A Muse's Muse Interview with Songwriter, Alan O'Day
conducted by: Jodi Krangle
Most people may know Alan as the writer/artist on the Billboard #1 "Undercover Angel" , or as the writer of Helen Reddy's quirky two million seller "Angie Baby". But O'Day has remained busy at his craft since the 70's. After writing & producing songs for Jim Henson's Muppet Babies animated TV show (in the 80's), & National Geographic's award winning "Really Wild Animals" children's videos (in the 90's); he is back to his first love, writing pop songs. He has written for Disney Television's "Sing Me A Story", co-written hit songs with Japanese superstar Tatsuro Yamashita, & even co-written & produced original songs for the "Arabian Nights Pageant" in Indio, California.
Alan keeps a second home in the Southern California desert, where he devotes time each year to raising money for a scholarship fund he started to honor his late mother Jeannette, a gifted elementary school teacher. Proceeds from the first 500 purchases of MP3 CD's of "UNDERCOVER ANGEL 2001" will go to the Jeannette O'Day Scholarship Fund, which is tax deductible (go to http://www.alanoday.com/ for more info).
Read on as Alan talks about his views on rejection, emotional support (we ALL need that!), recounts his successes and talks about the lessons he's learned along the way.
Question: What got you interested in music in the first place? Who were your earliest influences and inspirations?
I can't remember a time when music didn't fascinate me. As a little kid, I was sick a lot, so I would listen to the radio & drift off into the music (kind of like Angie Baby!). I was an only child; there was no TV, just my mental pictures. My dad's 78 rpm records also yielded great excitement, especially the blues, Dixieland, & Errol Garner sides. (I still have them, packed away in the garage, and a few reside in a 1947 Wurlitzer jukebox in my living room.)
Then somewhere later I heard Spike Jones' unique combination of music & humorous noise, & I was hooked on that too. As a school project in the 5th grade, I built a sound effects box, with every weird gadget I could improvise on: two pieces of wood slammed together would simulate a pistol shot, a small container full of little rocks when shaken would sound like applause, etc.
I was also singing & playing the ukulele, which taught me the beginning of chord concepts.
Looking back, I see the elements of music, rhythm, humor & drama combining & percolating to form my love of songwriting.
Question: So what got you writing instead of listening (and creating sound effects ;-) )? Was there a particular event or individual that encouraged you to start?
You know, I think it was a transition rather than a particular event. I see myself at age seven, sitting on the steps near my house playing a xylophone & making up melodies. Later on, playing the ukulele & making up a piece of lyric... Oh! In the third grade I had a major crush on a girl named Sharon. So I bought a blank card, wrote her an original poem, & delivered it to her front door (no one was home). The next day in school she appeared angry at me & actually chased me around the playground. It wasn't the reaction I was looking for, but I guess the unintentional lesson was that there is power in words!
Question: So when you figured out the power of words, what did you do with it?
For a long time, my focus was on learning other people's words & music & trying to recreate them for my amusement. I had an affinity for blues, & blues/jazz, probably because of the 78's that my dad would play for me as a kid. I still have them in the garage, & a few on the restored Wurlitzer jukebox. So I would attempt to improvise in that style at the piano. All by ear, no training, just flying blind & loving it.
But when I was in high school (Coachella, CA, circa 1958), things changed. Rock & Roll (OK, Rock 'N' Roll if you insist) emerged, & it hit me hard. The radio exploded with Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Elvis, & the like. Simultaneously, in my neck of the woods, the R & B scene was strong: Johnny Otis, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Jimmy Reed, Bobby "Blue" Bland, B.B. King, Lloyd Price, Aretha Franklin, Marvin & Johnny, Don & Dewey, Shirley & Lee, Mickey & Sylvia... Somebody stop me! It was mostly blues based, but urbanized & modernized. I was hooked.
With all this rich influence (not to mention puberty), I began to write & sing my own compositions: little odes to rock music, or sentimental love songs to untouchable girls I had crushes on. Although I didn't win in love, I gained an identity as a music person, which was almost as cool.
The Coachella Valley had a large Spanish-speaking population. Teaming up with other musicians (I use the term relatively), I realized belatedly that I was the only "gringo" in the band! So while I was teaching the sax players my improvised rock arrangements, I also was absorbing corridos, cha chas & boleros. In my Junior year, we presented a show attended by the whole school, show casing our best Latin numbers & also performing some of my originals. We were unprepared for the jubilant reception. The audience went crazy. Girls screamed & cried. Looking back, perhaps that day did a lot to shape my future.
Question: What song of yours do you think most successfully illustrates that power?
That would have to be "Angie Baby". I didn't know, as I struggled for 3 months writing & rewriting it, that I was in a sense creating the "ultimate women's lib song" for Helen Reddy; & I didn't realize that I was creating a mystery song, in the spirit of "Ode To Billy Joe". Over the years I have received the most wonderful feedback from people, telling me how this song affected them. And when they didn't fully understand my lyric story, the way they worked it out for themselves is fascinating! But the neatest of the Angie stories was a letter I received from a woman whose daughter, named Angie (what else?) had been institutionalized with mental problems. Very withdrawn & depressed. Long story short, they played her the Helen Reddy record & she showed a glimmer of reaction. The song became a touchstone of recovery for her.
I think "Angie Baby" is powerful because it plays with fantasy & reality, relates an unexpected shift in power, questions the distinction between insanity & magic, & takes the listener on a wonderful ride. The song is finding a new audience today. It was recently released by (Trance diva) Robin Fox on her "I See Stars" album, & there is other recording interest as well.
Question: So how did you originally get that song into the right hands? When did you go from performing your own original pieces to passing them on to others for re-recording? And how did you get the songs heard by the people that needed to hear them to help you make that happen? There are a lot of songwriters just starting to make that transition from "writing for themselves" to "writing for others" and I'm sure they'd love to know!
In 1974 (gawd that sounds ancient...), when I wrote "Angie Baby", I was signed as a staff writer with Warner Brothers Music. In those days, the company aggressively shopped their writers' material to artists & producers. There was also the luxury (albeit sometimes painful) of pro's such as Snuffy Garrett, Ed Silvers, Mel Bly, Artie Wayne, Michael Sandoval, Craig Aristei, & Bob Stabile who were capable of critiquing & helping to hone songs-in-progress. Fortunately "Angie Baby" didn't need much additional work. So within days of it being critiqued, & my demo being completed (I did all instruments & voices on a Sony reel-to-reel 4 track), the song was being shown.
I believe they initially took it to Cher; but she wasn't currently recording, so they took it to Helen Reddy's (then) husband, Jeff Wald. The reaction was immediate & positive. And within two or three weeks the record was cut by producer Joe Wizzart for her next single.
To backtrack a bit, I guess the shift from performing my own songs to aiming them at other artists came about 1968. Burned out from years of playing nightclubs, I had an opportunity to survive on unemployment checks for awhile; and I used that quiet time to start playing & enjoying music for its own sake. I didn't really have a focus or a career plan, just the drive & passion of a guy in his late 20's who loved creating songs. I found a part time job at a local recording studio. This gave me access to learning "pro" equipment, and meeting music biz people who kept their demo libraries at the studio. So I eventually got up the courage to approach a couple of publishers with my original songs.
That's how I met Sidney Goldstein, who ran the L.A. office of E. H. Morris Music. Sidney saw potential in my writing efforts & took me under his wing. He was a gentle but persistent master at exploring the innards of pop music, revealing & discussing the strength & weakness of a lyric. He taught me much of the craft end of songwriting, a most precious gift; & after sending me back probably five times on a rewrite, actually signed one of my first "professional" songs. Not only that, but he got it cut! Was it a hit? Nope, but the experience of seeing my name on the label of the record was a great motivation to trust him, & continue my efforts.
Sidney soon signed me as a staff writer. I received quarterly advances, & he financed the purchase of some recording equipment. Thus I began doing my own demos. After several cuts, some of which charted, the songwriter's contract with Goldstein eventually led to my staff writing position at Warners. Sidney passed away in the mid-70's, but I will always carry his memory with gratitude. In his twenty-some years with E. H. Morris, he told me I was the only writer he ever signed.
Question: How has technology helped you in your songwriting? You mention getting your own studio together so that you could put together your own demos. Are there other ways that technology has helped you? And ways that it has improved over time?
Well, of course the phenomenon of MIDI, & the proliferation of affordable high quality audio tools, has transformed my world as a songwriter. It enables me to fairly effortlessly bring to fruition the arrangement & production "spice" around my musical & rhythmic ideas, and also change the structure, key & tempo of my work to try different approaches.
In the early 70's, before these technologies existed, I remember plugging my Wurlitzer electric piano & my Shure SM57 mic into the left channel of my Radio Shack two track reel to reel tape machine, singing & playing my ideas; then on the right channel I would add "drums" (banging on the metal top of the electric piano) and perhaps a harmony vocal. Primitive, huh? But that was the technology of the day, & it was very exciting. And it worked well for me: My home demo of "The Drum" was the catalyst for my first big hit by Bobby Sherman!
But I like to make the distinction that technology is not songwriting. Listen to the top 40 today, & you hear lots of great production, & very few great songs. I'm currently writing material aimed at other artists, as opposed to songs for myself. So if the core song idea isn't strong enough, then adding the stereo flanged arpegiated pulsing orgasmic synth throb only masks the mediocrity. Yeah, yeah, the industry wants to hear demos that sound like records. But we "outside writers" should make sure the engine runs well before choosing the exterior trim!
That's not to say that "writing to a groove" isn't a cool way to be inspired. I'm currently in love with a new synth keyboard that can serve up real time interactive melodic & rhythmic enhancements, & it has inspired me to increase my songwriting output. But on the other hand, I've still got the voices of Sidney Goldstein & other mentors in my head, as well as my own "inner-editor", checking for quality control! A pencil & paper, & however many rewrites it takes. That's still the essence for me.
Question: How about the Internet? What tools has the web given you that have helped you with your songwriting?
Ha! First thought: I've wasted so much time reading & sending jokes on email; the Internet has often helped me AVOID songwriting! But seriously, I've found a couple of ways to effectively use this technology.
I have a "committee" of friends who are either songwriters themselves, or just love words. Sometimes I will send a "group mailing" of a lyric in progress to these folks, asking for feedback. I don't explain the song, I just send the lyric, & maybe ask a specific question or two at the end. "Is this interesting?" "Does this move you?" "What do you think this particular line refers to?"
I should explain that this is but one of many steps I might take in refining a song. It doesn't deal with the music or melody or the "big picture". But the consensus of responses from these tolerant "beta testers" often helps me identify weak spots, or flaws in perspective. Example: I wrote a passionate lyric from the point of view of a man who is absolutely determined to win the love of a particular woman, no matter what. I thought his obsession was kind of sexy. But two females in my "committee" wrote back concerned that he came off like a stalker! After recovering from slight ego-injury, I realized they were right. So the revised version of the lyric made it clear that though he was "driven", he was also concerned & sensitive to the woman's reaction. A much more appealing guy, right?
You may remember I mentioned a new synth keyboard I recently bought. It's incredible; but I'm not a tech-head, & the manuals are a bit complex & confusing. Internet to the rescue! It so happens there is an on-line users' group for this synth, actually hosted by the guy who developed it (as opposed to the manufacturer). He personally answers email questions from group members, & other owners also offer their experiences & tips. Plus he has his own website where you can download his FAQ's (frequently asked questions) document which is much clearer than the manuals, & the latest OS (operating system) software. And all of this is free. For me, the effectiveness of this keyboard as a professional tool is greatly enhanced by this access.
Last but not least are the "ezines" which provide me such great support, information, & news. The Muse's News, Just Plain Notes, The Goodnight Kiss Music Business News, & others keep me connected to the songwriters' side of the industry. I'm also a member of TAXI, & I receive their info by email. Soon they will be able to accept song submissions by way of the Internet as well. In this "business of self", these resources are extremely helpful.
I have my own website, http://www.alanoday.com/, a CD for sale "Undercover Angel 2001" on MP3 (http://www.mp3.com/alanoday) as well as CDBABY, and a "fan database", through which I occasionally notify fans around the world of my music biz victories. If any of your readers would like to be included, they are welcome to email me at email@example.com.
Question: What do you think about MP3s and the music-trading controversy? Is copyright in danger? Is a songwriter's means of making a living in danger? And if so, is it in danger from the general listening public or from the record labels and the RIAA?
Much has been said about this issue, by wiser people than I. Sometimes in life conflicting viewpoints will each have validity. There are artists who feel they got their big break due to MP3 technology, and others who have really suffered. There are now masses of consumers who think music should be available for free. There are record companies seemingly driven by corporate greed, & others who legitimately attempt to market quality artists. Everyone's been shaken by this wake-up call of technology marching several steps ahead of the law, or enforceability of the law.
For what it's worth, my opinion: The concepts of a creative work having value in perpetuity, & being protectable, have served us well for almost a hundred years, rewarding excellence in the arts. Bypass these concepts, and we may have the short-lived euphoria of beating the system, followed by... what? Well, my concern is that if every element that makes a song (or vocal performance, play, photograph, movie, painting) unique instantly becomes everyone's "property", then the best of us, our brightest most innovative, will soon be buried under a ton of undifferentiated mediocrity. For instance, MP3.com is a powerful forerunner in this new music society. There is some fantastic music there. Yet (not to criticize anyone), what is the ratio of quality to junk? And if you don't know the specific artist, how easy is it to find the good stuff?
However I believe the big picture, at this point in our "evolution", is at the other extreme. The giants of industry power are still hanging on to their ability to control & consolidate, & the music buying public is just waking up from their passivity. The Internet plays a positive role here, in giving us more choices.
So how will this be resolved? Shouldn't everyone get an equal chance at commercial success? You bet. It's good that people are having new opportunities to be heard & promoted. But to me, this all should happen under an "umbrella" that attempts to protect their originality, even as they build their own artistic identity. Sure, we all borrow ideas from each other as it is now. But I believe most of us have the sense that a song "belongs" to it's creator. And that "sense" is fostered & supported by the current copyright laws. I am confident that they will prevail.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not trying to be anyone's moral thermometer. I work my Irish hump off to create "three minute movies" that entertain & move people. I aspire to excellence, in this sub-sector of music; & I have occasionally been rewarded for my successes. My opinions are a product of my experience. But the world is changing, and youth pushes the status quo aside in search of a better modality. Some new good usually emerges from this tug of war. I say bring it on. It'll all work out, & there will always be songwriters. We must celebrate all artists, & make sure they have a chance to be experienced.
Question: What's in store for you in the future, Alan? Are you playing live anywhere? Participating in anything you want to talk about? From an earlier question we know where to order your music from, but are you working on anything new?
Well, if staying busy is the key to happiness, I'm freakin' ecstatic! I'm finishing a new country song I'm very pleased with, and just yesterday I heard the (killer) track on a pop co-write I did with a writer/producer. This talented guy has young acts he's honing for production deals, which means another outlet for my/our writing. Also I've just contracted to co-write, co-produce & sing two children's songs (with my Muppet Babies writing partner Janis Liebhart) for a video producer in Alaska. I do occasional appearances at local songwriter venues, and let's see... hang out with my girl friend of nine years, Yuka, and my Cockatiel of four years, Chipper. Chipper whistles original songs, & I keep all his publishing...
I hope to continue writing as long as I'm alive. Maybe slightly longer! Currently, scoring a cut in the pop song market seems pretty difficult, but I write in other genres as well. I guess I keep doing it all for three reasons: First, I love the process of writing; and second, if I don't stay in the game I might lose my touch. There are unexpected opportunities opening up for those of us who stay involved & tuned in.
Finally, I kind of enjoy being a poster boy for tenaciousness. It sounds a little presumptuous, but I would like to imagine a songwriter in his or her 40's or 50's, who might be going through a career lull, or hard times, being inspired or challenged by noticing, "Well, look at O'Day. He's still doing it!"
For more information on Alan, visit his web site and read his biography.