Richard Marx only recently moved into his home in the Hollywood Hills, but the place already boasts a fully functioning bar. That’s where the pop singer best known for such late-'80s ballads as “Right Here Waiting” and “Hold On to the Nights” pulled up a stool not long ago for a candid conversation about several of his songs — and several rounds of high-end tequila.
This month Marx, who separated last year from his wife, Cynthia Rhodes, released “Beautiful Goodbye,” a studio album inspired by the sensual rhythms of electronic dance music. Yet Marx isn’t spending all his time in club land: More than his own tunes, perhaps, it’s the songwriting he’s been doing lately in Nashville — for A-list country acts including Keith Urban and Jennifer Nettles — that’s keeping his shelves well stocked.
Let’s start where we must, with “Right Here Waiting.” One of the interesting things about this song is that it’s survived not just through your record but because people keep learning how to play it on piano.
I’ll tell you why — because it’s painfully simple. First of all, it’s in the key of C, the simplest of all keys. There are no sharps or flats. And the meter of it, it’s kind of slowly paced. It’s so simple that I thought I must’ve been ripping something else off. But I haven’t found it anywhere.
That simplicity didn’t make the musician in you say, “I can’t record this”?
I almost didn’t. The lyric felt too personal — it was a love letter to my girl, who at the time was shooting a movie in Africa. I made a little demo of it and sent it to her, and to me that was mission accomplished. But the songwriter and the businessman in me said, “I’m gonna pitch this song” [to other artists]. Right around that time Barbra Streisand had asked me to write her a song, so I sent it to her. Somewhere I still have the voice mail of her calling me back: “Richard, it’s Barbra. I got the song. It’s gorgeous, but I’m gonna need you to rewrite the lyrics. I’m not gonna be right here waiting for anybody.”
Did the song go away and come back at some point, or did it just never go away?
The royalty statements say it never went away. But, you know, it’s had many lives — it’s been a theme song for two Gulf wars. When I sang it on “American Idol” a couple weeks ago, that might’ve been one of the times where I realized its staying power. The audience that night was young, and these kids weren’t just waving their hands — they were singing every word. Kids who weren’t even an idea when I wrote the song.
Tell me about getting your foot in the door in Nashville.
One of Cynthia’s friends, Gary Harrison. She worked with him when they were in high school, and now he’s a successful songwriter. So he comes over to her parents’ house [in Nashville] when I’m there one day; this is 1998 or so. I forget how it even came up, but we start talking about me coming to town to write, and he goes, “I’d write a song with you tomorrow.” So we do, and it gets cut and released on an album by this guy Shane Minor. It wasn’t a hit, but it was the first song I wrote for a country person, and it got recorded.
You and Jennifer Nettles wrote “Know You Wanna Know,” about the allure of celebrity gossip, for her recent solo album.
Sara Bareilles told me Jen and I needed to write together. So I spent a couple days at her house and we wrote four songs. And I’ll tell you right now that “Know You Wanna Know” is my least favorite. It’s fun, and I love the fact that it’s literally the last song on the record you’d think I wrote.
You’d expect ...
... one of the ballads, of course. So that’s cool. But to me it’s a ditty. It’s not a song that anybody’s gonna remember a year or two from now.
What happened to the other three songs?
It’s a really good question. When you invest in another artist as a co-writer you’re diminishing your ability to sell that song. It’s got nothing to do with the song, but with other people’s mind set. It could be the perfect song for Faith Hill — the song that blasts her back on the radio. But I guarantee that either Faith Hill or Faith Hill’s manager or Faith Hill’s publicist at some point is gonna go, “Yeah, but he wrote it with Jennifer Nettles, so if it’s good why didn’t Jennifer cut it?”
Sometimes I’ll send around a song and I won’t say who the co-writer is. There was a song I wrote with Keith Urban — he won’t mind me saying this — where he went, “This is a smash!” Two weeks later: “I’m not cutting that song.” But I understand it. So now I’ve sent it around with some other songs to some A&R guys, and every time that’s the one they go to. It’s just a matter of time.
Last song: “Whatever We Started,” from your new record. It’s about a complicated sexual encounter, and it’s pretty racy.
For me it is. It’s definitely between me and somebody that knows it’s our song. She was completely the muse. But it’s a topic I thought was really interesting. When you’re doing this dance with somebody, the trajectory in some cases is: Person meets person; there’s instant chemistry; they’re intimate; they build a relationship, and it lasts as long as it lasts. But more often it’s: Person meets person, chemistry, intimacy — and then fears and twists and figuring out what this is.
And what was it?
It was a case of stopping and trying to redefine ourselves as friends. Then there came this point where I realized it’s bigger than two people. We may not act on it, and there might not be a future in it. But we were kidding ourselves to think we could turn it off.