Interview With Songwriter and Performer, Benita Hill
We are sitting on the deck of the songwriter and performer Benita Hill in Nashville. Benita has had tremendous success with songs cut by Garth Brooks, including "Take The Keys to My Heart," "Two Pina Coladas," and "It Was Your Song," along with cuts by Isaac Hayes and others. She has released four CDs. You can read more about Benita at www.benitahill.com.
[Doak Turner] Hello, Benita. Please tell the readers about your new CD.
Benita Hill It's called The Things That Are Real. It does not really fit into any genre. I am calling it a spirit album. My intention for the album was that these songs would touch upon the listener, and encourage them to feel their hearts and heal their hearts in some way.
[Doak Turner] I do not believe that I have ever heard a CD that seemed so personal, so much from the heart of what someone is going through. Sometimes we can reach a certain age and be so honest and not care what we say. Is that what you were doing with it, trying to inspire people to do the same thing?
Benita Hill (laughing) I do care what I say and want to make it mean something and be real. So many women feel so much pressure as women to be beautiful all of the time, to have perfect bodies, to be the perfect weight and this and that. Sometimes women end up in personal relationships where their partner puts so much pressure on them to be perfect. I know so many women who have been dumped in their 40s by their husbands for the 25 year old secretary. You start to re-evaluate and ask yourself, "Am I good enough, where am I and who am I." For me, it has been a time of acceptance and of letting go of those kinds of expectations and the freedom to be real!
[Doak Turner] Is this something that you have been working on, did you journal these thoughts and turn them into songs?
Benita Hill No, not really. They are songs that have evolved over the past couple of years.
[Doak Turner] How did you come to write the songs for the CD, as they are different from your other CDs?
Benita Hill All of these songs - they weren't daring to be different; they all came from a place in me wanting to express the particular stories in the song. Of course, on the co-written songs I had help from my co-writers. We expressed some similar feelings about every situation expressed in each song.
[Doak Turner] In the song "The Bow" is an incredible song. Everyone can relate to what that particular songs says.
Benita Hill There is a really great story to that particular song. I came up with the idea and wrote it with Julia Rich. I never really knew my dad. He was absent and I re-connected with him when I was 35 years old. It was very difficult. My dad was an alcoholic. He left our family, my mom and my three brothers. My grandmother raised us. There was always a longing for the father I did not have, and wondering what that would be like if he was ever in my life and if I got to meet him. When we did connect, it was very bittersweet. It was hard, and I did not want to judge him. By that time, I had done so much healing on my own to get over that wound that there wasn't any bitterness toward him. I figured if there was any reason he left, or it was his disease of being an alcoholic, he didn't know any other way except to do what he did. I had forgiven him.
He passed away two years ago from liver problems related to the alcoholism. I did get to tell him that I loved him before he passed way, which was wonderful. I thought about that particular song and wrote it with Julia; about how some things do not have closure, no matter what you do to make the relationship to be closed the way you would like it to be. You have to be OK with that, and maybe that is enough for the closure. A few days after he died, I was walking in my neighborhood. I looked down and there was something on the ground. It looked like it had probably fell off a piece of woodwork or something. It was a little carved wooden bow. I have it on my windowsill. I picked it up and thought that is the weirdest thing, and just got chills because I thought, "That is my dad and he came to say, 'I am with you and this is OK.'" That was it for me, all the closure that I needed to know that in the spirit we are all perfect. He is a perfect spirit, always with me, and so is my mom.
[Doak Turner] You mentioned your grandfather. It was a surprise listening to "Never Forget." Was that song something from an old memory?
Benita Hill I co-wrote that song with Kevin Smith. We were talking about how there are a lot of Patriotic songs written full of pro-American and anti everybody else, so anti to everyone that does not agree with us. Most of the newer patriotic songs have a lot of hate in them, and I do not think that was the spirit in which our country was shaped. It was made to embrace all of our differences and equality for everybody of all races. My grandfather was an Italian immigrant who came to America and he did not have anything over in Italy. He was able to work hard in America and make decent money, compared to the kind of life he led in Italy. He worked on the railroad; my grandmother ran a boarding house for Italian immigrants and railroad men in Chicago. That particular song just fell out and is something just to remind me of what the spirit of our country is about. It is not about "The Angry American" (laughter).
[Doak Turner] The song had a surprise twist when you started talking about the other woman that he loved more that your grandmother.
Benita Hill I think that for me, the concept of freedom is a value to be cherished.
[Doak Turner] A song that really stands out to me is "It's A Great Day, Even When It Rains." Tell me about that song. There is such a different voice on that song!
Benita Hill I wasn't going to put that song on the album, but it fit so well because it is a very optimistic song. It is about turning negative situations, such as fear and illness, into positive things. That is the meaning of the song. I do not sometimes know where songs come from - they just come. I put that song on the CD as a last minute thing. It was a demo that I'd had, just loved it and thought that it really works with the CD.
[Doak Turner] What other songs do you want to talk about on the new CD?
Benita Hill "Sending You the Light of My Love." That is an older song that I wrote with Sandy Mason, and I believe that prayer is a light that can go out and touch others. It is a song of hope and reaching out to loved ones. I know that when I was hospitalized with cancer, I would get notes, letters and phone calls from friends and they would say they are sending the light of their love. I could feel that love, and those words enabled me to feel those things. They played such a big part in the healing process.
[Doak Turner] "I am a Woman of Power." Tell me about that particular song.
Benita Hill That is an older song, too, that I wrote with Donna McElroy. I got the title from a lady named Edwene Gaines, and she does empowering women seminars. She comes out on stage and says, "I am a woman of power." It makes you go "YEAH!" I knew I was going to write a song with that title and told her. She thought that was great! I can't wait to send her the CD.
[Doak Turner] Was that one of the songs that you loved the hook and for the next ten minutes, your mind is thinking about that song you will write and is all you can think about at the time?
Benita Hill It was something that made a lasting impression. Her basis was that she acknowledges the source of all power, which is the spirit and God. That is the way that I acknowledge life.
[Doak Turner] Please tell me about the song "You Forgot I Could Fly."
Benita Hill - I wrote that song with Garth Brooks. Garth had the idea for the song. He was going to get it to the people who produced the first Harry Potter movie. They passed on the song. I like to tell the story that they got two songs submitted, one was ours and one was Bruce Springsteen's. They passed on them both. I say that I went down with the boss! (Laughter). Me and Bruce and Garth, all in the same rejection pile. That was the inspiration for that particular song. I always loved that song and told Garth that I wanted to put it on my CD, and he said go for it!
[Doak Turner] How is it writing with Garth?
Benita Hill It was wonderful. He is so incredibly talented and it was a wonderful experience. He wrote all the lyrics to that song. I contributed the music.
[Doak Turner] You have had three of your songs covered by Garth. Had you ever written with him?
Benita Hill No, we had never written together. That was the first and only song that we had written.
[Doak Turner] What do you really want the listeners to know about your CD?
Benita Hill It is not a jazz album and I hope that won't disappoint my jazz fans. just hope the people will be touched emotionally, spiritually and be moved by the record and that it will heal them at some level. The songs will be soothing and uplifting and bring them peace. I hope they are entertained and it makes them feel good about themselves.
[Doak Turner] What are YOUR favorite songs on the CD?
Benita Hill "You forgot That I could Fly" is one of my favorites. I really like them all. "Just a Dream" is one of my favorites and was inspired by the poem by Poe. It is kind of an "Imagine" by John Lennon. The wistful "what ifs" - what if everything was perfect.
[Doak Turner] What would happen if we all ran into all those broken hearts, which one would we want to heal?
Benita Hill It would be wonderful if everyone who fell in loved stayed that way and the one you loved felt the same.
[Doak Turner] Tell me about your songwriting process. Is it sit down at the piano and the words come to you?
Benita Hill A lot of times, yes, I will just sit down at the piano and I just give myself to the piano for a few hours. Sometimes just a melody line or a riff or a lyric will run through my head and I will have to go to work it out on the piano. Sometimes I won't have anything in there and if I play, things come.
[Doak Turner] Do you write every day?
Benita Hill No.
[Doak Turner] You do a lot of co-writing. What do you like about that process?
Benita Hill I think the co-writing enables you to get clearer and what it is you want to communicate. You get the devil's advocate situation going on as you may be locked into something, that there may be a better way to communicate it. When I am writing on my own, I may not be thinking about something that is more accessible to more people. When I co-write, I like to get that little structure and take it in a different direction that I may not have thought of myself.
[Doak Turner] Tell me how you choose your co-writers.
Benita Hill I write with many of the same people that I have been writing with for several years. Lately, I have been writing with Kirk Whalum. I love writing with him, because he is such a wonderful man of spirit, incredible artist, player, producer, and we just are kindred spirits.
[Doak Turner] Where can everyone purchase your new CD, or any of your awesome earlier CDs?
Benita Hill www.benitahill.com and CDBaby.com.
[Doak Turner] Did you write your Isaac Hayes song with Kirk Whalum?
Benita Hill Yes; and Isaac wrote the recitation that he does on the end of that song.
[Doak Turner] Tell me about writing that song with Kirk.
Benita Hill Kirk is from Memphis and was going to do a CD called Into My Soul, which was produced by David Porter ("Soul Man" and other Sam and Dave and Memphis soul hits). Kirk and his wife Ruby were childhood sweethearts. He had the idea of "I loved you in Memphis when we didn't have anything, and now we have all this. But even back then, when we were struggling and starving, we had so much because we had each other." He gave me the idea and I wrote the lyric and he wrote the music.
[Doak Turner] How did Isaac hear the song?
Benita Hill Kirk played it for him. Kirk had the idea of having Isaac appear on the album. Isaac hadn't fully agreed to be a part of album yet. Then he heard the song and loved it. So - yea!
[Doak Turner] What other artists have recorded your songs?
Benita Hill I am working with Kirk on a new project for Barbara Weathers, who is working on a deal. We co-wrote a song with Maurice White (Earth, Wind and Fire). I did not meet Maurice in person but we exchanged the tracks back and forth. It is one of my absolute favorite songs. It is called "Be Myself."
[Doak Turner] Please share how the process of when you did not meet your co-writer, yet still able to write the song.
Benita Hill Maurice sent a track to Kirk to see if he could embellish it. It was just a groove and a couple real cool chord changes. Kirk had a little bit of a melody, and asked if I could come up with lyrics for the song. Barbara was a huge star in the late '80s with Atlantic Starr. They had a ton of hits. We just wanted to find the right songs to re-introduce her to her fan base. I came up with this lyric about being myself. I've been all the way to the top and had the whole world at my feet when I walked the red carpet, everybody wanted me. Now here I am back again and will you still love me? That is the idea of the song, will you want me when I am just being myself? Barbara was really young when she started out in the business, just a teenager. She is now in her 30s. When she was young, she did what everyone told her to do - the label and the band thing. She was the only girl in the band, all the guys wrote all the songs. She did not know anything about the co-writing process, building up some posterity for yourself and for your future. Now she is older and wiser, so we tried to write some older and wiser tunes for Barbara. We went back and forth. Maurice said someone else wanted the tracks. But - when he heard the lyrics, he gave us the tracks. He said OK, that is Barbara's.
[Doak Turner] Whom else are you writing with these days?
Benita Hill I am writing with Mandy Barnette. She just signed with Sony, after previously doing a project with Arif Mardin, Norah Jones' producer. She was not really happy with how the songs turned out for that project. I am working with her as a writer to develop her voice as a writer, because she is a wonderful singer who knows who she is. I believe that she has a good shot with Sony if she can present her own voice, the person that she wants to be and the songs that she wants to sing. I think that is real important for her at this stage of her career.
[Doak Turner] You have been in Nashville for 23 years, and have seen a lot of songwriters come and go. You have watched many of the songwriters rise to success. What are some of the key things that you have seen songwriters do to be successful?
Benita Hill When I first came to town, my first publisher was Audi Ashworth, who just passed away. He had JJ Cale (Cocaine), and Don Schiltz was a new songwriter in town. Don had just written "The Gambler" and he got a couple of other cuts at the time. This was before Kenny Rogers cut it. I remember when Kenny cut that song. Don was going to the Grammys in a limo, and he was (laughing) a nervous wreck. He just took off!
[Doak Turner] Everyone keeps talking about writing in your peer group. Is that how you did it?
Benita Hill I asked everyone to write with me and got him or her to write with me. I thought what the heck, I will ask them to write with me. All they could do is say no (laughter). I'd start at the top and work down (Laugh). I would just try and connect with writers if the vibe was right.
[Doak Turner] Anything else you would want to say?
Benita Hill Buy the new CD! And it even has a holiday song on it. I wrote the song with Julia Rich. The song is called, "Holidays at Our House." It is not on my previous holiday CD and it is a bonus track on the new CD. It is not limited to just Christmas for the Christians, as I have several friends that are Jewish! We wrote it last year over the holidays at Julia's house. I started a melody and she started writing the lyrics.
[Doak Turner] Thank you Benita!