Lionel Richie opens up about songwriting before upcoming show at Hard Rock Live

Lionel Richie is beloved for two things – his work with the funk band The Commodores (“Easy,” “Still,” “Three Times a Lady,” “Sail On”) and his solo career, which gave us the timeless hits “Truly,” “Endless Love,” “You Are,” “My Love,” “Stuck On You,” “Hello,” “All Night Long” and “Say You, Say Me.”

Richie brings both worlds together Wednesday night (Sept. 18) at the Hard Rock Live, where he kicks off his “All the Hits – All Night Long” tour, following a successful jaunt to Europe. He talked to about what we can expect from the show, the likelihood of a Commodores reunion, and the art of songwriting.

How was the European tour?
Fabulous. It’s always amazing whenever you go to China or Japan, but there’s something about coming home to America, which I call the biggest Southern state in the whole world. But there really is something special about performing in America – it’s grass-roots home.

Will the tour here be the same?
No – it’s gonna be changed up a little bit, only because we have songs that we can go to now. We can go down and get “Zoom,” for example. We can go in there and get a few more of these Commodores things that they’re absolutely gonna know word for word. When we get here, we can throw in a lot more Commodores stuff that makes it really effective, because that’s what I’m known for, too. And we’ll be a bit more flexible. I’m at the point now where if somebody screams out a song, and enough people say Yeah, then we’ll play that song.

But with so many hits, how do you choose your set list?
Now that is probably the best question on the planet, and the answer is, you don’t, really. You just kind of throw what you think the really obvious are, and then, guaranteed, I’m going to walk off that stage and someone will say, “Hey, you didn’t play that record.” There’s gonna be something that you’re thinking about that I was not thinking about. But I’m gonna hit the most obvious ones, and there are times that I will hear someone say something that I didn’t consider. And I go, Well, I forgot about that one. And I’ll say, Guys, do you remember how to play it? And by the way, I’ll tell the crowd – I haven’t played this song in about 10 years, but I’ll try it. And it works every time – you let them in on the disaster, and they love the spontaneity of it.

Many years ago, I saw you on a talk show demonstrating on the piano how easily you can throw together a pop song within a few minutes. What’s the difference between that and really hitting on a classic like “Easy” or “Hello”?
The answer is, whenever I do seminars at universities and stuff, they ask me, ‘What do you think about when you write a song’, and my first answer is: Don’t think. The day you’re thinking is the day you won’t write a universe song. In other words, I’ve heard some Lionel Richie lyrics, and they suck. I hate to say it like this, but if you just freestyle – don’t think, you’re exhausted for the night, you go downstairs, and whatever comes out of your mouth, just let it come out. And then, listen to what comes out of your mouth. Nine times out of 10, it’s something. That’s what creativity is. In other words, you can’t plot it, because it doesn’t work that way. I started out years ago sitting down to write the saddest song I could think of, because I was completely bummed out. I wrote “All Night Long.” And I sat down one day to write a happy song: I wrote “Still.” It doesn’t come out of preparation – there’s only 12 notes, and all you kind of have to do is hang around the piano, and whatever mood that is comes out.

What inspired you to collaborate with country artists on “Tuskegee”?
You know, they inspired me. I’ll tell you what happened, is I put the feeler out. I know a couple of these crazy men and women down there, and I just happened to throw it out there – So what do you think? And they said I’m on, I’m with you. And I get a call from someone else – Hey Lionel, you doing this thing? I’m on it. And it became a firestorm of not who’s gonna be on it, but how am I gonna get everybody on? And everybody came with their favorite Commodore or Lionel Richie song, and that’s when I realized, ‘Wait a minute, I think I may have something here.’ I must tell you, that community down there just opened their arms and said ‘Come on in’. And the joke was, they said ‘Is Lionel Richie going country?’ And the answer is, ‘I don’t wanna tell you guys, but I’ve been country my whole life’ – I live in Tuskegee, Alabama. So what part of going country do I have to go?

So you’ve always felt a connection to country music?
Well, let’s go back: The Commodores’ “Sail On” was written way before I did my solo stuff. And “Stuck On You” – I mean, the reason we went to those songs, and “easy like a Sunday morning” was they have a country flavor to them already. And the joke is, the only difference between “Sail On” and “You Are” is, I took the steel guitar off when we did it with the Commodores, because we thought it was too far a stretch. And all I did with the “Tuskegee” album was put the steel guitar back on [laughs]. But other than that, nothing really changed, except Willie Nelson is now my duet partner on “Easy.” I mean, can you imagine when we got down to the part, and Willie said, Now who’s gonna sing “I wanna be high?” And I said, Willie, you gotta be kidding me! This song was written for you – what are you talking about? No, it was probably one of the most exciting times in a studio that I’ve had probably since the days of the “Can’t Slow Down” album or the Commodores stuff. Because you’re spending time with live musicians, and we were carving and singing on the same day, so it was professionalism at its height.

With all this talk about the Commodores, didn’t I hear a rumor of a possible reunion?
Let me tell you – we’ve been trying to get that reunion for the last 30 years [laughs]. It’s tough – you know, I think Paul McCartney said it best one day, when they said to get The Beatles back together. He said, You know, sometimes the memory is a lot better as time goes on than the actual reality. And I’m kind of feeling that. So I’m thinking now that I probably won’t push it. I have found that trying to get a band together all at one time is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. I won’t rule it out, though, because I don’t want you coming back and saying, “I thought you said it would never happen!”