Jeff Carlisi: Structure Without Formula: Guitar Playing Influences His Writing

It’s no secret that great songs are a key ingredient in any band’s longevity. With tunes like “Hold On Loosely,” “Caught Up In You,” “Rock It Into The Night” and “Second Chance” it’s easy to see why after nearly 20 years, 38 Special remains one of the most enduring bands on the American music scene.It’s no secret that great songs are a key ingredient in any band’s longevity. With tunes like “Hold On Loosely,” “Caught Up In You,” “Rock It Into The Night” and “Second Chance” it’s easy to see why after nearly 20 years, 38 Special remains one of the most enduring bands on the American music scene.

Following an incredibly rockin’ show at Nashville’s 328 Performance Hall, guitarist Jeff Carlisi took time back stage to talk about the band’s approach to songwriting and the integral role great songs have played in their career.

38 Special is comprised of Carlisi, lead vocalist/keyboardist Max Carl, vocalist Donnie Van Zant, bassist Larry Jungstrom, guitarist Danny Chauncey and drummer Scott Meeker. Each member of the group contributes to the bands songwriting efforts.

Carlisi and Van Zant began collaborating even before 38 Special was formed. “I guess the first real song I wrote was with Donnie in the first band we were in and that was probably 1969,” Jeff recalls. “It was a band called Sweet Rooster. We wrote three original songs and they were all horrible.

“We like them at the time, but we really didn’t know a lot about writing then,” Carlisi adds with a laugh. “At that time, we’d write a song with Donnie writing the lyrics and I’d write the music. Then he’d look at a magazine or dictionary or something just for the name of the song. It had nothing to do with the hook line or anything. Matter of fact, there was one song named after the last word in the dictionary. He said ‘that’s a good name.’ So the song was called “Zubin.” In 1969 you could get away with stuff like that. There was one band called Blood Walk and they had a song called “Marvin Laid An Egg.” There was a lot of weird stuff.”

Carlisi says it didn’t take them long to abandon that psychedelic 60’s approach to the craft of songwriting. “The first legitimate song, which I also wrote with Donnie, was the beginning of 38 Special in 1974,” Carlisi remembers. “It was called “Country Man.” We actually recorded it the first time we went in a recording studio in Memphis at Sam Phillips’ studios, and it went from there.”

How does Carlisi feel his songwriting has changed since those early days. “I understand the music a lot more,” he says. “I realize there are certain fundamentals in a song. You have a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, a bridge – the structure of the song. All of a sudden you realize there is a structure to songs, but there is no set formula for writing them. But you realize you can’t go to the last word in the dictionary and name your song from that.”

Carlisi says the fact that he plays guitar in the southern rock ensemble has colored and shaped his songwriting. “My influences as a songwriter are the same people I listen to as a guitar player,” Jeff states, citing the Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, Jerry Reed, Ry Cooder and Creedence Clearwater Revival. “People ask me ‘who are your influences as a guitarist?’ I think those people influence the playing style and that in turn affects the way you write songs.

“I think the one band that I owe the most credit to as far as really hitting my stride as a songwriter, especially when 38 Special started becoming successful in the early 80’s, was the Cars…I really owe Ric Ocasek (the Cars’ leader) a lot of credit as far as enlightening me into how you can create something different, very original and unique – that when you hear it on the radio for the first time it’s like ‘whoa, it’s that band.’ Some people say ‘as soon as I hear your songs on the radio I know that it is 38 Special because nobody else does it that way.’

The main thing is to have a style or approach to your instrument that is unique to yourself. If you try to emulate what anybody else is doing then you’re gonna fail. What separates you from everybody else is something that nobody is doing. You’ve got to be true to your roots. I’m by no means the best guitar player around, but I’m confident in making a statement with my instrument. Nobody out there plays like me, good or bad whether you like it or not, there’s nobody that does it the way I do. Part of making a style that’s recognizable is how you take the instrument you’re familiar with and do your best on it.”

Carlisi says there is no set method as to how he and his fellow band members write songs. He says they rarely write a great deal on the road. “We don’t put songs together on the road,” he says. “We collect ideas and work on bits and pieces here and there while we’re sound checking or in our hotel rooms, but after the tour we clear our heads and then look toward the next step, creating the music.

“Usually a song will start with a musical idea, whether it’s a guitar lick or chord progression, but there are a million different ways to write a song. Max is a very prolific songwriter and he collaborates as well as writes on his own. I’m not a lyricist so it’s hard for me to relate to this, but he’s told me when he writes a song a lot of times he writes strictly the lyrics and melody in his head and just uses the instrument as a medium to put it all together. I rely on my guitar to do the singing for me.”

The songs on 38 Special’s albums come together many different ways. The members of the band write together. They also collaborate with writers outside the group as well as solicit outside material that band members had no part in writing. L.A. based songwriter Cal Curtis co-wrote the group’s multi-format smash “Second Chance.” Jim Peterik is also a frequent co-writer.

“When you collaborate it’s always fun,” Carlisi says. “And I have the utmost respect for Jim Peterik. He’s the kind of guy you can take him an idea and he can just say ‘yeah that’s great, but let’s take it here and open another door.’ He can be very open about anything you do. Nashville songwriter Robert Johnson is the same kind of guy. But I think if anybody has understood my style of songwriting better than anybody, it’s Jim. It’s always a pleasure to work with a guy like Jim.

Jeff says he and the other band members enjoy the interaction with other songwriters. “It’s happened over the years, but now because of how much fun and how much success we’ve had out of it, we seek it out because it keeps things fresh,” Carlisi says.

He says when 38 Special gets together to write the focus is on the creative process, not how they are going to split the credit or the publishing. “We never worry about percentages,” Carlisi comments. “As soon as you start putting a dollar value on anything you do creatively that’s just the wrong way to approach music.”

Carlisi and his cohorts are more concerned with majic than money. “There are magic moments you just look for,” the dark haired songwriter says. “You never know why or when they are going to occur. There’s no rhyme or reason as to how or why it’s gonna work. You just try and if that magic happens it’s great.”

They are also always on the lookout for outside songs to cut. Carlisi says the criteria they judge others songs by is simple, “If it’s a song that moves me emotionally, whether it be lyrically or melodically, then the second step is whether it fits what we’re doing. There are a lot of songs we hear and we like, but we would never do as a band. It has to be a song that we can interpret in a way that could be associated with 38 Special.”

When asked to define the difference between a good song and a great one, Carlisi responds, “A great song is a song that touches people emotionally, a song that carries someone through a good time or a bad time, a song that sends a message, and it’s the first time someone has done it that way. One of the nicest rewards is when someone comes up after a show and says ‘I just want to thank you for “Hold On Loosely” because that song helped us understand our feelings, or more recently “Second Chance.” A lot of people have felt that emotion and it just came together in a way that touched people. Those songs are very special. Cal [Curtis] hit on a real gem with the sentiment to that song.”

Jeff says “Second Chance” was originally titled “I Never Wanted Anyone Else But You.” When Jeff played the demo for Max he said the guy in the song sounded like a real jerk. “I said ‘yeah, but a lot of people have been through this and want forgiveness.’ Max said ‘yeah, maybe the guy needs a second chance.’ And that was the title. I think lyrically what Cal sketched out was brilliant, but the real thing that touches people is that one simple phrase ‘a heart needs a second chance.’ No one had said it like that before and that’s what makes a great song.”

How do you know when you’ve written a great song? “I don’t think you ever know,” Carlisi says. “There are songs you have a good feeling about and the more experience you have, maybe the better you are at guessing if it’s a great son. With “Hold On Loosely,” we knew we liked it, but we had no idea it would be a classic for the band…With “Second Chance” I always felt there was something special, but we didn’t realize until it was released and within two weeks every radio station in the country’s phone were lighting up and we said ‘whoa we really did it.’ But you don’t ever really know.”

As we get the signal that all is packed and ready for the Charisma recording artist to go to the next gig, Jeff is happy to impart a few words of wisdom to aspiring writers. “Listen to everything, even if it’s something you don’t like, try to understand why it’s successful and why it works,” he urges. “Don’t ever be close-minded to anything. That’s something I have to keep reminding myself, but I listen to everything and try to find the positive. Once your mind is open to all these influences, decide as a songwriter what you want to do, not what’s successful, what’s selling. Find your real love and be true to that, explore that, be an individual.