I’m a huge Barry Manilow fan and one of my favorite albums of his is 15 Minutes; so, when I had the opportunity to interview the key songwriting partner on that record, I jumped at it. As you’ll see in the interview below, Enoch Anderson has worked with a variety of artists on myriad projects. Currently an English professor who completed a PhD program in his 40s, Anderson is an inspirational artist who is constantly reinventing himself. Interviewing him was a great honor, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Like me, you decided to get a degree in communications – but you did it in your 40s, and graduated summa cum laude from UCLA in the process. What inspired you to study communications at that point in your life; and later on, what made you want to go back and get your PhD in English?
The reasons were practical. I was trying to make a living (the songwriting did not support me) and found my options were continually limited by my lack of a degree. At one point I was working as an Administrative Assistant in the executive offices of a charitable organization and was doing well — it was very high pressure, and I was told I was the only person who had lasted in the job for more than two weeks — but I was told I couldn’t make a full salary “because you don’t have the background.” “Background” translated as a degree, and I realized I was going to have to do something to make myself a better candidate on paper.
I have always been interested in entertainment, and UCLA’s Communications program was considered a hot rite of passagein the industry at the time. I set my sights on that. I didn’t actually go back “later” for the graduate degrees — it was all continuous: I spent two years at SMC getting my AA, two years at UCLA for the BA, and then went directly to Claremont Graduate School for my MA and PhD. About ten years, total. I was already a bit of a curiosity being an older student; despite excellent marks, I had trouble finding a graduate school that would accept me — I knew if I took a break, I might never have the chance to complete the cycle.
You currently teach at a couple colleges. I think that’s great. What made you want to be a professor?
Again, it was a practical matter. My mother was getting older and needing help and I was going back and forth between my home in L.A .and hers in Canada. It wasn’t a time when I could fully commit to pursuing a career in the industry — but the graduate degrees automatically qualified me to teach college and the semester system (and summers off!) gave me a schedule with the flexibility I needed. This went on for nearly a decade and a half; my mother lived to be over 100, and we had a great time together. I have very happy memories of that period of my life.
How has your career as a songwriter influenced what you teach in the classroom?
Interesting question, and I’m not sure I know the answer! I’m pretty much closeted as a songwriter where my teaching is concerned; I don’t think many of my students are aware there’s a writing career, and I doubt that many of them would be interested. Indirect answer: just the fact that I had a different career and came very late to teaching is an influence. I haven’t been entrenched in academia all my life, intoning from the ivory tower. I try to take a practical approach (I seem to be using the word “practical” a lot in this exchange!) and highlight solid reasons for studying English whatever one’s major may be. A lot of my students are recent immigrants and struggling with multiple languages and are frightened of English as a subject; having been a “non-traditional” student myself (much older than my classmates), I have sympathy for that.
How did you first meet Barry Manilow?
Bette Midler was making her west coast debut at the Troubadour in Hollywood; I went to see her, and Barry was very prominently onstage as her keyboard man and musical director. I was aware that he had also produced her album, so congratulated him after the show and timidly mentioned that I wrote lyrics. He very kindly gave me an address I could send them to and — eventually — a collaboration was born.
What’s the songwriting process like for you?
It’s like a conjuring trick that you aren’t quite sure will work…! You begin with the famous blank page and wait for some kernel of an idea. Sometimes it’s a word or phrase that won’t go away, or just the general feeling that needs to be captured. I try to plot out a rhythmic structure that supports the impulse/tempo of what’s going on. I write down the fragments of phrases that occur to me and draw dashes where undiscovered words will have to fit. I create the empty spaces and wait for things to fall magically into them. The discipline of actually confronting the process is the hardest part, because there’s a fear that nothing will happen this time or ever again… once it’s underway, it becomes compelling and I don’t want to let go until it’s done.
What was your favorite musical collaboration with Barry Manilow?
I waver back and forth with that… my usual answer is “Train Wreck” on the 15 Minutes album, because the lyric seemed to burst upon me fully formed, and Barry wrote the music very quickly as well; it was really as if it arrived all ready to go. But I also have a huge affection for “Border Train,” because I think his melody is so lovely and evocative.
What was your most challenging songwriting project?
Certainly the 15 Minutes album. There were ballads, uptempo songs, some really freewheeling territory (“So Heavy, So High”) and the chance to write in several voices — the hero, the crazy fan, the anonymous narrator. It was very exciting for me to have such scope.
Aside from Barry Manilow, you’ve written songs for and with other artists. What have those experiences been like?
Thinking carefully… I believe Barry is the only composer I’ve worked with who is also an artist. That makes a huge difference, because it multiplies the chances that the material will actually be used and recorded. And because of Barry’s prominence, some other writers I’ve been paired with were more interested in having me run material of theirs to Barry, rather than creating independently with me. I had a good time long ago with John Gluck (who wrote the perennial hit, “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To,” as we were both very interested in musical theatre. We did a couple musicals which had very modest runs and then perhaps deservedly vanished — but creating songs in context of a character and a situation really inspired me. Of course, one does that anyway, imagining a context, but having an actual existing story with surrounding dialogue, etc. intensifies the experience.
“Bring on Tomorrow” from 15 Minutes is one of my all-time favorite songs. Musically, it’s gorgeous, but more importantly, the lyrics tell a wonderful story. My favorite lyric from the song is, “Smile baby, smile through canyons of night, but you’ll really be smiling by morning’s light.” The phrase “canyons of night” is only three words long yet it conjures up an immense mental image. When writing this song, how did you go about being succinct and vivid at the same time?
Thank you for that — I wish I could be succinct and vivid describing the creative process, which is mostly a mystery to me! Again, it was about filling an empty space on the page (with an established number of syllables), while imagining the gulf between the submerged consciousness of someone smiling deeply asleep and the waking consciousness of someone watching her. “Canyons” to me meant size and depth and distance, and “night’ made it all unmeasured and unknowable. I like the line too, and thank you for spotting it!
Speaking of “Bring on Tomorrow,” this song features two verses followed by a chorus. Many modern pop songs only have one verse so they get to the chorus faster – yet they require an army of songwriters to complete. To me, this has resulted in pop music that sounds homogenous and lacks substance. What are your thoughts on this shift in song structure?
I think the structure has to serve what the song is trying to accomplish — in the case of “Bring on Tomorrow,” it took a couple verses to establish the situation and the relationship before bringing in the chorus to announce the huge change that was about to sweep across the couple. When an “army of songwriters” (disconcerting thought!) works on a piece, I suspect the aim becomes more and more to create something that fits whatever format was most recently successful and is most likely to get air play. But actually, some of the biggest hits of all time were songs that departed dramatically from established patterns. I think listeners have an instinctive reaction when a song projects its own integrity and not just the creators’ desire for a hit!
Another one of my favorite songs from 15 Minutes is “Winner Go Down.” Despite its contemporary subject matter, you wrote this song many years ago with Barry Manilow. How did this song come to be when you originally wrote it? And did you have to modify it at all to fit on 15 Minutes?
Barry told me he had always liked the lyric, but never found a place to use it… the 15 Minutes project was a natural, but there were still some glitches. In the studio, it just seemed too long and unwieldy and I did a quick on-the-spot rewrite that removed an entire verse and very much compressed the whole thing… that went over fine at the time, but later Barry went back to the full lyric as it had been originally, and that is what is on the album. He said he found a way to make it work musically and didn’t want to sacrifice any of the words — joy to a lyricist’s ears!
“Winner Go Down” wasn’t the only old song made new again on 15 Minutes. “He’s a Star,” formerly known as “She’s a Star” got reworked for the album, and I love it even more than the original. What was it like revisiting this song?
It reinvented the song for me, because placing it into a story gave it more context. Originally, it had conjured some generic diva whose world revolved around her career… in 15 Minutes, it became a crucial transition point for an established character. Until then, he’d been a nice guy, a happy success story, and this song showed the dream beginning to curdle around the edges as he becomes more and more isolated, “left with no companions, only enemies and slaves.” We see him beginning that downward spiral which is such a cliché in show business — exactly because it almost invariably happens. We see this transition and decline ensnare talented people over and over again and the song just fell into place to mark the “uh-oh” point.
One of my favorite songs of yours is “Sandra” because it talks about how we all wear masks sometimes to hide our feelings and that no one knows if you’re truly happy other than you. It’s sad and inspirational at the same time. And while it was written in third-person, this beautiful song also presented a self-reflective narrative. What inspired this song? And what was it like blending these songwriting perspectives for “Sandra”?
To be honest, it was one of those things that happened instinctively. I was going to bed very tired one night and suddenly had the impression of this woman and her unhappy story, as though she were right there in the room. I was irritated, didn’t want to write anything, but I felt she deserved to be heard so I hurriedly scrawled down the lyric and went to sleep. I think that was before I even knew Barry, but it was there in a file when we began working, so I sent it to him.
I heard that you recently finished ghostwriting a book. What can you share about this project?
This involved rediscovering a friend I had lost track of many years ago. She told me to my surprise that she was now working as a psychic counselor at Miraval, a very high-end resort in Arizona. The management there kept insisting they needed a book about her to offer in the gift shop and, as she wasn’t a writer, I said “Oh, let me do it –” It was an intriguing challenge to write in someone else’s voice, tell her story (and attention, Meryl Streep!! it’s quite a story — should be a movie!) and I enjoyed interviewing her about the past and then turning our conversations into text. It’s called Nothing Logical About It, which could possibly serve as a title for most of our life stories!
In addition to the book, do you have any exciting projects on the horizon that you’re working on?
It’s time to re-invent myself once again, and I’m juggling a number of ideas. I am fascinated with people and love telling stories, and whether that will now take the form of a novel, a play, or a collection of short pieces remains to be determined. But determine it I will — and when I have something to show for my efforts, I’ll let you know!