be finished in a week, do you have anything?!?!”
I look at some of the titles, “Liars Moon”, “Reckless Rendezvous” (I might be making these up, but you get the idea) and I think to myself, “Hmm, some of these kinda sound like pop songs”. So I borrowed a piece of paper from the salesperson and for the next two or three hours wrote down all the titles that strike me as possible song titles.
Finally back home and trying to figure out this new drum machine/sequencer I had purchased a day earlier, I eventually get as far as programming a two-bar drum groove with a bass line. That was it… and then the phone rings! “Olly, Olly, Olly!! We’re mastering the record in a week and we need a final song. Do you have anything?!” I’m listening to Gemma on the phone, my two-bar bass and drum groove (literally the first thing I programmed on the MPC-60) was cycling in the background, and I stare down at my desk only to find the list of cheesy drug store novel titles staring back at me. I had learned from my previous “Are you a record producer?” experience with Gemma and I said, “Yeah, I’ve got this idea, it’s called…” and my eyes scan the pages of all the titles like the Terminator looking for its prey. I land on one and just go for it, “…it’s called Opposites Attract!” I then proceeded to turn up my two-bar groove and to this day I don’t know what I blurted out, but I sang something and it ended with “cuz opposites attract” in a desperate attempt to package whatever I had made up on the spot as a cohesive chorus idea. To which Gemma responded, “Can you finish it in a week? You’ll have to fly out here to do Paula’s vocals; she’s too busy finishing other songs to come back to Minneapolis”. I replied, “Uh, yes… yes I can Gemma”. And that’s how that song started! Crazy, right? So now I have a few problems not the least of which is actually writing a song called “Opposites Attract”!
Q: From there, how did you go about constructing “Opposites Attract”?
Oliver: My original intention was to write the song from just Paula's perspective (first person singular-female), but then I had a chat with my friend David Z (Prince’s producer and engineer for years) on the phone the next day and told him my song idea (the lyrics yet to be written).
I wrote from an alternating ying/yang perspective from there forward. The lyrics came really quickly as the concept was becoming so concrete to me. I couldn’t see it any other way than the way I wrote it. I think I wrote the lyrics to “Opposites Attract” in under five minutes (well, maybe in under an hour). I then set up a vocal recording session with The Wild Pair. Realizing that I had no idea what lines Paula would and could sing when I arrived in L.A. with my master tape, I had the Wild Pair sing the entire song. That way I was covered. Paula and I could pick and choose what lines were hers and there would always be a male vocal to cover the next line since they had sung them all. Mercifully, I’ve never had to do that again in my career. It was a punt that just happened to work out! I really was so inexperienced that I didn’t know “the rules” of how to pull this off…THANK GOD!
Q: I have to ask about the rap and MC Skat Kat. Did you write the rap part for this song as well? Did you envision it being performed by a cartoon cat? What can you tell us about how those parts of the song came about?
So my remix tracks were done and I needed a rap. Back then I used to listen to a low-watt local R&B radio station broadcasting out of north Minneapolis (I am forgetting the call numbers now). There was a DJ who did a hip hop segment and his name was Derrick “Delite” Stevens and I liked his speaking voice. I called the radio station and somehow got in touch with him. I asked him if he had ever rapped and he told me he had. I told him I wanted him to rap on the next Paula Abdul single. Silence. He was kinda in disbelief. Why was this white dude calling him outta the blue to rap when I had never heard anything but his radio voice? He agreed to show up at Paisley Park Studios and there we met for the first time. I had written a “rap” that I knew wasn’t legit by any stretch of the imagination but I knew that it said what I wanted the rap to say and that a few elements were key. So I said to Derrick, “Just listen to my rap, take the overall direction of where I’m going but do it your way with your words and phrasing.” He said “cool” and right then and there he began spinning what I had written into his own thing and that’s what ended up on the single! I believe he went on to do a whole record as MC Skat Kat once the single blew up! It all seems kinda unreal as I recall it here.
"Opposites Attract" was the 6th single from the album to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 when it spent three weeks there in February of 1990. The music video won a Grammy for Best Short Form Music Video and featured Abdul dancing with MC Skat Kat, a rapping cartoon cat, similar to how Gene Kelly danced with Jerry Mouse 1945’s Anchors Aweigh. Here’s that music video for “Opposites Attract” by Paula Abdul…
Q: With everything that went into just bringing this song to life, did you have any feeling at all that “Opposites Attract” could be a smash hit?
Oliver: Quite the contrary! I almost sent the album mix in with an apology note. I was so fried and it had been such a crazy process getting it done that I had lost all perspective and felt like I had really dropped the ball on that one. I don’t think I ever feel “satisfied” with my work regardless, that’s just not me. I know some guys that love everything they do… kinda amazes me.The Forever Your Girl album turned Paula Abdul from just a choreographer and former Lakers dancer to a pop superstar. The album was released in June of 1988 and, though it took a little while to get warmed up, it took radio airplay and the charts by storm. Forever Your Girl reached #1 on the Billboard 200 album chart in October of 1989, 64 weeks after its initial release which is the longest an album has ever been on the market before reaching #1. The album included four #1 singles which is the most for a debut album and tied for second most ever from one album. Two of those #1’s were written by Elliot Wolf (“Straight Up” and “Cold Hearted”) and the other two by Oliver Leiber as mentioned above (with almost a fifth since “(It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me” peaked at #2). Those hits have driven album sales of over 12 million copies worldwide and it has been certified 7x platinum in the U.S.
Q: What are your feelings about Forever Your Girl and those hit songs now over 25 years later?
Oliver: I guess I have to take into consideration that I was in my twenties and these songs were my first ever to appear on record. I didn’t have much experience as either a songwriter or producer and I was flying by the seat of my pants and very much on instinct alone. It’s a little tough for me to listen to them really as I know how much better I am now than I was then. In the case of “The Way That You Love Me”, the original demo was much funkier and I should have rolled with that. I think I lost something when I re-cut it for Paula’s record (having nothing to do with her vocals at all). It was a tougher sounding track originally and had a lot less going on. I think that I second-guessed a lot back then and put too much stuff in the track rather than having confidence in the basic grooves that I originally came up with. The “Opposites Attract” remix experience pointed that out to me. I wish I would have had the opportunity to do the same with “The Way That You Love Me”…might have been a #1 instead of #3.
Q: After such huge success together on those songs from her debut album, I am surprised (actually shocked) that you were not involved with Abdul’s second album, 1991’s Spellbound. Whose choice was it to not have you work on any songs for that album? Was this surprising and/or frustrating at the time?
Oliver: I don’t really want to dredge up negative stuff from the past in great detail. Suffice to say that Elliot Wolff and myself, who had written all the hits on Paula’s debut album, were not to be found on the second album. Kinda strange, no? It was not our choice at all. We wanted to be part of it. In fact, we wanted to team up together for it which would have been amazing but… Suddenly, a production team (the Family Stand) that just so happened to also be managed by Paula’s new managers were doing the new record. Mind you, I dig those guys and am a fan of some of their records! But there was a magic and a chemistry on the first record that just may have been missing on the follow up, but I admit it is hard for me to be objective. Maybe her managers just got greedy (wow, what a surprise!). They could double dip and get a percentage of Paula as the artist and The Family Stand as the writing/production team, a decision which in the long run probably wasn’t so hot, but that’s really for pundits to decide… whats done is done.
Q: Did you become friends with Abdul during your initial work and/or have you continued to stay close with her since then? Please tell us a little about your relationship with her and your feelings regarding the direction her career has taken after that initial success and since then.
Q: Is it difficult as a song-writer to relinquish your song to another artist who will undoubtedly take artistic liberties and/or put their own spin on you work?
Oliver: Yes, very difficult. That’s why I started producing. I can count on two fingers the amount of times I’ve been “pleasantly surprised” by an artist or producers “spin” on my work.
Q: What do you remember best about the decade of '80s music? What lasting impact do you feel music from the '80s has made (if any)?
Oliver: Man, the '80s brought machine-based accuracy to the timing of records. That revolutionized everything. You could make a record by yourself in your bedroom if you wanted to (I did!). 20/20 being hindsight, we subsequently lost a lot of the soul and humanity that made the records from the '50s, '60s and '70s so great. So it’s a double-edged sword: we gained and we lost. With the advent of MIDI [Musical Instrument Digital Interface] and computer-based recording, we created the possibility for people to make records who would never have been able to otherwise. I think that’s the bad news as well. But, the genre of music – the R&B pop style of the '80s would not have been possible without it. That music was born as much from the technology as anything else. I love the R&B that was coming out of Minneapolis and the Midwest in the '80s… that was some great shit! There’s a lot I don’t miss about music of the '80s as well. Not sure if it wears as well as the '50s, '60s and '70s but maybe I’m too close and too critical… probably so. At present, I am much more interested in making records with real humans and a human feel that is not quantized and perfect. I’m digging the imperfection and find that that is where the charm and magic is for me now.
Q: Please tell us a little about where your music career has taken you since the '80s. How have your priorities or goals changed over the years? What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?
Oliver: Since the '80s, I have gone through so many different stages, “musical lives” or musical phases. By the mid-'90s, I was burnt out on the music and production style that had given me such great success as a writer and producer in the first place. There is a kind of negative flip side to the success I had as a songwriter and producer right out of the gate, and that is that you can get really pigeon-holed as just being able to do “that thing”. To a great extent, I think that’s what happened to me and I was called upon to write and produce in a very similar style to the one that had put me on the map so to speak. So by the mid-'90s I had lost any real fire and inspiration to continue making that type of pop music.
Q: What else is Oliver Leiber up to nowadays? Musically and otherwise? Hobbies? Family? What can we expect in the future?
Oliver: I’ve just finish a record with Beth Hart who came to me this past year after nearly two decades and asked me to produce her record. It is set to be released in the summer of 2016 and I’m really proud of the way it has turned out. She’s one of the most amazing, under-appreciated and underrated talents out there in the music business in my opinion. And, she’s very close to the top of the list of all-time favorite artists I’ve had the please to work with.
In the past two years, I’ve had some fun (and a bit of success) with a little indie rock band I formed with my friend Brian Ray called The Bayonets. It’s really a complete departure from anything I’ve been known for or associated with in the past and for that reason it’s been refreshing. I play drums (my original instrument) which has been novel. Brian and I write and produce the stuff together and, much to our surprise, this little side project (Brian’s main gig for the past 12 years has been as Guitarist for Sir Paul McCartney) has lead to several top ten singles on the Classic Rock Charts. It’s the closest I’ve come to my beginnings in music playing drums in elementary and high school bands as a kid and for that reason there’s a very “young” feeling I experience when I’m doing Bayonets stuff. I dig it!
I have two beautiful daughters, Chloe and Daphne, and these days being a present Dad occupies a good percentage of my time. Ever since 2005 when Chloe was born, my priorities shifted a bit and music, which had always been my passion and obsession, really took a back seat. I’m starting to feel energized again to write and produce and I look forward to seeing what happens in 2016. These days I’m really just interested in doing music that really resonates with where my life, emotional and otherwise, is at. Commercial success is nice, and if it comes it comes, but that is no longer driving the bus for me and hasn’t for a long time now.
Q: Any remaining ambitions or regrets?
Oliver: If I have one regret with regards to my music career it would probably be letting the pursuit of commercial success dictate the music I wrote and produced as much as it did. There’s nothing wrong with being popular but I think I may have explored other musical avenues more had I not been so focused on Chart success for so long. That’s why I’m in the place I’m in today… trying to make up for lost time in that arena! My one remaining ambition? I would like to write a song I’m proud of unequivocally.
I am so pleased that Oliver was able to take some time to answer some questions so I could share them with you here. I find his stories fascinating and I want to take this occasion to again thank Oliver Leiber for his contributions to 80s pop culture especially through his work on Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl album and, even more, for going back to that awesome decade with us here for a little while as well.
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