Dispatch from the ASCAP Expo

Bill Withers
Bill Withers. Photo by Paul Zollo.

Since 2006, ASCAP has presented its annual “I Create Music” EXPO in the heart of Hollywood, connecting ASCAP member songwriters with legendary songwriters and artists, such as Bill Withers and Desmond Child, both of whom were here this year.

Videos by American Songwriter

But it also hooks up songwriters from around the world with other composers, working songwriters, producers, music business leaders, and experts, almost all of whom offer insight and affirmation.

There is also good information to be gained by those working on behalf of songwriter’s rights, educating us all on important issues which affect our livelihood, such as Fair Trade, Consent Decree, and the Songwriter Equity Act, each of which was consistently mentioned throughout the panels.

Bill Withers was inspirational, wise and also hilarious, and came attired in a B.B. King shirt to show support for the legendary guitarist. Not only did he take time out to meet fellow songwriters in his awe, like 19-year old Sam Switz, who said Withers was one of his idols (among new heroes such as Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran), the writer of “Ain’t No Sunshine” and other classics shared much of his famous soul with the crowd.

“The hardest thing to do is be profound and simple,” he said, “especially in a 3 or 4 minute space.” On writing “Grandma’s Hands”: “The most comforting place you could go was to be with the trusted old lady.”

And: “If you think you have a gift, make yourself available and the world will know. Some people top out playing Holiday Inns, but they enjoy it. Don’t cheat yourself out of it. This Sunday some old fat lady is going to be singing her heart out at gospel church. And she won’t be getting a nickel for it. But she’s going to love it.”

Many other greats were in attendance, including Richard Marx, Greg Kurstin (co-writer of the amazing “Chandelier” with Sia), Darrell Brown and others, all quoted below.

But for this writer, the most exciting part of the EXPO each year is meeting some of the phenomenal songwriters who are yet to become legend, but have the same spark, the same gift, and the same allegiance to great songwriting as do the legends.

Chief among these this year was Trinidad-native Michael Olivier, a master steel-drum player who now lives in London, whose song “Heaven and Hell is On Earth” was sampled for the Jennifer Lopez hit “Jenny From The Block,” to the extent that Michael is listed as co-writer on the song, along with its ten other writers.

Mr. Olivier, who dresses as stylishly as he plays steel-drums, said that he grew up poor in Trinidad. “We had no money, so we couldn’t afford instruments,” he said. “But my father would collect old oil drums, and hammer them into steel drums.” When he was 9, he discovered he has a gift for playing. “It felt like a gift handed to me, suddenly I was home. And I have lived in music ever since.” He is the leader of the famous steel-drum band, with whom he performed his sampled song, called The 20th Century Steel Band.

Asked if his band played in unison, he said, “No, no, not at all! It is like a regular band, with everyone playing different parts, but all on steel drum. There is the bass part, the chords, rhythm, section, solos over the top.”

A gentle and very soft-spoken man, he consented to be photographed outside for this piece, on what is the Hollywood & Highland mall of restaurants and stores. He set up and proceeded to play beautifully, as contained in the video below.

Unfortunately, it ends quickly, as a guard, not unlike those guys who stopped the Beatles on the rooftop, walked into the scene to stop the music. But this is reflective of a musician’s journey in modern times. Here comes this man from around the world to share his beautiful music for free, and he gets stopped. As you can hear in the video, Michael was apologetic, whereas the camera man wasn’t.

Also inspirational, and fortunately allowed to perform for our cameras, was the Miami-based Sekajipo, a native of Liberia, who performed acoustically his rap-song “Afrodite.” A true renaissance man, Dawyen Sekajipo is a musician, songwriter, full-time artist and activist. Recently he’s brought his music and spirit to Africa, with future trips to come.

But what matters most is the song, and all of us lucky to hear this impromptu greatness agreed that this is a seriously good song.

Chinese-born Renia Yang, known professionally as Yang Yang, recently moved from China to Los Angeles to pursue her music. The lead vocalist and songwriter for the band Tinderbox(听盒), she’s a classically trained pianist who earns her living by playing on other people’s projects.

“English,” she said, “is a beautiful language. I love writing songs in English. In some ways it is harder and easier than writing in Chinese. There are less words in English, and many things for which you have no word. But I love the simplicity of it. Musically it is easier for me, as Chinese as many different vocal tones and stresses that are required to make sense. So writing songs that work is difficult.”

In 2014, while performing on live shows and in music festivals, she started “a new challenge. I joined on the writing of a musical which called Lady and Tiger. I am the lyricist of this show. I wrote the whole Chinese lyrics for this show.“ She also wrote a show for HuNan TV Chanel, which is a competition of foreign university students who study Chinese. “I wrote a Chinese lyric for them, and am helping direct, too.”

For more on Yang Yang, her website is www.bigrenia.com.

Precious is the lead singer and songwriter for Precious Child, a “dark art rock band,” out of the Baltimore/D.C. area. Critically acclaimed and beloved in and around Baltimore, they recently played Philly to rave reviews. “We do theatric rock,” he said, and showed photos of concerts in which he dons great costumes and masks. They play many shows a year in and around town, and are soon to emerge on the world on the wings of their single “I Fall.”

“I love coming to Hollywood,” Precious said, “there’s a great energy here, and my music fits in this town. I lived here for a few months and hope to come more often, maybe even move here. Also the industry is here for song placement in film and TV, which is one of the main reasons I came to the EXPO.

To hear their music and see their videos, go to www.facebook.com/PreciousChildBand

Brooklynite Sabrina Chap is a cabaret powerhouse and songwriter, with two critically-acclaimed albums in release, Oompa! and We Are The Parade. Her songs mix ragtime and romp, dipping into a variety of Americana flavors, such as Dixieland, blues, bluegrass and big band. Often compared to the legendary Tom Lehrer, she’s best known for her hilarious on-stage performances, she said, “I’m told I’m a mix of Tom Waits and Phyllis Diller, or Julie Andrews and Divine.  My favorite recent one was someone said I reminded them of both Chelsea Handler and their cantor.”

While in town she played the Hotel Café, treating the Hollywood crowd to a set that went from heartbreak to hilarity. But she often performs in the burlesque and circus scenes nationally and abroad, often being the only musician backstage.  “Playing burlesque shows has been incredible for me.  It’s forced my songwriting to get more zany. Since everyone else is taking their clothes off onstage, or shoving nails up their nose, I need to write songs that demand the same attention.”

She came to the convention on the encouragement of Michael Kerker, head of ASCAP’s musical theatre dept.  “I’ve been encouraged to write musicals by more than a few people.  Currently, I’m in meetings to write one for a theatre in NY, am writing  songs for a shadow puppet musical, have a producer that is making a musical out of songs from my albums and am hard at work at my next album, which will be an electric guitar radio musical.”  She also is hard at work doing lyric writing for a synth-pop band and a musical duo reminiscent of the Smiths.  Her favorite part of the ASCAP conference was meeting other musicians, “and when Bill Withers said that that one girl `looked like she faked orgasms.’ That was pretty much worth the price of admission.”


A profusion of wisdom on the art, craft and business of songwriting abounded, and from which we present these highlights:

No I.D. (Producer, Def Jam Recordings): “I try to keep the perspective that I’m nothing at any moment. It keeps me grounded.”

Claudia Brant (Songwriter): “It’s so important to learn from other people. When I write with someone like Enrique Iglesias, he takes the lead because he knows his range, what he wants to sing and what his fans want. And I’m ready to sit down and suggest ideas. And I’m going to learn from that because I’m willing to understand who the artists are and work to bring the best to their fans.”

Greg Kurstin (Songwriter, “Chandelier”): “Sia works fast, so it’s about keeping up with her ideas and melodies. She also knows what she wants. “Chandelier” happened during a break. We went in and had a little jam session. She was playing piano and I was playing marimba and she was recording on her voice memos. A chord progression emerged and she sang a melody and that became the chorus, which I turned into a track. I worked really hard on it. Luckily she loved it and then we went back and forth via email about track setup, song structure and melody. Getting to the final recording and working on the performance and the acrobatics of the melody notes was thrilling for me.”

Toby Gad (Songwriter, “All Of Me”): The whole song, the whole way through, has to feel like it’s coming from your gut. If there’s one little part that might throw somebody off that part needs to be taken out. Make sure you get it right. It’s so important that the whole song, in your opinion, is consistently great.”

Richard Marx: (on co-writing): It’s so different from person to person. I wrote “Dance With My Father” with Luther Vandross, which was the last song he ever wrote. He was such a brilliant musician. His voice was an insane instrument. He had such a laser beam focus about what he wanted to say. It made co-writing such an easy process. We hung out together but we never wrote in the same room. I would write music, top to bottom, and I would give it to him and he would mold it into the song, send it back and I’d work on it and then it would become the final version of the song. And then sometimes you can try and write a great song with someone and work for the common good but you wind up wanting to kill your co-writer! Sometimes a great song will come out of it in the end. If I’m writing with an artist who’s going to sing the song and it’s something I might not sing but they would then I won’t argue with it. As long as you’re both fighting for the best quality song, then everybody wins.”

Darrell Brown (songwriter, “You’ll Think Of Me”): “Write at 10 and then dial it back because you can never ramp it up. Also: “Play the song for your friend and write down every time you felt uncomfortable. Those are the parts of the song that need work.”

Judy Stakee (author, Songwriter Survival Guide) “If you have writer’s block, honor the space. Go and do something else. Let yourself fill back up with new ideas”

Savan Kotecha (songwriter for Katy Perry, Maroon 5): “Learn from the songs that are out there and don’t focus on the negative of ‘my song is better than that.’ I look at a great song as something you need in your life.”

And from attending songwriters:

Dale Edward: “Being here helped answer a lot of questions for me as a writer, performer and publishing company owner. How do you go about approaching music supervisors and publishers? How do you find out who is doing what? Is there one source to find out who is looking for material? And the answer is there is not one source. Music supervisors are searching for the best material for their projects in the same way we’re trying to find a place for our songs. Searching the internet, word of mouth, working with people they trust. Everyone, from exhibitors to panelists to ASCAP people, is very approachable here so the networking was invaluable.”

Johnny Zapp: “I find that calling people and following up gets results. When I signed up for ASCAP I called them and had them mail me all their information. I call it my ASCAP bible. Over the years, I’ve been able to place my music through different services and now I’m able to make a full-time living with my music. This is my first Expo.”

Kira Lynn: “I came here from Canada, where I write and perform country music. It is so inspirational to be with these legendary songwriters, and so many of my fellow songwriters, and to see this world up close. Though I am not from this country, they have made me feel home here, that this is my community and my music belongs here. Of course, there are so many legendary Canadian songwriters, but my music is very much about Americana and country. By coming to this I really can see a vision of my career. And I’ve learned so much – about songwriting – and about the business itself, which isn’t easy to understand. I can’t wait for next year!” www.kiralynnhladun.com


One Comment

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Tedeschi Trucks Band: The Chosen Ones