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He’s one of Canada’s most successful songwriters, an artist whose songs have topped the country and pop music charts around the world. As a composer, Dan Hill has been hugely prolific, writing hits like his own iconic “Sometimes When We Touch” as well as numerous chart-toppers for such performers as Céline Dion, Britney Spears, Michael Bolton, George Benson and Sammy Kershaw.
But when Hill’s father died in 2003, the songwriting well suddenly ran dry. So he turned his attention to writing a confessional autobiography about life with his demanding dad, Daniel Grafton Hill III, a larger-than-life figure who has been called Canada’s father of human rights. The resulting book, I Am My Father’s Son, became a critically acclaimed bestseller and helped the Grammy and Juno Award-winning artist rediscover his songwriting mojo.
Now Hill is back with Intimate, his first album of new material since 1996. The recording reunites him with producers Matthew McCauley and Fred Mollin, friends from his formative days in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills who produced Hill’s first four platinum-selling albums. The new album includes the composer’s own renditions of songs made famous by other artists, such as “I Do (Cherish You)” (98 Degrees), “I Promise You” (Backstreet Boys) and “Back Before the War” (Reba McEntire).
Best of all, as the title suggests, Intimate also features some of Hill’s recent and most personal songs, including the title track, “Redemption,” “Love Yourself,” “Still A Lot of You Around Here” and the deeply moving “I Am My Father’s Son.” Hill says songwriting came to a halt when his father died after a lengthy battle with diabetes, and the songwriter discovered he’d been working at his craft to win his dad’s approval. His breakthrough came only after he’d confronted his demons, notably his difficult relationship with his father, and wrote his tell-all autobiography.
“I could never have written those kinds of songs before my dad died and I wrote the book,” says Hill. “One of the songs I wrote just as he was dying and I was so broken up that I almost killed myself through some crazy excess drinking. Another is about coming to terms with your flaws and how we all need to find some kind of redemption. By the time you’re in your 50s and your father has died, you become acutely aware of the trajectory of life and death.”
In the case of the song “I Am My Father’s Son,” Hill also became acutely aware of the similarities between himself, the carefree musician, and his dad, the stern civil servant. The poignant lyrics represent some of the best Hill has ever written:
Never knew just how to get it, so I rebelled
Tried to be your opposite, I did it well
Strange but true
The more I tried to be so different
The more I was like you
Meanwhile, Hill’s book inadvertently sparked a return to performing, when he found himself thrust into the rigors of author tours. “Here I was, onstage with incredible writers like Joseph Boyden,” recalls Hill, “worried that my readings weren’t going to measure up. I figured out that the best thing for me to do was to segue from reading certain sections to singing songs connected to the book. People were really moved by the synthesis, so it inspired me to do more.”
The 1990s had seen Hill largely abandon performing in favor of songwriting for other acts. Working in Nashville, often collaborating with country artist Keith Stegall, pushed Hill to exercise his songwriting muscle. “I really learned about being versatile,” he says. “In Nashville, songwriters never say whether they’re better at lyrics or music. The really great ones will switch around, like batting from both the left and right sides in baseball.”
After establishing himself as confessional writer of almost painfully honest and emotional songs, and winner of many accolades including five SOCAN Awards for outstanding airplay in Canada, Hill found new life as a composer for hire. “That was a great gift,” he says, “to be able to get outside of myself and to slip into other people’s worlds and write about that. Working with Keith has been great. Although I wasn’t raised on country, I understood the power of the story in country music. It all comes down to storytelling.”
Now Hill has come full circle and is back to writing and performing songs for himself. This spring and summer sees him on a cross-Canada tour with Marc Jordan and Amy Sky, performing solo and with rising Canadian star Liz Rodrigues, with whom he co-wrote “Intimate” and “You Know Just What to Say.” Having amassed over 100 million combined unit sales for all his songs, it would be easy for Hill to rest on his laurels. But that’s not part of his DNA. “The best writers I know never feel they’ve done their best work,” says Hill. “Whenever I write a new song it’s like I’m starting all over.”
Music journalist Nicholas Jennings grew up in Don Mills, where he witnessed some of Dan Hill’s earliest performances.
• Publisher: If Dreams Had Wings Music Ltd.
• SOCAN member since:
• Selected discography: Dan Hill (1975), Longer Fuse (1977), Real Love (1989), Dance of Love (1991), I’m Doing Fine (1996)
• Visit www.danhill.com
Published in the Spring 2010 issue of Words & Music magazine.