Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Patrick Leonard (November/December 1995)

From 1991 to 2005, I had the pleasure of interviewing a fascinating array of writers, theologians, politicians, artists, and musicians for the Wittenburg Door, the original--only?--magazine of religious satire. From the preparation required to conduct them to the editing required to make them both clear and funny (the Door's two requirements, although not necessarily in that order), these interviews changed my life (mostly for the better). Although I conducted most of the interviews by phone, I was on several occasions able to hop a plane and question my subjects in person thanks to the generosity of Bob Darden and the late Mike Yaconelli, the editors who underwrote my adventures. It was a generosity made all the more special by the fact that the Door was usually deep in the red. For such acts of genuinely Christian charity (or fiscal insanity, I'm not sure which), I remain intensely grateful. Several of my interviews--R.C. Sproul, Chris Yambar--are still online in their entirety. What's posted below is one of the ones that's been MIA for awhile.


For years--ever since she said she liked crucifixes because they had a naked man on them--we've wanted to interview Madonna. Yep, that Madonna, the Like-a-Virgin-Papa-Don't-Preach-Dick-Tracy-Erotica-Sex Madonna, the lapsed Catholic into whose lap so many--well, never mind. Anyway, she won't do us, so to speak, which puts us in a very select group indeed.

We've also wanted to interview Michael W. Smith for years--you know, the Male Amy Grant. Yep, that Michael W. Smith, the Contemporary-Christian-music one. How many Michael Smiths do you know whose middle names begin with W? Yeah, we know he wrote "Friends," the feel-good anthem of Christian-high-school graduations everywhere, and we also know that he's fathered five kids in order to counter the rumor that the W stands for "wuss." But he's also had genuine top-forty hits, two more, in fact, than all the talented individuals on our masthead combined. He won't do the Door either.

Thank God, therefore, for Patrick Leonard, the much in-demand composer and record producer who's probably the only thing Madonna and Michael W. Smith have in common. He worked with Madonna from 1984 to 1990, producing and-or co-writing hits such as "Cherish," "Like a Prayer," "Live to Tell," and--our personal favorite--"Hanky Panky" (rhymes with "spanky"), reuniting with her last year for the Grammy-nominated ballad "I'll Remember" (from the film With Honors, which he scored). He's also made albums for Warner Brothers as a member of the groups Toy Matinee and Third Matinee.

So what's he doing producing Michael W. Smith's latest album, I'll Lead You Home? Well, the answer is, if not a long story, a long-enough story for a Door interview. We sent Arsenio W. Orteza--half of whose inflatable dolls are named "Madonna"--to the phone for a conversation with Mr. Leonard, who talked freely about his spiritual odyssey despite never having heard of us.

DOOR: You first came too our attention when, in a 1992 interview, Andrae Crouch said he'd had several spiritual conversations" with you after the sessions for the Madonna song "Like a Prayer." Do you remember those conversations?
LEONARD: Not really. I've had so many conversations with all kinds of people about all kinds of spirituality.

LEONARD: But I think Andrae probably had some impact on me just because he existed in the music business yet was able to maintain his own spirituality. Any time you deal with people who are coming from a Christian place and are actually walking the walk, you tend to wonder what they have that you don't.

DOOR: Then we heard your Third Matinee album Meanwhile and found its spiritually probing lyrics rather, um, spiritually probing. We figured that since your partner on that album was Richard Page, who once had a hit with a song called "Kyrie" that went "Kyrie eleison down the road that I must--"
LEONARD: Actually, Richard's a Buddhist.

LEONARD: I think "Kyrie" was purely a matter of his liking the way the word sounded.

DOOR: Well, Michael W. Smith is a Christian, and you've worked with him. In fact, he has said you're a Christian.

DOOR: Well?
LEONARD: Am I a Christian?

DOOR: Well, yeah.
LEONARD: Are you nervous?

DOOR: A little.

DOOR: We can't believe we're on the phone with someone who's actually been on the phone with Madonna.
LEONARD: Yes, I am a Christian.

LEONARD: I was raised Catholic. Then I retreated from the Catholic Church for a number of years. Then, maybe four years ago, I went back to a church in La Canada, California, and started re-courting God. You know, it can take some coaxing to get someone from a Catholic background back to church.

DOOR: Why?
LEONARD: Well, I went to Catholic schools and found them abusive and hypocritical. So by the time I was old enough to make my own judgments, I felt that if these were the people who were, in fact, Christians, I didn't want anything to do with Christianity. I'm sure you're familiar with the term "recovering Catholic."

DOOR: Most of us here would be doing well if Catholicism were all we were recovering from.
LEONARD: Well, it just took me a while. Through our children and some very wonderful people at the La Canada Presbyterian Church, I got a lot closer to calling myself a Christian. Then, in the last couple of years, I got even closer. And working with Michael brought me closer yet. I've had some great experiences through him and a lot of the people I've met through him.

DOOR: How did your children influence your return to Christianity?
LEONARD: Well, my wife and I were just trying to bring them to where they could learn some spirituality. That was where I started, more on their behalf than my own.

DOOR: Did you care what kind of spirituality?
LEONARD: At the time I didn't really care. But one day my daughter came home and asked us if we knew anything about Jesus and his mom, "Betty."

DOOR: Maybe she'd confused Jesus with Bam-Bam Rubble.
LEONARD: Maybe. She'd argued with a friend of hers that Jesus's mom wasn't Mary but Betty. So we thought maybe it was time for a little education.

DOOR: Michael W. Smith has said that you moved to Colorado for your kids.
LEONARD: Well, L.A.'s not really a place to raise children, but we did regret leaving La Canada Presbyterian. We'd gotten quite involved with the choir and other things, and it was something we really loved. But it got to where we couldn't stay there just for the church. We had to make other provisions for our family.

DOOR: Speaking of family values, you began working with Madonna when?
LEONARD: My first work with her was as musical director for her first tour, which was for the Like a Virgin album.

DOOR: With her "Like a Prayer" video--the one in which, clad in a black slip, she cavorted with statues experiencing the stigmata--her ability to provoke controversy kicked into a higher gear. Do you remember that time well?
LEONARD: Do I remember it? Do you remember your first root canal?

DOOR: When you remember it, do you get bent out of shape over it the way other Christians do when faced with the crudities of pop music?
LEONARD: I get quite perturbed, but not necessarily as a Christian.

DOOR: As a what, then?
LEONARD: As someone concerned with the state of what we liberally call "art." I know that rock 'n' roll, by nature, is designed to have a certain shock value and that, culturally, it represents that aspect of things as a result. But every art form that exists can reach a point at which shock value takes over and there is no longer an artistic integrity in it. There's a line that can be crossed beyond which you can say, "This is no longer an artistic statement; this is just designed to upset people."

DOOR: And music that crosses that line upsets you?
LEONARD: Calling it art is what upsets me. And I get upset that children can buy this stuff readily and that it's what their cultural heroes use to represent themselves. I think that's one of the reasons I was drawn to Michael. The idea that there could be a cultural hero who was actually out to say something positive and to try to invoke truth rather than to invoke more madness in a situation that's already a bit too crazy for me anyway--I mean, the fact that people are shooting and killing each other all over the world and dying from drugs and violence and guns, and that we're going to perpetuate that by our artistic climate--am I being vague?

DOOR: We take it you don't love gangsta rap.
LEONARD: Well, let's just say I think we've taken the aspect of folk music that makes it a representation of what's going on a bit too far. I also think the primary motivator for a lot of what's injected into the public is greed, and that's the wrong motivation.

DOOR: Do you look back with regret on any of the work you did with Madonna?

LEONARD: I'm very proud of the work I did with Madonna. I think we made some great records.

DOOR: But--
LEONARD: And I think when she does videos with burning crosses and stigmata and whatever else was in that video that upset people--I'm sorry it went that way.

DOOR: But--
LEONARD: I'm sorry, in fact, that it happened because I don't feel that was necessary. But that's just my opinion. Obviously, her opinion was that it was.

DOOR: But you've just said that you get upset by art that's designed primarily to offend, and many people--Christians especially--consider her the cultural heroine most responsible for popularizing vulgarity.
LEONARD: Well, I'm sort of in accordance. One of the reasons that there was such a long period of time when I didn't work with her is that I didn't feel I could be part of what she was bringing to the culture.

DOOR: So you sensed a change in the direction of her music at some point?
LEONARD: It wasn't so much the direction of the music. It was the promotional tactics. The "Like a Prayer" video was as much a surprise to me as it was to the rest of the world--and I wrote the music! Until I saw it on MTV, I had no idea what she was going to do.

DOOR: Who introduced you to the music of Michael W. Smith?
LEONARD: The youth pastor at La Canada Presbyterian. I was helping with the high-school choir, and he brought in one of Michael's songs.

DOOR: Which one?
LEONARD: "Agnus Dei." I really liked it. I thought, "There's something about this guy that's sincere, and there's also something that's musically mature." I did not, however, think the production was up to what I thought it could be.

DOOR: Did you know anything about the Christian-music industry before hearing Michael W. Smith?
LEONARD: Nothing at all.

DOOR: Do you feel as if you know anything about it now?
LEONARD: I know that it's a much bigger market than I thought it was, and that some of what's there is very good and some of what's there is not very good, like any other facet of the music industry. The musical integrity of what I've heard seems a bit derivative, but I think that can and will change.

DOOR: You sound as if you'd like to do more of that kind of music.
LEONARD: I do hope to. I really enjoyed the process and the people. And I really enjoy the enthusiasm with which it is met. There seems to be much less judgment going on. There doesn't seem to be "Christian alternative," "Christian contemporary," "Christian rap," "Christian gangsta." There aren't 15,000 types of Christian music.

DOOR: Um, sorry to burst your bubble, but there are 15,000 types of Christian music.
LEONARD: Well, that's sad.

DOOR: Do you hope to continue to work in pop, as well? Or would you rather become increasingly associated with Christian music?
LEONARD: I'm completely comfortable doing whatever there is to do. If I'd taken people's pigeon-holing and labeling seriously, I would've lost my mind a long time ago. I mean, I do film scores, I work with people like Roger Waters and Jeff Beck, and I have my own projects. I have instrumental, sort of jazz stuff that I work on, New-Agey piano stuff. Then I'll produce a pop record. My spiritual growth--my religion--is pretty much my business. I'm not going to hide anything, but I'm also not going to say, "This is all I'll do."

DOOR: Lots of Christian artists do just that.
LEONARD: Well, that's not a very good attitude. When someone like Michael comes in and plays piano on a record for some non-Christian band, his influence is there at some very subliminal level. Your spirit comes out in what you do. What I will try to avoid, however, is anything that I feel will have a negative impact. To that I would just say, "No, I'm not interested."

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