The opening lines sound as in-your-face now as they did nearly 25 years ago:
“Hey!/ Shut up/ Don’t lie to me/ You think I’m blind/ But I’ve got eyes to see.”
When Bonnie Raitt sang “Have a Heart,” a defining hit for her in 1990, as an encore at the Orpheum Theatre on Sunday, she announced she had a treat for the sold-out crowd. She then brought out Bonnie Hayes, the veteran songwriter who wrote “Have a Heart.”
The two Bonnies embraced like the old friends they are, and they took turns singing the song’s verses. Raitt beamed as she noted that Hayes now lives in Boston as the new head of the songwriting department at Berklee College of Music.
It was a triumphant moment for a woman who is not a household name but whose songwriting resumé is peppered with big names, from Cher to Bette Midler. In September, Hayes began transitioning from her life as a working musician and producer in her native California to a role that puts her in the upper echelon of music academia. At Berklee, she oversees 270 students and arrives with a host of ideas to change the curriculum.
She is also the first female to head that department at Berklee, chosen after a committee composed of faculty members from various departments sifted through 50 to 60 applications and whittled down the search to four finalists. She joins Paula Cole, another high-profile singer-songwriter teaching this semester at Berklee.
“People don’t often get this kind of job, women especially,” Hayes says. “It’s not just a job. It’s a life, this school.”
Hayes, 55, took a circuitous path to Berklee, working decades in the music industry as a songwriter, performer (solo and with her band, the Wild Combo), producer, and educator throughout the United States. She has gone on the road as a side musician, mostly on keyboards, with everyone from rockers Billy Idol and Huey Lewis and the News (her brother, Chris Hayes, is a former member of that group) to Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Go’s and folk icon Cris Williamson.
Her songs, too, have attracted an array of artists. Raitt is her most well-known credit, but Hayes has also written songs for Cher (“Some Guys,” which was the B-side to “If I Could Turn Back Time”), Midler (“Bed of Roses”), David Crosby (“Coverage”), and Adam Ant (“Wonderful”).
“I heard about Bonnie through friends and immediately fell in love with those two songs,” Raitt says of her long relationship with Hayes, referring to “Have a Heart” and “Love Letter.” Both songs appeared on Raitt’s Grammy-winning 1989 album, “Nick of Time.”
“‘Have a Heart’ has one of the most complex set of lyrics and it’s musically sophisticated at the same time. That combination of vulnerability and feistiness in those lyrics suits both Bonnie and I,” she says.
That song’s attitude, particularly its opening salvo, initially earned Raitt flak from some fans. They wrote to her saying they loved her music but didn’t feel comfortable with their 3-year-olds sitting in the back of the car and learning the expression “shut up!”
Hayes herself never recorded “Have a Heart” beyond the demo that Raitt first heard on cassette. It’s telling that Raitt kept Hayes’s arrangement mostly intact, making just a few changes to accommodate Raitt’s slide-guitar style.
Pat Pattison, a professor who teaches lyric writing at Berklee, has long championed Hayes and led an effort to get her on the faculty. Pattison was impressed as soon as he met Hayes several years ago at a songwriting retreat he runs.
“She was teaching at such a high level, and what she was saying was so compatible with what we’re doing at Berklee,” Pattison says. “Bonnie has immense ears, but she also has incredible vocational skills and is very literate as a musician. She’s been an artist, a sideman, and, of course, an amazing songwriter and producer for a long time. It was pretty much a no-brainer [to bring her to Berklee].”
Her versatility was on full display on a recent afternoon when Hayes taught a lyric-writing class at Berklee, sitting a few feet from the six students clustered at desks. As they presented their original songs, Hayes dispensed commentary more than judgment. That was on purpose. It took Hayes several years – “until I finally got over myself” – to realize what’s important to impart to a student: her assessment of what she hears in a song.
When student Sabina Barton took a seat at the piano and played a sprightly love ballad, Hayes cheerily remarked, “What a yummy little pop song.” The young woman nodded, as if confirming that was her intention.
“My opinion about a song isn’t really relevant,” Hayes says later. “If I want people to listen to me, I have to find the right words to frame how the song is coming off. The whole thing is leading a discourse instead of announcing an opinion. Telling them what’s wrong with their song isn’t how you help them.”
Hayes wants to teach students without stealing their ability to learn it for themselves.
“I think it’s much better for a writer to come to understand what’s not working by the way that others respond to it, rather than a teacher telling them how to fix it,” she says.
Within minutes of talking to her, it is clear Hayes is in love with her profession, with the power of music and what it has meant to her and what it can do to others. She talks a lot about her “busy brain,” which is a polite way of saying she has a hard time turning it off.
Her mind races with the various projects she’s juggling beyond Berklee. Her 20-year-old daughter attends the school and lives nearby. Hayes, who lives in the South End, sees live music around town as much as possible and is already yearning to perform her own music again.
She maintains a house and recording studio back in the San Francisco area, where she has a few producing gigs on the back burner.
But she’s also upfront that Berklee is her priority and feels humbled by the chance to lead at such a prestigious institution. It’s early into her tenure as the department chair, but already she is gathering information about what works well and what doesn’t. She’s thinking about the long-term vision of the department and how it could benefit from more classes that combine different methods of instruction.
“The ability to do the kind of work I’m doing at this level and at this age is absolutely unheard of,” she says. “Berklee has given me the opportunity to be more engaged than almost anyone else in the songwriting community. I’m working with people who are going to write songs that will change the world. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be doing this.”