Boy Meets Girl – aka George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam – enjoyed a global smash in 1988 with their iconic single ‘Waiting For a Star to Fall’.
The duo were also the songwriters between two of Whitney Houston’s biggest hits – ‘How Will I Know’ and ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ – which have lived on long after the late star’s passing.
Following the recent release of the deluxe version of their EP ‘Five’, I spoke with George and Shannon to discuss their enduring hits, writing for Whitney Houston and adapting to the way the music industry works now…
You recently released the deluxe version of ‘Five’, including a release on vinyl. This is the first material you’ve released together in a while isn’t it?
George: We’ve been writing and recording but albums rear their heads. We start to see the theme and our latest theme was a bright one. We realised that we were starting to write from the bright and intense time of the 80s; we were feeling a lot of those bright feelings again. They were starting to show up in some of the songs so that was that was part of the initial impetus.
Shannon: We just had a collection of songs we finished. It’s so easy now because of the digital world to put out your own music independently and you’re not dependent on a record company to do that for you. It does mean there’s much more content to compete with, or to join, whichever way you want to look at it. We felt ready. We didn’t have a whole whole album’s worth, we didn’t have 10 or 12 songs, we thought let’s just grab these five and get them out there and have some fun so that’s what we’ve done. The cover for the vinyl has been a really fun project for us because George’s wife Roz has done most of our artwork since our CD ‘The Wonderground’. She did the artwork for all of the streaming releases for each single on this ‘Five’ EP and she did this cover art, which is really a compendium of all the single art. It’s just so cool. We love it!
George: We got a chance to do credits. We grew up with credits. We would look at the back of albums and when we first started out we’d learn who the cool players were that we were hearing on the music and we’d learn where they lived (laughs) so we could go work with them. Credits were always so cool so it was so much fun to celebrate song credits with our own friends, our own posse.
I grew up in the 80s and 90s so I was all about the credits, studying the inlay booklet and learning the words. With streaming, a lot of that has been discarded now…
George: Well, you know Pip, I’ve been noticing that a lot of that information is actually getting embedded more and more. It’s in there, you have to go dig for it. On the the music sources, you can usually find most of the things that were on the back of album covers. It’s not in the cool, tactile way that it used to be.
Shannon: But it’s not as readily available. It’s really nice to celebrate everybody who makes a recording happen, because there are always so many – unless you’re a one man band – but it’s usually a village of people, musicians and, and all kinds of creative people, engineers and all that.
You have seen huge changes in the music industry and how much is released over your career. What’s that been like for you?
Shannon: Well, for George and his son Max it’s been an archiving challenge. You can lose that music because the sources that the music is recorded on to degrades so if you don’t keep up with it, and keep updating all the old music into the new formats, you risk losing it all together. It’s the same for me. Many of my lyrics are on an ancient Word program, maybe it was called something else, and now I try to bring those lyrics up and they’re all these little squares and dots. Basically, it’s telling me you can’t access these lyrics anymore (laughs). Just in a practical way, those things, if you don’t keep updating them to the latest format, then you can lose them.
George: As an example, I have borrowed her original notebook that has ‘How Will I Know’ and ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ and some of these things written in here. Very carefully, I’ll open it up (George shows the lyrics over Zoom) but this is old school (laughs). It ends up on a computer these days…
Shannon: I may have to return to that just so I can always find them (laughs). Musically, of course, it’s changed a lot. When we were initially working with our friend Tom Bell, a fantastic songwriter and producer, he told us that everything’s cyclical, and everything that you think is gone now is going to find its way back around again in some slightly modified way, but you’ll recognise it. In many ways I hear a lot of the return right now of 80s signature (sounds) like synthesizer things… some of that’s swinging back around again…
George: …that brought Silk Sonic to mind or Dua Lipa. Her last record was brilliant and Silk Sonic same thing. Very retro, lovely production. Modern, but harkening back to things that we might have heard from The Gap Band (laughs).
You showed me the lyric book then with the two Whitney songs in, and those songs are going to be getting a lot of airtime again soon thanks to the biopic about her. What was your experience like with those songs and how did they end up in Whitney’s hands?
George: ‘How Will I Know’ is a bit of a tale. We were staff writers for Elmo Irving, which is a subset of A&M records that most people are familiar with, and we were staff writers. We were asked to write a song for Janet Jackson, and meanwhile we were also Boy Meets Girl, and we were recording our first album for A&M records. It was very exciting time for us as a band, achieving our first big goal of releasing our first record. We wrote ‘How Will I Know’ but for Janet Jackson it wasn’t right for what she was doing at the time. We thought fine we’ll just keep working on our record and then we heard through the grapevine Clive Davis was very interested in ‘How Will I Know’ for a new artist that he was working with… Cissy Houston’s daughter, Dionne Warwick’s…
George: So we thought, ‘well she has good pedigree, this could be interesting’ but we were just continuing to work on our own record. Things kept progressing and we heard that the song had gotten passed on to Narada Michael Walden to produce. We got a call from Narada, he had some changes to make to the structure of the song and we agreed it was great, and Shannon wrote some extra lyrics. Then we get a call from some friends of ours that were also writers working with Narada, who had just helped record Whitney’s vocal for ‘How Will I Know’ that day and they called at the end of the day and said ‘you just gotta hear what’s going on here’. We got a chance to hear the vocal that everybody in the world knows as ‘How Will I Know’ for the first time over the phone. That was really the moment when Shannon, not only with our first album project underway, there was something else going on as writers for someone else. It was really a whole other level… Whitney is just an unusual talent. It was obvious that afternoon (laughs).
These songs you wrote are two of Whitney’s most iconic songs and they’ll outlive us all. Did you have any idea when she recorded them what was going to happen?
Shannon: Not to overuse the word ‘surreal’ but as soon as Whitney sang the song… really as soon as you write a song and you send it out wherever it goes to another group, or your even when you record it yourself as in the case of ‘Waiting For a Star to Fall’ you let go of it in a sense. You still know you wrote it and you have all those really great memories of the writing process, the recording of the demo, and trying to get it in someone’s hands, but then you let go of it. Especially in Whitney’s case, she just claimed it as hers. Then it becomes the listener’s songs and they associate it with moments in their lives; their first love or their wedding or some heartbreak or something. Then it’s claimed by millions of people. I think in a sense, emotionally, we long ago let go of it. I still hear it and it feels like ours in the sense that I can put myself back into the room where we were writing it. I still want to jump up and down. It’s exciting (laughs) but it’s really strange that it’s still rolling along and those songs are still being claimed and enjoyed and played and appreciated this long into the future and it’ll keep going, like you said. It’s amazing. I can’t really put words to it because I try not to think too much about it.
George: As Shannon was speaking of that, that’s part of the deal with us as Boy Meets Girl recording our song ‘How Will I Know’. It was it was an odd thing to approach that song when it had been so defined by Whitney. The two of us enjoyed playing with our own song, taking it 180 degrees in a different direction and being influenced by other kinds of sounds and tempos and eras. I think we had a little of the 60s backing vocals that you’d hear on Up With People or some of those group vocal sort of things.
Shannon: There’s a breezy equality, I think, to the background vocals and that little swing and lilt that we put to our version of ‘How Will I Know’ that’s on our ‘Five’ vinyl. That was recorded a while ago, not too recently, but we included it because we thought it’s a good way to just put our signature on it, since we did write it. I think a lot of people don’t associate Boy Meets Girl, or us – they don’t even know us really, or that we wrote that song (laughs) – so it was like reclaiming it in our own small way and just saying, ‘let’s reel that back in and put our stamp on it’ (laughs).
Even though Whitney’s version is still played on the radio all the time, she of course hasn’t been with us for over a decade now. It must have felt like a full circle moment to revisit that song at this time…
Shannon: I don’t know that it was that premeditated but it really has turned out that way, timing wise. Of course, in some ways, we would be riding the coattails of the biopic by putting out our version, but it was really more like closing that circle in a large way, and just being comfortable with the fame that the song achieved. Just bringing it back down to where it got created and having fun with it. It’s like, ‘hello, How Will I Know! It’s you again!’ (laughs)
George: It really was! (laughs)
You mentioned ‘Waiting For a Star to Fall’ earlier, and that song too like the Whitney songs, has lived on. I still hear it all the time on the radio here. What’s it like to have a song that you wrote, with your vocals on still being played after all this time?
George: I was doing dishes the other day, and I was thinking about Mylo’s version. I was thinking that was a very clever idea that he came up with just choosing the ‘in your arms’ section and creating a song around that. I love those changes he came up with. It’s kind of like what Shannon was saying. It’s a constant surprise… we keep getting surprised. Over the last 20 years, it’s been really interesting to have this be part of the music vernacular, where people will take something that’s been done and then morph it into another form. It’s a function of modern music making. When we first started out, I don’t think that would have ever occurred to me to take somebody’s song and then slice it up and create another one. It’s been fun to be part of that too. In fact I can hear ‘Waiting For a Star to Fall’ whenever I sing (Coldplay’s) ‘My Universe’. I was singing that chorus the other day and I realised you could mash this up with ‘Waiting For a Star to Fall’ and it would be awesome. I might have to, just for fun, see if I can come up with something or if somebody else came up with something it’d be kind of fun.
Shannon: I feel more of a connection (with that song). When ‘Waiting For a Star to Fall’ first came out, of course, there was a video with it so that changed things also. Because it was us performing our own song, there was much more of a feeling of connection. We were performing it and promoting it so there’s that little bit different feeling when you’re playing one of your songs and it’s out there in the world with you on it, than it is having someone else’s voice and performance. Not better or worse, but just a different, more immediate sense of connection, I’d say.
Before this interview I did unearth a vintage performance of you performing the song on ‘Top of the Pops’. That must have been the moment your realised you had a global hit song on your hands?
Shannon: Yeah, it was a big deal being on ‘Top of the Pops’. When we were invited to appear on it, we started realising what a big deal it was in the UK. One of our managers was from the UK and he filled us in on the importance of it. It was really so much fun (laughs). I think we were riding there in a taxi or something, and talking to the driver about where he was taking us and the driver got all excited. He said, ‘everybody watches that over dinner’ (laughs). It was really a great moment. That whole promotion for ‘Waiting For A Star to Fall’ was so much fun for us.
Sadly ‘Top of the Pops’ is no longer made here in the UK. It went out as streaming started to come in…
Shannon: That’s kind of the way of the world. It’s much more expedient, probably less expensive, and all of that. As with vinyl and album covers and things, streaming just doesn’t have that present feeling that an in-person performance does or those kinds of shows where you’re talking directly with a host and you’re performing. It’s not quite the same.
George: When you were just mentioning that Shannon, one of the things that I realised yesterday…. we did this vinyl project for ‘Five’ – you’d think that I would have known this – and of course we set up the sequence for it and everything. But yesterday I listened to the entire ‘Five’ album in sequence, and that’s the other thing we listen in disparate ways these days, but with it with this vinyl project, it was a lot of fun because we’d worked hard on creating a sequence for it so one song follows the other for a reason. Like a live performance, you set it up so that there’s a flow to it. It was a lot of fun to hear our sequence and hear how we’d set it up.
Can we expect more new music from you in 2023?
Shannon: Yeah. In fact, we were just talking about it yesterday and just agreeing that we’re setting aside January and February to get back into the studio and do some writing and recording. Hopefully our creative Gods will be with us (laughs) and we’ll be coming up with things that we actually like for starters. I can’t see stopping doing that. I would say George’s voice has held up better over the decades than mine has, so I’ll just write for my new vocal abilities. We’re excited about new music and how we’ll apply some of the new equipment that George just got for his studio, and how that will influence the kinds of songs that emerge.
George: Yeah, I’m looking forward to the soundscaping!
Shannon: And we’re looking forward to, closer in time, sitting in the theatre and watching the Whitney biopic with our popcorn and seeing what that movie is all about.
Boy Meets Girl’s ‘Five’ Deluxe Edition is out now. Find out more and order a copy from https://www.boymeetsgirlmusic.com.