Mann & Weil on Surviving as Songwriters
by Steve Sailer
UPI, July 22, 2002
Having zero songwriting talent myself, I've always been fascinated by those who write the songs that take up so much space in our brains. Mann & Weil are particularly interesting, even if underpublicized relative to their peers, because they've neither burnt out nor faded away.
The husband-wife songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil is the exception to the rule that in the rock era, hot songwriters burn out fast. They are now in their fifth decade as a songwriting team.
Their biggest hit -- the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling," which Mann & Weil co-wrote with Phil Spector in 1964 -- is perhaps the biggest hit anybody ever wrote. The BMI performing rights organization named it the Top Song of the Century because it's the only song to have been played more than eight million times on American radio.
Married in 1961, Mann and Weil started out working for Don Kirshner across the street from the famed Brill Building. They composed rhythm & blues classics such as "On Broadway" for the Drifters (co-written with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller), "Uptown" for The Crystals, and "Walking in the Rain" for The Ronettes.
Yet, when the British Invasion arrived, they composed the electric guitar standards "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" for The Animals and "Kicks" for Paul Revere and the Raiders.
Weil's lyrics often bravely invoked the conflicts of the 1960s while keeping the references universal enough so that all listeners could identify with the song. The Animals, the products of a dismal English coal town, brought ferocious personal conviction to "We Gotta Get Out of This Place." In turn, American soldiers stuck in Vietnam adopted the song as their own bitter yet hopeful anthem.
Together or separately, Mann and Weil have gone on to write country hits, such as Dolly Parton's famous "Here You Come Again" and "Wrong Again," a number one country hit for Martina McBride in 1999. They even composed the Top Five hit "I Will Come to You" for bubble-gum brothers Hanson.
And they have become mainstays of the adult contemporary genre, writing "Sometimes When we Touch" with Dan Hill and winning the 1987 Grammy for Best Song for "Somewhere Out There," sung by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram.
They are now working on two Broadway projects -- a rock musical of Cher's 1985 film "Mask" and a show based on their own impressive roster of tunes.
Mann and Weil answered questions about how they've stayed in the top rank for so long in a profession where even the immortals have a short shelf life.
United Press International: You started out in the same building with other great songwriting teams like Gerry Goffin and Carole King (the husband-wife composers of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow") banging away on their unfinished songs within earshot. How could you manage to concentrate on your own compositions?
Barry: It's amazing how a competitive nature can turn a negative into something positive. Hearing the writing team in the next cubicle only propelled us to try to write something even better.
The competitive atmosphere sure worked for publishers Don Kirshner and Berry Gordy. But for the songwriters involved it was a wonderful method of bringing on a spastic intestine.
I know at the beginning of our careers, my wife and I were gut wrenchingly competitive. Just ask Carole King and Gerry Goffin about all the angst that both writing teams went through when we found out that the other team got the record that both teams were trying to get. We lived, ate, and breathed pop songs.
Our publisher Don Kirshner would tell us which recording artists were "up" and all the Aldon writers would scurry home or to their little cubicles in the Aldon Music offices in 1650 Broadway. After we'd write the song for that particular artist, we'd scurry again to a demo studio to put down the song the way we felt the song should be recorded. Then we'd wait for the call from Donny to tell us whether we got the record or the other team got it.
If we were the team that won out, then life was good and we felt that we were worth something. If we didn't get the record, we didn't exist. We became the songs we wrote. A very unhealthy way to exist. But that was our lives back then.
Cynthia: I was never conscious of any distractions other than hearing an incredible Goffin and King lyric and pushing harder to do better because they were so good. The conflicting emotions involved in -- "I can only win if my best friend loses" -- are very confusing.
Q: Have you often written under assignment and on deadline?
Cynthia: In the early days of our careers when we were staff songwriters at Aldon Music we always worked with the deadline of "So and so is recording in two weeks. Get me the demo by then." We were used to just sitting down and doing it. When we worked in film, such as on the song scores for "An American Tail" and "Muppet's Treasure Island," there were always deadlines, so our training came in handy.
The difference between us and the superstar singer/songwriters is that they often become caught up in the recording process, which takes a long time. Also, their careers are on the line and they can't afford to make a mistake; so, they become extra cautious and sometimes paralyze themselves. We all have fertile creative periods and times when we can't figure out how we ever did it. The difference is that when those barren periods occur no one's waiting for a record from us, so they don't even notice we've been gone.
Barry: If I waited for inspiration every time I sat down to write a song I probably would be a plumber today. I think that most writers who wait until they're inspired to write are just waiting for the fear to subside. A fear that they're not going to be able to do that thing that they really have no formula for. Cynthia always said that songwriters do something that they don't know how to do. You have certain writing tools but generally creating something from nothing makes one quite mad and Cynthia and I are quite mad you know.
Q: How did you manage to shift styles, such as when the British invasion arrived so quickly?
Cynthia: We never consciously shifted styles. We wrote what sounded good to us and hoped it would find a home. The Animals record of "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" was originally written as a Righteous Brothers song and the demo geared for them. When The Animals got a hold of it, they adapted the song to their style. "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" was a hit in the midst of the British invasion. We somehow managed to live through the trends without succumbing to them. When disco came in, we survived without writing a disco song.
Barry: When the British invasion happened, I became aware that records were more guitar driven and I had always written on a piano. A guitar riff played on a piano doesn't come close to the purity of it being played on a guitar but I faked it enough to get by. But then some of the songs I wrote that became hits could have been written in any decade and probably still would have been hits, such as "Sometimes When We Touch" (1977) and "Somewhere Out There" (1987). I think they could have been written in the 60s, 70s, or 80s with probably the same results.
Q: What does it take to succeed as a songwriter?
Barry: Probably most successful songwriters have an innate songwriting ability. It's very hard to teach someone how to write a song if to begin with there's no creative crop to harvest.
I see myself as an artist, as a professional, as a craftsman and as an all around narcissistic, needy fool who went into a profession that's perfect for anyone who likes to be in a manic-depressive state all the time.
Q: How has the songwriting business changed?
Barry: We happened to start writing pop songs in a time when the old music business was beginning to fade and a new kind of music was emerging. It was a time when you could experiment musically and lyrically. There were no polling companies to tell you what to write and there were an infinite amount of record labels with many artists to write for who didn't write their own material. Carole (King) always said there was a small window of opportunity and we happened to come along at that period in the music business and jumped right in.
Cynthia: The business today is completely different and it's very producer driven, so that a songwriter needs to have producing chops, be a singer/songwriter, or find a singer to develop. We were very fortunate to have been on the scene when we were.
Q: Both of you have worked with many different co-writers. Does that keep you fresh?
Cynthia: Other co-writers put you in touch with different parts of your creativity. That first writing session, what Dan Hill calls a creative blind date, is always a real challenge, and you bring that back to your partner when you return to writing with them. I'm so fortunate to have worked with incredibly talented people like the amazing Phil Spector, Tom Snow (He's So Shy), Lionel Ritchie (Running With The Night), David Foster (Through The Fire), Tommy Lee James (Wrong Again), that gentlemen, brilliant John Williams (For Always). But I must say I am happiest when something hits and I've written it with Barry. After all these years, I am still amazed by his genius.
Barry: I get a different kind of lyric from someone else that might make me go in a different musical direction. A good lyric sings to me. And another lyricist might sing another lyrical song to me.
Q: Is it easier for songwriting teams to survive writer's block than for an individual songwriter?
Cynthia: I've always envied individual songwriters because they can set their own pace without having to deal with anyone else. (However,) I do believe it is easier to fight your way through writer's block with a partner. Barry and I have been working on an original musical for the theater based on the 1985 film Mask. At times when he was blocked I was able to give him lyrics to inspire him and when I was up against it, he would deliver a melody that would spark my creativity. Had I been the sole writer at some of those times I don't know what I would have done.
Q: How did Barry's recording career affect your songwriting career?
Cynthia: We would spend a year writing for him and saving all our best songs (even though we never had a clear view of what he should do because he can sing so many things), then there would be a year cutting the album, and then at least six months recovering from the failure of the album. Had we channeled all that energy into writing for others we'd have an even more impressive track record.
Barry is an incredible singer. He's even gotten better through the years. He is singing the songs for two characters on the demo of our musical of "Mask" and everyone who hears it is blown away by his performance and asks who is singing the roles. As far as his recording career, it almost seemed that it just wasn't meant to be and no matter what we did, it turned out wrong.
The main reason he wanted to be a recording artist was because it gives you much more freedom in your writing. You only have to please the artist and the artist is you so you can be more daring and experimental. The business became more and more conservative creatively after the 60s and it was harder to get records that didn't follow the guidelines of the songs on the radio. So, it would have been fun to have our own voice and be able to try different things (if he had a few hits).
On the other hand when you are someone who records their own songs you are basically stuck writing for one voice and for one style that can stifle you a bit. It's a real trade off.
I just wish the world could have enjoyed his singing as much as I have. Every one can hear a bit on his album "Soul and Inspiration" (2000). It's a compilation of his version of 11 of our hits.
Q: Does it help to stay married?
Cynthia: Sharing a triumph with someone you love is an incredible high. Then again, when things are not going well, you can bring each other down. We have gone through some difficult times like everyone else and perhaps our working together and respecting each other's abilities, in addition to that little thing called love, helped us survive. It sure helps your child when you end up together.
Barry: I think if one wants to be in a continual state of insanity one should stay married to that writing partner. I was very fortunate, though, to have a writing partner that truly is brilliant with words and at the same time very soulful. Cynthia's lyrics always expressed the feelings people felt but they couldn't express themselves. Staying married sure worked for Cynthia and myself.
Q: Does it help to stay sober?
Barry: I've written songs sober and I've written songs high. The real danger of writing a great song when you're on something is that it might get you thinking that the only way to repeat that is by only writing when you're high. There's so much fear involved in trying to do something you don't know how to do that drugs and alcohol can become a big part of your life if you have an addictive personality or are very unsure, which most songwriters are. I would suggest that one should stay the hell away from drugs and alcohol when writing.
Q: What's next?
Cynthia: Besides our show, "Mask," we're working on putting together a musical based on our hits. It's not a review. It has a really fun story threading the songs together and as we work on that I'm forced look back on our body of work. Although I like the work I've done in the past, I like what I'm writing now even more.
You ask what lessons I've learned and I guess I'd say, "Be careful what you write, you may have to hear people singing it for a long time."
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