Dan Hill tells the whole truth about his biggest hit, 'Sometimes When we Touch'
And why he still gets choked up talking about what was once Canada's most polarizing pop ballad
Dan Hill feels it all. That's the kind of person — and the kind of songwriter — he's always been.
"Sorry," he says, his voice breaking. "It's hard for me to talk about sometimes, but let's just put it this way. You know, I was a typical male, born in the '50s, we're not supposed to express any kind of feeling or emotion. So — sorry — I threw all my emotions into my songwriting. It became an incredibly valuable release for me to be writing about things that I had such powerful feelings about."
We're two minutes into our interview about his 1977 chart-topping, Juno Award-winning, polarizing song, "Sometimes When we Touch," and Hill has already cried twice. It's a beautiful affirmation of the raw, emotional urgency that has made "Sometimes When we Touch" such an iconic and, at times, uncomfortably honest pop ballad. Hill's radical vulnerability was a blade that cut two ways: it helped make him a famous and swoon-worthy, sensitive pop star, but it also cast him as a "wimp" and a pop-culture punching bag. Forty years before the cultural unpacking of toxic masculinity, Dan Hill was a Black man from Toronto modelling that work and reaching millions of listeners around the world.
Pretty much every word of "Sometimes When we Touch" is true, Hill tells us over the phone, just a little more than a week before his appearance as part of the Juno Songwriters' Circle via CBC on June 5 at 8 p.m. ET. But what millions of fans and a number of haters have never fully appreciated is the context in which Hill created the song that would change his life forever. From his famous family and the heartbreak that started it all to dealing with a racist music industry and cultivating vulnerability from other Black male songwriters, Hill has plenty left to say and a few secrets to spill about the song that started it all.
Born to write
Hill, who was born Daniel Hill IV, comes from a long line of activists and writers, including his father, Daniel G. Hill (The Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada), his mother, Donna (A Black Man's Toronto, 1914-1980: The Reminiscences of Harry Gairey), his brother Lawrence (The Book of Negroes) and their late sister, Karen, who was a poet and writer.
"My mom, my father, my grandfather, my brother, my sister — were all writers, so it just felt like I had never ever ever felt any kind of caution or anxiety when I was addressing these deep feelings in my songs," Hill says. "I was also writing and publishing articles, in newspapers and magazines as a teenager as well. There's the old story that my dad told all of us that — sorry [voice breaking] — if we ever wanted anything, we had to write a letter about it. So for example, when my brother was four and wanted to have a kitten, he had to write a letter explaining what his responsibilities would be looking after the kitten. So writing was just such a huge, huge part of our world that, for some reason, it didn't feel strange or hard for me to write songs about it. When I wasn't writing songs, I probably wasn't as openly sensitive. And the same is true now, frankly. That kind of sensitivity and vulnerability comes out more when I'm writing than when I'm just presenting as a human being.
"I was sort of born confident. Part of that I definitely inherited from my dad, who was probably the most confident man I've ever known. I immediately knew that I was extremely gifted, musically, and as a singer. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt [voice breaking] that this would be my life's calling and I would do really well at it. So I've never for a second doubted myself, or my abilities. It felt to me like it was just preordained that this was going to be my life story and that I would do very, very well at it."
She was a Sunshine Girl
In 1973, Hill had one woman on his mind. Her name was Moira, and Hill was bewitched and besotted but she wasn't interested in monogamy. Hill hoped that his new song, which rushed out of him over the course of two nights, would change her mind.
"She was always asking me if I loved her," he says. "For me at 19, she was 22, so she represented an older woman. I definitely cared a lot more for her than she did for me. It was kind of like the advent of women owning their own sexuality, there were books like Erica Jong's Fear of Flying and Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch. Her body was her own and she was free to have sex with as many people as she felt like and I was just like, heartbroken by this. And so she asked me if I loved her. And I knew that if I said yes, she would think I was too needy. If I said, no, I was too cold. So that's why the first line of the song was, 'You asked me if I love you, and I choke on my reply.' [Voice breaks]
"Everything in that song was right out of everything that was going on between myself and this woman, like word for word, phrase for phrase. We've all been incredible with words in this family, so as long as I could talk, I was fine. But the minute we started to touch that was it. I couldn't talk at all. I was just a goner, which is why I wrote — sorry — 'sometimes when we touch the honesty's too much.' I couldn't say a word. I was just totally rendered speechless.
I always thought I was going to be a star. I always thought I was going to have hit records around the world. But the reality of what that meant was absolutely nothing I could have conceived.- Dan Hill
Following a particularly intense stretch with Moira — they spent 14 nights in a row together, a first for Hill — he felt a creative surge. Hill left work at 5 p.m. and went home to pick up his guitar, and the song poured out of him over the course of two evenings. Hill's brother warned him that his affair was interfering with his songwriting. Ironically, says Hill, it was just the opposite.
"I knew I had broken into new territory with this song. I was coming up with very interesting words and metaphors, like 'hesitant prizefighter,' and I remember going to my job after I wrote the song over the two afternoons. I typed out the lyrics and pasted it on the wall of the [civil service] basement where I was sorting mail, because I was so proud of the words."
'Why would she even want to be with someone like me?'
But when Hill phoned Moira to play her the song, it didn't go quite as he had hoped. He had played other songs for other girls over the years. "This is what I would do as a teenager if I wanted to have some kind of an impact on a girl — I really had no impact on women," Hill says, detailing how to trap the phone receiver between the chin and the collarbone in order to play guitar and sing simultaneously.
"I just phoned up Moira and said, 'Here's the song.' She's the first one I played it to. And I thought this is it. Now she's going to want to just be with me. She's not gonna want to sleep with the others. She was a Sunshine Girl for the Toronto Sun ... and she was having an affair, for example, with the photographer from the Toronto Sun, and she was having an affair with a guy that was a CFL football player for the Toronto Argonauts. So I felt very much like I couldn't compete and maybe this will kind of rise me up to the level of these other men when she sees that I can write so well, because she always actually loved listening to me play and sing my song. That was probably what got me in the door in the first place. Because looking back, why would she even want to be with someone like me? I'm pretty sure it was my singing and my guitar playing and songwriting that got her interested, but not so much that she just wanted to be with me."
Looking at pictures of Hill from the 1970s, he's clearly an attractive man, but Hill says it's hard to be objective about one's self, particularly as a Black person living in majority white spaces and white standards of beauty.
"Immigration back then was still very, very racist so there weren't a lot of Black people, or people of colour in Toronto. People like my brother and my sister and I really, really stood out because we just didn't look like the mainstream population at all. There weren't a lot of biracial people in Toronto, nor were there a lot of Black people in Toronto. It's become more in vogue now for people to like men with thick lips and all that and curly hair, you know, but back then, no one was talking about that as being an attractive facial feature."
Songwriting was his competitive advantage when it came to Moira, or so he hoped.
"I thought I had it. I thought I had this. She gives me this long martyred sigh and says, 'Danny, did anybody ever tell you that for 19 you're just way too intense?' [Voice breaks] So then she says, 'The fullback for the Toronto Argos that I'm sleeping with just got cut, so I'm moving to America with him.' So my joke is that song kind of drove her right out of Canada," Hill says with a laugh.
The making of a pop classic
Hill says that while he's "never had an experience like that with a woman even remotely close" to what he had with Moira, he wasn't "traumatized." The relationship's brevity — it lasted just two months — made its ending more manageable, as did the fact that Hill's music career was beginning to flourish. He had signed a recording contract with RCA Records in 1972, which also included a deal as a songwriter, and people like Harry Belafonte and Cleo Laine began recording his songs. In 1975, the 21-year-old released his self-titled debut and a year later, Hill followed that up with his 1976 album, Hold On. Both went gold, and Hill wasn't just famous in Canada. He was also receiving airplay in L.A. and New York, and playing famous places like the Troubadour and the Bitter End.
"Even at that point, I was far more successful than I could have dreamed to become," Hill says. But then he began playing a rough demo of "Sometimes When we Touch" and the response was overwhelming. "People were just falling down saying, 'This is the best song I've ever heard!' I started to realize that this probably could be a hit, but I had no idea."
The president of the publishing company that signed Hill as a songwriter believed in his talent, but wanted to push him to the next level. "He took me into an office and said, 'Dan, you write some of the best lyrics of all time. But I'm not sure if your hooks are strong enough to have a hit in America.'" His solution? Pair Hill with Barry Mann, co-writer of some of the biggest hits of the pop era, including "You've Lost That Loving Feeling." At first, Hill remembers, he was offended. He was already a huge success at 22, and he was doing it all himself. But Hill agreed to the meeting and although he liked Mann immediately, he didn't think a collaboration was going to work.
"I didn't want to tell him I've already written a song, I was afraid he was thinking I would give him a cast off, so I said, 'I have this poem that maybe you'll like.' I left the little recording studio that we were in at the publishing company and went to call a cab, and five minutes later, I walked back into the room and he said, 'I've got the chorus.' The next day, I was at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel, and I got a call. One of the waiters brought this pink phone out to me, and [Barry] said he'd written all the music. He said, 'You have to double up on the chorus ... musically, and lyrically. You've got to come up with three more lines.' And so once he played it to me over the phone, I thought, this sounded pretty good. But of course, I still wasn't used to hearing someone else's music and chords with my words. So I wasn't jumping up and down saying, 'It's a hit!' But I went to his place and we recorded the song on his crappy little $25 tape recorder. He was singing it, not me, and even with Barry singing — he is not the best singer in the world — and only half of the chorus, people were saying, 'This is the best song I've ever heard.' And they just didn't say it was a great song. They would say, 'This is the best of all time.' So then I knew I had something.
I would walk into a restaurant and a woman at a table would say, 'I love you,' and her husband would say, 'I hate your music.' I was just trying to have dinner.- Dan Hill
Hill credits his producers for being "smart enough" to fly in world-class musicians like drummer Larry London and pianist Bobby Ogden for the recording session. "We nailed it in the second take."
"20th Century Records [Hill's American record label] were very, very good, even though they weren't a major label, like, say, Columbia or Warner Brothers at the time. They had proven to be very effective at breaking hit singles.So the minute they heard 'Sometimes When we Touch' — I was trying to micromanage my career, I was hugely ambitious, and I was saying, 'Well, how do I know you guys are going to make a hit?' They just said, 'Dan, why don't you just take a vacation, go to Japan for two months, when you come back, it's going to be a smash, just don't worry.' And they were right."
A smash hit & Moira returns
"I had absolutely no idea what a transformative life experience it would become to have a song that was an absolute smash right over the world in every single country. It was just, like, absolute madness. Today when, say, Drake or the Weeknd release music, bam, right around the world. Back then in '77, "Sometimes When we Touch" conquered Canada in three months, then went on three months later to conquer America, then three months later, conquered Europe, then Asia and Africa so it was kind of like I was chasing this ridiculously huge hit single as it was conquering the continents three months at a time. And I was just gigging, doing like 300 shows a year. Plus I was writing my songs for my album all by myself, plus recording an album. There's no way in the world that you can foresee the kind of impact and this was obviously — we didn't know at the time — but it was way more than a hit. It became a classic, everybody was recording that song. Like it was just insane. There weren't that many artists in Canada at the time who had had international hits that still lived in Canada; Gordon Lightfoot, the Guess Who, and Anne Murray, though she wasn't writing her songs, so it was just an absolutely ridiculous attack. And then, because the record was such a kind of a passionate record, you know, the reaction from women was just like a 180-degree difference from the way women were towards me, you know, before I started making records, so that in and of itself was a whole other experience too, especially when you're only 23."
After "Sometimes When we Touch" became a massive hit, Moira resurfaced and, according to Hill, wanted to pursue a serious relationship.
"You know what it's like if someone really really hurts you. The saying is, 'Hurt me once, shame on you; hurt me twice, shame on me.' Once that happens, I think most of us who are reasonably healthy and have good self-esteem, something closes in our heart, we just can't open it again to that person. So there is no way in the world that I was going to get back into any kind of relationship with this woman. I didn't wish her any harm. I didn't have negative feelings towards her, but I just didn't really want to have any particular connection with her."
'They used to call me a wimp'
"Sometimes When we Touch" wasn't concerned with performing machismo. One of its most repeated lines is "I want to hold you until the tears in me subside." Hill's radical sincerity was sometimes interpreted as overwrought sentimentality and it made him a target. While millions of people obviously loved "Sometimes When we Touch," plenty of people did not.
"To be vulnerable as a male in the '70s was the worst thing in the world. The big word that they used to call me was a 'wimp.' That was like the worst word that you could be called as a male in the '70s."
But Hill says he was just following in the footsteps of great Black musicians.
"Black songwriters and artists always went far deeper in terms of dealing with their emotionality and vulnerability. Like Bill Withers in the song 'Use Me' talks about, 'You really do abuse me, you take me to a room of high-class people — sorry — and then you act real rude to me.' Obviously a Black singer talking about this woman taking him to an upper- middle-class, Caucasian party, and addressing that kind of feeling of not just vulnerability but shame. You just did not do that for the most part when you're a Caucasian songwriter. And that was very, very common among Black artists, so I was very, very much influenced by the Black artists I was listening to. Even, for example, Billie Holiday, when I was listening to my parents' Black jazz collection when I was three. And so that was one of the reasons why I learned to address feelings of vulnerability and fragility and even shame. That's why most of the people who cut my songs in the first three years of my profession were Black people. Tina Turner, George Benson, Cleo Lane, it was amazing. Oscar Peterson, a jazz musician, recorded the song and sang it!
"They were picking up on something that non-Black musicians were not picking up on. The vulnerability factor that I was getting from Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder, or Smokey Robinson. We didn't have a lot of those musicians. They didn't play a lot of that stuff. And Canadian radio, Canadian radio was very racist. And they told me because I was touring to get songs on the radio, you have to wine and dine all these radio programmers, they would brag in 1977 at how they had these little codes. They would not play Black music unless you were the superstars. So, sure they play, like, the Jackson Five, for example, or the Motown sound, say [ Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes]'s 'If you Don't Know me by Now.' Teddy Pendergrass, he was all set to record a song I wrote, 'In Your Eyes,' until he had that car accident. They weren't playing those brilliant Black artists. So most Canadians — unless you live in border cities, like Windsor or Vancouver — were denied access to this unbelievable outpouring of soulful, confessional Black music, but of course I always knew what was going on there."
A Black musician in Canada, then and now
From the beginning, Hill says, he felt more at home in the American music industry.
"Even now, my single from my last album that just came out, 'What About Black Lives?,' where it got airplay was American Black radio, right? OK, so there's American Black radio, which we now call urban radio, this does not exist in Canada. So right from the very beginning, I was doing better in America, which I was very happy with…. Fundamentally, I was working in an American milieu and the songwriters that were closest to me were songwriters like Lionel Richie, right? Well, you don't have anybody like him, or anybody like me in Canada. Yes, Joni Mitchell, brilliant songwriter, very vulnerable. But, you know, she's the only one and she actually did cross the colour barrier, Prince even said she was amazing. And Janet Jackson covered her songs. Maybe Leonard Cohen, who I was totally into as well. But I had to go to America, they were the people, like Stevie Wonder, 'All in Love is Fair' or 'Superwoman,' or Marvin Gaye's 'Let's get it On.' The American artists — Oscar Peterson notwithstanding — were jumping on my song."
Hill knew that "Sometimes When we Touch" would be polarizing, but some of the pushback definitely seemed to be more about him than the song itself.
"When I wrote 'Sometimes when we touch, the honesty's too much' or 'at times I'd like to break you and drive you to your knees,' [I knew] that people are going to love that or they're going to hate it. There are a lot of haters. I would walk into a restaurant and a woman at a table would say, 'I love you,' and her husband would say, 'I hate your music.' I was just trying to have dinner. I was getting hate mail from people in coffee shops, they're saying, 'You're a fake,' 'You're a loser,' 'You're a wimp,' and then getting five notes at the same coffee shop from women with their phone numbers.
"It's not so [polarizing] now. I mean, I don't go around asking people what they think of this song, and I'm not invested. I'm going to be 67 next week, and so I'm past the point where I need validation for what I do. I don't need that, I have that within me. But thank God, thanks to my parents and the dynamic of our family, I knew it was great. I knew what I was doing was great. So even though I was getting vilified by lots of people — I mean, for example, a bunch of Canadian critics got together before 'Sometimes' became a hit in the States, and they wrote an article saying it would never be a hit outside of Canada, because it wasn't good enough. I was getting this absurd response from critics who were all male and white, by the way. But it seemed like, the more they did that, the bigger the song got. I think it created an almost backlash to the media backlash. The Black press were always very kind to me.
In Your Eyes' would never have happened had it not been for 'Sometimes When we Touch.- Dan Hill
"The way [Canadian music media] is now is not at all the way it was then. The way pop music was written about in the '70s was extremely negative. I think Canada still had this opinion that we were inferior in terms of everything we did, including our culture, and that just isn't the attitude anymore."
'When we Touch' again & again & again
In 1978, the Juno Awards acknowledged Hill's massive success. He won three awards: composer, male vocalist and album of the year, and "Sometimes When we Touch" continued to thrive thanks to the countless covers, pop-culture references and re-recordings. In 1985, country stars Mark Gray and Tammy Wynette turned the song on its head, interpreting it as a duet and recontextualizing Hill's devastatingly intimate lyrics as a dialogue between two people rather than a mono-confessional declaration.
"It was a huge hit in country music because country music does deal more deeply with emotions than mainstream pop music," Hill says. "So it was a huge country hit in America, cut by literally hundreds of big country stars. Again, it's the emotionality that pervades country music, which is why I've had a lot of luck as a songwriter banging out a lot of country hits in the States. But I wasn't really thinking too much in terms of duets until Tammy and Mark did their duet of 'Sometimes When we Touch,' which was pretty much in the top three for two years straight. But I certainly learned a lot from that. Some of the keys to writing really good songs is that when you're listening to it, it feels like a genuine conversation, you're dropping in on someone's conversation, right? I really excelled at duet writing.
"I was going to do a duet with Donna Summer, who I worked with quite a bit. To be in a room with Donna Summer, just two feet away, hearing her sing ... think of a singer that you may love. If you're in a room listening to them singing, there is a difference between feeling something in three dimensions or in two dimensions. So actually being with Donna Summer in her home, just two feet away from her as she's singing full on in that voice — I'm going man, I was the luckiest person in the world. It was just such an experience. And again, it was very often the Black artists that I worked with would fly me all over the place to write with them."
Hill and Summer's duet of "Sometimes When we Touch" didn't make it onto his 1993 album, Greatest Hits and More. Instead, it was Hill and a popular Toronto-based session singer, Rique Franks, who is featured on the duet.
"Rique's a great singer. And I love that she's saying [the lyric], 'At times I'd like to break you and drive you to your knees.' When that first came out there was a demonstration with a bunch of so-called feminists wanting to outlaw and ban the song because they thought it was advocating violence towards women. Well, the last thing I've ever been [is] violent towards anybody, including women, I certainly didn't mean that. It was more of a metaphorical wish."
The 'albatross' that opened every door
In 1983, six years after "Sometimes When we Touch" changed his life, Hill was ready for a change. Sort of. He published a novel called Comeback, which, according to a CBC archival feature, was about a washed-up musician:
"Sometimes When we Touch became an albatross," Hill said. "It seemed that no matter what kind of song I recorded, if it was a ballad, it always sounded like Sometimes When we Touch to the people in the outside world."
"I was feeling a little fatigued and I needed a change," he explained to host Patricia White on the CBC show Coming Attractions. "The book seemed like the natural thing to me. It was still creative, still imaginative, but it was not musical."
Hill doesn't feel that way anymore. He's older now, and has weathered the song's intense highs and occasional lows, like in 1997, when Dave Barry included "Sometimes When we Touch" in his Book of Bad Songs in the chapter on "weenie" songs. Or, when David Letterman mocked the song during one of his Top 10 List segments on The Late Show. Hill sees the song more clearly now, and appreciates what it did for him to have a hit of that magnitude at the beginning of his career.
"One of the things I didn't appreciate at the time that I do now is how that was my entry into every possible facet of the music business," he says. "One of the biggest hits I have ever co-written, 'In Your Eyes,' became a worldwide smash for George Benson and ended up being even bigger than 'Sometimes When we Touch.' Even back in '83 I hadn't appreciated that 'In Your Eyes' would never have happened had it not been for 'Sometimes When we Touch.' First of all, I was writing with yet again one of the best songwriters in the world, Michael Masser, he ended up writing and producing all the Whitney Houston hits, all the Diana Ross hits, an absolute genius. Well, he wanted to write with me because of 'Sometimes When we Touch.' I ended up making even more money on 'In Your Eyes' because I signed away my publishing at 19. Too many people were getting chunks of 'Sometimes When we Touch,' so I knew to hold on to my publishing [after that].
"I kind of underestimated how ['Sometimes When we Touch'] would open me up as an artist, but it definitely helped me as a songwriter. Even Céline Dion, I co-produced 'Seduces Me' [from Dion's 1996 album, Falling Into You] and co-wrote it, and I won a Grammy and a lot of that had to do with my reputation. So it was probably an albatross for me as an artist for the next several years. But without realizing it, I was matching it as a songwriter."
Hosted by Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy and featuring Carole Pope (Rough Trade), Deborah Cox, Dan Hill and Leah Fay and Peter Dreimanis (July Talk), CBC Music and the Juno Awards' perennially popular Songwriters' Circle celebrates five decades of excellence in songwriting.
Wherever you are in the world, you can tune in to the 2021 Juno Awards on Sunday, June 6. You can watch live on CBC-TV and CBC Gem, listen on CBC Radio One and CBC Music and stream globally at CBCMusic.ca/junos.