For the renowned studio master, everything begins with the lyric

By Michael Gallant

For Desmond Child, music comes down to honesty. “What makes something desirable has a worthwhile element—and in the case of music, it has to have truth. When that element isn’t there, people don’t pay attention.”

For more than three decades, the world has been paying close attention to the innovative songwriter-producer, who helped create and shape the tracks of such artists as Kiss, Kelly Clarkson, Michael Bolton, Santana and Megadeth. With a whopping 70 Top 40 hits that have helped sell more than 300 million albums, and a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, he’s earned a reputation as one of the most powerful studio creators. “When I was growing up, there was one radio station we listened to—and we heard every genre, every style,” says the Florida native.

Child attended Miami-Dade College and, in 1973, launched Desmond Child and Rouge. The act didn’t achieve great success, but Child’s tunes caught the ear of Kiss’ Paul Stanley, who asked him to co-write a track that resulted in the hit “I Was Made for Loving You.” Other collaborations soon followed, including Bon Jovi’s first No. 1, “You Give Love a Bad Name,” and Aerosmith’s “Angel.”

Child’s potent melding of songwriting and production skills reached global proportions with Ricky Martin’s megahit “La Copa de la Vida,” the official theme of the 1998 World Cup. “We lucked out—the song was performed in front of 2 billion viewers,” says Child. “It instantly went No. 1 in 23 countries.” Greater success followed a year later when Child co-wrote and co-produced Martin’s first American smash, “Livin’ la Vida Loca.”

These days, Child, 60, runs his management company, So Success Entertainment, and shares his wisdom with students at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University. He also recently released TWO: The Story of Roman and Nyro, an award-winning documentary about the lives of Child’s two children with husband Curtis Shaw.


Is producing movies similar to music?

The film producer is more like a record company executive and a film director is more like a record producer. It’s funny how those two terms are different. Being a record producer, you’re hands-on, creating art—the album or single—with the artist. Being a film producer, you’re putting pieces together, finding the director, approving the script, getting financing, and overseeing the project.


How have you chosen artists?

In many cases, I was the co-writer on projects and then others produced. In other cases—like Cher, Michael Bolton, Alice Cooper, Joan Jett, Ricky Martin, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood—I was also the producer. I can’t produce everybody because producing ties up a lot of time.


How much?

Let’s put it this way: For one day of songwriting you’re talking three weeks of production. It’s a lot of time. So it’s not feasible to be producing all of the time because it takes me away from songwriting, which is actually more lucrative than producing and has a longer shelf life. A lot of my songs have been recorded over and over by different artists. But sometimes, making records and songwriting go hand in hand.


How so?

These days, the sound and the beat of the record are also considered songwriting. When music wasn’t as technological, a song was simply words and melody. Even the chords were secondary, because you could always sing the melody with different chord changes underneath. We still have separate Grammy awards for song and record, but the difference has become nebulous. Does the song make the record, or the record make the song?


Is it challenging moving from one genre to another?

There’s no different hat to put on. I’ve learned a lot about this from my mentors, especially Bob Crewe—the legendary producer of the Four Seasons who wrote “Lady Marmalade,” and with whom I worked in the early ’80s. Bob taught me that the most important thing going into a song is the lyric. The lyric is the script, and you can’t shoot a movie without a script. The score is actually the last part that comes into a movie, in the same way that the music on a record should help bring out the meaning of the lyrics. Much of that has gone out the window in the way that people are writing songs over linear tracks these days. Some songs work out well, but most of the best-written songs aren’t written like that. You write the song and then arrange it and make something special out of it with your instrumentation.


Where does the artist fit?

The artist you’re working with is like the star of the movie. In order for the song to be credible, the artist has to be singing lyrics that match his or her persona, archetype and, in some cases, storyline. Artists like Alice Cooper and Meatloaf are theatrical characters that you write for almost like musical theater.


What about bands?

If you’re working with an act like Bon Jovi, you think of their true experiences. Everything is focused on that. The instrumentation is secondary, and comes with the style and genre. If you concentrate on whom you’re writing for or with, then the songs you develop will follow in their style.


You helped make Ricky Martin an international superstar.

I was co-writing and co-producing with an incredible songwriter and producer named Draco Rosa for Ricky Martin before we did a song on his all-Spanish record Vuelve called “La Copa de la Vida,” which we wrote specifically as the World Cup theme of 1998. The success of that helped create a style that was a combination of Latin tropical music and the anthemic elements that I brought to the table from my work with bands like Kiss, Bon Jovi, and Aerosmith. It was the perfect collaboration. Plus, I’m of Cuban origin and my first language was Spanish, so it wasn’t a big jump for me to go back to my roots.


Tell us about “Livin’ la Vida Loca.”

Because of the success of “La Copa de la Vida,” Ricky’s manager asked if we could come up with a “Spanglish” song, something that combined both Spanish and English. It was very difficult. I spent three days working out combinations of Spanish words that would be familiar to English-speaking audiences. There were even a few words that made it into the song that sounded like Spanish—the phrase “her skin was the color of mocha”—but “mocha” isn’t a Spanish word. (laughs) That’s how it went until we got the perfect combination—it was a wonderful collaboration. When they first put the song out, the record company put a big ad in Billboard that said “Livin’ la Vida Loca” and underneath, “Living the Crazy Life,” just for those who are Spanish-impaired. Of course, it became an internationally coined phrase.

How did you approach the vocals?

At that time, urban music was coming to the forefront, and they weren’t using reverb, so you had this dry sound where everything was in-your-face. I loved that sound. Meanwhile Latin music had for many years been very wet-sounding, like the recording was made in a massive hall. With “Livin’ la Vida Loca,” we decided to change course, making the vocals dry like urban dance mixes. Even on the smallest speakers, it still jumped out.


Did you record digitally?

We actually made recording history: “Livin’ la Vida Loca” was the first song that was recorded and mixed completely in the box, with Pro Tools, that hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. It was announced by the Wall Street Journal when it happened.

How did that come about?

A few years earlier, I built a home recording system, but only had a two-car garage to do it in. But we fixed it up and called it “The Gentlemen’s Club.” It looked like an English drawing room with curtains, books, paintings and leather couches. There really was no room for a real mixing board, and this was just when Pro Tools was coming up.

We got involved with the software and were one of the satellite studios reporting where the glitches were. At that time, we’d have 19 breakdowns a day. We called it “slow tools.”


Must have been frustrating.

We drove an artist that I was producing at the time crazy with all the starting and stopping. But we persevered and got a hit song. It didn’t go No. 1, but that project really helped develop Pro Tools as a feasible tool for recording.


So you prefer digital over analog?

I do pretty much everything in Pro Tools. For a while, I was recording both to analog tape and to Pro Tools—it was crazy and expensive. At the time, everybody was talking about how tape compression makes the sound so much deeper and richer, but when we put analog recordings up against those recorded directly into Pro Tools, nobody could tell the difference. We were stumped going back and forth.


Any final advice?

The most important quality is to follow your passion, not give up, and not take no for an answer. You may or may not have talent, but if you have that, you’ll get heard.


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