A Q&A With Austin Sawyer—2nd Place Winner in the American Songwriter 2022 Song Contest

What made you decide to enter American Songwriter’s Song Contest?

I know how respected this contest is among writers, artists, and industry folks, and I thought I had finally written a song worthy of this contest’s caliber.

How did you feel when you learned you were a winner?

Funny enough, the official email letting me know I had won second place went to my spam mail, so I actually learned from a fellow writer named Anthony Quails, who had messaged me on Facebook to alert me of the good news. I felt very proud to learn I had won. To finish second among 13,000+ entrants was not lost on me.

What was your inspiration for your song? Why did you want to write it?

“American Spirits” came from a desire to write a song addressing a lot of our nation’s long-standing issues with a new and contemporary voice. It was also the first time I had written so personally about feelings outside of romantic relationships, so that felt a bit scary. However, the reception the song has had has really allowed it to exist outside of me personally, and hearing how it affects others really means a lot to me.

When writing a song, what comes first the music or lyrics?

Usually, I’m a lyrics-first songwriter, and “American Spirits” was no exception. I had written down the song title months before I had even begun writing the song. As is the case with most folk-influenced singer-songwriters, I am very much a student of John Prine and his masterful wordplay, and I knew that title had a lot to work with in that realm.

What keeps you motivated as a songwriter?

It’s a mix of songwriting being something I’m incredibly passionate about and being a very competitive person; less competitive with others, more so trying to top the last song I wrote with a better song. With that being said, hearing one of my friends play an incredible song they’ve written always makes me want to get back to the lab and write something great. More friendly motivation than competition.

How long have you been writing songs, and what are your songwriting goals?

I’ve been seriously pursuing songwriting since I was about 15. My songwriting goals are all over the place, but I’d like to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame someday. Lofty, but if I put it into a printed magazine surely it has to come true, right?

Are there any songwriters, artists, or events that have especially inspired you lately?

I’m lucky to exist in a great community of songwriters, most of them here in Nashville. The latest releases from my friends, including but not limited to, Medium Build, Ethansroom, Jack Van Cleaf, Natalie Madigan, Annie DiRusso, Michigander, etc. are all wonderful and inspiring works. Outside of the people I know personally, Dijon’s 2021 record, Absolutely, is still the best thing I’ve heard in years. And recently I’ve pretty much exclusively been listening to Lana Del Rey’s quarantine masterpiece Blue Banisters.

What is your idea of the perfect song?

Probably “Let Him Roll” by Guy Clark.

What’s the best piece of advice another songwriter has ever given you? 

I feel like this is a pretty common tip and I can’t remember the first person to say it or if it was just natural intuition, but write everything down as quickly as you can. I’ve gotten out of bed at 3 am or hopped out of the shower to write down lines because you never know how long your pesky little brain will hold onto them.

Who are your all-time favorite songwriters and why?

The Avett Brothers, Frank Ocean, Blake Mills, John Prine, Springsteen, Benjamin Booker, Roger Miller, David Bazan, Lana Del Rey, Father John Misty, Townes, Ted Hawkins, Guy Clark, Kristofferson, Adrianne Lenker, David Berman, Taylor Goldsmith, Kevin Morby, Jeff Tweedy. Did I miss anybody?

What’s next for you?

I’m hitting the road for a Southeast/Midwest tour with another great singer-songwriter, Andrew Montana, later this summer, then hopefully back to recording. You can visit drummingbird.com/live or just check out Instagram (@drummingbird) for those dates. I’ve been writing some songs I’m really stoked about lately and I’m excited to bring them to life.

What would you tell other aspiring artists who are considering entering the Song Contest?

 “You Miss 100% of the shots you don’t take—Wayne Gretzky, Michael Scott” 

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