SIEDAH GARRETT : BEHIND THE MIRROR WITH THE MAN IN THE MIRROR
By PAUL ZOLLO
Hard to believe it’s been more than two decades since “Man In The Mirror” was born. This is a little journey back to that time. It’s a tribute to the legend that was then and always will be Michael Jackson. And to the songwriters who wrote this anthem for him.
It was Fall of 1987, and I had just recently succeeded in convincing the fine folks at the National Academy of Songwriters to appoint me as editor of what was then essentially a newsletter and calendar of events, SongTalk. My aim from the start was to invite the world’s greatest songwriters to sit down for in-depth interviews about the art and craft of songwriting. As we had virtually no advertising and because we published on newsprint, we had ample space for long conversations.
For my first issue I scored an interview with the legendary Frank Zappa, but was notified quickly that his face should not grace our cover, as he was deemed too politically charged of a figure for what was to be the debut of our new magazine.
We were in the enthralling wake of Michael Jackson’s astounding Thriller. The world was, of course, entranced and enraptured by the pure passion that was Michael, and songwriters were tuned into the fact that in addition to being maybe the greatest performer this country has known, he had also become a seriously great songwriter. So I started politely pestering, as was my way, Miko Brando – Marlon’s son and Michael’s main man – to arrange an interview with Michael that would focus only on his songs and songwriting. It wasn’t to be. I even called Michael’s lawyers and folks at Quincy Jones’ office, all of whom were impressed by our chutzpah in even asking, but none of whom – with Miko always the sweetest and most apologetic – who could set up the interview.
We knew MJ had been working on the follow-up to Thriller, again to be produced by Quincy, and word came through that Michael had cut a song by a beautiful woman and amazing vocalist named Siedah Garrett, who co-wrote, with the then unknown Glen Ballard, “Man In The Mirror.” Siedah also sang a duet with MJ on his song “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” I quickly surmised, not entirely accurately, that Siedah would become a blazing star, and if we could get her for SongTalk early on – and be our cover story – we could get a jump on what would surely be a stellar career.
Glen Ballard, as students of songwriting and pop music already know, went onto enormous success as a co-writer and producer with Alanis Morrisette on her first albums, as well as many other projects. He wrote the music for “Man In The Mirror” and Siedah, who also adds her distinctive vocal sound to MJ’s record of the song, wrote the words. She was already famous for her own vocals and for her great gift at arranging vocals. She got her start when Quincy Jones picked her out of about 800 hopefuls to sing with his group Deco; she sang the lead on the dance hit “Do You Want It Right Now.” She also sang and arranged vocals on Madonna’s True Blue album, and started churning out great songs she wrote herself for such artists as Kenny Loggins, The Pointer Sisters and Donna Summers.
But her biggest break came when Quincy told her that MJ needed songs for his next album. She and Glen got to work, knowing they needed something that not only sounded like a hit – something with the luminous musical magnitude of a song Michael could make his own – but something with a lyric of substance. Together they created a song that would forever be linked with Michael; he loved it so much that it is the only song lyric to be quoted on the album. Not the whole song, but the line, “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”
Michael was not only stunned by the song, but also by the soulful beauty of Siedah’s voice on the demo (indeed, she sings the song with as much passion and purity of intention as Michael would also inject into it), that he immediately enlisted her, and not other notables being considered (such as Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston) to sing a duet with him on his song “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” She also was to learn that Michael wanted her to personally guide his vocal sessions for “Man In The Mirror” as he wanted to sing it like she did on the demo. (The following year, she, Glen and Michael co-wrote the song “Keep The Faith.”)
So I succeeded in arranging an interview with both Siedah and Glen – it took place in a sunny office at Warner Brothers’ Burbank headquarters, where I was to conduct scores of interviews. We also did a cover-photo shoot with Siedah, in which the photographer suggested we blow bubbles into the shot, which we did – with the lovely Siedah jumping and exclaiming, “I got a song on the new Michael Jackson album!” And the great thing about her, among which there were many, was that she was genuine – as excited as a child at what, for a songwriter, was not unlike winning the lottery. It was a dream come true.
Here, more than two decades since that moment, is my interview with Siedah; an interview with Glen Ballard will be in the next edition of Bluerailroad.
Bluerailroad: How does it feel to be thrust so thoroughly and intensely into the spotlight?
Siedah Garrett: It is amazing. I’ve been thrust into the limelight so quickly. This level of media attention is so new to me. Like I never go shopping anymore. I never have time to go to lunch. My time isn’t my own anymore. I’m very busy doing stuff like this, and writing and recording.
“Man In The Mirror” has a long, rich melody. It has four sections – the verse, chorus, bridge and tag. Did you and Glen write it all at once?
Actually, yes. It all came at once. Usually it goes in stages. We have an initial writing session in which we come up with all these ideas and deviations of ideas from musical variations. And we Also start a lyric idea from that point. Then I take it home and embellish the lyric and Glen embellishes the music. Then we meet again and put all the parts together.
Where did the title come from?
I had it for about a year. I have a book and when I hear things that I like, I write it down. I keep a pad in my car at all times.
When I go to Glen’s house, I’ll listen to what he has to play me and I’ll leaf through my book at these titles that I’ve written or collected. And if anything else catches my attention that works well with his music, we’ll use it.
When you came up with that phrase – “Man In The Mirror” – did you know how you would use it in a song?
Yes. When that title came to me, I already knew the concept behind the whole song.
Did you write it with Michael in mind?
Yes. Quincy [Jones] asked me for anything from a funk-groove street song to a ballad. So I figured I pretty much had free rein.
I know you met with Michael then – had he heard the song first?
Yes. We had the demo of the song done on a Friday evening. Knowing that Quincy Jones’ offices were going to be closed until Monday, I called [Quincy] and said, “I can’t wait until Monday.” He told me to bring the tape over. I did. Four hours later – four hours! – he called me. He said, “Baby, the song is great. It’s really good. But– ” I said, “But what?” And he said, “I don’t know. I’ve been playing songs for Michael for two years. And he has yet to accept an outside song.”
Three days later I got a call from Quincy and he told me that Michael loved the song and wanted to cut it. I screamed! Couldn’t believe it.
Then he said that Michael had a great idea for the background; he’s gonna have the Winans and Andre Crouch an a choir. Then he said, “And I might be able to squeeze you in on that. I said, “Q Babe! Thanks!” [Laughs]
A few days before the session I got a call from Quincy. He told me Michael wanted to extend the bridge and needed some new lyrics for it. And he was trying to tell me the message that should be in these new lyrics. He would say, “Michael wants so-and-so,” and then, in the background I would hear, [softly and high-pitched] “Mmmrrrmmrr…” And it was Michael, you know?
This went on for a little while, with Quincy translating for Michael. Finally, Quincy says, “Hold on,” and puts Michael Jackson on the phone, right? I’m home cooking dinner, right? And inside I’m like “OMIGOD!! It’s MICHAEL JACKSON!!” But on the phone I’m like [softly and coolly], “Yes, Michael?” Really cool, you know?
He said, “I love your song and I think you have a great voice.”
I said, “Wow. Thanks! Thanks for doing it, dude!” [Laughs]
So Michael tells me what he wants and I take off to find the answer to his dilemma in the bridge. I came up with three different ideas for the part. But then the song turned out to be long anyway, that they never used it. So it’s pretty much as it was in demo form with the exception of the key change.
Often key-changes are corny, but this one works so well, especially at it arrives on the word “Change.”
That’s it! It does really work. It’s such a lift.
How does it feel that a song about changing your life has so profoundly changed your life?
It is ironic, isn’t it? I can’t tell you how happy I am. I’m a happy puppy. Things are going so right. My plan was nowhere near this grand. God’s plan is great!
Speaking of God, I understand that when Michael asked you where you got the idea for the song, you said you asked God for it.
My answer to him was that “I asked for it.” I didn’t mention God because I didn’t know where he was as far as religion goes. But he knew who I was talking about. I didn’t ask my neighbor George for it!
And you did ask God – that is the truth?
It’s God’s honest truth! I said, “I want to write a song for Michael Jackson.” Since I wanted Michael to know who I was, I was thinking in my mind, “What can I say to him that he wouldn’t be afraid to say to the rest of the world?” And this song came through. [Claps hands and laughs.]
When did he ask you to sing the duet with him?
It came as a total surprise. Quincy called me after I had worked with him doing the background vocals for “Man In The Mirror” to come back to the studio to do more work.
But when I got there, I was surprised to discover that there was nobody else in the studio but Quincy, Michael and me. And the song they were working on wasn’t “Man In The Mirror.” It was a song that Quincy had given me a tape to learn. But I had no idea – I do lots of vocals on demos for Quincy, so this was nothing unusual.
So Quincy said, “You got the tape, right? Did you learn the song?”
I said, “Sure, I know the song.”
He said, “Well, go in there and sing it.”
I go into the booth: there’s two music stands. Michael Jackson is standing at one of them in front of a microphone and there’s another microphone for me. This is the first time I realized what was happening. On the sheet music it said, “Michael, Siedah, Michael, Siedah, etc.” I said, “Wow! I get it.”
Well, when you got the demo tape of it – was Michael singing it?
Yeah. I should have known that something was strange because, of course, I know Michael’s voice. But I didn’t put it together.
Did you and Michael do the vocals at the same time or overdub?
We did them together. It was exciting. But see, Michael is funny. He has a real keen sense of humor. Which surprised me, because you hear all these stories about how strange he is. I guess he felt relaxed with me because I wasn’t in awe of him when we met. I was kind of, “Yo, Michael, what’s up?” I think he found that refreshing.
No weird behavior on his part at all?
Well, if I was talking to Quincy and we were serious for some reason, Michael would toss cashews and peanuts at us. I would be talking to Quincy and these peanuts would fly by. [Laughs]
You know, the duet is a very serious love song. And when I was doing my verse, Michael was making these faces ar me so that I would mess up. Quincy would say, “Siedah – come on! You’re holding up the whole album!” And I would get in trouble!
Another time I came into the studio expecting to be alone with Michael.
And there were all these people there – technicians and film people. Maybe 50 of them. They were doing a documentary on the making of Bad. And his monkey was there. Bubbles. I walked into the studio and the monkey walks over to me and walks up my leg and rests on my hip. It was weird.
Then I removed the monkey [laughs] and these two guys opened this enormous metal box, taller than I am. It was the snake. And this guy had a piece of the snake as big as my thigh! I didn’t want to see the rest of it so I excused myself.
Michael came into the room where I saw and said [softly and high-pitched], “I noticed that when they brought out Muscles that you left.”
I said, “I’m just not into snakes.”
And he said, “Aw, you just chicken.”
I said, “Yes I am. When I see snakes, I think of handbags, belts and shoes, you know?” [Laughs]
I understand when Michael heard the demo of you singing “Man In The Mirror,” he said he wanted to sing it like you.
That was such a high compliment. We’d finished the part we had to fix on the duet so I was getting ready to leave. I was packing up and he said, “Where you goin’?”
I said, “Aren’t we done? Isn’t this history, dude?”
He said, “No. We’re getting ready to do ‘Man In The Mirror’ and I need you to stay because I want to sing it like you.” It was great. I stayed. It was like I was producing.
Was Quincy leading the sessions – or was Michael equally involved in producing?
When I was there, Michael was doing vocals so he wasn’t producing. It’s hard to produce your own vocals. I don’t know how it was when I wasn’t there.
Did you see how Michael prepared vocally for the sessions?
Yes. He spends two hours with Seth Riggs [the vocal coach].
Unfortunately, at $50 an hour, Seth is a little out of my range.
Did you know that your duet with Michael on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” was to be the first single off the album?
They didn’t tell me until a couple of days later. Quincy said he listened to the song with his eyes closed and he couldn’t tell who was who – me and Michael. He said that made him a little nervous. So I went back and changed my parts a little bit. I didn’t plan to sound like him, you know. I wanted to sound like me !
When you and Glen wrote “Man In The Mirror,” did you grasp how important, how special, it was?
Yes. I knew it was special. So did Glen. You kind of know. But I wasn’t sure that anybody else would like it. That’s where politics and timing all come in.
But I had a very good feeling about it the day we wrote it. When I left Glen’s house the day we wrote it, we hugged each other and we said, “Man, there’s something about this one.” We knew it.