(Photo: Songwriter Seth Swirsky with Ringo Starr)
As the sole writer of the classic “Love Is a Beautiful Thing,” recorded by Al Green and several others, and a co-writer of hits by Taylor Dayne (“Tell It to My Heart”), Michael McDonald (“Tear It Up”) and more, Seth Swirsky has bragging rights to a lot of airplay and legendary artist coverage. He had writing deals with Chappell Music (which became Warner-Chappell Music) and EMI Music as he honed his craft, writing melodic and emotional music that appealed to millions. Then he decided enough was enough.
Swirsky tired of the staff songwriting and pop music rat races and decided to take the road less traveled as he pursued some other loves, namely, baseball and the Beatles. Swirsky has authored three successful books about baseball, and his video documentary Beatles Stories, which features interviews with people close to, and maybe not so close to, the Fab Four, will be available in the spring of 2012 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ signing with EMI. Swirsky hasn’t quit music himself by any means, though, and his own projects, including solo albums and recordings with his band The Red Button, have found him on several critics’ “best of” lists in L.A. over the past few years. American Songwriter caught up with Swirsky, who somehow found a couple free minutes to talk, to ask him how he has managed to be so successful at so many things he loves.
You had incredible success in the 1980s and ‘90s, with songs that still show up in movie soundtracks, compilations and other places. But you seem to have decided to do your own thing, which you’ve admittedly been pretty successful at. The question is, do you miss turning on a radio and hearing something you wrote being played on “America’s Top 40?”
Not a bit. I just love writing songs in whatever medium they can be heard. I had the great fortune of writing for the Top 40 as you mentioned. Now, I have the freedom to write for myself as a recording artist and for my band The Red Button and currently we are played extensively on many popular radio stations and extensively on XM/Sirius radio, which is quite satisfying.
Some people would say that a guy with your talent and pop sensibilities almost owes it to the public to put some quality songs out there with current artists. How do you respond to that?
Well, thank you for the compliment! I find the current market for pop songs sung by modern day artists to be incredibly limiting and uninspiring, to be honest. Today, “songs,” if you call them that, are built around a beat. The beat is the main ingredient in the so-called song. I write in what would now be considered a very old fashioned style: It’s just me and an acoustic guitar with a tape recorder. I try and fashion something very melodic, memorable and singable. I leave the production of the demo for later. In other words, I concentrate on the song itself, not the sound or the beat. I leave that for later. I am not saying there are no good songs today. I am also not saying that a good, melodic-based song can’t be recorded today by a popular recording artist. But it feels like much more of a longshot with “traditional,” melody-based songs, than ever.
You’re obviously a huge Beatles fan, but what inspired you to go to all the work of doing the Beatles documentary?
I felt I knew as much as a great fan of theirs could know and I simply wanted to get “closer” to them. I felt I got closer to the experience of “knowing” the Beatles through the almost 110 interviews I did with people who shared a personal story they had with them. I wanted to share those fun and often poignant stories with others who loved, and love, the Beatles as I do. People can see clips and get more info on the release of Beatles Stories at www.beatlesstories.com.
You’ve done some writing in Nashville as well as New York and Los Angeles. Do the three cities each summon up a different type of muse for you?
I love the people of Nashville. Truly “laid back” and honest in their approach to writing and living. There’s an intensity to New York that reflects itself in the music I’ve written there. It’s a very “on the move” place. Los Angeles is laid back as well but more in a sunshiny way. Happy, feel-good songs seem to come from my writings here. All three places are unique and highly inspiring to me but I prefer L.A.
You had a staff writing deal before you ever went to L.A., but you’ve been there quite a while now. What would you tell an aspiring tunesmith who just got off the bus from Omaha, and was strictly interested in getting cuts and not being an artist, to do during his or her first six months in town?
Write, write, write and then write some more. As much as the quality of your songs matter, the quantity matters as well. You never know which song will get cut. Some that aren’t your personal favorites, get cut – and become hits! – while others you thought were your best, don’t. So, just write — and write with as many people that have their own connections to getting songs recorded as possible. In this business, you just never know what will make it, so it’s a good idea to cut down the odds, which on some level, truth be told, is what this game is all about. Finally, write songs that you love, not that you think the artist alone will love, or your publisher, or whoever. You should want to blast the songs you write loudly on your car stereo. Then you know you’ve done some good work, and that counts for a lot!
You’ve had some nice success co-writing with people like Gardner Cole, known for his work with Madonna and many others. Given your current course these days, who’s still out there that you would like to write with?
Sir Paul McCartney.