Dozens of top-tier singers — from Barbra Streisand to Michael Jackson to Whitney Houston — have benefited from the platinum ears of songwriter-producer-arranger David Foster, who has won 16 Grammys from a total of 48 nominations.
He’s found a second career for himself as a reality TV star — he was previously married to Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Yolanda Hadid (and played stepdad to her supermodel daughters, Bella and Gigi Hadid) — and is known for PBS’s membership drives, whether alone or through his collaborations with popera star Andrea Bocelli.
The rarely touring Foster comes to the Keswick Theater on Sunday.
You’re predominantly and most famously a studio guy. What is your take on live performance now that you are in the thick of it?
Well, I started off in bands when I was 16, and was even a one-hit-wonder [Skylark’s “Wildflower,” which cracked the Top Ten in 1973], but I never really struck gold with anything after that, maybe because I was a musical intellect, having come from classical training. I didn’t fit into rock bands in the early ’70s. Maybe I was a misfit and more open already to being the session man, writer, and arranger-producer that I became. Maybe I just wasn’t meant for the road. I chose the path of least resistance.
What happened was I started playing at charity events — not to be a great citizen but mainly because I wanted to give back but didn’t really have any money. I found through those performances a way to be a host to singers — because I can’t hold a tune — and be funny and engaging. I really honed my skills starting with Andre Agassi charity events in the ’90s, where people of the caliber of Tony Bennett and Celine Dion sang. I have done over 400 charity events by this point. I say this not to look great or sound overly charitable, but to point out how it honed what I do and allowed me to help other people sound good, which is what I do.
The attraction to live performance came from the opposing forces of your musical intellect and charitable sensibilities. So how do you explain the economy of Chuck Berry, with whom you played as a teen? And did you get the good Chuck or the bad Chuck?
Chuck Berry hated me. I was so wrong for his music. It’s a double-edge sword though, because I didn’t know his music, didn’t particularly like his music, and he didn’t like the way I played his stuff because I probably did so horribly. Later, I learned just what his contribution was, but then it was just three chords over and over. I was a wannabe jazz guy who came from classical. Chuck and I: We didn’t get each other.
With all that, how did you build your brand of pop and its lush signatures?
The pop light went off when I heard the Beatles, but I did not know how to get there. As I became a session guy through drummer Jim Keltner, I learned slowly how to integrate myself into that world. Then I learned from the bad producers — the ones who did nothing and leaned on the musicians to figure it all out — about how to be a good producer. From there I met Henry Mancini and Johnny Mandell along the way and learned from them. The most important thing I learned from them was failure — my first three albums were duds because I thought its successes were down to musicians. No. It is about great songs. I missed that memo. Only then did I become a quality producer.
What constitutes a great song to you now as opposed to then? The younger ear and the musicians who currently accommodate that have a different set of dynamics than those of even the immediate past.
They have. Songwriting is now more linear. And there are great and horrible songs in every decade, so I’m not that badmouthing guy or that reminiscing guy. Pop music now is based around four chords. That’s not new — so are songs such as Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.” What many of those older songs had, though, was a bridge — which today’s music typically doesn’t have.
You seemed to have moved away from making Top 40s pop by the end of the ’90s.
I didn’t move away from it. It moved away from me. Trust me, no one who has a million hits just walks away from that unless they have to. The Swedish sound came in — Max Martin, Backstreet Boys — I loved that, but I don’t know how to make it. I got lucky, though. You either roll over or go forward. That’s when I found Josh Groban, Michael Buble, and Andrea Bocelli and started the whole classical-jazz-opera-standards thing that recalled the training of my youth. And I had another great 15-year run with that. Music changed and I couldn’t change with it — but there were no hard feelings. I was lucky enough to figure it out and embrace the change.
And here you are now doing Broadway, or at least musical theater writing with Jewel. Did you move toward that because those melodies allow for greater breadth, epic theatricality, and chord changes that are amorphous?
You’re absolutely right, and I’ll stick with your summation as my quote. When writing musicals, you have to write a good song — not a hit song. I’m capable of being inspired and writing really good songs. I just can’t write Ed Sheeran-style songs. In theater, you have to tell a story and feature music that can move an audience. I believe I can do this.
It has to have drama.
Anyone who knows my music can call it schmaltzy and schlocky, but they also know that I can provide arcs that move people — those big moments.
So you are a serious musician-writer yet you have done some silly television. Is that a distraction, a thrill, or an opportunity? Sometimes you seem to enjoy it and sometimes merely tolerating it.
What a great set of options. I’d say a distraction. I never planned on being on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, but my wife at the time got on the show and I wanted to support her. Before that and on The Princes of Malibu, my two stepsons [Brody and Brandon Jenner, stepbrothers of the Kardashian sisters] said they would be on it and asked if I would join them. I always thought I was impervious to all that, though. Sting, Gwen Stefani, Ariana Grande — are they ever going to say, ‘Hey we were going to collaborate with David Foster until we saw him on that reality show’?
You have a million hit songs – not all of which you’re playing this weekend. How did you curate the live set list?
There is no criterion, really. I have three great singers with me and these chunks in my life — the Whitney Houston chunk or the Chicago chunk or the Bocelli chunk — I wanted to try and hit them all. There are great stories as to how I put them together. Plus I believe — after one show — that I’m going to revamp the set to include songs such as “Through the Fire” and “Un-Break my Heart.” I just have to get those in.