Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking present the following interview with songwriter, composer STEVE DORFF
You may not know his name or recognize him, but you definitely have heard his music on the radio, albums, television shows, films, and even theatre. Steve Dorff is one of the most prolific composers and songwriters of our time, working with everybody who’s anybody in the business. As he says in his own words, he’s worked with “everyone from Willie to Whitney.”
Pillow Talking was thrilled to catch up with Steve and chat about his incredible talent and the industry in general.
See An Evening with Steve Dorff: The Songs and the Stories Behind Them at The Palace Theatre, Danbury, Saturday, October 1, 2016
PT: Thank you for granting us this interview. We are big fans and are really happy to have the chance to chat. (Stephanie) And it’s great that you are coming to The Palace in Danbury. Have you played there before?
SD: No, I haven’t. I love Connecticut, though. I’m originally from New York City. I’ve been gone for forty years but there’s nothing like the fall season in New England.
PT: For sure! And it finally feels like fall.
SD: So I am looking forward to coming next week.
PT: We usually start off with our standard opening: Tell us about your background.
SD: Oh, my God. It’s funny that you ask that. I just made a book deal a month ago and now I’m in the middle of writing my memoirs. Man, to go back and revisit these stories and all the things that have happened – what a daunting job it’s been – but fascinating and therapeutic in a way. I tell a lot of stories in my memoirs. That’s kind of what started this Evening with Steve Dorff. I’m pretty much like Oz behind the curtain – as songwriters generally are. Nobody knows who we are. Hopefully they know the music, though! I’ve been blessed to have enough hits where I can sit there for ninety minutes and play songs that everybody knows. That’s the fun of what I’m doing especially since I was a studio rat my entire career and not a performer by choice. I really never considered myself a performer until recently. BMI and a friend of mine said, “Steve, if you’re going to make the Hall of Fame, you really need to become the face of your songs.” As a fairly anonymous songwriter, as most of us are, we are not the face of our songs. [Instead] we are the heart and soul of the songs. Kenny Rogers is the face of “Through the Years,” Barbra Streisand the face of “Higher Ground,” and Celine Dion is the face of “Miracle.” Nobody knows that I wrote those songs. I think most people assume that the person who sings the song is the writer or the creator.
PT: That’s so true.
SD: So part of what I do is to try and educate people that there are guys and women like me who write the soundtracks of people’s lives – but we’ve not ever really gotten into the public’s awareness.
But as far as my background, I’ve never done anything else but write songs, produce records, and arrange records. I’ve had a blessed career in that I’ve gotten to work with the greatest artists and singers of this generation or any generation – from Willie to Whitney. It’s what I’ve always loved to do and thank God somebody has paid me to do it all these years.
PT: People must be surprised when they find out all you’ve done.
SD: Yeah, the fun of it now and for me over the last two or three years is letting people know – yeah, I wrote that (laughs). I’ll be sitting there playing “Through the Years” and people will be saying, “Why is this doofy looking guy singing a Kenny Rogers’ song – badly?” They don’t put it together unless you tell them, “No, I actually wrote this. This actually came out of my heart and my head and Kenny was just the vehicle that made it a hit.”
PT: What got you started? When did you realize that you wanted to be a songwriter?
SD: My mother tells me I came out of the womb singing instead of screaming.
PT: (Laughs) That’s great!
SD: The truth is that I recognized I had a rather strange gift for lack of a better word very early on. I was hearing orchestras in my head, crawling up on the piano bench playing things that I had no business playing when I was four or five years old. I think it was pretty much ordained what I was going to do according to my Mom. I remember I was in the car, in the back seat. It was raining and the windshield wipers were going. I was listening to the wipers and watching the rain and I had this orchestral thing in my head. And I’d ask my mother, “How do you hear that?” and she’d look at me like I was from another planet. I just assumed that everybody saw colors, smelled things, and heard music whenever anything was happening in their lives. That’s always been my deal.
PT: Did you come from a musical family? Was your mother musical?
SD: No. That’s why they looked at me like I was from another planet. It was just one of those quirky things. My sister took piano lessons. She was ten years older than me. I literally would listen to her practice like four or five hours a day. And then I’d crawl up on the piano bench and play what she’d been working on all week better than she could. It was strange beginnings. I had just had to figure out how to translate what I was hearing in my head to paper.
PT: (Stephanie) You mentioned seeing and smelling. My background is psychology and that brings to mind the phenomenon of synesthesia.
SD: That’s the word! I heard that word and I couldn’t remember it! I wanted to put that in my book!
PT: (Stephanie) There you have it. Synesthesia.
SD: I have to write that down. I heard there was a word for what I was experiencing in my head. How do you spell that?
PT: (Stephanie) S-Y-N-E-S-T-H-E-S-I-A. There are people who see numbers as colors in their heads; sounds as smells; all sorts of crossover of the senses.
SD: Here’s the thing with me and nobody ever understood it but maybe you will. As a kid, when I closed my eyes, I would see – all I can explain it as they were plasmic kind of bubbles – almost like you’d see in a lava lamp. But instead of music notes going from left to right – these bubbles, when I heard music would go from front to back – if that explains it. And it was always associated with music. When I would write music or hear music or when I would close my eyes and dream up music, these bubbles represented the space between notes – because I didn’t know what notes were – I didn’t even know what an oboe or violin looked like but I was hearing them.
PT: (Stephanie) That’s wild. Synesthesia is not completely understood because few people actually, truly experience it.
(Wayne) Do you read and write music?
SD: I do. I’m self-taught. Self-taught playing, reading, and writing. I’d go to the library and try to figure out what I was hearing. So I would read books on orchestration, notes, and scales. It’s funny. I’m usually asked what comes first, the words or the music when you first sit down at the piano. The truth is I’ve written most of my songs away from the piano. When I get to the piano, the song is ninety percent written. At that point I’m just looking for substitute chords for what I’m hearing in my head. It’s been a crazy journey.
PT: You’ve had so many hits – far too numerous to even attempt to list here. What do you consider your big break?
SD: I think there have been several. I can’t really put my finger on one specific one. For me, it was a journey of knocking on doors, being rejected, picking myself up, dusting myself off, and moving on to the next door. This happens for any young person trying to make it in the world of entertainment, either as an actor, script writer, or song writer and singer. I would say my biggest break – and the first number one that I had – was “Every Which Way but Loose” and Clint [Eastwood] was ultimately the one person who said, “That’s my song – that’s the song that is going to be in this movie.” So that being the huge success that it was broke the ice to where I could take some of the other songs that were in my war chest and start playing them for people; and people started listening with different ears. People said, “Oh, that’s the guy that wrote that, so he must have something else.”
PT: “Every Which Way but Loose” was a great success.
SD: Yes. When I did my first TV show and that became a hit, then all of a sudden a lot of television producers were calling my agent and saying, “Hey, we want Steve Dorff to write the theme to my show.” All those little – what you call “big breaks” – they happened in a number of ways because my work hasn’t been in one specific area of music. I’ve been very fortunate to have written music for film, television, records, and now the theatre – so there’s a wide range of diversity in what I’ve done. Most guys who have scored movies are not great songwriters. Most great songwriters don’t know how to write for film. There are a whole lot of different muscles being exercised in any one musical field. There aren’t that many guys who have been successful in all areas. You tend to think about Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach, Marvin Hamlisch, and Dave Grusin who are some of the writers who have been able to score movies and have written for theatre. But it’s not a long list.
PT: (Wayne) No, it’s not a long list at all. There was a great film, The Idolmaker with Ray Sharkey, about a songwriter who created all these idols with his songs and at the end he pulls the curtain back and starts performing his own material. You’ve told us that you want to be the front man for your songs. But how difficult or easy was it to say, “Okay, I’m going to out there and perform.”?
SD: I had people encouraging me at BMI. BMI is the big performance rights society like ASCAP. They would have me play at certain events. Their whole world and philosophy is bringing to the forefront and educating radio and television broadcasters that there are guys like me who aren’t household names, you don’t who they are, but they’ve created these amazing songs that you guys license. So that’s how it got started. But I have no aspirations to be a singer on the radio or even a person who plays in front of 15,000 people. In fact, that would scare the bejesus out of me (laughs). What I love doing is playing in front of an intimate audience of like 200 or 300 people and just telling the stories. That’s more fun than listening to me just sing the songs. I wasn’t blessed with that great singing voice (laughs) and that’s probably why I got to do what I did. It saved me years of songwriter therapy knowing I was never going to be James Taylor. Sure, when I was young I wanted to be in a band like The Beatles just like everybody else. But I was a little bit different. I’d stand in front of the mirror and pretend to be Harold Hill or Anthony Newley as opposed to Paul McCartney because I loved theatre music. And I just love those traditional great songs – that’s what I grew up on.
PT: (Wayne) I have to tell you, I loved Pure Country with George Strait and “I Cross My Heart” is one of my all-time favorite songs.
SD: Thank you! We are doing a musical adaptation of it that opens next June in Dallas, Texas.
PT: Wow. As you may know, we are big theatre reviewers.
SD: Wow. I’m, doing Josephine for New York next year – The Josephine Baker Story starring Debra Cox. We did our out-of-town this past spring. We ran at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida from April through May. We did five weeks to standing ovations and standing-room-only audiences. We are waiting for the Shuberts to give us a theatre for next fall.
PT: That’s fantastic!
SD: Yes. I’m very excited about that.
SD: John Bettis, my partner, and I wrote 22 new songs. We are including “Heartland” and “I Cross My Heart” from the movie. So John and I got together with Rex McGee who wrote the original screenplay and we started writing this musical about eight or nine years ago. We look at Pure Country as one that can play forever—that can sit down in Vegas or wherever and tour nationally.
SD: Then John and I got totally buried in Josephine. We have high hopes for it. It’s a great show. In fact, Debra Cox is fantastic. She is this generation’s Whitney. She’s just astounding. In fact, she’s starting a national tour of The Bodyguard.
PT: Yes. We are set to see it at Paper Mill Playhouse.
SD: Yes, that’s where it’s opening.
PT: Can you tell us what advice you’d give to people just starting out in the business?
SD: Good question. I have two pretty stock answers but they are the truth because I get asked this a lot. The first one would be if you’re not ready to pick yourself up and dust yourself off about fifty times a day it’s probably not the right business for you. The second one, and probably the most important one that I tell songwriters is write what you know. If you write about things that don’t come from your heart or your own experience, it’s never going to resonate with listeners. Write what you know.
PT: Good advice. That’s good advice that goes across all types of writing – for the screen, stage, or whatever.
SD: That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try things. When disco was in I wrote a disco song. It was awful (laughs). It’s not what I know but we’ve all done that. But if you want a song to really resonate and be universal and accepted by people – when I write a song I want Bob and Alice in Des Moines, Iowa to hear it and say, “Oh, that’s our song.” I did “I Cross My Heart” at this event for BMI in Florida and these people came over to me and said, “That was our first dance at our wedding.” They said they had no idea that “George Strait didn’t write that and someone like you wrote it.” So, I think if you write what you know, it’s going to be real.
PT: What do you think the impact of social media has been on the industry in general?
SD: I think it’s been huge. It’s been great for me. Three of the last productions I’ve done as a record producer have come from Facebook – even internationally – one from Japan! A very talented Japanese artist who I ended up producing and album for; and also for Sam Bailey who you may have heard of. She’s this unbelievable singer from England who won X-Factor in the UK about two years ago. She was a prison guard and her story is amazing. She was a fan of my songs and through a mutual friend emailed me and said, “I’m getting ready to do my new album and do you have anything that might work?” I sent her four songs and she wrote back, “I want to record all four and will you produce part of the album for me?”
PT: That’s incredible!
SD: That all came purely from social media. So I think the answer to your question is that it has been monumental. Not only social media but the whole technology of being able to share files and FaceTime and being able to work with someone over in London or Australia in real time.
PT: Yes, so true.
You discussed a little bit about your process before. A big part of our audience are artists of one kind or another and they are always interested in process. In approaching various projects, do you have a process?
SD: It varies. I collaborate a lot. I don’t write all of my own lyrics. I have been very blessed to have worked with some amazing lyricists over the years. Depending on what the project is, sometimes the title will be generated from the project itself. The “Growing Pains” theme was a big hit for me.
PT: (Stephanie) I used to watch that show.
SD: I went home and described the show to John Bettis because we were writing that day. I saw about twenty minutes of the show. I told John that I didn’t think it would go anywhere, but we had to come up with a theme song. So I told John in about twenty-five words or less what the show was about and John said how about “As Long As We Got Each Other.” It was just dead-on for what the show was. We wrote it in about 15 minutes. I called the producers the next day and said that I had slaved over it the night before.
PT: (Laughs) That’s priceless.
SD: Yeah, so it just depends on what the genesis of the project is. My process is usually to come up with an idea about what the song is about. And then I usually hear it in musical terms. Or if it’s a pure musical project, I’ll just start singing something or hearing something and I’ll play with it musically. It happens in so many different ways. There’s no one specific process – if that answers your question. It’s a tough one. It’s like asking Van Gogh how he sat in front of a canvas and painted.
PT: It does answer the question! Thank you. (Wayne) I had asked Terrence McNally – probably one of our greatest living American playwrights — the same question and he said if he had one, he wouldn’t tell us (laughs).
SD: (Laughs) That’s true. But if I could really explain how I do what I do I would – but I can’t. It falls out of the sky. That’s what I tell people. This is a true story. Marty Panzer read me the lyrics for “Through the Years.” We had written a couple of songs together and I invited Marty over for dinner. My wife at the time was in the kitchen cooking. Marty pulled this piece of paper out of a brown envelope and he read me these lyrics. Before he was even finished, I yelled into the kitchen and I said, “Hey Nancy, when is dinner going to be ready?” and she said, “In about fifteen minutes.” I grabbed Marty, sat down at the piano and I wrote “Through the Years.”
PT: That’s wild.
SD: Marty can’t sing, but as he was reading me the lyrics I was hearing what the song needed to be. I don’t understand how I do that. So it goes with what Terrence said.
PT: We always finish our interviews with our signature question. If you were to sum up your life and career to date in one word, what would it be?
SD: (Laughs) Oh, man! It depends on the mood I’m in. It depends on the last thing that happened to me.
PT: (Laughs) We like to end our interviews with a bang!
SD: You know what, I would have to say blessed.
PT: That’s great. Quite a few of our interviewees have said the same word.
SD: I can imagine that. With success and the level of success that I’ve had in what I am absolutely passionate about and love more than just about anything except my kids, what other word could you say? Lucky? Yeah. There’s luck involved and being at the right place at the right time. There’s also horrific disappointment. I think you have to go through the range of those things to come out at the end and look back and say, “You know what, I was pretty damn blessed.”
PT: Well, we feel we are both lucky and blessed to have had this chance to chat with you! Thank you for a great conversation and we can’t wait to see you at Danbury’s Palace Theatre!