The writer of ‘Toxic’, ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’, and ‘I Kissed a Girl’ tells Dazed about returning to the live stage for the first time in 20 years
Cathy Dennis is best known as the songwriter behind iconic pop songs like Britney Spears’s “Toxic”, Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”, and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl”, but before she became a Grammy and Ivor Novello winner, Norwich-born Dennis was a successful pop artist in her own right. In the late 80s and early 90s, aided by future Spice Girls manager Simon Fuller, Dennis scored four US top ten hits with a succession of catchy pop-house bangers like “Touch Me (All Night Long)” and “C’mon and Get My Love”. She worked with Nile Rodgers, Oscar-winning composer and Art of Noise founding member Anne Dudley, and Madonna’s “Vogue” collaborator Shep Pettibone, then, when her own performing career slowed in the mid-90s, she pivoted to songwriting for other artists – including the Sugababes, the Jonas Brothers, and Mark Ronson – with tremendous success.
Now, in a move that will have 90s pop fans gagging, she’s returning to the stage with a comeback performance at Mighty Hoopla, the south London festival that attracts a super-inclusive and largely LGBTQ+ crowd. When I call Dennis at her LA base, she tells me, almost apologetically, that she’s not really one for looking back. “I’m so caught up in the present, and I feel like my life is usually so chaotic, that I don’t even have time to think about the future,” she says with a laugh. Perhaps this explains, at least partly, why she’s been able to celebrate 30 years in the ever-changing, trend-driven music industry. As I learn during an hour-long conversation, she’s conducted her career in a gutsy and completely authentic way.
So, what made you want to perform again after such a long time? It must have been more than 20 years...
Cathy Dennis: Well, every now and then, when I feel like I’m being compartmentalised, or feel like there are doors being closed on me, I have a little rebellious moment and think, “I want to do this instead.” I’m still concentrating on songwriting, it’s where my head and heart are happy, but I do like the idea of getting on-stage again, and I do miss performing.
Is Mighty Hoopla a one-off, or could it lead to other live shows?
Cathy Dennis: I’ve heard Mighty Hoopla is a really fun crowd, so it seems like the perfect environment to relaunch myself. I’m hoping it’ll lead to other things, but I guess I’ll have to see what else is on offer – and of course, it’ll need to be with the right crowd again. But I do think this is something I should probably have done a long time ago!
Will your set include songs you released as an artist, and songs you wrote for other artists?
Cathy Dennis: It’s hopefully going to be a fairly well-rounded representation of me (overall), so some of it me as an artist, and some of it is me as a writer... well, it’s all me as a writer, I suppose!
A lot of pop artists don’t start out writing their own songs – including many artists you’ve written for. What made you a writer from the very start?
Cathy Dennis: My parents were both musicians, and I grew up with my ears saturated by music from the age of about four. So I always felt very comfortable with music, and I think I kind of understood it fairly well by the time I was in my mid-teens. And then I started to try and write – I actually got my publishing deal before I got my deal as an artist. Looking back now, I think that the reason I didn’t get my artist deal earlier was because the songs I was recording (written by other people) were actually pretty crap. And that’s why I started to write songs myself. And once I started doing that, I was actually quite territorial about it. I don’t think anyone even offered me a song after that.
When you launched your career as a pop artist in the late-80s, did you feel as though you were taken seriously as a songwriter?
Cathy Dennis: No. Definitely not. I had a lot of battles with men – and the reason they were all men is because there really weren’t many females in the industry at that point who were writers. I mean, you could count them on your fingers. It was very tough, but in a way it was good to me, because it made me tougher. You know, this is a really tough industry and you just don’t survive without being tough yourself. I learned a lot back in those days because it was hard to be taken seriously and to be trusted as an artist.
What were your battles about?
Cathy Dennis: Usually about production, but sometimes about the songs themselves. I remember having a battle with someone once – and I won’t mention any names – who said to me, “But your lyrics aren’t good enough.” I was really angry! And then I got the last laugh, because that song went on to be a number one in the UK. You know, there are some very spiteful people out there. I love learning, but sometimes you know you’re right, and have to just swallow the insult and hope that what you’ve written is as good as you think.
“Sometimes you know you’re right, and have to just swallow the insult and hope that what you’ve written is as good as you think” – Cathy Dennis
I have to ask: which song was it that got to number one?
Cathy Dennis: You see, I knew you were going to ask that, but I can’t tell you! I’m trying to be subtle!
Do you think it’s any easier for female songwriters starting out now?
Cathy Dennis: So, of course once you start having success, people’s attitudes change – people can become intimidated by you, and they start giving more power – but then as soon as you stop having hits, they take that power back, and then the whole see-saw game starts again. I’m sure that those challenges still exist for female songwriters now. Even though I can’t say I’m currently experiencing them myself, I can’t imagine they’ve gone away.
“Touch Me (All Night Long)”, your biggest hit as an artist, was based on an earlier electro-funk track by Fonda Rae. How did it all come together?
Cathy Dennis: You know, it actually irritates me slightly when people say, “Oh yeah, but that’s just a cover.” Actually, it’s not just a cover. It’s the chorus from another song, but all of the rest of it is new. I did the original production with another producer (Phil Bodger), and then Shep Pettibone did a remix of it, and that’s the version that became a hit. I just thought the original song had a great chorus, but I didn’t like the pre-chorus or the middle-eight, and I wanted to make it a bit more Janet Jackson-y. I couldn’t really relate to the original lyrics, so I rewrote them to make them more playful and light. It just made sense, and it worked.
With tracks like “Touch Me” and “C’mon and Get My Love”, you were a big part of the pop-house crossover of the late 80s and early 90s. What do you think is the key to writing great dance music?
Cathy Dennis: I think you really need to be into dance music in order to be able to do it well. I don’t think you can fake it, because it’s so much about feeling. I love dancing – I’ve always loved dancing – and I think it’s important that you try to make music that you want to dance to. If you can’t do that, then why would expect anyone else to feel it?
What made you pivot to a more guitar-based sound for Am I the Kinda Girl?, your third (and to date final) solo album?
Cathy Dennis: I just had a problem standing still creatively. That’s why I don’t write the same song twice. It’s the same, really, as the whole, “Why are you doing Mighty Hoopla?” thing. I don’t like to feel like I’m being penned in, and I definitely felt penned at the end of my second album campaign. It wasn’t because of my A&R, it was actually just me seeing that the way I had presented myself had become what was expected of me. See, one of the things I love about Kylie is that she just keeps on morphing. She’s such a great chameleon, and she never stops giving new sounds a try.
When you were writing it, did you envisage “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” as a Kylie song?
Cathy Dennis: Not at all. I actually loved the track and was thinking, “Maybe I can release this myself as a white label.” Writing a Kylie track, that was never the assignment, but Simon (Fuller) had this idea: “Why don’t we send it to Kylie?” And I was thinking, “But this song isn’t what Kylie does.” Obviously, now, none of us knows what Kylie’s going to come out with next, because she can’t be compartmentalised. When you’re writing, I think it’s very projective to try and think about which artist you’re targeting. One of the greatest challenges as a writer is to simply write honestly and from your heart. It’s never really worked for me to go into a room and say, “Let’s write a song for so-and-so.”
Other songwriters have told me, for example, that they’ve been asked to write “songs about pregnancy and motherhood” when writing for an artist who’s about to start a family. Is that the sort of brief you avoid?
Cathy Dennis: Well, as a mother, I think I would have been able to do that (specifically). But in terms of focusing on a particular artist, I find it difficult. What works for me doesn’t work for other people, and vice versa. You know, I remember having a meeting for that Kylie record (Fever, which “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” appears on) about the kind of songs they were looking at for Kylie. Because I’m a contrarian, I came away and didn’t want to write anything like the songs I’d been played in the meeting. I just did my own thing, which nine times out of ten would have got me sod all on the album!
After “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” became massive, did you get phone calls from people wanting a soundalike hit?
Cathy Dennis: Yeah. And I was like, “I’m not going to rewrite that song – and that’s that.” It was a very difficult time – as soon as you start having big success, it gets very difficult to focus on trying to write good music, because people start placing a lot of pressure on you. And pressure and creativity don’t always go well together, I think.
“Once you start having success, people’s attitudes change – people can become intimidated by you, and they start giving more power – but then as soon as you stop having hits, they take that power back, and then the whole see-saw game starts again” – Cathy Dennis
Was “Toxic” another surprise hit for you? Or did you know when you wrote it that it was special?
Cathy Dennis: No. I didn’t even like it!
What didn’t you like about it?
Cathy Dennis: Everything! It was just weird. I mean, I wanted it to be weird, but afterwards, I couldn’t stop criticising it and feeling like it was just too weird. People who write with me regularly know that I do have a tendency to be quirky, and I’ve kind of had to tone that down over the years – sadly. But really, it’s such a quirky song, I just don’t know how I got away with it!
In time, did you get why “Toxic” became so iconic?
Cathy Dennis: Oh, I get it now. As soon as I saw Britney doing the video, I got it. But at that point, you’re in a different place. When you’re writing, it’s like you’ve got your head under a blanket. It’s very difficult to see, because you’re just so involved in the song. It’s impossible during what can be an exceptionally intense process to step back and say, “Well, this song is amazing.” That’s just not how it works.
Cathy Dennis plays Mighty Hoopla festival on June 8