Interview: Songwriter Franne Golde

Diana Ross. Whitney Houston. Randy Travis. This songwriter has penned classics for them all.

In 1976, Franne Golde’s solo career was just starting out. Under the name “Frannie,” she released a self-titled album with help from some of the era’s finest songwriters. She sat at the piano, offering a line here and there, perhaps a song title, and watched as the song was crafted in front of her. Golde was young, free and ready to be crafted into stardom.

Stardom didn’t come. But something different happened: she soaked in the efforts of the songwriters around her, and her first songwriter placement on Diana Ross’s 1977 album Baby It’s Me soon followed. That would kick off a career as a professional songwriter to a line of ’80s icons, girl groups, Nashville royalty and a post-Lionel Richie Commodores that ran up to the modern day.

Now taking a detour from songwriting to kickstart a career change as a fashion entrepreneur, Golde took time out to discuss the ins and outs of a career in pop songwriting, and reflected on the process behind some of her biggest credits.

The Sugarcubes - Gold

How did you find me?

I found out about you while researching a piece on Björk, and saw that you had a connection to her via your husband Paul Fox. In a number of books, I read that you had worked in LA on her early solo stuff?

Well, it was more on the “hit” album [1992’s Sugarcubes album Stick Around for Joy] but I worked with her a little bit when she broke out and was working on some ideas. We worked for a very short period of time experimenting, but mostly I helped her with translations on Stick Around.

Her grasp on the English language is interesting, because she selects words you wouldn’t expect. Was that evident early on?

Obviously, it’s because of it being her second language, but I also think her thinking pattern is so... different. I always think of her as this adventurous child of the universe, filled with wonder, and still so excited at the littlest things. It’s so refreshing. She enjoys words, she doesn’t like to go for the typical words to describe how she’s feeling or thinking, and then makes it work for her. All I really did on that album was go through all the lyrics and stay very, very true to what she had. Again, using her language and her ideas, but just making them a little more digestible and connecting them. The little things.

Junko Yagami - Communication

I’m going to jump back to 1984 and another artist whose first language was not English, Junko Yagami.

Oh, Junko, I haven’t thought of her in...! Okay.

Yagami was a Japanese singer who had an album in 1984 that you worked on with Peter Ivers. Was this one of the US record industry’s attempts to break an Asian artist in an international pop market and were you brought on to help those words flow that bit better?

Actually with Junko, she was working with [producer and music supervisor] Brooks Arthur who found her. She and her record company wanted to break her here in the States, and “He’s My Kind” was pre-written. I wrote that with Peter and that was the song she chose with Arthur. We came in to rehearse with her, practice, obviously a lot of the words were difficult for her to pronounce because of the “r”s and different letters that aren’t common in Japanese. I don’t know if that record ever broke – I know that it was big in Japan but it didn’t make a dent in the US.

Is it ever difficult when your songs are picked out of this big list and you have to show up at the studio revisiting the frame of mind regarding the song?

The songs have a life of their own.

It’s never difficult. It’s difficult to get a song recorded, but once it’s in the studio getting recorded, even with a song you’re not crazy about, there’s still an excitement to it. I remember with Junko that it was an exciting time. It was sort of nixed because the very day that we were meant to record the song, Peter Ivers was murdered. That was a very difficult time for me... I’d never experienced anything like that. I made it a point at that time to try and take the songs that we’d written, a lot of which had been recorded, and try to make something of them.

The songs have a life of their own, you never know when you’re going to revisit that song, or when it’ll pop up or be recorded or you’ll hear something about it. So-and-so in some country you’ve never heard of has recorded it. That’s exciting that once you put it out there, it can come up in your life at any time, good bad or indifferent.

How did you and Peter Ivers meet?

Peter was a writer for ATV Music and I received a call from his point person there, Linda Perry. She said “I’m representing this guy, he’s a Harvard grad, summa cum laude, brilliant writer.” At the time, he had a breakout show [New Wave Theatre] that was one of the first video shows. I have to be honest, I was intimidated – I didn’t go to Harvard or have that kind of education, and he was a kind of local celebrity through the show. But as someone who likes to face their fears, I agreed to meet the guy. He said he wanted to try to write some commercial things, so we sat down – he would always sit under my apartment’s grand piano with glasspaper like a mathematician and hand me lyrics. I’d say 85% of what we wrote got recorded, which is a pretty amazing track record! When I think about it, there are a lot of similarities between him and Björk in that they both have that childlike wonder. You know how we walk through life, running to appointments, on our cell phones and we miss the tree blooming in spring or something going on around us? Both of them were very aware of their surroundings, of the moment... I do wish I could be more like that.

Diana Ross - Let’s Go Up

The way you describe it, his songwriting was very unconventional. What did you learn from him in regards to song technique?

He loved everything I did. [laughs] He was such a cheerleader – I was more in the beginning stages of my career and he was very supportive. He wrote all the lyrics to [Diana Ross’] “Let’s Go Up” and those lyrics were his way of being a commercial songwriter. I loved some of those lines. I might not have used them, but when you sing them it just works. “In this town it’s gonna get rough / and what goes down is up to us” – the little intricacies that he used were great.

You mentioned previous successes, and I wanted to mention your solo material.

Uh oh. [laughs]

Was that the original goal, to be a solo artist first and foremost?

When I started, I started out in Chicago, which was like the second soul city after Detroit. I was working with Tom Snow, Albert Hammond, Johnny Vastano... oh my God, he was a great writer. I was in the early stages and everything sounded great to me. I was so excited! “Here I Go Falling In Love Again,” for example, I wrote with Albert Hammond and I really let him take the lead on that. That was usual with everyone, except Tom Snow in those early days. I would sit at the piano and come out with a line or a song title, and they would write the lyric based on that. In the time I wrote “Here I Go Falling in Love Again,” everything was new and exciting. I was living here in LA, I had a record company that believed in me. Looking back, I get angry at myself that I didn’t have more concepts. I really allowed everyone to dictate the direction and mold me, as opposed to being a real artist, taking the reins and saying, “No, this is what I want to do.”

Diana Ross - Gettin’ Ready for Love

At the same time, you’d already written for Diana Ross by that point in your career.

That was a total fluke when I think about it. After that, it took a long time to really establish myself and get a track record going. I was signed to Richard Perry, who was my first publisher out here, and he hooked me up with Tom Snow, who was a writer for his production company. [“Gettin’ Ready for Love” in 1977] was one of our first collaborations. I was crazy about Diana Ross! I grew up listening to Motown and Stax, any of that stuff. So Richard was recording her Baby It’s Me album and when Tom and I sat down, I said it would be great to do something, I love that song… [hums “Them There Eyes”] It was the song she’s singing when Billy Dee Williams walks in Lady Sings The Blues, a very jazzy upbeat. [sings “Gettin’ Ready for Love”] That was very un-pop. We took that influence from the movie and added the chorus – very different, very creative on Tom Snow’s part to come up with that type of chorus, because otherwise it wouldn’t have been a pop song.

Randy Travis - A Man Ain’t Made Of Stone

Fast-forwarding to one of your later collaborations with Snow, you guys worked on some Nashville songs like Jessica Andrews’ “I Do Now.” Does writing for different genres become as easy as flipping a switch?

I think that if you’re a songwriter, you can write almost any kind of song. “I Do Now,” which is one of my favorites, is pretty much a pop song we demoed with country vocals. As far as flipping a switch, whatever the song calls for leads you down a certain path. Things were going downhill in the pop and R&B world, and it was getting harder and harder to get cuts, and somebody suggested going to Nashville. I knew nothing about country – Johnny Cash on Ed Sullivan was the extent of my country background – and they said that it was basically R&B when you really went to the base of it. My friend convinced me, and we wrote “A Man Ain’t Made of Stone” by Randy Travis. If somebody had told me I would have a number one single with a really country artist like Randy, I would have said “no way!” I definitely had a pretty good run in the country market, and I never thought I could do something like that.

It’s interesting you were told that R&B and country have a similar musical DNA, because a song like “I Do Now” isn’t that far removed from “Stickwitu,” which you wrote for the Pussycat Dolls. Would you consider ballads like those two songs your core strength as a songwriter?

It would appear so, wouldn’t it? [laughs] I didn’t start out that way but when I think about it... even [The Commodores’] “Nightshift” is similar, as a rhythmic ballad. I would agree that I have had more success in the ballad area. Not consciously, but it just happened that way.

Is that something that surprised you?

I was talking with these pretty successful songwriters, and the songs they loved the most and thought were going to be smash hits, they are the ones that never get chosen. I think that goes for everybody. Maybe it’s just certain people, like Diane Warren or [Burt] Bacarach and [Hal] David, but I would say it’s pretty true. You’re always surprised – there’s so many songs that were chosen that I was like, “What?! Seriously?!” I had a song on The Bodyguard and it was the last single off that album, but it was on hold for [blues-rock act] Jeff Healey for two years, maybe more. I liked the song [Whitney Houston’s “Even If My Heart Would Break”] but I certainly didn’t think it was one of my best songs. And yet, it was on one of the biggest albums of all time; Kenny G loved it so much that he put it on his record with Aaron Neville on vocals. Nobody knew how good The Bodyguard would be, certainly not me! That’s a song I was surprised that Clive [Davis] was so passionate about to hold onto for that long, so you never know. I pretty much take myself off the list when it comes to picking the songs, because nobody ever picks what I want. Most of the time, I’m surprised.

Whitney Houston - Nothin’ But Love

You wrote for Whitney Houston multiple times across her career. Do you have a favorite song that you wrote for her?

I did love “I Belong To You” (1990) but my favorite song – although I didn’t like how the production turned out – was “Nothin’ But Love” (2009) off her last album [I Look to You]. Killer demo, but nobody could capture it again. I think she had a problem with the phrasing. I didn’t like the way it turned out, but if it came out the way it would have in my head, I would have loved that song.

You got to see the Whitney machine from the I’m Your Baby Tonight era up to the final album. What was it like to see in motion?

Clive was definitely the driving force, I think. It took me two years to get that cut on I Look to You. It was rejected several times, and I actually went to the hotel he was staying at and left it at the desk, which was really pushy, but he heard it that time and came around. He played it for her, she loved it, and you see when an artist loves a song and everything falls into place, how quickly everything moves – up until that point, everything’s at snail’s pace. Then: high gear. I worked harder on that than any cut ever. I was very determined that the song was her story, about all that she had been through, about her coming back... But that’s part of the frustration in being a songwriter, you don’t always get what you want. But sometimes you get what you need.

Commodores - Nightshift

You mentioned “Nightshift” earlier on.

Yes! Love. Love.

It’s been 20 years since it was at the top of the Billboard charts.

Adore, love... I still hear that on the radio and get a chill. Dennis Lambert, one of my favorite collaborators, did an incredible production... [pause] Some songs have a life of their own, certain songs leave you feeling you shouldn’t take credit, that they weren’t written but instead flew out of you. That’s one of those songs for me.

Was it a complex situation to work out with the band, seeing how emotionally charged it was?

Well, we wrote it on the piano while they were recording in the morning. Walter [Orange, Commodores drummer] had come up with the musical line and one line: “Marvin, he was a friend of mine.” Dennis and I took that and ran with it – Dennis was thinking of a modern take on “Rock’n’Roll Heaven.” [Co-producer] Peter Wolf started working out parts on the synthesizer and after people started hearing the musical lines, it just took off from there. There’s such a nostalgia to it. It has to me a reminder of what’s been, what’s great about R&B music and the performers and what we miss. Even now, I hear Adele’s stuff or Sam Smith – certain songs that evoke a feeling of hope and desperation. Hope. I always say every great song has both of those elements: hope and desperation. That’s what keeps humans human: hope.

It is a sad song but also seems sexy, in that mid-’80s Quiet Storm style.

Whenever you make any record, it’s influenced by all the people involved – writers, producers, engineers, everybody. When they’re digging it and it moves everybody, all their pain and all their background bleeds onto that record. You can feel all of that mixed in there – everybody is part of that mix. The song is king and you need the melody, but without the players it’ll sound totally different. I love that whenever someone comes in with a new idea, a riff or melody, that’ll bring a tear to your eye, and that’s on your record. Did you see the Stevie Wonder tribute that was on TV?

Tony Bennett - For Once in My Life

I’m afraid I haven’t.

That’s a perfect example! People got up there and performed the majority of his songs with such... They wanted him to feel their pain, their joy. The one that stood out for me the most was Tony Bennett who did “For Once In My Life.” Some of the notes, you couldn’t believe they lived inside of him as an 88 year old, and you could see the audience going from “oh, okay” to en masse standing for him, because they were so moved.

Is writing something that is hard to let go of, or are you actively working on it today?

I’ve actually been working on a stage show for three years that keeps my chops going. It’s very exciting because there are no rules. I do keep my toe dipped in the water. I thought about putting together a show with a lot of my favorite people who did my demos and having them sing – that’s been in the back of my mind. I love music, it’s part of who I am. I will never abandon it – I can’t, it’s in my veins.

And you can never know where a song’s going to end up.

You never, ever know. I remember one day I was with Bob Crewe and he said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I just got a cut off ‘Lady Marmalade’!” Little did he know that back when Labelle cut it, 35, 40 years later... he was acting the same as when it hit number one. You never know.

By Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy on May 6, 2015

On a different note