MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of an album that changed pop music forever.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRILLER")
MARTIN: "Thriller" was released on November 30th, 1982. Since then, it has sold 110 million copies worldwide and it sparked Michael Jackson's rise from superstar to legend.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRILLER")
MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) You try to scream, but terror takes the sound before you make it.
MARTIN: It also led to collaborations with artists who would go on to great careers of their own. One of them is Siedah Garrett. She was already making a name for herself as a singer and songwriter in her own right, but her work with the king of pop on his follow-up album, "Bad," brought her fame with a song that she wrote for Jackson, "Man in the Mirror."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN IN THE MIRROR")
JACKSON: (Singing) Going to make a change for once in my life. Going to feel real good. Going to make a difference. Going to make it right. As I turned up the collar on my favorite winter coat, this wind is blowing my mind.
MARTIN: And the rest, as they say, is history. Siedah Garrett went on to win a Grammy Award and two Oscar nominations for her songs and Siedah Garrett is with us now.
Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
SIEDAH GARRETT: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: You know, I came across this funny clip of you and this is something that I think people can relate to. You were talking to a tour group and you talk about the fact that you and your sisters grew up listening to Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five.
MARTIN: And each one of you had one that you were going to be married to.
MARTIN: And Michael was your husband. I'm sorry.
GARRETT: That was my husband. Yes.
MARTIN: I'm sorry. You're wrong. He was my husband. I'm sorry.
MARTIN: I'm sorry. You've got that wrong, but...
GARRETT: Maybe he was your third husband, but he was - yeah. Man, we all had our favorites and Michael was mine.
MARTIN: Well, you know, but I wanted to ask you about that. Do you remember - and particularly now, from the standpoint of being a singer and songwriter yourself - what it is about them that made them just, kind of, hook into your consciousness and the fact that - I'm sure that people listening to this will remember. Yeah, I thought that, too. What was it about them and that group and him?
GARRETT: Well, for me, it was like I grew up where there weren't very many black people on TV, so that's what started it for me. And, of course, the music was part of the soundtrack to my life, as well.
MARTIN: What about "Thriller?" Do you remember? Do you have a specific "Thriller" memory?
GARRETT: "Thriller" was the first time I started looking at who wrote the songs. And Rod Temperton came to my attention and I realized that I'd been listening to him my whole life, from - you know, he was in the group, Heat Wave. And I always thought they were all black people. You know, Rod is like from Worms, Germany and he's like the whitest white guy you ever want to meet if you saw him, but if you sat him down at the piano, he becomes the most soulful brother you've ever met in your life.
So he brought my attention to songwriters,l and I just really enjoyed his craftsmanship as a songwriter and it made me pay attention to it.
MARTIN: Yeah. I wanted to ask a little bit more about that. Was there something on that album that opened something up for you as a songwriter?
GARRETT: Everything on that record.
GARRETT: Everything. It was like the only other record that I had this feeling about where I could drop the needle anywhere and listen to it from front to back over and over again was "Off the Wall," which is also mostly Rod Temperton. I mean, he's just awesome and I just - he's one of my dearest friends to this day.
MARTIN: So let's talk about "Man in the Mirror."
MARTIN: Of course, which was from "Bad."
MARTIN: Can I play a little bit of that? And I happen to have a tape from the original demo of "Man in the Mirror."
MARTIN: And I will play a little bit of that. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN IN THE MIRROR")
GARRETT: (Singing) As I turn up the collar on my favorite winter coat, this wind is blowing my mind. I see the kids in the street, not enough to eat. Who am I to the blind?
MARTIN: That's you.
MARTIN: That is you.
GARRETT: That is what made Michael want to meet me, like, who's singing this and who wrote this?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN IN THE MIRROR")
GARRETT: (Singing) That's why I'm starting with me. I'm starting with the man in the mirror. I'm asking him to change his ways. No message could have been any clearer. If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself.
MARTIN: Did you have it in your mind that it would be for Michael Jackson?
GARRETT: Absolutely. Earlier that week, I had gone to a meeting that Quincy had had with his small group of songwriters signed to his label, and he sort of mapped out what he wanted us to try and come up with to finish what we now know as the "Bad" album. And, you know, he gave us some parameters and some guidelines, and I took notes and went to Glen's house a few days later and we just sort of sat down. And he said, well, let's just see what we come up with. He just kind of literally just shrugged his shoulders and said, well, let's see. And he got up to go to the keyboard to get some sounds to start with and he started playing these chords (humming) doom, doom-doom, doom, doom, doom, doom, doom-doom-doom.
Cut to two years earlier, I was at a songwriting session with my dear friend Mr. John Beasley, amazing jazz pianist, and we were in the middle of writing this song and his phone rang. And instead of letting the answering machine pick it up, he just picked up the phone and began this very benign, casual conversation. And I was like, I'm flipping through my lyric book like seething, going - inside I'm going, no, he is not just taking a casual phone call while we are trying to create something magic here. No, he's - I'm just like seething. And I hear him say: The man. What man? Oh, the man in the mirror. So for some reason I wrote down the phrase man in the mirror. Two years later I'm at Glen's house. He gets up to turn on the keyboard and starts playing these chords and I'm flipping through the book again and that phrase, man in the mirror, literally popped up at me and I just started writing. I was writing feverishly. I couldn't - I couldn't write fast enough. It just came pouring out. And in like 10, 12 minutes we had the first verse and chorus to "Man in the Mirror" and then Friday evening we had the song finished, but by then the Quest Publishing offices were closed. So I felt the need to call Quincy Jones and say, Q, Glenn and I came up with this really great song. He said great. Take it to Quest Publishing on Monday, I'll hear it, blah, blah, blah. And I said Quincy, I can't, I can't, please let me drop off this cassette. And he said, all right, all right, just, just come over. So I gave him the cassette and I just said, Quincy, just let me know one way or the other. I just want, I just want - he said, all right, all right. So a couple hours later he calls me and he says, Sid, this is the best song that I've heard in 10 years.
GARRETT: So then Quincy says, well, we've been in the studio with Michael for two and a half years and he has yet to record a song he didn't write, and I don't know, I don't know. And so I just had to let that go. I just had to let it go. Couple of days later he calls me and he says, Sid, we're in the studio recording your old piece of song. I'm like, yes! Yes!
And then he says, Michael loves the song but - and I go, oh my god. So he said, Michael really wants you to - he says the chorus is too short. He needs a few more lines in the chorus. And he says hold - hold on a minute. And I hear (unintelligible). And Quincy says - and Michael really wants you to drive home the - hold on, Sid. And then I hear (unintelligible). And Quincy, hold on a minute, Sid. And then Quincy Jones puts Michael Jackson on the phone. But I didn't want to come off like a fan, a fanatic. Oh my god, Michael. I didn't want to be crying, oh my god, Michael Jackson. I love you so much. I didn't want to be that. So I went strictly telephone operator. I was like, hello, how can I help you.
GARRETT: Right? So Michael says, you know, I love your voice and I love this song. And then he starts telling me what he wants to say in the next four lines. And so all I could think about is I want to have the next four lines in this song, I want him to pick what I write. So I wrote six different stanzas and the one he chose, obviously, was you got to get it right while you got the time, 'cause when you close your heart then you close your mind.
MARTIN: We're speaking with Grammy-winning Oscar-nominated singer-songwriter Siedah Garrett. We're talking about her work with the king of pop, Michael Jackson. And we're also talking about her own career.
You know, even though you didn't write it, the song that you actually sang on "Bad"...
MARTIN: ...was "I Just Can't Stop Loving You."
MARTIN: And we're going to hear a little bit of that in a minute.
MARTIN: But I understand that there's actually a funny story about how you came to be that singer. Can you just tell us that story?
GARRETT: Oh, it was - we had finished with the choir and everything and all the vocals for "Man in the Mirror," and then a couple of days later we were back in the studio and I thought we were going to do more work on that song, but that wasn't the song that was playing in the studio, so I just decided to sit back and chill. I was knitting, Quincy sort of talking to me over his shoulder, saying, do you like this song that's playing? And I sort of look up towards the heavens, I go, yeah, yes, nice song. He said, well, can you sing it? I'm like, yeah. So I put my knitting down and I go into the booth and I hear Quincy, he says, Siedah, go in the vocal booth. Michael, go on in there with Siedah. And Michael is following me. And I go into the booth and I see two mic stands, two music stands, two lyric sheets. And on the lyric sheet that I'm looking at it says, "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," Michael, Siedah, Michael, Siedah. And it was, Michel, it was in that moment that I realized, oh my god, I'm doing a duet with the king of pop. Lord have mercy. Help me, Jesus. But he was so cool and I found it so refreshing. When we sang the duet and I toured with him for a year and a half, it was like every night he was singing this love song to me.
MARTIN: Well, you also got the sense that he really seemed to value the collaboration and really seemed to value the collaboration with other artists. And I just want to play a short clip from the documentary "This Is It," where you were together a month before he died, tragically...
MARTIN: ...and you were rehearsing "I Just Can't Stop Loving You." Part of that was captured in the documentary "This Is It," and I just want to play a short clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I JUST CAN'T STOP LOVING YOU")
GARRETT: (Singing) I hear your voice now. You are my choice now. The love you bring. Heaven's in my heart. At your call I hear harps and angels sing.
SIEDAH GARRETT AND MICHAEL JACKSON: You know how I feel. This thing can't go wrong. I can't live my life without...
MARTIN: There's this moment when the two of you are singing and there are members of the crew that are watching and it seems as though - how can I put this - it's almost like he's performing for you all. Does that make sense?
GARRETT: Absolutely. And we were for him, 'cause we wanted to - it's like - and with Quincy Jones as well. Everyone that works with him wants to give him the best that they have to give, and he appreciated that.
MARTIN: I just want to emphasize, your career did not end there. You went on to write songs for movies, two that were nominated for Oscars.
GARRETT: Yes, child.
MARTIN: "Love You, I Do" for "Dreamgirls," and "Real in Rio" from the film...
GARRETT: That's a world record, you know.
MARTIN: What's a world record?
GARRETT: I'm the only artist in history - black American female artist - to have ever been twice nominated for her lyrics in a major motion picture film.
MARTIN: But speaking as an artist, I'm interested in how you've balanced that for yourself over the years - between someone whose written so successfully for other artists and been so recognized for the work that you've given to other artists, but also for your own work. But would you think it's fair to say that I think your work as a songwriter has probably gotten more recognition...
GARRETT: More play, yeah. Absolutely.
MARTIN: More, yeah - than the songs that you've recorded for yourself.
MARTIN: And does that bother you?
GARRETT: It did for a long time, you know, when I was really struggling to be an artist in my own right. In fact, I rehearsed for the "Bad" tour for a week before I was convinced by my record label and others that I should be making my own record, because the duet was out and "Man In The Mirror" was coming out, but that - it did not work. I dropped out of the "Bad" tour a week after rehearsing and Sheryl Crow took my place and the rest is her-story(ph).
MARTIN: That is true. We talked to her about that. She talked about that. Although for her, again, that was not the best fit. She talked about, you know, singing in a tight black dress wasn't really her thing either, you know, so...
GARRETT: Oh, I didn't mind that part.
MARTIN: Well, what's making you happy now? What's making you excited and happy these days.
GARRETT: Life makes me happy. The joy of being free to write a song or talk to some kids about the craft of songwriting. I just have so many areas that I can explore. And when I feel sort of stuck or locked in one place, I can always branch out into another area of creativity, which allows me to just not feel stuck in any way.
MARTIN: You recently wrote a tribute song for Michael Jackson...
MARTIN: ...called "Keep On Loving You." What made you want to write this song right about now?
GARRETT: Well, it's been a couple of years after his passing and it's just sort of settled in that he's gone and there's not as much pain in my thoughts about him not being here anymore. It's more like gratitude for having met him and known him in the way that I did, and realizing that there aren't too many people that can say that, which makes me feel really special and honored that he allowed me in like that, you know what I mean?
MARTIN: Well, let's play it. Let's hear some of the song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP ON LOVIN' YOU")
GARRETT: (Singing) I know I was nervous. If you were feeling nervous too, I didn't have a clue. But you were the real thing and I found it so refreshing, you, it turned out to be so cool. Yeah. I remember like yesterday everything you showed me and all the things you used to say. I loved you...
I wrote that because I never got a chance to express to him how I felt about having met him and what I was going through when I was first introduced him and how I felt every night when he sang that song to me onstage. It was like our love song, and I wanted to write an answer to that love song. It was my tribute to him.
MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, is there any wisdom that you want to pass on to somebody who might want to follow in your footsteps - not that that's possible, but...
GARRETT: Well, the thing that's most important is flexibility and persistence. I mean that's 80 percent, 90 percent of the game right there. If you can hang in there, if you can do more than one thing well - the more things that you do well, the more valuable you are and the more freedom you have to move about other areas of creativity and expression. And that's powerful, that's a powerful place to be.
MARTIN: Siedah Garrett is an Oscar-nominated Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter. She was kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, California.
MARTIN: Siedah Garrett, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations to you on everything
GARRETT: Thank you, Michel. Thanks for having me. NPR rocks.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP ON LOVIN' YOU")
GARRETT: (Singing) Forever alive in my mind. I'm playing like the soundtrack from another life and time.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.