For over five decades, Bill Champlin has cemented tremendous stature as an in-demand singer and songwriter. His resume includes hundreds of collaborations with established artists and bands, including a prolific mid-to-late 80s tenure as frontman of multiplatinum legends Chicago. Equally notable, however, is Champlin’s solo material, which currently comprises seven critically-acclaimed full-length albums on both major and independent distribution. On January 1st, Champlin started the new year strong with “Reason To Believe,” the first single off his upcoming eigth album, Livin’ For Love, which is slated for release on the 22nd.
I caught up with Champlin to discuss his formative days, his success as a solo artist, as well as how his current solo album reflects his ambitions, both musical and personal, up to this point.
I was checking out your early band, Sons of Champlin, and I noticed that your first album with them, Loosen Up Naturally, sounded pretty ahead of its time. In your experience, what can you tell me about that initial period, and how the late 60s scene influenced your writing?
Well, I was raised in the San Francisco Bay area and was into a lot of R&B, since Oakland had a station called KDIA at the time when there was only AM radio. Some years later, Sly Stone became a disc jockey there; he was at KSOU and then moved to KDIA. He had an amazing collection of pretty obscure R&B, and I kind of grew up with that. Then, once I started playing, I put together the Sons with Tim Cain, who’s a great sax player and a really good arranger. We did covers to start with, and were obsessed with Bobby Bland’s “Turn On Your Lovelight.” When I was writing originals, I wanted to do something that was in that field but kind of my own thing.
Then, by the late 60s, along came LSD, and all the craziness from that period, which changed my writing completely. Suddenly, I realized that although I was into R&B, I found the lyrics to be kind of stupid and not really saying a lot. Once I listened to The Beatles and Bob Dylan, I thought, “Woah, these guys are doing some really cool stuff. Why don’t we put these kinds of lyrics onto R&B grooves?” So, we started doing that, and voila! There’s the Loosen Up album.
You mention being influenced by a lot of R&B, and then eventually, Beatles and Bob Dylan, while playing with the Sons. In the time leading to that, what was your musical environment like growing up?
My mom was a musician, so when I was a kid, I listened to a lot of jazz. She was into Nat King Cole before he sang, when he was just a piano player. At that time, I just wanted to be a trumpet player in a big band (laughs), and after a while, I was like, “Nah, this isn’t gonna work.” Then, Elvis came along and changed my approach to playing guitar; I was already playing piano and one thing led to another. We were living in Santa Barbara but then moved to Marin County, which was near that radio station. Rob Moltoza, who played bass in the Opposite Six – our group before we became the Sons – turned me on to James Brown Live at the Apollo, which is the first live James Brown record. That pretty much changed my life. I’d gone to a matinee show by myself in Oakland at Sweets Ballroom on New Years Day 1963, where I saw James Brown with his band, and that was something else; that was really good. Then, in the Sons, you add Beatles and some more of the rock stuff that was going on, and you have what we’d ended up doing. We had a screamer guitar player, Terry Haggerty, and he was the first to basically do bebop licks with preamp hard guitars, and everyone started doing that after a little while.
It seems like Terry was influential in the same way.
Yeah, people really took notice of Terry’s playing for sure, and I played guitar also, so we made some really cool stuff on [Loosen Up Naturally]. I also played baritone sax on the album since I had experience playing that in high school. It’s been the same method ever since – if you see something you like, you steal everything you possibly can from it, and the next thing you know, depending what you stole and who you stole it from, you have your own style (laughs).
By the 70s, when you began your solo career, was that a time when you were in demand and working with a host of people, or were you not quite there yet?
Well, I got a record deal when I moved to Los Angeles, but before that, I was doing a lot of stuff with David Foster, who’s a great session player and was just starting his career as a producer. When I went down to do my first solo record, called Single, I was talking to either Irving Azoff or Howard Kaufmann – one of those big managers – to try to get David Foster to produce it, but I really had to fight for it before they let me do that. So, we did the album, and part of the band had members from Ray Parker’s band, Radio, while the other had some of Toto’s rhythm section. So, right off the bat, I was working with these major guys. David put together a really good squad to make this record. At the last minute, we wrote “After the Love Has Gone,” thinking it would be a real winner for the record, but David was already playing piano with Maurice White, so when Maurice heard the playback of the tape, he was like, “What is that? I gotta have this!” In the end, I didn’t put the song on my record, but Earth, Wind & Fire did on theirs, and then boom! I was in the songwriter world.
When it came to your success as a singer and songwriter, do you think it was not only due to your abilities, but the support from people you were working with?
Absolutely! No one does this alone; if they say they do, they’re lying. We all need a support system, and it changes from time to time. I really learned a lot from working with David Foster. We don’t do much together anymore, but I managed to see one of his shows, with him on piano, a bass player, John Robinson on drums, and a handful of great singers. It was really cool to see. I love him to death, and we’ve always been great friends.
This new record [Livin’ For Love] I did by myself. I’ve done quite a handful of solo albums on my own, and I’ve co-written stuff with Greg Mathieson who’s a great arranger and a screamer organ player. We’ve worked together on each other’s records, so we know each other on that level, and this one came together in a really good way. For the initial single, “Reason To Believe,” Bruce Gaitsch sent us a track that had just been sitting in his stash for a number of years. When my wife Tamara and I heard it, I said, “Oh my God, get me a pencil and paper; let’s do this,” and we jumped on it right away.
You know, over the past four or five years, I’d been through quite a few crazy things in my personal life. I had cancer, had to go through surgery, radiation, and chemo, my older son passed away, and there were a lot of other things going on. After coming out of that, when you make a list of things that you do and don’t give a shit about, your focus changes. I got into that kind of headspace when I was doing this record, and wanted to create it as an artist, not just some studio guy.
I understand. With these challenges that inspired “Reason To Believe,” as well as the other tracks on Livin’ For Love, how did you make the best of your situation?
As sick as I was, Tamara was with me through everything. She’s a great musician, great singer, and great songwriter, and she put everything down for the time that I was going through this. I mean, I was diagnosed on a Monday, and my older son died on a Tuesday. Not a good week.
Yeah, it was really ugly. But I noticed that as I was typing the final draft of the lyrics, I was like, “Hey, this song is pretty much about gratitude!” What it comes down to is, when you get older, things just happen (laughs). I’ve done other albums, worked with other bands, and I still do these days. We actually have a project that isn’t going to happen for a while, but it’s James Scheff, Tommy Thayer and I. Tommy was finishing up a three-year farewell tour with Kiss, but the virus got in the way of that.
Speaking of the virus, how have these circumstances with Covid affected you?
Well, I live in California. Where are you, by the way?
I’m originally from New York, but now I live in Florida.
It’s a little warmer in Florida, though, right (laughs)? Although it is quite funny. Over here, you have the possibility of changing zip codes because we have earthquakes, while over there, you have hurricanes (laughs). Everyone has something they’ve got to watch out for. But yeah, at any rate, in California, it’s been lockdown city, and it still is. There’s no restaurants open, nothing to do, and no place to go, really, but I have a work station in my guest house. Tamara and I just did an album with a friend of ours, Gary Falcone, for our band Wunderground, which is more of a hard rock thing.
While we were doing that, I had also worked out the track “Livin’ For Love” on acoustic guitar, and Tamara said, “You know, you’ve got to do a solo album; it’s been 10 years since you’ve done one. Get it going!” I used to be running around the world doing gigs, but Covid has kept me off the road, and I just said, “Now’s the time!” In some ways, Covid was good, because it just allowed me to do a lot more writing and production rather than live playing. Believe me, I absolutely adore live playing, but for now, I’m focusing on working in the studio.
For the digital distribution of the new album, you signed with Imagen and worked with Bob Winegard. Where do you know each other from?
I was in Nashville doing tracks on an album with Jason Scheff, and was planning on working with Bob, but that didn’t happen yet. Once I met him, he seemed like a cool guy, and is definitely a music fan. At some point, on Facebook, Tamara had mentioned to him that I had this solo album that was close to being done, and he texted me and said, “Dude, let’s hear it, I’m interested!” So, one thing led to another, and then Bob put together a team of himself, Steven Nathan, who’s the IT guy and works with social media, and Shauna O’ Donnell, the publicist. She’s wonderful. With her, I’ve gotten more press for this record than I did when I was with Elektra. She’s been really good. What’s great is that I also get to talk to people like you. You’re all interested in the record, and people want to hear new music.
In terms of how the album sounds, I hear a bit of everything. There are elements of Chicago, your previous solo work, and also the recent stuff you’ve done with Joseph Williams and Peter Friestedt in your band CWF. Was that the method?
Yeah! It’s about taking what I’ve done in those other projects and then applying it to myself, you know what I mean? The next album is probably going to be bass, drums, piano, and one vocal, and I’ve never done one of those records before. But there’s just something about taking what you’ve got and making it as big as you possibly can.
One factor about this album that stands out is the talented personnel included in it. What can you say about the guys you’re working with now?
Well, there’s George Hawkinson, Jr. on bass for “Reason To Believe,” and he actually passed away two years ago. He was a great friend of mine and played on almost all of my records at one point, so it was nice to have him on that track. Alan Hertz plays drums on half of the record, and then Gordon Campbell plays drums on the other half. (Laughs), Tamara just said “—and moi;” she sings all over the record as well. We have Lenny Castro who does percussion on almost the whole album, and we have a solo by Marc Russo, who was part of the original Yellowjackets, and also the Doobie Brothers for God knows how many years (laughs). So, I’ve got good people when I need them.
Essentially, the album features many musicians who you’re very close with, right?
Oh, absolutely! I don’t think I’ve worked with Lenny Castro on any records before, but when I’d asked him to do this record, he told me to bring my drive over, so I brought it over with all the stuff on it, and he tore it up; he’s just great. He’s played with Toto for years, did some stuff with Joe Bonamassa, and actually did a tour where it was just the two of them. It’s pretty cool.
For the mixing and overall production of the album, it has a very warm sound. What do you attribute to that?
One of our drummers, Alan Hertz, mixed the record. When I met him, he was working with guys like Scott Henderson and Mike Landau. He’s a really, really great drummer, but he’s also a great engineer. He’s got ears for days. It’s a one-stop shop, you know? Joe Gastwirt, who’s a legendary mastering engineer, did the mastering for the record. He told me, “Billy, I hope you don’t mind, but I’m gonna bring this over to tape first. This is the kind of record that we should add an analogue sound to.” It’s an old-fashioned technique, so that’s where the warmth comes from. Most of the people I work with use Pro Tools, but they also tend to lean toward an analogue sound. I know that Alan’s outboard gear really warms the album up.
That’s really cool! Do you have a preference for the type of gear that is used, or do you embrace both analogue and digital?
I’ve always loved analogue tape, but at some point of the game, it just became really hard to get. I’ve had my Sony 24-track for 20 years now; that thing’s a workhorse. My last album, No Place Left to Fall, was done in Pro Tools, but other than that, everything else was on tape. The problem with a tape machine is if you move it, you need five or six guys to carry it, but Pro Tools you only need one hand. It’s $20,000 versus $900. When you get to the mixing stage, that’s when your ability to understand compression and all that other stuff comes into play. I’m not that guy, but Alan’s such a good mixer, and I honestly think he outdid himself on this record.
In your introduction to the album, you state that this is one of the best albums you’ve ever made. Do you feel like you’ve grown a lot as an artist, even today?
Well, I’ve made other records in the past that have been hard to beat, which is understandable, but I just felt that this album, from beginning to end, has a real feel about it, and I just really love it. I put a bit more of my heart and soul into it. It’s not just a craft-driven record; it’s an artist-driven record. There’s a lot more of myself throughout the album, especially in the lyrics. I mean, it’s not personal to the point of saying, “Hey, my next-door neighbor did ‘this,’” but you can listen to the songs without knowing me and still enjoy them. And when you do know about me and what I’ve been through, you’d say, “Holy shit, this is unbelievable!”
There’s a song on the album called “Another Lie,” which I wrote about the last two years of my older son’s life. Usually, when someone writes about a person who passed away, that person turns into an angel. My kid wasn’t an angel by any means, but I still miss him like crazy, you know? So, it took me about two years to write, and I don’t stand back up again until a song is done.
When you write someone into one of your songs, it’s to talk about them as a human being.
Exactly. You got it. I’ve read somewhere that if something isn’t personal, it isn’t art. I think I’m a pretty good craftsman, and I look at it as the more you focus on your craft, the better chance of art happening. I don’t think you generate art; it comes through you. You spend a good amount of time making sure your chops are up to par, and if you really use that time to put solid arrangements together, things just start to happen. Some of the best stuff I’ve ever done, I felt like I’ve only just stumbled into. But I wouldn’t discover these other qualities about it if I wasn’t working on it. I accept that it’s a craft, and I’m just grateful when it turns into art. There’s another song on the album called “A Stevie Song,” and one of the lines says, “Music is the perfect pact to love.” When I wrote it initially, it was just something that came to me, but when I look back on it, it’s a very soulful line. That was one of those moments where I was doing my craft, and something came through, which is really great.
Putting your career into perspective, what have you learned about yourself, both as a musician, and as a person?
When I look at all the stuff I’ve gone through, I realize that the list of stuff I care about is shorter, and the list of stuff I don’t care about is longer. I don’t have Covid yet, but you never know with the way things are going these days (laughs). I’d hope for one of those instances where when I’m long gone, and my grandkid listens to my music, they could hear me in it, and not me pretending to be someone else. There’s not a lot of stuff that I know how to do well except music, and I don’t know how to do more than what I already know. There have been times when I’d be hard on myself and say, “I should be able to do what this guy’s doing,” or, “You should be able to make this guy appreciate your music,” and at some point, I’ve accepted that I don’t need anyone’s approval, I’m just gonna do what I do.” After a while, I told myself, “That’s what an artist does; you just do what you do, and not worry about anything else.” I’m a studio guy who can craft good singing parts and throw together good arrangements, but at the end of the day, I’d say, “You’re an artist, damn it! Act like one!” So, I’ve managed to make a bit of a different record on that level, and I want to be as in tune as I can be. I don’t use that much technology when it comes to tuning. If something’s a little bit out of tune, I don’t care. Just listen to Jimi Hendrix; he’s out of tune all over the place (laughs). If something feels damn good, just go for it.
If you have a perfect record, everyone’s just going to take it for granted, but if you have an imperfect record, people may pay attention to its individual parts a lot more.
Exactly. I mean, Jimi still sells more records every week than he did his whole life! He didn’t have Autotune or Pro Tools, he just had tape! There are times where he rushes, and times where he drags on, but his music touches people. There’s a really cool engineer who uses Pro Tools that I’d learned a lot from. He asked me, “When you were doing those Chicago records and your solo stuff, how did you tune them?” And I’d tell him, “If any song was out of tune, we’d re-record it.” Then he’d asked me, “How did you line everything up and get it the way it sounded?” Again, I’d just say, “We’d re-record it!” I could fix it with Autotune, but I’d rather just do it again (laughs).
Lastly, anything you’d like to say to your fans?
Hey guys! I love you. Listen to the record when it comes out; it’s amazing. The record will be released digitally on the 22nd, but we’re also working on a CD release, which we’ll sell on billchamplin.com/shop. We’ve got a whole bunch of pre-orders in, and the cover art is just gorgeous.
Bill Champlin Socials: