The Lionel Richie Interview
Lionel Richie is full of life down the phone from LA - where for him it's about 11am on a Saturday. When I ask him how he's going, the reply sets the tone for the interview: "How am I doing? How am I doing? Never,mind how I am doing - how are you doing? You crazy Kiwi! What is it, like six or seven o'clock for you on a Sunday morning?!" My reply: actually it's after eight, so you know, easy for a Sunday morning or however the song goes...
There's a howl of laughter from Lionel, you can visualise the exclamation mark at the end of most things he says - and then, with that, "nice segue! Let's talk music..."
And we do. We talk about how he is set to play three shows in New Zealand next year, including one in Napier. The last time Richie tried to play Napier, 2009's Mission concert, the weather said no.
"Well that was just surreal, really - and like nothing that has happened before for me. To be there and to not be able to play, to see these banks just turning to mud. But you know what was hilarious...the absolute spirit of your countrymen, these crazy Kiwis, standing out there in the rain with their plastic tarps and then using them to slide down the hills and have some fun. I remember looking out at that and thinking that was great, people making the best of a bad situation."
So Richie will play in Wellington and Auckland and will return to Napier, this time to the Church Road Winery. He says for that performance people can expect "a show on steroids! That's where we do our regular show but we take it up a notch, we just go absolutely crazy."
So what is a Lionel Richie show? What features? How is the show put together?
"I am so lucky to have this incredible catalogue to work with - both my songs and the songs we were doing with The Commodores - so I know the rules, I know that I have to play Brick House; I have to play Easy; I have to play Three Times a Lady; I have to play Just To Be Close to You." Richie's on a roll, he sounds like a preacher, "Do you understand me? I have to play these songs. Which is great because I want to play them - but I have to, they're not going to let me get out alive if I don't play them!
"And then there are all the solo songs that I have to play too. And the ballads. And we're talking about Endless Love and Lady and then we get to All Night Long and Hello and Stuck on You and, you see what I'm sayin' here...we just go all night. And let me tell you, the quiet songs, the ballads - these are the ones that people sing the loudest! So it's just a big party and that's how it should be, that's what it is all about."
I remind Richie that he's had a solo career for coming up 30 years.
"Isn't that amazing" he says, sounding proud, sounding like he doesn't quite believe it. "Thirty years is a long time and people ask me why I keep going, why I don't retire? And my answer is, 'retire from what?' because I get to go around the world, performing these songs that people love, that I love and then, what, you are going to pay me as well? To me that truly is remarkable and I feel blessed - I tell you, honestly, I've never worked a day in my life!"
But that is not true, Richie has, through his work with the Commodores and as a solo artist, sold more than 100 million records. He wrote many of the hits that made The Commodores legends in the 1970s, that made him a global superstar and pop icon in the 1980s. He played piano and saxophone long before stepping up to be a frontman and pop balladeer, earnestly crooning into the microphone. The Commodores were a hard-working band and Richie says, now that he thinks about it, a secret to his longevity in the business was that working ethos he learned with the Commodores.
But there won't ever be a full reunion.
"I love that music. I love those guys and I am lucky that, in so many ways, I am performing my own Commodores tribute, my own reunion, every night. But I know they say you should never say never, but it seems unlikely we would get the band together again. For me, the thing that seals it is that Milan Williams died a few years back and I know we could get another keyboardist but to me Milan was the sound of The Commodores; he carried so much of the spirit, the feel and it just wouldn't be right."
Richie gets back on a roll, preacher-style: "but you know what is great. Ronald La Pread, Commodores bass player, lives in Auckland, New Zealand and he has an open invitation to join me whenever we are in that city, as he has done before, and so it's nice to have those connections still. To have me and Ronald on the stage together, there's your Commodores reunion, or at least a reminder. And that's fun. But I don't think, with Milan gone, we'll do a real reunion."
And the secret of the success in terms of songwriting is, as far as Richie is concerned, simple.
"People react to stories - love is a great story. Writing needs stories and people will always respond to simple stories, to simple messages: 'I love you' or 'I want you' or 'I need you' or 'you hurt me' or 'I want you forever' you know what I mean...these are things that people react to; these are things that are universal, that people understand."
As earnest as that might all sound - Richie has a great sense of humour; he has awareness.
"People in other countries that don't usually speak English can sing along to my songs in English. In fact, we go to places like France and Germany and I think they might be louder than the people in America or England. That's because these are simple messages, simple ideas that last - and it is pretty amazing being told that people have actually learned to speak English through my songs. Okay, so they probably aren't going to be able to order at a restaurant but you're probably going to get a date at least. You know what I'm saying," this is rounded off with a huge laugh.
"People tell me that a song of mine is special to them and as a songwriter there's really no greater feeling. To know you have touched someone's life with a song is remarkable really, a very special power. As far as I'm concerned it actually becomes their song; they get to take some of the credit because that song is now part of their life story. I have some friends who were married to Truly and just recently one of their children was married to that song too. I mean it's just unbelievable - there is a legacy and my song has played a huge part in their lives. It's wonderful. Truly."
Richie continues to look forward in terms of writing - he says that his recent number one with Enrique Iglesias is proof of his abilities to "stay current" and that working with other pop stars, continuing to write for himself and release records "requires me to listen to the radio, to stay connected to music and to follow what is happening" but the live show is about "rewarding the fans - it's all about the party".
"The live show is where it all happens; it's a Lionel Richie party."
And Richie enjoys the travel aspect. "Let me tell you something, I have three children, and considering that includes Nicole - who is basically like five children on her own - I actually have seven children, if you follow me. And what I love about getting on a plane to go on tour is that I never, ever hear 'Dad, you promised' or 'Dad, can I have...' or 'Dad, you said' and so I am very happy when the pilot tells me we will be in the air for five hours or 12 hours. I check my emails; I read over business documents, I watch some silly airplane movie with a big grin on my face."
There's warmth from Lionel Richie - he genuinely loves what he does. He loves talking about it too. He speaks often in the third person, he speaks of Lionel Richie The Brand. He talks about how much he loves entertaining - how it is his job to put on a great show for the fans and how, in the end, that is no job at all. It is a constant reward to him. And he says fans will love the 2011 shows in New Zealand.
"Just tell them it will be the best karaoke night you could go to. Because that's a fact. We are going to have a big ole' karaoke jam with lots of funk and lots of ballads and there'll be romance and laughs and some great music."
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