Q&A: Debbie Gibson discusses Pavarotti, Joe Franklin, and judging ABC’s Sing Your Face Off
During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, few teen pop sensations were quite as ubiquitous on the radio as Debbie Gibson. With the insidiously catchy hooks of songs like “Shake Your Love” and “Out of the Blue,” smoldering ballads like “Foolish Beat” and “Lost In Your Eyes,” and – lest we forget – the anthemic “Electric Youth,” Gibson provided the soundtrack to many an adolescence while in the process sending five songs into the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100.
That instant familiarity is certainly one of the things that led to her latest gig: serving as a judge on ABC’s new celeb-reality competition series, Sing Your Face Off. Naturally, Gibson chatted with Rhino about her new endeavor – that’s how we came to chat with her, after all – but she was also game to dig into her back catalog to chat about the origins of her sound, writing with Lamont Dozier, getting advice from Ahmet Ertegun, and singing with everyone from Placido Domingo to the Circle Jerks.
Rhino: So how did you find yourself involved in Sing Your Face Off in the first place? Did they come looking for you, or had you been actively looking for a TV gig?
Debbie Gibson: Yeah, they came looking for me...which is lovely! It’s funny, I had worked with Endemol (the production company behind Sing Your Face Off) over the years. We were actually trying to find a project for me at one point, and I even did a reality show pilot with them…which I haven’t mentioned in any interviews until now because I just remembered that. And I’m so thankful that that didn’t happen. Like the Garth (Brooks) song, thank God for unanswered prayers! [Laughs.] I find myself not really loving to live for show business. I like showing up, doing my work, and going home without the cameras rolling all the time.
But, yes, they approached me about this and I had a meeting, and the idea of me being a contestant came up, but it became clear that the judging spot would be a great fit for me. For instance, when they mentioned Jon Lovitz doing Pavarotti, I was, like, “I worked at the Metropolitan Opera at eight years old, and I used to be around Pavarotti vocalizing!” Like, I have an imprint of his vocal tone in my head from being in a hallway with him. So I just felt like, over the years, I’d met so many of these people that the celebrities would be emulating that I thought that would be a really fun thing.
And obviously there are so many talent competitions on the air, but it’s so much fun to be a part of something that’s… There’s no stress for the celebrities. I mean, they’re invested, but they’re not trying to win their career on television. It’s really fun for them, and they’re living these fantasies. I mean, Lisa Rinna was one of the most fun to watch, ‘cause she was just so into it. She just was, like, “I can’t believe I get to be…” [Hesitates.] Well, I don’t want to give stuff away that I’m not supposed to, but she was just thrilled every minute to be there, and it was such a great energy. You know, the world has enough troubles. People need escapism…and this definitely provides that!
Rhino: Were you familiar with Your Face Sounds Familiar, the original series that Sing Your Face Off is based on?
DG: Well, basically, they showed me clips of the show from other countries, just to get the vibe. I got the idea that it was really fun, and they wanted to know that I was game for anything. They were, like, “If we want you to get up and do an impersonation, will you do it? Will you jump up on stage?” They just wanted to know that everyone involved didn’t take themselves too seriously, so they put together a sizzle reel of the other shows, the other incarnations of it from other countries, just to get a feel. But, no, I wasn’t overly familiar with it before that, honestly. Only with what they showed me in the clips and stuff.
Rhino: This isn’t your first on-camera judging gig: you actually served as a judge for the online competition, Total Pop Star.
DG: Yes! But I thought you were going to say American Juniors, except that it was so short-lived that I don’t know that anybody remembers it! [Laughs.] American Idol did a spin-off, American Juniors, and Gladys Knight and I were the judges.
Rhino: How long did it last? Just one season?
DG: Just one season. I think it was…2003? And it was before fetuses were making records, as I put it. [Laughs.] So it was, at the time, very uncomfortable to watch 11- or 12-year-olds being critiqued on television. I think it was before its time, really. But it was Ryan Seacrest, it was the same set, it was the same producers, it was the same format, and they put together a group…and then they didn’t do anything with the group. But, actually, Lucy Hale was on that show! So I’ve watched her blossom, to say the least.
And then I did the Total Pop Star thing, and then I did a lot of camp programs and mentoring with kids and all of that stuff. I’ve always enjoyed that. I’ve never considered myself the best singer in the world, but I’ve always prided myself on technique, so in this show I get to kind of dive in and see where people technically are missing the mark or hitting the mark, and more than that… For me, yes, there’s the vocal technique and the tone and all of that, but there was always a fine line between somebody doing an amazing performance and really being that person.
China Anne McClain is a great example, ‘cause she’s so amazing that you just want to give her a 10 every time, and if you don’t, you get booed, and everybody’s on their feet for her. But I was, like, “This girl is so good, and she’s taking in so much at such a young age, that I want her to find that place where that one layer of what separates her great performance from actually becoming this person, from channeling this person she’s portraying. I want to help her find that line.” And it didn’t make me very popular, but it was a fun thing to do, and I loved that every week she would come up to me after and say, “Thank you for that. Thank you for always giving me a 10, because I’m learning.” It was cool! So in the midst of it being just a fun outlet for these celebrities, when you have someone like her, who’s gonna be singing for the rest of her life… I think she took a lot away from it.
Rhino: You mentioned your close encounter with Pavarotti at a young age. When did you first realize that you had an interest in music? Obviously by age eight, at the very least.
DG: [Laughs.] Yes, definitely by eight. But my parents were always playing Motown records around the house, and my dad was in a barbershop quartet and was actually on Name That Tune and… I’m trying to remember the name of the other show, and I can’t believe I’m blanking on it, because I was in a contest and won an appearance on it, too. It’s gonna come to me… [Suddenly] The Joe Franklin Show!
DG: Yeah, I was on The Joe Franklin Show, and my dad was on The Joe Franklin Show. He was an orphan, and four of the orphans from the foster care home formed a group called the Peanuts. So I grew up with my dad singing barbershop in the house, and… I just always ran to the piano and played what I heard by ear. And my sisters were ahead of me in the piano lessons, and I kind of begged them for lessons, too. My sisters liked it, and they practiced and did all that, but it was always clear that I was the one who was in love with it all. So, yeah, I was one of those obnoxious kids that was born singing. [Laughs.] Singing and writing songs. And then I started singing at the Metropolitan Opera at eight, and I did La bohème with Placido Domingo and Renata Tebaldi, and I did Le Rossignol and Hansel and Gretel and had to learn to sing in eight different languages, and…it was incredible. I did that from eight to 12. And – little known fact – Sarah Jessica Parker was in the chorus at the time!
Rhino: I did not know that. You’re really hooking us up with a lot of little-known info here. I mean, The Joe Franklin Show? That’s instant street cred.
DG: [Laughs.] Isn’t that funny? This is so appropriate for Rhino, isn’t it? Yeah, I’d won a WOR songwriting contest where you had to write a song about America, and the prize was a thousand dollars and a spot on The Joe Franklin Show! And it was on the middle of the night, and my aunt was the only one with a VCR, so she had to tape it!
Rhino: You clearly had an appreciation of various genres of music by the time you recorded your debut album, Out of the Blue. How did you decide what your “sound” was going to be, or the direction you wanted to go?
DG: You know, I was really just influenced by what I was hearing at the time. And now with working and mentoring kids on songwriting, it’s, like, when you’re in school and you’re in the thick of whatever’s going on in pop music, it’s gonna creep in. I mean, I will credit Madonna forever with the way I sang the words “out of the blue,” that little grace note kind of stylized thing that me and every other female singer at the time did. And then I had to eliminate that from my voice for Broadway and learn how to hit a tone just straight. So, you know, I think I was heavily influenced by Madonna and Wham! And I was into shamelessly catchy hooks. I mean, when “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” came out, I was just bouncing off the walls. I just thought that was the greatest thing I’d ever heard, and I wanted to write a hook as good and as memorable. And probably “Shake Your Love” is my equivalent obnoxious/catchy hook. [Laughs.]
So, you know, I was just really heavily influenced by what I was hearing at the time in the ‘80s. And then in terms of my career, I always wanted to emulate the Broadway women and the piano men. They also influenced me. I was a fan of Billy Joel and Elton John, but then I was also a fan of Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler. So I’ve always kind of married the two, even as recently as a month ago. I performed in Chile, and a half hour of my show was not on the set list: it was just me at the piano, bringing up fans and taking requests. So I’ll do something heavily choreographed and theatrical, but then I’ll do stuff that’s more off the cuff and singer-songwriter-esque.
By the way, as far as my sound on that first album, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Fred Zarr, who produced and co-produced all those hits with me. He took what I was doing in my garage on the four-track and elevated it to what you heard on the radio. He really helped facilitate my vision, fine-tune it, and elevate it, so I really hold him responsible for that sound.
Rhino: I know you weren’t necessarily a Mojo Nixon fan when he released his single, “Debbie Gibson is Pregnant with My Two-Headed Love Child,” but who would you say is a musical artist that people might be surprised that you’re a fan of?
DG: Oh, my goodness, that is such a good question…and I feel like I’m going to have to wrack my brain for an answer! [Laughs.] Okay, this is kind of fun: just recently, I started getting into Quiet Riot, because my boyfriend kept speaking of all the virtues of Quiet Riot. But, you know, even back in the day, I was really into Metallica. So it might be surprising to some people that I like melodic rock. Stuff that I was brainwashed as a kid to think, “Oh, my God, this is noise, turn it off,” I now really appreciate.
Rhino: I still find it pretty amazing that you not only sang on a track for a Circle Jerks album, but that the track in question was a cover of the Soft Boys’ “I Wanna Destroy You.”
DG: Oh, that was so crazy…and funny! But the funniest thing was that I sang at CBGBs with them, and it was totally a scene out of This is Spinal Tap, because I had to enter the stage from the alley in the back, and I could hear them introducing me…but the door was locked! And they’re vamping, going, “Debbie Gibson!” And I’m banging on the door, shrugging at whoever was with me that night, going, “Nobody can hear me! I’m not getting in!” [Laughs.] It was so ridiculous.
Rhino: Most everyone knows the signature singles from your back catalog, but were there any singles that came out that didn’t do as well on the chart as you’d hoped they would?
DG: You know, there was a song called “Losin’ Myself” that I wrote with (Carl) Sturken and (Evan) Rogers. I just performed it in Chile last month…and, in fact, you probably could find it on YouTube and include it! But what I felt about that song was… Atlantic pushed me to do an older, sexier, more urban thing at the time…because when you think “Debbie Gibson,” you think “urban.” [Laughs.] And I think the inner songwriter in me was able to write for the woman that I’ve now become, because when I performed it last month, I felt like it was the first time I’d ever performed it. And it was so exciting, because I took it down a little bit lower, I slowed it down, and I was able to really sing about losing yourself in a relationship...and I hadn’t been able to deliver that until now. So I feel like it’s a little bit of a hidden treasure. It had a moment, but the moment ended up being gimmicky, and it’s a song that, to me, is worthy of a real moment.
Rhino: How did you enjoy the experience of writing with Lamont Dozier on Anything is Possible?
DG: Oh, I love him. He’s amazing, and I was so honored to work with him. We would literally be barbequing in his yard and then go cut a vocal. [Laughs.] It was totally fun and casual, and I always felt a connection…but, I mean, I performed half his songs in a medley on the Electric Youth tour! So I was a huge fan, and I always felt a huge connection to those Motown writers who were into those hooks and those melodies. So that was a thrill for me. Like, I still can’t believe I can call him a friend. It’s mindboggling. That, and Darlene Love sing on my version of “Sleigh Ride” that Jimmy Iovine produced. I pinch myself over things like that, you know? And those are the experiences that probably your readers will appreciate and that’ll resonate with them, even though a lot of people don’t even think twice about or just wouldn’t care about. But as someone who was a real music fan growing up, those moments for me were huge.
Rhino: With the caveat that the fans may well love it, is there anything that you recorded in the early years that makes you cringe when you listen back to it now?
DG: [Laughs.] Oh, my goodness, there’s so much. Like, there was a chapter… Actually, it was during the Anything is Possible album, which was my third album, where I was really tired – I think it was pretty much that album – and over-singing and…putting out stuff, really, that was mediocre instead of taking a break. And I think that it’s such a youthful mindset to want to go, go, go and think, “Oh, my God, somebody’s gonna steal my crown if I’m absent for a moment!” But if I had any message to young artists right now, that might be the message: don’t be afraid to take moments, hibernate, or just live your life. You’re only gonna come back regenerated and with actual life experience to write about, instead of just trying to write. So I had moments that were like that, but it’s a hard to pinpoint an exact song, because there were entire chapters.
Ahmet Ertegun said to me once… He said, “Darrrrrrling…” [Laughs.] He said, “You can always sit down and write a good song. But that doesn’t mean it’s great, and it doesn’t mean you should release it. You should only release it when it’s great.” And he cited Sheryl Crow at the time and said that the line “until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard” made her a star. I had written a song called “In Blue,” where the hook line was, “I guess he likes me in blue,” and I submitted it to Anita Baker, but he said, “No, you should record that…and that’s what I’m talking about. You need to only put stuff out when it’s special.” And it was such great advice.
I’ve been sitting on this moment of new music for several years now, and I’ve been fine-tuning the writing – because just like a movie, if it’s not on the page, it’s not happening – and I feel like I’m sitting on that Tina Turner “What’s Love Got to Do With It” moment, where whoever counted me out can check out what I’m about to do next, because… [Hesitates.] It’s not my ego talking, I just know that it’s inspired, and I know it’s channeled. It’s not put on, and it’s not me trying to force a timing, and…it’s funny to be at my point in life and not be in a rush, but I’m just, like, “You know what? Nobody ever remembers, ‘Oh, the album came out when she was 35.’ They just remember that the album was great.” I’ve learned that, in trying to force those moments, you dilute what you’re trying to do, and…you’re just throwing your energy away. You don’t want to miss the mark like that, because you could end up throwing away some real gems. So I’m just sitting and waiting for that moment to be right.
Check out more classic videos by Debbie Gibson here.