Interview: Singer/Songwriter Bill Champlin Discusses His New Album, ‘Livin’ For Love’
Bill Champlin has had an illustrious career as a singer, songwriter, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist. Although he’s perhaps best known for his twenty-eight-year run with Chicago, where he sang on numerous hits like “Hard Habit to Break”, “I Don’t Want to Live Without your Love,” and “Look Away,” he’s also an acclaimed ensemble arranger on hits by Elton John and Donna Summer, as well as a two-time Grammy winner for his work on songs like “After The Love Is Gone” (Earth Wind & Fire) and “Turn Your Love Around” (George Benson).
Now Champlin is back with his first solo album in nearly ten years — ‘Livin’ For Love.’ An introspective, sixteen-song compilation that’s filled with personal anecdotes and honest vulnerability.
I recently spoke with Champlin about the new album and more in this exclusive new interview.
How would you describe Livin’ For Love in terms of its sound and how it relates to some of your previous work?
Bill Champlin: I’ve done numerous solo albums over the years and, in terms of writing, I always thought of them as a little bit craft-oriented. I’d read somewhere recently that if it’s not personal it’s not art, so I decided to put my heart and soul into this one a little more and dug a little deeper. I also had a few years where I was dealing with a medical issue as well as my oldest son passing away. It changed my whole view of the world. At some point of the game you realize that your list of what you care about gets shorter, and the list of what you don’t care about gets longer. I realized that what I care about is love, music, family, and friends. That’s what I wanted to establish here. This album is a little more personal and vulnerable.
What was the songwriting process like?
BC: I write with my wife, Tamara, and between the two of us, she may come up with a premise and then I’ll come up with a way to have it fit the music. I’ve been writing for a long time and always feel better about writing a song when there’s something personal about it and I took that to heart for this album. I’ve got some great people on the record that really helped me put a groove on it. There are three songs I did with Greg Mathieson: “Especially Me,” “Losin’ Ground” and The Truth Has Begun” that are right in the pocket.
Let’s discuss a few other tracks on the new album, starting with “Reason To Believe.” What can you tell me about it?
BC: That was a track sent to me by Bruce Gaitsch that Tamara and I dug right away. It had George Hawkins playing bass on it. George passed away a few years ago but this track came from when he was still living in Nashville. I asked Bruce to play guitar and keyboards on it, I played organ and Vinnie Colaiuta played drums.
BC: That song is about my relationship with my son before he passed away and took about two year to write. We’d become very close during the two and a half years he was dealing with esophageal cancer. He had done a lot of drugs over the years and had a way of never telling the truth. One night I mentioned to Tamara how much I missed him. I said I just want to hear his voice and see him again. I wouldn’t even care if he told me another lie. That’s when Tamara said, “There’s your song.” I wanted it to be honest about my love for him but also about the fact that he wasn’t always an angel when he was alive.
BC: I had the groove going and some of the melody and Jason Scheff (former member of Chicago) came over to the house and got in on the lyrics and melodies and ended up playing on the track. It was another one of those be honest songs that just speaks through.
I wanted to ask you about the Chicago track, “Hard Habit To Break.” Was that song originally designed to be sung as a sort of duet between you and Peter [Cetera]?
BC: I think it’s one of David Foster’s best arrangements and was originally supposed be done with three singers. The plan was to have Robert [Lamm] singing the first verse, me singing the pre-chorus and Peter singing the chorus. Then someone mentioned we needed to get Peter on the opening line for the purposes of having it big enough to get on radio. Because if you wanted to get radio with Chicago then you wanted to hear that guy first. He’s just incredible. We all ended up doing background vocals but I think that was the reason for taking it down to two voices.
Of all the highlights of your career are there any that stand out to you as most memorable?
BC: There was one time when my band, Sons of Champlin, were on the same bill as The Yardbirds and B.B. King. After our set the promoter came up to us and told us that B.B. needed a bass player. So, my bassist went over to grab his bass and I said, “Al, have you ever heard of B.B. King and can you name me one song?” He said that he couldn’t and that’s when I said, “Gimme that” [laughs]. So I went out and played bass with B.B. King. Then there was another night when Chicago played a giant gig in Philadelphia and Grover Washington Jr. opened for us. We had asked Grover to come up and join us on a solo and I got to stand right next to him and perform. Normally, you’d go home from something like that and say “Wow! I just played for 500,000 people.” But for me it was, “Man, I just jammed with Grover Washington Jr.!!” [laughs]. That was a real highlight.