“I had a sound, I had an emotional edge to what I did that I always seem to maintain…”
I don’t think there’s a better way to describe Robert Tepper as a vocalist, songwriter and musician than how the man himself describes his work. A talented American songwriter and vocalist that made a name for himself to the success of his single No Easy Way Out (which got a lot of exposure through the Rocky IV film), Robert came back to the scene in 2019 with the release of his newest album, Better Than The Rest, which is a grand return to form as he recaptures the fire of what made him great in the eighties plus a few new twists and turns to keep things interesting.
I had the opportunity of doing this interview with Robert through the phone, amidst the current Coronavirus situation. “Yeah, man, this is nuts,” it’s one of the first things he says to me when asking each other how we’re doing during this pandemic. But we quickly get down to do the interview and I can say that he was very gentle and polite with the many questions I made about several different topics, so I hope you enjoy this interview with one of the great vocalists of the 1980s.
Thank you for taking the time to do this, Robert. It’s an honor. I would like to start from the beginning: Who influenced you to become a singer and why?
I have to say that the first person to influence was Elvis Presley. That was a big deal for me. When I saw Elvis, that changed my life. I just wanted to be that. And later on, the Beatles, Stones… I mean, I grew up in a great time, man. So much great music around. And yeah, I was very lucky because that was the golden age of Rock and Roll.
You worked a lot as a writer for other musicians before releasing your solo stuff. What can you tell us about that experience?
For me, I started out as a writer. I wrote Into the Night with Benny Mardones, which was a hit here in America. And I was shy, you know? (laughs) I was like “Should I get up and do this for myself?” and then I realized that yeah, this is the thing to do, you know? But I was always considered myself a writer first. That’s always been my view. Singer second, performer third, but writing the songs is what I always liked to do and still do. People don’t know but as it’s going, as we are in the middle of the Coronavirus, we’re all getting time to write some songs and I have been doing that.
What are the aspects of the music industry that you think are not mentioned a lot?
I think it’s still very unclear how artists get paid. As writers and staff and royalties, all these streaming services. I feel like the amount that they are paying to play the music and for people to have the video to use it whenever they want is so minimal when compared to how it used to be. I mean, if someone pays the Apple package to download my album, it’s pennies compared to what it used to be. I get half a million places a month on Spotify and I don’t think it adds up to very much. I don’t think is right.
A few months ago you released your latest solo album, Better Than The Rest. What can you tell our readers about that work?
Better Than The Rest… I put off from doing a real AOR record for quite a while. And when I did one record, I did an acoustic one back in 2007 and that got me to do a couple of shows in Spain. That’s where I met guitarist Pablo Padilla and he was a young guy who loved the eighties. And he came to the States to go to school and we started to get together. We started to get excited about making a new record and we wanted to make a modern-sounding eighties record. What would that sound like that? Some of the new stuff but steeped into the classics songs we love. How those songs sounded like movies with big guitars and big keyboards and great background vocals and solos. We did all that and that was what inspired to get back. It took a year because Pablo and I did everything on the record except mastering. It took a year but really happy with it. It’s going great.
How it compares to the rest of your albums?
I feel like this album is the natural follow-up to No Easy Way Out. I think the writing is really strong and I think the singing and the playing feels inspired to me. I got a great reaction from fans and I think there are some great tunes on it. I’m really happy with it. Look, there are some people that don’t want you to do anything other than No Easy Way Out and I’m also glad I did (making that song), but I have moved on and I think there is more purpose to my singing. The vocals and guitar sound really strong here.
Being someone with so much experience and influences after so many years in the industry, was it complicated to have a clear musical direction with the album?
The years that people didn’t see albums coming out from me, I was doing a lot of engineering and I was doing a lot of producing. A lot of behind-the-scenes stuff and honing my skills that way. And see that in this record. I was able to engineer this record, I was able to mix this record, which would have been impossible for me to do back in the day in the eighties. I had no clue about it. So, I got pretty passionate about that end of it. Not that I’m some brilliant engineer, but I know what I like to hear, you know? And I listen to everything. I listen to all the new records and stuff. I love all the sounds. I love listening to how records are made. I love that. Even when I’m writing, that’s important to me: How I’m putting that album together? That influences me a lot and how it’s going to turn out.
Your voice is very well-preserved after all these years. How do you take care of yourself in that regard?
I feel I’m smarter about the way I use my voice now. I train it better. I’m in better shape. I’m an avid tennis player, so I’m out there working out a lot and running out a lot. And I might be older, but I’m in better shape than I was back then when I was more into the Rock and Roll lifestyle (laughs) And I know how to write for myself better. You always see those VH1 where they say the best music they’re doing is the one right now, but I really feel that I’m making the best right now. Still feel that my voice has a long way to go and there is a lot in there that still needs to go out. And that takes work, man. Thanks for the kind words.
When you’re making an album, whether it’s this one or the ones that came before, what are the challenges that you face as a vocalist?
I feel like the most important of it, and I look at it more as a challenge than a complication, but it’s important to know how to write well to how you sing. “How am I gonna fit these notes into this song and how my voice is gonna get across the emotions that I’m trying to say?” And that’s a challenge, man. You can sit here and write a great song, but if it stinks for you (laughs), then let someone else sing it or you need to rewrite it. You need to rethink it. So, those are the challenges. It can be difficult at times with my voice, but when it’s on, it’s really great.
I know that you get this question a lot, but you’re obviously known for the song No Easy Way Out, so I wanted to know how did you land the gig in Rocky IV?
I have to think that the record company, Scotti Brothers, got the soundtrack. You know, they had Survivor, they had me, and he (Stallone) came and listened to what I was doing. I wasn’t writing the song for the movie, but he fell in love with that song. So, it wasn’t like “Hey, Robbie, you gotta sit down and write No Easy Way Out for this”. It had been something that he heard and fell in love with and kinda built up what he was doing around it. Very excited to be part of a franchise like that. I was very lucky because, believe, you wouldn’t be talking to me if that didn’t happen, that’s for sure. So I’m very grateful about that.
Yeah, I guess you’re right. At least you became famous for a really good song (laughs). Looking back, what do you think that song was so successful and what do you think it has endured so much?
I feel that the journey of Rocky is the journey of not giving up and if you know what I mean by that, it’s like, not matter what the odds, there’s this poor guy from the poorest section of Philadelphia, no chance at all of doing anything. He is a bum and he is a little bit on the shady side and look now how far he gets.
I think No Easy Way Out is the constant reminder that if you’re going out for something, it has that universal message that you’re gonna have to work for it. You’re gonna have to get in there. It’s a tribute to the human spirit, which is something that we kinda need right now, with all the stuff we’re going through. Yes, there’s no easy way out of this, but we gotta keep fighting, we gotta keep hanging in. And the spirit of that has carried on, so I think that’s why the song and the franchise just keep going and going.
You also had Angel of the City, from your first album, on the Cobra film with Stallone once again a year later. What can you tell us about that?
Well, I think that Stallone felt really good about No Easy Way Out on Rocky IV because it became such a shiny point in the movie and here we were again: he’s putting out Cobra and I remember being in Times Square, going out to see Cobra and it wasn’t Rocky IV. Cobra became kind of a cult film because it was him and it was not that successful when it came out, I think. People got into it much later on and they tried to do the same thing with Angel of the City, which is a song that is also done very well and people really love, so I’m glad about that.
Moving forward with your career, I once read that you were not happy with the vocals of your follow-up album at the time, Modern Madness. Was that true? If so, then why?
Well, for a lot of reasons. My life was pretty crazy at the time and Scotti Brothers kinda cut off the second record. They said “Oh, no, you’re not using Joe Chiccarelli (producer of the No Easy Way Out album)” and everything seemed to be a problem to them. And I could hear that in the production of the record and in the songs; I didn’t think the songs were strong and I didn’t think it was as good an album. No way. Although I look back now, we do some of the songs; we do Fighting for You, which I enjoy, and I was doing the song When You Dream of Love a little bit. There’s some decent ones in there, but, yeah, there was a lot of chaos around that record. Didn’t feel the company was very supportive of me, but that was no excuse to make a record not as good. I think it didn’t sound as connected.
Your career fluctuated a bit in terms of releases. You had two albums in the 80s and later just one in almost twenty years? What happened to you in that time period? As you said before, you stopped performing and making albums for a while. Why was that?
Well, I really think the music fell out of favor. People were not doing that kind of music and people were not listening to that kind of music. Pearl Jam and Nirvana had come in. A lot of great bands out of Seattle and I think that took off the vibe of what was happening. It really felt that nobody was listening to that kind of music anymore. I did that one record with MTM Music, No Rest For The Wounded Heart (1996), and there were some good songs in there. I put some good heart into that, but I felt nobody was really listening, so I needed to get into other things.
It’s funny, when I made Better Than The Rest, I felt that was the time to make that record. And quite honestly, I felt that before that I didn’t feel inspired to do that, you know? For better or for worse, I needed to wait to have a reason to make that record and I know 2019 is a hell of a long time, but now I feel ready to make this record and I’m already working in the follow-up, so I’m still pretty motivated and committed to what is going on. And I got a great response from my fans, which means everything.
What did you when you were not making solo albums in the 90s and 2000s? And how was the life after the music?
I got into engineering and I got into how you make records. I worked for Barbara Orbison as a writer and in Nashville for a while. I learned some stuff by working with some great writers and came back by putting together equipment and producing for some people like a guy named Freebo. I was always writing. Always my hand on music. Non-stop. Working every day, just like I do. I’m a worker. So getting into the engineering, getting into the producing, how the records were made, working with people more into dance music. I was doing all sorts of stuff.
Looking back on your career, which albums or songs are you most of and why?
You have to love No Easy Way Out. Well-written song, well-performed, great vocals on it, had a lot of emotion to it. I remember feeling good when I made it in the studio that night. Soul Survivor is another one; Tommy Funderburk sitting there and doing some background vocals–when he comes in, I love how he sounds in that one. If That’s What You Call Lovin’ is also pretty good. No Rest For The Wounded Heart came out really nice. Another Place, Another Time is a cool tune.
I had a sound, I had an emotional edge to what I did that I always seem to maintain, so those are the songs that seem to still stick for me.
What would you advice to young musicians who are just starting out in the industry?
My advice would be to be true to what you want to do because if you’re not hooked into what you’re doing, it’s gonna come through, no matter what. It’s harder times, but it’s easier to get your music out there and there’s a lot of stuff available. Put some value in what you do. Take your time and don’t feel like you have to put everything that comes off your mouth out there. You get so much stuff on the internet, man. A million things. Make an effort and then get behind that and believe in that. If it’s good and if people start looking into it, it’s gonna be fine. It’s gonna work out. You’re gonna get a career.
I know it’s getting harder and harder to stick in music, but, well, most of us don’t have no choice. I’m still doing it (laughs).
Thank you so much for this interview, Robert. It was great. Any last words for our readers? Where can we follow you on social media and buy Better Than The Rest?
Well, thank you so much for doing this, man, I appreciate it. I’m on Facebook, I’m on Twitter and I’m on Instagram. AOR Heaven is my label, so if you want a physical copy, you can buy it there, but for other cases, we’re on Apple. I’m on Bandcamp as well. We’re everywhere, it’s out there! (laughs).
I just want to thank the people that have gotten the record because a lot of people have and we have gotten some great reviews on it. And again, thanks for this, man. Stay safe out there and hopefully all this craziness will be over soon, so we can go back to rocking like we know how. Take care!
You can also find more about him here Robert Tepper World