David Foster Profile: In Search of Surprises

Combining hard work and an ear for powerful vocal performances, David Foster motivates himself to stay at the top.

You might think that 14 Grammy Awards and a houseful of platinum records would make record producer and executive David Foster see himself as a success. But despite all the accolades, and their accompanying financial rewards, Foster still sometimes feels like an underachiever.

"I wake up a lot of mornings feeling like I haven't accomplished anything," said Foster two days before receiving an honorary doctorate degree at Berklee's 2002 Commencement. "Anybody can be good but it's hard to be great. But in the striving to achieve greatness, sometimes I feel like I've failed. And maybe that is what keeps pushing me toward greatness."

However he motivates himself, there is no denying that Foster is one of the music industry's biggest success stories of the past 20 years. He produced many of the most popular radio hits of the 1980s and 1990s, including Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," Natalie Cole's "Unforgettable," and Celine Dion's "The Power of Love." Foster also knows how to compose commercially successful singles, having penned chart toppers like "After the Love Has Gone" for Earth, Wind & Fire and "The Glory of Love" for Chicago.

Speaking from a cellular phone aboard his private jet en route from Los Angeles to Boston, Foster explained his philosophy for crafting hits.

"I always try to have a surprise in a song, a lift in a song," Foster said. "I look for vocal moments where I can imagine if they were performing the song live, they would get applause at that moment."

Visualization is also a technique Foster employs in the studio. "We picture driving down Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu on a summer day," said Foster. "What would the song sound like on the radio under those conditions?"

While such approaches to music making have helped make Foster a commercial success, they may have something to do with him receiving snubs from critics who blanch at Top 40 smashes and the sort of power balladry Foster has become known for. None of that bothers Foster, who spoke with reverence of much-maligned chart-topping musicians like Kenny G and Herb Alpert.

"They have innate talent, but what separates them from everyone else is the work ethic," said Foster, previewing a central point of his commencement address. "You've got to look at every single thing that comes along as an opportunity."

Growing up in Canada contributed to Foster's sense of the importance of hard work. He began studying the piano at the age of five and says he has honed his musical skills nearly every day since.

Faculty vocalist Donna McElroy (left), joins David Foster after the commencement concert.

"As Canadians, we always felt inferior to the rest of the world," Foster said. "We had to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously. We covered maybe a little more ground than a lot of people did."

One Berklee senior who also hails from Canada said she admires Foster's versatility and risk taking as much as his work ethic.

"He plays so many roles, like composer, producer, and performer," said Elizabeth Man, who majors in Contemporary Writing and Production and Film Scoring. "The fact that he's done it all proves it's possible. I really respect him because he experiments, working with different types of musicians and styles, trying new things."

One of Foster's newest passions is working as a record executive. After founding his own label, 143 Records, he sold it to Warner Brothers and joined the company's senior staff. Now he is not only producing records, but working on many aspects of artists' careers. He has been busy lately handling Josh Groban, a young singer who has scored a classical crossover smash with his debut CD, produced by Foster.

"I love helping him make decisions of where he'll perform and what he should sing and who should be in his band," Foster said. "I love being a part of his career other than being his record producer."

But it's still as a pianist that Foster feels most comfortable. At the commencement concert, he joined students on stage to play for graduates, parents, and others. Playing piano is also an important part of how he approaches producing ballads and other songs.

"After I hear the demo, I want to put it into my fingers, so I play it," Foster said. "I write down the changes and play it on piano. I start from there."

At Berklee, Foster not only played piano with the student band, but playfully sang a verse of Chaka Khan r&b hit "Through the Fire" before handing the vocals over to senior Alisa Miles. Foster's willingness to share the stage with Berklee musicians reflected his deep respect for the college and its students.

"I'd heard about Berklee since I was ten years old," Foster said. "It would have been a great dream for me to go there. I think getting that kind of education is priceless. I can't think of a better place to get a doctorate."