Maria McKee: How I wrote Show Me Heaven
We spoke to the singer-songwriter about her legendary power ballad
Ultimate Power is a UK club night that plays nothing but power ballads and celebrates its tenth birthday this year. Co-founder Dave Fawbert spoke to Maria McKee to discover the story behind her huge hit Show Me Heaven
Firstly, how did you come to record this track - you obviously co-wrote on it as well - how did that come about?
Well I was living in Ireland at the time, but I was still on Geffen Records, so I was sort of running away from home a little bit, I wasn't working very hard on music - I was young and I just wanted to sort of just have my youth, hang out with my friends and party - and basically Geffen was like, you need to record something now for us and there's this Tom Cruise movie and here's the love ballad and they want you to sing it. And they sent me this song called Secret Fire and I said, "These lyrics are just appalling - I'm not doing it, I can't sing these lyrics". I said if you want me to do it let me rewrite the words and they were like, "Yeah, yeah yeah OK but you only have 24 hours to do it, and if we don't like it then you have to sing Secret Fire, take me higher". And so I scrawled out the lyrics to Show Me Heaven in an evening and they were like "ooh these are pretty good, OK!"
Did the title come first, because it's a very memorable title, or did that just come about as you were going through?
I don't remember I think it probably started with the title, more than likely.
And then you came to record it with Peter Asher, the producer - were you there for the whole process?
I was, and Geffen wasn't satisfied with it because I tried to tone it way down and make it more like my first solo album which was a sort of singersongwritery thing and Geffen, they didn't think it sounded hit-like enough and so when I went back to Ireland, they went behind my back and got together with the guy that produced Cher and they kind of turned it into this weird sort of very not Maria McKee-sounding record. And I just said, "Go ahead and release it but get Cher to sing it, cos I'm not doing it."
And so Jimmy Iovine, who was my manager at the time, and was a huge record producer said let's meet them halfway. I can juice it up and make it sound like a hit and it doesn't have to sound like some weird... it had like demonic children singing these weird choruses and stuff - it was very weird. So Jimmy said let's you and I go back in, and he said I'll go off and keep Geffen satisfied.
So you got a version you were happy with and then Jimmy added a few more elements, is that how it worked?
Yeah, he glossed it up a little bit, but it was fine - but I love Jimmy - he and I, we were very close. He knows what I like and I knows he knows how to make a hit, so we managed to satisfy everybody.
To start with - the vocal first, it's such an incredible vocal performance, there's so much passion in it, there's so much dynamic - what were you thinking about when you were in the booth - did you have anything in mind?
Gosh, it's so long ago. I don't remember - what I do remember about the vocal is more my performance on Top of the Pops. You know, most people - I think when you went on Top of the Pops in the olden days, you used to mime, if I'm correct - most people would go on and mime their hit. And I think that my performance on TOTP was one of the first and only live in the studio vocals - live on TV - and I just remember getting very carried away with being on TOTP and very excited and really doing one of my best vocal performances on live TV for that. I think it was before it went to number 1 - I think it was like about top 5, or top 10 or something - and I really believe that my live performance on TOTP helped to push it up to number 1. I remember very well The KLF was on [my episode].
The two lines that lead into each chorus ('never felt this way' and 'it feels divine'), you go from a falsetto to a full voice - was that deliberately pitched in order for you to do that, or did that just happen naturally?
No...if there are notes that are too high for my chest voice, I tend to slip into my falsetto a little bit..
So it was a happy accident?
Well it sounds amazing! One other bit - the triangle part in the verses is so cool and it gives it that sort of fizz - whose idea was that?
You know, I don't want to get in trouble because I can't remember if it was Peter or Jimmy! But you're looking at two legendary record producers, so I mean, either one would have come up with a thing like that!
And again - the drum pattern - it's so distinctive, you know it from beat one, you know what track it is...
Yeah, you know, I'm wondering if that was kind of lifted from the original demo, which was sent to me by the writers [Jay Rifkin and Eric Rackin]...
And the thing I have to ask, when you finished the song and you got the recording back, did you know it was going to be a hit?
Well, you know, any time I ever laid my voice down on anything people were like 'oh that's gonna be a hit' and I was disappointed so many times and never had a hit. The only hit I'd ever had was a song that I wrote that was recorded by somebody else [Feargal Sharkey's number one A Good Heart]. So I think I probably just rolled my eyes and went, 'Oh yeah, sure, here's another sure thing by Maria McKee...blah blah blah!" So I was surprised, yeah, it was exciting. But you know, I'm an old punk so, for me, it was sort of like, 'Whatever, I hope this doesn't wreck my street cred". And then when NME gave it single of the week I was like, "OK, I'm gonna be OK!".
For many years you wouldn't perform the song live, why was that - any reason in particular?
Because I have like two careers - one as a sort of power ballads, pop diva, and one as a kind of alterna-country post-punk singer-songwritery album-orientated person, and generally the people that would come to my shows would be the ones that were more rock music fans, or singer-songwriter music fans and they wouldn't really be the people that would have bought Show Me Heaven or been interested in it, so I just perform deep album album cuts - for my fans. So it wasn't until I would just do one-offs - one or two songs here or there which people had requested, and then I would do it. I did it at the Dublin gay pride - I performed three songs and that was the one they really wanted me to do. But now I always do it, just because it's part of my history and I think my fans are old enough now to go, 'OK, she had a hit, we liked her when she was an unknown sort of cult artist' - which I still am really. There's that whole thing of like, 'We liked her way before she had the number one' - there's that whole thing.
The big question - why do you think people still love this song - it's 26 years since it came out? Do you know, or is it one of those things?
Well I mean I tend to go back to music for the same reason as most people - as a musician I tend to go back to the songs that I love, for the same reason that any music fan - young or old - goes back to the music they love: it reminds them of a good time. You know, it's like - when a song was that big of a hit and it was on the radio all the time or whatever - they might have been on their holidays, or they had the love of their life, romance that year, or they got married that year, they had a kid that year - it reminds them of that time. And when a song is on the radio like that - a lot - in a certain period of time - it reminds you of the good old days, you know? And you want to hear it again, to bring back those good old days. Especially now that we're all getting old!
That's absolutely true - but there is something about the power ballad - people just let go - what is it about the power ballad that people really connect with?
When it's slowed down, you can connect with the lyrics a little more - it kind of takes a great singer to really wrap their voice around power ballads, and a great singer will always transport you and take you away - because when you hear a great singer, it is quite a transcendent, spiritual experience. Although some people feel that way about a beat. So it's just whatever you connect with, whatever your thing is. I feel that way... there's this jazz track that I love and when it comes on I feel like I careering through outer space and that's just a saxophone! So it's different strokes for different folks.