When you’re looking for a songwriter with rock and roll in their soul, Holly Knight is the woman you want. Her career started in the early ’80s while she was performing in her band Spider. After a few year, and two albums, Knight moved to Los Angeles to pursue something others had been encouraging her to do for a long time: songwriting.
Once in LA, Knight hit the ground running. She has penned classic hits like “Love is a Battlefield,” “The Best,” and “Tall, Dark, Handsome Stranger.” Writing rock songs for rock artists of every sub-genre. Heart, Dusty Springfield, Pat Benatar, Aerosmith, Kiss, Otep, and Bonnie Tyler have all enlisted and benefited from her talents. Thirteen ASCAPs and three Grammy awards, along with an induction into Songwriters Hall of Fame are the honors she has racked up over her career.
Knight took some time to chat with us about her inspirations, dream collaborations, and how she became the writer of our favorite rocker chick tunes.
What inspired you to start writing?
Well, let’s start by saying I was a musician before I became a songwriter. I started studying classical piano when I was four and took lessons for ten years. Even then, music was my life. The minute I woke up I’d run to the piano before school and when I came home, I’d sit down to play right away again. It was such a natural thing for me. When I was about eight I discovered rock music, and the louder the better. Just like everybody else, I thought that the artist wrote their own music because in rock bands they usually did. I didn’t know anything about the Brill Building, for instance, when I listened to Motown records, which I loved. I even thought Elvis wrote his own songs.
While my mother had aspirations of me becoming a concert pianist, I had dreams of being in a band because I wanted to play my own music; I thought that was the only way you could do it. I really didn’t think about being a songwriter as a full-time profession until I was a young adult. I had joined my first band, Spider, and we were gaining notoriety in NYC. The other band members were as determined as I was to write our own songs, and while they were writing more progressive rock stuff, I seemed to have a natural ability to write simpler, hooky songs.
When we got signed to a record deal, the label kept picking my tunes as the singles and it became apparent that I could write a radio-friendly hit. It really was Mike Chapman, the record company president, who convinced me that I would do better taking myself seriously as a songwriter. He was (and still is) an amazing songwriter and producer (Blondie, The Knack, Benatar) and he suggested I move out to LA and sign a new publishing deal with him. We started writing together all the time. When I wasn’t writing with him, he teamed me up with other writers and eventually I branched out on my own as I started having hits.
What were a few of the first rock concerts you attended?
Hendrix at The Fillmore — I snuck out of the house when I was 12. A few years later I saw Led Zeppelin, Queen, Bad Company, NY Dolls, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Bowie.
I must admit I have a “badass women of rock” playlist that I turn to when I need a good kick. So many of your songs have a home on that playlist. Did you set out with the goal to write empowering anthems for women? Or did it just naturally happen that way?
I was totally on autopilot. I came from a home with a lot of chaos and drama and left at a very young age (almost 16). I had to find a lot of inner strength to survive out there and I guess this stuff just oozed out of me. My songs were often about fighting FOR something, not WITH someone, and they still seem to gravitate towards empowerment and not taking any shit. In a man’s world (the music biz), it seems to stand out more when a woman’s doing it. There aren’t many of us, even today, in the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. When I was inducted in 2013, there were 400 men and only 16 women!
Is there anyone you wish you could travel back in time to collaborate with?
Beethoven, Jim Morrison, Chopin, Cole Porter, Bowie, Freddie Mercury.
What artists have you been listening to lately?
The Struts, Muse, Phantogram, NIN, Celldweller, and then there’s Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga, Adele. I’m still a big fan on Amy Winehouse. It’s all over the map
Is there a moment in your career that you are most proud of?
I would say that getting inducted into The Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2013 is pretty much the topper. To be standing side by side with some of my idols – who I ended up writing with – was awe-inspiring. That’s a hard one to top.
You are a very gifted photographer. When did you discover your love of photography? Any plans to release an art book with your work?
Thank you! I have a new series that I took while I was in Amsterdam this spring, when all the tulips exploded in full color. I plan to do an exhibit and a book this coming year. I have so many different things going on at once, that its taken this long to get going with my photography as far as sharing it with the word. I have a website for it, which needs to be updated with my latest work: hollyknightphoto.com.
Any upcoming projects you would like to share with our readers? I remember reading that you were working on a musical?
Yes, I’m in the midst of developing my new musical, which I co-wrote the script to and contains all my hit songs as well as some stellar new ones. It requires a lot of hard work and time, there are so many moving pieces. I’ve been wanting to do something like this my whole life. I grew up in NYC and went to musicals when I was a kid, so it’s come full circle for me now. Can’t wait for you to see it on Broadway!
Lastly, What women have inspired you along your journey?
Well, certainly the vocalists I’ve worked with have inspired me: Tina Turner, Pat Benatar, Chrissy Amphlett, Ann Wilson, and Patty Smyth. I’ve been working with a great rock singer, Lena Hall. She’s a force to be reckoned with.
I wanna give a shout out to the women out there that are still rocking and singing their hearts out: Lacey Sturm/Flyleaf, Lzzy Hale/Halestorm, Brody Dalle/Distillers, Amy Lee/Evanescence, Cristina Scabbia/Lacuna Coil.
As far as women in general, I’d say Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem, Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, Michelle Obama, Amelia Earhart, Coco Chanel, George Sand, and Marie Curie.