Lionel Richie never did things in a small way--from his massive record sales with the Commodores in the ‘70s and as a solo artist in the ‘80s to such special events as “We Are the World,” the celebrated charity single he co-wrote with Michael Jackson, and his performance at the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics.
So it’s not surprising that when Richie took a break in 1986, it was a doozy, eventually stretching to 10 years. After the first six--a period that included a divorce, the death of his father and the death of a close friend from complications of AIDS--Richie signed a ballyhooed deal with Mercury Records. But there would be no new music for another four years.
Now the Grammy- and Oscar-winning singer-songwriter is finally back, with the release earlier this week of “Louder Than Words,” his first album of new material since “Dancing on the Ceiling” in 1986 (see accompanying review). In a recent interview, Richie, 46, discussed the hiatus and its effect on his music.
Question: Why did it take four years after signing with Mercury to get your album out?
Answer: I started writing, and I didn’t realize I had such a well of material. It was just packed away because I had been out of the studio for four or five years. So I kept writing, and as soon as I said, “This is the album,” something else would come. Finally I found myself a year and a half, two years into the project, and then here we are. It was about 30-odd songs we went through just to get these songs here.
Q: How do you think your music has changed?
A: Before, basically, I was the interpreter of a love lost, or a painful love. . . . Now I’m an authority, if you will. I know about a little bit of suffering. Not from across the room, but I’ve been in it. I’ve been through it. So this record is much deeper in meaning and thought.
Q: Your divorce was pretty messy and pretty public. What was that like for you?
A: It was like trying to unglue something that was supposed to be permanent in your life. It was very painful, it was very, very difficult, especially with a child in the middle. . . . I had never really dealt with negative press before, so it was interesting. It taught me a little bit about politicians’ tough skins. It was a bit unnerving. Especially for the two of us who were sitting there trying to deal with our own personal problems, and you have the press going, “This is our twist on it.” We were actually checking with each other after reading the paper to find out what part of it is true.
Q: Besides the divorce, you went through your father’s illness and death, and the death of a friend from AIDS. What did you learn about yourself from all this?
A: It was a good lesson in character for me because I had to study myself. I’m a professional in the entertainment business. I can walk out on stage, I can walk into a party, I can pretty much tell you how I’m going to act, because I’ve done it a million times. I’d never been to my father’s funeral before. I’d never been to a courtroom before. How was I going to act? I won’t know till I get there. I’d never sat down with my friend and discussed death. I’d never considered going to his funeral. I don’t know how I’m going to react in front of him.
So for the first time it took me off my very organized, very neatly packaged life and it kind of dirtied me up a little bit. And I found that living like that is not bad at all. It kind of brings out some wonderful, spontaneous qualities . . . which I translated over to this album.
Q: How is that reflected in the music? You’re not really writing about these experiences on the album.
A: I kind of put these experiences into one-liners. Every so often I may need a phrase to let you know I know what I’m talking about, and I’ll find maybe one or two lines that become the core. I don’t believe in just airing the whole story because, you know what? It’s boring. Lionel’s personal experience--it doesn’t sing well. That’s not it. But if somewhere in the middle of “I’m Still in Love With You,” you say, “I found an angel flying low,” that’s enough. It tells the whole story. . . . I had to live it. Very painful, but life is about living, and I kind of got that Cub Scout hat off a little bit and went a little bit further.
Q: Did you ever lose your perspective during the years of celebrity and success?
A: If I was guilty of anything, I was guilty of enjoying my craft too much. I fell in love with it. What better hobby can you have? It was the best, it was a kind of high, when you watch those red lights come on that recording machine. It wasn’t about drugs. The biggest high in the world was, “Did we get that last take? . . . How many people were in the audience? 100,000? 150,000? The Olympics? What? A billion?” . . . Everything was mega. The thought of missing it--"What do you mean take off? Not now.” I could tell the only way I was gonna stop this was something major had to happen, and it did.
Q: The new album touches on a lot of styles you’ve played in your career, but it doesn’t include contemporary elements such as rap and hip-hop. Did you consider that at all?
A: Something amazing happened one day. I went to a Bobby Brown concert, and there were all the rappers who ever lived in life, standing backstage. And I said something like, “You know, I’m thinking about putting some rap on my album.” Dead silence. One guy turned around and said, “Why the hell would you want to go do something stupid like put rap on your album? . . . The only reason we rappin’ is ‘cause we can’t sing. You’re the man with the melodies. We’re following you.” Thank you very much. I went home and decided to be Lionel Richie.
Q: What’s your opinion of rap?
A: Every generation has its voice. The voice of the ‘60s was Dylan and the Stones, Aretha Franklin and James Brown. In the ‘50s it was Elvis Presley and that group. Of course they were all called radicals--"My God, where is the music going to?”
Rap is the street, the ghetto street. They are the new poets of the day. . . . The kids figured out what to do with all that beautiful, brand-new equipment. They don’t need to wait for Berry Gordy to call on the phone and say, “I’ll sign you to Motown.” [They’re saying] “We’ll do it out of my house now, with the technology.” So the great poets of today are sitting there in some of these houses in Compton and Inglewood and stuff, that’s where they are.