A Pleasant Afternoon with Keith Richards

If Keith Richards had been a sounder sleeper,
perhaps his greatest hit would never have
been written. Similarly, if he’d been a just
a regular mortal leafing through that magazine
a couple of years later, perhaps he might have
missed one of his finest titles. But the success
of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” transformed him
from a mere world class guitarist into a true songwriter.

“I remember after ‘Satisfaction’ got to number
one–bang bang at the door. Where’s the follow
up?” he recalled. “I mean every twelve weeks
you had to have another one ready. The minute
you put out a single, you had to start working
your butt off on the next one, and the bigger
the hit, the more pressure there was on the
follow-up. But it was an incredibly good school
for songwriting in that you couldn’t piss around
for months and months agonizing about the
deeper meaning of this or that. No matter what
you were doing, like touring and recording, you
had to make damn sure you didn’t let up on the
writing. It made you want to search around and
listen for ideas. It made you very aware of what
was going on around you, because you were
looking for a song. It might come in a coffee
shop, or it might come on the street, or in a
cab. You get a heightened awareness. You listen
to what people say. You might hear a phrase at
a bus stop. Instead of accepting life, you start
to observe it. You become an outsider rather
than a participant. You’re listening for it every
moment, and anything could be a song; and if
you don’t have one you’re up the creek without
a paddle. For instance, with ‘Ruby Tuesday’ I
saw this picture in some fashion magazine that a
chick had lying around her apartment. It was this
great ad for jewelry-rubies. Also, it happened to
be Tuesday. So she became Ruby Tuesday. I was
just lucky it wasn’t Thursday, I guess.”

As the ‘60s turned the corner and Bob Dylan
and The Beatles led the way from Tin Pan
Alley fluff into something harder and heavier,
Richards and his lead singer collaborator
also needed to up the ante. “I’d say Lennon
definitely felt a strong urge not so much to
compete with Dylan,” Keith surmised, “but Bob
did spur him to realize he could dig deeper.
Mick and I felt that, too, although maybe we
didn’t feel it as strongly as John. The differences
between John and Paul were always greater
than between Mick and myself.” Keith cited
“Symphony for the Devil” as the Stones’ most
Dylanesque song. But his description revealed
how Richards influenced Jagger just as much
as Dylan did. “Mick wrote it almost as a Dylan
song; but it ended up a rock ‘n’ roll Samba.”

“Sympathy for the Devil,” was just one of
a number of songs the pair wrote, including
“Mother’s Little Helper,” “19th Nervous
Breakdown,” “Stray Cat Blues,” “Gimme
Shelter,” and “Street Fighting Man” that gave
the band a much darker reputation than their
immediate peers. To some extent Keith said this
was a media creation. “You use every available
tool in the kit. You get a general feel for what
people want to hear from you and when you’re
good at providing it and they like it–oh, you
want more? Here’s more. And I’d just come up
with a line or a song and lean on it, push it, go
for it. Nobody writes a song or makes a record
to put it in a back drawer.”

Eventually the songwriter returned to his
roots as a guitarist. “To me, songs come
out of being a musician. Playing. I cannot write
to poetry, rhymed couplets, and things like that.
I can write a song out of a chord sequence, a
riff, and eventually come up with lyrics to fit
onto it. But the other way around – no way. I
don’t write songs as a diary. None of them are
autobiographical, but in some sense they’re
a reaction to certain emotions. Some of the
happiest ditties I’ve written come out because
you’re feeling exactly the opposite and you write
to counteract that feeling. I was feeling
anything but happy when I wrote ‘Happy.’
I wrote ‘Happy’ to make sure there was a
feeling like that.

“The important thing to me is to sit
down with an instrument. You might
spend three or four hours going through
the Buddy Holly songbook and then out
of nowhere there’ll be a little crash, and
there it goes. All it takes is a split second.
It might be an accident – a mistake that
sets you off. It’s a matter of sitting down
and playing more than with any definite
intention to write. All you’ve got to do
is be receptive and recognize it when it
happens, because it can come from the
weirdest angles. Rarely do I write a song
totally by myself. Even if I actually do
write it by myself, I always like to have
someone around playing along with me
going, yeah, yeah. I’m a band man – a
group man. I can’t sit there alone in a
room and say, it’s songwriting time –
ding, ding, ding! I work best when the sun
goes down. I’ve eaten, had a few drinks,
and I’ve got some good buddies around. I
love sitting around with an acoustic guitar
and whacking out songs with friends and
family. Somehow they never sound as
good as they do that first night on the
living room couch.”

Keith works differently with Ronnie
Wood than he does with Jagger. “When
Ron and I sit down together to play we’re
two guitarists. Whereas with Mick and
I there’s maybe more of an idea in our
heads that what we’re after is a song at
the end of what we’re doing. When Mick
comes in with a song, usually he’s got it
worked out pretty much. He may need
a bridge to be written, or a different
beat, or to turn it around a little bit. Over
our whole period, maybe 50% of the
time he writes the lyrics and I write the
melody. But that’s a far, far too simplistic
explanation. We write in every conceivable
combination of ways. It’s really an
incredibly elastic arrangement – especially
when you’re writing with a partner for
a band, a specific unit, rather than just
writing a song to see who you could sell
it to. Some songs hang out for years before we
feel happy with them and resurrect them and
finish them off. Others, in two takes they’ve
come and gone and you’ve got to relearn it off
your own record to play it later. Lots of times
you think you’ve written four different songs
and you take them to the studio and you realize
they’re just variations on one song.

“When we’re doing an album I come in with a
handful of riffs and some songs. One or two will
be fairly well-defined. Others, it would be – this
could be dynamite for the Stones, but I have
to wait until we all get together in the studio to
find out. I can’t take it any farther by myself as
a song, or a structure, or an idea until I’ve got
their input. If there’s no kiss of life, if everybody
walks off to the toilet, then you know you’ve
got to drop that one and go on to something
else. But when you just sort of pick up your
guitar when the studio is virtually empty, people
are telling jokes in the back room or playing
dominoes, and then within two or three minutes
they drift back, pick up their instruments, and
begin whacking away, you know they’re into it.”

From his years dedicated to the craft, Keith
has come to view the songwriting experience
as somewhat metaphysical, though he’d be the
last to put it that way. “I never care if I have
anything down on tape, or if the tape runs out
and the song disappears, ’cause they all come
back eventually. I’ve written songs and lost
them and found them ten years later. Once it’s
there, it’s there. It’s just a matter of how long
it takes before it comes back out again. I find
the more I play, the more I’m into it, the songs
pour out. I don’t have a problem with being
non-prolific. That’s all psychosomatic. Music
isn’t something to think about – at least initially.
Eventually it’s got to cover the spectrum, but
especially with rock ‘n’ roll, first it has to touch
you somewhere else. It could be the groin; it
could be the heart; it could be the guts; it could
be the toes. It’ll get to the brain eventually. The
last thing I’m thinking about is the brain.”

Behind the Songs

The Story Behind “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus


The thing that every songwriter dreams of is what is known in the trade as “a window of opportunity.” That period of time when it seems like every song you write is cut, every cut you deliver is a single, and every single released under your name soars effortlessly up the charts. It’s when all the previously closed doors slide open, the phone rings off the hook (or buzzes off your belt or in the folds of your briefcase) and every executive assistant knows your name. The lucky ones find that “window” for a few months, maybe once or twice in a lifetime. As co-writer of Celine Dion’s “Your Day Has Come” in 2002, the Miley Cyrus mega-smash “Wrecking Ball” in 2013, and the monstrous hit for The Weeknd from Fifty Shades of Gray, “Earned It,” in 2014, Canadian-born composer Steven Moccio’s “window of opportunity” has lasted more than ten years.

Not that his last two credits haven’t opened it another mile wider. “The phone is ringing off the hook,” Moccio agreed. “I mean the president of music at Universal Pictures took a meeting with me. I would say a big part of the meeting was because I was the cowriter on ‘Wrecking Ball.’ So he was interested to see what I could do for Fifty Shades of Gray, because he was a fan of that song. And ‘Earned It’ has been played more times on radio than ‘Wrecking Ball’ ever was. At one point I think we had 36,000 spins a week in the US alone. Now, with the success of ‘Earned It,’ often I’m getting asked to write big movie songs or end credits for films. I’ve gotten to know all heads at all the major studios and that’s been an extraordinary thing. I spent the last eight months co-producing The Weeknd’s album and that album is #1 around the world. I’m working on three movies now. The only one I can talk about is the new Julia Roberts film, The Secret in Their Eyes, in which I cowrote a song with this girl Maty Noyes. I’m consumed with producing Maty’s album right now because I really believe the music that we’re creating together is special and I hope people are going to react to it.

I never got into music to make money. That’s probably the best lesson my parents taught me: do what you love and the money will follow. At one point, I was broke. But I knew come hell or high water that one day people would hear my melodies; I knew they were that good. Part of the reason for my success in music is because I’m a hard worker, I’m disciplined. I don’t take it for granted. I love music. I’m always trying to write a greater song than my last song. And whether that’s the case or not it doesn’t matter. It’s my goal every time. That’s what keeps me honest.”

That being said, his association with the notorious 50 Shades of Gray and the probably even more notorious Miley Cyrus has not escaped his attention. “It’s kind of ironic,” he admits. “Because I’m a guy who fundamentally just composes beautiful songs and beautiful music. I’m really a classical writer.”

Stephan Moccio:
Sacha, MoZella and myself did the entire song in one day. I remember it was September 24th, 2012. We came together as three writers unknown to each other, put together by our publishing companies basically to write a song for Beyoncé. That’s what got us in the room. But you just can’t force that stuff. When we started writing the song we thought maybe this is not for Beyoncé. None of the regular studios were available, so Sacha’s manager ended up finding us a Montessori school, with a white piano. It was just the most unique situation in terms of where to write a song. I guess, a great song could be written anywhere, if it’s meant to be.

When you’re in a situation like that, the first thing you do is say hello to people and chat, but within 5 or 10 minutes of meeting each other, things became highly charged. MoZella was extremely emotional that day. She was very frail because she had broken off her wedding during that week. She almost didn’t end up making the session. “Wrecking Ball” in every way is about MoZella’s toxic relationship and then the courage to say, “I can’t go through with this.” So here we are, Sacha and I holding this girl together who was just very emotional, trying to comfort her.

I don’t write lyrics, but I remember we all wanted a strong metaphor as a title and we were just throwing out words. And I remember kind of shyly putting up my hand and saying, “What about ‘Wrecking Ball’?” And Sacha went, “Yeah, ‘Wrecking Ball,’ that sounds good.” And MoZella kind of ran with that. It’s when she got the line, “I came in like a wrecking ball.” It was real collaborative. Sacha is a great pianist so he started off on keyboards and then for some reason he surrendered the piano to me for the rest of the session. MoZella worked with lyrics and melodies while I was at the piano. We demoed it the following day and in a couple of hours we had this beautiful piano vocal demo.

At one point in the writing session MoZella said, “I know Miley Cyrus well enough, do you mind if I play it for her?” Of course, Sacha and I are, “Sure not a problem, it would be great.” And then MoZella a few weeks later ended up playing it for Miley Cyrus. I don’t know all the details, but I know MoZella wanted to play it for Miley on a Sunday, because she said, “If I’m going to get Miley’s attention, the best way to get Miley’s attention is on a Sunday.” I respect that. There is a psychology sometimes about playing a song for an artist at the right time. If you play it at the wrong time, it can be the best song in the world, but it won’t be heard because the artist is not receptive to it. But Miley was really excited about it.

I don’t know Miley at all, so I don’t like to say things on her behalf. However, we all know that she was in a relationship with Liam [Hemsworth] at the time and it was clearly public. So she obviously related to the lyric. Miley thought that Luke, being Dr. Luke, should be the producer. And he ran with it, along with his partner, Henry Walters [Cirkut]. They produced the song, so that’s when their names came on it as writers.They didn’t change the song at all, but they did produce it brilliantly. I mean, if you were to hear the demo, the demo is almost verbatim to the sonics of the song they did. The arrangement was exactly the same key, same tempo, everything.

We wrote it on September 24th and her vocal was already recorded by December. Within that 8-10 week period everyone was telling us how amazing the song was, how amazing it sounded. I didn’t really get a chance to hear it until it was released, except once over the phone. Meanwhile, the record company kept on saying, “‘Wrecking Ball’ is such a big, big record and we think it’s going to be the next single.” And lo and behold, she dropped it by surprise when she did her controversial performance at the MVAs in August, 2013. That night it went to the world and became the #1 single on iTunes.

It’s one of those global songs that you always wish you were a part. Luckily, I’ve been a part of a few of those now. But then when it happens, you try not to pay too much attention to it, because you can drive yourself mental. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say we weren’t calling people just checking to see the amount of spins it got on radio, because that also dictates chart position. I did kind of check in on that every few days.

But it’s incredible, when you have a song like “Wrecking Ball” that becomes a social movement. Clearly, the video had a lot to do with it, as well. It was a controversial video. I know everyone has an opinion about it, love it or loathe it. We live in that kind of age, where it affects, for better for worse, the experience of the song. The visual’s such a big part and sometimes who’s featured on the song is a big part. There’s a lot of contributing factors that affect whether a song is going to be heard by the masses. Sadly, as much as I want to believe it, it’s not just about the fact that the song’s a great song. I mean, there are a lot of great songs that we don’t hear, because they just haven’t been given that platform.

And “Wrecking Ball,” in my humble opinion, is a great song. If you hear it stripped down to vocal and piano it’s a classical piece of music in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of classical influence in it. And when you hear the chordal structure, it’s completely there. The sentiment couldn’t be more genuine, because we have MoZella, who’s pouring her heart and soul out, she’s crying half the day. I believe we genuinely wrote a great song with blood, sweat, and tears. We worked for it. However, we were also given the platform that only an artist like Miley could give us, with everything that was going on in her life at the same time just hitting. It all hit at the right time.


Finding Laura Nyro

One of the most enigmatic and evocative and emotionally intense songwriters ever to hit the Top 40, Laura Nyro’s career survived numerous dips and bends. Known for her late ‘60s smashes, “Wedding Bell Blues” (The 5th Dimension), “Stoned Soul Picnic” (the 5th Dimension), “Sweet Blindness” (the 5th Dimension), “And When I Die” (Peter, Paul & Mary, Blood, Sweat & Tears), “Eli’s Coming” (Three Dog Night), and “Stoney End” (Barbra Streisand), she dropped out of sight at the turn of the decade after releasing Gonna Take a Miracle with Labelle, an album length tribute to the r&b songs she grew singing on New York City subways and rooftops, harmonizing under the moon of love. Quite a departure from the stark and melancholy epics that populated her previous albums, like “Been on a Train” and “The Confession.”

Writing out of personal experience, Laura always stood at the front lines in the battle between the sexes, an emotional firestorm, who moved halfway around the world from the naive bliss of “Wedding Bell Blues.” After her mellow return to action in the late ‘70s, with Nested, Smile, and the live Season of Light, she dropped out again. Five years later Mother’s Spiritual marked a kind of emotional rebirth, a series of songs to and for her newborn son.

Around the release of that album, in 1984, I spoke with Laura, who gave few interviews. But after reading my piece on John Lee Hooker, she agreed to talk to me on the phone about her life as it applied to songwriting, portions of which appeared in USA Today. I had the pleasure of meeting her in person backstage at a Newport Folk Festival just a few years before she died in 1997. “I think that I searched,” she said in a smoky voice conjuring candles and incense, “and I think I traveled far to find something that was very close. People who are going to find their own convictions will all have to go through a certain amount of obstacles. I don’t think I’m different from other people who are searching….to be happy, really. And I’m kind of happy now.”

“When I was very young I remember sitting at a piano and hearing the notes and the chords ring out in the air and I knew there was something special in that sound, some kind of freedom. As a kid I listened to the 50’s songs of urban romance: ”The Wind” by the Diablos, “Oh What a Night” by the Dells, “Happy Happy Birthday Baby” by the Tune Weavers. The first two 45s I bought were “Bye Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers and “Mr. Lee” by the Bobbettes. A year or two later my favorite songs were by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. By the age of 15 I was seriously listening to John Coltrane and jazz singers like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone. I remember one spring afternoon at (the High School of) Music & Art. The weather was lovely and me and my friends were sitting outside looking at a newspaper picture of the Beatles arriving in America. We were listening to ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and I felt this thunderbolt in my heart.

“I have a love for simple basic song structure, although sometimes you’d never know it. It’s a musical starting point and you could stay with it or take it to the ends of the earth, because as beautiful as simplicity is, it can become a tradition that stands in the way of exploration. I started off in music with simplicity and then moved into abstraction and some uncharted waters with the exploration of it. Some people would say went off the deep end. I wanted to learn more and I took freedoms with the principles of composition. I used these dark chord structures, suspended chords, advanced dissonances (advanced for rick and roll), rhythms leading to other rhythms within the same song. My jazz background put certain inflections into my songwriting and singing. Throw in all the poetry I’d read since I was a kid and just being a woman, and that’s what made my songs complex and emotionally rich.

“I don’t think you should categorize yourself as an artist. You should allow yourself to grow. Growth is the nature of the creative process. You have to accept it, respect it, and move on. The thing that’s important to me is to express life as I see it. That’s my priority. There’ve been many changes over the years as I saw life differently from age 18 and age 25. You have to remember, I was still a teenager when I made my first record and the world around me started changing at the speed of lightning just because I’d written some provocative songs. The ‘60s started spinning into a whirlwind and outside of some recognition for my music I felt like I was living inside a hurricane. My rhythm of life was more of a free spirited one and then it changed. I kind of felt like I was losing the rhythm of my youth. So many things were happening at the same time. This is how I experienced it. So I started slowly moving out of that scene so I could experience other things in life without a bunch of people breathing down my neck. When I turned 30 my love songs changed from romantic notions to a deeper taste of life. My mother died right before I wrote the songs for Nested. My child was born right before I wrote Mother’s Spiritual.

“The last few years have been so musically abundant that I felt like the Goddess of Creativity. But who knows? Next year I may only write one song, because that kind of songwriting is cyclical, seasonal; it’s the culmination of a deeper experience. It’s like nature, it takes time to seed and then it blooms. Mother’s Spiritual was a wonderful idea that flew through my head in a minute and then took years to manifest because the relationships and responsibilities that were inspiring the music were also pulling me away from it in terms of time. Since I was recording while I was writing it actually took me two and a half years to complete the 14 songs. Most of the songs I wrote a night. I would just wake up in the middle of the night. I had a young baby and that’s when I found the space to write. I didn’t work with a tape recorder. I would write my ideas down. I have love songs written upside down on matchbook covers. I’d write on my hand if there was no paper. Sometimes I might hear a particular instrument, like when I wrote ‘Melody in the Sky’ I heard gypsy violins.

“Once I’m writing I’m very disciplined. I’m there for the music. When I’m writing music there’s a certain magic from the music underlying life. It’s like you’re living at a deeper current. It’s a very complete feeling. You’re taking care of everyday things, but you’re living at the edge of a song.”