One of David Foster’s favorite phrases, he explains, is, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.”
It helps explain why, at 68, the legendary producer has a packed slate of projects rivaling the busiest times of his near five-decade career in music.
“Two years ago I thought that I would maybe just chill, and it just didn’t happen, and it just hasn’t,” he says, in a wide-ranging interview.
With: Pia Toscano, Shelea Frazier, and Fernando Varela
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 3
Where: Ravinia Festival, Lake-Cook and Green Bay Roads, Highland Park
A brief roundup of Foster’s many projects (the ones he’s confirmed, at least): a new Joe Jonas song, “Party Time,” which he wrote for the “Hotel Transylvania 3” soundtrack; a forthcoming Michael Buble album he co-wrote with the singer; “two or three” new musicals to which he’s contributing songs; a seasonal hosting stint on “Asia’s Got Talent”; and, if you count wedding planning as a project, his recent engagement to actress Katharine McPhee, 34 (it will be Foster’s fifth marriage). Up next, he embarks on a run of newly added North American dates to his “Hitman Tour,” which arrives at Ravinia this weekend.
He’s particularly excited about his Broadway projects, which include a Betty Boop production and an adaptation of the Amy Bloom novel “Lucky Us” with Jewel. “I want to try and conquer Broadway, it’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s a transition I’m trying to make,” he says. “I’m spending a lot of time in New York so that I can ensconce myself in the world of Broadway. You don’t want to be that guy that comes up from L.A. and goes, ‘Ay, look at me, I want to write a show.’ ”
And his Hitman Tour, in which he tells the stories behind his most enduring hits as guest vocalists perform them – Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me,” Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” Earth Wind and Fire’s “After The Love Has Gone,” Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up” and more – has a structure reminiscent of another music legend’s current Broadway act, Bruce Springsteen’s “Springsteen on Broadway.”
“[My tour] is a version of that, except with a few less zeroes,” Foster jokes about Springsteen’s Broadway profits. “You basically get two hours of the hits that I’ve had, so the songs are all pretty much hits with three incredible singers (“American Idol” alum Pia Toscano, Stevie Wonder mentee Shelea Frazier and rising opera star Fernando Varela), and with me telling stories about them. And I work as hard as I can to be great every night, but honestly, the show kinda rolls on its own.”
Mounting a hits retrospective like “Hitman” has Foster thinking about his legacy, an essential chapter of which involves Whitney Houston, whose life story is back under a media magnifying glass after the release of the controversial new documentary “Whitney” in July.
“I didn’t see what everybody saw,” Foster says, recalling their time together recording their iconic music for 1992’s “The Bodyguard,” when he was “quite a bit younger and just so excited” to be working with her. “I just saw a girl who went to work all day on the movie set and came in at 10 p.m. to sing with me, and her attitude was great – she was tired, but she just wanted to sing and get it right. She gave it her all every night, and we made a great record. … Past that, I only know what I saw.”
What he did witness while spending time with Houston was a version of her relationship with Bobby Brown that, at least at that time, was more nuanced than pop-culture history remembers.
“She and Bobby had a real love there,” he says. “I mean, they really loved each other. And I think that’s one thing that many people don’t understand; they throw a lot of shade on Bobby for [their troubles], but that’s just not true. They really loved each other and it was a great thing to watch and just be around, he was so supportive of her.”
Foster worked with Houston on her final album and laments that “bad luck” tarnished her voice in her later years.
“Some people tortured their voice in every way possible, smoking and drinking and whatever, and they’re 80 years old and still killing it,” he says. “Whitney just had that kind of voice that just wasn’t able to take any abuse. And so it was so early on in her career where she really lost her pipes, she lost that third dimension, and some of that I really believe was just the bad luck of DNA.”
Staring down his 70th birthday next year, Foster may not be the kind of musician with a pristine voice to protect, but as an artist on the road whose production and writing work show no sign of slowing, he credits his health to another favorite axiom: Moderation is key.
“I don’t judge,” he says, “but I actually stopped drinking altogether a year ago, not that I was ever a big drinker at all. I’d drink a glass of wine two nights in a row and then go weeks without. I just stopped it completely because I thought, ‘It might be time to give that a rest for a while.’ ”
And considering he’s a newly engaged man, Foster has one more thing in his life that’s keeping him happy and healthy. As for how he’s feeling about the couple’s forthcoming wedding planning, Foster demures, paraphrasing a Chance the Rapper lyric — “I’m just living my best life right now.”
Maeve McDermott, USA TODAY