It’s a tale as old as time. Boy meets girl — but in the case of George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, the beloved pop-duo known as Boy Meets Girl — it’s not just a love story, but a marriage of music, songwriting, and mutual respect. The group, which has written two number one hits for Whitney Houston: “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” also found critical acclaim for their own albums. And with songs such as the beloved “Waiting For A Star To Fall,” it’s easy to see why Boy Meets Girl continue to create music today that is loved globally. We spoke exclusively with George and Shannon about their latest album, 5, how they’ve navigated marriage (and divorce) while still fostering their friendship, and why they’re grateful for all the gifts in their lives.
Can I just say how much I love you guys? Your song, “Waiting For A Star To Fall” was my wedding song.
Shannon: I love that; we were at your wedding!
You were the guests of honor! Now, I listened to the new album, 5, and Shannon’s version of the song, “How Will I Know,” which you both wrote. When I listen to the lyrics, combined with Shannon’s voice, well, your version is how I would imagine the song sounding like.
Shannon: That’s a very interesting take. It is more of the daisy-plucking version. He loves me, he loves me not, which is really the spirit in which we did it, weaving in those fun elements of 60s music with the way the background vocals sound. It was a reversion of our song, recapturing our song which became something more than we ever envisioned and bringing it back around to our little studio and the fun we had making it.
George: It’s interesting that you brought that up because I always wondered what attracted Clive Davis to the song, “How Will I Know?” for Whitney Houston. Our demo of the song was good, but it wasn’t what people heard once it had been formed and produced. I think he keyed on that lyric. Clive was keying in on a 19-year-old Whitney Houston singing, “How will I know if he really loves me?”
Shannon: It’s sort of a wistful thing. But then [producer] Narada Michael Walden got ahold of it and added new music and we added new lyrics to that, and it became this pedal to the floor kind of song which is fantastic in its own right and also mind-blowing.
As songwriters, or just as writers, what is it like to create art and then put it out into the universe, opening it up to different interpretations?
Shannon: You’re prepared when you write a song and send it out or if you’ve written a song and recorded it; you’re just prepared to let go of it. And you do, joyously so.
George: I would say that was a learned response. Early on, when we started working with producers and arrangers, people who would want to make changes to our songs, I remember the both of us sort of bristling and saying, “Oh no, you can’t take that part out; you can’t change that part.” Along the way we kind of let go a little bit because we came to trust the process. When other people come in, they might have good ideas and make it better.
I appreciate the honesty in that it takes time to develop that skill, because really, writing comes from the soul.
Shannon: When I hear a Whitney song or even “Waiting For A Star To Fall,” I recognize that the songs belong to other people. They also belong to the listeners. We always have the essence of how it felt when we were writing the song. We have all those little memories of where we were living at the time, what the kitchen smelled like, or what it was like to walk from the house to the little garage studio. I always have those images pop up every time I hear the songs in addition to being really excited to hear them.
George: As Shannon is saying that, there are a plethora of memories like that, which come from traveling and hearing the songs playing, like in grocery stores or in a remote place. Or finding out that people in Portugal love your music. All those things connect you around the world. It’s a lovely journey and we’re so lucky to be a part of the whole thing.
Shannon: And Jennifer, as you know with your story that this was your wedding song, and I love to hear that, we get some beautiful emails from people about where one our songs appeared in their lives. Sometimes it’s a celebration and sometimes it’s a sadder event but we hear all these stories and it’s incredible to know that. It’s no different for us; a song someone else wrote and performed will have a role in our lives.
George: Music helps to time-date things and later on when you hear it, it becomes attached, and you can revisit those moments.
Now, how has music production and writing changed for you over time?
George: Well, we started out in the world of reels, tapes, and cassettes. There were no mobile phones to quickly record an idea or take a picture. We’ve done our best to grow with the times; I don’t think either of us are curmudgeons who sit in the basement saying, “Ugh, this is a crappy world.” We feel fortunate when we get asked to work with someone who has a whole different process and we learned from that. Sometimes just sitting back and listening is one of the best things you can do.
I have to say, 5 and there’s no pun intended, just hits all the right notes. If you’re a fan from the 80s, it has enough of the sound of 80s Boy Meets Girl, but it’s still modern. I would think that’s a really hard line to walk.
Shannon: That’s a really great compliment, thank you.
George: Yes, high praise, thank you.
Shannon: We can’t not write like ourselves, because we do. We try not to get anchored in the 80s because it’s just a sound we have. Our fundamental selves will be Boy Meets Girl but now we have some notion of what the final mix is and what the production elements will be. We’re excited to write new songs because we learned so much with this album.
George: Jay Broadway is the person who mixed the “How Will I Know?” version. He took that in a whole new direction and took snippets of Shannon’s voice and put it in other places that we hadn’t thought of but became an emotional component of the song that wasn’t there.
There’s enough of a mix on the album that there’s something for everybody but they all tie to each other and has a connective thread musically.
Shannon: That’s how we chose them because we had an array of songs that we had been writing over a decade, really, and then we had a couple of new ones. We were looking for a thread; it didn’t have to be a lyrical thematic thread so much as a feeling. We’ve arranged it so that one song flows pretty well into the next one. And we had always wanted to find a home for “Constellation Stars,” and we finally felt like we had identified the right arrangement and production for it. We had been working on that song for three years.
George: I agree with Shannon. It’s a thrill to hear “Constellation Stars” now. We have five iterations of the song. About two days ago, I got a chance to listen to the whole album in sequence. “Constellation Stars” has this whole moody feeling and is uplifting at the end, so you’re left in this kind of reverie, and then you flip the album and it’s “How Will I Know.”
Shannon: [laughs] it’s a guided tour!
George: Right and then after “How Will I Know,” Shannon drops into this beautiful version of our song, “Gone.”
“Gone” is an amazing song. It’s so incredibly powerful.
George: Oh, it’s gutting for me. It truly takes you on a journey.
Shannon: You get done with one song, but you don’t really want to rest there, so we really don’t want to rest here. There was a decade and a half when we didn’t put out any music at all. We wrote sporadically with each other, so now it’s like we’re galloping along. We have more music. We’re going to continue writing and recording and hopefully put out another EP’s worth of new songs. Another thought of ours is that we have a lot of old demos, and it might be fun to clean some of those up and have an off-the-cuff demos release, too. That might interest other songwriters more than anything, but it doesn’t really cost anything. You just do it in your studio and put it out online. I think that would be a fun, creative exercise.
So you’re not slowing down!
George: Whaaa? [laughs]
Shannon: No, not at all. In fact, this year has been busier than many years in our lives, surprisingly so, and we’re embracing it. There’s so much vitality available and we’re embracing it.
Those pauses in life are important. If you plow through them then you miss the lessons of what you were supposed to learn during that time. Being mindful and in the moment preps you for what’s coming next. You guys have found the “what’s next” and you’re going for it.
Shannon: You know, a long time ago, many decades ago, we were playing a lot of clubs, playing constantly and writing and doing our little home studio and dreaming of moments like this. But they hadn’t been realized yet and we reached a point of burnout. I took a job cleaning houses and George took a janitorial job. The reason for that was that we wouldn’t have to invest too much of ourselves in it. They were things we could do while we let our minds go and receive. We needed to be able to not think too hard but to receive something. It was the best year to do that.
George: I agree. This was back in the late 70s. I remember my job; they would be putting on events at a hall and I would be cleaning up rooms and setting up tables and that sort of thing — and cleaning bathrooms. [laughs]
Shannon: Me, too. [laughs]
George: In one of the rooms, there was a grand piano. So, if I got my work done, I could go off by myself since the place was empty and play the piano. There are gifts everywhere in our lives. There are many, many gifts out there that we can receive.
Now we are Celebrity Parents, so we have to talk about parenting. Your daughter was in the “Waiting For A Star To Fall” video, correct?
Shannon: Yes, she was the little blonde gal and the others were her preschool friends at the time. She’s 39 and she has a lovely voice and she’s featured on 5 in our backing vocals. I would say that from here on out, she is part of our crew, and we’ll always find a way to sing together because that’s one of our loves as a family. She does something completely different in her life. She’s a horse trainer and a trainer of horse riders; that’s her passion.
What has it been like working together all these years?
Shannon: There are fundamentals of it that have not changed over time. I would say that it’s home ground for both of us. We’ve gotten our heads and our whole selves around the idea of friendship. That took a long time after the divorce. We were always aiming towards it but there was a lot more discomfort in the beginning. I think that we’ve gotten quite comfortable with it, and we’re friends with each other’s spouses and they are understanding of our writing together, which is really helpful. So we’re a village now. And I love writing with George. It’s so natural. I love what we come up with, or when we’re not coming up with something that we like, we can say so and it’s just magical.
George: I wouldn’t touch what Shannon said. It was beautifully said. I feel so fortunate to have made this journey through our divorce and redefinition through music through writing a record called The Wonderground and beyond that defining it to where we are now. I couldn’t be happier that way. There’s a completion to it all.
Shannon: George’s wife, Roz, did all the single art for the digital releases and she did this album cover which is a compendium. It’s a design made up of all the single covers that she did.
George: We’ve figured out a way to work creatively together, too. It takes a lot of work and some of us have certain lines and it’s important to express those. We have to negotiate to get to where we are.
Shannon: New boundaries and parameters and new connection points. It did take quite a while to get to where we are now and it’s always ongoing, of course, but this is a happy place.
What does the future hold for Boy Meets Girl?
Shannon: We’re just really like to thank who have always been supportive, our fans, and our listeners because you never really know how your music is being received. You make it because you’re compelled to, but you do make it to be heard. We’re just grateful that we’ve had so many listeners and that has really floated our boat.
George: There’s a feeling of completion and unity right now that I’ve never experienced. It’s being able to be whole with the past, to be present, and to have dreams of the future. It’s something that I’ve heard about since I was a kid; the idea was to be present, first of all. I feel excited for the future, but I feel here with you, Jennifer, and yet I have a connection to many memories that keep flooding back of how fortunate I’ve been, the relationships I’ve made, and then listening to be fully present. It’s a gift.