One of the first adjectives people will often use when describing Patrick Leonard is “humble.” The veteran composer and producer has worked with some of the biggest names in the music industry, including Madonna, Michael Jackson, Leonard Cohen, Pink Floyd, and Fleetwood Mac. And yet he’s incredibly modest about his résumé, always shifting the focus back to the music.
A year ago, Leonard’s public profile grew when—at the urging of his son, who’d read an interview in which Madonna questioned whether her longtime collaborator was on Instagram—he joined the social media app. Fans of the Queen of Pop flocked to his account, and soon Leonard was performing a sold-out show at Joe’s Pub in New York, playing instrumental versions of the songs he wrote with Madonna for fans of his that he didn’t know existed a year earlier.
“For the first time ever I’m investigating my old work and seeing if I can bring something to the fans who are obviously very loyal to it,” Leonard told me over the phone during a break from recording in his Los Angeles studio. In October, Leonard took a hiatus from his newfound Instagram fame to start work on a new album, Bring the Circus Home, his first in over 20 years. The album, which he says will likely be released in two volumes, is composed of newly recorded versions of those famous Madonna songs, performed with some of the original musicians, including guitarist Bruce Gaitsch and bassist Guy Pratt. Read more about the Kickstarter campaign for the album here.
I chatted with Leonard about the album, electronic music, the late Leonard Cohen, and, of course, his work with Madonna, including Ray of Light, which was released 20 years ago this week.
Was it a surprise to learn that you’re, at the very least, a beloved figure among Madonna fans?
It was a bit of a surprise. I certainly expected that people knew my name associated with her, but I didn’t realize that I was held in such high esteem by so many. A very pleasant surprise.
Looking back at Ray of Light, 20 years later, how do you think it holds up?
I think it holds up really well. I looked at the songs [from the album] I was gonna do at Joe’s [Pub] and felt the innovation of it and just how good [co-producer] William Orbit was at that time. It’s still apparent. Very innovative, and sonically very interesting.
One of my favorite songs you co-wrote for Ray of Light is the B-side “Has to Be,” which was included on the original tracklist for the album, but it was swapped out for another song last minute. It’s such a beautiful, heartbreaking, almost ambient ballad about self-love.
You know, I haven’t listened to the original demo of that one yet. I wish I could remember how it went. You mind if I YouTube it?
[Laughs] Not at all.
Oh, yeah, I remember now. I think I hear a Juno [Roland synthesizer]!
Tori Amos has covered several Madonna songs in concert, and her recent rendition of “Frozen” is really haunting and beautiful. Have you heard it?
I haven’t. I think Tori’s wonderful, but I don’t go looking for those things. It has to literally be put in front of me. This isn’t a comment on Tori, because again I haven’t heard it, but oftentimes when people do covers, they don’t know the center of it. Maybe they have their own sense of the center, but my sense of where the plumb line is—a single line and everything’s built around it—that knowledge and sense of where that line actually exists is different for [the songwriters] than anyone else. And so, usually when I hear other people’s versions, I’m flattered that they think it’s a good enough piece of music that they want to represent themselves with it. I’m honored at that level.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Madonna songs she’s chosen to cover—“Live to Tell,” “Like a Prayer,” and “Frozen”—are ones you co-wrote.
Yeah. This is an assumption, but Tori probably chose those songs because she’s a pianist and they were written on piano.
Oh, good point.
They’re all pianistic.
Another seminal Madonna album you worked on, Like a Prayer, turns 30 next year. One of my favorite songs on the album is “Spanish Eyes.” It’s so different tonally from the two previous Latin-influenced songs you wrote with Madonna, “La Isla Bonita” and “Who’s That Girl.” It’s darker and more mysterious.
The way we worked on Like a Prayer, and other records as well but particularly Like a Prayer—we wrote a song a day. I wrote this thing, at the piano again, and at the top of it, it says “tango.” She came in the morning [and] listened to it, [wrote] the lyric, put a guide vocal down, and went home. [laughs] What I always believed was good about our collaborations is that the spirit of the composition was always very closely reflected in the sentiment of the lyric, and the spirit of it as well. So if there was a darkness about [the music], that gave her an opportunity for the lyric to go there. And even something like “Till Death Do Us Part”—which had an uncomfortableness about it and yet it felt all bubbly and perky, but it wasn’t. And I always thought that was a great lyrical position, to have it be this really dark…not really dark, but you know—
It’s pretty dark!
Yeah, a tremendous amount of conflict. But you feel like you can skip rope to it.