The Ballbreaker Column

Bill Champlin Livin’ For Love Interview

Legendary musician Bill Champlin has had a career that is worth mentioning as legendary. Even after so many years writing and touring. He continues to work on a variety of projects with no signs of slowing down. It should be no surprise that he is not coming out with a 14 song album Livin’ for love which is set to be released on January 22, 2021 on Imagen Records. The album is throwback to the days when you would buy an album, read the credits on who wrote the songs, listen to the record and go back and listen to it because you have to go back and listen to that cool riff or solo again.

Angel Alamo: How did Reason To Believe come together?

Bill Champlin: Well, we got a friend of mine, Bruce Gaitsch, who is a guitarist, songwriter and producer, and he’s worked a lot and co-written a lot of stuff with Richard Marx. I’ve known him for years, and we’ve worked together on almost everything. He played on some of the Chicago albums, he was the guitar player. On a lot of my albums, I would have him come in, not only as a co-writer and an arranger, but as a guitarist. He’s a really, really good musician, and he’s co-written with both myself and my wife, Tamara, and he sent us the track, and we just went, “Oh God, this is great.” Pencil, paper, let’s do this. So we wrote the lyrics and the melodies in the next hour or two. We didn’t put it down until it was done. Then I called Bruce. I said, send me the files and it turned out that, just so I could load them into my pro tools rig and do the vocals, get the vocals and put Hammond organ on it. It turned out it was Vinnie Colaiuta playing drums. And George Hawkins Jr., who’s no longer with us, was playing bass.
Bill Champlin: I’ve had Georgie on one of my records for the last, I don’t know how many records. It was great to have one posthumous, kind of, because the track was cut, I don’t know, maybe five years ago. I don’t know when it was cut. But when Bruce sent it to me, I was like, Oh man, we’re on this in a minute. We wrote it and realized it was really about gratitude. So we went with that. It’s the first song on the album and it leads off with a pretty soulful touch.

Angel Alamo: When did you decide that it was time to put a record out?

Bill Champlin: Well, we’ve done a lot of stuff. We just had an album out a couple of years ago with Bill Champlin and Wunderground. It was me and Tamara. It was kind of a band-ish sort of thing, me and Tamara and Gary Falcone. He’s a guitar player, songwriter, singer. And we did that, and that was good, but I was kind of leaning more toward doing a solo record. And then Tamara walked in when I was just writing the song, Living for Love, which ended up being the song we used the title for the album. I was playing it on a guitar, just sitting around with maybe half watching TV playing it, writing down a few words, getting it going. Tamara came in and I sang what I had to her, just with me and a guitar. She said, “It’s time. You got to do a solo album.” And I went, “Yeah, I’ve been kind of leaning that way anyway.” So, here we go.

Bill Champlin: I started writing new stuff. I wrote a lot of stuff with her, and a couple things with her and Gary also. I kind of got pretty deep into it. My son passed away about four years ago, and there was a song that took me two years to write this thing, and I got that on the album. And I just kind of went Somebody, somewhere, I just read or heard somebody say, “If it isn’t personal, it isn’t art.” I’ve kind of put a little of my own world in there, just having gone through the cancer and all the rest of the craziness that I’ve had to go through over the last few years. I guess I grew during that period of time. This is not just a background date and a producing date on an R&B song. This is some stuff that really is real. Not all of it. Some of it’s, my baby left me and I don’t dig it, kind of traditional R&B stuff because that’s how I was raised. You’re not getting real deep Beatle lyrics on a Wilson Pickett jam, unless he’s cutting Hey Jude. That’s another story.

Angel Alamo: How did you come up with the album title? We know that it’s one of the songs on the album.

Bill Champlin: It’s just one of the songs, and it just seemed like the whole album, listening to the lyrics on the whole album, which I paid more attention to than I have in a lot of records that I’ve done. There’s a lot of stuff going on these days that maybe shouldn’t be. Everybody’s pointing the finger at everybody else, and there’s just a whole lot of blame game going on in the world. Hey, aren’t we supposed to be here just to love each other? Give me a break. I’m not saying it’s a hippie thing, by any means. It’s not like, wow, peace and love dude. It’s not like that. I don’t know. Maybe I just got to the point where I got through some pretty crazy stuff, and the reason I got through it is because somebody loved me and I loved the people around me and I got through it. I got through some pretty crazy stuff. There’s a lot of gratitude in some of the songs. There’s some pretty cool stuff on the record. And then there’s some performances, there’s some solos on the record that are insane crazy. Great solos. There’s Marc Russo who plays with the Doobie Brothers, that was the original sash player with Yellow Jacket. He’s a bad boy. He played with his sons for a while. Marc tour went off, just killed them. Oh my God. He really plays great. Don’t get me wrong, it’s anything but a jazz album or a smooth jazz album. These are pop songs. These are definitely pop songs, but I always have a little surprise in every one of them. It’s just the nature of the way I write.

Angel Alamo: How did you get Steve Porcaro on the album?

Bill Champlin: I asked him. He said, “Absolutely.” I brought it over. It was just a really short little song, but I didn’t even use a real drummer on it. I used percussion. Actually, we got Lenny Castro on almost the whole record, and Lenny’s just amazing. He’s been out playing with Toto, Joe Bonamassa. He’s just one of the all time great percussionists. I had Lenny do the whole record. And then I listened to this song and I went, “This needs strings, synth strings or synth parts or something. The song is called Stevie song. It’s kind of relating to Stevie Wonder. And I just said, “I got to get Porcaro on this.” And he said, “Sure, bring it over. Let’s listen to it and check it out.” So he got on it and he’s an amazingly great musician and a really good friend. I’ve known forever and a day.
Angel Alamo: Were there any songs inspired by what happened in the last year?
Bill Champlin: I think there’s one on there called Losing Ground. It’s kind of inspired by the politics of what’s been going on, not so much the last year, but for the last, I don’t know, maybe 12 or 13 years. I think most of it has to do with 24 hour news. Everybody’s blaming everybody else for everything. It’s like, well, wait a minute, hold it. This is human beings we’re talking about. We’re not supposed to be doing this. Everybody’s busy mudslinging. The mudslinging thing has become a national pastime at some point. That’s like, come on, give it a break. Some friend of mine calls Facebook, “Hatebook.”

Angel Alamo: Yeah. That’s pretty much what it has become.

Bill Champlin: Yeah, it’s just funny. I don’t care who you’re hating, I just don’t want to hear about it. At some point in the game, it’s like, first of all, what can I do about the political situation? Basically, nothing. Well, you got to come on this side and hate? Somebody, a comedian, at one time said, “What keeps a couple together is not who they love, it’s who they hate.” That’s deep. It could be true, but I just don’t want to buy into a lot of the crap that people seem to be buying into. There’s a line in the Stevie Song, “Music is the perfect path to love.” So it’s kind of what’s been driving me through the whole thing. Plus, the pandemic and the lockouts and everything like that gave me a lot of time to really sit down and think about what I wanted to do. And I wanted to really approach this record, not so much as a studio pro, but more as a real artist. So I tried to get to the songs a little deeper than normal. So there’s a lot of different things on there. Really, really cool to listen to. But the grooves are just in the pocket. There’s not a song on there that ain’t grooving like a dog.

Angel Alamo: Yes. I call this album a musician’s album, because you listen to it, just from start to finish, there’s a lot of just awesome pieces of music. You don’t just pay attention to just the lyrics, but you also pay attention to all the instruments on there, which is an amazing record, just from start to finish.

Bill Champlin: I think so. As I was doing it, I played a lot of the stuff myself. But at some point I went, I got to really bring in some ringers on this thing. I can’t just do this all by myself. I could, but it wouldn’t be as wide a record. You want it to be a little wider. In the old days, the A&R guys would say, “Well, you have one really good song here. Write me 10 of this.” And then we’ll put out an album, and the album has a tendency to sound the same after a while, it just starts to grate on you, because hey, is there any chance of something in a different key, even? Anything? I think this album achieved that. There’s a lot of different approaches and the lyrics are really, really good on just about all of it, in terms of what I think we’re all forgetting. I’m not trying to be a preacher or anything like that, but I think uplifting is better than downgrading. It’s not that deep, it’s just what we do. Music is supposed to be an uplifting thing. Listen to Sergeant Pepper. When you’re done, you feel more real when the record’s over with. I’ve always looked at that as like, they did a really good job touching people.

Bill Champlin: So I’ll look at those as the gurus of touching people musically, to see if I can do what I can for a measly little Pilgrim like I am. Now I’m just trying to relate to myself as I’m an artist, and I use the craft, the recording craft, as much as I can. But that’s not what I’m laying out in front of. What I’m laying on front is what I feel. A guy told me years ago that the first thing to go to tape, this is back when it was just tape. “The first thing to go to tape is who you are and how you feel. After that, you have time, intonation, attitude, arrangement, all the school learning stuff.” The first thing that goes there is what you feel and is that what you’re feeling about the song you’re singing? I made sure that I didn’t sing a lead the same day as I did backgrounds, because they’re two different approaches to a microphone. So in that sense, it’s a little deeper than some of the records I’ve done over the years.

Angel Alamo: After writing songs for so many years, what’s your biggest challenge as a songwriter?

Bill Champlin: Well, there’s a handful. One is to successfully get what I was just talking about, just to successfully touch something. The other thing is to be able to have one side think that this is about them, and the other side think this is about them. It’s one of those things that sometimes you look at a picture from the left of the picture, it looks like a different picture. Then you go over to the right of it, it’s like a totally different thing. That’s what I try to do lyrically as much as I can. Sometimes you get lucky and get it. Sometimes you don’t. But that’s what’s been what I’m shooting for. And then, somewhere down the line, I go, “Man, it’d sure be great to get a hit.” But this day and age with the music business the way it is, I don’t expect one by any means. I just hope that the people who hear it, get it.

Angel Alamo: Who did you write with on this album?

Bill Champlin: I write with my wife a lot. Tamara Champlin is an amazingly great songwriter. She’s really good at premise. She can pick up premise. She’s great. She’s a monster singer. She’s singing all over the record. She’s everywhere on that record. Mostly the high parts, that’s all Tamara singing. I’ve co-written with her. I’ve co-written with Greg Mathieson, The second song on there, Especially Me, and a song called The Truth Has Begun, down toward the end of the record. There’s a kind of a bluesy, gospel-y thing in the middle of the record. What’s it called? Oh, God. Losing Ground. With Greg we wrote some stuff. We did a couple of albums together and one of the songs Al Jarreau cut. It was actually one of the last things that he got on the charts quite a few years back, a song called Just To Be Loved, which is a really cool tune Al kicked butt on. It’s just wonderful. I miss him. He was a real sweet guy. The thing is, there’s some screaming rock on this record, which a lot of people don’t expect. You get bagged. People bag you. They categorize you. “Oh man, this guy, he’s a West coaster. He’s smooth jazz or he’s this or he’s that.” And I just try to take as many influences I can and shuffle the cards and hope that the cards land correctly, that you can get a lot of stuff across. Tamara and I have written a whole lot on the record. She tears it up. Gary Falcone wrote some stuff with me on the record. Actually, I wrote one with Andreas Carlsson, who believe or not, co-wrote a lot of stuff for Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys and NSYNC and Celine Dion and different people like that. Andreas is one of the main writers out of Sweden. I’ve known him since he was a kid, and we’re really, really good friends. We work together whenever we get a chance. He’s crazy. This guy owns universities and stuff. He’s turned into a big timer. Major big timer. But he’s a buddy and he’s a real pal.

Angel Alamo: My compliments to you on how the record turned out with the mastering everything. The cool thing is you can’t characterize this album as a pop album or as a rock album, because it’s just, like I said, all over the place. You definitely hear a lot of your influences and even from some of your stuff from Sons of Champlin. So because now, today it’s classic rock or it’s pop or it’s rock, and you cannot really put this album into any category.

Bill Champlin: Good. The third song, the title tune on the record, Living for Love, is actually almost the blues. It’s real bluesy, swampy kind of thing. My drummer and mixing engineer, Alan Hertz, I played him the rough of it. He said, “My God, that thing sounds like a Bonnie Raitt song,” which to me was a giant compliment, because I love all the songs she’s ever done. That woman, she could sing time, news, and weather and make it work. She’s one of the best slide players on the Earth, and a really good friend. I love that girl. We’ve gotten along for years. But there’s that, and then there’s A Stevie song, which I guess could probably could be considered almost jazz. I came up with some pretty crazy little chords, just for that one tune in the middle of the record that isn’t screaming at you, it’s a lot quieter. It’s a lot prettier, and it’s short. We get right back to the business of burning. The main thing that I think is kind of consistent in most of my records is that the grooves is in there. There’s a group going, especially on the up tunes. There’s a pocket that’s just that’s really what I’m the most interested in. To start with, the most interested in. And then to say something, and then just sing it well. I think I achieved that for most of this album. Hell, I think I achieved it for all of this album, but people could disagree.

Angel Alamo: Yes, they can. But it’s an album that you got to listen to multiple times because you will miss something, whether it’s a solo or whether it’s a horn section, I listened to the album already, and it’s like, I already want to go back, just because I feel like there’s a lot that I missed with the different instruments and so on.

Bill Champlin: Remember when we all got our Sergeant Pepper records? We played it all the way through to the end, and we just picked it up, turned it over and started it over again?

Angel Alamo: I miss those days.

Bill Champlin: That’s what you want. There was just something so cool. It was sequenced so well. There were some great things. Hey, I listen to satellite radio and listen to the Beatle channel pretty regularly, and I hear stuff that I never heard that when it came out. Back when some of the stuff came out, first of all, McCartney is a bitching bass player. He’s a really good bass player. His note choices are just, wow. Just think about it, listen to the bass part in this. It makes it on different things. I didn’t really notice it when they came out. I was just going, “Oh, there’s the fab four.” Wait a minute, this stuff’s musically, pretty cool.” Anyway, I just went on one of my tangents. Beatles.
Angel Alamo: No, that’s cool. We all love the Beatles.

Bill Champlin: Yeah.

Angel Alamo: After all these years, people are still listening to them.

Bill Champlin: Oh, totally. Tamara and I were driving up to do a Son’s gig up in the Bay area, San Francisco area, from Los Angeles. About a 350 mile drive. We just happened to be on, and the Beatles channel was doing satellite radio’s top 100, and the songs were being introduced by Peter Asher, who at one time was Paul McCartney’s roommate. They shared an apartment at one point.

Bill Champlin: The inside information he had, and then the way it came out on the radio was like, whoa. We paid a little more attention to it than we did when this stuff came out. It’s standing up and it’s still miles ahead of a lot of stuff that’s going on out there, just in terms of four cats that did some amazing shit, just really cool stuff. Make it five, because George Martin was definitely in there. He was in there for sure.

Angel Alamo: Yes, he was known as the fifth Beatle. That’s what he was known as.

Bill Champlin: Exactly. I think he was too. Some of the arrangements, I just don’t think John really had some of these things together on I am a Walrus without having a really major classical musician around, in the neighborhood somewhere. Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t know, but wow. Some of the notes, some of the whole tone scales and stuff that they’re playing on their record were insane. Just great. Loved it.

Angel Alamo: Do you think that, if they didn’t have George Martin, they would not have sounded as good?

Bill Champlin: I agree, yeah. I agree.

Angel Alamo: Because he just seemed just to always, like I said, to be known as another member of a band and you’re a producer is almost like the biggest compliment.

Bill Champlin: Yeah, exactly. Well, when he first got with them, they were doing some pretty simple stuff. At first, he kind of almost wanted to pass on them. And he said, “But they had such great personalities and it just seemed to me that they were going to go forward.” And my God, did they go forward. Holy smokes, man. They smoked it to death.
Bill Champlin: I always just look at people that just keep coming at you. Look at Steely Dan and Fagen, and those guys. They just keep coming at you with such great, really well thought out stuff. Toto, I don’t think they ever have done a bad record. People might say, “Well, there’s no hits on it.” Well, who cares? Listen to the music. It’s great. Stevie Wonder’s put out albums that didn’t have a hit single on it. But my God, listen to what’s there. It’s like, wow, this is insanely great. I think, at some level, it really had nothing to do with anything other than, if you’re making the record for disc jockeys to listen to, it’s going to be one kind of record. But if you’re making the record for the final end game consumer, you want to make it so it’s great to listen to. I think that’s what a lot of these really great bands have done over the years. Rush was the same. They just kept putting out great stuff. A handful of bands just do that, and it’s just the nature of what they do. I always love them for that. Chicago, in their own way, just kept going. They hit some slumps, but they’d come back. It’s pretty clear. Earth Wind and Fire. A lot of musical teams out there that just keep coming with great new music, and if people like it and it gets on the radio, then it’s like, oh, they were proven right. But if not, it’s still great music. I’m into great music. Hell, I just rediscovered Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. Wow, listen to what this guy is doing. It’s unbelievable. Apparently, he was a bit of a dick, but at some level, he sure made some insanely great music for a deaf guy. Wow. A couple of years ago, I discovered AC/DC. This year, I discovered Tchaikovsky. It’s all good music.

Angel Alamo: Yes. Their last record was number one in a lot of different countries.

Bill Champlin: Yeah. Yep. Nothing wrong with that.

Angel Alamo: Nope. I guess, once it’s safe to go back to touring, will you be touring behind this record?

Bill Champlin: Love to. I would love to. If Jupiter is in retrograde with Mercury and everything, all of those planets all fall together and I can do it, I’m on the road. I know how to pack a suitcase. I’ve done this before.

Angel Alamo: Yeah. When you was in Chicago, you was touring every year.

Bill Champlin: Oh, it never stopped. Towards the end, you could not schedule a vacation. You couldn’t schedule anything, because if somebody would book those days, you’d have to cancel everything you did. So it was like doctors on call seven days a week. Well, obviously with the COVID, they can’t. Nobody’s really going out. Though it looks like KISS is starting to wind up, get ready to go, get ready to go back out. If not in the states, They played Dubai.

Bill Champlin: I’ve got another little project that I’m doing with, with Tommy Thayer, who’s the guitar player with Kiss and Jason Scheff. The three of us are involved in this other project that we’ve been doing. It’s pretty smoking. And that’ll be coming down the line. We got to wait for Tommy to finish up the KISS tour.. I think it’s a three year farewell tour that Kiss was on when the virus hit.

Angel Alamo: Yeah. Because like I said, I’m definitely curious what that would sound like, because you’ve worked with so many different songwriters. And like I said, it’s almost like being a cat. You kind of want to peek in just to be curious to see what it would sound like. It’s a lot of curiosity as to how cool that will sound. Because it’s going to sound cool.

Bill Champlin: You go with Kiss, and in some ways, it’s kind of pretty easy to go, “Eh, that’s just a cartoon.” And then I did some benefits and stuff with Tommy and listened closely to what he was playing. I went, “Oh God, this guy’s a mofo, man. He’s bad to the bone.” Seriously good musician, and really understands what rock is and what makes it go that way. A lot of people have gone past it and don’t know how to access that. And it’s really kind of an energy that can happen in rock. Tommy’s one of those guys. He’s right there and knows how to make that thing get up and shout. I love him. He’s a screaming guitar player and a good guy. One of the nicest cats I’ve met in the business.

Angel Alamo: Is this something that can be expected, I guess, after the tour?

Bill Champlin: Probably after the tour. We’ve done four or five things. It was basically Jason and Tommy, and then I went in. Jason brought me in to sing some backgrounds on some stuff and then there was an organ there. I played some organ on it. Well, I started off, they just wanted an organ on it. So I played some B3. Then I saw that there was a booth with a microphone. I said, “Hey, do you want to do some backgrounds on this thing?” And Jason said, “Oh man, let’s go. We were kind of responsible for a good handful of backgrounds for a good handful of Chicago records. So we’ve been at the microphone together many times. So it was like putting on an old, comfortable shoe. It was great. And then they said, “Well, we want to make sure Bill’s a part of this.” So I went in and re-sand a few of the things so that they had the second singer kind of vibe going on. It should be fun whenever it happens. We’re not really in the process of doing anything with it right now. Nobody’s in the process of doing anything right now, except trying to stay safe. Stay safe as you can.

Angel Alamo: Yes.

Bill Champlin: I had cancer and I had chemotherapy. They say that always brings your immune system down, just a little bit. It’s not a lot, just a tad. So I’m one of the guys, I got to be really careful. Very cool with. So I’m wearing the mask. One thing I found out is, if you sing through the mask, you save a lot of money on Dolby. All of a sudden, everybody’s sounds like they’re singing with marbles in their mouth. I don’t think that’s ever going to really happen. But it seems pretty funny, because I remember we used to joke about Dolby. It makes it sound like you’re wearing a mask. So, here we go. It’s cheaper.

Angel Alamo: That’s true. You got to save money any way you can.

Bill Champlin: Exactly. Anyway, so cool, man. It’s great talking to you. It’s a good time.

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By Angel Alamo

Angel is co-host on The Metal Summit & has been featured in Metal Sludge, sleaze roxx & other publications.