Singer-songwriter Richard Marx was the first solo artist to have his first seven singles make the top five on the U.S. Billboard charts. Marx, whose #1 singles include “Hold on to the Nights,” “Satisfied,” and “Right Here Waiting,” has recently released two albums available for download on his Web site: Emotional Remains and Sundown. He’ll be at Trocaderos on December 13 for an acoustic show with Matt Scannell of Vertical Horizon; in anticipation of that show, he talked by phone about opening for REO Speedwagon, managing his image, singing for drunk philanthropists, hanging out with Lionel Richie, and jockeying with Prince for the top of the charts.
So. The guy whose album pushed Prince out of the #1 spot in 1989 has some nerve showing his face in Minneapolis.
Wow, that’s a long grudge! I actually found out about that album—Repeat Offender—going to #1 by a friend telling me, “Prince fell out of the top spot…and you know what that means!” But I haven’t thought about it since then. All these years later, though, I beg forgiveness.
Do you have any favorite memories from your previous stops in the Twin Cities?
I can’t recall a single time that wasn’t fun. From playing little clubs to opening for REO Speedwagon to headlining shows…there are a lot of venues within an hour or so of the Twin Cities, and I probably have played every single one of them, even the dive bars. There are some towns where I can immediately say, “oh, we had a really shitty gig there,” but I have only great memories from Minnesota. The last time I was there it was for a good cause—the Make-a-Wish Foundation—but it was a relatively rough gig because we weren’t really selling tickets to my fans. When you show up to perform at a charity ball, you’re usually playing for people who are half in the bag. It’s not really the party atmosphere you like to have at a show.
Is there anything you actually miss about playing stadiums, or do you have a completely good-riddance attitude about being through with those gigs?
No, I don’t feel “good-riddance” at all about it. I’m grateful for the fact that I had that experience, where my career was at a place where we could play arenas and mount that kind of production. When the tide turned and I wasn’t pulling that kind of sales, I was pleased that the experience of ramping it down was as fulfilling as it was. It’s a really different kind of thing now. Back when I was playing arenas and stadiums, I wasn’t nearly the kind of performer that I wish I had been. I still have a lot to learn about being a songwriter, a performer, and a singer…but I wish I knew then what I know now about performing, because I would have made adjustments. When you’re playing for 20,000 people, it’s tough to connect. When you’re playing for 800 or 1,000, it’s easier to do that. So much a part of my show now is just hanging out and telling stories and kidding around, and you can’t do that in an arena. I’m not pumped to say that I’m not playing arenas—it would be disingenuous to say that—but I’m glad I still have a jersey on the team. Right now I’m not motivated by anything but having fun. I’ve been really, really super-blessed, and now everything is gravy. Sure, I’d love to be as popular as Chris Brown, but I’m not one of those guys who says “why them and not me” any more. I’ve had…I don’t even know how many hits. Isn’t that enough?
Who’s your model of a recording artist who’s weathered ups and downs in fame and fortune with grace and artistic integrity?
There are very, very, very few. Sting comes to mind first and foremost. He hasn’t always hit it out of the park, but—sorry about all the sports metaphors—he’s always got on base. Sting is somebody who gave up a long time ago trying to conform to the pop charts, but he still stumbles onto them by accident. He hasn’t been a dominant chart guy for some years, but he’s very quietly sold a million records here, two million there, and he’s maintained his integrity and tried different things. When I look at Sting, it seems to me that so much of what’s worked for him also involves his image. He’s brilliant musically, but he’s also brilliant at presenting a certain image of himself. I respect that, but I can’t say I admire it. I don’t think I ever picked a photo personally. Maybe I should have, maybe that’s part of being a pop star, but I’d rather be writing a song or working on guitar parts. I only paid attention to the music, never the public presentation of it. Maybe that’s part of what hasn’t allowed me to have had the kind of career Sting or Madonna has had, with that constant reinvention.
You’re a Midwesterner yourself, from Chicago originally. Where do you spend most of your time now?
Chicago! I’m looking at it right now. My wife and I moved to Chicago from L.A. about 11 or 12 years ago, when our kids reached school age. It was a no-brainer. My wife is from Nashville, but she loves Chicago. It’s my favorite city in the world. I’ve built an incredible studio on Lake Michigan, so the work part is not difficult any more. The word has spread about the studio, so people flock here to work with me now.
Tell me about your upcoming albums. Why release two discs simultaneously?
I didn’t initially set out to do that. I was making Emotional Remains, a very straightahead modern rock record—maybe the heaviest rock record I’ve made. Then I wrote a couple of songs I loved that didn’t fit on that record—vibe-ier, sexier kinds of pieces—and I thought jeez, what rules do I want to adhere to? Why not do two albums? I just don’t think in terms of those rules any more. If I had a record company, I’d be even more frightened than I already am about record sales, because they’re all the Titanic at this point. I create for whoever wants to hear it, and hope for the best.
Lionel Richie helped you get your start in the music business. His last few years have been quite eventful—are you still friends?
I wouldn’t say we’re friends, though we’re not not friends. If I bumped into him on the street it would be a hugfest and we’d be making plans to grab a drink, but we haven’t been actively in each other’s lives since I moved from L.A. He was incredibly mentoring to me. He and David Foster each changed my life with a single guesture: each of them said, “come and hang.” That opened the door for me to sing backup vocals with Lionel and record with David, but it started with “come and hang.” Watching Lionel make his albums, watching David make Chicago 17 and the St. Elmo’s Fire record…for the most part I was the only guy who was there every single day, just to watch and soak it in. That was an incredible gift they gave me. Lionel and I never got that close as friends, but there’s no more charming person on the face of the earth than Lionel Richie. We’re not really pals, but I still adore him.