Our Man in Miami: Taking a Drive with Desmond Child

Thank Zeus for cool friends. No sooner had a certain electronica act passed on having a chat with yours truly than a gal pal o’ mine set up an interview with someone infinitely more palatable—and enduring. So rather than having to force myself on a couple too-cool-for-school Canadians, I got to get with the cat who’s largely responsible the soundtrack of our lives. So there.

That’s how I found myself sitting in the backseat of a Dodge Nitro speaking with legendary producer and songwriter Desmond Child yesterday afternoon. The ever glam Debbie O made the connect, and I couldn’t have been keener on the prospect had I suggested it myself. Child just so happened to be holed up in one of Ricky Martin’s stately abodes wrapping up the Latin heartthrob’s latest LP. Martin’s home, as you might imagine, is literally fit for storybooks. But even more impressive was the fact that it had been converted into some kinda sound factory. The moment I crossed the threshold I could feel the magic in the air.

Child had to jet away for a few days to take care of a couple things, so I hopped on board for the drive to the airport. And while all I heard of his latest production came in snippets through one of Martin’s three studio doors, I nevertheless sensed something brewing that just may knock the proverbial socks off the whole wild world. Confirming my suspicion was Child himself, who told me just enough about Martin’s next collection of songs to make everybody’s day. But first, I asked him to backtrack through some of his career highlights, which still leave me somewhat agog.

Would you consider Kiss’ “I Was Made for Loving You” your breakout track? It was my first international hit, and yeah, it helped put me on the map as a songwriter with bands. Up until that point not very many bands wrote with professional outside songwriters. At the time, though, I was really an artist with Desmond Child & Rouge, and it was more of a collaboration between artists, because Paul Stanley was a fan of our group. He’d come down to the shows all the time, and one day he said, ‘Hey, let’s write a song together.” So he co-wrote a song on our first record called “The Fight,” and I co-wrote “I Was Made for Loving You” for Kiss’ Dynasty. I think I did better than he did in the exchange.

And Stanley is the one who recommended you to Bon Jovi, right? Right. Bon Jovi was on tour in Europe with Kiss—they were the opening act. And I think they really liked another song I wrote with Paul called “Heaven’s on Fire,” which also became a hit for them. Jon asked Paul about me, and Paul gave him my phone number. And then I went over to New Jersey to write with this new band called Bon Jovi. I ended up co-writing four songs from Slippery When Wet, including “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Livin’ on a Prayer.”

And you’ve been working with them ever since? Yeah, I served as Executive Producer on the last four albums.

I know you’ve also worked with Alice Cooper, who gave me a great interview last year. Was that the Trash record? Yes, I co-wrote with Alice and produced Trash. That had a song called “Poison” on it, which was his big comeback song.

Have you worked with him since? Yeah, in fact, we worked recently with Bob Ezrin. Wow! The immortal Kiss producer! Yeah, but he also produced all of Alice’s early records too.

Did he do Killer and School’s Out and all of those? Yeah, and Billion Dollar Babies and Welcome to My Nightmare… He’s an amazing producer and one of the most wonderful people I’ve even known.

You’ve also co-written with Joan Jett. Was “I Hate Myself for Loving You” the only song you two wrote together? No, we did “Little Liar” and “Get Off the Cross I Need the Wood”…

You guys wrote a song called “Get Off the Cross I Need the Wood”? That’s brilliant! (Both laugh) We did a few other songs together too.

I also wanted to ask about that Hanson track, “Weird,” which is a really beautiful song. Thanks. Maybe other than “Livin’ on a Prayer,” that is singularly one of my all-time favorite songs. I always perform it whenever I’m asked to sing somewhere.

I’ve also got Cher in my notes, with three exclamation points. How did that come about? John Kalodner, the legendary A&R man at Geffen Records, signed Cher when no one believed in her as a recording artist anymore. I had been working on Aerosmith’s Permanent Vacation, where I had co-written “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” and “Angel,” and I was also having success with Bon Jovi at the time, and he asked if I’d produce her. I’d met her back while she was doing the play Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean when another producer had used a couple of my songs, so Kalodner re-introduced us, and she was thoroughly enchanting. I ended up bringing in a bunch of my friends to do the record, including Jon Bon Jovi. And that’s when she met Richie Sambora.

Oh, so you’re responsible for that? (laughs) Yeah, it’s all my fault! (laughs) Not that I could’ve stopped it. Instant chemistry.

Another triple exclamation point I’ve got is for Lindsay Lohan. She did your song “I Live for The Day.” Really? How? Why? Actually, I didn’t work with her. The song was pitched to her and she cut it. In fact, I’m ashamed to say I’ve never even heard her version. The record company didn’t send me a copy, because they don’t do that anymore, and at the time I didn’t know how to download, so, through one thing or another, I never got to listen to it.

More recently you worked with Mika. What’s he like? Yeah, we co-wrote a song with Jody Marr called “Erase.” He’s wonderful. A great guy, very smart.

Then there’s Katy Perry’s “Waking Up in Vegas.” Yeah, that went number one a year ago. She’s amazing. She’s absolutely adorable and gorgeous and funny and irreverent – exactly as she is in her songs.

Okay, that brings us to the next Ricky Martin record… I’m really excited about the music, the content, because since he’s come out it’s unleashed his creativity and the scope of what he can sing about and say and do. He’s a formidable person – an activist, a philanthropist, a humanitarian. All of the work he’s put into his charity—it’s all going into the music. His personal life too, and how much his life has been changed by his children. Once he opened that door a floodgate of energy and creativity just really exploded.

So, it’s fair to say that the next Ricky Martin record will be unlike anything we’ve ever heard before? Definitely. We really reached a creative fusion of rock and pop and electronic and Latin music – it’s all over the place in a really great way.

Mika Animates the BlackBook Office

There are what appear to be fresh bloodstains on Mika’s otherwise pristine white jeans. Beads of sweat line the 26-year-old British pop star’s considerable brow as he stands in the middle of BlackBook’s conference room clutching a pair of scissors in his right hand. He scrawls the words “Sex,” “Joy,” “Hate” and “Pain” in black, broad strokes on the wall, surrounded by molecules painted in bright primary colors.

It’s an odd sight to behold, but not entirely unexpected behavior for Mika, whose music and accompanying videos are equal parts Technicolor glee and pits of twisted despair. Take Life in Cartoon Motion, a sonic Neverland of Roald Dahl whimsy, lush orchestral arrangements and the story of “Billy Brown,” a man whose same-sex affair leads to the dissolution of his family life. Whereas that multi-platinum, Grammy-nominated album focused on childhood, Mika mined inspiration from adolescent angst for his sophomore full-length, We Are Golden. “This one tackles emotions that everyone has to deal with—sex, pain, love and joy—and their relationship to each other,” he says, pointing to the words etched across the wall. “When you’re a teenager, you fall victim to all of those things and, truthfully, you stay that way throughout your entire life.”

In his unmistakable accent, Willy Wonka by way of Lebanon, the corkscrew-haired performer discusses the effect that chaos theory has had on his music and today’s art project. “I love this idea,” he says of the belief that change can be effected by a series of random events. “It’s an easy thing to gravitate toward when you’re a teenager, like I did, because it justifies everything in a very simple way. You can apply it to every aspect of your life and it gives you a certain sense of optimism, because it takes things out of your own control.”

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Nearby, his mother collects and distributes the necessary art supplies—a helium tank, 200 feet of bunting and double-sided tape—while his aunt and cousins cover the floor in a thick layer of silver confetti, tying string to the ends of oversize blue and red balloons. Still, Mika’s affinity for bedlam is most overt during his exaggerated live shows, which have in the past included drunken, stuffed-animal orgies alongside full gospel choirs. His mother even created glittered, pointy hats (worn at this shoot) for the 11 string players with whom Mika recently toured. He describes the overall vibe as “a rollercoaster of emotion, Little Nemo in Slumberland meets five o’clock in the morning after the party. It’s a sophisticated form of escapism. It’s all about getting people to drop their defenses.”

It’s a sentiment that Mika himself hasn’t fully embraced. His showy demeanor, which recalls early Elton John and Freddie Mercury, and suggestive lyrics have attracted speculation about his sexuality. But Mika refuses to align himself with a specific community, to the dismay of gay activists and journalists, both desperate to unlock his closet door. Instead, personality and persona coalesce, turning his entire existence into a 24-hour performance art piece. “But does performance inherently mean I’m putting up a façade?” he asks. “Not necessarily. It’s not abouttrying to protect myself; it’s about creating another world for the sake of staying sane.” The ease with which Mika’s fantasy world blends into reality is something he shares with his good friend Lady Gaga. “You cannot separate her life from her art,” he says. “When I speak to her, though, she’s completely normal—she’s just wearing a fantastic hat.”

Showmanship and versatility are integral to the success of this generation’s pop stars, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Mika as he readies to reinvade America with his latest, darker collection of songs. “I’m often too poppy for the indie crowd,” he says, “and I’m often too weird for the pop crowd.” But it’s in this liminal space that Mika thrives, proved today by the microcosm he created in this office, where monstrous balloons rupture over the din of conference calls and sales pitches. While his mother packs up the props from today’s shoot, stuffing handmade embroidered shirts, white Louboutin loafers and otherworldly dunce caps into a suitcase, Mika skates across a floor slippery from the recent confetti snowfall. Individual silver flakes are blown from an open window onto the street below, and Mika pauses to reflect on an earlier thought. “Does chaos follow me wherever I go? No,” he says, “I chase after it.”

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Photography by Victoria Will.