Kevin Cronin Of REO Speedwagon Talks About His Classic Hits And His Songwriting
As the lead singer & songwriter of the multi-platinum rock band REO Speedwagon, Kevin Cronin has been the band’s guiding force since joining the group in the mid-1970s. He has written many classic hit songs for REO, including “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” “Keep On Loving You,” “Roll With The Changes,” “Keep The Fire Burnin’,” “Time For Me To Fly,” “Don’t Let Him Go,” “That Ain’t Love,” “Keep Pushin’” and “In My Dreams.”
Notably, both “Can’t Fight This Feeling” and “Keep On Loving You” reached number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart, and became two of the most popular rock ballads of the 1980s. In addition, his songs “Roll With The Changes” and “Keep The Fire Burning” have had an enduring impact, becoming rock anthems which convey positive and uplifting lyric themes.
We are pleased to do a new interview with Cronin, about how he wrote his classic REO songs, and his creative songwriting process. Before we start the interview, here is some information about REO Speedwagon’s hit discography, and about the other members of the band, both past and present.
REO Speedwagon has recorded 16 studio albums which have sold a total of more than 40 million units. The band’s most famous album, Hi Infidelity, which was released in 1980, has sold 10 million copies and became the best-selling rock album of 1981. The album contained four Top 40 hits: “Keep On Loving You” and “Don’t Let Him Go” (written by Cronin), plus “Take It On The Run” and “In Your Letter” (written by lead guitarist Gary Richrath, who left REO in 1989 and sadly passed away in 2015).
The current lineup of REO Speedwagon consists of Cronin, original member Neal Doughty (keyboards), Bruce Hall (bass), Dave Amato (lead guitar) and Bryan Hitt (drums). Notably, these five band members have been together since 1989. REO remains a popular live band which tours steadily throughout the U.S. and worldwide.
Here is the Q&A interview with Kevin Cronin:
DK: When did you join REO Speedwagon, and how did you develop a key role as the band’s singer & songwriter?
Cronin: I first joined the band in 1972. I think the main reason that I got the gig, was that REO had released one album, and they were working on songs for their second album for Epic Records. [REO band member] Gary Richrath—the late, great Gary Richrath who unfortunately passed away this past year—was my partner in crime, so to speak. He realized that the band needed songs. Up until then, the songwriting was credited to the whole band—that they all wrote the songs together—but I think the truth was that it was mostly Gary who would spark (the song’s creation) and then the band would get together and jam and finish it. It was basically Gary’s responsibility to write the songs, and I think he realized that…you know what they say…that you have your whole life to write your first album but only a year to write your second albnm. So he knew that they needed some help in the songwriting department. I was an unknown, unproven commodity as far as performing—Gary never really saw me play anywhere—he just came up to my apartment and we got out a couple acoustic guitars, and I played some of my songs. It was really my songs that got me the gig.
DK: Which album was it, where you started to write a good amount of the songs for the group?
Cronin: The first album that I made with them was an album called R.E.O./T.W.O., which was our second album. We recorded it in Nashville, and the song of mine that [probably] got me the gig was called “Music Man.” It was never a huge hit, but it’s still in the REO setlist and it was basically my fantasy of how my life would turn out. The title line is, “Can’t you see, I’ll always be a music man.” It basically talked about my story in a song. So that was the song that kind of got it going. Even though it wasn’t a hit, it’s a REO fan favorite.
DK: I know you play both guitar and piano onstage. Which instrument do you prefer to write songs on?
Cronin: I’ve written songs on both, honestly. I’m trained on the guitar—I took guitar lessons for years when I was a kid. I never really took any piano lessons…I just messed around with it and figured it out for myself. But I’ve written some of our biggest hits on the piano. Basically, the only songs I can play on piano are those that I wrote (he laughs). I wrote “Keep On Loving You,” “Can’t Fight This Feeling” and “Roll With The Changes” on the piano. I wrote “Time For Me To Fly” on the guitar—most of my songs I write on the acoustic guitar.
DK: One of my favorite songs is “Roll With The Changes”—I think that song has inspired a lot of people. What was it that inspired you to write it?
Cronin: I actually wrote that song as I was traveling from Chicago to Los Angeles, when I rejoined the band; I left the band for a couple years. When I rejoined, the band had moved from Champaign, Illinois to Los Angeles. I didn’t really picture myself as a Los Angeles person, I’m a Midwest boy. So when I came to Los Angeles I really wanted to feel the journey. I didn’t just want to jump on an airplane—it was too big of a move for me. So I wanted to drive. “Roll With The Changes” was personally about me moving from Chicago to L.A.—I was quite literally rolling with the changes. I had just stopped at a truck stop in New Mexico—I had a brown paper bag that was sitting on the seat next to me, when the thoughts of the lyrics started coming to me. I was writing [the words] on this brown paper bag as I was rolling down the road. So I was quite literally and figuratively rolling with the changes (laughs).
DK: A couple years later REO released Hi Infidelity, which became your biggest album. When you were recording Hi Infidelity, did you and the band feel that this was your best album up to that point?
Cronin: I can’t say that we felt that. We did have a feeling that there was something special going on. The band—we were all kind of going through some chaos in our personal lives. So when there’s chaos in your personal life, then you look to the band for that security. Because of all the traveling we’d done, and the work we’d been doing over the years, we all just arrived at this place where we really needed each other as brothers for mutual support. The subjects that we were writing about were what was going on in our lives, since we were all in the same boat in a lot of ways. The songs for that album had a certain cohesive nature to them. We didn’t set out to write a concept album, but the songs do hang together conceptually, because we were all going through similar things.
So I think that really helped for the album, that it felt like all the songs belonged together. Back in the day of the album, that was very important. It was one of those albums which was definitely top-heavy with songs that people, to this day…they come to our concerts and we play at least five or six songs from Hi Infidelity every night. When we play those songs, you can just feel the energy in the room light up.
Here’s the video trailer for REO Speedwagon’s Live At Moondance Jam
concert DVD, which includes excerpts of their hits “Keep On Loving
You,” “Can’t Fight This Feeling” and “Roll With The Changes.”
DK: “Keep On Loving You” from Hi Infidelity is a great song. What inspired you to write this song?
Cronin: That song, coincidentally, was number one 35 years ago from right now. It’s funny…even though it was 35 years ago, it still feels like it was just yesterday to me, because I remember writing it so vividly. I literally woke up in the middle of the night and I had these three, simple piano chords going through my head. Fortunately, I stumbled into my home studio, which was a very humble little studio back in those days. I had a little red Wurlitzer electric piano that I’d had since I was in high school. I sat down and started playing those chords—that was what the song came from.
DK: A few years later, you followed up with another big ballad, “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” Is this song perhaps the most popular song you’ve written?
Cronin: I think so. “Can’t Fight This Feeling” is definitely the song that when most people think of me as a songwriter, that’s the first one that comes to their head. It was number one (on the Hot 100 chart) for I think three weeks, which back in the ’80s was quite an accomplishment. I’m thankful for that and proud of that as well. All the songs I write, they spring from an initial burst of creativity that kind of gets the ball rolling. And then if I’m lucky enough to capture that, then the actual craftsmanship comes into play. I can tell when a song is too much craftsmanship and not enough inspiration. When you feel the inspiration for a song, then you have to actually craft it. For the good ones, the inspiration is usually a pretty big piece of the song. Then of course, you refine it from there.
DK: So what were you thinking about, when you wrote “Can’t Fight This Feeling”?
Cronin: I was kind of a late bloomer with the ladies. There was this girl in Chicago who I’m still in touch with to this day…we’re still friends. We started out as friends. She was actually going out with one of my buddies. The first time I was introduced to her, when I saw her…it was that love at first sight feeling.
There was no way we would get together because she was with my friend. As time went on, and my buddy broke up with her, we still remained friends. I just couldn’t get the courage up, to make that leap of vulnerability, to share with her that I had feelings for her that were more than friendship. It took a long time, and I wrote that song before I finally got the guts to tell her. The song kind of came first. Then as many of my songs do, I write them and then I kind of learn about myself when I’m finished with them. So when I finished “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” I realized that “yeah, I’ve gotta make this move.” I’ve gotta do what I’m saying in this song…I’ve got to make this happen. So it all kind of came true.
DK: When you write, do you usually create the melody or the lyrics first?
Cronin: There’s no real formula with it for me. I try to keep it that way, because I think there’s a certain purity—I try to keep the craftsmanship to a minimum. I try to stick with the inspiration, and keep as much of that initial burst of creativity in the song as I possibly can. So to me, my experience has been that my strongest songs are the ones where it all kind of happens at once. It’s like the stars lining up. There’s something going on emotionally for me, usually some kind of a feeling that I either don’t understand yet, or I understand and haven’t figured out how to express it yet. Songwriting and music has always been my savior in that way. It gave me an outlet for expressing myself when I was very young and didn’t know any other way to do it. I couldn’t do it the real way that human beings communicate (laughs). I was kind of a late bloomer—music was my vehicle. So the songs come in all different shapes and forms.
Here’s a terrific video of REO Speedwagon performing “Music Man” for an
acoustic show for XM Radio. Kevin Cronin says “Music Man” is one of his
favorite early songs, which helped him get the gig with REO.
Usually for me, the title is the last thing that happens. When my children were born, I didn’t name my children when my wife was pregnant. I named my children after they were born and I looked at them, and I saw their little bodies, and they kind of told me what their names should be to some degree. I feel songs are kind of the same way. I know there are many writers who come up with the title and then write the song around the title. That’s another way of doing it. But for me, I usually write the song first and then I find the title in the song.
With “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” I did not know what the name of that song was. I couldn’t figure it out, and as a result, I had a really hard time finishing that song. One day, I was really frustrated because we had an album that was due, and we really needed that song that was going to pick up where “Keep On Loving You” left off, and we didn’t have it. But I was probably over halfway finished with “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” and I felt that it was something special. So my manager, Tom Consolo, set up a writing session with Eric Carmen, who was the lead singer of the Raspberries. He’s a real sweet guy and he’s written some big hit ballads, and we were supposed to co-write. Then on the day that Eric and I were supposed to co-write, I literally woke up that morning and I felt like I had the flu. I felt like I had a fever and my stomach hurt. So I called up and cancelled the songwriting session.
I remember that I sat down on the floor of my bedroom, and I was literally almost in tears. This song, even though it wasn’t finished yet, meant so much to me and it was such a big part of who I am, that I just knew that I wanted to finish this song myself. I thought that if I co-wrote it with someone, I had a feeling it would lose something that was really necessary for the song to happen. I sat there on the floor of my bedroom, and I thought, “Alright, what is this song all about?” Why can’t I name this song—why can’t I write the chorus for this song? So I sat there and looked at my lyric notebook and if you think about it, the opening line of the song is “I can’t fight this feeling any longer.” That was like…Bingo! That’s my title…that’s what this song is about. And when I had that realization, I went down to my piano room and I wrote the B section and the chorus in about 15 minutes. I had the verses already written. It was just that I needed to really identify where the heart and soul of this piece that I was working on was. I remember thinking to myself…Wow…Can’t Fight This Feeling…what a horrible, f**king song title. Yet I’m thinking this song is so important to me and I think it’s got the potential to be a real special song in the world, but this title is going to kill it. Then I thought…you know what, so be it, then that’s how it has to be, because that’s what this song’s name is. And sure enough, it ended up working out.
I learned something from this…that if you pay attention to the song, the song will tell you what it needs. Don’t second guess it. I could have very easily followed that fear that I had about that title and thought “Oh Man, I better not call it this,” because of some commercial concern. Luckily, I had the sense to stick with my gut and sure enough, “Can’t Fight This Feeling” ends up being the most popular song I’ve ever written.
DK: That’s a great story about how you wrote “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” Thank you.
Cronin: I would hope that the point [of this story is], when you’re writing a song, you have to stick with your gut. When you start second guessing yourself, that’s when you get lost. If I can inspire any young songwriter with anything that I’m saying today, that’s probably the most important thing that I’ve learned over the years. Sure enough, it’s proven itself right so many times for me, that I have to really believe it’s a truth that I can count on.
DK: These days, so much of the songwriting process is co-writing, particularly in Nashville. But I was looking at the discography of your hits, and I noticed that you wrote your biggest hits by yourself. Se do you feel more comfortable writing the song by yourself, or do you also love the process of co-writing?
Here’s a video of REO Speedwagon performing “Roll With The Changes”
at the historic Live Aid Concert in 1985, in front of 100,000 people.
Cronin: Well for me, songwriting has been kind of a solitary journey. I’ve sat down with people…I’ve written with some great writers in Nashville, and for whatever reason, none of those songs have really panned out. That’s not to say they never will—songs have a way of surfacing in the future sometimes. [I think] co-writing is a lot of fun…it definitely makes the process of songwriting more enjoyable because you’re not sitting there by yourself. You’re with another person, you’re bouncing ideas around and I enjoy that. I just haven’t had a great deal of success with it (laughs). My biggest successes are songs that I write myself. It’s kind of a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because I’ve always got myself (laughs). I can always pick up a guitar or sit down at the piano. But it would be fun to have some success as a co-writer. Some of the greatest songs ever have been written by songwriting partnerships. My biggest inspiration in music is the Beatles, and Lennon & McCartney in my mind are the great songwriting duo in the history of the world, and I owe everything that I know about being in a band, writing a song…I owe it all to the Beatles. There’s no bigger influence for me.
I used to listen to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul album—I know that album inside and out. It just so happens that the album came out when I was in junior high school. I’d just started to write a couple little silly songs. I was talking to someone today about how the opening line of a song is so important to me. The opening line may be even more important than the title. When you talk about (the line) “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me,” the opening line from “Norwegian Wood,” which is arguably the greatest opening line in the history of songwriting. Even our (REO) song “Take It On The Run” which Gary Richrath wrote, “Heard it from a friend, who heard it from a friend, who heard it from another you’ve been messin’ around”—when I heard that line that Gary wrote, I said “this song is amazing.” I was determined to do everything I could possibly do to get that song finished and help Gary in any way, so we could record that song, because that opening line just killed me. As my father always used to say, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and in songwriting that’s it…your opening line.
DK: Besides some of your big hits, what are some of your songs that are your favorites?
Cronin: We talked about “Music Man”—that song has a very special place for me because it kind of got me the gig. When Gary (Richrath) heard that song, it signaled to him that I had some ability as a songwriter. Honestly, when I finished that song, I was really young—I was 18 or 19 when I wrote that song. I had written some songs before that were okay…they were passable. But with [“Music Man”] I thought, “Hmmm…”—this song had structure to it, it has a nice feel to it, there were some nice rhymes in it. It was the first song where I thought, “Wow, I kind of like this song” (laughs). So that was special.
Another one like that is “Keep Pushin’,” which I wrote a little after “Music Man.” That was another one where I felt like…it was soulful…I wrote it right from the heart. But then once I got done with the craftsmanship part of it, I thought “Hey…I think I could hear this song on the radio…people might want to listen to it.” It’s funny, when you’re just starting out as a songwriter…when you’re trying to figure things out and see what your path is and where you’re heading—as I reminisce and think about it, it seems I have these sweet memories of that time. When you’re writing a song, you have no idea where that song’s going to end up…you don’t know what’s going to happen. But then looking back on it, and now seeing the impact that “Can’t Fight This Feeling” has had on my life, the life of everyone in the REO Speedwagon family, the lives of people whom I’ve never met all over the world—people have played that song at their weddings. It just has this huge history to it. But I remember when I just struggling to figure it out and the journey that a song takes is so remarkable and thinking back as a young songwriter, I remember that “Keep Pushin’” was the first song that I actually wrote that I thought “Yeah, I could hear this on the radio.” If it came on the radio, I don’t think I would turn the channel (laughs).
DK: I think “Keep Pushin’” is one of the great songs from REO’s early years, and maybe if it was released later in the mid-’80s when the band was so hot, it could have been another big hit. Maybe it was just the timing of when it was released.
Cronin: Yeah, I think so. But I think it served its purpose because people at the record company heard it, REO Speedwagon fans heard it—if they didn’t hear it on the radio they heard us playing it live.
The Hi Infidelity album was the one that broke things loose. But the records that came before it, the songs that our fans already knew about, like “Keep Pushin’” and “Roll With The Changes” and “Time For Me To Fly” which hadn’t really been hits, but our fans knew about them. And there were some radio stations in the Midwest that were playing those songs. So when the Hi Infidelity album came out and “Keep On Loving You” went to number one, then suddenly people started looking back and realized, “Wait a minute, that was REO’s 11th album, maybe I should check out their earlier albums because there might be some good songs on it after all” (laughs). Hi Infidelity blew the doors off the joint and people went back and discovered (early albums like)You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish and discovered R.E.O/T.W.O, and all the songs on those albums. So the earlier songs were given a second chance as a result of the Hi Infidelity album.
DK: More recently, REO has released the album Find Your Own Way Home in 2007 and REO’s Christmas album in 2009. Are you and the band working on a new studio album?
Cronin: Well, I will tell you…I was thinking about this today—this year (2016) will be the year that I get back to knucklin’ down. I’m finding myself waking up in the middle of the night with ideas, and writing them down and recording them. Last year, we called our tour the Family First Tour. I didn’t put a whole lot of time and energy into the creative part of what I do. I was really focused on my wife, my children and my home—my children are all in high school now. They’re all home (and becoming) young adults. I just really felt like it was a two-person job [this past year] more than ever. My wife is an amazing person. I wanted to put any extra time that I had—obviously the band tours and that’s very important to all of us. But this year I think I need to start tapping into the creative side of my being, because otherwise it starts exploding (laughs) in other ways. So we’ll see…this year should be interesting.