Music has always been second nature for Holly Knight – by the age of 14 she had already studied classical piano for a decade. Yet, few could have anticipated the impact on popular music she would eventually have, and the indelible mark she would leave on one of it’s most celebrated eras, the 1980’s.
Knight wrote or co-wrote Pat Benatar’s ‘Love is A Battlefield’ and ‘Invincible’, Tina Turner’s ‘Better Be Good to Me’ and ‘Simply The Best’, ‘Never’ by Heart, ‘Rag Doll’ by Aerosmith, Patty Smyth and Scandal’s ‘The Warrior’, ‘Obsession’ by Animotion, ‘Change’ by John Waite, and Rod Stewart’s ‘Love Touch’, just to name a few.
Today, Knight is not only a musician and songwriter, but an accomplished photographer as well. She is also lending her songs to her own musical in the works.
She discussed all of these things and more in our recent conversation.
Robert Ferraro: Holly, you’ve written an incredible amount of music that almost everybody of a generation knows, but before you became a full-fledged songwriter you were in a band called Spider, and were successful, with Top 40 hits and videos on MTV, etc.
Holly Knight: Yes, and even before we were selling records we were the house band at a club in Manhattan called Trax, when it was the place to be. In those days whenever a popular band would play Madison Square Garden or the Palladium they would come to Trax for after parties so all sorts of cool people saw us play. One day it would be, “Oh, there’s Mick Jagger in the audience. There’s Bowie.” These were ‘holy shit’ moments, you know? [laughs] We had a lot of nights like that. It was very exciting for us even early on.
Robert: You recorded two albums with Spider in ‘80 and ‘81, and that had you working with Mike Chapman (famed Blondie producer). The two of you eventually wrote a monster hit song together.
Holly: I wanted to work with Mike not only because he had produced a lot of number one records, but because he was a songwriter as well. He signed us to his new label and I was really hoping that he would decide to produce us, but to my great disappointment, he didn’t. I think it was a great disservice to our music because he was the perfect producer for us. When we got to the second record I sort of pulled Mike to the side and said, “Will you at least write a song with me?” I felt that if I could collaborate with him and write a great song maybe he would agree to produce. The song we wrote was ‘Better Be Good To Me’ which I recorded with Spider and Mike did produce. It still sounds great.
Robert: An artist’s biography often becomes homogenized as time passes. With you, the story is that Mike recognized your talent and urged you to be a songwriter, so you moved out to California, and the rest is history. How close to the truth is that?
Holly: You know, I have to say that in some ways it was almost as simple as that. I was having problems with the band because they didn’t like the fact that I was getting more attention than they were, and the tension between myself and the singer reached a point where I felt like I didn’t need it anymore. We almost got into a physical fight at one point and I said to myself, “You know, this is not why I wanted to be in this band”, and I left. Mike was going through a split of of his own with his business partner, and thought that I should come out to California and write. I went out there, and I started writing with him and the other writers he put me together with, as soon as I unpacked my stuff. I just can’t imagine it happening that easily for an artist today.
Robert: You mentioned ‘Better Be Good to Me’. Is there a particular song, early on, whose success let you know that this songwriting thing might just work out for you?
Holly: The first person who ever recorded one of my songs was (Rock N’ Roll Hall of Famer) Link Wray. It’s called ‘It Didn’t Take Long’. That was obviously exciting, simply because someone who was significant and established decided to cut a song of mine. Then one day I was sitting in the Record Plant studios waiting for my boyfriend to get off of work, and Gene Simmons walked in. We knew each other because we had the same manager, and he asked me, “You play keyboards don’t you?” and invited me inside their studio to play on a Kiss song. I was like, “Well…yeah, sure.” [laughs] I ended up not just playing on the one song, but on the entire ‘Unmasked’ album wherever they needed keyboards. When I woke up that morning, I had no idea that was even a possibility and by the end of the day the trajectory of my career had immediately changed.
Robert: You were still a teenager, playing on a Kiss record.
Holly: Yeah, I was only about 19 years old at the time, so it was a rush. Then John Waite recorded another song I wrote called ‘Change’ (made famous from it’s inclusion in the movie Vision Quest) and that was successful. All of those things happened before ‘Better Be Good To Me’ so I had these early tastes of professionalism that made me feel like I wasn’t too far outside of the world that I wanted to be in.
Robert: You always strike me as a very confident and self-assured person, and I can envision that having helped with your career. You’re definitely the only artist I’ve spoken with who cited becoming a doctor as her fallback plan. Is that a fair assessment of you?
Holly: Well, I will say that I used to have a lot of insecurities on a personal level. It wasn’t like I thought I was hot shit or anything. I have always had a lot of confidence when it came to music though. Like, absolute confidence. I studied classical piano from age 4 and picked it up instantly, and playing and writing music has always seemed very natural to me.
Robert: I think that confidence reveals itself in many of your songs, one of which is Invincible, recorded by Pat Benatar and forever associated with the movie you wrote it for, The Legend Of Billie Jean. Had you seen any part of the movie before you wrote it?
Holly: No, but the studio sent me a script and that really helped because they won’t always do that. It obviously gives you a real sense of what the movie is about. It allowed me to see that Billie Jean was sort of a modern-day Joan of Arc who fought back and became a pop culture hero. Now, I also see the movie as a sort of early and very clean version of Natural Born Killers. [laughs]
Robert: ‘Invincible’ would probably be the heaviest song on Top 40 radio today.
Holly: I’ve always thought of myself as an edgy pop writer, even though the definition of what pop music should be has become a bit bastardized. Pop comes from ‘popular’ of course, but now pop music usually means light and fluffy and not too serious or well written. I always felt that what makes something really popular is when it’s new and different and people just have to have it over and over again. I was fortunate to write songs that were a little bit more out of the box in regard to lyrics, and I think musically as well. It wasn’t by design. It’s just what came out of me, and at that time songs like that could still be hits on the radio.
Robert: ‘The Warrior’ was another one of those hits that you wrote, recorded by Patty Smyth and Scandal . You had some well publicized objections to the video for the song. How often does that occur? Disliking how a video portrays your song, or how one of your songs was recorded?
Holly: Well, let me first say that I had a discussion with Patty about that video a few years ago when she performed the song the night that I was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and she hated it too. I mean, what the hell was that? [laughs] In 80’s videos there was a lot of that type of stuff, which I both loved and hated. I mean, you would write this really cool song and then for no reason the video would have cows walking through a building or some other really random off the wall stuff. As far as the songs, yes, there have been times where I’ve been disappointed with how some of them have been recorded.
Robert: What is your most common complaint?
Holly: When producers or artists don’t give a song the treatment it deserves. I’ve given songs to a producer that I knew were hits, only to have them change the song unnecessarily so that they can feel like they made a contribution. I also hate when people take an obvious single, and turn it into an album cut instead. I find that particularly upsetting because it means that not only did I write a song that I thought was a hit, but I also recorded a good enough demo to clearly convey what the song should be, only to have them take it and ruin it.
Robert: We will be invincible. I am the warrior. You better good to me. There is certainly an edge that exists in many of your songs, and in some cases, I think it can be described as a feminist edge. How personal are some of these songs? Do any of them push back against things you experienced in your own life?
Holly: Oh, absolutely. It comes from the subconscious, but it’s all down in there. When I wrote a lot of these songs it never occurred to me that they might have a particular theme, never-mind that the theme was fighting. They’ve never been about a physical fight per say, but rather fighting for something. It’s like home base for me, to be honest. I came from a childhood that was very difficult and I really had to fight for my own voice and my survival.
Robert: In what way?
Holly: I had a mother who was abusive and angry. She always had me in that ‘flight or fight’ mode, so I always found myself ready to fight. I come from a dysfunctional situation where everybody in my family has been divorced three times or more, including myself. We were a very intellectual family – my father was a doctor and my grandparents were doctors. I grew up on the upper east side of Manhattan. But I can assure you that there’s as much dysfunctionality in that class of people as any other, if not more. We were proof of that. So, I always had a strong fighting spirit for what I thought I deserved, which was usually just the freedom to do things my way and have my own voice and not be a puppet for what my parents or anyone else wanted. It’s a fairly universal thing I suppose, but when it’s you it feels very specific and consequential.
Robert: So when you made it big writing rock and pop songs, did your parents feel that you were sort of slumming it in a way?
Holly: My father was actually very supportive from the start…he was so cute. He would come to every gig of mine at every hole in the wall. When I was on MTV and all of that he would tell everyone he knew. In later years he would arrive in L.A. and take a cab to my apartment and do things like bring the cab driver inside with him and say, “Holly, come say hello. Such and such loves your song and would really would love to meet you!” [laughs] It took a certain level of success, but at different times both of my parents acknowledged that they were proud of me.
Robert: You mentioned John Waite’s ‘Change’ earlier. You recorded it with Spider first, and it sounds much different. What do you think of John’s version?
Holly: I think his is the better version. I love it. That was one of the few times, maybe the only time really, where I felt that someone took one of my songs and actually made it sound better. John had asked me if it would be ok to change some of the lyrics and I told him that would be fine, but since it had already been recorded and released I couldn’t give him credit. He was ok with that. I still do love it and I love John’s voice on it, so that was a rare moment for me.
Robert: In regard to writing credits and the different ways they can be earned, let’s talk about Aerosmith’s ‘Rag Doll’.
Holly: [groans] I always feel a little twinge when people ask me about that.
Robert: [surprised] Why?
Holly: Because some people claim that I didn’t really write anything on it, which is very insulting. I made a contribution.
Robert: In the spirit of curiosity, not interrogation, what was your contribution?
Holly: Their producer John Kalodner called me one day and asked if I’d like to write with Aerosmith. He said, “I have this song and I think it could be a hit but I don’t really know what I’ve got at the moment. I thought maybe you could see what it needs.” When I started working on the song it was called Ragtime, and I had no idea what that meant, so I changed it. I mean, who knows what the hell Rag Doll means either, right? [laughs] But it just sounded better and it seemed to fit Steven’s (Tyler) personality. Now, how many times does he repeat the title in the song? It’s a key element. I also wrote a line or two of the chorus and I changed a few of the lyrics at the end…some of the silly things Steven says. Lines like, “Come on up and see me.” That came about because I told him a Mae West joke.
Robert: So you make those contributions to the song and then you discuss how much credit you should receive, which has financial implications.
Holly: Right. At the end Steven said, “This is what I think a fair percentage for you would be”, and thankfully I was thinking the same thing. I didn’t really want much. I was happy to have my name on the song and I hoped I would get to write with them some more. We became great friends and I thought it was a really good experience, but then I started reading press where people were questioning the importance of what I contributed to the song. I’ve learned that if you’re famous or well known in any circles there will always be somebody saying something shitty about you somewhere, but it hurt.
Robert: What does the band say about it?
Holly: I saw Steven when we both were inducted into the Songwriters Hall and he said some very nice things to me. We wrote a great song together! So whatever rumors were circulating out there certainly weren’t coming from him or Joe Perry, who was also a sweetheart.
Robert: When you try to write with someone, has the dynamic changed since you’ve gone from being Holly Knight, fresh faced girl new to California, to Holly Knight?
Holly: That’s a very good question. At some point yes, I think it definitely changed a bit. I started getting invited into their inner circle to an extent and that changes things sometimes. Rod Stewart is an example. He recorded ‘Love Touch’, which I wrote, but I was treated badly by his band at the time because there seemed to be a lot of jealousy. They all wanted to be writers on his record and suddenly this girl walks in from the outside and enters the man cave. They were really bad to me, and I think it kind of poisoned Rod against me. He was initially so nice and friendly and fun, and then he suddenly changed.
Robert: I was surprised when I saw Rod say in an interview a few years later, “Hey, don’t blame me for Love Touch!” It is an overtly commercial song, but it’s infectious and it did well and a lot of people enjoy it.
Holly: He made a comment like that on the liner notes for the record! I felt really betrayed. When I wrote the song he loved it so much. He sent me flowers afterwards and said, “Thank you for this hit song”, and he really needed a hit at the time. I was very hurt by the situation but I thought it was more a case of the people around him influencing his opinion of it.
Robert Are you and Rod good now?
Holly: We are, to the point that I don’t even know if he remembers all of it happening that way. I honestly don’t. I saw him at the premiere of Tina Turner’s musical in London and he kept playfully hitting me on the back and asking me questions, like a naughty little schoolboy. He was hilarious. It’s all water under the bridge. But that’s the only time when that’s happened, where an artist has criticized me after we collaborated. At least publicly. [laughs]
Robert: Tina is a very important artist in rock history, and her musical showcases one of the most well known biographies in show business. Yet, even though you didn’t write it specifically for her, ‘Better Be Good To Me’ provided her with the musical anthem of her life.
Holly: It was simply a case of the perfect song for the perfect artist at the perfect point of their life. That almost never happens. I saw the musical and that song was in it, along with ‘The Best’. It felt great to hear them, and the woman who was singing them (Adrienne Warren) was just incredible. She couldn’t possibly act or sound more like Tina.
Robert: You have a musical of your own in development. We are aware of all the music that you could bring to it, but I was surprised to find that you were writing the (script) as well. Is the story about you?
Holly: It’s a fictional story, but it’s based on or inspired by real life. It’s not literally biographical like the Donna Summer musical, or Tina’s, but there’s still a lot of truth in it.
Robert: I feel like graduating medical school might be slightly less difficult than writing a successful Broadway musical.
Holly: [laughs] There is so much involved with it. I’ve never done anything like it before. The good thing was that I was writing the book so if we needed a song and it wasn’t in the vault, I could write a new song to fit it. It’s a craft and you have to learn to just keep learning and peeling away layers until suddenly a year-and-a-half has gone by and you see that you’ve done so much. If you’re creative in one field you can usually pick up a few things in another and possibly be just as good at it. There are a few things that I’m starting to do at a level that not only matches my songwriting, but would allow me to, you know, get paid for it. [laughs]
Robert: I’ve seen your beautiful photography and that has to be one of the things you’re talking about.
Holly: Definitely. I’m very passionate about it. I just got back from Europe where I was photographing castles in the countryside and doing a lot of black and white. I’ve shot Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, etc. I take it very seriously. “I should be paid for it” is more of a mindset than anything else. People aren’t considered professional until they’re compensated for what they do. You can write songs your whole life but if you never sell one it’s looked at as if you have more of a hobby. It’s a shame, but it is that way.
Robert: For someone who is not anywhere near as famous as she could be, your name comes up a lot in conversations I have with other artists. Paul Stanley tells a story that I can’t remember verbatim, about going to see Guns N’ Roses play back in the 80’s with a business purpose in mind, and there being discrepancies in the story he and some of their band members told about the meeting afterwards. Amongst other details, someone in Guns claimed that Paul showed up to a rehearsal with a blonde, and Paul said, “That’s why you can’t trust alcoholics and drug addicts. Because I wasn’t with a blonde…I was with Holly Knight!”
Holly: (laughs) I was with him, and my hair couldn’t have been darker. I remember that night clearly because Paul thought he might want to produce them. We were in the hallway as Axl walked by and he had heels on and was quite tall and really skinny with the long red hair of course. Paul said hello and shook his hand and then as he just walked right on by I thought, “There goes the devil.” [laughs] I’m pretty instinctive and a little witchy in this way. I just thought to myself, “My God that guy is trouble.” After we heard them play Paul said, “What do you think? Should I produce them?” and I said something along the lines of “They’ll never make it” or something really stupid like that. Paul loves the fact that I said it, and has never let me forget it. I suppose I was wrong.
Robert: A little bit. [laughs]
Holly: In my defense, I hadn’t heard their album. I was seeing them live and the sound at the Whisky that night was terrible. I definitely found Axl interesting as a singer. That was undeniable. I just didn’t see the rest. Hey, it happens to the best of us. I was working with Katy Perry and I went to a someone who shall remain nameless, because they’d kill me for saying this, and I said, “Do you want to finish this song with me?” and he said, “Oh, I don’t think she’s ever going to make it. She’s just a big boobed ditzy chick.” or something along those lines.
Robert: When you decide to go out shopping somewhere…between your car stereo and the music that is playing in stores, how likely is it that you’ll hear a song that you’ve written?
Holly: It happens a lot. Someone texts me almost every day to say that they just heard one of my songs while they were out. I tease my son because he’s going to college in Las Vegas and it seems like every other day he’ll FaceTime me or send me a video of one of my songs playing somewhere. I had friends call the other day to tell me they heard ‘The Best’ on an Applebee’s commercial. A lot of these are called Evergreen songs because they’re licensed a lot. Last year was a good year for me. I had a song in Stranger Things. I did ‘Love is a Battlefield’ in a Nine Inch Nails sort of way for the Dynasty remake, and I also had two songs in Glow. They used ‘The Warrior’ in the opening, and the other one was…[thinking]…
Holly: Invincible, that’s right. I can tell you’ve done your homework for this, which is refreshing.
Robert: While out in public, have you ever heard someone make a comment about one of your songs, good or bad, without them knowing you were there?
Holly: I’ve heard people occasionally say, “Oh, I love this song”, and I’ve been tempted to say something to them, but these are complete strangers so I think that’s pretty lame. [laughs] I’ll tell you my favorite story like that. This was probably back in the late 80’s and I was in my car, stopped at a light, and a convertible pulled up next to me with three totally hot, adorable guys in it. They were probably in their 20’s. It was one of those great California days and they had the top down and were blasting ‘Obsession’ on their radio. They were singing along and looking at each other and just having the best time, you know? I almost said, “Hey, I wrote that song!” but I ultimately didn’t and they probably wouldn’t have believed me anyway! It was actually more rewarding for me to just watch that go on. It was like my own little Private Idaho moment, being able to see people enjoying my work.
Robert: You wrote Obsession with Michael Des Barres, who is most famous for playing Murdoc on the television show MacGyver. It surprises a lot of people when they discover his long history as a talented musician. On the other side of things, have you ever sat down to collaborate with a famous artist and been surprised by their lack of talent or musicianship?
Holly: Many times. Sometimes I get together with artists and leave truly amazed, wondering how they made it. There was one particular person who I was really looking forward to working with, but when we got together, he was far more interested in doing drugs and taking breaks. I eventually said to him, “Look, I know you love this idea, so let me finish it. If you like it you can have it, and if not then it could be my song, but we’re not getting anywhere.” Another time I was set to go down to Nashville to work with an artist, so I came up with a bunch of ideas. I’ve learned that if we don’t have a few places to start, we’ll just be sitting there twiddling our thumbs. I mean, let’s be honest, if they had a lot of great ideas laying around I wouldn’t be there. They would finish those songs without me. So I shared my ideas with this person, and they kept saying, “Let me hear something else. Let me hear something else.” I felt like I was a fashion stylist, not a songwriter. I wasn’t bringing clothes to be tried on! I finally said, “Well, let’s write something from scratch”, and they just couldn’t. They had absolutely nothing to contribute. There are great singers and artists who don’t even try to be songwriters, and I respect them greatly for it because they know what their strengths are and aren’t.
Robert: Again, Tina Turner.
Holly: Exactly. She wrote ‘Nutbush City Limits’ and it’s a great song, but she never really continued as a songwriter and she didn’t need to, or want to. She’s a performer, and performing is like breathing air for her. Tony Bennett is like that as well. Tony is not a songwriter but he is a great interpreter of them. He also always mentions the songwriters when he performs, which almost no one ever does. I think it’s an old-school thing, and people in my profession are thankful for it.
Robert: In 2013 your very well deserved Songwriting Hall of Fame honor came. It appeared to be a great experience for you not only because you received proper recognition for your work, but also because of the company you were in that night – great artists, many of which you had worked with over the years.
Holly: It was like a high school reunion! It really was. We’re all older now but we still look pretty good and it was just a very warm and lovely evening. (Foreigner’s) Lou Gramm and I had written a hit song together (1989’s Just Between You And Me). Steven Tyler and Joe Perry were there. Elton John was there along with Bernie Taupin as well, who I have written with. JD Souther of the Eagles. Lots of great people, and it was just so much fun. And beyond that, it was nice to have the recognition, you know? Actually, after that something changed in me a bit. I’m a little different in a way.
Robert: How are you different?
Holly: I don’t feel like I have to prove anything anymore. At one point they asked us to gather for a group photo, and someone told me to go stand on the end of the line, off to the left. Well, as a photographer I know that the thing that’s different should go in the middle. I’ll send you the picture. It’s a really cool shot. I’m the only woman there, front and center.
Visit Holly’s website here: www.hollyknight.com
View Holly’s photography here: www.hollyknightphoto.com
Follow Holly on Twitter at: @hollyknightlife
A former producer of radio talk shows and Major League Baseball broadcasts, Robert Ferraro engages in conversation with pop culture figures. Recent guests include Melissa Etheridge and Paul Stanley, comedians Gary Gulman and Alonzo Bodden, model Bebe Buell and music video starlet Bobbie Brown.
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