A Conversation with Stephen Bishop
Stephen Bishop is a wonderful singer-songwriter who is still going strong. He has decades of albums and hits under his belt, and a ton of exciting projects on the horizon. Stephen’s newest album, We’ll Talk About It Later In The Car, is available now and it’s excellent. It features that signature songwriting and voice fans have come to know and love, and I highly recommend that everyone picks up a copy. Stephen was kind enough to speak with me about his new music and his impressive career. I hope you enjoy our discussion.
What can fans expect from your new album We’ll Talk About It Later In The Car?
I think they’ll expect a lot of melody, a lot of good lyrics. There’s a wide variety of types of songs. It’s got fast songs, slow songs, story songs, and all sorts of things. You don’t get a prize, like with Cracker Jack, but it’s close. (laughs)
“Like Mother Like Daughter” is one of my favorite tracks off the new album. What was the inspiration for this song?
I wrote that with my friend Robin Lerner. Usually, I come up with titles first. I had that title and I just couldn’t get it out of my head. I wanted to write a song about family. How many songs do you hear about family anymore? You always hear love songs. (starts singing) I love you. (laughs) I’ve certainly written my share. This is different because it’s about family. The last song I can think of that’s about family is “Family Affair” by Sly Stone. (starts singing) It’s a family affair. (laughs) That’s like the last one I can remember. I think people will identify with this song. It’s the single for this album, which is different for me because it has a country-pop vibe.
Your debut album Careless went gold and it featured numerous hit songs. What was it like achieving success so quickly?
It was successful. I don’t know. It was just a lucky thing, I guess. I went from San Diego to Los Angeles, and it took me six years to make it. I had albums and songs. I had all sorts of stuff, but it took a long time to finally break through. Careless was what did it for me.
I didn’t even think “On and On” was going to be a hit. That wasn’t my choice. However, I wrote “Save It For A Rainy Day” to be a hit. That was my first single.
With Careless, I finally broke through there. I was on a record company and I was signed by Roy Haley, who was Simon and Garfunkel’s early engineer and producer. That was kind of a neat thing.
Then I did my first album with Joni Mitchell’s guy, Henry Lewy. I was lucky to work with a lot of talented musicians and people. I wound up using some of The Wrecking Crew, and they did great. It’s been a long process. It’s 40 years later and I’m still around. (laughs) I’m still kickin’!
Incredibly, you wrote all of the songs on that album. What was that songwriting process like?
When I was first writing songs, I was writing silly ones, like “There’s a Hair in your Enchilada.” “Beer Can on the Beach” and “She Took all my Kumquats” and “Will There Ever be a Sunday in Nebraska.” All sorts of silly songs. I always say this to songwriters that are starting out: If you want to be a good songwriter, you’ve got to get your heart broken. That’s really important because that’s how you really get centered, I think.
“On and On” is, perhaps, the song for which people know you best. How did this song come together?
That song sure does linger. It still gets lots of radio play, and when I play it live in concert people sure do love it. It’s pretty neat. I wrote it the year before, in 1975, which sounds like a million years ago now. Just was walking down to the store and I got the idea for “On and On.” I always write from titles. I made it back to my little place on Silver Lake there and put it together. It actually came from a chord. I always say this in concert. But it actually came from a chord that I just loved, and I kept playing this chord every day. Soon, people from miles around would come just to hear the chord. Not really. (laughs)
“Save It For A Rainy Day” is one of the happiest songs I’ve ever heard. Having Eric Clapton lay down a guitar solo and Chaka Khan belt out the backing vocals toward the end takes it to an entirely different level of greatness. What was that recording experience like?
To tell you the truth, Jeff Jones played bass on it. He played this kind of Motown bass riff (sings the bass riff), and I think that’s what really helped to make it a hit.
I’m very fortunate that Chaka sang on three songs on my first album. She also sang on “Never Letting Go” and “Little Italy.” By singing on all of those songs on that first album, she showed me just how versatile she is. She’s like one of the best singers. I just think she’s amazing.
“One More Night” is one of your most beautifully written, arranged, and performed songs. What inspired this song, and what are your thoughts on it?
A bunch of people have recorded it, including Barbra Streisand, Sandie Shaw, and, of course, the worst version, which was done by Helen Reddy. (laughs) Yeah, I didn’t like that version. I was very lucky with that song. That’s an old song. I believe I wrote it in 1976. I think it’s about a girl I was dating at the time.
You followed up Careless with 1978’s Bish, which also went gold. How did you approach writing and recording that album?
For that second album, I wanted to write a romantic album. That was my goal. I was in the state of mind where I was looking for love in all the right places…all the wrong places, really. I had a lot of songs at that time. I still have a lot of songs. (laughs)
After 1980’s Red Cab to Manhattan, you didn’t have another album released in the US until 1989’s Bowling in Paris. Why was 1985’s Sleeping With Girls not widely released?
That was a time when the music business was weirding out a bit, and I had a tough time getting a deal. I finally got a deal with this guy who only released the Sleeping With Girls album in Hong Kong. That’s the only place it was released. And then it was heard all throughout Asia. There are songs from that album that became hits in Asia. It’s the weirdest thing.
You worked with Phil Collins on your 1989 album Bowling in Paris. What was that experience like?
It was pretty cool. I was friends with Phil for years, and he wanted to produce me. We wound up working together at the Genesis studio in England. It was fun! Phil’s a great producer, and this is when he was playing drums. He played drums on everything, and his drumming is amazing. He’s one of the greatest drummers in the world. I saw him drum in person and, boy, what a drummer. And he’s a great singer and a great writer. I hope he’s doing well. He’s been touring for quite a while now. It’s amazing that he’s got that stamina.
You’ve appeared in numerous films, including “Animal House.” What are your memories of working on that film and song?
It’s a great memory. It was back in the old days. I still have that guitar that was smashed in the movie, when Belushi smashes my cheap guitar. I had the whole cast sign it. It’s hanging up in a frame in my house.
Speaking of movies, my favorite song of yours is “It Might Be You” from Tootsie, which you surprisingly didn’t write. How did that opportunity and song come about?
I had a different manager back then. She came to me and said, “Hey, do you want to record this song for this movie, Tootsie?” I said, “How much do I get?” She told me and I went, “Oh, boy!” It was a great chance for me to get a song in a movie, and the movie turned out to be a classic. They screened the movie early on for me. I saw an early cut that was about an hour longer than the final version. Since they didn’t have music yet, they had songs by Kenny Loggins filling in the gaps where the music would go, so that was different. I didn’t write “It Might Be You,” but I wound up singing it. It was written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, along with Dave Grusin, who wrote the music.
You co-wrote “Donna Please” with Steve Perry for his For The Love of Strange Medicine album. What was that experience like?
Steve is a ridiculous singer. He’s just one of the greatest singers. I don’t know how he does it. He’s almost like an opera singer, but he’s got such control. For “Donna Please,” he came to my house and we sat on the floor and worked on it. He already had some structure for “Donna Please” before he showed up. I think he worked on it with another writer too. Like songwriters do, I worked on the lyrics with him.
I grew up watching Murder, She Wrote and The Golden Girls. At the time, I didn’t realize that “Thank You For Being A Friend” was a real song. I thought it was simply written for The Golden Girls. You released your version of this song in 2015, and it’s amazing. The arrangement is fantastic and your voice is perfectly suited for it. How did you approach recording this song?
That was written by one of my oldest friends and one of the great talents, Andrew Gold. Unfortunately, he’s no longer with us. Boy, could that guy sing. He produced a whole album for me called Blue Guitars. It’s one of my favorite albums. His widow, Leslie, called me up and asked me to do the song as a tribute to him.. I said, “Sure.”
“Rescue You” is my favorite song from your 2014 album, Be Here Then. It’s an excellent song. What inspired this song and what was it like writing and recording it?
Really?! You’re the only person who has told me that. “Rescue You,” really? No one has ever said anything about that song. That’s great! That’s great. Those lyrics are very much influenced by the lyric writing of Steely Dan. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, I think, are some of the best lyricists ever. They have these lines that are very out of nowhere sometimes. I just love their unusual style of writing, so tried to pattern my writing after them.
You and I have a mutual friend, Melissa Manchester. What are your thoughts on Melissa and her work?
She’s done a great job. She’s got great hits. I was going to sing with her on the Oscars at one point. We were going to do a duet of “Separate Lives,” and then they changed their minds and they wanted me to do it solo. That was in 1985 or 1986, I believe. Melissa has great songs.
I read that some of your material was affected by the 2008 Universal fire. Is this true? If so, what did you lose in the fire?
It was. We’re still looking into that. That fire took my masters. That’s pretty heavy. I don’t know what we’re going to do about that. I think maybe it might go to lawyers or something. I have no idea how much I lost. That’s something we’ve got to find out. But I think Careless and Bish were definitely lost in the fire.
Are you going to be touring anymore this year?
I’ve been touring quite a bit lately, so I’m happy to rest. But in 2020 I’ll be coming out again and playing live.
Well, hopefully you’ll make your way back to Philadelphia when you do.
When I think of Philadelphia, it reminds me of when I went to a convention one time and I ran into Clive Davis. I had auditioned for Clive Davis twice at the Beverly Hills Hotel, years and years ago when I was just starting. He didn’t sign me. What’s funny is when he saw me in Philadelphia at that convention, he said, “I should have signed you.” (laughs) “On and On” was a hit then and he really liked it.
Any other exciting projects on the horizon?
Yes, I’ve been working on this documentary for a long time about my career. I also have a book coming out called On and Off, which is my autobiography and it should be coming out before the end of the year. I’m also going to host a podcast coming up. I’m going to be the new Johnny Carson. (laughs)