Monday, February 28, 2011

Developing a Voice

This is a large boot.
The fun thing about writing songs for other people is that you can skip genres from day to day. But the dangerous thing is that we can sometimes leave what we do best at the door. Write what you know, not what you think you know.

There was a point in my pursuit of a songwriting deal where, on my own, I began writing mostly country songs. I figured a Nashville publisher would expect nothing else. The problem was not so much the quality of the songs (they were awful) as the fact that I wasn’t being true to my own voice. As a piano player who grew up soaking in The Beatles' White Album, I was trying to operate in a genre where I had no real authority. I didn’t grow up wearing a cowboy hat on a ranch in Texas, but some other writer did. And they will naturally write a song about farm life way better than I ever will.

I would define a voice as "the style of one's message."

There is something that each of us brings to a song that we do better than anyone else in the world. It would boring if we all tried to have the same voice and write the same song (and thankfully, some publishers understand this reality). The last thing creativity should be described as is safe. If we are true to our own voice, we will create something fresh rather than safe.

Keep writing,


Friday, February 25, 2011

Quote of the Day - Unknown

"You learn, you earn, you return." (Unknown)

I love this quote for two reasons:

1. Songwriting is a craft, which is passed on in this way from songwriter to songwriter.

2. When writing each song we learn (by taking in the world around us), we earn (by translating our feelings into a song) and we return (by making others feel those same emotions when they hear our song).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames - "Yeh, Yeh!"

Last weekend Brittany and I were driving up to Malibu, CA, when this fun song came on the radio. It's interesting how the melody just follows what seems like the saxophone line, but I think it's what makes the song so catchy.

Have fun, and feel free to dance. (The music doesn't start on the video for a few seconds, until after the record starts spinning.)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

How a Lyric is Like a First Date

Here's how a commonly used song structure parallels a first date:

First line = introduction, first impression
First verse = Small talk
First chorus = "I think I like her."
Second verse = Background talk
Second chorus = "I think I really like her."
Bridge = Parting of ways
Final chorus = "I can't stop thinking about her."

Keep writing (and dating),


Monday, February 21, 2011

What is a Co-write?

A co-write is a process in which two or more songwriters collaborate on writing a song. Generally, each writer gets an equal amount of credit for their effort (2 people, 50% each; 3 people, 33% each, etc.).

Co-writes usually consist of about 20% talking, 10% creating and 70% editing, often in that order. The 20% talking portion allows the songwriters to catch up on life, effectively getting on the same page. Sometimes an idea for the song will be born out of these conversations. The 10% creating portion is where the writers share from their notebooks of potential song ideas, or they fiddle around on instruments and create something out of nothing.

When the writers get inspired by the same melody, lyric or chord progression, the song has begun, and continues developing in a type of ping-pong-style conversation. This can be the most nerve-wracking and intimidating part of collaborating creatively with someone else, but I find it the most exciting and energizing at the same time.

As mentioned before, editing is 70% of the co-writing process. This is where a song goes from good to great. This is where the music and lyric are married, creating an inseparable bond. For more on the editing process, read my previous post here.

Keep writing,


Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Brian Mason Show

It sounds like Ricky is going to join me and Gordon on the Brian Mason show tomorrow morning (listen online here) from 7-9 central time.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Writing Tools - Dropbox

I am awful at remembering lyrics on the spot. Thankfully, there is Dropbox. Using this program, I am able to save all of my song lyrics in a folder that my phone can access at any time. Here's a helpful video about how to take advantage of this free service:

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville

As musicians and entrepreneurs, sometimes we need legal help with contracts and agreements. I've had an incredible experience lately working with the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville. I was recently referred to them when I needed some guidance in forming a basic terms of use for The Songbird Project website.

Basically, for non-profit organizations and lower-income artists the Arts & Business Council offers legal consultations, and, if necessary, will refer you out to work with an outside law professional pro bono or on a sliding scale.

This means that if you're a songwriter who is about to sign your first deal with a publisher, you can probably avoid paying around $1,000 directly to a lawyer for their review. Through the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville you could get the same quality legal advice and service without paying an arm and a leg.

Check out their website here.

Keep writing,


Songbird Camps

Just wanted to let you guys know that the first Songbird Camp is in the works. It is going to be a 3-4 day retreat for high school songwriters that will take place in June in the Nashville area. Stay posted for upcoming details!


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bluebird Cafe

Here's a picture from last night's Bluebird Cafe performance:

(From left to right, Ricky Skaggs, Gordon Kennedy, Ben Cooper, Jess Cates)

Jeff Beck - "Over the Rainbow"

This weekend we had the opportunity to see Jeff Beck receive three consecutive Grammy awards for his album, "Emotion & Commotion." I am amazed at how, more than any other guitar player I've ever heard, Beck makes his guitar sing. This song was on his recent award-winning project:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

And the Grammy Goes To...

Below is an article that I wrote a couple days ago for one of my hometown newspapers in Fort Wayne, Indiana. 
See it on The News-Sentinel's website here.

Tonight, at the 53rd Grammy Awards, I heard the phrase “and the Grammy goes to” 108 times. The day’s events began with the pre-telecast ceremony, where 98 of the awards were given (the televised portion only includes the final 10 most popular awards). We anxiously awaited the categories in which Ricky Skaggs’ album, Mosaic (the album on which I had written eight songs), had been nominated. We were left sitting in our seats when his name wasn’t announced.

It was fascinating to realize that for every one person giving a speech, thanking everyone who has helped along the way, four more people pocket their lists of thank- yous in hopes of another chance, another year. For every five people nominated in a category, thousands more worked day in and day out with hopes of garnering a nod from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

One of my favorite moments of the day was during the pre-telecast ceremony. Gospel legend Mavis Staples, who was sitting only a few seats away from us, won a Grammy for the first time in her career. While the moderators had repeatedly encouraged recipients to pare down their words for time’s sake, I (along with every other person in the room) would have gladly given Staples all the time in the world for her tears of joy and words of genuine thankfulness.

I was also thoroughly entertained by the televised portion, specifically Mumford & Sons’ driving live performance, Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” (written by Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas) and the fact that it was Esperanza Spalding, not Justin Bieber, who walked on stage to accept the award for “Best New Artist.”

Overall, my wife and I drove away feeling two things: inspiration and pride. Inspiration because we saw true art performed and celebrated tonight, and pride because so much of that art has its roots in Nashville. I’m looking forward to getting on a plane tomorrow morning, albeit at 7:00 a.m., and getting back to the job I love: writing music. If all goes well, it won’t be too long before I hear my name complete the golden phrase, “and the Grammy goes to.”

Monday, February 14, 2011

Quote of the Day - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

"Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius."

- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Friday, February 11, 2011

53rd Grammy Awards!

This weekend my wife and I have the opportunity to attend the 53rd Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. It's going to be a great time to network and celebrate the creative efforts of 2010.

Specifically (aside from Skaggs' Mosaic), I'm rooting for "The House That Built Me" (written by Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin) and Ray LaMontagne & The Pariah Dogs' album, God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise.

Below are a couple articles from this past week about the process of Mosaic coming together (click the pictures to read articles). Thanks to both Fort Wayne newspapers!

Keep writing,


Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Elevator Pitch

The doors open and you walk onto the elevator. As you press the button for your floor, you notice the only other person you'll be riding with: a clean-cut, older gentleman wearing a designer suit. You introduce yourself as a budding entrepreneur, to which he responds, "What's your idea?" Realizing you've just stumbled into a potential investment opportunity, you jump right into the 60-second summary of your business plan. There's only one chance to make a great first impression.

So it is with a song and its listener. The song finds its way to the ears of a producer, publisher, record label executive, radio DJ, audience or potential buyer with the intention of convincing the listener that it is well worth their emotional investment.  Often if the listener isn't sold in the first 30-60 seconds of a song, it's on to the next one.

The next time you write a song, put yourself in the shoes (or ears) of the listener. Ask yourself, "If I were hearing this song for the first time, would I believe enough in the music and message to invest my time and emotions?"

Keep writing,


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Books for Backpacking

Songwriting: what goes in must come out. Reading is important for our creativity.

If you were backpacking through Europe for three weeks, which book would you take? 


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Gordon Kennedy: American Songwriter's Writer of the Week

My friend and mentor Gordon Kennedy has been featured as American Songwriter's Writer of the Week. In it he talks about growing up in a musical home and why it's sometimes OK to put "shock absorbers" in a lyric.

This is a picture of Gordon, Ricky Skaggs and myself in Ricky's studio during the recording of Mosaic:

Monday, February 7, 2011

Wendell Berry

The first time I remember waking up
in the night was the winter time
when I was about six. Papa had sent
the tobacco crop to Louisville
to be sold, and we sat by the fire
that night, talking and wondering
what it would bring. It was a bad time.
A year of a man's work might be worth
nothing. And papa got up at two o'clock.
And I woke up and heard him leaving.
He saddled his horse and rode over
to the railroad, four miles, and took
the train to Louisville, and came back
in the dark that night, without a dime.

- Wendell Berry

What I love about this poem is how Wendell Berry sits you down on the log next to him by the fire, where you wonder whether or not papa's work will amount to anything. I especially resonate with the last line of the poem. Something human inside of me knows what it's like to be disappointed, but something human inside of me also knows that I need to get up the next day and go back to work.

Keep writing,


Friday, February 4, 2011

NPR Gives Packers Minor Edge in Super Bowl

Who's going to win the Super Bowl on Sunday? According to NPR, it's whoever has put in the most time practicing (their scales, that is). They've analyzed the musical skills Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it sounds like the Pack has the advantage.

I was surprised to hear that Aaron Rogers actually owns his own record label (read an article about it on USA Today's website here). Also, read this morning's NPR article, or listen to the radio segment here.

Keep writing, and enjoy the game!


Voice of Gold

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Songwriter Space

I just joined Songwriter Space because it's a great new place for creators to connect. It is free to become a memeber, and is sure to become a hub for songwriting. Check them out by clicking the link below, and visit my personal page here!

Songwriter Space - Social Networking for Songwriters


Photo by Kevin Dooley. Used with permission.
We all have unique fingerprints. If we are true to our individual creativity, then those fingers will play melodies and write lyrics that reflect that uniqueness.

Sure, we are influenced by others, but we all have the ability to see the world as no one else has ever seen it before.

When creating art, we learn by doing. Setting out to write a song that’s original and “you” means that part of the process is figuring out what does and doesn't work (more on this later). Conventional rules should not apply.

On our way, we will come to forks in the road. We can either:

a) write what we believe in, or
b) write what we think someone else expects us to write.

Don't be afraid of trial and error. A lot of time we learn more from our "errors" than we ever do from our successes.  

Keep writing,


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"Over You" on Seth Jones' EP

Check out Seth Jones' new EP, Beautiful With You. (And especially check out the song "Over You"...wink, wink.)

"Give it Another Day" by Edie Brickell

I think we will always do our best creative work when we are enjoying the creative process. This clip aired on Jimmy Fallon's show a couple nights ago, and I just had fun watching these musicians have fun playing music. Check out these chord changes:

You may recognize her big 1988 hit "What I Am" (watch the video here). Also, check out her most recent album on iTunes.

Keep writing,


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

February Album Writing Month

"You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club." — Jack London

This is the quote that captures the heart behind FAWM (February Album Writing Month). On an average of half a song a day, the goal is to write 14 songs over the month of February.

There are many helpful resources on FAWM's website that explain a lot of basics, including how to record your song on a computer and how to get your song up on the website.

This project is a helpful reminder that sometimes waiting for inspiration only results in little being accomplished. So get in the ring and show that blank notepad a thing or two (the blank notepad is wearing red shorts in the picture to the right).

Keep writing,