From Stage to Screen and Beyond: How Peter Link Conquered the World of Music
Posted Wednesday, May 16, 2012 6:49 PM
Peter Link is a legendary composer, dexterous lyricist, and eminent music producer and artistic director who resides in New York City. He has worked on Broadway, in television, on films, and he has also composed for the ballet. Link has been nominated for two Tony Awards and sold millions of records. He is the CEO and director of Watchfire Music. His musical experiences range from producing the songs of Jenny Burton and Julia Wade to composing music for Sesame Street. Link recently spoke with Highbrow Magazine about his career, his passion for inspirational music, and how a young Alicia Keys once helped his son to learn to play the piano.
So you have been nominated for two Tony Awards?
Yes, “Much Ado about Nothing” produced by Joseph Papp. It was the longest-running Shakespeare play ever on Broadway, and then it was produced as a three-hour TV special. It was not a musical, but there was so much music in it. The second was Neil Simon’s “The Good Doctor” -- again, not a musical, but so much music.
Is there a difference between composing music for television and Broadway and film?
Yes, one of the reasons why, in fact, I stopped doing that kind of music is that music for theater and film is often just underscoring unless it is a Broadway musical. In film, the underscoring often ends up fighting the sound effects. As a composer, you try to find what you do best. I was fortunate to score a lot of films, but I live on the wrong coast. Most film scoring is done on the West Coast. In my later years, I moved to studio work and have found my happiness there. I worked in the theater for 15 years; some of it was fantastic and some very difficult because your work is at the result of critics more so in the theater. So you can work on a piece for two or three years and put it up there and get mixed reviews and it’s over. I’ve had my successes and flops.
What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
I think in all occupations, especially in the arts, it’s the people and the egos of the people that one works with. When working with remarkable people, the challenge is to coordinate the largest of those people and to get them to work together on creative levels rather than personal and selfish levels. Being a director in the theater is especially tough when you’re working with great egos and dealing with people who are high energy.
I think it’s a challenge with all directors. Working in the studio, however, is the easiest way of working with these types of people because if the artist and the producer are debating about some musical issue, the producer can always say, “Well, just come listen to your performance, and see what I’m talking about.” It’s harder to do that in the theater. So the challenges are the people, rather than the job itself.
How did Watchfire Music come about?
I produced five albums of people I knew: Jenny Burton, Julia Wade, Mindy Jostyn and Bobby Stanton. We started selling albums off my personal website and in the first year and a half, we sold about 65,000 albums. It got really crazy. My wife and I ended up spending more time fulfilling orders rather than recording. I knew I had to change something, so I called on a friend, a Harvard Business School graduate, to come and help.
It helped me to turn to someone who understood business better. You know, I always said, as an artist, I’m a good businessman, but as a businessman, well, I’m an artist. I just needed help. He worked with us and together, we got the company started. After five years of working together, building the business and the website, we split, but we couldn’t have built it without him. His name is James Birch.
How did you find such amazing talent for your “Goin’ Home” CD?
The singers on this CD are people I’ve been working with over the years. They are the top studio singers in New York, people whom I’ve worked with for 20-25 years that have worked with everybody from the Rolling Stones to Celine Dion to Bobby McFerrin and on and on.
These are singers who have a great affection for gospel music. I was married to Jenny Burton for 18 years. She got me deeply into gospel music because her mom had a church up in the Bronx, and I was a supporter and often attended. Their choir and gospel music charmed and fascinated me, and I was able to get into it on a level that most white guys don’t get a chance to do. I always enjoyed writing that kind of music.
Then Julia came into my life and brought a whole kind of classicism that I was able to stretch in to. I grew up a folk singer and a rock drummer and guitarist and have always been a pop musician. Julia opened up for me more of a classical sound and through Jenny and Julia, I found a style we like to call “inspirational music.”
I produced a group at a New York City club called Don’t Tell Mama, The Jenny Burton Experience, which sold out at that club for seven years. They were also the first gospel group to headline in Atlantic City. They also opened for Stevie Wonder at Lincoln Center. That was an experience that completely fulfilled me writing this kind of inspirational music. It’s not necessarily just about God, Jesus or Buddha, but has a wider reach. Let’s just call it music that is wholesome. As an example, “I woke up this morning and I feel good” … that’s an inspirational song. It can involve any genre, from rap to pop to folk to classical. It’s simply good, clean music.
Did you sing on this CD?
Yes, I sang in a couple of the songs.
Years ago, you created children’s music for television shows like Vegetable Soup, Sesame Street, and Electric Company. Do you think you would do this again?
Yes, I love kids. You have to love kids to do children’s music. I recorded a children’s album about five years ago called For Kids Only with Julia Wade, which can be found on Watchfiremusic.com where, in fact, all our music can be found. I think that’s a world that is always needful of new material.
Is your son musically inclined?
He studied the Suzuki method of piano. During lessons, a parent had to sit with him during practices. I was elected. After five years of slugging through practice sessions, we became mortal enemies because I was kicking his butt so much.
I went to his teacher and said, “My son and I have become enemies. Is there someone else who might sit with him during rehearsals?” She said that one of her students was a wonderful piano student who also lived in Manhattan Plaza where we live and was only 15 years old but might be able to handle the task. So I hired her, and for the next two years she came up every day and ran his practices. Her name is Alicia Keys.