There are 11 miles between Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Carnegie Hall. For Brenda Russell, an entire lifetime maps the distance. Music has guided every step.
From vocal groups harmonizing on the corner to her parents’ own musical pursuits, Russell heard music in the air, literally, as a young girl growing up in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. “We had an elevated train that ran by our house,” she recalls. “There was a drum corps of young guys who used to practice about a block away. I used to sit at my window and listen to them playing the drums. I’d never heard anything like that before. I thought, ‘That is the funkiest stuff!’ I didn’t even know the word ‘funky’, but I know now that it was funky.”
Russell’s return to New York in January 2023 marked a special homecoming. She participated in “We Are Here: Songs from the Holocaust” at Carnegie Hall, a concert commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The program featured theatre royalty like Chita Rivera and Harvey Fierstein, plus a roster of artists and musicians performing songs penned during Nazi-occupied Europe.
Accompanied by New York Philharmonic pianist and conductor Lee Musiker, Russell sang “Wiegala (Lullaby)”, a piece written by author and songwriter Ilse Weber, who was imprisoned at Theresienstadt concentration camp and murdered alongside her youngest son Tommy at Auschwitz. It is believed that Weber sang “Wiegala” to her son as they were led to the gas chamber. Russell embroidered the lyrics with empathy and tenderness, her voice offering a warm respite from the chilly night air. Her nuanced performance seemed to stop time.
It was one of several career peaks that Brenda Russell has experienced in New York. Following the release of her GRAMMY-nominated Get Here (1988) album, she performed her very first hometown solo concert at Radio City Music Hall. Two decades later, her collaboration with songwriters Allee Willis and Stephen Bray helped The Color Purple win a Tony Award for “Best Revival of a Musical” (2016) as well as a GRAMMY Award for “Best Musical Theater Album” (2017).
Throughout every phase of her career, Russell has carved her own niche as a singularly gifted singer-songwriter, whether writing for herself or with other artists. “Brenda Russell came on the scene because we’d heard some of her stuff,” the late Maurice White recalled about her work with Earth, Wind & Fire on the group’s Faces (1980) and Raise! (1981) albums. “Brenda showed up, and it was a nice blend. She’s very musical.”
Similarly, a few years before her passing, Anita Pointer praised Russell’s songwriting contributions to her album Love For What It Is (1987). “I think she’s incredible,” she said. “I love her style. She’s a great songwriter. I just think she’s phenomenal.” Record titans from Herb Alpert to Tommy LiPuma have shared that same view, championing Russell ever since the release of her self-titled solo debut in 1979, an album that introduced songs like “So Good, So Right”, “In the Thick of It”, “Way Back When”, and the modern standard “If Only For One Night” to the lexicon of pop and R&B.
“You’ve got to follow your purpose on the planet,” Russell said during another of her recent visits to New York, where she met with PopMatters for a career-spanning conversation. Russell has explored several compass points over the years, whether visiting Havana and St. Petersburg to collaborate with local songwriters or having icons like Sting, Roberta Flack, Luther Vandross, Diana Ross, Donna Summer, and Tina Turner record her songs. Slated for release in December 2023, director Blitz Bazawule’s film adaption of The Color Purple musical starring Fantasia, Colman Domingo, Taraji P. Henson, and Louis Gossett Jr. will soon translate Russell’s songs from stage to screen. Indeed, Brenda Russell keeps following her purpose to new heights.
Let’s go back to Flatbush. In what way did music shape your view of the world?
My mother and my father were both musicians. I kind of grew up with the boy groups standing on the corner singing be-bop. My mom would invite some of the singers up, and she’d teach them parts because she’s very musical. She really wanted to be an arranger, but, in her time, Black women didn’t do that. It was in the 1950s. She was a writer, though. I thought all mommies wrote songs. [laughs]
My dad was an unbelievable singer. When Nat “King” Cole heard my dad sing, he said, “If I had a voice like that, I would be rich”. This was way before he became rich and famous. My dad would play in the same clubs as him sometimes. I thought that was the greatest compliment from one of the best singers in the world. That’s how I got introduced to music — watching my mom and dad.
How is the piano an extension of Brenda Russell?
I have a beautiful story about that. I started playing piano as soon as I learned what one was. I was little, and I would go right to the piano and pick out little melodies, all by ear. The older people would say, “Very good, Brenda!” They were kind of surprised that I could hear things and pick out melodies that they knew on the piano.
When I really started seriously writing was in Toronto. I had moved there from New York. I was in the Toronto cast of Hair. It was the Royal Alexander Theatre, and they had a beautiful piano in the upstairs lobby. I used to sneak in there and play and write songs. When the owner of the theater heard that those hippie kids from Hair were playing his piano, he had it locked. He locked the piano!
It was a blessing for me because the Musical Director of Hair was so appalled that I didn’t have a piano to play that he rented me a piano for my home. That was my first piano. I had this really negative thing happen, but it turned out to be an incredibly positive thing because that’s when I started writing songs.
When I interviewed Lisa Fischer, she mentioned how Rufus & Chaka Khan’s Rags to Rufus (1974) was the first album she bought with her own money. On the band’s next album, Rufusized (1975), they recorded your song “Please Pardon Me (You Remind Me of a Friend)”. What was the genesis for that song?
My ex and I wrote that song together. His name’s Brian Russell. We were “Brian and Brenda Russell”. We were both natural songwriters. We were just talking to each other, and we wrote that down. We met André [Fischer] somehow, who put the band together of Rufus. André really liked it, and they recorded it. We were like, “Oh my God! Rufus — one of the best groups around doing our song!” That was our first song that we had recorded by an American artist. Our first song was recorded by Anne Murray [“Backstreet Lovin'”], who’s a Canadian folksinger. Beautiful voice.
That’s how it started in the States when we moved here from Toronto. Everybody thought we were Leon and Mary Russell because they were an interracial couple as well. They used to have billboards on Sunset Boulevard, and people would say, “Oh we love your billboard!” “Thank you!” It wasn’t us, it was Leon and Mary!
What do you hear in Chaka’s delivery of “Please Pardon Me”?
Chaka’s delivery of anything at that point in time was just ridiculous! I can’t even express how exciting it was to listen to that child sing on these songs, and our song in particular, because the range was incredible the power. She inspired a lot of singers, as we know. We were over the moon.
When we first heard “Please Pardon Me” on the radio, we were very excited because we were these young Canadian writers. What did we know? We just fell into something marvelous like that. I now know how hard that would have been had we been trying to do that. The universe worked with us.
You and Brian recorded your own version of “Please Pardon Me” on Word Called Love (1976), your debut for Rocket Records. You’re one of the few people who were signed to Elton John’s record company and also had him play on your album. What’s something you learned about the business in working with Elton that’s remained with you throughout your career?
He’s one of the most brilliant people I ever met, plus he writes the best songs. He hired us to come sing background for him on his first concert that he did when he changed his band. We had to learn 30 Elton John songs! We go to Amsterdam. We’re rehearsing in this stadium. Elton comes in like there’s three or four thousand people out there. He gave it all. 150 %. We’re standing there like, “Oh my God. Is that what you have to do to be a star?” There’s nobody here, but he was just giving it up like everybody was there. That was a good lesson to learn.
A few years after Rufus recorded “Please Pardon Me”, André Fischer produced your solo debut, Brenda Russell (1979). How did he come aboard for that project?
When I got divorced from Brian, I had all of these songs that I was sitting on. “What am I gonna do? Let’s call André, and maybe he could help me with this record that I’m about to make!” He came and helped us. André was always backing me in what I was representing. He would make the musicians listen to me. “Listen to her left hand.” He was so good at that. At that time, women weren’t acknowledged so much in the role of producer/songwriter/arranger. I had a musician come into the studio one day. I’m sitting here, and the musician says to André, “What does she want for the bridge part?” He said, “Man, she’s sitting right there! Why don’t you just ask her what she wants?”
What kind of vision did you have for your solo debut?
My vision was not to have anyone with a suit interrupt what we were doing. [laughs] If you have a suit on, get out of here! They had people, “beancounters” we used to call them, come in and tell you, “Oh yeah, you shouldn’t have a solo because AM radio won’t …” People wanted to tell you what to do, but if you hire me as an artist, let me do what I do and tell me if you like it. They thought they had to form the artist or re-form the artist, I should say, instead of letting the artist find out who they were.
For me, “In the Thick of It” is the song on that album. The wordplay, the chord progressions, the way your voice makes the melodies swing and soar, these little vocal asides you do. How did “In the Thick of It” take shape as a song?
I have no idea! [laughs] Sometimes you don’t know. Things just come to me, and I start writing. I do know that that song was a big hit in England so whenever I go to London, they’re like [screams] “In the Thick of It”! They have to hear it. [laughs] It’s so great. It makes my heart soar because they love it so much over there. I just love that song. It’s one of my favorite songs, too, that I wrote.
What were your expectations for your first album, and then what was the actual experience like once it was released?
I really didn’t have any expectations because I didn’t know the road. I didn’t know what could or could not happen. I didn’t know there were so many other people involved in making decisions on if you even got heard. Forget about having a hit — you may not get heard if this guy doesn’t run to every radio station and go, “Hey! Check out ‘So Good, So Right'”.
This one guy, Freddie Mancuso, took “So Good, So Right” around. They thought I was white because I didn’t sound like a Black R&B diva. He got them playing it on all of these pop stations, and when the Black stations realized that I was Black, they were like, “Wait a minute! That’s our girl, so we’re gonna play this now!” That’s how I got going with “So Good, So Right”. They didn’t know what color I was because I was an international kind of person. I lived in Canada. I had all of these different fields. I loved all kinds of music, so that’s what came through.
Of course, “If Only For One Night” was introduced on your first album. It’s had such a wonderful trajectory as a song, between your version and then Roberta Flack recording it on her Live & More (1980) album with Peabo Bryson and Luther Vandross turning it into a standard on The Night I Fell in Love (1985). I would love you to describe the life that song has had.
Well, I always think, first of all, that when you write from your heart, people really resonate with that. They don’t even know that you were crying as you were writing it because you were so sad and so brokenhearted. They have no idea, but they feel it. I learned a lot from that. I noticed that people really gravitated towards songs that were painful to write because they felt something — “I know that feeling”. That’s what “If Only For One Night” was like. I was always crying. André and my manager Brenda Dash used to make fun of me, “Oh, here she goes …” [laughs] I was very emotional.
By the way, Luther killed “If Only For One Night”, did he not? It was such a beautiful rendition. I was really proud. I had just come from Sweden. I wrote “Get Here” in Stockholm, but nothing was happening. I was broke. They told me, “Luther just recorded your song”. I thought, Whoa! That’s fantastic. It was Christmastime, and it was the best Christmas present I ever got.
What did he bring to “If Only For One Night” that distinguished it from what you’d conveyed in your version?
His amazing voice. He just had one of the best voices ever. And he was also a brilliant background arranger. He’d think of things that were fantastic — cascading voices and stuff. He was so brilliant, that guy. I really liked him. When I met him, he came up to me like a little kid. “Brenda, I love that song!” He’s so cute. He was a big fan.
Another one of my favorite songs of yours is actually on your second album, Love Life (1981). What’s the sentiment behind “Rainbow”?
I’ve never been into racism and people not liking each other just for the color of their skin. It’s so ridiculous. I thought of a song, “You see color, and I see a rainbow”. A lot of people resonated with that because they didn’t want to hear about racism either. That’s a nice way to look at it: “You see color. I see a rainbow.”
In between your first two solo albums, you wrote songs with Earth, Wind & Fire, including two of my favorites, “And Love Goes On” and “Song in My Heart”. How did you forge that relationship with them?
I have David Foster to thank for that because he’s a Canadian as well, and we had a little Canadian hub in LA. He was working with Maurice [White] and Verdine [White] and those guys. They needed a lyricist, and he said, “Oh, I know someone — Brenda Russell”. He hooked me up with them.
Maurice White was truly like a prince. When I went to write with him, I was honored to be in his presence. That’s how deep and spiritual and wonderful he was. He’s such a gentleman. He inspired me a lot, and I got to collaborate with him.
I want to tell you something: I never wrote like that before. They do the whole track — horn riffs, guitar, everything — and then give it to you to write lyrics. I’d never written to a whole finished track. Usually, you start out with a pianist and a little piece of the song, and you build together. They had all the horns and the strings. I’m like, “I’ve got to work now!” I escaped to Laguna Hills, which is a beautiful coastal city in California, and I wrote for Earth, Wind & Fire by the ocean. That was the only place to do it. [laughs]
How did Maurice White’s approach to songwriting inspire you in your own work?
We were both coming from the same place — promoting love. That was both of our passions, in a spiritual sense even. I really related to him, and he related to me because that’s where I was coming from. He didn’t really so much push things on you, but he would encourage you. That’s what he did for me. To this day, I felt so honored to be in the same room as he was because he’s like royalty to me.
I’m a big fan, and I know you are as well, of another one of your collaborators: Michael McDonald. How did you first hear about Michael?
You’ll love this. Brian and I used to be friends with Jeff Baxter from the Doobie Brothers. Jeff said, “We got this new guy in the group, so you guys come on over and sing some backgrounds for us. We’ve got this new song called ‘You Belong to Me’.”
They were in this little apartment. Brian and I came in. Some of the guys were set up. Michael’s sitting on the floor in the corner in desert boots. They start to play this tune for us, and he starts to sing. He was so unbelievable. What just came out of that mouth? We were totally intimidated. We just froze.
We were shocked, but we had to pull it together to sing the backgrounds for him and Carly [Simon]. We were on the demo. They just needed to put it down to have it to refer to. We were lucky enough to be called over from Jeff to do that. To hear this little guy in the corner with the desert boots open his mouth and sing “You Belong to Me” was just too much! [laughs] That’s how I met Michael McDonald.
How did you and Michael get together to write “Hello People” on your third album, Two Eyes (1983)?
Everybody in the world was asking Michael to do everything. I said, “Michael, why don’t we write something?” He said, “Okay, let’s do that.” We wrote “Hello People” together. The amazing thing about Michael is he’s got this voice that sounds so powerful, but he’s such a soft singer. I never knew that about him until I was right beside him and he was singing it. It was very soft, but it sounded like a roar.
I had this little cassette recorder. I was such a massive fan that I would leave it on just to hear him talk. He was playing. He looked at the recorder, and he looked at me … and I went, Okay, I’ll turn it off. It was so funny. I was like, “Anything you have to say, I want it on tape right now!”
2022 marked the 40th anniversary of the album that Quincy Jones produced for Donna Summer. Take us into the room as a member of the all-star choir that sang on “State of Independence”.
That was amazing. Quincy invited me and this group of people to sing. This is before “We Are the World” (1985). He puts me in between Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson! Then there was Christopher Cross, James Ingram, Lionel Richie, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald … it was ridiculous! I felt like I was in heaven, standing in between these two giant personalities and musicians. It was quite exciting to be a part of that.
Later this May, HBO will premiere Love to Love You, Donna Summer (2023), the documentary that Donna’s daughter Brooklyn Sudano directed with Roger Ross Williams. What do you think distinguished Donna from other vocalists?
She could sing her ass off, and a lot of vocalists can’t do that. She was amazing. She just had power. We had a lot in common. Our families both came from the Boston area. We were both in Hair at the same time. She was in the German cast. I was in the Toronto cast. I just thought she was unbelievable.
She wanted to record my song “Dinner With Gershwin” because the guy from her record company, David Geffen, heard it on a demo that I had done with Stanley Clarke. David Geffen heard it and said, “Oh, we want that for Donna”. I said, “Oh, okay. Maybe … ” He said, “We’ll pay you.” “Oh, okay!” [laughs] They paid me, and they asked me to co-produce it with Richard Perry. That was an amazing adventure, totally amazing. I love both of them. It was really special.
A year after Donna recorded “Dinner With Gershwin”, you released your album Get Here (1988), which has “Piano in the Dark”. That song is a masterpiece from start to finish. All the elements worked together. The New York Times called it “a sophisticated pop-soul ballad that is one of several outstanding cuts on the album”. I’ve always wanted to ask you how that song came together.
I co-wrote “Piano in the Dark” with Jeff Hull and Scott Cutler, two friends of mine. Jeff Hull is this brilliant pianist. First, they sent me a cassette of the music, him and Scott. They said, “Brenda, we need lyrics.” “Okay!” I played it, and it was so beautiful. I used to keep a book of song titles. They called me one day, impatient, because I hadn’t responded. They said, “What have you got?” I said, “Let me look.” I opened my song titles, and I’m going down the list. “What about ‘Piano in the Dark'”? They both said, “What does that mean?” I said, “I don’t know … but I will know!” [laughs]
I went away and wrote those lyrics and the melody. That’s how easy it happened. We knew we had something good.
If it wasn’t for Herb Alpert, you wouldn’t even know “Piano in the Dark” right now because the R&B department at A&M Records had decided that “Gravity” should be my first single. This is how the universe helps you. I was walking by Herb’s office one day. He’s playing his horn. “Hey Brenda! I was thinking maybe ‘Piano in the Dark’ should be the first single.” They’d already started rolling with the other single, but he’s the “A” [in A&M], so they’re going to listen to Herb.
I was so grateful because I knew that it was a better choice. He’s the one who did that. He did it in the 11th hour and got everybody to stop printing that record [“Gravity”]. “Print this record and put this out.” Mark Mazzetti [A&M VP] ran to San Francisco, played it for the guy at the radio station, the pop station … boom. That’s how it happened.
What goes through your body when you sing that song?
I hope I hit the notes. [laughs] Please let me hit these notes. It’s just an uplifting song. It’s mysterious. You don’t even know what’s going on until you listen.
How were Russell Ferrante [piano] and Joe “Bean” Esposito [guest vocal] brought in to record their parts on the song?
First of all, Joe is one of the best singers that I ever heard. He was in Brooklyn Dreams, and I knew all of them because we did a movie together called American Hot Wax (1978). I thought Joe was going to be great. He should sing this. Russell Ferrante was in Yellowjackets, which is my favorite group. Tommy LiPuma turned me on to them. We used to be on the same label [Warner Bros]. Russell is a genius. I asked him if he would play the piano on “Piano in the Dark”, and he said sure.
I have such luck with piano players. I ran into Joe Sample at this bar when I was in Stockholm. He was in the bar too. I couldn’t believe it! I had just written, “Get Here”. I said, “Joe would you come tomorrow and play on ‘Get Here’, this song I just wrote?” He said, “Yeah, baby, I’ll come!” He came to the studio and played “Get Here”. It was so wonderful. I was so grateful for the exchange.
In talking about songwriting, Valerie Simpson said to me, “You never know when the muse is gonna hit, you just want to be there when it does.” Tell me where the muse was for “Get Here”.
I was in Stockholm in this penthouse apartment, an octagonal kind of room where I had my little electric piano, looking out over the city of Stockholm, which is a gorgeous city. It’s like going back to the 1940s in wartime. It’s just incredible. I started writing “Get Here”. It wasn’t about anyone. It was about someone I hadn’t met yet. That’s what the song is about.
I met Oleta Adams after I recorded it myself. She heard it on the radio in Norway. She said, “I’m gonna record that song!” She recorded it, and my publisher called me up and said, “We have someone recording ‘Get Here’. You want to hear it?” Over the phone, they played me Oleta’s version. I lost it! She was so good. I have goosebumps right now, just thinking about how extraordinary that was that moment.
You once told me how writing songs is sometimes like a game. What was the game with “Get Here”?
How many ways can you get to a person? You can fly, you can take a train. “Cross the desert like an Arab man” — some of my favorite composers love that line. When I sang that song for the first time in LA, Melissa Manchester, Herb Alpert, and Michel Colombier were all in the audience. When I started singing “Get Here”, they started screaming at me! They were going nuts for that song. Melissa Manchester told me, “Everybody at our table looked like Alice Cooper because their mascara was dripping!”
After I sang it, this gentleman came over to me and said, “I’m working with a new artist right now. We would like to have that song ‘Get Here’ for her — Whitney Houston.” I said, “Oh, I’m saving it for myself. I’m trying to get a record deal.” I’m not sorry that I said that, but I always wanted to hear Whitney sing a song of mine. It never happened. I had no idea who he was talking about because none of us knew who Whitney Houston was. Isn’t that amazing? [laughs]
I know one of your favorite artists is Sting. I love that he won a GRAMMY for a song you co-wrote, “She Walks This Earth”. How did Sting come to record that?
My friend Jason Miles, a record producer, called me and said, “I’m producing an album of Ivan Lins’ music” — he’s this brilliant Brazilian composer — “we need some lyrics for Sting”. [laughs] I started laughing. You need the lyric for Sting? He’s one of my favorite lyricists, like Joni Mitchell. As my mother said, “Never say ‘no’. Just go for it.” He said I had two days to write the lyric for Sting. I did it. They loved it, and he sang it. I was just going out of my mind, and then he won a GRAMMY for it. It wasn’t even a hit song, but he won a GRAMMY! It was beautiful.
What quality does Sting have in his voice that appeals to you?
He’s got that sexy hoarse thing. Nobody sounds like him. His songwriting is what really captivated me. His songwriting is ridiculous, so I became a fan immediately. [laughs] He’s a hell of a writer. He’s done two of my songs — “She Walks This Earth”, and a song called “None of Us Are Free”, a duet with Sam Moore of Sam & Dave. For me to be able to say that makes me so excited. It was pretty special.
How did you first become aware of Sting?
The Police. Musically, they had something special going on there. I got to go to Cuba with Stewart Copeland, Andy Summers, and all of these songwriters. We went to Cuba to write with Cuban musicians, which was another episode altogether, but everybody who was there was amazing — Burt Bacharach, Bonnie Raitt. It was so exciting to be with all of these wonderful writers in Cuba! We pulled out of a hat which Cuban writer we were going to write with, so we teamed up. It was so fun.
You and I have talked about how we share this philosophy from The Remembering Process. How did The Remembering Process help you in writing songs for The Color Purple musical?
Tremendously. The Remembering Process is a great book written by two artists who’ve said, “When you go to create something, don’t go to create it like it’s something new. Go to create it like you already did it, and you have to remember how it goes.
My co-writers Stephen Bray and Allee Willis — God rest her soul, she left us a few years ago — decided that we wanted to try to go for this. The producer of The Color Purple had called Allee and said, “I’m looking for Brenda Russell. She’s been recommended as one of the writers for The Color Purple. She said, “Why don’t you have all of us? We’re all here together, and Brenda’s on her way over right now.” He said, “Oh, okay!” We wrote demos. We did everything. We had the arrangements and the horns. We did three tunes. We knew what time he would get it from FedEx. We’re waiting. He finally called us. He said, “I forgot to call you guys. I love it!” We just knew we had this. I don’t know why we knew that, but we just knew we had it … and we did.
When I was writing Purple, I remembered The Remembering Process. I was like, “How did that go again? What voice do you want this character to do?” I’m talking to the Big Guy [points up]. I had a whole new kind of inspiration coming in — it’s already done! That’s one of the most brilliant things, as a creator, to have in your pocket. It really helps a lot because you take the pressure off. I was no longer thinking about the $14 million they’re putting into this show! [laughs]
Let’s go back to June 2016. Take us through the experience of sitting in this huge theater and hearing The Color Purple win “Best Revival” at the Tony Awards.
[laughs] It was fantastic. I’m a dreamer. I always have been. I always see things in dreams. I saw myself walking onstage with another woman getting an award. I thought it must be Allee because she’s the only other woman I write with right now. I even told her about the dream. That’s exactly what happened. She was sitting with me. When they said “The Color Purple”, we just lost our minds! We were so excited. I had on this long dress. Why did I wear this long dress? I can’t run! [laughs]
I would love you to share the backstory behind a song you wrote and recorded, “Against the Law”. Tragically, it’s still relevant.
When I was nine years old, I used to visit my grandmother, who lived in North Carolina. It was the segregated South at that time, but I didn’t know about segregation because I lived in New York, and we didn’t have that. When I went down there, I was unprepared. We didn’t even have running water for Black people in the area where we were. They didn’t have plumbing. There was an outhouse out in the back. What is that? That’s the way it was for Black people in that area at the time.
All the kids in the neighborhood came to take me to the movies. We walked to the movies, and there’s two lines. There’s a long line and a short line. I get on the short line, and all the kids that were walking with me got on the long line. I couldn’t understand why they were so stupid. They’re laughing at me. I don’t even notice that all the kids on my line are white. I don’t even see that because I’m not used to seeing segregation like that. I’m not seeing color.
I get up to the window. The lady puts her hand on her hip: “Can’t you read, little girl?” I look up, and it says “White Only”, and I’m nine years old. I was more insulted that she thought I couldn’t read than the fact that she didn’t want me here because I was Black. That insulted me because I was a great reader. [laughs]
We had to go up the fire escape at the back of the theater. You can’t even go in the front door. You have to go up the fire escape to the balcony, and then that’s where all the Black people sat. All the white people sat below. I bitched through the whole movie. They would have killed me had I grown up there because I was going, “I can’t believe that they treat you like this.” This mother sitting in front of me looked at me and said, “That’s just the way it is little girl”, and I shut up. I realized this is normal for them.
Cut to 40 or 50 years later, I’m sitting in a therapist’s office. She said, “Tell me some traumatic things that have happened to you.” I described to her just what I described to you. She said, “Well, how did you feel when that happened?” I got up out of my chair, and I said, “I felt like it was against the law to be Black because everybody tells you that you are not worthy, from the state on down.” I didn’t agree with that. I said, “Wait! I got to write that down!” [laughs] I’m in the middle of a therapy session writing “Against the Law”. I told that story in that song. It gave me such a release, to release that energy that I had all choked up inside. All these years later, I was still bothered by that experience.
Of the songs you’ve written, what’s one in particular that still speaks to you?
I was telling you that I traveled with a group of writers. We went to Russia as well as Cuba. We collaborated with Russian writers. That was extraordinary. We wrote on Stalin’s yacht. Who does that? We took a train from Moscow to Leningrad or St. Petersburg, what it’s called now.
I wrote this song called “Night Train to Leningrad”. I think it’s one of the best lyrics that I ever did because I play a role in this song. I’m one of the writers and poets, and activists who had to leave Moscow because when Stalin came to power, they didn’t want to hear from these people, so they had to escape. In this song, I became one of those people escaping to Finland on the night train to Leningrad. It’s so mysterious and wonderful. I can’t even believe I wrote it! I have a lot of songs like that, like “Way Back When”. Who was I then? Can I go back and write something else like that?
You’ve achieved all kinds of success, from hit songs to the respect of fellow artists and songwriters. How would you define what it means to be successful?
Knowing who you are is a great amount of success, being who you are, and believing in yourself. These are good things that help you get to where you’re trying to go.
Giorgio Moroder, who was producing Donna at the time, invited me to his house. He had heard some songs, I guess, and he wanted to produce me, but I knew in my little 26-year-old mind that he would make me sound like disco. I didn’t want to do that because God gave me this thing to do here, and I have to do this. He was a nice man, but he was amazed that I would not go along with his program. I had the same thing with the Bee Gees. Some people were trying to hook me up with them, but I just knew in my heart that it would not be me. It would be Samantha Sang. She was lovely, but it wasn’t me. I had to do what I was given to do.
Brenda, looking back on your career, what’s something that you would tell your younger self, who’s just about to release her solo album?
What I would say to my younger self is don’t be afraid. Go for it. Fear paralyzes us from doing so many things that we could do really well, but we don’t have the confidence and the network, and the people around you to support you so that you can feel good about going for it. I always tell young writers to listen to yourself because you have a gift. Somebody gave you a gift. Use it. Don’t try to copy what you think might be a hit. You have to be your authentic self, and that’s what usually gets people.
There’s one thing that Aretha Franklin taught me. She called my manager and said, “I want a Brenda Russell song”. They told me, and so I wrote this song like the style of Aretha. She said, “No. I want a Brenda Russell song.” I was projecting what she used to do. She wanted what I did for myself. Just write what comes naturally to you. I took that lesson with me.