Songwriting Lessons From Michael Jackson, Toto, and Paul Baloche
I can remember many years ago sitting in my room being a teen and amazed by one track on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. It wasn’t the lyrics. To be honest, if I put them all together, they didn’t make sense. They seemed disconnected. The hook, however, was catchy. It fit so many circumstances. The melody was relaxing. It was a departure from the rest of the album. I could listen to it over and over and over. I did, actually. It was “Human Nature”. It charted in pretty much every country around the world…except with the UK, I’m still not sure what was wrong with them…I’ll digress. It was an amazing song. You’re probably singing it right now no matter how old you are. I’m sure some artist is already trying to buy rights to remake it. It’s that good.
The story of how the song came to be might surprise you. It has very little to do with Michael Jackson. Sure – if it wasn’t for him the song may have had little success. However, if it wasn’t for a situation on a school playground, the world may have never heard the King of Pop sing the song. Steve Porcaro was in the studio with his band Toto working on the album Toto IV. He had stopped by to see his daughter Heather at the house before going to the studio. She was five years old and had just had a bad experience on the playground with a young boy. The boy, it seemed, had pushed her off the slide. Heather asked her daddy why the boy did that. Steve pondered how to explain this to a five year old. “How do you explain that he probably likes you – but doing something mean doesn’t seem like the right response.” Steve said that he left the encounter and went to the studio. The band was mixing the song “Africa”. He went to the piano and began playing what would become a simple chorus for “Human Nature.”
“Why? Why? Tell her that its human nature.
Why? Why? does he do me this way?”
Steve ended up recording a demo of the song while living with a bandmate. That bandmate was also writing lots of music for Quincy Jones – who, in turn was doing a lot of work for Michael Jackson. Jones was sending a courier by David’s house regularly for his work. One day, called ahead for some work…but he didn’t have a cassette. Steve used an old cassette he had…the very one he had recorded “Human Nature” on. When Quincy got it…he overlooked the songs David recorded but was keenly interested in the track that was accidentally left on there. You guessed it…a track about a 5 year old being pushed off a slide.
Quite a few years ago…a friend of mine named Paul Baloche game me some of the best advice as a songwriter. He told me to “always have your antenna up”. Its a quirky thing with Paul…but you could have a conversation with him…and he could jot something down in the middle of it. It isn’t disrespectful…hes a note-taker. He writes what inspires him in a song.
Would you have ever imagined that the outflow of a conversation with a five year old would turn into a #1 song? I’m sure Steve never did either. Yet it inspired him. The world is full of inspiration right now. Put your antenna up…and write on!