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Conversation with a Visionary
David Foster
photo courtesy of the David Foster Foundation

David Foster

He remembers the exact moment when everything clicked. He was a teen, into classical music‚ when the Beatles’ She Loves You came on the radio—“It literally transformed my life.”

By 16, this Canadian kid with perfect pitch was touring with Chuck Berry’s band and, in the decades since, has become a 16-time Grammy Award-winning producer and songwriter who’s worked with the music industry’s biggest stars. A vast storehouse of musical knowledge, David Foster knows how to make a hit song, spot new talent and rebound from missteps along the way. He sees arts and culture as great equalizers and says they could play a role in the reconciliation process in Canada. It took until age 30 for him to see beyond himself and give back—a lesson he learned from Wayne Gretzky—and he started a foundation for kids undergoing organ transplants. Now he’s tackling Broadway with the musical Betty Boop—a move “way out of my comfort zone.” President Barnard caught up with Foster on campus when he was honoured as the recipient of the 2017 International Distinguished Entrepreneur Award.

President David T. Barnard: You said your personal motto is, “compromise breeds mediocrity.” Where do you see that happening in the world?

David Foster: I think I see it in everybody’s life. I guess you could say it’s maybe taking the easy way out and not going the hard road. I learned that—I’m sorry to name drop—from Barbra Streisand, but not from her teaching it overtly, but from the way she was when I worked with her. She truly will not compromise and it’s made her life so fascinating. Seventy-four years long. She doesn’t compromise, ever. I can’t say that I’ve lived my life like that. I’ve compromised a lot but I try not to. You know, you see it in politics all the time. You see it in every walk of life.

How important is it to take risks?

I’ve led and I’ve followed. And leading is much more fun than following, without a shadow of a doubt. You follow when you get nervous. You lead when you’re anxious. In the ’80s and ’90s, I wrote with abandonment. And everything I wrote felt like it was a hit song. Obviously they weren’t. I’ve written 50 hits; I’ve written a thousand songs. You do the math—that’s what, five percent? But it felt like every time I was up to bat I could swing for the fence and get there and that’s how I carried on with my life. At the end of the ’90s, when I became less relevant, is when I started to struggle and stop leading, and started following and then I chased for a while. But I was smart enough to realize that chasing was not good. Because then you’re following, and following sucks. So then I retreated into the other direction, and that’s when I found Michael Bublé and Josh Groban and started working with Andrea Bocelli. And that propelled me through the next 15 years without having hit records.

What’s the greatest payoff you’ve experienced by stepping out of your comfort zone?

Going to Broadway. This is so far out of my comfort zone that it’s scary and there’s been no payoff yet. I don’t know if there will be a payoff. I fully plan on winning a Tony for a musical of Betty Boop, which I’m doing right now, but it is way out of my comfort zone. Why? Because I’ve always been in charge of my own destiny even though I’ve always answered to somebody—I believe everybody in the world has to ultimately answer to somebody. Basically, I was an island and I made my music and I dealt with the artists. That was my comfort zone. In Broadway, the director is king. The songwriter is not king. The songwriter is quite low on the totem pole. Even though the payoff can be amazing both financially and, you know, in a gratifying way, but I have no pull. I write a song. If the director thinks the song doesn’t fit with what his vision is, the song gets tossed. In fact, he told me a year ago: “You’ve gotta be prepared to throw out your best song.” And he’s right. I’ve thrown out what I thought was my best song three times so far ’cause it just didn’t fit his vision.

I can see that would be an interesting challenge.

It’s not only interesting, it sucks. It’s the worst, you know, but I’m here to play the game. There’s been many times on this particular project where I just wanted to walk. But I will not walk because I’m not a quitter. And I will get to Broadway and there will be a moment when we’re all standing on the stage when we’re going to be happy with this and I’ll know that my suffering was for a reason.

Is it more difficult for young artists today?

I don’t think so. I think if you talk to any of these young artists, they’re having the time of their lives. They’re, like, rolling in it, you know? Ed Sheeran thinks: I write a song, it becomes a hit, I pick up my guitar, I get in front of 20,000 people, I have no crew, I have no band, nothing, I just get out there and play my shit and people love it. What is the bad news here? There is no bad news here. He’s having the time of his life. Drake’s having the time of his life. Somebody like Bieber who became a star at such a young age… I think we, as Canadians, should all be really proud of his music. He made a phenomenal album—his last album. So he’s got some personal issues, but he’s basically having the time of his life. Kanye is having a great time. Kendrick Lamar—I mean you name it, they think it’s just fine. They don’t think there’s anything wrong with the music business, or with them. You met with some of our young students today. What’s the most important skill or value to instil in today’s post-secondary students? I asked them, “What do you think is the one word that is the key to success?” I’ve asked this a hundred times at schools and never gotten what I believe to be the right answer—ever. They always come up with the same words. Hard work. Drive. Ambition. You know, fortitude. All the words that you would want to hear and would expect to hear. The one word they never come up with is: networking. And networking, without a shadow of a doubt, is the number one way to success.

What kind of response do you get when you ask them and then you tell them?

I mean, I think it’s kind of an eye-opener. I use the example of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and [Steve] Wozniak and all those guys in college. They networked. They didn’t know they were networking but they were networking. Like, one guy says, “Hey wait, you know how to operate an 02 system?” The other one says, “Wait, you know how to market and can get that to the science fair?” They realize that, together, they could get that to the convention centre. You know, they networked. That’s what they did.

Beyond the music, you’ve championed patients undergoing organ transplants. Why did you choose this particular way to give back?

I was personally moved 30 years ago by a child that was from my hometown. She was in Los Angeles at UCLA and needed a transplant. What she wanted more than anything was to see her sister and of course I was able to provide that, and then the dots just connected. You know, I was a latecomer to charity. Until I was 30 years old, I didn’t care about anything except myself. And when I met this girl, that’s when the light really went off. I’d seen Wayne Gretzky before me, at a much younger age, be charitable and philanthropic and I thought, I really need to get on this but I didn’t have a cause. You have to wait for that cause to come into your life I think. All the lights went off at that moment when I brought her sister down and the two of them looked at each others’ eyes. Everything came together and it’s been a passion ever since.

Can you tell us about an example where you tried something that didn’t work?

Five years ago I mistakenly took the job of running a record company. It turned out I was really bad at it. And I’m not sure, but I’ll cut myself a little slack and say that maybe I was bad at it because I continued to make records full time and tried to run a company full time. Those are two completely full-time jobs. Now if I had just walked away from the studio and spent 12 hours a day running the record company, could I have done a good job? We’ll never know because I’ll never try it again. But I really don’t think I was cut out to be an executive in that way.

Thanks for that.

Warren Buffett says, “If I’m successful, it’s because I’ve had more failures than anybody else.”

I think lots of people say that, right? Gotta be willing to make some mistakes and stub your toes.

I joke about this all the time—I told Celine Dion that if she recorded the song for Titanic, it would ruin her career. I said, “I will not produce your song” ’cause I didn’t like the song. God rest his soul, James Horner, who wrote it. So they got somebody else to produce it. In fact, it came out and it bombed. And I was like, “I told you.” And then the movie came out, and they re-released the song, and of course the rest is history. But the lesson there is: If you’re gonna go wrong, go wrong big. Don’t go wrong small, go wrong big. Conversely, I convinced Whitney Houston to record I Will Always Love You. She didn’t want to do it. When you go right, go right big. So I have the yin and yang of it. But the Titanic story is just epic and I hate the song to this day.

Is there a science to a good song? How do you know if you have one?

There’s been a few moments when I was just positive I was right like when I did Unforgettable with Natalie Cole and her father.

Thank you for that!

You’re welcome! Well, it was her idea, it wasn’t mine, God rest her soul. She was such a great friend, such a great singer. But when I got a hold of his vocals and put his vocals up to hers—this is 20-some years ago so the technology wasn’t what it is today—it was a lot of work trying to piece the two together. So we had to invent technology to make that happen. When she and her mother first heard the finished product after I worked for, like, three days on it, they literally cried because it was like she was singing over his shoulder. It was very scientific with no technology. No Pro Tools. No Logic. There was just tape machines and moving tapes around. Pressing go and hoping it would line up.

Do you have an all-time favourite song?

Uh yes, Send In The Clowns. Why? Not even because of the music, because of the lyric talking about timing. She’s in midair, his feet are on the ground, she’s over here, he’s over there. They kind of move together—it’s like the greatest love song.

You’ve worked with so many iconic artists. Can we do some name association? Tell me the first thing that comes to mind when I say, Madonna.

Uh, inventive.

Paul McCartney.

My favourite.

Barbra Streisand?

Simply complex.

Stevie Wonder.

Genius.

Michael Jackson.

One of a kind.

Whitney Houston.

Uh, complicated. Well no, let me add to that. The most amazing singer. Like a laser beam. Can I start again? Whitney Houston, a laser beam.

Can we come back to Paul McCartney for a moment?

He’s my favourite Beatle and I got to produce him in the ’80s. Love him. Love his songwriting.

Some beautiful songs.

When I found out I was getting a star on Hollywood Boulevard, I was working at Capitol Records. I was talking to the girl who works in the studio and I said, “I’d love to have my star outside of Capitol Records ’cause that’s where I got my first recording contract. Do you have any pull that could make that happen?” ’Cause you don’t get to really pick where you want your star. She says, “Well I know the woman upstairs who sort of runs the real estate in front of the building.” She came down and we literally walked outside and I look and I see right there: John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison and three blank spaces. And I said: “I want that one!” And she said, “Oh no, that one’s reserved for Paul McCartney.” I say, “Well, what about next to Paul McCartney?” And she says, “Oh no, I’m sorry, that one is taken because we are giving Buddy Holly, posthumously, his star on Hollywood Boulevard. The Beatles were adamant about that. They said Buddy Holly has to be right beside them. They love Buddy Holly more than anything.” So I went, “Okay, what about the one next to Buddy Holly?” And she said, “It’s yours.” And so, I got the one next to Buddy. But to me, Buddy doesn’t exist—even though he’s great—I’m beside The Beatles.

That’s a great feat.

[Jokingly] One night, when nobody’s looking, I’m going to take a jackhammer and get Buddy Holly out of there, and I’m going to put my star where Buddy’s is and Buddy can go where I am. But it’s as though I’m beside The Beatles.

One last question: Is there a song or a lyric that best describes you?

No one has ever asked me that before. Not to my knowledge. But if there was one, I would call it I Did My Best.

Thanks for being here today.

Thanks, man. That was awesome. I Did My Best—I gotta write that song.

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