Interview: Teen Queen Debbie Gibson is All Grown Up

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CHICAGO – Debbie Gibson was the youngest recording artist – at 17 years old – to write, produce and perform a number one hit (“Foolish Beat” in 1988), and her songs were the soundtrack to that era’s teen generation. HollywoodChicago.com caught up with the candid Ms. Gibson at the “Hollywood Show” Chicago.

Deborah Ann “Debbie” Gibson was born in Brooklyn, New York, one of four musical siblings. At age eight, she sang in the children’s chorus at the Metropolitan Opera House in New Your City, and took piano lessons. By the time she was in her early teens in the early 1980s, she had a handful of demo songs that caught the interest of Atlantic Records. In the meantime she started playing club dates, all while attending high school. Atlantic Records released her first album in 1986, “Out of the Blue,” and the single “Only in My Dreams” reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100.

Debbie Gibson
Debbie Gibson at the “Hollywood Show Chicago” in 2013
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for HollywoodChicago.com

This began a string of hits – all reaching the top five – from “Out of the Blue,” including the title song, “Shake Your Love” and the number one hit that put her in the record books, “Foolish Beat.” Her next album, “Electric Youth,” spent five weeks on the Album Chart at number one. As she reached her twenties in the 1990s, her hot streak ended, but not her song output. She has released albums on two more record labels, including her own “Espiritu” and “Golden Egg.” Her latest release was in 2010, “Ms. Vocalist.” She also performed on Broadway in “Les Misérables” and in the musical “Grease” in London and in touring companies.

Debbie Gibson appeared at the “Hollywood Show” Chicago, an annual event in which fans can mingle, take photographs and get autographs from the celebrities who make appearances there. The next session of the “Hollywood Show” Chicago will take place in Rosemont, Ill., on August 15th-17th. For complete details and ticket purchase information, click here.

HollywoodChicago.com: As a songwriter, when did you first realize you had a knack for it? And are you a melody first, lyrics later type of writer or vice versa?

Debbie Gibson: I’m more of a natural melody channeler than a lyric person. But it’s been only recently that I really became tuned into lyrics. The lyrics used to serve my melodies – and when you’re younger you can get away with trite and cliche – but you can’t do that as you get older. In my study of song, there is a perfect encapsulated way to bring the words and music together. I even listen to current hits, and either realize it could be better lyrically, or that it captures it. For my latest batch of songs, I’m not even saying I’m writing them, I say I’m ‘channeling’ them. [laughs]

I knew when I was very young, around five years old, that any experience I had, I wanted to write a song about it. Anything that happened in my life, where other people have diaries, I wanted to write a song.

HollywoodChicago.com: You have the distinction of being the youngest female to write, record and perform a number one single. What were the circumstances of creating ‘Foolish Beat.’ and what was the oddest moment you experienced on the way to the top with that song?

Gibson: It was about the minor key ballads of the era, like ‘Careless Whisper.’ My Mom actually told me that I needed to write my version of that style, I always tended to write melodies that were bright and more pop oriented. I had never had been in love, and to sing about ‘I can never love again’ was a bit of a stretch. [laughs] I based it on my older sisters’ love lives.

My family had converted our garage into a four track studio, so I made a demo of the song there. I recorded the video at the South Street Seaport on St. Patrick’s Day, so there were a lot of drunk New Yorkers saying, ‘hey Debbie Gibson!,’ while I was trying to ‘emote’ the song like I was contending for the Oscar. [laughs] It was very hard to stay in character, I remember that very vividly.

HollywoodChicago.com: You came from a musical family. What was behind the decision to start performing at such a young age, and who or what was the starting point for the path of your show business journey?

Debbie Gibson
Debbie Gibson’s Debut Album
Photo credit: Atlantic Records

Gibson: My sisters started with piano, and I started tagging along with them, picking it up by ear. I told my Mom that I wanted to learn, and when I was six I started lessons. The first time I was on stage was at a church talent show playing ‘Für Elise.’ I did community theater after that, but when the Broadway musical “Annie’ came out in the late 1970s, that’s when I got the bug. Every little girl who performed wanted to be Annie. My first dream was to be a Broadway star.

It was interesting to me that when I went to Broadway after my pop music hits, a lot of people saw it as if I was resorting to theater because the hits weren’t happening. But for me, it was my first dream, and I saw it as bigger than pop music. You had to deliver those songs in a legitimate way, all the time.

HollywoodChicago.com: What is your favorite stage role and why? What have you learned about yourself as a stage performer?

Gibson: Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.” I got to do that with Neil Patrick Harris at the old Studio 54 about ten years ago. That was a shining moment for me, because it’s a pure musical theater acting role. Playing Sandy in “Grease” or Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” wasn’t much of an stretch, but Sally Bowles is about the acting. I got to work one day with [director] Rob Marshall on it, and that one day was worth a year of acting classes, he was so specific and amazing.

HollywoodChicago.com: What do you observe that is most different today for performer/songwriters of your type and genre, that you’re glad you never had to experience?

Gibson: There are more politics now, because there is eight people writing one hit song. And I joke, the guy who adds ‘hey, hey, hey’ and the guy who adds the beats are now ‘songwriters.’

I met up with a high level music publisher recently who told me that what I did in pop music will never be duplicated again. Only in country music today can people write there own music and produce it, but very few pop music artists can do it all on their own. The ‘it takes a village’ mentality doesn’t necessarily translate into good songs.

HollywoodChicago.com: Which song have you written in the last ten years that best defines you and why?

Gibson: It’s a new song, and it’s called ‘Hard,’ and it’s about tough love. It can have several connotations, but for me it was about the transition in my life from living in a bubble to living in reality. The song reflects that growing, living and being aware can be very uncomfortable, and it hurts. But it ain’t gonna kill you, it will only make you better. I used to be a slave to discipline and routine. I’ve gotten to a place in which I’m way more in the moment than people might think. Doing a concert, or even just living my life, no two moments are ever the same.

HollywoodChicago.com: Can you name something you’ve done in your life that is the opposite of the image that you had in your teen pop star days?

Gibson: Actually, it was back in the day. I performed with ‘The Circle Jerks’ [punk bank] and that surprised even me. I dove off the stage that night, but I went face forward rather than back. I didn’t even know how to stage dive. [laughs] I also had a real ‘Spinal Tap’ moment at that show, because it was at ‘CBGBs,’ and after I was introduced I was suppose to go through a backstage door. I heard my name, but the door was locked. I couldn’t get to the stage. So funny, and so random.

The “Hollywood Show” Chicago will be August 15-17th, 2014, at the Hilton Rosemont Chicago O’Hare Hotel. 5550 N. River Road, Rosemont, Illinois. Click here for details, celebrity appearances and to purchase tickets. For the official Debbie Gibson website, click here.

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2014 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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