"My goal when I go in the studio with a singer is I believe in my head that I'm going to get a better vocal out of this singer than he or she has ever done before or ever will do again," says producer/songwriter David Foster in the new documentary, David Foster: Off The Record, directed by fellow Canadian Barry Avrich.
The film, which has its world premiere Monday (Sept. 9) at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), is mostly filled with glowing testimonials from the likes of Michael Bublé, Barbra Streisand, Josh Groban, Celine Dion, Lionel Richie, Quincy Jones and more. What it doesn't show properly is his humor or explore what he reveals in his interview with Billboard -- his failures, of which he says he's had many.
Still, they haven't hurt his incredible global success. He has 16 Grammy Awards, an Emmy and Golden Globe, and has been nominated for three Oscars for best original song. His C.V. also includes soundtracks for films such as Urban Cowboy (1980), St. Elmo's Fire (1985) and The Bodyguard (1992).
In 1986, he started the David Foster Foundation to provide financial support to Canadian families with children in need of life-saving organ transplants; it has raised an astounding $30 million dollars to date and helped more than 1100 families.
David Foster: Off The Record is still locking down U.S. distribution but gets a theatrical release in Canada Oct. 16, then airs on production partner Bell Media's CTV Nov. 28 and streams on Crave Nov. 29.
Billboard sat down with Foster for an engaging conversation about a range of topics -- including if he could have produced a Kurt Cobain or Bob Dylan, if he considers great art a success even if it doesn't sell, and how it feels to give up (some) control on his current project, a Broadway musical.
In the film, you've got all these amazing people saying amazing things -- and you yourself saying great things about yourself -- and then at the end you're like "On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I wake up and I think that I'm the greatest thing ever. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I think I suck…and on Sundays, I don't think about it at all." We don't hear that until much later.
It's true. It's true. Don't you find that a common thread with successful people or not?
I mainly come across two different kinds of artists, the self-deprecating kind that will go, 'Here's my music, but…,' giving an excuse for why it's not great, or the 'how come they're signed; our music is way better.'
Got it. I don't know if I'm either of those. I'm certainly not the first one.
You talk a lot in this film about control. How much control did you have over this film with Barry and the direction?
I had no control. Part of it was a conscious decision. Everybody kept hammering on me and saying, 'You can't have your fingerprint on this. If you do, then it's not going to be accurate. You've got to let somebody objective tell your story.' And, honestly, I've only seen the film one and a half times, a rough cut.
A half? You walked out? [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah, walked out on my own film. No, he wanted me to watch the first half again. The one time I watched it in full, I watched it just as a person because if you try and watch it making changes in your mind, it's going to be impossible. I couldn't take notes. So what do you do? 'Oh that angle there, I didn't like on me.' 'Remember that other take where I said…?' Couldn't do it. So I just let it go.
You are able to reflect on your life and say, for example, your children probably have "scar tissue" or you understand why Chicago was upset with how heavy handed and aggressive you were as a producer. When did you gain that insight?
I always knew that. I always knew that one [Chicago]. I didn't quite know my kids' perspective though on me and my career, the drive by shootings that would occur from marriages and blended families. So it was interesting for me to see my kids being interviewed, and Barry Avrich, the director, is very good at sort of suddenly getting you to let your guard down — and they did. And it was not terrible; it was just a little bit different than I thought it was.
One thing Celine Dion keeps saying a couple of times in the doc is "he makes songs that live forever." You're in pursuit of the hit. Do you equate success with hits and money?
Yes. As a simple answer. I'll tell you why. I know that I'm not a critic's darling. Rolling Stone, the only interview was the Boz Scaggs record that I did and they said, 'David Foster has succeeded in plunging the dagger in Boz's back and the blood is all over his white suit.' So I've never been a critic's darling. I get that.
But you memorized that line.
I sure did [laughs]. But I don't care because I'm not interested in selling three records. I want to sell to the masses.
That said, the doc starts with your early life, where you say your life changed when you heard The Beatles, then your band backs up Chuck Berry, which is pretty cool on your resume, even though it didn't turn out well. But you were classically trained and a lot of the artists that you've had big success with are, in my view, "adult" music. Why is it that you're drawn to that?
When I put my hand on the piano, what you hear, what people hear, what I've done in my life is my honest music -- it's not me trying to be anybody. [The interview is interrupted by the publicist holding up his phone with Foster's wife, singer/actress Katharine McPhee, on Facetime, and a sweet exchange of I love yous and her telling him he looks so handsome.] But when we were making those easy listening records in the '80s and '90s, they weren't easy listening records. They were pop records. They were top 40 records. They've become easy listening. But Celine and Whitney and Chicago, and all that at the time, they went to the top of the Hot 100 charts, not the AC [adult contemporary] charts.
Why do you think you're such a hands-on producer versus, say, Rick Rubin?
Sofa style. Just as a valid. The laying on the sofa style, but just as valid. Well, because I'm a control freak, I guess. But let's think about Rick Rubin, for instance. He would lay there and they'd be jamming away and an hour later [Foster closes his eyes] and be like [snaps his finger]. 'That. That. Work on that.' That's producing. That's the ear that everybody needs.
You once told Neil Young he was flat and he responded with that classic line, "That's my sound." What do you think you could do with like a Dylan or Neil or even a Kurt Cobain? Could you produce those types of artists?
I could not produce those types of artists. Dylan would be impossible because he can't sing at all anymore. Great songwriter. Kurt Cobain, I wasn't a fan until the Unplugged album, and when he did that acoustic album, I was like, 'Holy shit, this guy's got it going on.' So I bet you, if our paths crossed, which they could never cross now, but if they could have, I bet you we have had some mutual ground. You know, I've produced Alice Cooper; I played on Lynyrd Skynyrd records; I played on Tommy Bolin's. I produced three albums with the Tubes, so I had a little bit of rock, but it was polished rock. I'm not going to lie.
Back to the success thing. Two of my favorite artists are Esthero and Jimmy Gnecco of Ours, and they haven't had massive hits or sold tons. Do you have any artists like that you've worked with?
My list of failures is very, very long.
Very long. Yes.
Well, that's not in the film.
No, it should be shouldn't it? I guess he didn't ask me the question properly because I would have answered it. It's not some secret.
But that's not a failure. You're working with them for a reason.
But if it doesn't sell anything, it's a failure. To me.
But if it's an outstanding piece of art?
Maybe it's not. Maybe it wasn't. Maybe it didn't sell because it was a piece of shit. I mean, here's the weird thing about this job. You work and apply the same principles every day in your job. And I was fastidious about it, and you do it and the song comes out and it was a hit, and the album comes out and it's a hit, and then you do another artist and the song comes out and it's a hit and the album comes out and it's a hit. Boom, three times in a row. Then you do it a fourth and fifth time and nothing. Makes you doubt yourself. I did all the same things I did the last three albums that were so successful, and this thing sold two copies. What the fuck? It's pretty eerie. And I've had a lot of those. Warren Buffett, I've read that he says, 'If I've had success at all it's because I've had more failures than anybody else.' So I like that.
As a hands-on producer, when is it interfering with the artist's integrity, personality, character of the music?
It's a great question and I don't know what that is. I mean, I know that I pounce on the weak artists and I fight with the strong artists. The most classic case, I think, at least in my documentary, is the group Chicago. I wanted Barry to interview them because I knew they were mad at me. I knew they didn't like what I'd done to them because I had fucked with their sound, but they weren't selling any records. They were selling zero records. I loved the band and, in my mind, I was taking them back to their greatness. It was just a little softer than their first greatness, but they went from selling nothing to selling millions and millions of records with me. But they're not happy about it. Fair enough. I get it. I was a control freak. I went in, I wrote the songs, co-wrote the songs, played the bass, played the piano, did the arrangements, told them what to sing and they were pissed. I get it.
There's some cool tidbits in the doc. Canada's former prime minister Brian Mulroney was basically your A&R guy telling you about the guy playing his daughter's wedding, Michael Bublé. That's how your discovered him. You say in the film Buble filled "a slot" in the market left by Sinatra. I just interviewed Renee Zellweger who plays Judy Garland in the biopic Judy and has a soundtrack coming out, her first solo album. Do you think there's a slot for that music now?
I think Renee could catch a wave, but is she going to have a career as a singer? Probably not, no, but in this particular moment she could catch a wave. But I'll tell you, the biggest slot available right now — the Neil Diamond slot. Where's that young good-looking kid with a guitar slung over his back that writes three-chord songs that the whole world wants to sing? Not country. Pop. Where's that guy? That slot's wide open. I won't be filling it, probably.
This week I've seen music films on The Band, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and even Helen Reddy — and they all have excessive drugs and alcohol [for Helen, it was her manager husband]. Yours has none.
What do I got? No sex, no drugs. No rock n' roll. So the question is?
What kept you away?
I left school in 11th grade, moved to England to join Chuck Berry's band and I was 16. I didn't know anything about anything. And that would've been the time that I would have thrust myself into sex, drugs and rock n' roll and it never happened. This will sound really corny, but I just always sort of saw my parents faces and thought they wouldn't approve because everybody was getting higher on me. It was 1967. It was Carnaby Street. It was The Beatles. It was Pink Floyd. I went and saw Hendrix play in a club. Drugs were everywhere and I just never did it. Never. And it became empowering not to do drugs. It's empowering when you're with a bunch of musicians and every 30 minutes they're taking a break — I'm talking about back in the day — to go get high and do whatever they're doing. And they're like, 'How can that guy stay up all night and not do any drugs?'
You are working on a Broadway musical now. You talk in the doc about being told to throw out songs. So now this control freak has to give up some control. How is that?
On your ego?
It just goes against the grain of my natural being. My natural being is to be a control freak. But Broadway is more of a collaborative process than anything else I've ever been around. You don't get to call the shots. They say you have to be prepared to throw out your best song. And I've actually done that and it hurts. You're like 'This is the best song in the whole thing.' 'Yeah, well it doesn't fit' and that's the end of the story; the director is God.
It sounds like it's fun for you now?
It's a challenge. It's great. I mean, I can't make top 40 music anymore. I get that. I've always known my limits and my boundaries, and I've always known where I belong in the music business. So I retreat and attack in another direction.