Published: September 10th, 2013
Howl: What is the process like for writing a song vs other forms of writing?
Pitchford: The first and foremost difference between writing lyrics to a song and writing anything else is that the words to a song must mesh with that song’s music.
And when we’re talking about music, that opens up an entire field of discussion. What I have written for pop performers (Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand, e.g.) is different from what I write for the stage (“Carrie,” “Footloose,” etc.) Of course, every kind of music has its own rhythm and ‘feel,’ so I always work closely with my collaborators (the music writers) to establish the specific character of the song.
Then I spend a lot of time naming my songs; a song’s title – especially in the world of pop music – is very important, because it’s the ‘handle’ by which listeners grab hold of the song. Titles like “Footloose,” “Holding Out for a Hero,” and “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” tend to stick in peoples’ memories.
It can take me anywhere from a day to a month to write a song (“Fame” took four weeks!) And that means working every day, six to eights hours a day … until my brain is too scrambled and fuzzy with rhythms and rhymes to process any more.
Howl: Where do you get the inspiration for the songs you write? (Personal experience, spur of the moment, etc?)
Pitchford: I take inspiration from anywhere I can get it. Friends have seen me jump up in the middle of a conversation to write down something they (or I) said, simply because it sounded like a good line or title for a song. I pluck phrases out of books I’m reading or from the dialogue on a television show. Sometimes I mis-hear a lyric of a song on the radio, and when I realize my error, I think I like my botched version of the lyric better than the one I heard.
And I keep notebooks in which I write down all of these ideas. Even if I’ve written something on the back of a napkin over dinner, I’ll transfer that scribble into my notebook so that everything stays in the same place.
(I also keep notebooks for screenplay and book ideas.)
Howl: What’s a typical day in the life of Dean Pitchford?
Pitchford: The cool thing about the way my career has evolved is that there IS no typical day. Depending on what I’m working on at any given moment, I may sit down to work on a song, or go off to a writing appointment with collaborators. Other times, I’ll lock myself in my office to continue outlining a book idea.
Mixed in with all of this, I have to attend to business. I’ve always had to set aside some part of the day to deal with music publishers, lawyers, agents, etc. Because I live in LA and I’m dealing with Nashville and New York City a lot, those calls will often happen in the morning. In the last few years, I’ve been doing a lot of business in London, and planning early morning phone calls to catch my representatives in their offices in the late afternoon is always tricky.
Howl: What’s the toughest decision you had to make while working in the entertainment industry?
Pitchford: I had moved to New York City right out of college to perform on Broadway, so I have a deep and long-standing love affair with that city. When it became apparent that my work in the music business –specifically, the film music business – was taking off, I made the decision to move to Los Angeles, which doesn’t thrill me the way NYC does. To make up for that, I return to New York three or four times a year… to see Broadway shows, visit the museums, and catch up with old friends.
Howl: What has been the most rewarding project you have worked on?
Pitchford: “Footloose” was, without a doubt, the most rewarding project I’ve ever undertaken. It was because of the success of (and Academy Award for) “Fame” that I was given the chance to write the screenplay AND all the original songs in the 1984 film of “Footloose.” That meant that I was involved from the first draft of the script, through all the pre-production and shooting, through the recording of every song and the post-production of the picture. I learned tons during that process and got to work with some of the smartest and most creative people in the business.
Fifteen years later, when I was persuaded to adapt the film for the Broadway stage, I once again had an opportunity to work with a talented team as we wrote a new script, added new songs, explored the work in two separate workshops, cast the show, rehearsed it in New York, and then previewed out of town at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The day after it opened on Broadway in 1998, “Footloose” broke the box office record for the Richard Rogers Theatre in NYC. So TWICE that story has given me wonderful experiences.
Howl: How has your earlier work in let’s say "Footloose (1984)" changed from your more current work like " The Pirate's Dog"?
Pitchford: When I wrote “Footloose,” I truly had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know Hollywood, didn’t understand the business, couldn’t grasp what it was the studios wanted… nothing! So I ended up writing something that was very personal to me, but was treated like an ugly duckling for a very long time. It was rejected by a lot of studios, because nobody was making musicals then. Finally, a couple of brave producers and a wonderful director (Herbert Ross) got behind the project, and its very oddness became its greatest strength.
As my career went along, I continued to get the same advice from my agents, telling me to write such and such a project because the studios were looking for that subject matter. I’d occasionally sell a project or get a film made, but the more I strove to fulfill the wishes of my agents and studio executives, the less I recognized my own interests in my work. Which is why I finally – after “Pirate’s Dog” actually – stopped writing in the motion picture industry and turned my efforts to writing books (while continuing to write songs.)
Howl: Can you tell us about the challenges of directing and screenwriting? Any behind the scenes anecdotes you can share with us?
Pitchford: Screenwriting is, by and large, a very solitary endeavor. It’s not unusual for a screenwriter to deliver his work, sit through the first table-read with the cast, and then never be involved again until he shows up for the opening night party.
My involvement as a songwriter keeps me more involved than that, but a lot of the work is still done in intimate settings… around a piano, in a recording studio, at a desk. [At least when I work on a stage show, I’m able to spend my days in rehearsal rooms surrounded by the cast and other creators; writing a script or the songs for a motion picture is, on the other hand, quite isolated work.]