Behind the Music Exclusive: Rick Nowels on the Birth of “Heaven Is A Place On Earth”

Grammy award-winning songwriter/producer Rick Nowels is the man responsible for many of the hits we sing at karaoke — everything from the New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” to Dido’s “White Flag” to Madonna’s “Power of Goodbye.” He’s also behind more current songs like John Legend’s “Green Light” and Sia’s “Soon We’ll Be Found”.

But when we got the chance to talk to Nowels, we weren’t interested in the new stuff — or even his material from the past decade. We wanted him to take us all the way back to 1986, to a little song he wrote called “Heaven is a Place on Earth” — a relic of our childhood as beloved as banana clips Bosom Buddies and our ALF doll.

After the jump, the story behind the genesis of this ’80s classic.

“A few days before Christmas 1986, Belinda Carlisle hired me to produce her second solo album after coming off her successful debut album Belinda featuring the hit ‘Mad About You.’ I had just worked on my first ever album project Rock a Little with Stevie Nicks and had a #16 hit ‘I Can’t Wait’.

“Since Belinda was not a writer it was my responsibility to come up with the songs.

“Up until that point I had mostly written for my own bands in San Francisco. I knew this was my big opportunity and I had to deliver hits. I asked my friend Ellen Shipley to fly out from Brooklyn to help me write songs. Ellen was a New York recording artist and her influences included the ’60s girl groups and Bruce Springsteen. I was from the West Coast so my influences included Fleetwood Mac, the Mamas and Papas, San Francisco psychedelic and folk. Ellen and I both shared a common love for the Ronettes, Dusty Springfield, Leslie Gore, and The Shirelles. Plus, I had always loved British music from the British invasion to Culture Club.

“So I put on my Phil Spector hat. In the first week we wrote ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ and ‘Circle in the Sand’. I was looking for a Go Go’s beat with an anthemic inspirational lyric.

“We showed the song to Belinda and she loved it. We recorded the song and Belinda sang all her lead vocals. But the version we did had a different, minor key verse. As we were recording, I started to feel that the chorus was great but that the verse wasn’t as strong. I didn’t mention it because the record was being finished and everybody was saying it sounded like a hit.

“I didn’t want to air my doubts. I asked Ellen to fly out to try writing a different verse. We came up with the verse that you now hear on the record. Major key, emotional and anthemic — much better.

“I remember telling Belinda ‘I’ve got good new and good news. The good news is we re-wrote the verse to ‘Heaven…’ and the other good news is we get to re-record it but it’s a real hit now.’ It caught her off guard and I could see she was a bit perturbed at first until we played it for her. She heard it and agreed.

“We re-cut it and it went to #1 in 20 countries in November 1987.”