David Foster on his hit songs and working with Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, and more in his new Netflix documentary
David Foster's nickname is "Hit Man," and his impressive stats back it up, including 16 Grammy awards and induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The Canadian songwriter-producer has penned smashes like Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing" and Peter Cetera's "Glory of Love," discovered and nurtured many artists including Michael Bublé and Josh Groban, and worked the boards for several legendary divas including Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion.
While some younger audiences may know him from his stints on a pair of reality shows — The Princes of Malibu and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills — fans of classic adult contemporary radio know Foster as the pen behind some of their favorites.
The new documentary, David Foster: Off the Record, released recently on Netflix, delves deep into each phase of his career. What begins as a standard hagiography, tracing Foster's career from the Great White North to the Sunset Strip, deepens as it unspools, telling some of the stories behind the songs, his lengthy and sometimes public romantic history — the 70-year-old songwriter-producer has been married five times and is currently hitched to singer-actress Katharine McPhee (Smash) — and his own unsparingly clear-eyed self-assessments.
The list of talking heads is a murderers row of lite AC: Streisand, Dion, Buble, Groban, Chicago, and fellow songwriters and producers like Diane Warren and Quincy Jones. At the center is Foster, a self-aware control freak with a healthy ego but also a good sense of humor and a dollop of self-deprecation, confronting both his successes and failings.
EW recently spoke with Foster about all of that, some of his best known songs, and more — including his pivotal role in ensuring "I Will Always Love You" would become the monster smash it did.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why was now the time for this documentary for you?
DAVID FOSTER: The answer won't shock you: Basically, [the producers] asked me. Honestly, that's my answer. And I was like, "Hell yeah."
These types of documentaries tend to be solely celebratory and leave out the rough spots. You are remarkably candid about your own ego and need for control, conceding more than once that you could be an a--hole both professionally and personally. Was it hard for you to get to that place?
It's not that hard because you carry your truth around in your head like 24/7. Right? So everything that I talked about, I already knew, so it's easy just to blurt it out. And in fairness, Barry Avrich, the director, was really good, and just the same way that I demand at the studio that I'm in charge, he sort of demanded that he be in charge of this documentary. And so I couldn't just go, "Oh, take that part out." I just let it be, because I think that's the proper way to do a documentary.
What was your reaction the first time you saw it?
I mean, it was a little cringe-worthy in a few places. And then there was other things that I was really happy that were in there. Like, I had a tumultuous time with the group Chicago. They were big stars when I met them, but they had sort of fallen off, and I put them back on the charts, but not in the way that they wanted. And so they really disliked me, or at least half of them do. And I told Barry, I said, "Look, I'm not telling you how to do your job, but you've got to go interview Chicago because they're going to really rag on me." And then when the guys had the opportunity to, they weren't that bad on me.
I was actually amazed that they sat for the interview at all.
Yeah, me too.
They were honest with how upset they were about how you changed the direction of their sound with the power ballads like "You're the Inspiration" and "Hard For Me To Say I'm Sorry," but how it also benefitted them commercially. Maybe with the virtue of time, everybody is feeling a little more sanguine about it?
Yeah. Maybe. The fact of the matter is that Peter Cetera and I formed a bond and a musical friendship right away. And that was upsetting to the rest of the guys, because they're a band, and they all had equal contributions. So that was upsetting to them, and that permeated the five years that I spent with them... You can love or hate the power ballad, but I happen to love it. And when I lay my hands on the keyboards, that's what comes out.
Certainly, it has been your bread and butter and it has brought a lot of joy to a lot of people. But you also seem at peace with the idea that you are perceived as unhip?
I'm okay with it, because I don't make excuses, not usually anyway. Because like I said, when I lay my hands on the piano, that's what comes out, and I'm being true to myself. If it's schlocky, then so be it.
But do you think it's schlocky? That would be a weird way to describe it yourself.
No, I don't. I think it's just me. Like, every time that I've tried to make music to please others, it usually doesn't work. When I make music to please myself, my batting average goes way up. It still obviously doesn't hit all the time, but my batting average goes up.
You've popped up periodically over the years in other people's specials — Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Donna Summer and your own PBS celebration — but you came to performing live fairly late in life, why was that?
My whole life I've spent in the studio, in basically a room with no windows. And all these great artists would come through my studio, we'd make music together, either stuff that I produced and wrote or co-wrote. And then they had the great satisfaction of leaving my studio, going out touring and seeing the reaction to the music that we made together, in front of thousands of people. I never got to experience what that was like back in the early days.
So when I did start touring, I realized that if you have great singers and the songs are hits, people are very accepting of it. They don't need to see Whitney [Houston] standing there to be impressed, as long as they can sing along with the song and the singer is really good. And I'm the ringmaster and I enjoy it.
One element of the film is very striking, there are two tracks. One has a parade of famous faces essentially saying, "Working with David Foster was amazing. Maybe sometimes difficult, but he's my brother, part of my life." And then the b-side is your children, who clearly love you, saying, "Things were different for us, he was not around and it was hard." I'm wondering how difficult that was to watch?
Well, it's kind of haunted me my whole adult life. I think I did my best, but I was consumed with work. And consumed with work is not reserved to just people like me. You could have a construction worker for a father who's consumed by his work and wants to work weekends and make extra money for his family. But I worked all the time, and I didn't live with my young daughters. So that's a recipe for trouble.
They seem incredibly forgiving in this film. Do you feel like you have gotten closer to them as grown older?
Absolutely. But I think most people, most parents would agree that children are more fun when they're grown up.
Back to the A side, obviously these people are your friends and colleagues so you know what they think of you but, how does it feel to have those famous folks praising your contributions to their careers?
Well, it's great. But you know, also all of those artists that you mentioned, plus all the ones in the documentary, I mean, whenever we get interviewed, we're pretty much on our best behavior.
So I mean, Bublé and I have had a lot of arguments in the studio too, about music. And Celine, not so much, but for sure. Josh and I butted heads a lot of times. But it was all constructive. But yeah, you're kind of on your best behavior when the cameras roll.
How often do people come up to you and say "You wrote my wedding song"? This must be incessant for you.
Yeah. The song that I get that the most on is a song I wrote for Celine and Bocelli called "The Prayer."
You are clearly attracted to The Big Voice. What it is for you personally that appeals about that style?
I'm drawn to great singers. It might be a control thing, because whatever I ask them to do, they can do.
There's one other thing I want to say too, because you asked me about all these people saying glowing things about me. One of the things that I really learned, and it took me a long time to learn is, people like Celine and Michael and Josh don't have to go through their whole lives always crediting me. And back in the early days, I thought, "Wait, I found Michael Bublé at a wedding." He didn't talk about it in that interview. It was like, of course he didn't. I don't talk about the people that helped me when I was starting out. And that was a great realization for me, that they don't have to always mention my name. They were going to get there anyway. I just maybe gave them a shortcut.
One of my favorite moments in the doc is during the filming of the 'Tears Are Not Enough" video, (the Canadian all-star companion to "We Are the World") and you say to Neil Young "That was a little flat."
Yeah. And he says, "That's my sound, man."
But in that moment is there even a hint of catching yourself and thinking, "Maybe I shouldn't be telling Neil Young he sounds flat?"
No, because... I mean, that's what I'm there for.
David Foster on some of his hits:
"Love Theme from St. Elmo's Fire," David Foster/ "St. Elmo's Fire (Man in Motion)," John Parr
Foster's sole hit as a solo artist was a wistful piano piece from the score to the classic 1985 Brat Pack film directed by the late Joel Schumacher. He also co-wrote the hit pop tune from the soundtrack performed by British rocker John Parr.
"We didn't stay in touch for many years," says Foster of Schumacher. "But, lucky for me, I was doing a concert in New York City maybe a year ago, and he came. We got to hang out afterwards. It was just so great, as though no time had passed at all, because he was so wonderful to work with. Then the movie I did right after that, the director was horrible, and I thought, 'Wow, thank God that my first experience scoring a movie was with Joel Schumacher,' because he couldn't have been better."
"We got inspired by a Canadian [Paralympian], Rick Hansen" he says of "Man in Motion," which he wrote with Parr. "He was actually our inspiration, because the movie was not inspiring us, trying to get that [phrase] 'St. Elmo's Fire' into an uptempo song... He became our muse for that song."
"That was my first Grammy," says Foster of his breakthrough song, which hit No. 2 in 1979 and was co-written by Jay Graydon and Bill Champlin. "I remember it well. It was with my favorite group. I basically patterned my life after them because I loved them so much. When I got to work with them, it was like heaven." Of its inception, Foster recalls, "I wrote the chorus myself. It fell out one day in an office when I was trying to impress somebody. It literally just fell out, truly not from me."
"My inspiration for that song, you'll never connect these dots, it was Janis Joplin's 'Piece of My Heart,'" he says of Houston's monster ballad from The Bodyguard. "The movie dictated what the song would say. The movie becomes your co-writer."
Foster was also crucial in making sure that the full version of the film's masterpiece, Houston's version of Dolly Parton's anthem"I Will Always Love You," made it into the final cut. The original choice was the Jimmy Ruffin classic "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted," but, Foster says "I couldn't make it fit for Whitney. I tried two demos. I didn't like it. She didn't like it." So when the Parton song was suggested by the film's star Kevin Costner, the production grabbed Linda Ronstadt's version to use as a guide. "The minute I heard that song, I knew what to do with it and how to make it perfect for Whitney." But it was Parton herself who alerted him that Ronstadt had omitted the key final verse ("I hope life treats you kind..."). during a chat they had at the time. "Dolly was like, 'Wow. I can't wait to hear the third verse,' and I go, 'What third verse? There's no third verse.'" Good catch, Dolly! "She's had, of course, tremendous success and doesn't need one more hit song," says Foster. "But she was very grateful to that. She made jokes, 'I bought my new house with that song.'"
"I wrote it with Tom Keane, and it was for my piano solo album, so it was written as an instrumental. But I was so convinced that Chaka Khan would hear it and record it and love it that I called the instrumental 'Chaka,'" says Foster. He was right. Khan heard it and loved it and Cynthia Weil penned the lyrics to the tune that went on to hit the Hot 100, Adult Contemporary and R&B charts and become the hook for Kanye West's breakthrough hit "Through the Wire."
Foster and the Chicago bassist-vocalist wrote a string of hits including "Hard Habit to Break" and "You're the Inspiration," but this tune from The Karate Kid is their crown jewel. "When you write a song for a film, like I said earlier, the film becomes the co-writer, and you don't have to give them any credit. It's so nice," says Foster with a chuckle. "If you're asked to write a song-- 'Go to the piano right now and write a song' — that's a blank page. It's kind of tough, right? Especially if you're not feeling it. Then they say, 'Okay, go to the piano and write a song about a young boy who has a mentor and falls in love with a girl,' all of a sudden, you've got this beautiful co-writer."