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Aside from a publicist, a personal trainer and a stylist, perhaps no one is more essential to the success of a pop star than the Grammy-winning, chart-topping songwriter they choose as a producer. And among these svengalis, none is more famous than David Foster, who was producing hits for Barbra Streisand and Chicago back when Timbaland was still in grade school. The Jerry Bruckheimer of adult-contemporary radio, Foster went on to produce the theme song for “St. Elmo’s Fire,” Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart” and Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You,” not to mention countless hits for Kenny G, Celine Dion, Natalie Cole and Madonna.
With his memoir, “Hitman,” out this week, Foster, 59, talks with WWD about his claustrophobia, his belief that “artists” should shut up and do as they’re told and why he’s never getting married again.
WWD: Let’s start at the beginning. You grew up in British Columbia, in a very normal household. How do you think it impacted your musical development?
David Foster: They say you’re cooked by the time you’re six. Well my first six years were incredible. As a child, I had all the support you could imagine. My father was a musician and helped me learn how to play piano. My mother was supportive. I had six great sisters. I have nothing to whine about.
WWD: Do you think that’s why your music isn’t about pain?
D.F.: Do you mean is that why my music is schlocky?
WWD: I didn’t say that. You did.
D.F.: Listen, someone said that I’m claustrophobic and don’t go into elevators because I’m afraid to hear my own music. It’s OK. I get it. But I never considered the idea that my music isn’t dark or depressing because I didn’t have any pain as a child. That’s smart. If I’d grown up in a dysfunctional family, I’d be dark and moody like Chris Martin. Son of a b—h.
WWD: Your memoir is called “Hitman: 40 Years Making Music, Topping Charts and Winning Grammys” but you never considered any of this?
D.F.: No. Not until this moment. Good for you. My music sounds like p—y because I had a great childhood. You can print that.
WWD: You began your career as a musician, working first in London as a backup musician for Chuck Berry, and then in the States with your act, Skylark, which had one big hit with “Wildflower.” Why do you think you were more successful as a producer?
D.F.: I chose the path of least resistance, I guess. Maybe I just don’t have star power. Nigel Lithgow from “American Idol” told me I had no charisma. Is that possible?
WWD: I don’t know. In what context did he say that to you?
D.F.: I think we were talking about me hosting a TV show. Because there’s a big part of me that wants to be on television hosting a game show.
WWD: For real?
D.F.: Oh, yeah. You get three rounds. By the time you’re 50 or 55, you start looking for your round three, and I want my round three to look different than my first two. I hear artists or writers or producers who say, “I had to get out of the music business.” Wrong. The music business made them get out. They left because the business didn’t want them. I’d like to get out while I’m still wanted.
WWD: At one point in your book, you say that you admire Celine Dion because “she’s smart enough to trust her camp.…She trusts her songwriters, she trusts her arrangers, she trusts her producers.” Isn’t this just a fancy way of saying you admire singers like her because they have great pipes and let you make all the decisions?
D.F.: Yes. There’s no more answer than that. If it’s not working, go to someone else.
WWD: So you see artists as puppets?
D.F.: I just finished an incredible album with Seal. It’s all Sixties remakes and it’s great. And he said in an interview, “I love being on a microphone and having him tell me, ‘Yes, no, yes, no.’” What’s wrong with that?
WWD: Many of your chart toppers during the Nineties were cowritten by your third wife, Linda Thompson. A few years ago, the two of you and her kids were cast on the reality series, “The Princes of Malibu,” which you cite in the book as a contributing factor in your divorce.
D.F.: My marriage was in fairly deep s–t to begin with, but there was a clear moment during the making of that reality show or when it aired that I knew I didn’t belong in that house anymore. That’s really what it was.
WWD: Maybe you just needed to keep getting married and divorced so that you’d have new material from which to draw on. It can’t be easy writing one soaring ballad after another.
D.F.: Well, I think my marriages suffered from the fact that when I sit at the piano, that’s where all my emotion and romance come out. I don’t send enough flowers. I don’t write enough love notes. I have a girlfriend now and she’s incredible, but am I ever getting married again? No.