Richard Marx: I would never, ever do a concert dominated by new material

Grammy-winning songwriter Richard Marx boasts one of music's richest back catalogues. Alex Green speaks to the chameleonic musician as he struggles to stay creative during lockdown

US songwriter Richard Marx, whose first number one hit was the Kenny Rogers recording What About Me?

MUSICALLY, the past fews weeks have not been fruitful for Richard Marx. "This has not been a particularly inspired time for me in terms of songwriting," he admits.

But the prolific writer, who defined the 80s soft-rock sound with hits including Right Here Waiting and Hazard, has found another creative outlet during lockdown.

The 56-year-old has launched a daily talk-show of sorts, from the front room of his home in Malibu, California.

Marx is now on episode 18 of #SocialDistancing – a video series in which he "shoots the breeze" with a series of guests (over Zoom or Skype, of course).

Guns N' Roses bass player Duff McKagan, saxophonist Kenny G, illusionist David Copperfield and journalist Katie Couric have all logged on to talk politics, music and life.

These videos offer fans a glimpse behind the curtain, and reveal Marx as a surprisingly able interviewer-cum-confidante.

"We're not performing, but it's eavesdropping in a way that would be comforting for people," he explains over the phone. "It's therapeutic, and I like to think it's also informative."

One famous face yet to appear on #SocialDistancing is Hugh Jackman, Marx's close friend for over a decade.

"He is exactly who people would assume he is," he gushes. "There is no Mr Hyde with Hugh Jackman. He is just the sweetest guy."

Marx's recent spate of acoustic performances have given him ample time to perfect the art of conversation.

"My acoustic show – and I am not saying this in a 'pat on the back' kind of way – is really what happens in between the songs," he explains. "I have seen solo acoustic shows by great artists who I tremendously respect – and I was bored out of my mind.

"They weren't funny. They weren't hanging out with the audience. It was all too serious and too quiet. People want to have fun, so my solo acoustic show is... I have a martini on stage.

"It's the same as if you came over to my house and I poured us some drinks, played you a bunch of songs and told you some funny stories."

Marx's career began aged five as a singer for his father's jingle company, his voice appearing in ads for Nestle Crunch and Arm & Hammer baking soda.

He was 17 and living in Highland Park, Illinois, when a tape of his songs ended up in the hands of Lionel Richie, who invited him to visit him in Los Angeles.

Marx finished school in 1981 and made the move some 2,000 miles across the US, hoping to make a name as a songwriter for hire.

Starting with his self-titled debut album, released in June 1987, the following years yielded hit single after hit single – Endless Summer Nights, Now And Forever, Hold On To The Nights to name a few.

Later, Marx wrote for artists including NSYNC, Luther Vandross and Keith Urban. His latest album, Limitless, is a return to the adventurous writing of his early years. It's also a loving tribute to his wife, Cuban-American television host Daisy Fuentes. But he is under no illusion as to the allure of his live shows.

"I would never, ever in my lifetime do a concert that was dominated by new material," he asserts. "That's not what the audience want to hear. They are cool to hear a few new songs but they really want to hear the hits. They want to hear the songs they know."

Like all touring musicians, Marx's plans have been derailed by the coronavirus pandemic that has closed venues and grounded flights across the world. He says he was "gutted" to cancel a string of intimate European dates.

"Of course, in hindsight, it was definitely the right decision," he sighs. "But it was a bummer. It was such a bummer."

Yet Marx is wise enough to realise it is the up-and-coming artists and local promoters who are most at risk.

"The impact that this thing is going to have on the concert business is completely up in the air right now – but it is going to be massive," he says. "It's going to be absolutely disastrous for a lot of people.

"I'm not worried about me. My heart breaks for the venue owners and independent promoters and employees. Just awful."

Fate intruded into Marx's personal life again last month, with the death of his long-standing friend, country music icon Kenny Rogers, at the age of 81. Rogers gave Marx his first number one when his recording of the ballad What About Me? topped the charts in 1984.

The pair continued to work together and traded emails even after Rogers withdrew from public life around 2018.

"When he retired, like with a lot of people, it really took the wind out of him," Marx recalls.

"My last communication with him was about three or four months ago. It was beautiful. It was such a beautiful thing – such a beautiful communication. I'm just sad he's not in the world any more.

"He was funny and gracious, and he was so talented and iconic. I see tributes to him and he would have been really proud. I don't think he knew how beloved he was."

Rogers's death, he explains, caused him to reflect on his own legacy.

"I don't have any delusions of success about those early records," he begins.

"I'm lucky. I experienced that feeling of having really big, successful albums in my career. But it's not about that anymore. It's lovely when that happens but that's not my motivation.

"Not to demean it at all, but for me, writing songs is like flossing. It's just something I do."

:: Limitless is out now. Richard Marx's latest tour has been rescheduled until autumn and winter.

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