The Writer’s Block: Holly Knight’s Lessons From 40 Years of Songwriting

Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield,” Patty Smyth and Scandal’s “The Warrior,” Tina Turner’s hit “The Best,” and a countless collection of songs by Rod Stewart, Aerosmith, Kiss, and dozens of other artists—Holly Knight has written some of the most memorable songs throughout her 40-year career.

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Born in New York City, Knight studied classical piano and later joined two bands—Device, which hit the Top 40 in 1986 with the track “Hangin’ On A Heart Attack,” and Spider, which released two albums on longtime collaborator Mike Chapman’s Dreamland Records. The first song Knight ever wrote “Better Be Good To Me,” was initially penned for the band’s second album and later made it on Tina Turner’s 1984 album Private Dancer—one of 10 songs Knight wrote for Turner.

Knight wrote three Grammy Award-winning songs, earned 13 ASCAP, and also has her place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, writing songs for Bon Jovi, Chaka Khan, Cheap Trick, Hall and Oates, John Waite, Lou Gramm, Wynonna Judd, Meat Loaf, Bonnie Tyler, Aaron Neville, CeeLo Green, Kim Wilde, Shawn Colvin, Dusty Springfield, Will Hoge, Leigh Nash and more over four decades.

Knight’s songs have been featured throughout TV and film, including Thelma & Louise, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Anchorman II, Thirteen Going On Thirty, and Dallas Buyers Club, along with television shows American Idol, The Voice, The Simpsons, South Park, The Following, and most recently Schitt’s Creek, which recently featured “The Best” in three separate episodes, including the series finale.

American Songwriter spoke to Knight about how to write a hit, why it’s hard to let go of a song, and keeping things analog.

American Songwriter: How do songs typically come together for you? Has this shifted over the past 40 years?

Holly Knight:
I think the only thing that’s different is that I write a lot more on my own. In the beginning, I enjoyed the process of collaboration. I can probably count on my one hand the people that were the perfect fit for me, but I do like to write more on my own, but the process is the same. I have a studio with HD Pro Tools where I can program myself and everything, but I try not to sit down and write on a computer. I would rather keep it in the analog world. I’d rather have something tangible, so I’ll sit down with an acoustic guitar or an electric guitar, or a bass guitar, or keyboard, which is my main instrument. Depending on what instrument I’m writing on, it dictates the direction of the song.

Once I have some sort of instrumental, I’ll go to my book where I keep a stockpile of titles. If you have a good title, then you at least know what you’re going to write about. If you have a good title, you can tell what the style is going to be. A lot of titles have a rhythm to it, part of the hook, and that’s kind of how I do it.

When I feel like I have something, I very quickly give it some sort of arrangement or something. I have to make an arrangement or some sort of blueprint, which forces me to keep on track with the song because if I leave it on the phone, I end up forgetting about it. I have this stockpile of maybe 100 things on my phone that I’ve never listened to, all saved for a rainy day.

AS: Are songs driven more by emotion, by melody, or the words?

It’s driven more by melody and emotion. I’ll start to phonetically mumble stuff or start singing something, and then some of the words will poke out. For instance, when I wrote the song “Just Between You and Me” with Lou Gramm, I had in my head [the lyrics] “that’s alright,” so after a couple of lines, I just remember singing that fanatically. I didn’t have the rest of the words, but I had that. Once I have some sort of arrangementand it doesn’t have to be permanent, it’s just the one that I start withit’s like whittling away a piece of clay.

It starts out emotional, but then it has to become something. Every little thing has to serve the song. If it doesn’t do something that’s relevant to the song, then it doesn’t belong in there. A lot of songs are like that, where they’ll throw in a bridge or an instrumental or solo, that has almost nothing to do with the song.

AS: What can you do when you’re stuck and a song isn’t coming together? What cuts off the color or the essence of the song for you?

HK: It’s never any one thing. It depends on each song, but it goes back to if it’s not really serving the song, then you don’t need it. Most of the time I write the chorus first, but sometimes you have to go backward and write a verse that doesn’t give it all away. In the ’80s we always had a verse and then we had a little pre-chorus, which was kind of like a ramp between the verse and the chorus. Then when grunge and alt-rock came in, you would have a verse and then boom. It smacked right into the chorus like you just got hit between the eyes. I like that. I don’t like always like announcing “and here comes the chorus.” But the pre-chorus is great because it’s more like a holding pattern. Imagine you’re on a plane, and you’re on the runway, and you’re waiting to be given the signal to take off. Sometimes those little things in the beginning, like a pre-chorus, become this nice tension where you don’t know what’s going to happen. And then it goes into the chorus. I’m constantly ripping apart things. 

I love those songs where you have the perfect key change from the verse to the chorus, it just lifts up. Let’s say you’re writing a verse and it’s in G, the normal thing would probably be to go to something like C, but instead, you decide to go to E-flat or a B-flat, and it opens it up in such a way. It’s a hard thing to do. I don’t even know what the technical explanation of it is, but when you hit upon it, that’s such a cool change.

AS: Do you find it difficult to let go of a song?

When you’re writing the song, it belongs to you. It’s your baby, You raise it. You feed it. You nurture it, and it’s like you’re putting it up for adoption, waiting as they’re taking your baby away. Then you hope that they don’t fuck the kid up.

I’ve given someone a hit, or what I thought could be a hit song, and they take away all the things that were great about it that made it a hit. There’s a fine line between something being a great song and being a hit. It could be just a few tweaks here and there that make the difference. When I wrote “The Best,” it was a great song, but I don’t think it was quite a hit song yet. My friend Desmond Child ended up cutting it with Bonnie Tyler. Then someone got it to Tina and she said “I love this song, but I need a bridge and I need the key to go up at the end.” So we had to rewrite it, which is weird after it had already been out. She was right because she turned that song into a hit.

As a writer, whether for film or theater or whenever, if it doesn’t serve the song, trim the fat off. Extract it, put it in a file or folder, and save it for something else.

AS: Who are some artists you’d love to work with today?

I would love to write with Adele and guys like Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake, and [Justin] Bieber. I would have killed to work with Amy Winehouse. I like Elle King… just artists that have something to say. Trent Reznor would be great, and Halsey.

As far as new artists, I’ll work with anybody that inspires me.

Photos: Holly Knight / Primary Wave

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