Without limits: Songwriter Richard Marx releases diverse new album after four decades of hitmaking
for The Oklahoman
The world, according to Richard Marx, “is not out there waiting for a new Richard Marx album.”
In his past life as a pop star, 56-year-old Marx had four consecutive platinum albums starting with his 1987 self-titled debut. On those records were seven consecutive top five singles, including the Grammy-nominated “Right Here Waiting,” released in 1989. When the late 1990s ushered in a wave of new pop artists that dethroned the de facto hitmakers, Marx’s pop dominance, and that of many of his contemporaries, all but disappeared from the charts.
“In the late ’90s, I put out an album that kind of just didn’t do what the other ones did,” Marx said. “At first I freaked out. Then I looked at it more pragmatically, that it wasn’t just me: It was Bryan Adams, it was Billy Joel, it was John Mellencamp. We all stopped having pop hits right around within a year of each other, which made me feel a little bit better.”
And thus, a very specific, specific Richard Marx — the one with big 1980s hair — is preserved in pop culture amber, earning a permanent spot in the pop canon at the expense of being an occasional nostalgic punchline. The masses aren’t chomping at the bit for a new Marx record; that much is true. What’s also true is that they’ve probably been listening to him this whole time anyway.
After his 1997 record didn’t perform as well as its predecessors, Marx, who started out writing songs for and performing on the records of other people (including Kenny Rogers, Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire), refocused his career on that collaborative work. As a songwriter, he’s had a No. 1 song every decade for four decades running. Some of his genre-spanning hits include NSYNC’s “This I Promise You,” Josh Groban’s “To Where You Are” and Keith Urban’s “Long Hot Summer.”
Keeping his finger on the disparate pulses of pop, rock, country and adult contemporary led Marx to where he is today, about to put out a new record — ”Limitless,” out Feb. 7 — whose songs are all over the place. When Marx announced the album last year, he noted he “wasn’t really sure what making a new album meant for an artist like me.”
“Pop music is and always has been and always kind of should be a young person’s game,” Marx said. “I certainly had my day on the charts, but I feel that my skill set is still strong, and I think in terms of young music. I don’t just listen to old Creedence Clearwater Revival records, as great as they are. I listen to Halsey. I listen to Post Malone. I’m influenced and inspired by a lot of new pop music.”
This creates a natural quandary for Marx as a songwriter for himself: “In certain ways, what I’m coming up with is kind of odd for someone my age.”
Parts of “Limitless” lean country, others rock ‘n’ roll. There’s acoustic balladry, but there’s also electronic dance music. All the songs were culled from demos and snippets collected over the last several years.
“It’s a pretty schizophrenic record,” Marx said. “I just kind of went with what songs spoke to me the most. At one point, when I had this collection of songs, I was like, wow, this s— is so all over the place. And then I listened again and I thought, oh, it’s OK, because it’s all it’s all my voice. As long as that’s consistent…let’s face it — I can do whatever I want anyway. It’s not like I’m walking some tightrope.”
The album includes co-writes and collaborations with Sara Bareilles, Matt Scannell of Vertical Horizon, Marx’s wife, Daisy Fuentes, and his son, Lucas Marx. It is a project of passion only, in essence, something Marx called a “selfish exercise.”
“Of course I want people to love the record, but that’s not the motivation. I remember what it’s like to be an artist whose last album sold three million, four million, whatever, and there’s pressure. You want to keep your fan base, but you want to grow,” Marx said. “All of that mental f—ery is gone; I don’t think about any of that. It’s just that I love these songs.”
The record’s sole cohesive thread may be Marx’s voice, but the songwriting chops that netted his stardom in the first place are ever-present. They’re also the aspect of his career he’s most proud of.
“I feel like being a songwriter, being the person that creates something from nothing, is really a noble profession. That’s what I consider myself, first and foremost, and I think that’s what I do the best,” Marx said.
Songwriter first and performer second, Marx kicks off a string of concerts Thursday at the Tower Theatre. The shows aren’t in support of “Limitless,” though attendees may hear a new song or two.
“It’s possible that a new record can help fuel ticket sales and vice versa, but that’s not even in my head,” Marx said. “I’m active on the road because I really enjoy it. The main goal for me is to always be able to go out and do shows if I want, and I think the only way to get to that point in your life is to keep out there.”
And then, laughing, in a nod to that specific Richard Marx of yore, he admitted, “It certainly helps to have a catalog of songs people know.”