Hall Of Fame Songwriter Holly Knight Tells How She Wrote Classic Hit Songs For Tina Turner, Pat Benatar, Rod Stewart and Aerosmith

Holly Knight
Holly Knight

Holly Knight has been a successful hit songwriter for the past three decades. co-writing many classic rock and pop hit songs. Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2013, Knight is known for writing hit anthems such as “The Best” and “Better Be Good To Me” (Tina Turner), “The Warrior” (Scandal featuring Patty Smyth), plus “Invincible” and “Love Is A Battlefield” (Pat Benatar).

It was in the 1980s that Knight had the biggest impact, writing a flurry of hit songs which remain popular to this day. Besides the aforementioned hits, Knight also co-wrote the hit songs “Never” (Heart), “Love Touch” (Rod Stewart), “Rag Doll” (Aerosmith) and “Obsession” (Animotion). She also wrote “One Of The Living,” which became a hit for Tina Turner.

It can be said that Knight has been a pioneer in writing female empowerment songs, particularly with her songs “The Best,” “The Warrior” and “Invincible.” These songs enabled the artists to sing powerfully and with strong conviction, and were precursors to such later hits as “Fighter” (Christina Aguilera), “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” (Kelly Clarkson) and “Survivor” (Destiny’s Child).

Born and raised in New York City, Knight learned to play classical piano, and she later was a member of two rock bands. She first joined the group Spider, which released two albums on hit writer/producer Mike Chapman’s label, Dreamland Records. Later in the 1980s, she led a new group called Device, which had a Top 40 single called “Hangin’ On A Heart Attack.”

Despite her credits as an artist, it became clear that Knight’s greatest success was as a songwriter, writing hits for other artists. Notably, she wrote an impressive 10 songs which Tina Turner recorded. She is also the recipient of 10 ASCAP Awards.

Here’s a list of other artists who have recorded her songs: Bon Jovi, Hall and Oates, KISS, Chaka Khan, Cheap Trick, Wynonna Judd, Meat Loaf, Bonnie Tyler, John Waite, Lou Gramm, Aaron Neville, CeeLo Green, Kim Wilde, Shawn Colvin, Dusty Springfield, Rachel Sweet, Suzi Quatro, Cherie Currie, Less Than Jake, the Divinyls, the Donnas, Fefe Dobson, Will Hoge, Link Wray, Jimmy Barnes, Darling Violetta and Leigh Nash.

In addition, Knight has written many songs for movies & TV. Here’s a partial list of films which have featured her songs: Thelma and Louise, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Stewart Little, Thirteen Going On Thirty, What The Bleep, Hot Tub Fantasy, Anchorman ll, Dallas Buyers Club, The Other Woman. Also, her songs have appeared in such TV shows as American Idol, The Voice, 30 Rock, Family Guy, The Simpsons, Oprah Winfrey, Nip Tuck, South Park, Glee, The Mysteries Of Laura, Necessary Roughness, and The Following.

Holly Knight Interview
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Holly Knight. She tells how she got started as an artist, and she talks in-depth about how she wrote several of her classic hit songs.

DK: Early on in your career, you formed the band, Spider. Was your original goal to be an artist?

Here’s the video of Pat Benatar’s hit “Love Is A Battlefield,” which was
co-written by Holly Knight.

Holly Knight: My original goal was to be a performing artist. I started studying classical piano when I was four, and continued on that path for ten years. Playing was something I immediately connected with, and as I got older and discovered rock and pop music, I started to have fantasies about being in a band. Like many people, I always assumed the band members and solo artists wrote their own music.

DK: When did you start co-writing with Mike Chapman? Did you both write the lyrics and music?

Knight: The first song I ever wrote with Mike Chapman was “Better Be Good To Me,” which we wrote for my band Spider’s second record.  We jammed in a room at the Dreamland (Records) offices with a keyboard, guitar, and Roland drum machine, the same one he used on (Blondie’s hit) “Heart Of Glass,” and finished it in one day. It was inspiring to write with him, and it was very much a 50/50 thing where we both worked on the music and lyrics, bouncing ideas off of one another. I felt an instant connection writing with Mike, unlike my experiences writing with my band. After I left Spider and moved out to California to pursue a career in songwriting, someone played “Better Be Good To Me” to Tina Turner in an A&R meeting for her album Private Dancer, and she fell in love with it. It was the second single on that record.

DK: One of your first big hits was “Love Is A Battlefield.” How did you write this song, and come up with such an unique song title & concept?

Knight: Well, after I moved out to L.A. from New York to pursue songwriting more seriously (at Chapman’s suggestion and encouragement), I’d gone over to his house to write, and just as we were getting started, the phone rang and it was Pat Benatar. They had worked together on her debut record, and she asked Mike if he would write her a hit for the next record they were doing…(Talk about being in the right place at the right time). Mike told her he was writing with ‘Holly Knight’, a new songwriter he had just signed, and after he hung up we started to kick around the initial ideas. I had a chord progression I’d come up with, which is usually how we’d start writing.

Mike said we needed a really unique and strange title to go with the music. He was muttering, “I dunno…something like…Love Is A Battlefield.” I was riveted to my seat when he blurted that out, and I said, “Why don’t we use that, it’s so strange and cool.”

So we wrote the entire tune that day, but for one line in the chorus, which we spent another week searching for. We sat by his pool while he showed me how to fly paper airplanes as we exchanged different lines. We came up with many, but we were trying to create something simple, effective and memorable. It ended up being “No promises, no demands.”

Here’s the video of the hit “The Warrior” by Scandal (featuring Patty
Smyth) which was co-written by Holly Knight.

DK: Several of your hits were big anthems—female empowerment songs. What inspired you to write anthems like “The Warrior” and “Invincible”?

Knight: With “Invincible,” I had been given a script for a movie called, The Legend Of Billie Jean. It was an empowering story of a young female vigilante who was fighting for justice, after being sexually threatened and harassed, and she became the leader of a young teenage movement. I always find it easier to come up with a song title with a script because there’s a direction to follow.

With “The Warrior,” which I wrote with Nick Gilder (who had the hit “Hot Child In The City”)…I can’t really remember why I came up with that title…I think that idea of being a warrior had been inside me for a long time. I grew up in a somewhat ‘dysfunctional’ family where there was a lot of drama and fighting. I was always more interested in fighting FOR something rather than fighting with someone, and without being cognizant of it, it was a constant theme in my psyche, and hence, my songs. Before I realized it, I was becoming known for writing empowering anthems. You write what you know.

DK: Your hit “Obsession” for Animotion was a bit different, with more pop sound. How did you write this song with Michael Des Barres?

Knight: Chapman had signed Michael Des Barres to a solo deal at Dreamland Records, and he introduced us, suggesting we write together. I started “Obsession” out by coming up with the sequencer bass line, which gave it its contemporary pop sound. That bass line is relentless and unforgiving, and like “Better Be Good To Me,” it only consists of two chord changes. I find that the simpler the underlying chord changes are, the more freedom you have to play around with the melody. (The more complex the changes, the more limited the melody is to follow the chords).

That’s sort of been my signature… to come up with a cool bass line first. Once you have that, you can sing melody and lyrics over that, and pretty much that’s all you really need to write a song—the rest is just connecting the dots. Keeping things simple and hooky enough so that people want to sing along…I guess that’s how they become anthems.

DK: What is your songwriting process? Did you usually come up with the title or lyric idea first, or do you like to create the music first?

Knight: These days, I find that having a title or direction is very helpful. I’m constantly maintaining a list of song titles that I can go to. Then usually the music comes first, or at least some kind groove, vibe, and all the while I’m phonetically singing something, a melody that later gets written into the lyrics. But it really depends on the genre. For instance, lately I’ve been working on a musical and with that the lyrics always come first, since the component of storytelling is so integral to musical theater.

Here’s the video of Tina Turner’s hit “Better Be Good To Me,” which was
co-written by Holly Knight.

DK: Another big hit you had was “Never” for Heart. How did you write this song with Gene Black?

Knight: Gene Black was the guitarist in my second band, Device. He’s such a great guitarist, one of the best improvisers/soloists I’ve ever worked with. I had already been invited to a Heart rehearsal to meet Ann and Nancy (Wilson) and the rest of the band; and I thought I’d bring Gene in on one of the songs because we had been playing around one day, and he came up with this really catchy guitar chord progression I liked (the intro verse chord sequence).

DK: You also had hits with Rod Stewart (“Love Touch”) and Aerosmith (“Rag Doll”) Do you have a good story about how you wrote either song?

Knight: One day I received a phone call from Rod Stewart’s manager, who wanted to set up a meeting with us. I was a fan (especially of Rod’s earlier work with The Faces), so I was really stoked that they had called me.

Almost always, when I meet with an artist, I have the beginnings of a song to play them, (sometimes more) so we have a place to start.  I’ve found that their attention span is often very short, and they’re looking for me to ‘lead the way’.  If they like the idea and want to work on it with me, then its an great way to get them excited.

I had come up with the title and music to “Love Touch.” (Much of the song was pretty much written before I even met with him). I sung along with the tape so he could hear the chorus melody and words and he fell in love with it….“Well done young lady”,  he said…which I though was pretty funny. We got together several times to finish it, but I think his mind must’ve been on other things; he wasn’t really contributing anything. So I told him I wanted to finish it without him, and he said fine. At this point, I had brought in Gene Black, from my band Device, who had come up with this infectious guitar line that was so good, that I had decided to give him a writing credit. I was struggling with lyrics on the verses, and wanted to get the song done, so I asked Mike Chapman to help me finish the words to the verses. In the end it came out great, and just like with another song I wrote, “One Of The Living” (that Tina Turner cut for the movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), Mike produced the recording, and Gene and I recorded all the instruments on the track. I sung all the backing vocals, and the only weird thing about that was that Rod wanted me to sing the background vocals on the track before he sung the lead …which is a little backasswards. It was placed in a movie called Legal Eagles, with Robert Redford and Daryl Hannah, and became a top five hit.

With “Rag Doll,” Steven Tyler and Joe Perry had written most of the tune, but their A&R man, John Kalodner didn’t think it was a hit, although he felt it had really strong potential, and I agreed…so did Steven. This song is really the one isolated case where I was brought in to tighten a screw…and so I gladly did because I was always such an Aerosmith fan. And because they had sort of disappeared off the charts for awhile due to their drug abuse, and hence weren’t putting out the great record they once did…this was meant to be on their “comeback” record, Permanent Vacation. So I changed the title from “Rag Time” to “Rag Doll” and revamped some of the lyrics to make it work. The music didn’t need to be touched, it was already great.

Here’s the video of Aerosmith’s hit “Rag Doll,” which was co-written
by Holly Knight.

DK: I read that you’re working on two musicals. Can you tell me about these?

Knight: I am working on two musicals…You have to be somewhat of a masochist to want to work in musical theater. The road is a long and arduous one with very small chance of success, and I think that’s because so many people, and so much money is involved. But I grew up with musical theater in New York City, and so it’s a natural transition for me—I like the fact that it’s one of the few venues these days where you can actually make money without getting ripped off on the internet. That’s because they have such strong unions that no cameras are permitted in the theater, and so you’ll never see anything on YouTube. So if you want to see, say Hamilton, you have to pay. And rightly so! I think that’s how it should be…but that train left the station a long time ago.

One of my musicals has a lot of my hits in it and the other I can’t quite talk about just yet. But I’m having fun!

DK: I also read that you teach a Master Songwriting Class.

Knight: I teach a Master Songwriting class in L.A. out of my personal studio. My last one of the summer is August 15-19 and there’s still some room even though I keep the classes quite small. It started out as a class for experienced writers to get to the next level and really hone their ‘craft’. But now it’s become a mix of levels and I’m able to work with them individually as well as together because the classes are small. I love teaching  and really educating people on the realities of Today’s music business and how to succeed in todays climate. All info for the class and registration is on my website at www.hollyknight.com. My ethos is, learn like a pro so you can think like an artist (quote by Picasso). Beautifully put, don’t you think?

Here’s the link to Holly Knight’s site: https://www.hollyknight.com/

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima