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Highland Park native Richard Marx clearly knows songwriting. The first solo artist to have his first seven singles make it into the top five on the Billboard Music charts, he’s written a total of 14 number one singles, he’s a Grammy winner, and has sold more than 30 million records worldwide. With all of this and a world-famous reputation for creating the ultimate rock ballads, it seems logical Marx would have released a Christmas album before now. “I’ve written songs on other people’s Christmas albums, I’ve contributed covers to different Christmas projects, I’ve sung at Christmas benefits, and I love Christmas,” Marx says. “I think part of it is that I’ve always viewed a Christmas album as being such an ‘old guy’ thing to do, and I’ve always fought that so hard. I was always like, ‘I’ll do a Christmas album when I’m in my late 40s.’ Bingo.”
It was the fun he had working on an annual Christmas project with his three sons, Brandon, Lucas, and Jesse, that finally convinced him it was time to release his own take on Christmas. For the last few years, Marx helped the boys produce new versions of classic Christmas songs as their mother Cynthia’s Christmas present. It’s also become a digital family Christmas card. A video Richard put together, Marx Brothers Christmas, of them recording last year’s carol ended up getting quite a few hits on his YouTube page. Now, three of those songs will appear on his five-song Christmas EP, with Marx singing the lead and his boys singing background harmonies. The EP also includes a brand-new recording of an original Christmas song called “Christmas Spirit” that dropped on November 1 and is destined to get a lot of airtime this holiday season. Given that holiday music is new territory for this legendary songster, we thought we’d take the opportunity to find out how it went as well as get his thoughts on some of the other changes in the music industry and his new take on touring.
On the New Single
“I wrote this song with my friend Fee Waybill from The Tubes 15 years ago, thinking I should have an extra Christmas song around in case somebody needed it, and nothing ever happened with it. I just stumbled across it when I was thinking about this project. It’s just so fun. I said, ‘I’m going to overproduce this to the point where people think Phil Spector busted out of jail.’ It’s got everything on it. It’s got bells, it’s got background singers, it’s got strings, it’s got chimes, you name it.”
On the Way He Recorded the EP
“There’s an engineer in Nashville named Justin Niebank; he’s from Glencoe. He’s been in Nashville for years. He does all the recording and mixing for everybody from Rascal Flatts to Keith Urban to Taylor Swift. He’s the greatest guy and he’s a genius engineer. He said, ‘Why don’t we do it old school, like, live.’ I went, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I mean you come to Nashville, we’ll put you in a booth, we’ll have the band in one room, and the Nashville Symphony in another room. Everybody will play live, and you’ll sing along.’ I went, ‘Who does that?’ ‘We do!’ So I can’t tell you, man, it was one of the most thrilling days of my life. I’ve worked a lot with the Nashville symphony, and they’re so killer. For me to have not only the sound in my headphones, but to be able to look here, look there, with everybody playing at the same time, it was really thrilling.”
On Why He Started vLogging On YouTube and Facebook
“The vlogging thing started just when I sort of realized that social media was more important than I wanted it to be, and the toothpaste wasn’t going back in the tube. So, do I just be that grouchy old, ‘Eh, that Internet today!’ guy? No. That’s not me. So then I started out doing them in a sort of really honest and straightforward way, like, ‘Hi, everybody!’ Like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But that’s not me either. I’m a smart-ass, so why not make them fun? The ones where I’m with somebody, some of those are so fun, especially if there’s a good dynamic. The ones with Hugh Jackman are really funny because we have a funny dynamic together.
It’s a weird thing, man. There’s no mystery about anybody anymore. When I’m playing a show, I want everybody to go home feeling like they hung out with me for two hours. I don’t know that I want that in terms of social media. I certainly was the opposite of that in my 10 years of being out in the public eye all the time and having hit records. I was the most anti-publicity guy. It bums me out that I know everything about almost everybody. And I think that’s one of the reasons Johnny Depp is a real celebrity. There’s mystery. We don’t really know what he’s about. He puts out a certain image that we all know can’t really be him, but he doesn’t ever let on. I’m an occasionally remorseful vlogger. I go, ‘I hate that guy.’ Sometimes I do find it really entertaining, other times I go, ‘Why did I hit send?’”
On How New Media is a Must for New Musicians
“I know that for a fact. I was talking to the head of one of the big labels, and he said, ‘You know, we could go to a club and hear a band where we’re both like, ‘That’s the greatest band in the world,’ but if they don’t have X number of “followers” or “likes” or “friends,” I can’t do it.’ Bands have to do that work for themselves, the label won’t help them with that. What none of those guys are understanding is that they’re basically eliminating themselves more and more from the process. If a group has 200,000 followers, what do they need a label for? Labels aren’t selling any records either. Artist development is dead and buried. It is never coming back.”
On Coming Back to the North Shore to Raise His Family
“It was never a question for me. I grew up in Highland Park, I went to North Shore Country Day School. I loved the idea of growing up in what felt like a small town, but with my favorite city 40 minutes away. People raise kids in Los Angeles successfully every day. They do. It just seems unlikely, and it is more unlikely. Cynthia and I loved LA, but I just felt like I didn’t want their whole environment to be about show business. Literally, there’s no one you run into that’s not, ‘Well, I’m really trying to be an actor’ or ‘Oh, I’m really trying to be a songwriter.’ It’s boring. I think the kids really enjoyed growing up here.”