The true test of a songwriter’s versatility is their ability to shift gears successfully between different projects. Singer/songwriter Lou Gramm has displayed a knack for writing hit tunes both as a member of the supergroup Foreigner and as successful solo artist. Gramm and Foreigner’s founder Mick Jones co-wrote some of rock music’s top anthems including “Jukebox Hero,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” Head Games,” and “Hot Blooded.”The true test of a songwriter’s versatility is their ability to shift gears successfully between different projects. Singer/songwriter Lou Gramm has displayed a knack for writing hit tunes both as a member of the supergroup Foreigner and as successful solo artist. Gramm and Foreigner’s founder Mick Jones co-wrote some of rock music’s top anthems including “Jukebox Hero,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” Head Games,” and “Hot Blooded.”
Though his unique vocals defined Foreigner’s sound since he joined the group in 1976, he stepped out on his own in 1987 recording a solo album, Ready or Not, that yielded the top five hit “Midnight Blue.” Last year he repeated that solo success with the LP Long Hard Look that offered hits such as “Just Between You and Me” (co-written with Holly Knight) and “I’ll Come Running” (written with longtime collaborator Bruce Turgon). His songs have also been used in movies such as The Lost Boys (“Lost in the Shadows” and Navy Seals (“Hangin’ on My Hip”).
After bouncing back and forth and juggling his commitments to the group and his solo career, Gramm decided last spring to leave Foreigner and concentrate on his burgeoning solo career. He’s obviously proud of the work he did as a member of Foreigner, but he’s excited about the prospects of channeling all his creative energies into his own individual direction.
Gramm’s musical journey began in his hometown of Rochester, N.Y. His father was a trumpet player who had a big band in the 1940’s. Lou’s mother was the group’s vocalist. In addition to his parents musical influence, Gramm grew up listening to the Ventures and Duane Eddy, the Beatles and Motown’s legendary roster.
Lou started playing drums at eight and wrote his first song at 13. Like all aspiring teenage rockers, he played in a succession of bands, honing his musical skills and developing as a songwriter. As he matured he realized he didn’t want to be playing cover tunes in a top forty band and by 1970 he formed the group Black Sheep.
The group opened for KISS on tour and released two albums, but things never quite worked out with the group as Gramm had hoped. He was still trying to make things happen with Black Sheep when Mick Jones approached him about joining Foreigner. He turned Mick down at first, but the rest of the guys in Black Sheep encourage him to give it a try.
Although Black Sheep never achieved superstar status one of the most positive things to come out of the experience has been Gramm’s continuing collaboration with bassist Bruce Turgon. Over the years the two have remained songwriting partners. Turgon co-wrote four cuts on Long Hard Look.
“Bruce and I sit down to write and the ideas can come from anyplace,” Gramm says as the two relax backstage before a Nashville concert. “We’re very open to exploring different music ideas. I’ve been writing with Bruce for years.”
When asked what makes Turgon such a good collaborator Gramm responds, “He’s someone who is interested in my vision of what a song should be. He understands what I’m after. If I reach a creative block, he’s someone who helps me along…Bruce and I have just always hit it off on a certain level and we communicate real easily. There are no particular boundaries as to who does what, just a good give and take.”
Though they both write alone and with other co-writers, Turgon agrees that he and Gramm have a good songwriting partnership. “When Lou and I started working together we were kids,” Bruce states. “so we kind of learned the same lessons as we were getting into it…He went to Foreigner and I had bands in the L.A. area and I’ve had covers [Prism, Nick Gilder]…but I never got the same satisfaction on a finished project that I do with Lou.”
Though he feels he’s adept at songwriting techniques and the craftsmanship aspect of the trade, Gramm says he relies primarily on feel and inspiration. “I try to be discipline enough to write a little every day,” he comments. “But I tend to put a lot more time into it when I’m hot and the creative juices are flowing. I always have a small portable studio with me and I do a lot of lyric writing on the road.
“I think I’ve learned technique, but I don’t adhere to it. I rely on inspiration. The formula be damned.”
Gramm says part of the reason he decided to pursue a solo career was to have an additional outlet for the songs he was writing. “I’m proud of everything I’ve done with Foreigner,” he comments. “I really value my experience working with Mick and Ian. I became a better writer because of Foreigner, but Foreigner records once every three years. I felt the frustration building and the best hope for my tunes was doing a solo LP.”
When he was dividing his time and talents between Foreigner and his solo career, Gramm says he would just carefully evaluate his tunes as to where to record them. “If I felt a little protective or selfish, I’d do it on mine,” he explains. “At this point in the group’s career there is a particular Foreigner sound. When I’d write for my own projects I wouldn’t have those restrictions.”
In recording his solo projects Gramm listens to outside tunes, but it takes something extra special for him to record one. “It has to make my goosebumps have goosebumps,” he says. “I do listen to other people’s stuff, but it has to be really unique.”
Through his experiences as a part of Foreigner and as a solo act, Gramm has learned to craft songs that are commercially in tune yet are also true to his creative vision. The sound is hard rocking, but he’s blessed with a voice that doesn’t sacrifice any of the lyrics to the guitar riffs.
When asked to pass along some of the wisdom that comes from being one of rock’s most successful songwriters, Gramm says, “You’ve got to follow your own intuitive sense and make sure what you write is original.”
It’s obvious in listening to Lou Gramm that, whether writing with Foreigner or for his solo projects, he is one of rock’s true originals.