An Interview with Eric Carmen
Conducted by Gordon Pogoda in 1991
I'd like to talk about your classical background and how you've incorporated it into your songwriting. I heard you started playing classical piano at a young age?
I started singing when I was 2. At two and a half, my family saw a little talent in me and enrolled me in the Cleveland Institute of Music. I started in an elementary theory course for preschool kids. When I was 5, I began violin lessons with my aunt. I absolutely hated violin. It was not an immediate gratification instrument. I only wanted to play piano. So I was a dropout at 6.
Around age 11, I convinced my parents to let me go back to the Institute of Music and study piano. I went through seven years of classical training in four years. I was now fifteen and a half, and the Beatles had happened. I didn't initially get it. The people I wanted to be like were Elmer Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein, Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach, Hal David.
Somewhere around 1965, I decided, since there was no such thing as a portable keyboard, I was going to have to learn to play another instrument, so I taught myself to play guitar and then started playing in bands.
I was listening to Rachmaninoff's 2nd piano concerto and I heard the melody which I used for the verse.
"All By Myself" is based on Rachmaninoff's 2nd piano concerto. How did the song come about?
When I was writing that album, I was listening to my favorite music which was Rachmaninoff. "All By Myself" incorporated a melody from his 2nd piano concerto as the verse.
And the solo?
The solo is mine. The song started with the solo. It started four bars at a time. Eventually, over a period of two months, that entire interlude had been written. Then my quest was to put this in the middle of an actual song. Then it was a matter of trying to figure out what kind of song and how could I do it. I was listening to Rachmaninoff's 2nd piano concerto and I heard the melody which I used for the verse.
Then I needed a chorus. I went back and listened to a song that I had written in 1973 called "Let's Pretend" for the Raspberries. The first few notes of the chorus were…(starts singing). And I just took those notes and took it from th
That's interesting because you also used those same notes to open the verses of "The Way We Used To Be."
You know, you're right. I never even thought about that one. But I didn't do that one consciously. And anyway, I wrote the music and figured out how to incorporate this little classical interlude that I'd written into the middle. Then it was the search for a lyric and a title. And there were three different titles before it was "All By Myself."
What were they?
I have no idea. I have notes somewhere 'cause I've kept every note that I've ever written from the age of 12 when I started writing songs. And they're all in boxes somewhere.
How did you feel about the edited version of "All By Myself?"
The edited version was still about 4:22 so I know the song probably had to be edited. The only problem was that there really was no place to edit because it changed keys four different times within that piano interlude. Jimmy Ienner, the producer, and I had struggled trying to figure out how we could possibly do an edit.
"Never Gonna Fall In Love Again" is based on Rachmaninoff's 2nd symphony.
I was sitting around and listening to Rachmaninoff's 2nd symphony. I heard that beautiful melody. The reason that I used those things was twofold. First, they happened to move me. That stuff gave me goose bumps every time I listened to it. Also, I thought that it's a crime that there are some spectacular melodies in classical music that the general public doesn't get exposed to. I thought this was a way for me to bring some of the classical music that I love, incorporate it into a pop song for a new decade of kids, and introduce them to those beautiful melodies that they might not otherwise hear. That was the plan behind "Never Gonna Fall In Love Again."
There's a very funny bridge in "Last Night" from my first solo album, and Chopin is probably rolling over in his grave.
Are any of your other songs based on classical themes?
There's a very funny bridge in "Last Night" from my first solo album, and Chopin is probably rolling over in his grave. The bridge of "Last Night" is from one of the most beautiful Chopin melodies ever, and I did it in such a way it's almost unrecognizable. It's kind of humorous in the context of this rather sarcastic song.
Is "My Girl" based on a classical song?
In "My Girl" the bridge has a little taste of Rachmaninoff.
How about "Love Is All That Matters?"
I'll tell you how that one was written. I was watching a Leonard Bernstein children's concert where he would explain classical music. It was a lesson of how Bach established a melody in the first eight bars. Then basically, the melody was repeated continually from the beginning to the end of the song, just played in a different register on a different instrument. I had this idea to take the simplest possible little piece of melody, which was those first few notes of the "Love Is All That Matters" chorus, and then be able to repeat them.
My idea was to do it so that it ended up being a round where a French horn would play it one time, an oboe would play it the next time. But you could actually start on any beat—on beat 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 of the bar—and have different instruments playing that melody. Then, it would work against each other. It was just kind of an experiment, and it worked.
There was another version of the song that got lost somewhere in the shuffle that I like much better. It had a lot more echo, and it had a lot more stuff to it. I wasn't really thrilled with the mix, but these things happen.
One thing that's so interesting about your writing is that the up tempo rock songs don't have typical rock chord progressions, e.g. "Sunrise," "Last Night" and "My Girl" which have augmented chords, diminished sevenths and secondary dominants. Did you ever feel it might be chancy to put sophisticated chords into rock and roll songs?
Absolutely. That's exactly why I did it, because I thought no one else does this. There's no reason in the world why you shouldn't be able to do that. If you sat and played "Go All The Way," which was written on a piano, it has some very sophisticated chords, and melody notes against sophisticated chords.
One of the deciding factors that pulled me out of classical music into writing pop music was the first time I heard an album of the Hollywood Strings playing songs by the Beatles. I realized these were really great songs, and they stood up on their own. They could be played by a symphony and they turned out just as well.
Do you think a technical knowledge of music theory is important for writers?
I don't know. I don't think I could make a blanket statement like that because Diane Warren, to my knowledge, has no great knowledge of music theory, and had no classical training, and she is an absolutely great songwriter. I would doubt that Holland, Dozier and Holland had classical training. It's not necessary. It doesn't hurt. It certainly helped me. But it's not a prerequisite.
I'd like to talk about the early part of your career and your work as part of the Raspberries. Do you remember writing "Go All The Way?"
In terms of the songs for the Raspberries, I remember "Go All The Way" vividly. The year was 1971. I was 21. I had been studying for years. I had spent my youth with my head between two stereo speakers listening to the Byrds and the Beatles and later on the Beach Boys—just trying to figure out what combinations of things—whether it was the fourths harmonies that the Byrds were singing on "Mr. Tambourine Man"—I must have worn out ten copies of that first Byrds album listening to it over and over, and turning off the left side and turning on the right side trying to figure out why these certain combinations of instruments and echo and harmonies made that hair on your arms stand up.
I did the same thing with Beatles records, and I tried to learn construction. Then I went to school on Brian Wilson. That was a real breakthrough for me because he was doing things that I thought were so incredibly sophisticated before anybody was doing anything even close. The PET SOUNDS album is, to me, the best pop album of all time.
Brian introduced me to the idea of writing a bridge for a song that really had nothing to do with the verse and chorus. In the early days, I spent a lot of time concentrating on writing bridges that took you some place that you didn't expect to go. Many songwriters wrote a song, the song's in the key of C, it comes time for a bridge and they go to A minor. That bored me. Brian would go to E flat or somewhere strange, and he managed to do it smoothly. He also had a way of delivering you out of the bridge in such a way that you felt like maybe the song had modulated up a step, but you were really back in the original key. That, to me, was artwork.
So when I sat down to write "Go All The Way," there were a couple things I had in mind. I thought, "What part of the song is it that people really want to hear? It's the chorus." As a result of all that, "Go All The Way" has a ten second verse, and then the chorus is a minute long. I figured just to get to the chorus as fast as I can. That was the plan behind the song. I repeated that when I wrote "I Wanna Be With You."
I'd like to mention some Raspberries songs and get your response to them. "Let's Pretend."
I thought "Let's Pretend" was one of the best melodies I'd ever written. That's why I went back and used it for the chorus of "All By Myself"—the first few notes. When I was writing that album, there was a Time magazine out. The cover was a shot of two teenagers, a guy and a girl—it looked like they just had sex. The article was about teen sexuality. That picture was so potent in terms of what it said that I put it on the music stand of my piano. I was listening to the PET SOUNDS album at the time. And I said, this picture is what I'm going to look at because this is exactly what I want to be writing about for this album. It was the same kind of stuff that "Wouldn't It Be Nice" was about. I was trying to re-create that picture in a musical sense. Strange but true.
"I Wanna Be With You."
When we were finishing the first Raspberries album at Record Plant in New York, Todd Rundgren was in the next studio working on the SOMETHING ANYTHING album. We had two songs left to mix—"I Saw The Light" and "I Can Remember." Todd came by and listened a little bit while we were mixing "I Saw The Light" and he went away. Then, later in the day, we were listening to "I Can Remember" and he listened to that a couple of times. He went away and went back to the studio.
I remember the SOMETHING ANYTHING album came out about a month before the first Raspberries album. I went out and bought it because I'm a Todd fan. The first song on the album was called "I Saw The Light." And I said, "What a coincidence." I listened to it and musically it had nothing in common with our song, but the title and the lyric were kind of in a similar vein. I chucked it off to coincidence. Then the next song on the album started out (begins playing the piano) and the first thing he sang was "Do you remember." I thought, "Hmm…well, I will have my revenge." So my favorite song on the SOMETHING ANYTHING album was "Couldn't I Just Tell You." It has a twangy open-string guitar lick, and I said, "Well, O. K. So I sat down with my guitar and learned that lick. I fooled around with it a bit and came up with the lick for the beginning of "I Wanna Be With You." Two can play at this game.
Then I remembered we played a date at Carnegie Hall. Critics had been saying we were too much like the Beatles. We really had not intended to be a Beatle-clone band. My comeback to that would be…if you took a kid at the age of 15 and you locked him in a room and played him nothing but Jimi Hendrix records and handed him a guitar, then he came out of the room at 20 and started to play, what do you think he'd sound like? We all loved the Beatles. Obviously, some influence was soaked up.
I remember when I was growing up I used to sleep with the transistor radio under my pillow.
"Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)."
I always saw that song as a little movie. It was supposed to start out with a guy sitting at the piano, one spotlight shot from up high. As the camera comes closer to this guy, it opens up and the band is there. It gets a little bit wider, and then you do the panorama thing. I just saw the song very visually. The outgrowth of the whole thing was—I was reading Billboard magazine, and there was an ad for a country record, and it said, "Whatever the title of the song was…is a hit record." I thought, "Wouldn't it be funny if you had a song called "Hit Record" and the company could take out an ad that said, "'Hit Record' is a hit record?"
Then, somewhere in the writing of the song, I got to this point where I thought, wouldn't it be cool to do a record in stereo, and then all of a sudden at some point very abruptly, cut the tape and bring the song back as if you were hearing it through a transistor radio under your pillow. I remember when I was growing up I used to sleep with the transistor radio under my pillow so I wouldn't wake up my brother who was in a bunk bed above me. The bridge was "I used my bread making demos all day, writing in the night while in my head I hear the record play." It was that picture I had of myself.
I always thought it was great how it went into the transistor radio section.
It went to mono. I think we actually put it through a little tiny speaker and filtered the daylights out of it.
That was my never ending quest to write songs that make people feel good when they hear them in the car.
"On The Beach."
I was trying to do something a little more unusual which was to incorporate sound effects. No producers that I've ever worked with, except for Jimmy Ienner, ever liked to do sound effects. All the technical guys I've ever worked with thought it was so corny. I always loved records where I heard the sound of the surf or whatever else—a little atmosphere.
"You Took Me All The Way" from your 1985 solo album sounds like a tribute to "Go All The Way."
Not exactly a tribute. John Kalodner, who I love dearly, said to me while I was writing that album, "Go write me another 'Go All The Way.'" I said, "John, when wrote that song, I was 21, and it was maybe believable then. But I can't imagine how at the age of 35 that I could write a song that was that teenage in approach." He said, "You can do it." So I tried to figure out how to do it. Everything that I wrote that was in any way dissimilar to "Go All The Way"—I'd play for John and he'd say, "No, go to that other chord." Then I'd play literally the same chord from "Go All The Way" and he'd say, "Oh, that's the one I want." I must admit it was a song written on request.
The two songs have almost exactly the same chord progressions.
Almost exactly the same chord progressions, same key changes. The only thing new in that was the bridge which I liked.
The song is about life, is anything but a dream. And it's a sad "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."
Let's talk about the BOATS AGAINST THE CURRENT album. I understand the title song was inspired by the last paragraph of "The Great Gatsby."
Most certainly. That song is my favorite song that I've ever written. It came, music and lyrics, at four in the morning out of a sound sleep. I wrote it down as fast as I could. It came all at once—the first two verses were completely written. The lyric was originally inspired by the breakup of myself and Jimmy Ienner, my producer. It was written about a friendship that had reached a point where we both knew we had to go our separate ways for a time. All the rest of the songs for that album had been written.
As is sometimes the case with me, my very best song will come last, when I don't need it anymore. I just happened to be finishing "The Great Gatsby" the day I had written the verses of "Boats Against The Current," and that one paragraph was exactly about what the song was about. So I sat and read it and I thought, "Tomorrow, we'll run a little bit faster, tomorrow…" I was on that last page when I said, "Here's the chorus and the title of my album."
And you use "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" as the intro.
Yes, sometimes I like the idea of incorporating something that people have heard and using it almost subliminally within the context of a song. It evokes the feeling of familiarity, even though you may be hearing something for the first time. Within the context of "Boats Against the Current", I wanted to use "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" because it was "Life is but a dream" and it's a nursery rhyme, and I always thought it was very ironic to use it in the context of the most pessimistic song I'd ever written in my life—this little nursery rhyme about how life is but a dream. Of course, the song is about life, is anything but a dream. And it's a sad "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."
With albums like BOATS AGAINST THE CURRENT and songs like "All By Myself" and "Never Gonna Fall In Love Again," do you find it easier to write sad love songs?
Not necessarily. Those songs came at periods when I was sad. One of the current problems I've had writing songs over the last year or two is that I've been remarkably happy for me. There's not nearly as much fuel in being happy as there is in being miserable. Being miserable is a great catalyst for songwriting, for me anyway.
I'm constantly amazed at the amount of wonderful work that Mozart did during periods when he was fairly happy. His music during those periods reflects the happiness. On the other hand, I can't imagine that Rachmaninoff was happy when he was writing the 2nd symphony and 2nd piano concerto. I don't think the anguish and angst of those melodies comes out of being peachy keen.
It was supposed to be one of the songs that when you got in the car and heard it, you felt like it's a wonderful day.