Valley music producer and songwriter Gardner Cole is responsible for some of music’s biggest hits, including Madonna’s “Open Your Heart,” which she performed in recent years at the Grammys and Super Bowl. It’s also been featured on television show Glee, and Cole’s thousands of tracks have been on 100 million albums — yes, 100 million. The prolific songwriter isn’t just a hitmaker — he’s also performed with groups a-ha and ABC, as well as had his own solo album deal with Warner Bros. Records.
Now, the 52-year-old Phoenix resident is producing local songwriters, as well as gearing up for charity shows and work in film. Read on for how he got into the music industry and where he hopes to go from here, and watch him name his five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
I bought the house I live in now in ’94 as an investment and met my wife in ’97. I had come out with some friends and loved the proximity to Los Angeles and Vegas. I was living with the Jacksons’ before I moved here, working with Tito and his kids. My wife and I were trying to have this relationship, and it wasn’t working when I was out in L.A. My brother had been living in my house, and I moved him out and moved my wife in.
I was born in Flint, Michigan. I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, and from there, I moved to Los Angeles. I spent time in London working with some groups based in Europe (ABC and a-ha) before moving to Los Angeles to make albums and write songs for Warner Bros. I stayed there for 15 years.
What was it like living with the Jackson family?
They’re such an amazing family and are so much more down-to-earth than people would imagine. They’re very loving and family-oriented. We would do Sunday game nights, and we’d do jam sessions where we’d all play music together. They’re incredible people.
What’s your earliest memory of wanting to be a musician?
I started playing drums when I was 4. I had a neighbor, and I’d go and play his drum set. It got to the point where it was driving him crazy. He finally gave me his drum set when I was 6, probably just to get rid of me.
My grandfather on my mother’s side was a drummer, and his brother was a piano player. They had a jazz club back in Michigan for many years. My father is a second generation musician himself and plays jazz and instruments like vibes, clarinet and saxophone. Genetically, I’m pretty predisposed to it anyway, but I also just love it.
The thing that made me want to do it for a living happened when I was 6 years old and had this little A.M. handheld radio. I was walking home and getting closer to my home, and Grand Funk Railroad came on and started playing, “I’m getting closer to my home,” in “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home).” I made this correlation between life and music. I was like, “This is amazing. Music mimics life, and I want to do this.”
I knew what I wanted to do when I was really young, which is great, because I have a lot of friends my age who still don’t know what they want to do. I was blessed to figure out really young what I wanted to do with my life, and I just made a beeline to do what I loved. I have been blessed to make a living doing it.
Have you ever taken professional lessons?
I took lessons at Berklee College of Music. I was a drummer mainly, but I became a keyboard player. I started playing keyboards in high school, but I took it a lot further at Berklee because I became a piano major. Instead of going in there on drums, which were really easy for me, I went in with a more challenging major, which was piano. It paid off, because it really helped me. Especially in the songwriting department, it opened up a whole new area I could explore musically.
There wasn’t really an impetus to get a degree there, and the teachers are cool, because they’re a lot of working musicians themselves. They told me my songs sounded like hits and were like, “You need to just leave. There’s no reason for you to be here.” They asked me if I wanted to be a music teacher, and because I said no, I wanted to write songs and perform, they said leave. How many schools are cool enough to tell you you’re wasting your money?
I was only there for one year, and they told me I was wasting my time. Back then, it was a bebop school, a jazz school. I had two different teachers tell me to leave and move to New York or L.A. I went to New York for a little while and lived in Queens. I wasn’t feeling it, so I went West because I knew it’d be more relaxed.
Why do you think you were drawn to writing pop music?
Growing up in Flint, Michigan, Motown was a huge influence on everybody because it’s made right there in Detroit. I grew up listening to a lot of Motown. Even the rock that makes it big in Michigan has a certain soul to it. Led Zeppelin was a huge band there, and there’s an undercurrent of soul to Led Zeppelin. Bachman–Turner Overdrive and AC/DC — all those bands are like R&B/blues/rock bands. I just grew up with it and fell in love with pop radio.
I’ve never been afraid of the word “pop.” It just means popular, and if you’re not doing it to be popular, what’s the point? I don’t want to be some starving artist who is trying to make some artistic point. I love it when people know my music. That’s the whole reason I love to do it.
What were your early days in L.A. like?
I was only there for a few months before I got lucky and landed a job working for a play, writing a different score every night. I ended up getting some attention in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety magazines, because no one was doing that at that time, coming up with a completely new score for every performance.
I used the money from that to start a band called Moulin Rogue, which became the biggest band at (L.A. restaurant) Madame Wong’s. We’d play every Friday and Saturday night and became the darlings of (rock radio station) KROQ, and we’d play their parties.
I ended up getting an offer from Dennis Weaver, a TV star, on his label. From there, I moved on to bigger and better venues. I went from this little label called Dreamweaver Records and ended up on Warner Bros.
What was your plan when you moved to Phoenix?
I was happy when I came here to take a bit of a break. I had worked so hard. I’m on 100 million albums as a writer and a producer, and a lot of that was because I was a complete workaholic. I don’t think that could even happen anymore, because that’s not the business model anymore. People don’t place value on songs like they used to. They place more value on seeing the song performed. The industry has changed dramatically.
I took about a year and a half off, and I had a friend who knew I had spent some time in Asia and asked me if I’d be interested in doing some world music projects. The first project he hired me to do was to go to Ireland and work with this artist named Emer Kenny. My wife and I spent a month and a half over there while I produced her album.
I started doing more records for him and started doing more local stuff, more for independent labels. I did a couple of records in Hawaii for a label over there called Mountain Apple.
What’s your typical week like now?
I’m doing more charitable based projects right now, working with guys named Jim Grossman and Austin Vickers, to do fundraising concerts at the Musical Instrument Museum. We’re shooting for the first one to be in spring 2015, and I’m working on getting a really big-name band to play the MIM.
I’m also producing for local artists, like Jane Joyce and Gill Holland. I also score music for film and TV. I scored a movie that showed last Christmas, called Defending Santa, on ION with (actor) Dean Cain. I did some other film music with a local director named Brian Skiba. We’re in the process of putting together a new movie with (actor) Willem Dafoe.
I’m also working on a solo album. I have some friends who are going to put together a video for me to use on a crowdfunding platform, and will record that within the next month or two. The publishing will go through Warner Bros., and the last time I did a solo album was probably in 2001, so this has been really fun. My last major label record was in ’91.
I’m also in the process of creating a film/game and record production company called Dragonfly Media Works. We’re setting up a film fund to produce about five to 10 movies. My focus is moving more toward the film industry, and using my record company to promote our own acts in our films.
Why is working in the film industry appealing to you?
I think media is merging. There’s going to come a time real soon where all our entertainment will be on a tablet and will be Internet-based. I want to get in on that trend early, and it’s already going there.
I think records will go more independent, and artists will control a huge part of our industry, which will get wrestled away from the major labels. It’s already in the process of happening. I think it’s great for independent artists.
When I was making albums in the ‘80s, I got half a million dollars to make my first album, and I spent about 400 thousand of that in hard costs. Making an album was so cost-prohibitive. Now, I can do the same stuff with a $30,000 studio I was doing back then with a million dollar studio, and that allows for exposure to incredible talent that never would have seen the light of day.
It does level the playing field. The major labels used to monopolize everything, to where if you weren’t on a major label, it was really difficult to get heard. That’s not the case anymore. With the Internet, you can have a viral video and become a star overnight. That kind of marketing would have cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars back when I was making records in the ‘80s.
I believe the cream will always rise to the top. The only issue is there’s such a sea of material for people to go through.
What can people expect from your solo album?
It’s a pop album, but there’s a metaphysical undertone to it. I’ve spent a lot of time working on myself spiritually, and I’m not trying to hit anyone over the head with my spirituality, but it creeps into my music. It’s in a way that’s palatable, though. Nobody’s going to choke on it, and it’s in a way that’s appealing to the listener. I’m trying to get it out before Christmas.
What’s your songwriting process like?
My process for writing songs is to just get out of the way. It’s almost like I just channel the songs. They’re already written in the stars out there in the ether somewhere, and I’m like a radio picking up the signal. If I grab a guitar or sit at a piano and let my mind go blank, things just start coming out. I use a tape recorder when I do write, because a lot of times, I won’t even remember what I did. If I think about stuff too much, it seems to make the process worse.
Every song I worked hard over never did anything, and every song I spent 10 or 15 minutes on became the ones that were the big hits.
A lot of times, I’ll be dreaming of a song, and I’ll force myself to get up in the middle of the night and record it on my iPhone app, usually on a guitar so I don’t wake up my house. I’ll mumble and get through it and wake up in the morning, and nine times out of 10, I’ll finish it. Sometimes I get some great material out of my dreams.
With electronic dance music becoming so popular, what’s your take on the lack of live instruments in music these days?
I think you’re going to start seeing acoustic dance music come up. If you look at a lot of Brazilian and Latin culture, the music is amazing dance music using acoustic instruments. I think there will come a point where people will get burned out on the synthesized dance music, and there will be a trend toward the more acoustic dance music.
When EDM gets to the level where you’re seeing it on beer commercials, that’s usually the kiss of death. I think it’s probably got a couple-year run, but you never know.
Do you plan on incorporating the acoustic dance trend in your own songwriting?
Yeah, and mainly I want to use it in film music. With films, you might have more than 60 cues of music in one movie, which cover lots of different genres. I love to create this wide gamut of styles and would love to include some acoustic dance music for some future film projects.
What do you look for in the local artists you work with?
I really look for originality. Jane Joyce is so original. No one’s going to say she sounds like anybody. Some of the greatest successes to me were working with completely unknown artists. I’ve had some radio hits with obscure bands in the ‘80s, like Times Two and Giant Steps that had Top 10 Billboard charting singles. For unknown artists, that was really difficult, because they weren’t bought. They slowly clawed their way up the charts, and the songs were really good.
That was more exciting than having a hit with an established artist, in a way, because it took more to accomplish that.
What makes an artist original?
The voice, to me, is usually the strongest thing I’m looking for. If you ask somebody what their favorite song is, they’re going to sing it to you and may not even know the rest of the tune. If you think about every great band, like Led Zeppelin and bands who had amazingly long careers, it’s because they had great singers.
Then, occasionally there are songs so great, it doesn’t even matter who’s singing them.
How would you characterize the Phoenix music scene?
It’s interesting. I’ve been here for 18 years and have watched it meander all over the place, but there’s always good talent here. I think because of its proximity to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, there are a lot of musicians coming this way. The cost of living in Vegas and L.A. is very prohibitive for a musician’s lifestyle, so the level of musicians showing up here is incredible, and I think it’s going to get better and better as we get more stowaways from other cities.
What are some of your favorite local music venues and local bands?
As for venues, I love going to big concerts, so I love going to huge venues. I put on the Liquid Sol Festival in March outside the University of Phoenix Stadium, which was amazing.
I love the MIM. I don’t think there’s a better stage in the state as far as sound. It’s one of the best sound stages I’ve heard anywhere in the world.
What advice would you have for an aspiring producer or singer-songwriter?
Never give up. I’ve seen a lot of people who’ve only made it because they were persistent, and I’ve seen a lot of people who had more talent than the persistent people, but they gave up. You’ve got to really want it. It’s almost like the industry rewards you for not giving up.
I would also say, try to develop something that’s really unique. Figure out what your strengths are, and capitalize on them. If you’re an adequate singer but not a great singer, then write songs that showcase how you can sing in a certain range. I have a lot of people who come in trying to hit a grand slam homer, who could still accomplish a lot trying to go around the bases hitting a bunch of singles by not trying to belt or do these huge things beyond their capabilities. Find what you do that’s really great, and hone it in. Keep climbing your way to the top, because eventually you’ll get there if you don’t give up.
Do you plan on ever performing live again?
A friend of mine does concerts at her store called Land of Ahhs in Scottsdale, and I’m going to hold a listening party there, hopefully in December. I may do some shows on the West Coast.
What are your goals?
I’m working on a creative arts education project, a really high-end music school in Phoenix. I’m working with people from Arcadia High School, where there’s an educator who is up for a Grammy, and some other instructors are getting on board.
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