Mention the name Patrick Leonard to a Madonna fan, and their ears should immediately perk up. After all, it was Leonard who co-wrote and/or co-produced many of Madonna’s classic hit singles like “Live to Tell,” “Open Your Heart,” “Frozen” and “Like a Prayer.”
The latter cut was the lead single and title track from Madonna’s 1989 album, which now celebrates its 25th anniversary. It was released by Sire/Warner Bros. Records on March 21, 1989, and shot to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 shortly thereafter. It spent six weeks atop the chart — her longest run at No. 1 for any album.
To celebrate a quarter century of “Like a Prayer,” Billboard spoke to Leonard — the primary co-writer and co-producer of the set — to discuss the making of the album and his recollections of working with Madonna. (Would you believe “Like a Prayer” was written in one day? And the entire album was written in less than two weeks?)
In our lengthy chat, we discuss everything from where Prince pops up on the album (it might surprise you), to Leonard’s all-time favorite song they did together. Not to mention those rumors that he’s working with Madonna on her next album.
In addition to his partnership with Madonna, Leonard has worked with many other artists, including Jewel, Elton John and Roger Waters. He’s currently working with Leonard Cohen on his upcoming album.
Billboard: When you were working with Madonna on the album, you had already worked with her on “True Blue” and “Who’s That Girl,” and you had worked with her on tour as the musical director for the Virgin Tour and the Who’s That Girl Tour. What was it about your working relationship that made it so successful? Clearly there was something very special between the two of you. Is there something tangible that you can actually name?
Patrick Leonard: The one thing would be that, in terms of musical spirits, like any good collaboration, we’re sort of on opposite ends of the spectrum, in terms of our approach to music.
I started playing the piano when I was three-years old, and studied music my whole life. It’s my language. And for her, it’s much more just about creativity, and a natural gift, what the impulse says is right.
So, that thing of, almost opposites makes nice chemistry. And it always did with us, because I could write something somewhat complicated and and somewhat complex — certainly especially in the pop realm — and she would respond collaboratively with something that anchored it in something very simple and central.
And when I say simple, I don’t mean stupid. I mean just not complicated. You know, simple in that beautiful way that when something is really simple, it’s not easy to do something simple. . . . When you look at most well-known collaborations over the decades of music that we’re familiar with, they’re always opposite types of people that are doing the best work. David Gilmour and Roger Waters. John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And I’m certainly not comparing Madonna and I to those people, but you know what I mean.
The other thing is that we’re both from Michigan. We’re both people that grew up in a place where it’s 30 below zero a good part of the year and blue collar work ethics apply to everything. I still am a blue collar work ethic type of person, and so is she. So we shut up and we did the work. We had this creative chemistry, and then there was no futzing around. There was no question about what the job was.
Speaking of chemistry, there’s been a lot of rumors that you guys are going to work together on her next album. Is that even remotely true?
I’ve gotten a bunch of people who have forwarded me a bunch of those emails (saying that they’ve) seen us in restaurants together. None of it’s true.
Leonard co-wrote and co-produced the bulk of the “Like a Prayer” album with Madonna, including hits like “Cherish” and “Oh Father.” Of the album’s 11 songs, Leonard co-created eight of them with the diva. The set has gone on to sell four million copies in the U.S., according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
You’ve said before that “Like a Prayer” was the first song that was written for the album. When you guys finished that song, or at least had it at some sort of stage where it seemed like it was finished, did know that you had something special?
I think there was a point when we realized that it was the title track, and the lead track, and it was going to a powerhouse. It became obvious that there was something unique about it. And that somehow we made this thing work: with its stopping and starting, and a minimalistic rhythmic thing, and the verses, and these bombastic choruses, and this giant choir comes in. This is ambitious, you know?!
Of the songs I’ve worked on in the studio — which is in the thousands — there is something different when you write something and you just have a sense that you can’t break this, you can’t really ruin this. It exists already. And that used to be what made a hit song.