Interviews

Glen Ballard

Back to the Future’s Grammy-winning Composer Glen Ballard –
“Part of the dream is knowing it will happen … Never give up hope.”

By: Ellis Nassour

August 25, 2003: With six Grammy Awards, sales of over 150 million records and #1 hits (pop, rock, jazz, country, and rhythm and blues) Glen Ballard ranks as one of music’s most acclaimed songwriter-producers. He earned numerous awards, including ASCAP and the National Academy of Music’s Songwriter of the Year, a Billboard tribute issue, and ASCAP’s annual citations for radio’s Most Performed Songs. In 2023 Ballard was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Back to the Future’s Grammy-winning Composer Glen Ballard –
“Part of the dream is knowing it will happen … Never give up hope.”

By: Ellis Nassour

August 25, 2003: With six Grammy Awards, sales of over 150 million records and #1 hits (pop, rock, jazz, country, and rhythm and blues) Glen Ballard ranks as one of music’s most acclaimed songwriter-producers. He earned numerous awards, including ASCAP and the National Academy of Music’s Songwriter of the Year, a Billboard tribute issue, and ASCAP’s annual citations for radio’s Most Performed Songs. In 2023 Ballard was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Back in his teens and at university, where Ballard was way ahead on the music curve – writing songs and recording an album, with dreams of pop stardom did he ever imagine winning a Grammy, much less six? Not only that, but to be working with legends such as Alan Silvestri, Michael Jackson, Annie Lennox, Elton John, Quincy Jones, Aretha Franklin, Streisand, Wilson Phillips, Van Halen, and among many others, Andrea Bocelli?  

“Yes and no,” he utters almost in a whisper. “Part of the dream is somehow knowing it will happen. It doesn’t always. Never give up hope. I was extremely, and I stress the extremely, fortunate. I am just a writer. I write every single day – lyrics, music, shows, poetry, and novels. It’s all I do. All I want to do. I love to tell stories. It’s part of my DNA.”

Novelist is an addition to Ballard’s’ resume. His first is due in the Fall. “Writing poetry and books – telling stories is what I wanted to, but I had to sideline that when my music career began to steamroll.”

Ballard has been steamrolling since the early 90s. In 2001, he marked a rare milestone in show business penning and/or producing records selling more than 150,000,000 copies worldwide.

“No way,” Ballard replies when asked if he’s been able to absorb such success. “It still feels surreal. I didn’t know the business. I didn’t know what to expect. I never look back. Only forward. I had a lot of mentors. Even as I was learning, they treated me with respect.”. 

Ballard has returned to theater after two adaptations from film and music – Ghost and Jagged Little Pill, collaborating with two-time Oscar and two-time Grammy nominee Alan Silvestri, acclaimed composer of countless film and TV scores, to ignite Broadway with Back to the Future – The Musical, rocking SRO audiences at the Winter Garden Theatre.

On the West End, where Ballard had great pre-Broadway success with Ghost, BTTF was nominated for seven 2022 Olivier Awards, including Best Score and won Best New Musical.  It has a book by Bob Gale, new music and lyrics by Silvestri and Ballard, with songs from the film – which include “The Power of Love” and “Johnny B. Goode.” 

For the few who may not know the film and its sequels, it’s 1985. Marty McFly, a teenage slacker and mean guitarist with a dysfunctional family. He’s looking to hit the big time with his band, encouraged by his optimistic girlfriend. On a visit to assist maverick scientist Doc Brown, he’s accidentally sent 30 years into the past in Doc’s experimental DeLorean rebuilt for time travel. As he descends into 1955 Hill Valley he meets his future parents, which gets a bit complicated. Before Marty can return to 1985, he must make sure his high school-aged parents fall in love in order to have his own existence.

The musical stars Tony winner Roger Bart returning to the New York stage for the first time in seven years (since the musical comedy Disaster! [which it was, closing the night it opened] to repeat his portrayal in the UK blockbuster of Doc Brown, and Casey Likes (Almost Famous) as Marty McFly. 

Ballard and his BTTF collaborator, prolific film composer, two-time Oscar nominee and two-time Golden Globe winner Alan Silvestri, who wrote the score for the 1985 film (which starred Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd) knew it wouldn’t be easy adapting the film to the stage.

Bob Gale, who wrote the film; Robert Zemeckis, who directed and wrote the film; Silvestri, and Ballard first met in 2007.  “We took iconic music from the movie and asked how do we fit it to the characters. Especially in musical theater, songs must be character driven., If anyone thinks that what they write the first time is gold. Think again! You’re going to get beaten up, but it’s going to get better.”

They never gave up and somehow survived. Ballard laughed. “It wasn’t because of me but because of my music elders from whom I learned so much. We composed over 50 tunes that we constantly refined until we had 17 tunes. It only took 14 years to get it right!” 

The challenge was working with iconic characters that millions of fans of the classic film [and sequels] knew and loved. “It was tricky. ‘How do we make this work onstage?’ It was all about taking what Alan wrote and   making it sing. We had to learn how to animate a stage show. The concept is always driven by the music and Alan wrote quite a dynamic score.”

He calls Silvestri “my best friend in the world and one of the greatest composers on the planet. We’ve had this collaboration of 25 years.  I learned from him, musically; and lyrically, he learned from me.” 

Other than the blasting rock numbers, songs such as “For the Dreamers, “Something About That Boy,” and “Gotta Start Somewhere” are heavily influence by pop, soul, Country, and jazz. 

Reflecting on his career, Ballard says he’s worked with the best, “but Alan is not only a genius, he’s also a generous genius. Robert’s talent and vision are empowering. And he’s fun. Fun’s essential. Greatness doesn’t grow out of torture but out of joyful hard work.”

Following graduation from the University of Mississippi, where he recorded his first album, he headed to Los Angeles and spent weeks getting to know the city. “I didn’t know the business, but made myself useful to Brits who didn’t know their way around. Through them, I learned about making deals and music publishing.” Out of the blue, Ballard was hired by Elton John’s music company to play keyboards for Kiki Dee. 

“I had my first single playing on her charted ‘One Step,’ and was busy writing there for three years.” That opened doors at MCA, which was releasing John’s music in the U.S. “I was writing songs for $100 a week.” That relationship continues today – for considerably more money. In 1999, he released The Glen Ballard Songbook, a sheet music collection of 11 tunes (available on Amazon). “I was off and running and decided to go indie.”

The gamble paid off. Country superstar George Strait recorded “You Look So Good in Love,” which soared up the Country charts to #1 and won the accolade Song of the Year.

It was Ballard’s collaboration with the barely known Alanis Morisette that catapulted the duo to national prominence. Jagged Little Pill became one of the biggest albums of the 90s with sales in excess of 30 million copies worldwide. Voted Billboard’s Album of the Year and Best Album of the Decade,  it went on to win three Grammys and become one of the top-selling albums and top-selling debut albums of all time – and is still selling. In 2019 the musical adaptation debuted on Broadway, directed by Diane Paulus with book by Diablo Cody. It was nominated for 15 Tonys. It’s now touring. 

“I’ve done tracks with dozens of acts,” states Ballard, “but there’s something special about creating a full album with an artist, rather than just trying to write a hit single. Spending that time allows you to experiment with a lot of different things. I don’t have a song in mind to send to an artist. First, I must get to know the voice. Once I hear that voice, one to one, I can grow something that’s a perfect fit.” 

Working with Quincy Jones further boosted Ballard’s career, as he helped craft records for Michael Jackson (“Man in the Mirror”). His partnership Morissette on her 1995 blockbuster Jagged Little Pill cemented Ballard’s reputation — the record garnered multiple Grammys and a spot on Rolling Stone’s Greatest Albums of All Time list — and his second Broadway outing.

Now, with his third Broadway score, he established the Glen Ballard Music Composition and Production Scholarship, which helps aspiring producers at the Los Angeles College of Music.

For over 20 years, Alan Silvesrtri has been one of the most prolific and busiest composers. In addition to his Oscar-nominated score for Forrest Gump and Best Song, “Believe,” from The Polar Express, he’s written  scores for over 70 films and TV series. In 2011, he was honored with the prestigious Max Steiner Film Music Achievement Award in Vienna – the annual gala that celebrates the career of the film composer extraordinaire. 

He’s been associated with director Zemeckis since 1984, composing for all his feature films. These include the Back to the Future franchise, Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Cast Away, Romancing the Stone, and The Polar Express. Other scores include The Abyss, The Bodyguard, Eraser, and the Avengers.

Ballard’s written for every genre except classical, but what does listen to? “I like all sorts of music, but I’m especially drawn to jazz – Duke Ellington. I love some classical, especially Shubert. His music is poignant and haunting.”

The Eddy, an edgy multicultural streamer Oscar winner Damien Chazelle (La La Land) on Netflix about the owner of a jazz club in chaotic modern-day Paris who gets tangled up with criminals, gave Ballard the opportunity to write jazz tunes. He’s adapting it for the stage. “We hope to premiere it in Paris “where they have never given up on jazz. Then, the plan is to take it to the world”.

Ballad sadly admits to being a workaholic. “Writing is my life. Once I start working, I’m fully engaged because people have great expectations.” Are there regrets? “Oh, yes. More than a few. My biggest success is that I’m still here. It’s astonishing and overwhelming.”

In theater, Ballard found that “the director is the ultimate decider. He has enormous power. Theater has broadened my horizons thanks to great mentors, such as Matthew Warchus (artistic director, the Old Vic), who literally taught me everything I know about stage business. But going forward, I’ll make the decisions. I want to follow my muse.”  There are three projects in the pipeline, including writing songs for the stage adaptation of the 1979 movie The Rose

Back to the Future – The Musical co-stars Olivier Award nominee Hugh Coles in the scene-stealing recreation of his role as Marty’s father;Mikaela Secada as Marty’s love interest Jennifer; Liana Hunt; Jelani Remy; Nathaniel Hackmann; and a huge ensemble. John Rando is the director, with Ted Arthur as music director.