As a member of the band Tommy Tutone, Jim Keller co-wrote one of the biggest hits of the 1980s: the anthemic "867-5309/Jenny." But his resume also includes another end of the musical spectrum: Keller also manages composer Philip Glass. Somewhere in between, there's his current individual career. The musician has just released his third solo album, Heaven Can Wait.
"The songwriting — as with almost everything — there has to be some spot, lyrically and emotionally, in the song that I can connect with," he says. "Otherwise it's impossible, really, to sing it and mean it. So there's pieces of my life drifting in and out of all of these songs."
Keller says this album came out of a series of weekly jam sessions held in the back of a quilting factory. The first song on the album, "Cali Girl," was even recorded with that kind of spontaneity.
"You don't hear me, because we've edited it, but I actually shout out what chords we're going to go to when we go to the chorus and so forth," Keller says. "That was basically one take, with no one knowing the song and me cutting it live. So it has this really special quality for me because of that."
In an interview with Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon, Keller discusses Heaven Can Wait, working with the famous minimalist composer and — yes — the legacy of "Jenny."
"Fortunately, I like the song," he says. "I've always said that it was a blessing, because what if I couldn't stand it? It would be haunting."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
One reviewer has this to say about Jim Keller - he sounds like the boss, Bruce Springsteen, in a good mood. That seems about right.
(SOUNDBITE OF JIM KELLER SONG)
JIM KELLER: (Singing) Cruising down the freeway, wind blowing back my hair. Sadness of the summer.
SIMON: But there was a time when Jim Keller sounded more like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "867-5309 / JENNY")
TOMMY TUTONE: (Jenny, don't change your number - 867-5309, 867-5309.
SIMON: As a member of Tommy Tutone, Jim Keller cowrote one of the biggest hits of the 1980's. But his resume also includes another end entirely of the musical spectrum.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHILIP GLASS SONG)
SIMON: Yes, that's Philip Glass. Mr. Keller is his manager. And somewhere in between, there's his current individual career. The musician has just released his third solo recording. It's called "Heaven Can Wait," and Jim Keller joins us now from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
KELLER: Thanks for having me, Scott.
SIMON: So how do you feel that phone number after all these years - tired of it?
KELLER: No, fortunately, I like the song. I've always said that, you know, it's a blessing because what if I couldn't stand it? It would be haunting. And the thing about it, is that nobody can mess that song up. You can walk by a bar, and any bar band can play it. There's something about it that, you know, gives it this quality that just kind of lasts. We certainly didn't expect it when we wrote it. That's for sure.
SIMON: Pays the mortgage nicely?
KELLER: Not quite. I always thought, if I had three of those, it would be different. But one didn't quite cover it.
SIMON: Yeah. Course - we want to talk about "Heaven Can Wait."
SIMON: This came out of a series of weekly jam sessions in a quilting factory?
KELLER: Well, yeah. For quite a few years I had a regular band, and all of those guys ended up going off and touring. My main compadres were gone, and so I ended up tapping - because I had to - into this incredible wealth of talent that's in New York - and jam, basically. And in the course of that, these songs were developed and then we recorded them.
SIMON: Let's listen, if we could, to the first track, "Cali Girl".
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALI GIRL")
KELLER: (Singing) I got my (unintelligible) with the top rolled down. Just enough gas to get me to Salinas. I thought I had an easy hit and run, but the cops blew out my plans. Take me away, my Cali girl. You're breaking my heart. Take me away, take me away. I'll never make it home without you.
SIMON: How'd this song come about?
KELLER: I mean the songwriting, as with almost everything that - there has to be some spot lyrically and emotionally in a song that I can connect with or else is impossible, really, to sing and mean it. So there's piece of, you know, my life drifting in and out of all of these songs. I mean one of the things that's - I really love about that recording is that nobody in the session had heard it, so that we had just finished a take of some song, and I just started strumming those cords. And so those guys were essentially jamming, and you don't hear me because we've edited it, but I actually shout out what chords we're going to go to when we go to the, you know, chorus and so forth. So that was basically one take with no one knowing the song and me cutting that alive. So it has this really special quality for me because of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALI GIRL")
KELLER: (Singing) Everything is going to be okay. You're going to head down south and be my senorita.
SIMON: After Tommy Tutone broke up in the '80s, you quit music for a while - quit playing music?
KELLER: I don't know whether I quit or music quit me. It was a combination of those things. I was think about this, actually - I was on the subway up here and that - you know, that's kind of always what happens. You know, when you're kind of - you jump into that pop thing. And, you know, I had a great ride with that, and my eyes were wide open. But you come out the other end, and it's confusing. And there were quite a few years after that that didn't really work. And it was a long time before I kind of - you know, years really, before I kind of found a grounding for myself and music again.
SIMON: I don't want to dwell on this too much, but how did you become Philip Glass's manager?
KELLER: I kind of talked my way into it. There was a little fibbing involved, and I kind of brushed up a resume. I mean really, what happened was I was desperate, and I had nothing going on. I couldn't make a living as a musician, and I was trying anything. And I had heard that he was looking for somebody at a low level position, and, you know, Philip, who basically - he came up by his own wits. I think he appreciated that, and he went for it. And that was 20 years ago.
SIMON: Has being in - associated with Philip Glass done anything to your music?
KELLER: You know, musically we're so far from each other. And that's part of why working with him works for me. Because it's really in a separate planet. You know, the things that I learned from Philip are less about specific music things than they are about an approach to your work, cause Philip always says, you know, you get up everyday and you work. And you work hard. And that is what you have to do to do anything that you're passionate about and to, you know, do anything that you're proud of. You have to put the hours in and you have to make the time. And that's hard work.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVEN CAN WAIT")
KELLER: (Singing) Everything changes time after time. The smile that's lit up on your face may be gone tomorrow. No one's to blame. A scene with no crime. Whatever brings us down cannot pull us apart. We've got so many rivers behind us. We've got so many bridges to cross. Pay no attention to my troubled mind. I ain't got no worries at all. We've got so many miles we've left behind. So many roads we've got to go down. Memories up and down the line. Well, I don't want to lose them now. So heaven can wait. Heaven can wait. Heaven can wait.
SIMON: Is this a song that time and life - and I don't mean the old newsmagazines - put into your mind?
KELLER: Well, of course. Yeah. You know, I turn 60 this year. And, you know, things change. Your perspective changes. And in many ways, that's a gift. I mean, it's not a gift I would've signed up for early. But, you know, there is this wonderful perspective that comes from that that gives you a little distance to look at things. And I do appreciate that. And hopefully, some of that come out in the music.
SIMON: What have you learned about music by being away from the performing end for so many years?
KELLER: Well, I mean, the goals are so different. You know, when you're young, it's about being a star. And I think, for me, as I've gotten older, it's about playing music. And more purely - I mean, certainly I was there when I was younger. But now, you know, there isn't that pop thing. And so you really do it for what's happening right now. I remember I played a gig a little while ago. And someone said what are you going to do now? And I just started laughing. I said I just did. I mean, that's it. Don't you understand? You know, it doesn't get any better than that.
SIMON: Jim Keller, his new CD "Heaven Can Wait," speaking with us from New York. And thanks so much for being with us.
KELLER: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.