Composer, Record Producer
Peter Link has won the NY Drama Desk Award and has been nominated twice for the Tony Awards. He is a composer and record producer who has had a very successful career. He has worked on Broadway, in film, and TV as a composer, director, and actor. Currently, he works in his own recording studio, Link Recording Studios, producing primarily inspirational music albums. During our interview, he shared both highlights and failures from his theatrical career, how and why he got into composing and producing inspirational music, why he never has writer's block, how he works to open up artists and reach a broad audience, and advice on making it.
You are a multi-talented artist and musician. What do you call yourself?
I'm a composer. I'm a lyricist. I'm more than a song writer. I've written music for many different genres. I direct in self-defense if I can't find who I want. I'm also a record producer. A producer in the recording studio is like the director in the theatre. The record producer guides and directs the sessions. I may sing on some of the albums, too, but I work with such great singers that I usually have them sing. If I produce an album, I'm usually the musician as well.
You were an actor and performer earlier in your career. How did you make the shift from acting to music?
My high school choir teacher, a man named Jack Eyerly, was my mentor and convinced me that I was innately musical. So, when I went to college, I directed the choirs. My first taste of theatrical directing came when I was a sophomore. Then, my senior year, I directed "Carousel," which ended up being a big success. I had found what I loved to do, and it was a fusion of elements. One of the student's mothers was a New York socialite, a backer of Broadway. She told me that I could make it on Broadway. She gave me that ounce of confidence I needed. So after graduation, I studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City because I thought that would be the best way to learn about directing. You have to know how to act to direct actors. After two years of training, I became an actor and had an amazing streak of fortune. That summer I did ten national network commercials; that fall I got on "As the World Turns" as a regular; that spring, I took over the lead in "Hair" from the original actor who went to L.A. to open there. For a year and a half, I did both -- the soap in the morning, the musical at night. Finally, at age 23-24, I burned out completely. It was just too much. During all this, I wrote a show with a friend of mine, called "Salvation," which opened at the Village Gate, a famous jazz club." Jacques Brel Is Alive and Living in Paris" played there, and we went on after it. We were just kind of goofing around, but the "NY Times" reviewed it, and suddenly we had a hit show that ran for two years. When they moved the show uptown, they asked me to play the lead in "Salvation" because I had a name. I did it for about six months. Then, one night, while doing the performance, I thought, "You know, I'd rather be home writing." Within three weeks, I left. I then went all over the world directing productions of "Salvation." I wrote for the theatre for fifteen years.
What has been your favorite work?
I think my favorite was working at the NY Shakespeare Festival under Joseph Papp, who was a great producer, particularly on "Much Ado About Nothing," which we did in 1976 in Central Park. I wrote hours' worth of music, underscoring the scenes and setting Shakespeare's lyrics to music. It was such a success that they moved it to Broadway. It became the longest running Shakespeare on Broadway, starring Sam Waterston, with a wonderful cast. It was set in 1904 at the St. Louis World's Fair. It then got a 3-hour IBM, CBS televised special, which they still air on TV. It was one of those perfect shows. There were no bad days with that show. I also enjoyed working on Neil Simon's "The Good Doctor," starring Christopher Plummer and other incredible actors. Writing songs for this Chekov-based play provided me with an interesting foray into Russian music. I was nominated for the Tony for both of those shows. Theatre gave me the chance to dabble in so many different types of music.
What is the tough part of working in the theatre?
Theatre is the most collaborative art form in the world. But when ego takes over or when there's confusion, shows aren't that good, and satisfaction is difficult to find. One of the tragedies in my life was a musical I did with Jacob Brackman (lyricist), Steve Tesich (bookwriter) who won an Oscar for "Breaking Away," and AJ Antoon, a brilliant young director. The four of us worked on this musical based on the movie "King of Hearts" for three years. We opened up at the Westport County Playhouse, got Broadway producers, and then it got away from us. The producers fired the director and hired a new director who wasn't any good. It opened during the 1978 NY newspaper strike, so there wasn't any media coverage. It failed. I had put three years and lots of money into this project. It was too much for me, so I walked away from the theatre. I turned to industrial shows, worked for fifteen years, and I learned my craft.
What's an industrial show?
Fortune 500 companies -- GM, CocaCola, Bayer, etc. -- invite their sales forces to exotic places to entertain and teach them about their new products. I directed multi-million dollar shows for them, wrote theme songs, and underscored videos. It's all very first class. I never included company or product names in my songs, so even though I may have been working for Bayer, I ended up writing songs about healing. Also, I generated a group of singers, and used Jenny Burton to star in many of these shows. She was considered the "queen" of industrial shows. We developed inspirational songs for these shows, out of which came the act, "The Jenny Burton Experience." She's truly an inspiring singer. For seven years, we sold out every Thursday night in NYC. We opened for Stevie Wonder, headlined in Atlantic City, and had a successful run. But then, I wanted to do something else. One of my current projects has me going back into the studio with Jenny to do a new album with her. The JBX was a pinnacle time for me because it helped me get into writing inspirational music. I really love to write inspiring songs that move the listeners.
What has helped you get through tough times?
There are a lot of ups and downs in the business. The up times are great. But when it's a down time, you pull in and work harder, refine, and get in touch with your art. What I've learned is that the tough times are times to regroup and start something new. Fortunately I've been able to do that. I figure if I can work on 10 projects at one time, finish 5, get 3 on, then one hits, and I can live off that. But the opportunity to write music is the most exciting part for me. I always go back to being a writer.
Have you ever had writer's block?
I'm not a writer who's worried about writer's block. I've learned where creativity comes from -- God. The first thing I do when I sit down to compose is to pray because it puts me in tune with the force that is God. My watchword is, "The worst things I write come from me; the best things I write come through me." So, I titled my own album, "Thru Me." The creative process is really about connecting to God. If you connect yourself with God, who is All, you connect yourself with the allness of life -- all the energy, spirit, soul, and beauties of truth. Then, once you've connected, if you have the mechanical ability to orchestrate, play the guitar, piano, etc., the creativity doesn't stop. God gives us the creativity, and we invent the story line or arrange the musical notes. I'm all about being in the moment. I'll be on the piano or sitting with the guitar, and something in me will tell me to turn on the tape recorder, because here it comes. From those types of devotional experiences came Julia Wade's "Upon the Mountain" CD, as well as much of what I wrote for "The Jenny Burton Experience."
"Upon the Mountain" is very inspirational. How did it come about?
When I first met Julia Wade, I thought she'd teach me about classical music, since she was an opera singer. But she never went to or listened to opera, and she always talked about something other than opera -- a fusion of elements. I began to work with her because I fell in love with her, and I pushed her into other areas of music, which is what she wanted anyway. I've kind of de-classicalized her and helped her find her voice as a fusion singer, fusing classical, folk, and pop music. This has opened up to her a much wider audience. There's only a certain amount of people who are true classical music lovers in the U.S., but there are a lot of pop music lovers. Pop music includes everything from heavy metal to folk music. All the songs are written to fit Julia's style, but we hope it will fit a lot of singers across the U.S. People have already asked us for a book of the songs, so we've been working on that. Doing this album for Julia was an attempt to reach a larger audience by keeping traditions while at the same time fusing different musical elements, hoping that we would reach hearts and minds and inspire people. That's my cause célèbre -- to open up inspirational thought to a larger audience.
It also sounds like you open up the individuals with whom you work.
Well, I try. I'm doing an album with Steve Blanchard, who's the lead in "Beauty and the Beast" on Broadway. He's doing all his songs, quite a few of which are real show tunes, but he's doing them in a rock style because he's a throw-back rock-n-roller. I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Mindy Jostyn, who was basically a Celtic artist. She was very receptive to my suggestion that we open up her music, so we were able to combine Celtic and African music. We found an amazing fusion of world music together. We tried to shape The JBX even beyond Christianity. We used Christian values but not the name of Jesus. I wanted Jews, atheists, and Buddhists to enjoy the show. An atheist reviewed the show. He wrote, "I'm an atheist, but I'd go back again and again." So, with "Upon the Mountain," we made a very conscious decision to go beyond religion and allow people to embrace spiritual qualities.
Is there any particular inspiration that stands out to you?
Well, I read the Bible and then try to make everything my own. I think my motto in life is, "The good you do equals the good you get." John Lennon said, "Instant karma's gonna get you." He probably meant it negatively; I see it positively. If you want more good, give more good, do more good. Loving more, doing good is what I hope to be about. That's why I've turned to writing inspirational music as my base. Although I don't want to put a limit to my work, I am now making sure that I only do projects that are vitally important to me and hopefully to the world. I want to do only God-driven activity. It used to be that I would take whatever would advance my career or pay me. That wasn't always right. There were times when those decisions were disastrous. I'm fortunate now that I can live the rest of my life without worrying about starving or paying the rent, so I can do projects that can further God's word. Even secular experiences can do that: there has to be redemptive power to it, otherwise there's no point. What I'm doing now has to have a graceful, moral reality.
How did you recognize when you weren't doing the best thing?
The world lets you know. When I was very young, I was fortunate to have success very quickly. In the same week that "Much Ado" opened on Broadway, another show I was part of opened on Broadway. It was "Lysistrata," developed as a musical, with Melina Mercouri, a Greek film star most famous for "Never on Sunday." The first time I read the script, I turned it down because it was bawdy and dirty, and I didn't want to be part of it. But Melina and her husband convinced me to work on it. They gave me an amazing amount of money. I did it for the money and for the career advance. It was highly publicized that I was opening two shows in one week. So, there I was with "Much Ado" being the talk of the town and "Lysistrata" being a huge disaster. I remember my folks walking out of "Much Ado" thrilled and my dad walking out of "Lysistrata" shaking his head with disgust. I knew it wasn't good; I just hoped I could get away with it, but I didn't. And wasn't I lucky that I didn't get away with it?! Sometimes you think that you can go in and save or fix something. But it's corrupt from the beginning on some level that you can't fix, or there's something or someone that's blocking it, and you don't have the wherewithal to get rid of all the obstacles. So, you have disappointments. When "King of Hearts" finally closed, it was really hard. It did play around the country at community theatres and colleges. But I came back to it twenty years later, and we did it at Goodspeed Opera outside of NYC. We had a wonderful production, and now we're renting out the show. It's been nice to see it get its due. That was the one piece I wanted to do again. We had the chance to do it, and it was sweet. Now, I love what I'm doing. I'm producing albums, which allows me to write. For over 20 years, I had Westrax Recording Studios, a three-room, fully equipped studio with a big staff. I gave that up this last year, which allows me to be more productive as an artist. The studio business has changed dramatically.
How has the studio business changed?
It's really a Renaissance time. It's amazing. I work in my own studio at home in my son's bedroom, since he's gone off to college. I've been engineering most of my own sessions for many years now. Technology has really changed the way musicians compose and work. I don't have to hire a string section if I need that sound; I can bring it in from sampling. Sampling is not synthesis. Synthesizers tried to make it sound like a piano or a sax. Sampling actually provides a library of sounds, pre-recorded note by note. There are whole studios built just to record top orchestras and musicians playing instruments from around the world. Then they edit them down and put them on massive DVD ram cartridges. So when I play C, and I want a viola, out comes the viola section playing C in legato, or staccato, etc. I can build Beethoven or create my own music on a Midi keyboard. In the last five years, the technology has become an art form. It's amazingly sophisticated. Somebody like Bach, who was an expert technician, would completely get into it today.
Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for young individuals who would like to pursue a career as a composer or record producer?
It's all about networking. If you have the talent and have the chops behind the talent, the way to move forward in the industry is to learn how to network. Develop a newsletter about your activities and send it out monthly or at least quarterly. Keep an up-to-date data base on everyone you meet in the industry and communicate with them regularly. Too many artists are not business people. It is a business and you must get up every day and go to work. Too many artists sit back and wait for the industry to come to them. Be aggressive. Let people know what you're doing. Feel good about promoting yourself. If you don't do it, who will? Practice your art every day. Dedicate yourself to the work and the joy of expressing God's creativity.
Visit Peter's website to learn more about his amazing career -- his awards, shows, albums