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Interview with Mike Thorne
Originally bursting out with a Top Ten single worldwide at the end of the seventies (Dancing In The City), Kit Hain decided soon after that she was far happier just writing songs. Half the world has the dream of being a successful star, to be pointed out in restaurants and at parties, but she preferred otherwise. Here she talks about the change, and provides many fresh insights from her years of successful songwriting experience. What makes a song tick? How do performer and song relate to each other?
Kit Hain in interview
You had enormous success as a performer. Why did you switch to pure song writing?
I guess it depends what you mean by enormous. For one thing, I never felt that I had been enormously successful. We did have a lot of success as Marshall Hain, and a big hit record, but after that my career was kind of a struggle. Although we did two albums, which I thought were great and enormously enjoyable to record, I never really felt comfortable as a solo artist. I just felt like I would walk into a room and want to sort of shrivel up rather than say, “Hello, here I am and here’s my music.” So after I moved to America, which was an attempt to move into a market that I felt I understood better than the English one and which, at the time, was going into all sorts of peculiar directions, I took on a manager, tried to get a record deal, and got a publishing deal in the process. I then fell out with my manager, and needed to let some time pass so that the contract expired before going ahead and getting a record deal. During those months, I suddenly had a revelation one day when I walked out into the street and thought, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to be a song writer!” I had a publishing deal right there, so it seemed easy to make the transition, and the publishers were supportive of me doing that. Whatever I wanted was fine. So, that was it.
You said you came to America because you thought that it was a market that you would, perhaps, fit in with better. I often wondered whether you were just happier here as a person, that the American social life was more interesting and more congenial to you.
Well, that was definitely part of it. Coming to New York I found enormously exciting, since we had recorded my second record here [in 1981]. I loved it here, and I think part of that, too, is that when you come to a new place, and it’s totally new to you and people are responding to you for the first time, it sort of allows you to redefine yourself, instead of being bound by all the old ways of looking at yourself which come from years in a sort of pattern of being. I also found it very refreshing and inspiring to be here. When I listened to American radio, although I didn’t necessarily like all of it, it made sense to me. I could see why things were successful and why people liked it. There were so many quirky oddities in England and I was just tired of it. I thought, “I don’t know where I fit here.” That probably did have a broader meaning than just fitting musically and wanting to make a new start somehow.
When you came to America, you were able to be anonymous and just work on your music and work on your performing, whereas, in England you mentioned that you did not like being pointed out when you walked into the room at a party. Is that a positive part of coming here, just to make a clean break?
Yes, I think. If I had been a secure person and confident in myself, I wouldn’t have had to do that. The reason I didn’t feel comfortable walking into a party in England was that I didn’t like everybody’s eyes being on me. And, because I’ve had some success, there was sort of an expectation that you go from there to do the next thing. I felt what I really needed to do was strip all that away and go back to ground zero, which I was able to do coming here. Looking back, I don’t necessarily think that was the right thing. It was the right thing for the frame of mind I was in, but, as I say, had I been a healthy person, it would have been easy for me to go from that success and move forward. However, having come here, I played the CBGB’s, The Bitter Ends, all those sorts of clubs in which people worked and from which they made their way up. It was very good for me to do that, I think.
So, for you there is a real separation between being a star and performing on stage. You did enjoy performing on stage?
I did, but I always wanted to be a star, and that goes back to the insecurity thing. I wanted to be a star, perhaps, for the wrong reasons. It’s not because I love my music and that was the inevitable by-product of success and my music selling, but the need to be a star is some sort of acclaim. You want proof that you’re valuable or valued as a human being, which I think is nonsense. There was a lot of that in my drive to become a star. I used to dream about Madison Square Garden with people standing holding candles and waving their arms around, roaring my name. If I think about that now, it’s like, “Oh, blimey.” I wish I had just focused on the music and let that take me where it would or wouldn’t go. Actually, I would have had a lot better chance of being successful. I think when your motivation is sort of distorted in that way, you very often get in your own way.
Don’t you think it is inevitable that you want to sing your own songs?
My enjoyment of singing my own songs was behind the microphone in the studio. I was never an extrovert and public person when it came to singing. So, I enjoyed recording enormously. I love that process and still do. When I’m doing demos of my own songs I really enjoy it. However, I also get a kick out of other people singing my songs. When I write, sometimes I create songs I’m not even quite sure that I like. I think they are good enough, or have something in them, that’s worth pursuing, rather than just shelving it. At times, I’ll even hire another singer to come in and sing the demo. Suddenly, it comes to life! I’m saying, “Oh, yes, I love this now,” and it lets the song live in a different way.
A lot of songwriters have commented that some of the most throwaway efforts have turned out to be their most popular and most loved. Do you think that writing with your own sensibility in mind is a restriction? Do you have to step outside your own sensibilities?
Different songwriters are good at different things. I think the most successful songwriters, Diane Warren for example, are very good at cloning what a particular artist wants and then bringing, I suppose, their own experience to it. I don’t know how she writes. I do know there are people who say, “Okay, Cher wants a song· So and so wants a song,” and they can sit down and pretty much formulate what that is and write it. I think that’s admirable, but it’s not what I can do. I have tried to do it that way. What I find is that I always have to bring something of my own sensibility to whatever I write to make it real, make it emotional. Ultimately, the songs I like best of what I do, which is somehow closest even now to what I might do as an artist, are the ones that people like best. So, I think there’s got to be that honesty and emotional connectedness in what you do, however it is you do it. And, for me it is just that. Because I was an artist, I think I am still bringing forth what I want to say about any situation. But, I do try to broaden and write in different styles. If I go too far from who I am and what I would be as an artist, and just write to a formula, I can’t do it. It’s not real and it doesn’t sound right that way.
Let’s flip the question around. Do you enjoy singing other people’s songs. Do you think you can get to as deep a level singing somebody else’s song as you can singing your own?
Two part question! Yes, I do enjoy singing other people’s songs. Ever since I was a kid and started singing along to Beatles records and learning all the words of all the songs that I loved, and sitting around a camp fire singing folksongs or whatever it might have been, I’ve always loved it. And, then, with this Sprawl record, it’s been enormously enjoyable to sing and completely reinterpret songs that were done very differently. I also sang on a record years ago, Desolation’s Angels, (I think was the title of the song) where a few artists were gathered together by a producer to sing songs that he chose. That was very enjoyable and different from doing my own material in the studio, because it was stress free. I didn’t have to think about being the artist. That allowed me to see that the song comes first, and the song has to come first. Your own songs, as an artist, are always going to resonate more emotionally, because they come from your own experience. On rare occasions, you will find a song somebody else wrote that speaks exactly the way you might think it and feel it. So, you know, you get some artists who write their own songs but will still put one cover of something they love, or always loved, because it relates to them in a certain way. Full Stop! End of paragraph! Next!
Who sang some of your songs?
Hmm. Well starting back in England, Roger Daltrey. Thanks to you [Mike Thorne produced an album for him in 1983]. Actually, he went on another album or two to do songs of mine after the first one. That was a bonus, as well. Barbara Dickson, who people here really wouldn’t know. Kiki Dee. In the States, I’ve had songs recorded by Cher, Peter Cetera and Chaka Khan. They did a duet a few years ago and was one of my favorites. They did such a great job, and I thought the production on the song really enhanced what the demo had been. I mean Chaka–cool–having her sing something I wrote was really thrilling because she’s just great. And, I have also written with a number of artists, such as Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart and a lot of lesser known artists. Selena, the Latin singer, recorded my song the week before she was shot. That was pretty awful. I’m very glad she did that song, though.
You mentioned that you really enjoyed Peter Cetera and Chaka Khan–their version. Do you think they took the song further than you might have done? Is this a possibility in your mind?
Well, vocally, of course, because I sang the demo. Chaka, in particular, was riffing all over the place, but I happen to think she is somebody who riffs in a very heartfelt and connected way, instead of: “Here I am doing vocal acrobats!” So I loved what she did and, yes, I think they did take it further. It was Andy Hill who produced it and it sounded very good. It was slick, and it was right for them. Definitely sonically, it was better than the demo, but, at the same time, it was very true to what the song had been. Andy was good enough to use the same saxophone player that Mark Goldenberg,my co-writer, had used on the demo because he liked what he played. It’s always nice when that kind of thing happens. They expanded on what the demo had been when I sang it as a solo piece. We had actually written it as a possible duet for Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville because they were looking for a song at that time. But Peter and Chaka ended up doing it which was just fine.
Two songs that you sang on the Sprawl record were A Flower Opens Gently By and From Me To You. They started out vivid and but quiet, in a rather reserved way, although they are apparently very angry songs. Do you think you changed the songs and the attitude radically by your delivery on the record or was it always there? Do you think it was implied? Do you think this is an example of taking a song further?
Yes, I do. Well, I don’t know that I would say “further” necessarily as just sort of amplifying a different aspect of it. I think that my interpretation as a singer was really based on what you had done in the track, because it gets quite raucous, particularly in Flower, anyway. And, yet I loved the sort of juxtaposition of the quiet singing. Flower, in particular, the vocal starts out very sort of breathy and has a great juxtaposition with the darkness in the track. I guess I don’t really know about taking it further, but it certainly goes into that particular aspect. The angle that you mentioned, of the song, brings it out and throws it in your face.
You picked those two songs particularly from a list of sixteen that I gave you. Why those songs? What characteristics might they have that appeal to you?
Melodically and lyrically. Lyrically has to do with the emotional content. I just felt both of them were very well written. A Flower Opens Gently By is poetry, and I just thought it was a stunning lyric. At the same time, there was also the appeal in the song. I can like a lyric, but I won’t like a song as a whole unless it sort of blends in with the melody. I thought both of those songs were strong, complete, and appealed to me much more than most of the others.
These are two songs from two contrasting people. Janis Ian was always known as a very articulate, very poetic songwriter using words very carefully and very well from the first appearance on the New York scene. Rick Nelson used to be ‘Little Ricky Nelson’ and he grew to be a very powerful songwriter. Now, do you think songwriting is a natural skill or can it be an acquired skill?
I think there has to be something natural about anything artistic you can do. But the acquiring of technique is also an important part of it. Each compliments the other and helps it grow. If you are only limited in your technique, then your natural talent is limited. There are songwriters I know who go to songwriting courses and learn to write songs, and they even have some success. To me they are not–that’s not art–and they are not really speaking to something deep and stirring. Not that it’s not valid, but I think to be a really, really great songwriter such as those two or people, like Jimmy Webb or you know, “the greats,” you’ve got to have both. I don’t think you can have one without the other. I think you have to have a natural feel for rhythm, and no amount of learning is going to tell you that a certain rhyme with a certain note and sound is better than something else. That’s an emotional gut thing. I think it’s some sort of emotional instinct.
The other two songs you sing on the album are the polar opposite of these last two songs. These were written by people who were clearly in the early stages of their songwriting development who had something to say. What do you think you have in common with Captain Sensible and Glenn Matlock?
Well, if you were to take a Captain Sensible song and put it next to a Kit Hain song that was out there, you probably wouldn’t see much in common. What I love about his stuff is his zany sense of humor. It’s very British and seems sort of rooted in vaudeville and music hall, which I loved when I was growing up. I once worked in a restaurant, where we had to learn all these music hall songs and deliver people’s fish and chips singing, “my old man said follow the van” and all that kind of stuff. It’s a certain tradition of English music that comes from that musical background, perhaps. I don’t know, the Captain might bash me outside the head if he heard me say that! I don’t know if it’s true for him. And the zaniness of it÷it’s not something I usually do.
There are certain projects I’ve worked on where÷I mean, I have just been working with an Australian artist for a while and she is busy putting together songs for her first album. Her first single is coming out in a couple of months, Cheryl Beatty,and we wrote a song that is almost like that sort of vaudeville. There’s somebody she had a particular “beef” with and we had tremendous fun and split our sides laughing writing it. Who knows if it’s going to end up on the record, but it is really silly. Another artist I’ve been working with is Caroline Henderson, here from Denmark just last week. We wrote a song which will probably make her next record. It’s actually a very serious subject matter but has this insane verse which is funny and kind of circus-like. So, there may be a couple of things out there in the future which you can say has the same kind of zaniness as Captain Sensible. But on the surface of it, it would be very hard to see what the similarities might be.
Do you think you can smell the fun that people have in a recording session? Do you think that contributes to the mood of the final record ? Do you think that always shows or do you think great records can be made in a very horrible environment?
I don’t know because I have never made one. I do know that people say they had an awful time making a record and you would think that would come through in some way, and it doesn’t. But, to a degree, I would think there was an awful lot of laughter and joy that went into, say, making Happy Talk. Captain Sensible’s version of it. It just makes you want to smile. How could somebody not have had a great time doing it? I could be wrong. He might have been tearing his hair and weeping all the way to the bank. I don’t know.
So, a lot of these things seem to be spontaneous and don’t seem, on the surface, to depend on musical technique. You have a very strong musical technique. Do you think that can have a limit the way that expressions and ideas come out? In particular, do you think a little knowledge can become a dangerous thing?
I think it can. I know I’ve been through periods where I try to write with clever chords and something else I might have learned. In pop music, anyway, very often the most powerful things are the simplest. You can definitely get in your own way if you are thinking to prove how articulate you are technique-wise by putting in all these chords or whatever. But, I think of having them just in a store you can draw upon and let your emotions or a melody guide you. It can be enormously useful to be able to pull out a chord that has a particularly emotional pull, and I think I still have a long way to go with that kind of thing. A great example of a song that has that kind of thing is Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me.You can play the chords in that song as very simple triads, but the actual voicings are what makes it so emotional. It’s just beautiful.
Do you think a strong technique is necessary to achieve that simplicity which you say is pop music?
No, I don’t think so. A lot of people have written great songs with very little knowledge. However, I suppose ultimately the songs that really last and stay with people are the ones from people who have a fair knowledge of their history and have studied it or are at least familiar with a whole range of songs in the past that are sort of part of their tradition. Where that is lacking, music can have a sort of shallowness and it is not that you have to think, “Well, I’ve listened to a lot of Bach or Sibelius, and I’m going to write like that.” But, if that is in your mind or in your soul, all those influences come though in some way and make any song deeper, broader, than it might otherwise be, even if it is only three cords. I mean Air on a G Stringis so beautiful, simply eloquent. How much simpler can you get as far as the chord changes?
We are now three hundred years after Bach and thirty-five years after the Beatles. People have done an awful lot in the meantime. Songwriting now doesn’t have the same freedom as the Beatles had because there are thirty-five years more of people’s effort and thirty-five years more of tradition leaning on you. Do you feel that is a burden?
Never thought of it as such. I have often thought there is never going to be another stage like the sixties again. It was open territory and anything was up for grabs. It allowed for an enormous revolution in music and thinking, all of which was very inspiring. I often feel very fortunate to have been young at that time. As far as it being a limitation, I don’t know. There are so many more things these days at one’s disposal to create music, electronic instruments, sounds, samplers and ways to mangle stuff. I think when music makes a step forward there is always a period where people are doing it for the sake of it, trying to push the envelope. It’s sort of a little awkward and feels contrived, but something comes through that uses it in a fresh and innovative way which takes things a little further. A case in point: If you listen to the Sex Pistols now, they sound so tame compared to when them came out when it was, “Oh, my god, what’s that noise?” You know, the mothers ran for shelter! So, I think things have changed. Sound-wise, things have moved on enormously since the days of the Beatles, but there is something so fresh and wonderful about putting on a sixties record and hearing a guitar and nothing very hi-fi.
Do you think the technology and the possibility for sound casts a new possibility in the direction of an old song?
Hmm. Well, I often think: “What is the point of doing an old song unless you are going to make it better?” Sometimes you hear people doing covers of a song the way it was originally done and it is so patently not as good as it was originally. So, if you are going to redo a song either bring something emotionally powerful of your own or change the instrumentation in some way. Or, if you take it somewhere totally different instrumentally and experiment with the sounds of it, then, sure, why not, but I really don’t have any strong feelings about it. Actually, I am just talking off the top of my head.
Do you think a songwriter starting off now, somebody who is driven to write songs, do you think they feel the pressure of this tradition or do you think they feel that it is just a brand-new-bright-new world?
I think a lot of song writers starting out today are not doing it for that reason. They’re doing it because they want success, and they want to be famous, and they want a Backstreet Boys cover. They want to make money and, of course, they love music. I suppose you always have to love music; otherwise, it is a bit like having a job. It’s a bit like what I was talking about regarding my motives for being an artist. I hear a lot of young songwriters putting that desire for success first and not really going back and listening, taking the songs apart, finding out how things really work and why things work emotionally. I think that’s a pity. I’m sure there are exceptions, and there are people who just love music and have to be a songwriter. The way the music business is right now, I don’t see a lot of it.
Do you think that somebody who is genuinely driven to write a song from the heart might feel that thirty-five years of other people’s activity all built up to a heavier tradition of popular music which didn’t exist thirty-five years ago.
Well, I think thirty-five years ago there was still a tradition. It was just different, and it wasn’t as dense. But, you know the Beatles were drawing on American ideas at the time and those people were drawing on their roots in some way. Everything goes back to a predecessor. I would imagine that somebody with verve and a love of music is going to have been listening for a long time in their life, and loving music since they were a kid. Whether they have been studying it or not, they will be carrying it inside them in some way and I think whether they feel tradition as a pressure is just relative. You might have said, “Did I feel the pressure of the Beatles in the seventies and prior to that the Cole Porters or Irving Berlins or whoever else. No, I think you’re always leaping into something new and exciting, carrying what you can÷bringing with you what you can.
Do you think there is more of a pressure on people to “succeed” today? Do you think that is thrown more in a songwriter’s face? Do you think that would distract somebody who is genuinely interested in writing a song and genuinely oriented in music? Do you think people would get diverted more easily now than they used to?
I think they probably do, and I know I’ve been guilty of that, as well. At times I’ve been looking at what my cohorts are doing or looking at record sleeves and seeing some writer’s name turn up over and over again and thinking: well, if I go down that road· if I try and write like that· or write for this kind of artist, then maybe I can have this kind of success. I think that always fails. It always comes back to what you have to offer, being true to what you have to say. That might be a very simplistic thing or something very complicated, but it is really important to remember to keep true to that, and that’s what will get you through even if it may not be hugely successful. I think what really kicked things forward in my career was being able to take a good hard look at what I do best, what I want to do, and sort of ignoring the rest. I notice that people respond much more strongly to the songs because I am writing better when I do that.
You are implying it takes quite a little bit of thought and application and work to write a song. The popular image is that we do the show right here. The song is just written.
I think sometimes that is the case, and can be the best of all worlds. Some of the best songs I’ve written were written top-to-toe in ten minutes, but it doesn’t often happen in that way. What was it someone once said: “Success is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration.” I think that is real truth. There is perspiration in learning your technique. There are still people who go around with a pad, a pencil and a lyricist or go to other people’s studios to work. But, more and more it’s necessary that you know something about technology in order to be able to get your songs out there in an effective way.
Yes, you hear stories of bands going into a studio and, ‘yeah, we wrote that there and then,’ and I do believe it happens sometimes. You know, take another example of Bjork, who I read takes two months to write a song. They seem so simple and I think she is a fantastic lyricist. It was kind of inspiring to hear that she takes two months. You know, you always feel like you should be going a bit faster if something is taking a long time to get into place. Sometimes things do. I write a song over six months and sometimes, as I say, in ten minutes.
Do you think somebody setting off today has an option to be a songwriter or do you think that only comes once you have experienced being a performer of your own songs? Do you think it is possible to wake up one day and decide you are a songwriter.
Yes. I think plenty of people do that. I think a lot of them start off with whatever their day job is. I know writers who work nine to five and then write songs in the evening. They do the rounds collaborating with people and they work very hard at it until something breaks through and they can give up their day job or whatever. So, I don’t think it is the exclusive territory of performers, by any means.
What do you think would be the most straightforward way of developing a songwriting career? Do you think somebody should focus it that or do you think that they should grow out of their own experience?
Well, I think both. I think you must write from your own experience, but you must definitely set about learning the craft. There are also workshops you can do. Some are better than others, obviously. But there are workshops that can help people understand the craft, what it is, learn about the business, how to get your songs to people. It is more and more competitive, so it is tougher to break through, and it can take a while before anybody bites on a song. You can have somebody bite on a song and have a couple of fantastic covers and then nothing for a couple of years. However, if you keep working at it, are sincere, and have some talent, and you’re still getting closed doors everywhere you look and people are saying your songs “suck,” you’d better think about it again. But, you know, I think you can go through a certain amount of that and take the feedback you are getting and try and see what it is about your songs that maybe aren’t getting across, try and be objective and work on that if you are that serious about it.
After the two cycles you have been through between performing and songwriting are you ever tempted to go back into performance again?
Not really. Occasionally the idea of doing a one-off gig is appealing, but I would never want to go on the road. I would never want to go on tour. That was one of the other reasons I gave up wanting to be an artist. In America, it is more of a requisite to being an artist going on these nine months to year-long tours. To break it is sort of necessary; it is such a huge territory here and I just didn’t want to do that. However, on an occasional songwriter circle performance, to get up on stage as Kit Hain and sing a bunch of songs, it really doesn’t appeal to me.
So you are perfectly content with where you are?
Wouldn’t say that. Life gets better. Definitely life gets sweeter, I think. I enjoy songwriting, particularly collaborating with artists. It gives you more creative freedom and sort of being able to find out where their heads are out and work with them. It forges a particular relationship, which is interesting.
So, it is really the teamwork you enjoy?
Yes. Actually, I still write songs on my own, and sometimes it is great to be able to do both because one is a breather from the other. I think I would get frustrated always writing with other people. There have been times when I have not had time to sit down and write a song on my own. After a couple of months of that, I would be tearing at my hair and sitting down and being able to write a couple of things in solitude is bliss. But I wouldn’t just want to do that either.
So you are really looking to change your surroundings every so often?
Yes. Or change the environment of my studio and have people come into it.
Turn it upside down?
Turn it upside down. Yes. Tidy up after yourselves, please.