Today I want to introduce you to David Habbin, a tenor with one foot in opera and the other in pop, and Robin Lerner, a songwriter who stuck with her notebooks full of poetry and lyrics until she found herself writing for singers like Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Luther Vandross, Bette Midler, and Patti LaBelle. These two combined their talents (along with music composer, Tommy Lee James) to create the beautiful and haunting “Morning Song,” which will be the focus of this interview.
Right now, the song is only a demo, but you can listen to it by clicking the link beside the photograph. And, FYI, the more you click on it and give it high ratings, the sooner it will be available!
I find collaboration a fascinating business, and I hope you will, too, as you hear about the origin of these lyrics, the way one artist impacts another, and the power of the internet to bring these two together.
Now, if you’re a regular here, you know very well who I’m going to talk to first… the writer! Behind most of the actors and singers you love is a writer with a drawer full of rejection slips and a many-decade journey to become the unknown that (s)he is today. Time to bring Robin into the spotlight!
When you write a song, do the words come first, or the music?
These days, the music usually comes first. When I first started out, it was more lyrics and then the music. But since I collaborate with other songwriters so much now, we always start with the music. Sometimes I’ll have an idea for a chorus, a title or a phrase – or maybe even a sketch of a verse – and we’ll weave a chorus around that – but for the most part, it’s music first.
Describe your life as a songwriter before you made it.
It depends really how you define “made it.” It took me twenty years to be able to make a living by songwriting alone, which is how I define it. Before that I always did other things to earn money. In the early days, I had many “day jobs” when I lived in New York City. I worked mostly as a production coordinator for music (jingles) or film production companies. I’d do my songwriting at night, after hours, or on the weekends. It was what I’d look forward to every night after work. Sitting at the piano and writing songs into the wee hours. I’d get home from work at around 7:00 or 8:00 pm and work on music until 1:00 or 2:00 am. Then back at my day job by 9:00 or 10:00 the next morning. And lots of late nights at the music clubs in New York when I wasn’t at home writing – which were always inspiring.
When I moved to LA in 1986, I worked mostly as a screenwriter, writing animated musicals for kids for different film studios (which I often got to write the songs for as well). I’d gone to film school at NYU so that was my background. And in the early, early, days in New York I worked as a waitress, typist, secretary, receptionist… Anything I could to earn money. I even drove a horse and carriage in Central Park one summer for a week. My rent and expenses were very low (believe it or not) when I lived in New York. I had it down to a science, how to survive on $1200 a month.
What doors were opened for you that changed your career, that took you toward success? And did you recognize the change that was coming?
Really, the most important door that opened for me was when my good friend Doc Pomus encouraged me to pursue only songwriting and give up singing. I had never really separated the two before, and he very kindly, at the beginning of our friendship, indicated that I might be better served, pursuing a career solely as a songwriter for other singers, whereas before that had never occurred to me. He had, at a certain point in his own career given up singing (although he was actually a very well known and revered blues singer for a long time before actually stepping into his songwriting shoes, and had been performing and recording for quite some time, unlike me), and I took his advice to heart. He turned me onto my first publisher, Marv Goodman, at ATV music in New York, who in turn, hooked me up with his many staff writers, and before long, I was getting cuts with other artists.
Did that originally feel like a blow to be told to give up singing and only focus on songwriting? Was there a period of loss or of fighting his advice to you? And what has happened to your singing? Did you find an outlet for it, even though it’s no longer a career focus?
Regarding the singing, it was a bit of a blow, actually. It wasn’t something I was really trying to pursue professionally. I didn’t perform in clubs or anything. I wasn’t trying to get a record deal. I was mostly just writing and singing my own songs in college (writing end titles to friend’s movies as favors, as I was in film school) and things like that.
My voice had always been a vehicle to showcase my songs to other people as it was very expensive in those days to record demos and hire singers, so I was always singing and accompanying myself on guitar or piano. It was before everyone had computers and pro tools. You actually had to go into a studio and record with a band to tape! (What a concept…) The unfortunate thing was, I did become incredibly self-conscious about singing in public for years. To this day I don’t perform in songwriter in the rounds, or if someone asks me to get up at a club, I won’t do it. It’s really stupid as I sing all the time while writing with other songwriters and my singing doesn’t bother me (or anyone else) at all, for that matter. Plus, I sing all of the rough vocals for all of the singers I hire to sing my demos in the studio, and it’s still really my primary songwriting instrument for writing melodies.
But to be honest, I’m not a great singer. And I think, by telling me to forget about the singing, Doc was trying to save me years of pain. As a singer, he’d been incredibly let down by the record business and I think he never really recovered. He must have thought that being a singer was something I was pursuing and he tried, in his own way, to spare me the indignity of it all.
How does a song go from your notebook to a singer? How do you present a song to a singer? And what happens to those songs you love that are still in the notebook?
Lyrics in a notebook become a song in the songwriting process. The song then gets demoed, and that said song gets presented to a said singer through a publisher and an A & R person at a label, or perhaps, a manager. The songs you love that are still in the notebook have the opportunity throughout time to become incorporated at any given moment, into another song.
I have a stack of books that I lug around with me to every writing appointment to this day with notes, and lyrics, from up to 10 years ago. My baggage, my luggage, has become a standing joke amongst my peers. That I cannot travel without this heavy load of books. We always joke that my Indian name is “Walks with Baggage.” One would think in the age of computers I could somehow import it all onto a disk or something but no… I have to have the tactile… The actual notebooks at hand… Always… While writing… I flip through them as if an idea will leap forth. And the funny thing is… It does… I have some ideas from a long time ago, and others from not so long ago, and it doesn’t matter. Everything gets used eventually.
Do you notice any trends in the songs you’ve written that have had the most commercial success?
Well, I guess one could say I’m best known for my “unusual” lyrics. Songs like “This Kiss” and “She’s My Kind of Rain” were a bit off the beaten path for country music at the time. “It’s centrifugal motion, it’s perpetual bliss, it’s that pivotal moment”… I don’t think country music had ever seen that many syllables strung together like that in a country chorus before… We definitely started a trend. And in some hardcore country music people’s minds, it wasn’t necessarily a good trend.
“She’s the sunset’s shadow… she’s like Rembrandt’s light… she’s the history that’s made at night.” That’s pretty different for country music, too!
It was really a miracle that the song ever got on the radio at all. And, of course after that, there were lots of imitators. Martina McBride recorded a song straight after Faith, called “I Love You” that tried to replicate what we had done in “This Kiss.” I think it went to number one as well. I think because I started as a poet in New York I tend to be a poetic lyricist. The songs I’ve had the most success with were all unique lyrically. Also I love lots of syllables. My very first single on the radio in 1983, by Jermaine Jackson, was called “Sweetest Sweetest.” It was an R & B song with lots of syllables.
Tell me about Morning Song. How did this song come to you? Show me a little bit about the process of writing it. Did an image come first? A particular line? The chorus?
I was in Nashville writing with one of my favorite collaborators, Tommy Lee James. We’ve been co-writing for around ten years and have had lots of cuts together. Even a # 1 with Tim McGraw (“She’s My Kind Of Rain“). Anyway, we’d been asked to write something for Josh Groban and so we were messing around on the piano with some ideas. Tommy wrote this bit of music which eventually became the music to “Morning Song“. I’d been watching the news coverage of the Natalee Holloway disappearance in my hotel, and being a mother of a teenage girl at the time, I was riveted. I couldn’t get her out of my mind. Tommy had two daughters as well, and I just identified so much with Beth, Natalee’s mother – the lyrics just poured forth – I wanted to give her something. Something that would make her feel better. A coping mechanism. A ray of hope. Some solace. And that was the best I could come up with. Tommy and I have a very unique writing process. He rarely questions me. We sit in the room together while he runs through a litany of musical ideas, all of which I assiduously tape. I then go back to my hotel room, light a ton of candles, and see which bit of music inspires me. Then a lyric, usually presents itself in its entirety (over the course of an afternoon) at which point I run back to Tommy and say, “what do you think?” He almost never asks me to change one word (which probably accounts for my repeat business with him) and then we just demo the song and have our people run with it. “Morning Song” was really another way of saying “Mourning Song”. But I thought it was too sad to call it that.
Do you know if Natalee Holloway’s mother has heard this song? And if so, has she responded?
I don’t think Natalee’s mother has heard “Morning Song“, no…
Hmm. Maybe she’ll stumble across this interview and get quite the surprise.
I’d love to hear about the first time you and David came together with this song.
David and I have actually never met. He lives in England and I live in Los Angeles. It was through his representatives that the song was presented to him.
Any words about David’s interpretation of your song, and how it is to hear him sing it?
David sings it beautifully and I love that he was moved enough by the music and lyrics to tackle it. Obviously, it is a song about loss, and resonates on that level with anyone who has experienced profound grief around that particular subject.
Do you strictly write for individual singers now? What happened to that original interest in screenwriting?
The last screenplay I wrote was called “Princess of Thieves” and starred Keira Knightly. It aired in 2001 on ABC’s “Wonderful World of Disney.” It was the only screenplay I’d ever written that wasn’t a musical.
For the last two years I’ve been working on a musical for the stage, based on the movie “Officer and a Gentleman.” We just had our first staged reading of it in April of this year in New York and it went very well. We plan to workshop it in Melbourne in the fall of 2008 and open in the fall of 2009.
As for country and pop songwriting, I tend to write more with artists for their albums these days. I wrote a lot of Jennifer Hanson‘s new album with her in Nashville (it’s being released early next year on the universal south label) and also some songs with an artist from the UK named Ben Montague that I have hopes for.
I’ll look for them! Any inspiration for struggling artists and writers?
PERSEVERANCE, PERSEVERANCE, PERSEVERANCE…
Wow. I sure do like Robin! And I hope my LitPark readers will join me in paying more attention to writers behind the songs we love.
Okay, so now we have lyrics (and a melody by Tommy Lee James). Let’s meet the (dare I say, delicious?) singer and see what happens on his end.
After being a part of a successful group like Amici, what part of being a solo artist is the most exciting or appealing to you?
After being one of a group there are so many ways that the whole process would differ but I think one of the most appealing to me would be that the whole body of work on an album represents you and you alone. What I mean is that there is nowhere to hide – you are solely accountable for every song choice and every performance. It’s a more vulnerable feeling, of course, but ultimately I think it’s a more invigorating and satisfying feeling.
Any trepidation about being alone on stage or recording alone?
No, I don’t have any feelings of trepidation about being on stage alone and I love being in the studio so I relish not having to go for a ‘tea-break’ during someone else’s vocal session.
Any areas specifically that you want to pursue?
As a music fan I am still moved by so many styles of music from Led Zeppelin to Vivaldi so there’s no shortage of inspiration. That said though, I don’t want to be weird and wonderful for the sake of it. It’s a case of finding material that sits well with the voice. All I really hope for as a singer is to make a recording that takes a listener on an emotional journey.
In answer to your question though, I look forward to exploring the ‘pop’ genre as well as re-interpreting music from the classical canon. Original music is the lifeblood of the industry so I would love to record an album of entirely original material, and to tour, of course. The interaction you have with the audience when performing a live concert is extraordinary and exhilarating, and I love that. But I also want to continue to pursue my acting on stage and in film and television. I am planning a visit to the States in the near future to continue to explore further avenues.
Tell me the process of people bringing songs to you, and how you go about choosing them?
When choosing a song I simply let a piece run by me a couple of times and, if I begin to feel a connection, it’s an obvious call to make. It may sound over simple but I just have to ‘like it’. At this stage it’s not just a case of people bringing songs to me, it is also me and those working with me, seeking out material that I think may suit my delivery and then asking the songwriters if they would allow me to make a demo of their song. Songs have also been presented to me by songwriters at varying stages in their own careers. The remarkable thing about having Internet these days and being contactable through sites like MySpace and YouTube is that you can be in touch with so many varied artists around the globe and information can be transferred in a matter of seconds. So the whole process of sourcing new material is so much easier than in the past.
I understand that you and Robin have never even met.
No. We haven’t. But again, that’s the great thing about the Internet. The tracks were sent to me “electronically.” I have recently done a demo of another lovely song that Robin wrote the lyrics to, that we will be putting up soon, where I did the vocal in London, and the producer Stephan Oberhoff, who is also one of the co-writers along with another great American songwriter named Marsha Malamet, is doing the final mix in his studio in Los Angeles.
Fascinating how the internet has facilitated such an international collaboration! Can you tell me something about how you take something as personal as a song and someone else’s lyrics and make it your own?
This process only really happens for me when I begin to demo a song. Sometimes you may like a song but when you try to sing it, it just doesn’t happen for you with your voice so you may put it to one side. As far as “making it your own” is concerned, that’s one of the ‘magical’ parts of the process for me. The voice responds and moulds itself to the words and the tune and you find yourself thinking, “Oh yeah, so THAT’S what I would bring to this song.” To use an overused phrase, I guess it’s an “organic process” in this respect.
What was it about Robin’s song that first struck you?
That’s easy to answer. The first thing that struck me about Robin’s song was the melody of the chorus. It’s got desolation… it’s got yearning… it’s got pain… it’s got resignation. It’s poignant and sparse and beautiful. I initially thought it was a guy singing about losing a partner.
I know you have your own story of grief, having lost your infant sister. Do you remember anything about your family’s grief and how they moved through such an unimaginable loss? I also wonder if you have a sense about how you are different because of what your family went through?
By the time I was cognizant of what my family had endured through losing a child some years had passed so the rawness was over. I imagine that having two other children was a help to my folks but my mother often says that, despite being a cliché, it’s really only time that heals.
I think my life has been affected by what happened by making us a close-knit family. I have an older sister and I think that both she and my mother have been highly protective of me as the younger sibling. On a more ethereal level I perceive that feeling that my sister is “out there somewhere” has given me some sense of spirituality that I may not otherwise have felt.
When I first put this rough demo of “Morning Song” on my MySpace page, I loved the song, but wanted to see how my fans would react to a different musical direction than what they were used to from me. After learning what Robin’s intention was behind her beautiful and moving lyrics, I very much wanted people to not only hear the song, but to know the story behind Robin’s lyrics.We then thought about taking the demo of the song into one more dimension of media, just as a test. Photography is a hobby of mine, so we decided to do a slideshow interpretation of the song, with mostly photographs of mine, as a combination of my memories, and the story behind Robin’s lyrics, done as a backdrop to the vocal. Then we put the video up on my YouTube page and waited to see what happened.People began to write to me to tell me how the song, the lyrics and the photos had affected them and how they were relating in different ways from experiences in their own lives.Charlie is a friend and has been an avid supporter and proponent of my music and my venture into solo projects. I had told him about this, and he decided to write about the video on his MySpace blog.He has held writing competitions on his website for many years. We were all getting such touching and heartfelt responses, that he decided to take this idea one step further.What he felt was that “The greatest gift that we do get from loss is that it leaves us looking for and finding the good, the positive, the strength and the ability to move forward in spite of everything. When we lose something or someone valuable in our lives, that often results in being the one thing that inspires us to recommit ourselves to living life to the fullest.”
“Morning Song” is haunting with a very sad subject matter, so we were honoured that he wanted to use the video I did of “Morning Song” and the story behind Robin’s lyrics, as an inspiration for a writing competition on his website, that emphasized how we do turn sad things around in our lives, how something positive can come from loss.
I’d very much like to include my readers in the writing contest inspired by “Morning Song.” What are the rules and when is the deadline?
That would be great, Sue. Thank you and thanks for your interest and the interview. It was a pleasure to be here. You can find all the written rules here and watch a little video explanation that Charlie and I did “together” about the contest here. The deadline to enter is Sunday, 17 February.
Though DAVID HABBIN now calls London home, this critically renowned tenor hails from Ringwood, England. David’s musical career began with him performing and writing in rock and pop bands. That came to an end when he went to study musical theatre and acting at the Mountview Theatre School in London, while simultaneously studying vocal training with International operatic tenor Jon Andrew.
David received critical acclaim when he performed over 600 times in the role of Tony in West Side Story, directed by legendary librettist, playwright and co-creator of West Side Story Arthur Laurents, in the original West End UK revival and on the tour.
He then continued his operatic training at the Royal Northern College of Music. He has performed as Marius and Combeferre in Les Miserables at the Palace Theatre, acted in a British feature film and performed with various opera companies in the United Kingdom in roles such as Alfredo in La Traviata, Ernesto in Don Pasquale, Almaviva in The Barber of Seville, Alfred in Die Fledermaus, Fenton in Falstaff and Lt. Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly.
In 2002, David became a founding member in the internationally acclaimed classical pop crossover group Amici Forever. This multi platinum, multimillion selling group, that have enchanted people from around the world with their inspiring and unique sound, scored phenomenal success with their debut CD The Opera Band and their follow up CD Defined, along with impressively received tours in Australia, New Zealand and the UK.
With Amici, David has performed in many charity concerts including “The Prince’s Trust” for HRH The Prince of Wales at Windsor Castle, “The Make a Wish Foundation” at Blenheim Palace, and appeared on “The Jerry Lewis Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy” in Los Angeles. They were invited by the Queen to sing at the Royal Albert Hall for ‘The Festival of Remembrance,’ performed in front of 500 million viewers at the Champions’ League final at Old Trafford, supported Dame Shirley Bassey on her 50th anniversary stadium tour, performed on the live broadcast of the Miss World 2006 finals which was broadcast to over 2.5 billion people worldwide and sang for Prince Harry at Berkshire’s Prince’s Polo.
To celebrate the return of The Olympic Games to Greece after 100 years, BBC TV commissioned a new piece that was used throughout the entire BBC Sport coverage of The Olympics called ‘Olympia: Eternal Flame‘ recorded by Amici and performed before 70,000 in June of 2004 in The Mall to close the Athens Olympic Torch Ceremony.
Amici was also honoured to be the act chosen to perform at the World Premiere Party of the film, Phantom of the Opera for 1800 VIP and celebrity guests including Andrew Lloyd Webber and the cast of the film and headlined the ‘Luciano Pavarotti Tribute’ British Red Cross Royal Gala Ball. In 2005, with Amici, David recorded a PBS Television Special at The Harvey Theatre in New York City that was later released on DVD called ‘Amici Forever – in Concert.’
For further information on David Habbin:
A native of New York, ROBIN LERNER graduated from NYU film school and moved west, to pursue her songwriting and screenwriting careers in sunny Los Angeles. Merging her love of musical theater and film, she created numerous animated musical features for Disney, Amblin, and Warner Brothers, working with composers Galt MacDermot (“Hair”) and Frank Wildhorn (“Jekyll and Hyde”), and producers, Steven Spielberg, and Cameron Mackintosh. As her songs found success in the pop world with Sheena Easton, Chaka Khan, Carly Simon, Patti LaBelle, Jermaine Jackson, Take 6, and Luther Vandross, Lerner signed with Maverick Music in 1996 and started traveling back and forth to Nashville.
In the past 10 years, Lerner’s songs have been recorded by great country artists such as Randy Travis (“Out Of My Bones,” #1), Tim McGraw (“She’s My Kind Of Rain,” #1) and Faith Hill (“This Kiss,” #1) . In 1999, “This Kiss” was awarded single of the year at the 1999 Academy of Country Music Awards, and was named ASCAP Song Of The Year. “This Kiss” was also nominated for a Grammy and went on to win Song of the Year at the 2000 CMA‘s.
In 2002, Lerner returned to her film roots penning the screenplay “Princess of Thieves,” which aired on ABC’s “Wonderful World of Disney” and starred Keira Knightly. Since then she has collaborated with Nashville artist Jennifer Hanson, on her new album for Universal South, which is being released in early 2008. Her song “Safest Place To Hide” appears on the current Backstreet Boys album, and Bette Midler performs her song “September” (a ballad which reflects on the actions of 9/11) every night in her ongoing “Kiss My Brass” tour. She is currently writing a musical for the stage, based on the film “Officer and a Gentleman,” which had it’s first staged reading in New York in April, ’07. It is being workshopped in Sept. 08 in Melbourne, and opening in Sept. 09.
For additional information on Robin Lerner please visit:
Thank you Robin and David! You’re both lovely, and it was great to have you here! Thank you Charlie and Janelle for providing amazing support behind the scenes! Now, enter that contest, everyone – and good luck!