'I'm still hungry': David Foster on his new documentary and how much he wants an EGOT
David Foster: Off the Record made its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival
Cocky, brash, an egomaniac: these are words David Foster uses to describe himself throughout his new documentary, David Foster: Off the Record. The 16-time Grammy winner and seven-time Juno Award winner has spent almost 50 years crafting one of the most remarkable resumés not just in music but in the entertainment industry. He's produced some of the best work by Chicago, Céline Dion and Whitney Houston, and is credited for discovering acts like Michael Bublé and Josh Groban.
But, as the film reveals, Foster still feels like an imposter sometimes (or as he calls it, "imfoster"). David Foster: Off the Record is a look inside the career of one of Canada's most accomplished artists. It's a highlight reel that delves into his work specifically with the names mentioned above, but also gives viewers a glimpse into his personal life. Behind that ego is a person who cares deeply about music and people, and about making the world a better place through records but also through philanthropy. (He was given the 2019 Humanitarian Award at the Junos.)
CBC Music sat down with Foster at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, where the film made its world premiere, to discuss his penchant for being a control freak, his goal to win even more awards and which musical artists he's most excited about right now.
The film really conveys the fact that you're a perfectionist so I'm curious what you personally think of the documentary and the idea of handing your story off to someone else to tell?
It's tough when you're a control freak to pass it over, but I wanted to play by the rules because otherwise it just becomes a biography. "Then he did this, then he did that" — that's boring. That's been done before on me, you can go on the internet and see what I've done. So I didn't tamper and I let [director Barry Avrich] do this thing. I literally had no say.
I've only seen it one-and-a-half times. The one thing that I did say to him was that I thought he put too much effort into New York, into the next chapter of my life. That was my only comment.
I was going to ask about that, actually. What is it about Broadway that you're attracted to?
It's unconquered. There's still mountains I want to climb and that's the biggest mountain left for me, I think. I mean, there might be other things too, but that's a huge mountain. If you can write a hit Broadway musical, that's the shit.
So where are you with that goal now?
I'm working on four projects and they're in various stages. I'm not working everyday on them. There's some that are in very rough shape and one that has jumped to the forefront that could be the one that gets going first, but it's a big challenge.
In the film, there's some talk about achieving an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony). How important is getting an EGOT to you?
I want it. I'm kind of light, I don't have a Tony and I don't have an Oscar. I've been nominated three times for the Oscar, lost three times. But to get an Oscar, I believe it's doable. I would really have to get up and say this is what I have to do to be eligible for an Oscar and put myself in the running: I would have to find a great movie, I have to get out and schmooze, I have to talk to my friend Brian Grazer or whoever and be like, "What do you have? I want to write a song for a movie." And it's harder these days. Songs in movies are not what they used to be. They're not out in the forefront. That's why you've seen songs in the past few years win that you've never heard.
Well "Shallow" (from A Star is Born) was pretty popular.
"Shallow" was a great exception.
Are you willing to put that amount of work into getting an Oscar?
Yeah, absolutely. I'm still hungry.
It's funny because you claim to be retired.
I know. When I say retired it means that I'm not in the studio everyday making records. But I love working with Michael Bublé, we'll probably have another go at it. There's a Christmas album I want to make next year with a great artist so I will be in the studio. But that everyday thing? Done. Don't want that.
I really admire how open you were in the film when it came to experiencing imposter syndrome.
Sometimes I look at my body of work and go —
It's an impressive portfolio.
But sometimes it doesn't impress me at all. I think, really? You can sum up my whole life right there on one page? That doesn't seem good enough to me.
Whose body of work do you aspire to then?
Paul Simon. Sting.
So how do you deal with that feeling of being a fake?
I don't think about it until people like you come along and remind me.
It's OK. But it is a very real thing, it's not a bullshit thing. I assume that Paul Simon probably feels that way sometimes too.
You're such a headstrong producer, but the film points out an example of a time where you were in the wrong. It was the argument of whether or not to make the beginning of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" an a capella and you were firmly against it. Did that moment make you question your instincts?
Not at all because the rest of the arrangement is f--king badass. I think if there was a slight bit of strings behind that front part it wouldn't have made a difference to it being a huge hit or not. But Kevin Costner was right and I was wrong, although we'll never know because you can't quantify that, right? Costner has great musical instincts so yeah, if you're wrong, you've got to be wrong big. If you're right, you've got to be right big.
Well an example of a big right would've been working with Céline Dion. When you first saw her perform, what struck you the most about her as a singer and performer?
She was just so compelling to watch and listen to, and it felt like her voice could do anything and, in fact, it could. Out of all the singers I've ever worked with, Céline is the one that always gave me exactly what I asked for. With Whitney, I'd ask her for something and she would give me something different, and sometimes it would be better than what I asked for and sometimes, in my mind, it would not be as good as what I asked for. Céline can always interpret what I wanted and give me exactly what I wanted. She's an amazing singer.
A thing you mentioned in the documentary was that, in music, there are always slots that need to be filled or are missing. What do you think is something that we're missing in music right now?
Neil Diamond. Think about it: he's what, almost 80 years old now? Where is that young guy with the guitar slung over his back that plays three-chord songs that the whole world wants to sing? I don't mean country music. I mean pop music. Where's that guy? I mean, there's Ed Sheeran but it's not Ed Sheeran because his stuff is a little more complicated. I'm talking about [sings "Sweet Caroline"].
Who are some artists you're feeling excited about right now?
Well we just mentioned Ed Sheeran, I think he's amazing. I love his voice, I love his approach, I love the fact that he can do this acoustic thing and be a hillbilly with just him and his guitar and then he can go techno and go electronic and compete with Bieber and Drake. The guy is a man for all seasons, an amazing songwriter.
I also love Ariana Grande, I think she's great. I loved Justin Bieber's last album. I thought it was amazing. I can't wait to hear his new album whenever it comes out because if he's on the same path, he's going to put out another great album.
What would you do if you could work with Justin Bieber?
I wouldn't know what to do with him. I'd have to surround myself with all these people and maybe sprinkle what I know but not be a control freak about it because if I were a control freak about it, it would come out like my music and that wouldn't be good for Justin.