Debbie Gibson Interview: Uplifting Movie Is "Something New" for '80s Pop Icon
Image attributed to Debbie Gibson
From singer, songwriter and musician to television, film, Broadway actress and dancer, Debbie Gibson embodies what it truly means to be an entertainer. A music prodigy, she exploded on the Billboard Pop Charts as a teenager with the self-penned “Only in My Dreams.” The “original pop princess” quickly became the youngest artist ever to write, produce and perform a No. 1 hit song, “Foolish Beat,” and entered the Guinness Book of World Records.
Among her many accomplishments, Gibson has sold more than sixteen million albums worldwide, performed for British royalty and hosted The American Music Awards produced by friend and legend Dick Clark. On April 12, 2015, UPtv presents the exclusive premiere of The Music in Me, starring Gibson and Gloria Reuben (ER), an uplifting musical drama about a small town girl who gave up her dreams of performing only to rediscover her joy of singing and songwriting as an adult through her work with a failing church choir. Gibson has written and performs the film’s original song, “Promises.”
“Well, I almost think of this as new territory because I’m performing constantly, but I haven’t had the opportunity to really carry a movie except in the sci-fi genre (laughs). I haven’t ever really gotten to play a normal grounded character on TV. I think people will see me in a new way. That’s for sure. It’s something new for me.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Debbie, I really enjoyed The Music in Me. Would you say this role qualifies as a comeback?
Debbie Gibson: Well, I almost think of this as new territory because I’m performing constantly, but I haven’t had the opportunity to really carry a movie except in the sci-fi genre (laughs). I haven’t ever really gotten to play a normal grounded character on TV. I think people will see me in a new way. That’s for sure. It’s something new for me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you become involved in the project?
Debbie Gibson: My agent has had a longtime relationship with Barbara Fisher over at UPtv, and he put us together. We hit it off, and it seemed like I was a perfect fit for them. I’m at a point in my life where I feel like I’ve done so many things on my own terms for so many years, I’m not good at being just a hired hand. I don’t ever just want to work for the sake of working.
I like to do projects that are custom tailored to my personality and to me, and this network also has an uplifting message. I was like, “God, I get to work on music!” It seems they were taking in who I was as a person and what I wanted to project and present and really incorporated that into the story, which was a dream. The movie is also very female oriented with me, Gloria (Reuben) and Amy (Forsyth). It’s really about females helping females and supporting females in a lot of ways. I think that’s a story that needs to be told as well.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): “Promises” is such a great song.
Debbie Gibson: Thank you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The song really tells the story of the characters in the film. Were you given the script so you could write a song around it?
Debbie Gibson: Yeah. I was given the script, and it’s funny because I’m used to writing in a way where things just come to me. But in the script, it made mention of promises, and it was kind of like, “Oh, I guess they want this song to really be about promises and be called ‘Promises.’” But I decided to really make it about the fact that you need to make a promise and a commitment to yourself before you can really serve others. That’s the most important promise you’ll ever make and the most important promise you’ll ever keep. They really sparked to that idea which was super cool.
So yeah, as I was reading the script the very first time through, I saw written, “Jessica writes in her notebook the words ‘promises me.’” That’s all they had. In real time, as I was reading it, I heard, “Promises made, promises broken …” (sings) It was like it just kind of dropped in at that moment. The song was really born at that time. I knew the rest would come in its due time, but when that little phrase came in real time as I was reading the script, I thought, “Okay. That’s done. I don’t have to think.” (laughs). That’s usually how it happens.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will “Promises” be added to a new album?
Debbie Gibson: No, but I think it will be available as soon as next week on CD Baby and iTunes and on my website for download. There’s not a new album just yet, but this single will stand alone and be available for people to get.
It’s not really like anything that I’m working on for my next record. It really is custom tailored to the movie, but at the same time, the thing it has in common with everything I’ve ever done or everything I will do in the future, is that it’s very melodic.
I had a guy named Stevie Blacke do the strings, and if you look him up online, you’ll be blown away. He’s done strings for every legendary artist. He did the strings when Miley Cyrus did The Chelsea Handler Show last year. He’s this really cool arranger, so it was fun to musically get to work with people like that on this movie.
I’m very much into melody, and I love a haunting melody, so I love that they let me go in that direction and didn’t want something really schmaltzy in a major key (laughs). I think it has some depth, and they wanted that which was really cool.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you working on new music now?
Debbie Gibson: I’ve been writing. Basically the last two years I’ve been dealing with a lot of health issues with Lyme Disease. It’s only these past six to eight months that I’ve even remotely started to get my mind back in gear and clear, and I’ve been able to sit at my piano. About a year and a half went by where I was not really able to focus. I was keeping up with all these live performance commitments I had, and I was just in a time, energy, health commitment juggling act, so I’m finally at the point where the last several months I’ve really started to get my ideas together.
I’ve been writing my favorite songs that I’ve ever written in my life over the last couple of years. I never stopped performing, but I left more room to have an actual life and live in the actual real world. I got re-inspired, but it’s hard to put a timeframe on things. I went back in the studio a few weeks ago and just started laying some ideas down, so that’ll unfold in the near future for sure.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you over the disease?
Debbie Gibson: It’s not over with unfortunately, but I would say I am 90% pain free. This time last year I was on a plane to Santiago, Chile, to perform. I was about 108 pounds, and I was eating constantly, so my body was just so out of whack. I had to lie across the floor at my boyfriend’s feet on the plane. I couldn’t sit. I got through that concert by the grace of God. I literally looked up and said, “I can’t do this, so somebody has to do this for me and through me.”
I couldn’t even ride a bicycle last year, so right now, I’d say that I’m about 90% there, but there’s this 10% of naggy stuff that comes and goes. I do holistic work. I work with a chiropractic kinesiologist. You have to jump on rounds of detox supplements here and there, and diet is very important. Like most people at Christmastime, I had a free-for-all at my family’s Italian Christmas, and it set me back. All of a sudden, I spent the next couple of months trying to get out of that hole. So it is an ongoing thing, but with that said, the strides I’ve made from last year are remarkable.
I have some great team members, I’ll call them, that help me, and I’ve gotten really out of the traditional medical realm because I feel like it’s kind of a dead end. This time last year I was on six different antibiotics at one time, which I think at some point you actually have to do to get out of the hole, and then you’re dealing with the fallout from your body going, “Why did you just put six different antibiotics in me?” (laughs)
As you can tell, I still have my sense of humor, but I also have my moments where I break down as I think anybody dealing with health issues would do. You want to get your life back and not be derailed, but at the same time, I’ve learned how to put it into a box off to the side, find the joy in my life in other ways and then address it. It’s a little juggling act.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I wish you continued good health and hope that you are on the road to 100% recovery.
Debbie Gibson: Thank you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I find it so fascinating that you and your three sisters all expressed interests in music as youngsters. Who were your influences?
Debbie Gibson: My dad was an orphan, and he grew up in the foster care system. He and three of the boys in the Boys Home at Far Rockaway formed a barbershop quartet called the Four Peanuts. They were on Name That Tune, Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour and The Joe Franklin Show, which later I was on then got to talk about that. My dad has this amazing, natural singing voice. My mom has amazing rhythm, and thank God I got the best of both because my mom cannot carry a tune, and my dad can’t clap to a beat (laughs).
They got a piano in the house before they ever got a couch because they decided they wanted music in the house, but I don’t think they realized how much their four girls would monopolize the piano and be interested in it. I think I was always clearly the most interested. My sisters and I sang. We’d be four of the seven von Trapp children in The Sound of Music, so we all did it together, but it was always clear if one of us was going to sacrifice everything for that, it was going to be me. They wanted a little more normalcy in their lives, and hence they’re married with kids, and I’m still the road gypsy and doing my thing (laughs). Yeah, it’s definitely in the genes.
I saw this little Asian girl on Ellen who’s a virtuoso pianist and songwriter. Ellen asked her, “How do you think of these songs you write?” She said, “I just hear the music in my head, and I write it down.” I felt like I was watching myself because that’s always what’s happened. I think that a lot of writers can’t even call themselves writers. It’s like you have to call yourself a channeller because it’s not like you’re doing anything.
Just like somebody might hear one of their favorite songs in their head repeatedly, I hear songs that haven’t been written yet in my head, and I feel like it’s my responsibility to write them down and get them out. I just usually wave to the sky and say, “Thank you for that!” It’s always melodies for me. I hear melodies, strings and arrangements. I hear lyrics, but I have to work harder at them. I was just blown away by this little girl because she writes full classical pieces. It’s like she came to earth with this old soul, with this ability to channel that stuff. It was fascinating for me to see that in somebody else currently out there.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As a young person in the 80s, though, wasn’t it difficult to write, sing and produce, to do everything yourself?
Debbie Gibson: It was really fun. The only difficult thing was convincing the record executives and the powers that be that I knew how to do it. I had to prove myself. Somebody else may have gotten signed off of a five-song demo, but the label heard literally about a hundred songs that I demoed in my garage. They said, “This has to be a fluke. We really don’t want to sign you until we are sure this isn’t a fluke.” I had to jump through all these hoops that other people didn’t have to jump through.
Now you do have people like Taylor Swift who, at a young age, exercised her writing abilities and production abilities, and it wasn’t such a novelty. But when I started, it was a real novelty. Girls were supposed to be puppets, and the older men knew better. I was always like, “Why is this real estate exclusive to men?” It’s really about hearing what you want to come out of the speakers in your head and knowing how to articulate it to the musicians.
I can talk music to musicians, and a lot of producers can’t do that, but they’re still fabulous producers. So many producers will describe even a sound as a shade like, “I want it to sound more like a green.” I’ve heard all kinds of things in the studio. If I had done that and not said. “I want a B-Flat Major 7 chord there,” they would’ve said, “You’re not producing your music.” I had to almost show off and prove myself in ways that others didn’t because I was both young and female which was like a double minority at the time. It was an interesting thing, but I found that almost more rewarding.
I always said singing was not my natural ability. I’ve always had to work very hard at singing, but hearing the music, producing the music, playing the music … all very natural for me. It’s what I can do in my sleep and what I probably get the most enjoyment out of.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What you did in the 1980s was groundbreaking for both young artists and the women that came after you.
Debbie Gibson: Thank you. I always say each generation oils the machine for the next. For me, I remember watching Marie Osmond who’s a pal to this day. She was out there doing it at sixteen. Before her, there was Lesley Gore who we just lost recently. I remember meeting her on Good Morning America and saying, “Oh my God, hail Lesley! You did this before me. Thank you!”
It seems like this generation doesn’t pay homage necessarily to the generations before so much. I think we live in the time where this generation thinks they invented everything. I always looked back. It’s subtle, but without a woman in every generation inching the machine forward a little bit, it would’ve been that much harder for me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s next, Debbie?
Debbie Gibson: I’m doing some live shows coming up in May, June and July, and I’m doing a Southeast Asian tour in the fall, so mainly live performance stuff. I’m getting my new music down in the studio because that really has been a long time coming for me, and I’m ready (laughs). I’m ready to rock it, ready to hit it!
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