Hang Time: Singer-Songwriter Richard Marx Talks About Writing with Ringo and Playing Acoustic

Richard Marx loves a great hang. Especially when it happens to be with a former Beatle, which is an experience that he acknowledges is pretty cool. He's been lucky enough to have the chance to write songs with Ringo Starr a few times now, and he still marvels at the fact that he can call the legendary drummer one of his friends.

"It's pretty crazy," he says. "I wrote a song with him I guess two albums ago after I did a tour with him. I went over to his house and he had a track that he had already played drums on. It was pretty fleshed out, but it didn't have a melody or any lyrics. So I started singing a melody and then we started writing lyrics together. We wrote a song that ended up becoming 'Mystery Of The Night.' So he called me a couple of weeks ago and said 'Hey, I'm doing a new album — I know you're in L.A., do you want to come over and do the same thing?'"

The answer, of course, was an emphatic yes.

"I went over last week and we wrote this new song," he says. "But then just this morning he called me and said, 'Do you have time to write another song? I love the song we wrote and it was so easy. Do you have time to write another one?' and I said, 'Dude, I'll make time!' Then he said, 'You know, why don't we just do something from scratch — whatever you think would be good for me to sing.' So he sort of gave me carte blanche to come up with some ideas for him. So next week we're going to sit down and [work on it]. I've got to tell you, aside from being Ringo, the Beatle, he's just such a lovely man. He's such a great hang and it's time well spent because he's a blast."

You probably know the Chicago-born Marx for any one of a number of his hits from the '80s — he had four of them from his 1987 self-titled debut alone, starting off with the lead single "Don't Mean Nothin'," a rocker of a track which featured Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh playing the guitar leads. He would land four straight Top 5 singles from that album, including the ballad "Hold On to the Nights," which gave Marx his first No. 1 single.

A string of hits would follow, but midway through the '90s, as his own success began to taper off, Marx found himself focusing more on writing and producing songs for others. He'd already had some decent success in that area, having helped to co-write a pair of Top 5 singles for Kenny Rogers prior to his own debut. Later, he also wrote and co-wrote a number of tracks including "Surrender to Me" the power ballad smash for Robin Zander and Ann Wilson, but it still felt like a bit of a risky move.

"It was a hell of a leap and look, if I'm going to be really honest with you, I think it was one of the smartest things I could have done," he says. "Because I essentially reinvented myself as a writer/producer for hire and potentially extended my musical career by any number of years. I think that had I not done that at the time, I might have... I mean I could have maybe always ultimately done it, but I felt like the timing was what it needed to be.

Personally, it ended up being a good move for Marx because it gave him time to be at home with his family. Professionally, things also played out pretty well. "This I Promise You," the song that he wrote for 'N Sync, went to No. 1 in 2000. He grabbed another with Keith Urban in 2005 with the song "Better Life" and as he notes, writing for other people gave him the chance to work outside the box. Some of his more recent collaborations have found him writing with Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles, Sara Bareilles and Nickelback's Chad Kroeger.

"It's not genre-specific," he says. "I've got country records, pop records, hard rock records, jazz records, pop classical crossover records and pretty much everything except polka covered in my resume. I know that the diversity of that music informs what I write for myself now."

He's wrapping up work on a new album; currently untitled, it's tentatively set for release sometime in June, and he's pretty excited about it.

"It's the first time I've consciously made a new collection of songs in a long time in a real focused way," he says. "It's probably [been] close to 10 years [since] I sat down and said, 'I want to put a real consistent album together.' The music is still me, because it's my voice and my voice is the thread, but I think that musically it's a departure. I listen to a lot of kinds of music, but in the last couple of years, I've been really fascinated with a lot of EDM and a lot of music by DJs like Morgan Page and Deadmau5.

"There's really not a lot of straight down the middle pop stuff on this record and I'm excited about it because it sounds different to me. If I make a record where I think I'm breaking new ground for myself artistically, I've got to start there. I can never ever predict what my fanbase is going to react to. I've never written a song in my life that I thought was a hit when I wrote it."

Longtime Marx fans will hear a couple of the new songs when Marx comes to the Hard Rock Live this week, but only a couple, because, as he says, "I know what people want to hear."

"The bulk of my show is the songs that I wrote for myself and other people that you know. But I do definitely play two or three new songs out of the set list. Mainly because I'm really excited to get a reaction and also because I'm a songwriter first and foremost."

The show will be acoustic — just Marx and a guitar — but he warns that it won't be a "sleepy" experience. From his point of view, it's just a few steps away from hanging out with him in his living room, sharing a few drinks and stories together.

"It's really just a hang with me and the audience," he says. "I can't really do that with the band, because it's four guys standing around waiting for me to shut up. At a solo acoustic show, I can take my time and if people yell out a song, if I remember it, I'll do it. It's just such a fun hang and that's really my motivation. Because if it's just replicating the music, why get in your car and come and see me? But if I'm going to send you home feeling like you hung out with me for a couple of hours, then that's my mission."

Richard Marx, 8 p.m., Saturday, April 5, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd., Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets: $25-$70, hardrock.com.

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