“Love is a Battlefield”, “The Best”, “Hide Your Heart”, “Never”, “Rag Doll”…KISS, Aerosmith, Pat Benatar, Tina Turner, Heart, Rod Stewart…the sheer mention of these classic songs and these legendary artists is sufficient enough to blow your mind! Holly Knight has composed lots of timeless hits and rightfully belongs to the Holy Trinity of Composers (Desmond Child/Holly Knight/Diane Warren) that marked permanently the rock sound of the 80s (and not only). She is a multitalented person (photography, musicals included) and we are thrilled to have her, here at Rockpages.
Special thanks to Jay Messina. Interview: Sakis Nikas
Rockpages.gr: Since this is a special feature on your career, let’s start from the very beginning…you were born in New York City. Which was the moment –if there was any- when you fell in love with music?
Holly Knight: I know exactly when that moment was…it was the day that I was born! I started taking classical piano lessons when I was four and I picked it really quickly. My mother wanted me to be a classical pianist. So first I was exposed to whatever music she was listening to but then on my own I discovered rock n’ roll. I was about nine years old and I just went nuts; that was the kind of music that I wanted to be involved with. I still love classical music but it’s more of a hobby and not like rock n’ roll which is my passion or the songwriting which is a way of life.
Rockpages.gr: I was browsing your website and I stopped immediately at the following sentence and I quote: “I was sneaking out of the house at night to see rock bands perform”. Did your parents oppose to your checking out rock bands or you were just too young?
Holly Knight: The key word is “sneak”. I didn’t have permission. I left home when I was 16 and by that time I joined a rock band. My father was a doctor and he wasn’t around that much. Actually, that was when I started becoming rebellious and I put that into my music so…
Rockpages.gr: Do you remember the first concert that you saw?
Holly Knight: My first real rock n’ roll show that I’d been to was Neil Young. Then I saw Hendrix play…I remember sneaking out of the house…I was 11 or something.
Rockpages.gr: Your first professional gig in music was with Spider that featured Anton Fig and Amanda Blue. This was one of the very first bands that featured female lead vocals and blended rock with pop music. What do you remember from the Spider days?
Holly Knight: I have fond memories of my days with Spider. I met Keith Lentin the guitar player…by the way, I am still great friends with him and Anton. We met and we liked each other. The next day I got a call from Keith…it was around midnight and he said: “hey, we met yesterday and I wanted to ask you if you want to jam with us”? I said “yes, let’s do this…just tell me what’s a good day” and he replied: “Now!” (laughs). I was short of still asleep but I woke up and I told him to come by. So, he picked me up, I jammed with them and that was about it…I joined the band. I was very excited because at that time I wanted to write and record original material and they were very serious about their work. So basically we wanted the same things. We started playing around town quite a bit and then we became the house band at a club called Trax. That place was amazing because every rock star whoever happened to be playing in town…in Madison Square Garden for instance…after their gig, they would come to Trax. It was just a great place where you could find lots of musicians, see people from the industry…for instance, someone would come back to our dressing room and tell us that Mick Jagger was in the audience and we would look at him like “no way” (laughs)! In fact there was a band that used to open quite a lot for us and they were called Desmond Child & Rouge. That’s how I first met Desmond.
Rockpages.gr: What did you think of Desmond Child and Rouge?
Holly Knight: I liked them but I was kinda surprised that they were opening for us cause we were harder and they were sort of “cabaret rock”. It was a lot similar to what Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf were doing at the time.
Rockpages.gr: You were managed by the late Bill Aucoin who was a genius manager. How important was his role in the overall direction of the band?
Holly Knight: He was a highly respected manager; obviously he managed KISS so that was enough for him to be a recognizable name in the industry. I will tell you how we met him and I will try to make it short because it’s quite a long story. Anton, Keith and Amanda were all from South Africa and they had met Eddie Kramer who is also from South Africa and he was involved in all the Hendrix records. So, they were talking to him about the possibility of working with Spider. At that time, Eddie was doing a record with Ace Frehley and he was the one really who asked Anton to come down to the studio where Ace was recording and play the drums on the album. Anton did a phenomenal job on the album and Ace started praising his work to the other KISS members. After a while Anton was playing on some KISS albums as a ghost player of course. I ended up playing on a KISS record too but that’s another story…
Rockpages.gr: You are referring to “Unmasked”. We will get to that in a little bit…
Holly Knight: Yes, “Unmasked”…so, that’s how we met Bill Aucoin. At that point we were trying to get a record deal and we were blown away when he came to Trax and checked us out. He really liked us and he wanted to manage us. So we signed with him but the truth is that I was the one that got us the record deal.
Rockpages.gr: What do you mean?
Holly Knight: At the same time they were talking to Eddie Kramer, I was dating a guy who was an engineer at the Record Plant and he was working with a producer called Mike Chapman who had done the Blondie records and “My Sharona” etc. His name was all over the charts. He was some sort of the Max Martin of his day. I decided that I wanted to work with him because he was also a songwriter and since he had skills as both a producer and songwriter then we could have had an album with many hits. Eddie Kramer was mainly an engineer, so they had a totally different approach. Eddie, lovely as he is, is not a songwriter. We didn’t have the internet back then and I wondered how I could get a hold of this guy. One night we were at the Trax and The New Barbarians was in town; that was Keith Richard’s solo band and they had their party there, at Trax. Mike happened to be there; I was talking to some people who introduced me to a man there called “Mike”. Then later on “Mike” went to the bar to have a drink and someone said: “Mike Chapman is a nice bloke, isn’t he?”. And I went: “Oh, my God! That was Mike Chapman?” (laughs). So, I went over and gave him a tape. It took him two weeks to listen to the tape but when he did he really liked it and he wanted to sign and work with us. So, the deal was inked basically because I gave him the tape, not Bill Aucoin. Mike was a song guy so he really liked our songs. After I left Spider, Mike became my mentor but that’s another story.
Rockpages.gr: I am a huge believer of Karma and turning points in one’s life. Do you think that this was your first major turning point?
Holly Knight: Well, I call them game changers, you know. The first game changer was when I discovered rock music. That changed my life. Then yeah…absolutely…this was another major turning point. I believe in Karma and destiny and love attraction. I believe that everything in my life has a purpose.
Rockpages.gr: Many people don’t know that you played all the keyboards on “Unmasked” by KISS. I guess that was the first time that you met Paul Stanley, right?
Holly Knight: Not really. I had met all the KISS members individually…most likely, I’d met Paul before at a rehearsal place or something. I don’t remember really. We’d run into each other in the Aucoin office, Rock Steady Productions. By that time, I had already met Gene who had asked me to play on some demos of songs that he had written. Again…talk about serendipity…I was in the lounge of the Record Plant waiting for the guy I was dating and Gene came out. He said: “hey, you play keyboards, right?”. I went: “Yes…”. Gene asked me if I wanted to come inside to play on a song that they were doing. I tried to play it cool and I said “sure, why not?” (laughs). That’s pretty much how that happened.
Rockpages.gr: You are trying to tell me that Gene didn’t make a pass on you?
Holly Knight: (laughs) Absolutely! He gave up pretty quickly cause I didn’t take him seriously. After I didn’t pay much attention to him, he turned around and flirted with another girl. And that was a minute later! I was kinda laughing at the whole thing. Gene has a certain way though…he grabs you by the hand and stares deeply into your eyes and says to you: “why don’t we know each other?” (laughs).
Rockpages.gr: (laughs) So lame!
Holly Knight: (laughs) I know! It’s very funny.
Rockpages.gr: Did the guys make you sign a contract not to reveal anything about your participation on the album?
Holly Knight: You know…I don’t remember that but I am pretty sure they did. I wouldn’t have said anything, either way. Now I can talk about it…it’s so many years later…who cares! Come to think about it, after that I became a famous songwriter so it was good for them to have me on one of their records anyway (laughs). Anyway, I wanted to have proof that I had played on “Unmasked”…they sent me of course checks and record awards which was sufficient proof, I guess…but I Xeroxed the checks they gave me. I still have them!
Holly Knight: Yes, cause I’ve been writing my memoirs and I actually put them in the book cause it was a good thing that I saved those fuckers (laughs)!
Rockpages.gr: All the KISS fans are gonna love it!
Holly Knight: I know…the thing is that I was a girl involved in the macho world of KISS…well, I wouldn’t call KISS macho…probably something in between macho and totally gay (laughs)! With all the make-up and the platforms…but they come across quite macho…I don’t know how they pull it off. Probably due to Gene’s presence. But I love the guys. They treated me with respect and it was amazing…they were so cool to me. I was a female keyboard player who had a classical training; I know how to play and they respected me for that. But I also know my weaknesses, though…so, I try to be realistic of my abilities.
Rockpages.gr: Name one weakness…
Holly Knight: Chocolate (laughs)!
Rockpages.gr: That’s not a weakness! I am eating one as we speak (laughs)!
Holly Knight: (laughs) Alright then!
Rockpages.gr: Why didn’t you make more records with Device?
Holly Knight: I get asked that a lot…basically, what I wanted was a real band and Device was kinda of a “put together band”. I hand selected the musicians but what I was looking for in a singer, I never found it! I looked for two and a half years and finally in the end I hired Paul Engemann…Technically, he was a great singer but I was looking for a rock star. I didn’t want to direct someone on how to be a rock star, you know what I mean? He came from a totally different world, you know…Mike Chapman had sung on all the Device demos and literally Paul mimicked him. It just didn’t feel authentic enough for me to go on with him. I was dissatisfied although I know he sounded great on the tracks. I was looking for someone special…I don’t know….
Rockpages.gr: I know exactly what you mean. In the video-clip of “Who Says”, the rock star is you! You are the definition of how to be cool on stage. On the other hand, Paul is not really there…
Holly Knight: Oh, thank you! I appreciate that. I agree with what you say about Paul. He is not! Exactly! I am still great friends with the guitarist, Gene Black.
Rockpages.gr: “Who Says” is considered a classic AOR song nowadays.
Holly Knight: It is, isn’t it? Let me tell you something. Dave Draiman from Disturbed wanted to start a new band. So, he wanted to call it Device. He didn’t even contact me; he had his people contact me…they told me that Dave Draiman wanted my blessings because he wanted to use the name Device. I said: “well, no. He can’t have it!”. He went ahead and used it anyway. You see, we have a lot of fans and you never know…I can’t talk about a reunion cause I don’t see it happening with Paul but if I could find someone who wanted to sing the Device songs properly, then why not? I would do it for fun….
Rockpages.gr: That would be awesome for the fans…
Holly Knight: Really? That’s great to hear…you know, we still play better than ever so…you never know!
Rockpages.gr: You took a shot also on a solo career but it didn’t really take off. It was really the same with Desmond Child…a huge songwriter but his solo album didn’t sell. Do you have a bittersweet feeling regarding the fact that you didn’t make a big career as a performing artist?
Holly Knight: Oh, that’s a tough one…well, let’s talk about the solo record first. I didn’t want to be a solo artist…that’s for sure. I am not a singer; that’s the truth. I play the keyboards and I have a knack for songwriting. Having said that, I had done lots of backing vocals on some very big, successful records. People like Rod Stewart and Tina Turner just to name a couple of them. They didn’t hire me as a singer; they hired me because I had written the songs and they suggested that I should do the backing vocals, too. That’s what I did. On the other hand, Desmond takes his lead singing more seriously. I totally get it because he has a great voice. To answer your question…in hindsight, there’s not a bittersweet feeling…no. It was a relief actually. I was able to have a life, kids and do other things as a result.
Rockpages.gr: Speaking of Desmond Child, you wrote with him and Paul Stanley the song “Hide Your Heart”. I am curious…what exactly did you write on that song?
Holly Knight: Well, that’s a funny story. Paul came over to my house one day…to my studio…and said: “let’s write something”. We put a tape on and I had this melody on my mind…(ed.note: Holly starts singing the famous melody of the chorus of “Hide Your Heart”). So, what do you think? Does that count as a contribution to the song?
Rockpages.gr: Most definitely, yes!
Holly Knight: Exactly. So, he takes the tape and we didn’t talk for a while. Then one day, he calls me and he said that he wrote a song with Desmond called “Hide Your Heart” that had the melody that I had written. He asked me if I wanted a credit…
Rockpages.gr: Of course, you wanted a credit!
Holly Knight: (laughs) Are you kidding me? Of course, I wanted a credit!
Rockpages.gr: You worked again with Paul Stanley in the 90s for the album “Psycho Circus” and later on for his solo record “Live To Win”. It has been quite a while since you had last worked with Paul. How did this collaboration come up?
Holly Knight: You know, I used to date Paul back in the Spider days, so we know each other for so many years. Nothing serious, though. So, he just called me and asked me if I wanted to write with him again and I said: “of course”.
Rockpages.gr: Were you ever star struck by an artist that you collaborated with?
Holly Knight: No.
Rockpages.gr: Not even Rod Stewart?
Holly Knight: Especially, not Rod Stewart!
Rockpages.gr: Why “especially not Rod Stewart”?
Holly Knight: I’d rather not say (laughs). Let’s just say that he has a whole lot of entourage of ass kissers around him. If I had met my real idols, Jim Morrison or Freddie Mercury then I would probably be star struck…I don’t know.
Rockpages.gr: How about the musical play that you are working on…?
Holly Knight: Yeah, I am working on a musical…it’s derivative of events in my life and actually it’s a good timing for this interview because all these memories are pretty fresh in my mind…usually my mind is a lot more foggy (laughs)! A lot of my hits are gonna be included in the musical plus a few new songs, too. One of them is gonna be “Hanging On A Heart Attack” by Device.
Rockpages.gr: What was the inspiration behind the change of your name….?
Holly Knight: It came to me in a dream. I know that sounds cliché but that’s exactly what happened. I was in Spider and everybody was thinking about changing their names. I mean, Amanda became “Amanda Blue” and I had this dream that I was a knight and I really liked that. Let’s just go with that. I liked it because it was British and I am a bit of an Anglophile. Subconsciously, that name suited me very well cause a knight is a warrior and a lot of my songs are about fighting. Not fighting with people but fighting for something. We talked earlier about the fact that everything happens for a reason. That was one of those “accidents” that marked my life. Something in my subconscious dug out a knight.
Rockpages.gr: If you had to pick just one song of your entire career, which one would that be?
Holly Knight: (after quite some thinking) I’d probably say that my most recognizable song is “The Best” (Tina Turner). Personally, I think that “Invincible” (Pat Benatar) is one of my best tunes.