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David Foster: Timeless Hits and the Complexities of Artistic Success

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By Karen Bliss 

 

Canadian producer David Foster, whose long list of credits include Andrea Bocelli, Celine Dion, Josh Groban, Christina Aguilera, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston, is, we all know, also a top-selling songwriter, inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and American Songwriters Hall of Fame. He has also been nominated three times for an Oscar for Best Original Song.

 

The well-decorated Canadian has also received the country’s highest honours for a citizen, the Order of Canada and the officer of the Order of Canada. He has also been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and Canada’s Walk of Fame and recognized by the U.S. industry with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In his collection, he has six JUNO Awards, 16 Grammy Awards, an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe.

 

Among his song credits are “After the Love Has Gone,” “I Have Nothing,” “Look What You’ve Done to Me,” “The Prayer” and “You’re the Inspiration.” He also co-wrote “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion” and the charity single “Tears Are Not Enough.”

 

In 1982, on September 11, he landed a No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 with Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” which he penned with the band’s singer Peter Cetera. It remained in the top spot for two weeks and went platinum by the end of that year (1 million copies).

 

The monstrous power ballad was notoriously produced without the group’s trademark horns and also featured himself and some session musicians on multiple instruments. The 2019 documentary, David Foster: Off the Record, directed by fellow Canadian Barry Avrich, gets into the contentious relationship Foster had with Chicago. 

 

In an interview with this reporter for Billboard, Foster says he doesn’t know when his hands-on approach as a producer interferes with an artist’s integrity, personality, or character of the music.

 

“I know that I pounce on the weak artists, and I fight with the strong artists,” he says. “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.”

 

In the film, Celine Dion said of Foster that “he makes songs that live forever.” He told Billboard, “I’m not interested in selling three records. I want to sell to the masses.”

 

Asked if he equates success with sales, he says yes. “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,” Foster answers.

 

“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 so 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 is because I’ve had more failures than anybody else.’ So I like that.”

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