Rick Nowels has penned some of the most melodic pure-pop hits of the last quarter-century-plus. Chart Beat goes one-on-one with one of pop music’s master tunesmiths
For more than 25 years, Rick Nowels has crafted some of the most memorable hooks in pop music. From Belinda Carlisle’s Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” in 1987 to Madonna’s “The Power of Goodbye” (1998), New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” (1999), Santana’s “The Game of Love” (featuring Michelle Branch) (2002), Dido’s “White Flag” (2004) and John Legend’s “Green Light” (featuring Andree 3000) (2008), Nowels’ songs have become radio – and chart – constants.
Currently, Nowels is back on the Hot 100 as co-writer (and co-producer) with Lana Del Rey on “Summertime Sadness.” Aided by its Cedric Gervais dance remix, the song marks her first entry on the Mainstream Top 40 airplay tally. The pair also co-penned “Young and Beautiful,” which became Del Rey’s first top 40 Hot 100 hit in June, reaching No. 22.
Upon his latest addition to his impressive catalog of hits, Chart Beat checks in with Nowels, who discusses his creative partnership with Del Rey, his secret to writing for women singers and what his considerable chart success has meant to him.
(And as you read, there’s a good chance you’re hearing one of his hits on the radio …)
How did you and Lana Del Rey come to write “Summertime Sadness” together?
I met Lana in summer 2011. I had heard some of her songs on YouTube and I loved what she was doing. When we wrote it, I realized that she was a brilliant songwriter and a magical artist. She writes the kind of music I want to listen to.
As the song is Del Rey’s first Mainstream Top 40 hit, do you feel that she’s earning respect that may have eluded her after her not exactly warmly-received “Saturday Night Live” appearance last year?
Lana has earned respect because she is so good. She has consistently released high-quality songs with artistry and vision. People are starving for real artistry. As more people hear her music, she’s gaining more fans.
Your songs are simply some of the most melodic pure-pop hits of the last quarter-century-plus. From where does that gift come?
I grew up on great records and always absorbed everything I heard. I could hear the chords to songs from a young age, so I would always figure out how to play songs that I liked. I’m just trying to do work that is as good as the music that I love.
How did your career begin at its earliest? When did you begin writing songs? And, how did you segue from crafting those early songs to becoming a professional songwriter?
I started writing songs when I was 13. By the time I was 15, I strongly identified as a songwriter.
I went to Berkeley, where I studied music, and then moved to San Francisco and had two original bands during my early and middle 20s. Both bands became popular and we played a million club gigs. But, I ended up leaving each group. I moved to New York and never got a band together again.
I was writing and recording my songs and, very luckily, Stevie Nicks heard “I Can’t Wait.” [The song, as recorded by Nicks, became Nowels’ first Hot 100 entry as a writer, rising to No. 16 in 1986.] I was also extremely lucky to be mentored by Jimmy Iovine for the first five years of my record-producing life. I learned so much from Jimmy and Shelly Yakus, his engineer, got to work in great studios and met so many legendary artists, producers and engineers. It made me really up my game.
While you’ve written, and produced, so many hits for multiple acts, it seems that many have been sung by women (Carlisle, Madonna and Nicks, among others). Do you have a secret superpower as to how women think that helps you write lyrics to which women relate?
Ellen Shipley and I wrote the lyrics to the Belinda songs, but all the other artists mentioned here write their own lyrics. Stevie, Madonna, Nelly Furtado, Lykke Li and Lana are all poets. I’m attracted to working with poets.
How conscious have you been of your Billboard success as each hit that you’ve written and/or produced has scaled the charts? Especially, please take us through your reaction to when “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” reached No. 1.
The song went from my little writing room to No. 1 at radio all around the world. That is always exciting. I’m really proud of the song and I know it touched a lot of people. I stand by the message.
Speaking of “Heaven,” can you please take us through the writing process of the song? How did the idea, imagery and title come about? And, what was Belinda Carlisle’s reaction when it was presented to her?
Ellen (Shipley) had the title “Heaven on Earth.” I was playing around with a Prince-type rhythm and sang “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” We both decided it was more original.
The first draft of the song had a different minor-key verse along with the minor-key chorus. We actually recorded it with Belinda and I began to feel that the chorus was a hit but the verse was not great. So, Ellen and I got together and quietly rewrote the verse. I knew I wanted to modulate into the chorus, which is why the pre-chorus goes to a different key and then back to the original key for the chorus. I had to tell Belinda that we rewrote the song and had to rerecord it. As soon as we played it for her, she agreed.
I put a lot of time into the arrangement of the song. The original version was with live drums. I went back to the LinnDrum for the final version. It was more driving.
Finally, as a member of the Billboard charts department, I get to make charts all the time. Now I’m offering you the chance! If you think about your entire career, please, if you’d like, list your 10 favorite songs that you’ve written and/or produced.
“Summertime Sadness,” Lana Del Rey
“I Follow Rivers,” Lykke Li
“Young and Beautiful,” Lana Del Rey
“Green Light,” John Legend feat. Andre 3000
“White Flag,” Dido
“You Get What You Give,” New Radicals
“The Power of Goodbye,” Madonna
“Cry Baby,” Cee Lo Green
“Rooms on Fire,” Stevie Nicks
“Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” Belinda Carlisle