Extended Q&A: Craig Wiseman

(Wiseman and the cast of GAC show The Hit Men Of Music Row – Bob DiPiero, Jeffrey Steele, and Tony Mullins.)

So you do a lot of your demo work? Do you still do full band sessions at a studio and all that?

What I’m doing now is—well it started with something like “Hillbilly Bone,” where Scott Hendricks started asking for all my files. So those are all my loops. I have 10 drum machines going on in the “Hillbilly Bone” demo. That’s for that real snaky feel. And they used it on the record. Then Blake and them ended up using it live. Then on several other Blake things they asked for files. I just had two or three Colt Ford things where Dan Huff asked for stuff. They want my “demo demos” and my “worktape demos” from my office. So that’s what I’m doing now. I actually bring all those files into a demo. Then when it’s time to exit, I do a lot of muting. I pay for a lot of muting to keep a raw, pure thing going on. It’s actually starting to turn now to where I have several songs that are pretty rocking things. I’m gonna bring two guys in and just plug them into my rig and do it like that—where it’ll kind of spin all the way around, as opposed to a full demo. I’m not that much of a player. I’m a classic songwriter when it comes to that. Drums. I’ve got drum machines, the only instrument I can play. I’m totally obsolete so it’s ironic.

Do you think it’s true—it seems to be a stereotype, but maybe it’s somewhat true—that producers groove better on worktapes and guitar or piano/vocals, and A&R teams are more like, “I need a full demo” to feel most comfortable presenting it to the artist?

You can’t really say that. It’s almost a person-to-person thing. [I’m thinking of] Dan Huff, in particular, because he is such a talented, genius guy. I can’t think of how many songs I’ve done, knowing I was gonna pitch to him, and spent a lot of time on the demo, doing all this shit before I’d send it to him. He’d go, “Man I love that song. Can I get guitar/vocal?” And you’re like, no shit? Basically, it really is different. There are some producers who need the whole thing demoed. A&R people do like that and I get that too. If you’re sitting in there and you’ve got 20 songs and you’re trying to cull it down to 12, and eight or nine of those things are big 800 dollar demos…and here comes your little thing with an out of tune guitar and a drum machine and some really bad ProTools moves that you did… But at the same time, they hear all these demos that are well produced and all of the sudden comes something weird. It’s a real person-to-person thing. It’s just like dating. Some girls want a limo and a rose and a steak dinner and some girls want a hot air balloon ride and a dune buggy accident and some girls want to go dancing and some girls want you to get in a fight and treat them like they grew up in a trailer. It’s just a person-to-person thing. It’s one of those things where you try to guess it. I can’t think of how many songs I’m like, “I’m not gonna demo it. This worktape’s really cool.” So you wait like a year and then finally everybody goes, “Man, we’ve pitched it everywhere and we love the song. Please go demo it.” You go demo it and it gets cut immediately. Then there’s those other ones where you spend a whole day in the studio on one damn song. You pitch it and they ask for the damn guitar/vocal. Again, it’s just like dating. You cannot come up with some blanket rule. Because just when you do, the 180 degree opposite’s gonna come up. But I can say this. I do believe in this.

Take Rodney Clawson who writes for us. Literally, he quite possibly…if anybody can dethrone Dallas Davidson as BMI Writer of the Year it will be Rodney next year. He has the Blake Shelton single [“Drink On It,” No. 1 Billboard] right now and a Montgomery Gentry thing going. He and our other writer Chris Tompkins wrote the duet single of Tim and Kenny’s, “Feel Like a Rock Star.” We’ve got a Nickelback single out right now we wrote with Chad [Kroeger]. When Rodney first got over here, he was doing the expensive demos. He sang about one in five or one in eight songs. I loved his voice. I started going, “Dude, look, the days of $1000 demos are over.” On top of him really firing up as a writer and really focusing, making him sing his own stuff and sing harmonies [was a big thing]. He didn’t know how to do harmonies, so he’d come up with really unique harmony things. They weren’t that typical Oak Ridge Boys triad moves and stuff. I really got into his vocals. I really think part of his success is that he started singing his own stuff. If you’re trying to crack that code between worktapes and demos, sometimes it’s just that. I really believe a writer should sing their own thing. And trust me, I don’t have that great of a voice. Especially going back, it wasn’t that great of a voice. But I think the main thing a writer is trying to get across is just passion and conviction. Nobody else can deliver that. You cannot hire a singer to really capture that. There’s a lot of people who hire these singers for a full demo. Always do your own vocals, especially nowadays with this Serato plug-in and stuff where you can change the keys. I mean, seamlessly, you can move a song three steps and not hear it. In 45 seconds, you can take a damn song from C to F. So there’s no excuse for you to not be able to key it so that you can put your own vocal on it. So I think that sort of cracks that code a little bit, to me. It’s not a question of being a good singer. It’s just selling the song. It’s not singing the song. It’s selling the song. The writer sells the song like it’s nobody’s business.

Back to editing and the craft. When do you think a song is done? Do you like to live with it and tinker with it, lyrically or otherwise. Or do you put it aside for the most part?

The one thing experience has taught me is that the greatest thing that really screws up songs is over thinking. I can’t think of how many songs that we got going and. . . this happened on “Where The Green Grass Grows.” You get an idea for a second verse for a couple of lines, but then you start going, “Oh green grass grows. You can’t just stay with that urban thing. We need to make it go over here and do this other thing.” I mean we wrote this whole other verse. It was the night before the demo and I was going, “Man, that second verse is just wearing me out. It’s all over raw and stuff.” I went back and looked at a few notes I made for the second verse, and it just stayed the same. So basically through years of experience, I learned you need to trust your first instinct. There’s so many things where, once again, you’re never smarter than your angels. Because I trust my first instinct so much now, I can do something and live with it.

My thing now is—after you’ve worked on something you’re not objective… I do whatever, put it down, and I let it get lost. Right now, I’m about to start doing some demos. You listen to something and you go, “That second verse, or that piece of that…” There’s something that kind of messes with me now. But it still happens all the time where, once again, you’re over thinking and doing all this kind of stuff. But now I know, trust your first instinct. I go, “This thing is just so one-dimensional, it’s gonna suck.” You listen to it two weeks later, and you go, “I was having a big problem with this, but I can’t remember exactly what it was.” And you realize you were obviously wrong. It just kind of works. You want to be able to pull back to a point and just kind of watch it. It’s like watching water run down a hill. You want to see if it flows, and it just happens. Once again, anytime that you do have some little dams in weird places, it’s probably something that you thought up. You were gonna make some move. When you’ve got a large body of work like mine, you start listening to old stuff you’ve done. I was trying to put together a shorter list of about 200 songs that we pitched. And there’s several songs where I’m just like, God man. It’s these weird things like the first verse, chorus, bridge and then second verse, chorus, and I’m just like going, “You know, I’m sure something inspired me to do that, but I’m gonna take the damn thing and put it on my rig and just cut it out and move the bridge down because the verses and choruses just work so well.” That bridge comes along and you’re kind of trying to wrap your head around it and then you fall back into it. It is like a breakdown in the middle of a drive, where all of the sudden you just have to pull over and go, “What in the hell? Where are we going again?” But really that’s a tough thing. Years teach you. Experience teaches you. There’s a reason why a lot of guys—well, a lot of artists—get to a point later in life and their music simplifies or they go back to roots music. You know, it is kind of maddening in some ways, but I do get it too. You just quit trying to show off so much.

Main thing to tell songwriters is there is so much of your stamp on it already. Then you want to go in there and you’re desperate to put your “stamp” on it, and it’s already your song. It’s already screaming of your stamp. I used to always say, “I don’t write just country, country stuff.” I’d write just a straight up country song and I’d play it for somebody and they’d go, “Oh that’s different.” And I’d say, “No it’s not man. It’s just three chords and a really plain hook and it’s just straight up country.” And they’re like, “That is not straight up country.” Really? I really thought it was just like Alan Jackson. They’re like, “Oh my God, man. This thing’s wild.” Well I thought I was actually kind of painting by the numbers and just being cool.

(Craig Wiseman and Ronnie Dunn accept the Song of the Year Award for at the CMA Awards for the 2005 single “Believe” )

Do you finish many songs by yourself, or are you pretty much just co-writing?

You know, I don’t really have time. I came from bands. I like co-writing. I wrote by myself for years. I think a lot of people need to write by themselves when they get to Nashville. I have a story that really kind of identifies it. People go, “Man you should write more about yourself. There’s more money in it.” I try to write a few a year. Once again, there’s just a time to write a song, and songs are meant to be. So if it’s 8 o’clock at night and something’s really coming strong, then yeah I’ll write it by myself. But for the most part, when you write every day you just churn through your ideas. It just keeps moving. But my story of writing by myself: I had my first little Fostex rig at my house and I was just working, and my mom had bought me this black velour robe for Christmas. I just put on my robe and was working down there [in my studio] one day. My robe was hanging on my bathroom door. I was looking at it, and velour is like a shear, like a pantyhose type shear thing that has those little fluffy things all poked in those squares basically…and it’s so dense you can’t tell. It’s kind of like looking at somebody’s head, and you get up close and realize it’s individual follicles, you know what I mean? And the reason I tell you all this is because my robe’s hanging on the bathroom door, and I realize that’s where the ass of it is. It’s all just the shear material. I realize I literally had spent so much time by myself in the studio that I had worn the ass out of this robe. I realized that every time I ordered a pizza and turned away from the door, the delivery guy was getting this see-through thing of my ass. And I was going, “Man, I’m probably pretty famous down there.” Like people are flipping about who has to go take Mossdale his pizza.

It’s funny, but the thing is, writing by yourself is kind of a lonely poet thing. And I liked it. But when you’re with someone else there’s a little more energy. You can kind of get something going. So like I said, I came from bands. That’s why I like this publishing company. Music is a communal thing. I’ve travelled all over the world, and what I love about Music Row is that it has what nobody has. Nobody has a community like we have. Nobody has this thing where they really understand how interconnected it is, whether it’s songwriters, producers, artists, managers—the fact that it all goes on right here. Everybody gets in a room every now and again. I appreciate the fact that a manager busts his ass to get an artist to a position where when he cuts one of my songs, I’m gonna make money. It has a lot to do with their efforts. It goes all the way up to the guys that are driving those trucks all night to get all the gear to the concerts. You go out on the road with these guys and see the operation that is a touring act. It’s like…shit man. There’s 100 folks busting their ass over and over, repeating steps 2 through 5, be it blizzards, deserts, whatever. All that so I can get up there and sing my 3 minute song, that I sat in my room, drank coffee, smoked a cigar, and typed something on the computer, that set all this stuff in motion. I appreciate it. I do. I appreciate the hell out of the fans. Guys who like country over rock–there seems to be a little bit of this disdain over this thing…like the burden to my talent and your adoration. Bullshit, dude. Go run a weed whacker on 440 as opposed to sitting around here on your guitar. That’s nonsense. These fans are great. These people are spending money on this and that, which a lot of times, they can ill-afford. And that is amazing. That is staggeringly an honor.

“My Old Friend” is one of my favorite tunes of yours, which you co-wrote with Steve McEwan. Is there any kind of story behind that?

We wrote that and “Summertime” when Steve was still living in London. He lives in New York now. I had gone to London to meet him. And, in fact, Chris Oglesby had moved to BMG. We hadn’t worked together for several years. I had been going to London and writing a lot and had also been doing some writer retreats. I had done “the castle.” Sting had a castle in France and he’d invite writers from all over the world. Amazing. At the breakfast table every morning, they’d lean over and go, “Craig, this morning you’re writing with an Israeli pop star and this guy from Buenos Aires who doesn’t speak a word of English. So there you go, we’ll see you in the studio at two.” And it’s like, wow dude. So Chris threw that. So I went to London and we were gonna do a writer retreat, so I met Steve and was like, “You really need to come to Nashville, because you’ve just got that thing. You’ve got that Paul McCartney kind of compositional chops and stuff.” So we wrote “Young” on that first trip. I’ll never forget when we was here in Nashville, we’d get together at 11 o’clock in the morning and go until sometimes 1 or 2 o’clock at night. We’d do three or four days just really working it out. I’ll never forget—he had that little minor chord thing and I started going, “my old friend,” and I kind of saw how after you got into the song, every time the verse would end with “my old friend,” which also started the new verse. Just counting all those little tricks. It didn’t really have a chorus, and then we actually hit that “don’t know why, don’t know why.” And then, we didn’t really know that somebody was gonna die or anything either, it just kind of happened. Because by that point, me and Steve were starting to kind of get some history. We had a couple hits together. But had we lost a couple of friends and stuff. It just turned into the song. And I’ll never forget—it was about 1 o’clock in the morning and we were finishing that song in my old building a block away. We walked outside. It was springtime. I could smell the grass and I went, “Man, summertime. Dude, summertime.” So by the next morning, I was driving in and going, “Summertime, summertime is finally here.” And there we go. So that was one trip.

But yeah, “My Old Friend”…as a matter of fact, before you leave I’ll make you a little CD because you’ve got to hear the demo with Steve singing it. Tim did a great job. But that original demo was Steve singing it, and he’s got a really good rock ‘n’ roll voice and it’s very melancholy. It’s absolutely stunning. Steve killed our original demo of that song. I’ve given it out to a lot of people through the years and they all call me just going, “Dude, this is sick.” It’s funny. So at the end of the song, we were in there demoing it and Steve was doing the vocal and I go, “Dude at the end of it, do this goodbye goodbye-ee-eye thing.” He goes, “No I don’t want to.” And I go, “Just do it, sing the part!” And he goes, “No, I don’t wanna.” So I go, “Fine, get the heck out of there. I’ll sing it.” So I went over there and put that part in. Next thing you know, Tim’s cutting it and he’s contacting Steve going, “Yeah, I love your voice. I want you to do some background singers, especially that part on the outro that was so great.” So they sent the masters to London and he got singing credit for singing the freaking part that I was singing that he refused to sing. It’s just, you know, an endless point of mirth for us. It’s fine. He saved my ass several times too, so you know.

“Live Like You Were Dying?”

Yeah back to the Tim thing. It has been amazing to be a part of the Tim McGraw thing. To already have success and then to come in with “Live Like You Were Dying” was really kind of a cap off for me. That was really amazing. I’ll never forget when we flew out [to Las Vegas]. We heard that Tim was gonna debut it on the ACMs. Last minute we decided to fly out there for the ACMs. So we went out there and I’ll never forget—turns out that he had just gone to L.A. and shot the video. He had just gotten back in time for the show. So the whole white video thing…they mimicked that on the stage. First time I ever saw it, there was all that white and all of the sudden he’s out on stage and the song starts. We’re on the floor about two-thirds of the way back and this thing starts on the video screen. It was really one of those oh-my-God things. It was me and my wife and Tim [Nichols, co-writer] and his then-wife and it was over and everybody was on their feet clapping. The four of us were sitting down surrounded by people standing around us. Me and Tim were sitting over there with tears in our eyes and so were our wives. And everybody’s going, “Ahhh.” We’re just sitting there literally weeping, holding hands, just going, “Oh my God.” We were going, “That should be the video,” not knowing that he had done the video and had made sure that they kept those elements on the stage. I’ll never forget. That was absolutely a staggering night, where you literally are sitting there just going. . .  I guess it’s kind of like as a parent, if you could have a baby and suddenly get sight of them winning the presidential election or something. I was holding him last week and now he’s in the oval office—kind of one of those things. Just like wow, dude, he went off and did good.

How long did that song take to write? What was the writing process for it?

We just got together at BMG. There was a buddy of ours who had gotten one of those misdiagnoses. He had gone in for a physical—a young father, guy in his early 30s, wife had just had their second baby. He went in for a typical physical and they were like, “In your chest x-ray there’s this mass on your lungs.” As soon as I heard, I knew he would not be handling this well. And for about two weeks, they sent him to the oncologist, the cancer doctor and all this kind of stuff. And the guy looks at it and goes…I forgot what they called it. There’s this thing when you’re a baby where sticky stuff develops on the inside of your ribcage that holds your lungs against your ribs so they’ll open, and in most people, that just dissolves like after the first year. And this doctor goes, “But in some people it doesn’t, and so that’s all it is and it’s not gonna kill you. And so I was catching everyone up. They’d go, “How’s Bill?” And I was like, “Man, it was a misdiagnosis.” I mean wow, what a freaking trippy ride that would be. Tim and I started talking about other people. I had an uncle who had a weird form of leukemia and had to go to the medical clinic to even get it diagnosed. It turned out to be a very treatable, very coverable form, but he didn’t know it. To just know you have leukemia, that is so weird. “We can’t even treat you, you’ve gotta go to Arizona to get a. . . ” You know? And he was in his 60s, called in and retired from his job in the hospital, and booked a shark dive in Belize. It was one of those things.

You know what dude, I probably would be that guy where if something happened to me, I’d go home and close the curtains and start feeling sorry for myself. I would love to. But I hope if something happens to me, that song comes on the radio. And yeah, I’d book a freaking shark dive. So that’s where that came from. We just talked about several people—about that time-to-get-busy thing. We sat there and we were like “Man, there’s got to be a song out like ‘Dying To Live’ or ‘Live Like You Were Dying’.” And as soon as Tim stopped me on it, I grabbed my guitar and went, “Well I was in my early forties. . . ” And then on the chorus, “I went “skydiving, rocky mountain climbing. . .” And I knew I could hear that three, that weird chord coming up. I finally found that gospel B major 7. It was one of those days where we started late. Tim had to go. He had like 10 and 12 year olds, you know with soccer and football. So we kind of had the first verse and chorus and we were like, “Dude, let’s get together pretty quick and finish it.” I called him…no he called me after about 10:30 or 11 that night. He was like, “Man, this song.” And I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I remember going in my totally dark living room, laying on the floor, and we wrote the second verse on the phone. There was something about the Bible. And then the fishing thing was really cool because before that song came out, Tim called me and said, “Man, my dad has to have quadruple bypass. Me and my other two brothers are flying home…we want to go fishing.” And they went fishing with his dad and the bypass was fine. And he said, “My dad always wanted to take us fishing after we got busy.” It was just an imposition.

That’s a great word choice. You don’t hear the word “imposition” in a song very often. And then it was used, and it was used so well.

Also, I like that because that’s all it is. It’s honest. With things like that though, it’s not like you can’t do it. It’s not impossible. It’s not some big pain in the ass to do those family things. What you’re saying is, it puts you in an imposition to do that. And then the chorus was starting to get real Hallmark-y, so I was like, “Dude, we got to do a palette cleanse. The chorus is going to be so Hallmark-y. We got to do something weird in the middle. Let’s do like a bronco. You know, you rode a horse…horses have weird names…no, bulls have weird names, bulls famously have weird names.” So we just completely made up the Fu Man Chu thing and we already had the “watched Blue Eagle as it was flying” line. Tim was already like, “That’s great.” And I was like, “Dude, no.” A lot of times in songwriting, they say the line before the last hook is really the line—the setup line. It’s kind of like that classic block that allows the touchdown, you know? On the phone I was going, “Gave forgiveness I’d been denying.” But I knew it. I was like, “Dude, hold off on that one. Don’t get married to the eagle thing. There is a seriously stronger line for that chorus.” That song had so many angels around it. It was a really spiritual thing, because it came strong. Me and Tim’s instincts and intuitions just kept leading us. And the bridge, man. Every songwriter just wants to do the same feel over and over. If I’m writing a song about chicks and drinking beer, you just want to capture that. You just want to capture the fun of that. You just want to do [a bridge] or you can just go, “There. I’ve just done all I could do. I’ve captured that.” I think maybe it’s like a painter or whatever. You can either be painting the Mona Lisa or a bowl of pears. You just want to absolutely nail it. Get the light just right and the shadow just right. You want to kiss the girl or you want to reach out and take a bite of the pear. It’s the same. To have that feeling in “Live Like You Were Dying” makes me go, okay, there is nothing about that song that will haunt me…not like, you know, I could have done this or that. No. That song has stayed written.

I don’t sing it as much as Tim does. I was just in Canada doing songwriter shows and did it again up there, and I stopped and let the people sing the last chorus. I did a show last summer for 5000 in the Nashville convention center. Dude, 5000 folks. It was breathtaking. I let them sing the first half, and I came in on the second half. I was inaudible. It was so powerful. With the Grammys, I think me and Tim texted each other, “It’s the seventh birthday of our Grammy.” I’ve sung that song a lot in seven years. Sometimes you just go through it, but you still. . . Like I said, here we are in the seventh year and God knows how many times I’ve sung it. It still can take my breath away. And it means so much to people. It’s such an honor.

This is what I tell people: To have a three hundred pound guy come up to you who does not talk about his emotions, “My dad died. . .” and you realize that’s probably the most emotional conversation that guy might ever have in his whole life. It’s really been an honor. It’s been such a blessing. It truly has felt like the angels kind of came down and walked us through the whole thing. And now there’s the gift book, the New York Times bestseller and I’ve written a worship series, and the guy that was behind the purpose-driven life—not Rick Warren but the marketing guy who worked for Saddleback at the time—he left Saddleback and approached me and we did a partnership in a worship campaign. I think 1000 churches have ended up doing it. So I get texts and emails from all over the place with people going, “Man, we’re getting this.” And you used to hear that back then, too, especially when you start getting cuts. But when it’s all said and done, you’re really lucky if you can have one or two copyrights by the time your career’s over. Back then, I’d go, “I’ve already had five cuts this year.” But when you get a song like this, you really do realize there are songs and then there are songs.

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