MAN BEHIND THE MIRROR
Glen Ballard is a name synonymous with talent and success in the ranks of the most sought-after artists in the Los Angeles recording industry. For decades his songwriting abilities have been like rocket fuel, propelling some of the biggest names in the business on to stardom and celebrity. His masterfully crafted songs have worked their way into our hearts, creating an indelible imprint on generations of music lovers.
The six-time Grammy-winning and Academy Award-nominated Glen Ballard is well known for being involved with some of the most recognizable songs and albums of our generation like Alanis Morissette’s 1995 Jagged Little Pill and before that with Michael Jackson, cowriting “Man in the Mirror” among others, and more recently with Katy Perry on her wildly successful, self-titled breakout album. We visited his studio in Los Angeles and the talented musician gave us a rare chance to hear him play some of his greatest compositions and describe some of the ingredients to success and highlights from his illustrious career.
What drew you to songwriting as a profession? How did you get into the business and what were some of your first steps to success?
It’s a musical curiosity that began as soon as I sat at a piano at age five. I always preferred making up my own melodies and lyrics, and as a result I don’t know that many songs written by other people! However, I have written thousands of songs as a means of satisfying that musical curiosity, ands occasionally I scratch the itch with a good song! I started in the business at twenty-two, as a management assistant to Elton John’s band. It took three years to get going. Davey Johnstone (Elton’s guitarist) pitched a song I had co-written to Kiki Dee, an artist on Elton’s Rocket Records, and she recorded it! I stopped answering the phones at the management company soon after and got a songwriting contract with MCA Music (later Universal).
I know it is a very broad question, but where does the inspiration for your music come from? Are these songs just waiting to erupt from some place inside of you or does it change each time you work with a different artist together?
I can fashion a song after one simple idea, musically or lyrically. It’s about having that initial topic sentence, that general theme that launches the writing for me. When I co-write with a singer I have the added thrill of a voice to animate what we are writing, and the creative juice of another companion in search of greatness.
You talk about the rare gift of a “great voice”. How rare are these talents, and who are some of the greatest voices in your opinion?
A great singing voice communicates emotion, but ultimately the sound and texture of a voice meeting with the right intention and lyric is what matters. The best singers sing to your secret heart, they sing to your soul. Barbra Streisand owns a song like no one else. Each phrase is articulate to burnished perfection. Annie Lennox brings power and grace and soul and has an enormous range. Aretha Franklin astonishes with sheer mastery and force. Nat Cole has a voice as rich and warm and fine as gold. Frank Sinatra makes every phrase sound like a revelation, an affirmation of the joy of life. Amy Winehouse takes her place among the greats in an all-too brief career. She was fire and attitude. Celine Dionne performs miracles at impossible heights.
These voices are like indelible unique personalities. They are as distinctive as they are musical. A great singer is never mistaken for anyone else…
Can you talk a little bit about what it was like working with Michael Jackson?
Michael was incredibly warm and supportive as a collaborator. We spent many long hours in the studio during the Quincy Jones records, and Michael never once complained or rushed the process. His commitment to excellence was a strong as it gets. He was interested in greatness from the past, singers, and dancers filmmakers. He was chasing all-time greatness, a rare attitude and caught it!!
You don’t just work with incredible recording artists, but also compose scores for films and musical theatre, which led to an Academy Award nomination and a Grammy Award win for your work on the soundtrack for Polar Express in 2004. How is it different working directly on original songs for films?
It’s not that different really, writing for a movie, and in some ways it gives you a specific predicate for writing—a scene, or an entire story can inform your effort. It’s important to always serve the picture, and depending on your director it can be simple or complicated!! Songs have a unique ability to encapsulate deep emotions that may not be able to be expressed any other way. I write from an emotional place always, and then try to figure it out later…
What about the role of songwriter and producer? You are responsible for such a litany of hits that exert a massive cultural influence, and yet you are somewhat removed from the limelight. How does that feel? Does it feel like being an unsung (no pun intended) hero? Or are you happy to work behind the scenes and give up some of the spotlight?
The role of a performer in today’s world is as demanding as it’s ever been. I have aided performers my entire career without ever making the commitment to the stage myself. It all comes back to the voice, and early on I felt like my singing voice would not get me to the top, but that my songwriting and producing were better in every way. So I made a choice to play to my strengths—and it was the right way to go. I love being “behind the scenes”. I want to create music and songs and shows that really deliver to the audience, and so I’d rather be involved with that effort than playing one role.
You have worked with such a range of artists, is there anything in particular that attracts you to working with a singer? You were involved very early on in Katy Perry’s career, catapulting her from relative obscurity to mega-stardom. What did you recognize in her right away, and what do you look for in a budding star in general? How do you recognize star quality?
Katy Perry came to see me in early 2002 and played one song on the acoustic guitar, standing three feet from me in the control room of my studio. Her composure, composition, talent, and singing were obvious at that moment, and I essentially signed her on the spot. Truly it was a no-brainer and it’s astonishing that it took five years to convince anyone that she was an incredible superstar-in-waiting. The secret’s out now!!
What Katy has—in addition to massive musical talent—is a strong empathetic nature. She understands her audience on a DNA level and her connection to them is one of the great phenomena of our day!
A star must have an intangible quality of needing to connect with the audience, almost an obsession to be heard.
What is it about California and Los Angeles in particular that attracts so many creative industries from music and entertainment to design?
Los Angeles engenders a sense of freedom and creativity. It’s a city of serious dreamers and no one will tell you that you can’t have your dream. You just have to build it…
The weather is fine, the light is incredible, and the spirit of exploration and doing is contagious…
California is also the place to be for many of the top glasses manufacturers like SALT. and Barton Perreira. Tell me about some of your favorite pairs of glasses?
A pair of Hakusan John Lennon inspired sunglasses I really love. I also have a couple vintage pairs I got in Japan back in the early 90s. Also, Paul Smith reading glasses.
I heard that you have quite a collection of Oliver Peoples. What attracts you to this brand?
Oliver Peoples has a retro-futuristic look with the highest quality frames and glass. I have a pair of their black Riley frames with custom-cut vintage amber glass. I wear them to add a touch of southern California sunshine to noir Paris, my beloved second home.
Tell me a little bit about your current or upcoming projects and your production company Augury.
Augury is a music-driven entertainment company. We develop musical theater, episodic television, new musical artists, and high-concept musical presentations. One of our current projects is Queen of Souls: a time travel voudou movie musical about Marie Laveau set in past and present New Orleans. The music traces the beginnings of jazz in French New Orleans to the music of today, as we tell the story of the incredible, mystical feminist healer and voudou priestess, Marie Laveau.
This article originally appeared in the MUSIC issue // published in April 2017.