Michael Bolton

QRO caught up with Michael Bolton as he prepared to release 'Spark of Light'....
Michael Bolton : Q&A
Michael Bolton : Q&A

When Anselm Kiefer said, “There is no innocent landscape,” he cannot be faulted for having been starkly unable to imagine the coming purity-onslaught of Michael Bolton’s incomparable, panoramic voice. Having spent the best part of an outsized fifty-year career unparalleled by any modern-day male singer living and performing completely outside the churn of the embittered egos of the music business, Michael Bolton has recently added Spark of Light, his first completely self-penned work, to a recording repertoire that spans more than 20 studio albums.

Even broken down to milliwatts, Michael Bolton is a megastar. Having made his name cantillating ultra-global chill-bumps through a spectrum of the world’s best-loved ballads, he is the polar-most opposite of studiously cool; rather, he is naturally and non-ironically cool, a Svengali of soulful sounds whose every exhalation executes a kudzu-like takedown of the charts. Through his insistently unrestrained and heartfelt deliveries of universally human emotions through righteously Romantic recordings, he became one of the most widely respected and adored de facto sonic ambassadors of the 1990s. Now 70 and with a life-spanning glossary of golden-ticket songs to his unforgettable name, Bolton has never stopped making music at the professional level since he was 15 years old, and has quietly added ‘philanthropic visionary’ to his resume as well through his acutely sensitive humanitarian work with The Michael Bolton Charities.

Michael Bolton : Spark of Light

Working from an entirely different recording rubric than that of many of his audio peers of the day–something deco-inspired and equal parts reverent of his heroes but mindful of his own magic–his interpretation of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman”, coupled with earth-shattering hits of his like “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You”, exhibit the duality of the fine technical forbearance mixed with formidable sultriness seeming to sip smoke and silt that would become synonymous with his vocal performances across any song, and demonstrate how he became the dealer of the de-armored dreams of three full generations of listeners.

Bolton’s voice has long been rightly regarded as the musical equivalent to a Triple Lutz in the professional ice skating world–the most beautiful and dangerous feat in the whole sport. If it had a tangible texture, it would be cashmere denim, and even people who do not listen to much music freely recognize that once Michael Bolton has gotten hold of any song, it feels woven from an artisanal loom, and emerges with a valentine layer to it. A notoriously non-orientable surface akin to a melodic Mobius strip, Bolton’s vox has always seemed lit from within his heart-center by carbide lamps, and its sarsaparilla-sounding contours on the seclusion-born “Spark of Light,” conceptualized during COVID, actively addresses the fantods we were all fighting through during that umbriferous shared season.

Brimming with audio ear candy analogous to pentatonic pinwheels and maestoso mariners’ compasses, Spark of Light makes characteristically optimistic use of Bolton’s formidable instrument. This is a record interested in providing provender for the soul, and the person inside the pop star it reveals is gelastic, joyful, and even more memorable than the endurance rally of hits he has enjoyed within his era-less calling. QRO caught up with Michael Bolton as he prepared to release Spark of Light, and greatly enjoyed having the opportunity to engage the equilibrium and exuberance offered in these songs under the welcoming explanations of their maker. We hope you experience the same upon reading about it here:

I love working with young, contemporary artists and producers because they always bring a fresh sound, and then I can lay a more classic approach to melodies and song structure on top and I think we come out with something memorable.

QRO: I would love to have you share with us what the experience of having an album full of entirely your own co-written original songs feels like after you have so masterfully given vocal life to the lyrics and melodies of others at times in the past. Does this album feel different in any way to you? Was it a vulnerable or a freeing experience to rest completely on material with so much of your unique soul in it?

Michael Bolton: I’ve always been a singer first, and I just fall in love with melodies and powerful messages. I’m not precious about whether I wrote it or not. As a kid, we had all kinds of music playing in the house because my mom loved music. My brother Orrin was always coming home with a new LP, whether Chicago Blues or British Rock-n-Roll. I also came up with Motown, so of course Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were big influences for me, though Ray Charles is probably my single biggest influence as a singer.

But the thing is, I didn’t have any success as a singer … at first. I got signed at 15 but dropped a year later, and so the story went for 18 years! In that time, I got married and had three children and had to figure out how to pay for rent and food, and music was all I knew! So that’s when I started writing and I realized, or I guess others discovered, that I had a talent for it. All my songs I was writing were getting recorded by major artists and I could make a living doing that! Well, the irony is that it was Al Teller, the then president of Colombia Records, who told me to stop giving my written songs away to other artists, and that’s when I had my first hit as an artist. All that to say, I guess it feels like I’m coming full circle to something that has always come very natural to me, and I finally had the time — during the pandemic — to dedicate to the songwriting since I was grounded by myself at home. And that’s how this album happened.

QRO: That is a mindbogglingly cool and inspiring story, I hope you know! And on the subject of noteworthy hipness: “Spark of Light” houses the coolest middle eight I have heard in years! Who is playing what instruments on this album with you? Any fun stories in how you guys and gals all settled on such different and engaging sounds? I could listen to that sidewinder of a middle eight on a loop!

MB: It’s really Tushar Apte and Nick Petricca who are the production geniuses here. It was a very collaborative process, but they definitely together gave it that groove, and it was so easy for me to just enjoy leaning into it. A lot of people have had the same reaction, of just wanting to play it in their car, roll down the windows and cruise around. I love working with young, contemporary artists and producers because they always bring a fresh sound, and then I can lay a more classic approach to melodies and song structure on top and I think we come out with something memorable.

QRO: Absolutely every time and always. One of the many compelling things about this lead track is how happy, unaware of itself, and carefree it feels. It takes me right back to the word I have always associated with your work: uplifting. Is this buoyancy a conscientious artistic choice for you, or is this just a reflection of your naturally positive spirit?

MB: Thank you for that! I think the pandemic in particular was, ironically, an inspiration for this album in that I wanted and probably needed to find and send a positive and optimistic message out there. It was such a dark time for so many and we couldn’t really see the end of it, so keeping the faith was all we could do. Maybe that’s why it feels sincere, because it really was an honest expression of the circumstances we all found ourselves in. I’ve seen and been through a lot in my life, and I guess at the end of the day, you have a choice: to be positive or not. And I choose the former.

I’ve seen and been through a lot in my life, and I guess at the end of the day, you have a choice: to be positive or not. And I choose the former.

QRO: It is certainly always a choice to be a bright thing in brooding places, and I would argue it is always the right choice too. You have done a remarkable job of that all the way across your storied career. As “Spark of Light” shares its title with the album itself, it seems like it took on a guiding role as the mood timbre for the entire record. What is your personal ‘spark of light’ these days and how do you maintain that when the world might turn dark or try to blow out such lights?

MB: Great observation and great question. I definitely get lit up whenever I see or get to spend time with my grandkids. They call me “G-pa” and to them it doesn’t really matter how many streams I have on Spotify or whatever. To them, I’m just me. I can really relax and be myself. Reconnecting like that I think is really important when you’re otherwise out there being scrutinized by the public eye.

QRO: I would imagine that to be the ultimate reprieve and reward for you, and I’m so glad you have them to bring you consistent joy! There is nothing like returning to those who love us for a recharge, I agree. “Running Out of Ways” contains some incredibly insightful lyricism and speaks to such a formidable, familiar human hurt: what to do when a person we adore simply doesn’t adore us enough to stay or return. As you are rightly regarded as one of the greatest living deliverers of love ballads in the world, I’m wondering how much you draw on personal emotion when you sing or write a song like this. How much of what you do is autobiographical and how much is somewhat akin to inhabiting a literary or theatrical character or archetype?

MB: Another observant and sharp question. Of course, in anything we create, through any kind of art form, all we have is ourselves and our personal experience to draw from. At 70, I have a lot of that! But my writing process is very collaborative so it’s not so much a personal story but finding a story that is universal. Like you said, it’s something that is familiar, relatable. That’s what I’m aiming to achieve in a songwriting collaboration: how to use music as a way to connect with people all around the world, of all walks of life.

QRO: Are songs like this in any way medicine for you in such moments of your life? They certainly serve that purpose for many of your listeners, a balm for bruises that might not be able to be sung away, but that feel much better somehow after your song emphasizes that they are shared by others. I’d also love to hear any songs by other artists that do this for you–who inspires you to carry on, stay loving even in non-loving situations, and be brave in life’s bleak hours?

MB: Absolutely music is medicine. It is healing. It has that potential and that power. It’s something that can unite us through our differences, which is really the central message of “Beautiful World.” Throughout my career, I have had fans tell me that my songs got them through the hardest of times and also the best of celebrations. That means everything to me. I would say a lot of Marvin Gaye’s and Stevie Wonder’s catalogs move me, as well as, of course, Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston–and then you have opera which is a whole other spiritual kind of experience!

That’s what I’m aiming to achieve in a songwriting collaboration: how to use music as a way to connect with people all around the world, of all walks of life.

QRO: I would say you have elements of every single one of those artists and genres sparkling out in your own work. “Eyes On You” is built around such an infectious syllabic rhythm made of equally unmissable lyrical truisms, like “I broke every rule that I could break.” It makes me think of great jazz performers talking about meticulously learning all the rules before you can effectively break them in the name of creativity. What would you say is the most impressive rule you ever broke for love or art?

MB: There’s a story about “When a Man Loves a Woman”, the song that earned me a Grammy for best pop male vocalist. I fell in love with the song and wanted to deliver my own interpretation. I worked the hardest I have ever worked probably to get that vocal delivery and was proud of it when I delivered it to the label. The record executive at my label at the time told me we should take it off the album, because the original was still in rotation at radio. I thought, I should just work harder to get a better vocal and then they’ll believe in it. I dragged my producer, Walter Afanasieff, from his vacation and made him spend hour after hour with me on take after take. But we knew we had a great version to begin with, so we kept it. I refused the executive’s direction and we released the record as is and the rest, as they say, is history.

QRO: That is gorgeously symmetrical and cinematic! Which leads me to tell you that your work on “Beautiful World” with Justin Jesso sounds like it was born to be in the movies! So sonically grandiose and inspiring. You guys sound truly fantastic together as well, and it was magical to learn that your working relationship evolved out of a full-circle pair of meetups a solid decade apart. Could you elaborate on how this collaboration came about and why it has been special for you?

MB: Once it became clear that the COVID-19 shut down was not letting up anytime soon, my manager insisted that I use my time at home to start writing again. But I’ve never really been one to write by myself–aside from some early songs I wrote as a pre-teen while I was learning guitar, but you’ve never heard of those for a reason! So, she started to organize some writing collaborations for me remotely. At first it was very awkward for me. I’ve never worked that way before. I’ve always been in a studio and there is an energy you get working in person. But we were all having to adapt together at the same time to this bizarre new reality. So, the songs started to emerge in spite of everything else. It was just a crazy coincidence that my manager wanted me to write with Justin not knowing that we had met. I had myself forgotten, until Justin reminded me. Then I could picture him coming up to me in a restaurant so many years ago. He reminded me a bit of me, when I was starting out, and every once in a while I would get some encouragement from someone I looked up to and that just kept me going. So, it’s an awesome feeling to be able to pay that forward.

QRO: That is music’s most transformative magic, if you ask me. That ability to connect people via sound on so many different and elevated levels that then go on to change every other part of their lives in big and small ways. You have so many indelible artists working alongside you on Spark Of Light and your whole career suggests that you have always intrinsically understood that all creators, singers, and musicians are made better by interacting closely with other artists, learning from them, and making the most of opportunities to push one another to move into new territories. Do you have any dream duet partners or collaborations still up your sleeve?

MB: I’m still determined to record and perform with Kelly Clarkson. Her voice is undeniable and I love the power that comes from her heart and soul.

I think and hope that gloom is getting old.

QRO: Oh my word, that would be showstopping! I’ll keep a moving prayer in place that it happens, as much for the sake of we listeners as for your wish fulfillment! I love your unapologetic optimism more than I can say. I’m curious if you have ever received any grief for that from others over the years? I ask because I myself am routinely mocked, both in a fun-loving way and not, by many for my own sincerity, such things as optimism and sincerity having fallen somewhat out of fashion in the post-internet world. How do you maintain the ability to keep your head above the clouds in a world that, at times, can encourage gloom as cultural currency?

MB: I think and hope that gloom is getting old. I have seen so many cultural moods come and go. I’ve never been happy-go-lucky as much as a more Forrest Gump kind of mentality, like you just keep going. I never had a Plan B for my career, so there’s really no choice other than to believe in yourself. That’s what I think it all comes down to, just keep finding ways back to yourself because people around you may come and go and the weather definitely changes, but you have to stay connected to that internal compass.

QRO: Excellent advice for life and music, and some that I actually needed to hear right about now. Thank you! I’d like to ask you about “Just the Beginning”, which turns on a central idea that is so captivatingly simple yet integral to nearly all brands of human happiness: the idea that love is the start of everything worth doing or having. How early in your life did you realize that your love of music was going to be one of those galvanizing passions? You may not have known where it was going to take you, but when did you know for sure that you were going to follow it wherever it led like we all should our greatest loves?

MB: I can honestly say that music chose me. I’ve never known anything else. It’s my first and last love. It’s something I need to do more than want to do. Though I have had such incredible experiences of joy and gratitude through this career in music, there was never a choice for me to do anything else, and there has been a lot of hardship with that. But I can only hope that in the end the music I’ve created is much larger than me.

I never had a Plan B for my career, so there’s really no choice other than to believe in yourself. That’s what I think it all comes down to, just keep finding ways back to yourself because people around you may come and go and the weather definitely changes, but you have to stay connected to that internal compass.

QRO: I think there can be no question about the girth of greatness that will always be associated with what you have done with your life, Michael. It’s been a gift to us all. “Home” is a gleaming example. It really showcases all of the shooting stars within the instrument of your voice that have made it one that audiences across so many generations have consistently responded so strongly to. Would it be fair to say that you are most at home when you are singing and performing? What do you still love most about music and singing after all these years?

MB: Absolutely, what I love most is getting up to the mic and feeling the energy of the audience. Doesn’t matter where in the world I am, or what dominant language is being spoken there, hearing the fans sing along with me is always the payoff for all the hard work and travel. I’m actually a pretty shy person, but the stage is where I feel at home. It’s the connection with the audience through this shared experience of these familiar songs that fills me up every time.

QRO: Can you describe your feeling about the overall message or spirit of Spark Of Light in one word? I’d love to know the word that you think best fits its character.

MB: Hope.

QRO: Brilliant and accurate. Mine would be: luminescent. Will you be touring behind this release? We certainly hope to see you in Atlanta!

MB: I love performing in Atlanta, the people are sweet and fun. I’m touring all the time, to everyone where I can get to.

QRO: Fantastic, I’ll be on the lookout for some dates near me then for sure. Lastly, for any readers of ours who might not know, can you tell us a little bit about the various initiatives you helm through The Michael Bolton Charities? I would imagine that the ability to help others in the magnanimous ways that you have found to do so through those outreaches would be one of the most fulfilling parts of your ongoing success.

MB: For over 30 years my organization has advocated on behalf of women and children at risk, and one of the great accomplishments has been supporting the creation of Chords of Hope, a music therapy program that has really impacted and transformed the emotional and educational wellbeing of a lot of kids. I really hope to expand and grow this program as far and wide as possible.

QRO: What a beautiful initiative, matching in moral and manner to the messaging in your music. Thank you so much, Michael, for taking time to give us this tour of Spark of Light, and I’m wishing you all the magic and enjoyment imaginable out of bringing its torch-like glow to your fans.