It’s been more than a decade since the release of Neil Sedaka’s last studio album of new material, “Tales of Love,” in 1997.
But the legendary singer-songwriter — known for hits like “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” and “Calendar Girl,” among many others — says his newest set, “The Music of My Life,” which was released Jan. 26 on Razor & Tie, contains some of his best songwriting yet.
“After 57 years of writing, I think these are some of my best songs,” Sedaka says. “I’ve raised the level of my writing on this one.”
In an interview with Billboard, Sedaka discusses his new album and recent collaboration with David Foster, his approach to songwriting after nearly 60 years in the music business, some of the challenges that new artists are facing in today’s music business, and more.
It’s been about 10 years since your last studio release of new material. Why the delay?
I wanted to make sure that I could top the past ones. I’ve had about 50 CDs and LPs. And being a creative person, you always try to top yourself. It took me this long to really be satisfied that I’ve done better and didn’t repeat myself. I went out of my comfortable sphere and did something fresh and new that will excite me.
David Foster produced the salsa-leaning track “Do You Remember,” which has you singing some of the lyrics in Spanish. What inspired the Latin style? Being a New Yorker, I used to dance to Latin music. There was a place called the Palladium on Broadway. And Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez used to play. So I still have that in my blood. Plus, my grandmother spoke Spanish in the house, so I can speak.
This isn’t the first time you’ve collaborated with David Foster. What brought you two back together?
He was my piano player when he was 19. He came from Canada to L.A. and played some gigs with me. He also played on some records with me, including my biggest selling record, “Bad Blood,” which was a duet with Elton John and me. [Foster] said, “I owe you this, because I never really produced a record and I always admired your work.” He’s covered my songs with many artists. I played it for him on the piano, and he said the salsa one is the one he wanted to do.
I always make a conscious effort to write different styles and moods. What I tried to do is write different moods. The ballads are a throwback from my Juilliard days. I had Lee Holdridge, a great orchestrator, do string quartets on these ballads. They’re all very different.
The doo-wop song on the album, “Right or Wrong,” was written when you were 16 years old. Why did it take so long for you to properly release it?
That’s the only old song on the album. I found it in the trunk and nobody ever recorded it. I did have my beginnings in doo-wop music; I had a group called the Tokens in Brooklyn. They went on, of course, to do “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and a lot of other great things. I went on as a soloist. But I still love doo-wop music. I listen to it on the satellite channel. And I love harmony singing. I used to love Les Paul and Mary Ford, and when Patti Page did her multiple voices.
You’ve been writing songs for close to 60 years. Has the process of songwriting become easier or more difficult over that time?
It’s become more difficult, because you become pickier. I’ve been very fortunate over the years — some of the great singers have covered my songs. But this is very personal and very intimate. It’s what I call my emotional writing. I have a theory that there are three kinds of songwriting. The emotional is when you go through some trauma and get it out on the page. The intellectual writing is when you have a tune in your head spinning around for many years and you almost rewrite it. And the last is spiritual writing, which is something that comes from a higher power that kind of writes itself and you’re channeling. It’s my theory, but I find that over the years, these are the three types of writing.
The title of the album is “Music of My Life.” So are these songs basically a reflection of your personal life and career?
Yes, it traces my lifeline. It starts with, “If I could take the precious moments/Put it in a box/If I could feel these times once more/I’d turn back the clock/Wouldn’t it be wonderful the way that things were then/I would like to turn back time/Live it all again.” That’s the first one. Then it goes through some pain, some sorrow and ups and downs emotionally in my life. Then it goes into some great metaphors in a song called bringing me back to life. It traces my lifeline in many ways.
You’ve said that this album is some of the best material you’ve ever written. Why do you feel that way?
Because I feel that I’ve raised the level of Neil Sedaka. I’ve bridged the gap between evergreen standards, rock’n’roll and pop. I was able to put them all together somewhere in the middle. And I don’t think too many people have done that.
Last year you released a children’s album of your famous songs, called “Waking Up Is Hard To Do.” What was the story behind that?
I have three grandkids and they love my oldies. So I was inspired to change the words to my old hits. I had “Waking Up Is Hard To Do,” instead of “Breaking;” I had “Where the Toys Are,” instead of “Where the Boys Are;” “Lunch Will Keep Us Together,” instead of “Love;” and “I love I love I love my dinosaur pet,” instead of “Calendar Girl.” I had my 6-year-old granddaughter singing the doo-wop background vocals. So it was really cute. I’m not afraid of poking fun at myself.
Are there any newer artists who inspire you?
I like John Mayer, I like Snow Patrol… I’ll have to look at my Billboard now. I rode on a plane a couple years ago with Snow Patrol and didn’t know who the hell they were. They said they were big fans of mine and were playing Madison Square Garden. And they let me listen to one of their records on their iPod. I started to weep. I’m a crier. And they invited me to Madison Square Garden to see them. I like melodic writing and intelligible lyrics.
You’ve written numerous songs that have stood the test of time. Do you believe that music being written by popular artists today will be remembered in 50 years?
That remains to be seen. One of the reasons I’ve been around so long is because the songs have continued to be covered. I was a judge on “American Idol” a couple of years ago and a young singer named Clay Aiken did “Solitaire,” which I wrote in the ’70s. But I think there are several very good people around who will certainly stand the test.
What are some of the pressing challenges for up-and-coming songwriters?
There are two ways of writing. You can go with the market or against the market. Both can be very successful, but I think that today, the more successful is against the market. If you’re unique and don’t rhyme “moon,” “June,” “croon” and “spoon,” and if you can write something that’s not predicable, something that has turns and twist. Simple is the hardest to write, but if you have a surprise in the song lyrically or melodically, you’re ahead of the game.
What are your thoughts on a television program like “American Idol” that has helped break several new U.S. artists over the past decade?
It’s a great platform. Years ago we had “American Bandstand,” but you had to have a hit. This is a great platform and it’s also bringing back a lot of melodic music, like songs from the ’60s and ’70s. Everybody thinks of themselves as an A&R man, or an amateur agent, or some kind of judge of new music and singers. So it was a very clever idea.
Did your appearance on “American Idol” in 2003 help boost your visibility at all?
I couldn’t walk the street for two weeks. Thirty million people watched me. Thirteen-year-old kids who had never heard of Neil Sedaka asked me for my autograph. But I still play about 40 concerts per year, and I get all ages, mostly people my age. But I get a lot of young people.
You’ve seen so many different changes in the music business over your career. What’s one of the more surprising ones you’ve seen lately?
Susan Boyle selling eight millions copies (of her debut, “I Dreamed A Dream”) all over the world. It shows that melodic things are coming back. They’re getting tired of the production and the rap and the hip-hop. I think melodic things, like Michael Buble — and the last Barbra Streisand album (“Love is the Answer”) was very beautiful and melodic. I think that people are getting a little more sentimental and mellow. They want something that they can latch onto and perhaps cry with.
Is there anything you haven’t yet accomplished in your career that you’d still like to do?
There is a show coming out. It hasn’t been signed and dotted, but there’s a musical show in England, called “Laughter In the Rain.” It’s a story about the life of Neil Sedaka, from age 13 to 35. It has all of my songs in it. It opens March 1 and plays for about three or four months throughout the U.K. That doesn’t happen very often. Certainly “Jersey Boys” was a great success. But I haven’t seen [“Laughter In the Rain”], I’ve only read it on paper. I’m hoping that perhaps with a little luck it may come to Broadway in a couple of years.