Songwriters on Success

As much as I love music, the process of songwriting has always been a complete and utter mystery to me. I understand how to put words together, I understand how melodies and chords work, but combining all of those into something listenable is a skill I just don’t have. And I think that’s why I’m so interested in interviews with songwriters talking about their work.

I recently finished reading Jake Brown’s book Nashville Songwriter: The Inside Stories Behind Country Music’s Greatest Hits. I have to admit that I mostly stopped listening to country music around 2005 or so. I just got tired of artists that were pushed because of their looks rather than the quality of their music. And I was fed up with too many formulaic songs about trucks, beer and girls (or guys), and “country” songs that were substandard pop songs dressed up with a fiddle or lap steel guitar. So my choices for “country music’s greatest hits” would probably be quite different from Brown’s; here’s one that would definitely be on my list.

Because I don’t pay a lot of attention to country music any more, I don’t know all of the songs and artists that are mentioned in Brown’s interviews with 20 different songwriters. But nevertheless, the book was a fascinating read – and I found it particularly interesting that so many of the songwriters said so many of the same things about their creative process. I’ve read some interviews with songwriters who talk about how songs are just “out there”, and most of what they do is to catch the right song when it floats by. There’s a little of that of that in some of Brown’s interviews – but more often than not, the interviewees have surprisingly structured and disciplined working lives, even if what they create sounds fresh and spontaneous. Here’s what they do:

  • They set a regular work schedule, and stick to it. Even though creativity can’t be forced, many of Brown’s interviewees have regular “writing times” when they sit down and substantively work on their projects.
  • They expand their possibilities by collaborating. Some of the songwriters interviewed in the book, like Tom T. Hall and Bill Anderson, are known more for their solo work, but nearly all of them have co-written songs and been successful at that as well.
  • They know the format for their product. Several of the songwriters mention that a song has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and has around three minutes to tell a story. A hit song fits that form, even if it’s wildly creative within those limitations.
  • When they work with others, they show up ready to work. According to several of Brown’s interviewees, “songwriters’ etiquette” means that you don’t come to a writing session empty-handed; you bring at least a couple of ideas, even very rough ones, so that you and your collaborators have something to start with.
  • If something isn’t working, they move on, they but don’t abandon it completely. Many of the songwriters’ best works included a piece of another song that they had never finished, or that they had put aside for a while because it just didn’t gel.
  • They know what they’re not good at, and work with people that are good at those things. Some songwriters are good at finding a catchy groove or a riff; others are good at creating melodies or coming up with lyrical hooks. The best songwriting teams are the ones whose members complement each other’s strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses.
  • They listen to all the feedback they get, even the rejections. A negative response can have valuable insights to build on – what didn’t the listener like? Can that be changed, or should it be changed? Many of the songwriters said that a song often became better when it was turned down and they had to revise it.
  • They have the technical skills to support their work. A number of Brown’s interviewees readily admitted that they are not great singers or great instrumentalists. But they can present a song well enough for an artist or a music publisher to hear its potential.
  • They participate in, and learn from, their environments. Not all of the songwriters in Brown’s book are performers, but all of them go to concerts, listen to the radio, watch TV, and know what’s going on in their industry. That informs their work, and helps them develop their own skills through analyzing what succeeds and what doesn’t.
  • Even if it’s frustrating, they try to be patient and let their work find the place it needs to be. Jeff Silbar, who co-wrote Wind Beneath My Wings, initially intended that song to go to Bob Seger – and didn’t hear it as a piano-based ballad until his music publisher did a demo version of the song arranged that way. Silbar then spent a year trying to place the song with an artist that wanted to record it. Now, in addition to Bette Midler’s famous version, the song has been covered by more than 70 artists.

John Rich, of Big & Rich, neatly summarizes what motivates successful songwriters: “You have to write because you love it, not because you’re driven to get rich doing it”.  That’s probably true for successful people in most kinds of work. Getting rich is nice, but the real reward comes from being able to do something you truly enjoy. And if you’re a songwriter, you might end up producing something as wonderful as this…..

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