David Foster doesn’t write top 40 hits these days and he’s OK with that
|Toronto Star 09 Feb 2019 at 10:46|
As someone who, in popular-music terms, definitely qualifies as a bit of an “old dog,” David Foster has been remarkably adept at teaching himself new tricks over a career that dates back to playing backup for Ronnie Hawkins and Chuck Berry as a teenager during the mid-1960s.
These days, however, the Victoria-born songwriter, producer, composer and occasional “reality” TV star — who’s served a key role in the superstar successes of Céline Dion, Chicago, Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli and Michael Bublé, to name but a few — admits he’s not feeling it in the studio anymore. He has, for the moment at least, run out of new tricks.
Hence the announcement earlier this week of Foster’s first-ever Canadian tour , a 10-city jaunt that will touch down in Toronto environs three times in June: at Roy Thomson Hall on June 4, at Kitchener’s Centre in the Square on June 6 and at Casino Rama on June 7. Considering it had been nine years since he’d last hit the road before last year’s “An Intimate Evening with David Foster: The Hitman Tour” in the U.S. — a survey of his vast catalogue of soft-rock hits as interpreted by vocalists Pia Toscano, Shelea Frazier and Fernando Varela — this counts as an uncharacteristic burst of live activity on his part. But that’s sort of the point.
Foul-mouthed pop star LP swears she didn’t know ‘Lost on You’ was a life-changing hit
“But I’ve got nothing else to do. Maybe you’re a little too young to relate to this — you’re not my age, anyway — but do you ever go through periods where you just kind of get bored with yourself and what you’re doing? Like, you sit down to write a story and you go, ‘I know every trick of mine. I’m just using the same tricks.’ And so, every decade or two decades or so, you sort of reinvent your tricks.
“I like to think that leaving the studio before it leaves you is a good thing to do, rather than being forced out. So, with things still on the plate that I could have done in the studio, it was a good time just to (leave). Maybe it’s a hiatus, maybe it’s ‘never go back.’ But for now, I’m uninspired in the studio.”
The Hitman Tour grew out of Foster’s long history of acting as a “ringmaster” convening the innumerable high-profile musical and celebrity connections in his Rolodex for all-star charity events, in particular those that have been raising money for his own David Foster Foundation , a 33-year-old charity that assists the families of Canadian children awaiting life-saving organ transplants in covering the crippling non-medical expenses typically involved in such a dire situation. As it turns out, uber-producer Foster has learned, accidentally through applied philanthropy, that he’s reasonably comfortable taking on the modified role of “producer” onstage while still managing to shirk the spotlight.
The timing of the forthcoming Canadian tour couldn’t be better, then. Foster will receive the 2019 Humanitarian Award at the Juno Awards in London, Ont., next month, in recognition of his support for more than 400 different charities over the years but, first and foremost, for the help the David Foster Foundation has given to families that might have otherwise gone bankrupt or fallen apart due to the financial and emotional stresses that result when a child needs an organ transplant.
Foster could have got behind any cause — his father died at 54 of a heart attack and suffered from “very bad” arthritis, he reflects, so he might logically have directed his efforts thusly — but the Foster Foundation went the way it has primarily due to a decision “my mother made for me” when she asked him all those years ago to visit a 5-year-old girl in need of a liver transplant who was from Victoria and living in Los Angeles — for no reason other than he was also a Canadian from Victoria living in Los Angeles.
“I asked her what she wanted and she said, ‘I want to see my sister’ because she was in L.A. and her sister was back in Victoria and I put the two of them together, which was an easy thing to do for a $100 airline ticket,” says Foster. “And she didn’t make it. But she got to see her sister, and that was more important to her than going to Disneyland or meeting whoever the hero of the day was, and that just got me going.”
After setting itself the “ridiculous” goal of putting $30 million in the bank by its 30th anniversary and actually hitting the target, the David Foster Foundation is now intent on raising a $50-million endowment that would allow it to live on in perpetuity. Sooner rather than later.
“And we’ll get there,” says Foster, whose next scheduled event is a luxurious four-day getaway on Vancouver Island July 29 to Aug. 1. “I have, thankfully, a lot of wealthy friends. We’re gonna do one in Los Angeles and we are going to pull out all the stops and drill down on all my rich friends. I have no shame when it comes to this.”
As to the next step in his professional career, the advice of Foster’s early mentor, Toronto rock-’n’-roll legend Ronnie Hawkins — “who I love and learned so much from” — is always first and foremost in his mind: “Retreat and attack from another direction.’”
He’s currently working on four musicals that, he hopes, will ultimately be bound for Broadway. One of them is a compendium of his own songs that “a very reputable writer” has organized into a narrative, which is now at the reading and workshopping stage.
The allure of Broadway, says Foster, is that “you have to write a good song but not a Top 40 song.”
“Music is obviously a youth-driven business. But I’ve done those two things — retreated and attacked from another direction — a couple of times and I’ve always been prepared for the fact that I won’t be able to write Top 40 hits one day, I won’t be able to do so-and-so one day. I’ve always prepared for that.
“I know singers who are so shocked when they put a record out and it’s not a hit because they’ve been so used to having hits, but it’s inevitable. You can’t name me an exception of somebody who can have a hit record at age 20 and have a hit record at age 70. Yes, Elton John still makes some good records, but he’s not getting on Top 40 radio … I’ve never spoken to him about it, but I think Elton was probably always prepared for that. He went into Broadway, he did The Lion King and he’s got so many other things going on, so it wasn’t a shock to him and it didn’t shock his system,” Foster says.
“And it’s kind of the same with me. It doesn’t shock me that I stopped being able to write Top 40 hits at the end of, you know, the last century — at the start of the 2000s — and so then I retreated and attacked from another direction. I found Josh Groban and I found Michael Bublé and I hooked up with Andrea Bocelli and had this beautiful musical run that didn’t include Top 40. Television became our radio and we sold a sh-- ton of CDs, probably more than most of the people who were on the radio, probably a couple hundred million albums between all of them. I don’t want to say we had the last laugh, but it worked beautifully.”