Women’s Music Summit Front and Center: Songwriter, Producer and Musician Holly Knight

The WiMN’s Front and Center is a weekly column that showcases accomplished women who work in the music and audio industries. We spotlight successful female performers, manufacturers, retailers, educators, managers, publicists, and everyone else in between. Want to be featured? Learn how here

Throughout July we’ll be featuring artists who are making an appearance at our upcoming Women’s Music Summit

Front and Center: Songwriter, Producer and Musician Holly Knight

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Holly Knight is a musician, producer, and songwriting legend.

She has written songs for an impressive roster of artists (Aerosmith, Heart, Cheap Trick, and more) – songs that have stood the test of time and that recently earned her a deserving spot in the 2013 Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.

She is an trailblazing woman with an indomitable spirit, and an inspiring figure to follow. It is our privilege to introduce you to none other than Holly Knight.

Visit her website here, and meet her in person at the Women’s Music Summit.

WiMN: What attracted you to music as a child?

HK: My mother was taking classical piano lessons when I was four (unsuccessfully), and I used to listen to her teacher play. When he left and my mom would leave the room, I would sit down and pick out the music by ear. That’s my first memory. I knew that music was something I loved, so when my mom figured out that I might actually have some talent, she asked me if I wanted to take piano lessons. Thats when the gates of heaven opened up for me.

I would get up early and play before and after school. In fact, I was one of those rarities where the parents would ask me to take a break and stop practicing so much, LOL. In addition to that, there was a lot of music – all kinds – being played in our home growing up.

WiMN: Who were some of your biggest influences early on?

HK: My earliest influences were a potpourri of different genres. There was classical; Broadway musicals (of the Lerner & Loewe and Rodgers & Hammerstein variety); ethnic music like Ravi Shankar, Greek and French music; ska; Frank Sinatra; and then at around eight years old I discovered rock – and the louder the better.

I think the first two records I bought were a Supremes record and a single by Sam The Sham and The Pharaohs titled “Wooly Bully.” Then there were the obvious influences: The Beatles, The Stones, The Doors, Todd Rundgren, Led Zeppelin, etc. I even loved music like the Mamas and The Papas; The Carpenters; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Frank Zappa; Joni Mitchell and anything that Burt Bacharach wrote. Later on I loved groups like Aerosmith and especially Queen.

WiMN: What was your first big hit? How do you remember the experience?

HK: My first big hit was “Better Be Good To Me” (Tina Turner/Private Dancer). “Love Is a Battlefield” also came out shortly thereafter. It was so awesome to hear my songs on the radio and all over MTV at a time when MTV was just being born. Maybe I had not completely “arrived” yet, but at least I got to play ball in the big leagues as opposed to little league!! It’s a lot different than writing and never getting your songs released or heard. There’s nothing like the thrill of success when you’ve really put your passion and soul into something and people take it in and dig it.

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To this day I get excited any time I hear one of my tunes in a supermarket, on TV, the radio, the internet; it’s all validating. When you have a worldwide hit, you feel like you’re stretching your arms around the world and reaching hearts and minds that really aren’t a whole lot different from yours :-).

WiMN: Do you ever write songs with a specific artist in mind? If so, can you share an example?

HK: Of course ! Well, when I have worked with an artist before it helps and that gives me a clearer picture to write something that I think they’ll like, but I’m not always right, haha. With Tina that was a great advantage and she ended up cutting nine tunes of mine. I knew she wanted to sing rock even though in later years her style softened a lot, but I also knew she wasn’t keen on singing the blues (lyrically). Once in a while she did if it was someone else’s tunes. She never wanted to be depicted as a victim, rather more of a dignified survivor, so that was a good roadmap for me. The same thing with Benatar when I wrote “Invincible.” At this point I knew what to write for her, something tough, anthemic and vocally demanding.

WiMN: Congratulations on being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame! Tell us about this experience.

HK: It was and continues to be the most amazing honor and experience of my life. It never leaves me now knowing that I’ve joined the ranks of my musical heroes and songwriters that inspired me in so many ways – not just as a songwriter, but as a human being. That’s very validating.

I was touched by how each and every recipient or honoree this year made a point of acknowledging how getting into the Songwriters Hall of Fame meant more to them than any other award, more than a GRAMMY or an Oscar, because this is what is at the heart of most musicians and and singers; songwriting – this is where it all starts.

The event itself was so much fun. It was the best night and probably the most nerve-racking night of my life. It was the best because I really felt like a peer, an equal with all the other rock stars for that one night. I got dressed up and did a lot of interviews, got to hang with Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Sting, Billy Joel, Rob Thomas, Avril Lavigne, Patty Smyth, Natalie Cole, Alison Krauss, Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson. And then there was the “class of 2013 Inductees” Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Mick Jones, Lou Gramm (Foreigner) and J.D. Souther.

For my segment of the event, Patty Smyth came and performed “The Warrior” and then inducted me. I made my acceptance speech (that was the nerve-racking part because I didn’t want to read off the teleprompter and I wanted it to come from the heart, hence there was no room for fuckups), and then I performed “Love Is A Battlefield” (closer to how it was originally intended, and that’s not to take away anything from Benatar’s version). It was a very sentimental and sweet night, a lot of hugging, and apparently it broke the attendance record from previous shows.

Linda Moran, the CEO of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, refers to this year as the “Rock of Ages” year, so I was thrilled to be in this particular group of inductees of rock royalty, especially because I had work with a bunch of them (Steven Tyler, Lou Gramm, Bernie Taupin). It was like a high school reunion only more rock ‘n’ roll.

Interestingly there are 400 inductees over the years and only 16 (myself included) are women! We gotta change that!!!! I hope I can inspire other talented women to pursue songwriting more aggressively.

WiMN: Of all the songs you’ve written, you’ve said the Pat Benatar cut of “Invincible” is your most favorite. Why?

HK: Musically and lyrically it’s a little more outside the box than some of my other songs. I like the empowering lyrical content, yet it’s still anthemic and accessible. I also like the vocal melody. I’ve discovered that those kind of melodies that jump around, yet are good enough to be repeated over and over (the hook, if you will), are my signature style. I also am quite partial to “Love Is A Battlefield.”

We can’t afford to be innocent, stand up and face the enemy, it’s a do or die situation, we will be invincible.” – Lyrics to “Invincible”

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WiMN: You are a producer as well. How did you get involved with that side of things? Can you tell us about some of the projects you are currently involved in?

HK: Well, it’s been said before, it’s still a man’s world, hence not many companies have been willing to hand the reins (budgets and control) over to women as producers because they think women can’t rock or make sonically dazzling records. Especially these days when every single project is micromanaged down to the last minutiae by a committee of business people, not creative musicians and songwriters. As they say, the lunatics are running the asylum.

I can’t speak about other women, but that is not the case with me. I’ve been playing piano and programming synths for decades (more than I care to admit); I’ve been in several recording bands so I know what it is to be in a band; I’ve worked with the best producers and soaked up all I can over the years; I play bass and guitar, and I’m creative. I have a complete vision from the beginning, I understand all the nuances and the attitude. It’s all there in the bin in my head when I start to write. I see the video. I am very visual as well as auditive. So I don’t get it, there’s no heavy lifting here. It doesn’t require testosterone, and sometimes I think women have more balls then men (metaphorically that is). I think men are way more pussies when it comes to the real heavy lifting. I’d like to see them give birth, haha.

Anyway, I have produced many things, and often what happens is the producer they choose ends up asking for my tracks, or the Pro Tools session and then I have my management tell them that that’s only going to happen if I get a co-production credit and get paid.

A few years ago I was sick of not being given the opportunities that other producers (men) were, so I decided to sign an artist, fund the whole thing myself and hire the best musicians and engineers so that sonically it could compete with anything out there.

I recently finished producing Antonia Bennett (Tony Bennett’s daughter from a late marriage). About a month ago, one of the tracks was featured on the season premier of “Necessary Roughness.” If nothing else, I figured it would be a great calling card for me as a producer to show people what I am capable of, and it has really opened a lot of people’s eyes. Now I have A&R people calling me to see if I’d be interested in producing something else. I also just produced a full jazz record with Antonia as well.

There is a new version I just produced and also did a lyric video to of “Love Is A Battlefield.”

The “group” is my personal project called “Story of O,” and features different singers – sort of a revolving door of different guests. It allows me to record whatever I want under the auspices of the “Story of O” umbrella. This version features a new and smoldering singer named Sara Skinner who is 18 and from a little spot in Texas. I’ll be working more with her.

WiMN: Can you share your experience as a woman in the industry? Have there been challenges?

HK: I think I addressed that above, but to expand even further, I’d like to say that as a songwriter it’s been easier to get people to take my phone calls or e-mails because I have a track record now.

In the beginning (back in the ’80s) I was really the only female rock writer having the kind of success I was having, but I was lucky in that I had Mike Chapman who became my songwriting and publishing mentor, and that opened many doors. Now that I’m a “proven entity” as a songwriter, no one is going to question my abilities as a writer, especially now that I’m a Hall Of Famer, haha. I’m sure once I have a massive hit as a producer, just one, then I suspect I’ll be accepted as a producer. It’s just the way the world works.

So here’s the thing – people always ask, “well if no one wants to give me a break because I have no track record, then how am I going to get that first hit that gets my foot in the door so that I DO have a track record?” All I can say is, figure it out. Be creative and relentless and take no prisoners. Find a balance between having tenacity (balls) and being charming, and always keep your eye on the prize.

WiMN: Can you offer any tips or advice for women aspiring to enter the music business?

HK: See above, and PRACTICE. Take your craft seriously, don’t just be mediocre; the cream always rises to the top.

WiMN: What can we expect from your workshop at the Women’s Music Summit?

HK: Great stories, advice, support and tips, simpatico. I’ll be happy to answer questions.

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