Fostering Michael Bublé’s Star Power: A Retired Super-Producer Steps Back In

Grammy-winning producer David Foster explains how he was charmed out of retirement by his performer protégé.

David Foster Gets Back Into Production
Laura Mende
David Foster disappeared into the wilds of retirement for Michael Buble’s last album, but he’s back in the fold for the singer’s emoji-titled new one. In a Q&A with Variety, he explains why he couldn’t stay away.
You’re presenting Michael Bublé with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Why does he deserve it?
DAVID FOSTER: I know when you ask people that question about getting a star, they all have the same answer. But when you think about it, one of the things that makes him such a star is that he is absolutely unique. There is nobody in his category. He’s had no competition for 18 years, basically. I don’t want to say that he’s created this genre because of course he’s lived this genre. He’s a superstar and he can fill arenas in every nook and cranny of this planet. That makes him super-deserving. And the fact that he’s a fellow Canadian is just icing on the cake for me.

Why was it such a struggle for him to get a record deal in the first place?

The weak link was me — I was leading the charge on that. But I think that at least 18 years ago, record companies were very top 40-oriented for lack of a better word. And he obviously didn’t fit into that genre. I clearly remember taking him to Warner Bros. into one of their executive meetings and setting up my piano and saying, “You guys are not going to believe what you’re about to hear.” And of course we did “Mack the Knife” and “Moondance” and some standards. They didn’t know quite what to make of it. But I had already learned by then that television can become the new radio for artists like Michael Bublé, and that certainly proved to be true.

How did TV appearances help to boost his album sales almost two decades ago?

As it turns out, which was a bonus, he was a great songwriter, but I didn’t know that when I first ran across him 18 years ago. I just thought he was this incredible singer who didn’t learn this music — he lived this music — and that was enough for me to fall in love with him. Then I found out he was a great songwriter, so we did end up getting radio airplay. But at the beginning, the way we sold CDs was Warner Bros. obviously believing in him, and television. It used to be you could go on the “Today” show and sell 40,000 albums that morning if you had done well, so we didn’t need top 40 radio.

You first saw him perform at a wedding?
He was, in fact, the wedding singer, albeit at a fairly important wedding [of former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s daughter]. He came bouncing out and the whole world stopped — all I could see was Michael Bublé singing “Mack the Knife.” He was destined for greatness, with or without me. … He obviously didn’t fit into the top-40 genre, but I’d learned by then that television can become the new radio for artists like Michael.
How did he lure you out of retirement to work on this new album?
Ha! Have you spent any time with Michael?
Yes. We were in bed together, in fact.
Is he not the most seductive person you’ve ever met in your life? If I may just re-frame that: He’s so charming. I mean, his talent alone could get me out of retirement. We hadn’t made a record together in five years, mainly because I had gone to a different record company. But he also wanted to experiment and try things with different people, which is natural and perfectly OK. But we had made the first five albums together, and this was five years later. He really pushed for it, and it’s impossible to say no to Michael. And thank God, because he had a vision. I feel like he chose me to execute it for him.

Why did you insist that he take a co-producer credit?

Artists get in the habit of wanting to be listed as co-producers when they don’t really do the work. It used to always annoy me because I thought: “You’re the artist. It’s your picture on the cover. It’s your album. Don’t try to diminish what I do by asking for a co-producer credit.” Michael had a vision and at this point in my life. I just love artists who know who they are and where they’re going and what they want. He was there every moment of the way along with Jochem van der Saag, the third person on the team who is also a co-producer. Maybe I was the captain of the ship, but I had two great first mates.

Looking back, he feels conflicted about the decision to use Nelson Riddle’s arrangements for Frank Sinatra on those early albums. He said it felt like karaoke. 
Well, I’ve certainly made a lot of mistakes in my life. I wanted to call his first album “May I Be Frank?” It was a horrible idea. Thank God I got overruled on it. But it was me pushing on those songs — “Come Fly With Me” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and “For Once in My Life,” which Paul Anka gave us. For every one person that bitched about it and said, “You’re ripping it off,” there were 5 million people that loved it. I’m in the business of selling CDs; I’m not in the business of wanting to be critically acclaimed and sell three records. And he put his own spin on it. The excitement of having real musicians 50 years later recreating a couple of those arrangements; I don’t see anything wrong with it at all. And if anybody doesn’t like it, too bad. Michael fought me on it, but he would probably be the first to say that he didn’t have the legs — and the power — at that point to override me. That’s a battle that I won and stand behind. I can’t go into a restaurant on any day without hearing his version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” so the proof is in the pudding.
Do you agree with him that his new album is his best?
I can’t be objective because I love all of them. He may feel that way because of what he’s gone through in his life, and he came out the other side like a brand new shiny rock. He’s been to a place that none of us as parents would ever want to go, and he’s got a new take on life. He went to hell and back. This guy is living life to the fullest every day. I’m telling you: People say they’re going to do it and they don’t, but he is. Every single day in the studio he was happy to be there, which is infectious. I had little cobwebs around me from not being in the studio for a couple years, but his exuberance and his excitement for making this record was contagious. He got to say and do everything he wanted to do on this record — and I got to be the guy who helped him.
On his previous album, “Nobody But Me,” Michael decided to experiment with new producers. Admittedly, that decision was motivated in part by a fear of staying relevant.
I’ve seen it with every artist: They wake up one morning and all of a sudden there’s a new generation that’s not particularly interested in them. Michael, on the other hand, is probably one of the very few artists who doesn’t have to worry about that because he didn’t chase top-40 radio. When he organically wrote some quote-unquote pop songs, they fit right into what was going on, but his career doesn’t depend on that. Think how many artists’ careers depend on top-40 radio. Michael’s career depends on him making good music, and he’s never not made good music.