If you thought Sharon’s Stone’s most basic instinct was to play fierce women on screen, then clearly you haven’t heard “Never Before.” The Oscar-nominated Casino legend — who recently released her gripping memoir, The Beauty of Living Twice — is also an accomplished songwriter who has been stealthily plying her trade for years.
Though she first made musical noise in 2005 with “Come Together Now,” a benefit for victims of Hurricane Katrina she co-wrote featuring Celine Dion, Wyclef Jean, Patti LaBelle and others, Stone tells Billboard that she’s been writing songs in quiet for many years, just waiting for the right moment to share her talents with a wider audience. That time is now thanks to singer Hayley Sales, whose modern jazz vocal ballad “Never Before” is a moving tribute to the Tin Pan Alley era courtesy of Stone’s evocative lyrics.
“When you are me and you come up in the business in the era I did and you try to tell anybody anything, they say, ‘stay in your lane,'” says Stone in a wide-ranging Zoom chat with Billboard in which she proudly notes that she’s agent-less these days, which explains why she’s bursting out of the boxes Hollywood tried to confine her to for decades. Stone says she’s been writing songs for years — including what the self-proclaimed “huge” hip-hop head describes as a “duffel-bag” full of unheard rap and pop lyrics — but that she long considered that her “side hustle.”
Stone ticks off a list of songs she’s written (or co-written) that we may not know about, including one about her eldest son, Roan, the 2016 smoldering ballad “For You,” performed by Schiller with Tawgs Salter which was on a No. 1 album in Germany. She also notes a 2012 co-write on an epic romantic ballad with Argentinian pop star Beto Cuevas called “Eterno,” as well as a few tracks she wrote in the early 2000s with Grammy-nominated Swedish songwriter Jörgen Elofsson (known for Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”).
“I’ve written classical, rap, country music… I just wrote a super beautiful song for Diana Krall and her husband [Elvis Costello],” Stone says of her previously quiet but clearly prolific second gig. Piano-based pop singer Sales, on the other hand, has been plugging away at a music career for half her life and the opportunity for her first co-write was like an unexpected gift from the lyrical heavens during a trying time.
After losing her first recording deal with Universal in her native Canada a decade ago and then being pushed into a recording limbo, the singer says her initial success in the music biz crashed hard during a period where she was contractually barred from releasing new music. Then, amid her floundering, the singer/actress says an actor friend told her they knew someone who was looking for the right person to co-write a song with, something Sales had never tried before.
“So I pick up the phone and it’s Sharon and I almost fell into a bush I was so excited,” says Sales, calling from her parent’s blueberry farm on Vancouver Island where she’s finishing songs for the long-awaited follow-up to her 2010 folk pop album, When the Bird Became a Book. Surrounded by fluffy newborn chicks and sounding full of renewed hope, the ebullient singer describes being blown away by Stone’s kindness, lack of pretentiousness and focus on what would best serve her voice.
Sales describes growing up on the farm loving Judy Garland and music from the 1940s, which concerned her hippie parents, but which Stone immediately understood while picking up on the singer’s anxiety about the musical failure to launch. Stone dug in deep with a series of questions to find out where Sales wanted to go.
“She was having really tremendous trouble lifting off and I eventually said to her, ‘Okay, if all that was scrapped and you had just one song that was going to define you and you’re going to walk out on stage, tell me what that looks like,'” Stone says in revisiting her attempt to get into Sales’ frame of mind during the 2013 writing session at her house. “What happens when you perform that song? What are you wearing? What does the stage look like, how is it lit? What’s the tone? Where are you performing and what is the audience doing?”
Like a musical therapist, Stone began building a narrative, asking Sales to start in the dressing room and make her way to the spotlight in a satin gown and imagine singing that song in front of an audience. That vision quest led to them realizing that it needed to be a kind of modern romantic standard, but one that didn’t predictably center on the male gaze. “I was in this terrible place and Sharon was asking me, ‘Who are you and what do you really want to sing?'” says thirtysomething Sales, who describes herself as a lifelong hopeless romantic who has spent decades creating imaginary worlds that crumbled around her due to the contractual issue.
“What’s so cool is finding someone who is empathetic and in touch with their own story and then intuitively trying to find what my story was,” she says of Stone. The actress, who plays a bit of piano and harmonica, says she doesn’t have any real formal songwriting training but just kind of feels her way through it by “directing” musicians and singers based on her musical gut.
That hasn’t stopped the “big fan” of Common and the Notorious B.I.G. from pitching tracks to everyone from DMC of Run-D.M.C. — backstage at the Ellen show five years ago, where she teased him with a “very sexy club song” featuring the hook “I lionize you/ Do you lionize me?” — to cooking up a long, lyrical 1800s-era Irish poem epic she wishes she could get on Ed Sheeran’s radar. But with Sales, Stone says her goal was to act simply as a “worthy conduit” to give the singer a Gershwin-esque song that would perfectly match her spirit.
With throwback lyrics that allude to “tussle and sweat” and getting up to “something naughty,” the pair definitely landed on a narrative that harkens back to a simpler time based on a spare melody Sales made up on the spot at Stone’s house. “We wanted to write a love song, but not a typical one,” says Sales. “Just a moment, just that velvet creeping up every single inch of your skin when you’re so in love and excited.”
The result is a track that fits squarely into the Great American Songbook lane thanks to straightforward lyrics and a heart-swooning melody that achieved their goal of telling an elegant, no-fuss love story. “It just came together and we were like, ‘Oh! Stop it!'” says Sales of the ease with which Stone’s lyrics and her music instantly connected. “We were both just in the right place to write that song at that moment.”
For now, Stone says she has no interest in trying to take center stage as a singer or performer, but is eager to keep collaborating and writing with other artists as she hones her songwriting skills. “It’s Hayley’s song and it’s her star… I just want to be that spirit guide that says, ‘if that’s the right thing let me help you make the right fork in the road,'” says the movie legend.
Sales filmed the video for the song — out now on Worldsound/Ingrooves/UMG — in her family bedroom, playing the entrancing melody on her childhood piano. “I’m insanely driven and bossy as hell, but I think especially this song and a lot of the upcoming record I’m trying to be as me as possible and I’m incredibly vulnerable. There practically is no armor, just chinks and I don’t want to lose that, even though the industry asks you to,” says Sales.
Watch “Never Before” below.