Songwriter Profile: Holly Knight

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Photo Credit: Matt Beard

Despite a challenging childhood, Holly Knight received a gift that would change the trajectory of her life: piano lessons. Knight’s musicality became apparent when she snuck onto the piano bench, plunking out notes from memory after eavesdropping on her mother’s lessons. Knight was four years old and already considered herself a musician. Following seven years of classical training, she spent four years at the prestigious Mannes School of Music. Her desire to be a ‘female Keith Emerson’ came later.

Absorbing Ravi Shankar, Alberta Hunter, and various Broadway performances, and listening to a broad range of music with her mother at home, her father and paternal grandmother pooled their money and bought her a Steinway piano when she was 11. Her parents divorced shortly afterward, and Knight—to her mother’s horror—became obsessed with Rock 'n' roll, including Led Zeppelin, The Beatles (Rubber Soul), The Rolling Stones (December’s Children), Frank Zappa, Black Sabbath, and Queen. Leaving home at 15,  travelling west to find herself, her classical training and passion for rock music became the pillars on which she relied. Looking back on her writing, Knight acknowledges that her challenges presented the best learning and helped her to build character. “That's what my anthems are about,” she adds. “I didn't know what the hell I was doing back then - fighting for things I didn't even realize.”

Knight’s songwriting confidence grew in the band Spider (which she helped to form). All of Spider’s lead singles were her songs, and she began looking for a record deal for the band. She found Mike Chapman (Blondie, The Knack, Nick Gilder) to produce them, and he became an impactful mentor and friend. The duo co-wrote hits for Tina Turner, Pat Benatar, Patty Smyth, and others. Knight went on to write for Rod Stewart, Animotion, KISS, and Aerosmith, penned “The Best” for Tina Turner, and more.

For women starting out in music or songwriting, Knight says that confidence is of paramount importance. Have some self-worth in order to not be blindsided by stupidity and the patriarchal attitude that still exists. Women that are successful have the chutzpah to just walk in there like they have every reason to be there and are going to show everybody how it's done. If you don't really believe that yet, if you're young and trying to get to that place, fake it ‘til you make it - that's what I did when I played on that first KISS record. They knew I was a good player, but they didn't know that I'd never recorded.”

Always ready to write, Knight’s approach changes, depending on the song’s feel. For rock, she picks up her guitar; for added drama, she sits at the piano. “When I play guitar, because I know less [than the piano], I keep it simple,” she admits. “I love to write simple songs because then it's up to the vocals and the melody to really shine.” A good song for Knight means being able to play it repeatedly without losing any enthusiasm. You need “intelligent, provocative lyrics” that “really serve the song” she says, adding that the lyrics, key, and tempo need to match and compliment each another. “It's either got to be incredibly beautiful and poetic, or it's got to have some really good hooks in it – and they can't be too corny,” she emphasizes. “If you have to sit there and guess what the song is about, that's a problem.”

“You can go out and do a performance in the moment, but music is out there forever,” concludes Knight, “so you better be sure when you put it out there [that] it's something you can be proud of.”

Knight’s music has appeared in multiple movies and television shows, and has received 13 ASCAP Songwriter Awards and three GRAMMYs. The Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee (2013) hosts occasional songwriting Masterclasses and loves working with up-and-coming songwriters. With over half a million YouTube shares of DEVICE videos, the band has more momentum now than when it launched in the mid-1980’s. Knight’s memoir, I Am The Warrior, is out in print and audio.