Videos by American Songwriter
“Who is the audience for this music?” Bruno Mars explained was the constant question asked by the media prior to his breakthrough. And his answer was always the same: “The universe.”
He was explaining in a master-class to a packed ballroom at this weekend’s ASCAP Expo the theme that was woven through all the classes, workshops and discussions here this year: That an artist must maintain a specific vision for his work – not look to the industry or others to provide it – and never give up on the realization of that vision in the world. It’s a challenge, and one met by stars like Mars and thousands of unknown songwriters and singers here, to maintain one’s musical vision despite all odds.
The 12th annual ASCAP Expo got off to a great start on Friday with a phenomenal rush of energy, culminating in Master classes by successive legends Peter Frampton and Carly Simon.
“Anytime you get this many songwriters together in one place, it’s exciting,” said songwriter David Applebaum from Cincinnati. “I come every year, and it’s always a thrill for me.”
It’s an estimation shared by the thousands of songwriters who come from all corners of the globe to be here, in the heart of Hollywood at the Renaissance Hotel, along with music producers, merchants, publishers and more. “Just to get to touch the hem of music royalty,” said Tom Hewn of Thousand Oaks, California, “it’s exciting. And it gives me hope.”
In addition to master classes with living legends, the EXPO also offers a mini-NAMM show of merchants displaying instruments, books, music software and much more, as well as a cavalcade of workshops, performances, song evaluations, consultations and beyond. “There’s a whole lot of information here,” said Hewn, “if you can take it all in.” His favorite, so far, has been the legal workshops which, he said, go a long way in enabling songwriters to navigate the choppy waters of copyright law, such as Lommen Abdo’s class “The ‘Song’ Arm of the Law,” which was described as an info-packed legal Q&A session for music creators.
“There are so many issues affecting songwriters,” said Hewn, “that really require a good understanding of legality – who owns what these days? It’s a hard call, but an essential one.”
Inbetween all the workshops, master-classes and performances, there is the ongoing parade of personalities one encounters in these corridors, as colorfully compelling artists from around this world commune. Of these, none were more colorfully compelling than Airika MissLadybug, from Riverside, California, and The Nomad, from San Diego.
MissLadybug told us she’s in the midst of creating an EP of a theatrical one-woman show she is developing that features four different characters, each with an entire different set of issues and music that matches. Today she is dressed as her character Roberta the Songbird. With her rainbow vivid makeup and chromatic hair feathers, she gets sometimes mistaken for someone who is all glitz and no talent. But like Cyndi Lauper, Lady Gaga and others who made a visually extreme statement to empower their careers, her visual statement is reflective of a whimsical, childlike spirit that is organically tied to her musical expression. Airika is a serious and remarkably gifted songwriter with a wonderfully expressive singing voice. She writes songs in every genre under the sun, but each is connected by her singular vision – the vulnerability and triumph of the heart – and by her passionate melodicism.
Despite, however, the passionate power of her music, its vast emotional range and obvious visual flair, she faces the challenge that all music creators face these days: How to get one’s music into the world. And so she exploits opportunities like this one to network with songwriters and music biz folk all weekends, to share her music with those willing to listen, and to let the world know that there’s an artist in our midst called Airika Miss Ladybug. “You gotta do whatever you can do,” she said, explaining that in real life she works in the Kaiser psychiatry department in Riverside, a job that provides good medical coverage and a salary that allows her to afford to be an independent artist.
“It’s expensive to be an artist these days. I am working to develop and produce my stage-show, and recording an EP of those songs, to show off the characters and concept.” She’s come to the conclusion that theaters – as opposed to clubs, coffee-houses or bars – are the ideal venue for her music. “Cause when people pay money and are in the theater,” she explained, “they listen! They pay attention. And I’ve realized it’s the only way for me to present my work. So I am presently trying to find a theater where I can do this.”
Is it tough to find the patience and fortitude to keep going, I asked? “Well,” she smiled, “it is and it’s not. There is no other option. It’s who I am, and what I do.”
Nomad – who was painted, remarkably, from head to toe, with vivid, intricate and richly multihued swirls of passion – is the lead singer of the San Diego band Dive Bomber, which was formed in 2010 when he met musicians Toad, Catfish and Pane. His muscular, soulful vocals are the glue that ties together the powerful, hard-driving songs of the group, and, onstage, according to their manager, Nomad matches the “aggressive, crazy guitar riffs” of Catfish with his vast vocal range, and a performance that is always “passionate, amazing and unpredictable.” Dive Bomber has released one indie CD, Pinups in Parachutes, produced by Platinum selling producer John Kurzweg.
So when MissLadybug and Nomad got together – to pose for my camera – it caused a fun stir in the midst of the ongoing hubbub of music-makers, as they posed dynamically and compared notes about the visual life of a musician today. In a world of constant information overload, both understand that good music is not enough. One has to get noticed first before anyone will hear the music, and that takes ongoing valiant effort.
Saturday’s main event was a master class offered by Bruno Mars and his songwriting- production team, the Smeezingtons, which consists of Bruno, Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine. To a packed ballroom, the three were hilarious in describing their climb to fame, and in writing and producing hit songs, such as “F**k You,” written with and performed by Cee-Lo Green, and “Just The Way You Are,” a monster hit for Bruno.
“I realized the only way you can make any money in this business is by writing songs,” said Mars, sitting in the middle of his team in signature chapeau. “But you got to do it all – you got to write the song, record it, arrange it, produce it. And how do you do that if you don’t have enough gas to get anywhere? So I decided I needed to produce songs as well as write them.”
Originally signed to Motown, Bruno explained that nobody there shared his vision, and consistently attempted to squeeze him into musical boxes that didn’t fit. “I was all over the place musically, and they didn’t get it.” It’s then that Mars shared what has become his secret motto. “ They kept asking, ‘Who is the audience for this music?’ And I kept saying the same thing: ‘The universe.’”
Mars said he teamed up with songwriter-producer Philip Lawrence, and they started writing a lot of songs, but needed a place to cut them. That’s when they met up with Ari Levine, who had a recording studio. With all the pieces in place, the Smeezingtons were born. Though Bruno always intended to be a recording artist, he knew he could build that bridge by writing and producing.
The first song he and Lawrence wrote together was called “Turn Me On.” “What an amazing title!” Mars joked. Lawrence chimed in: “The great thing for me,” he said, “is that for the first time ever I was finishing songs. I always started a lot – had a million ideas, tracks, this and that. Bruno came along and showed me how to put it all together, and finish a song.”
“So I guess you could say I complete you,” Bruno said, to much laughter.
Mars said hearing “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley was a “game-changer” for him in every aspect – the songwriting, the arrangement and production, and the amazing tenor lead vocal on that song provided by none other than Cee Lo Greene.
“I would have loved to have written ‘Crazy,’” Mars said. “I would have loved to have done anything on that song.”
So when he and his crew came up with an idea for a retro-soul rave-up of pure condemnation with the unlikely title of “F**k You,” they played it for Cee Lo, who was immediately entranced by it. “Say it again,” he said in regard to the title, which they did. Then he suggested that the song should curse out not only the guy, but the girl too – and so they added: “F**k you, and f**k her too.”
Mars added that when they started the song, they were suspending the piano chords, but when they discovered the funky piano riff that ties it together, they knew they had hit gold.
“It was so good,” Mars said, smiling, “I figured we would get sued, cause how could someone not have written that already? It’s so good, it was a dream. But , you know, we didn’t get sued. We got Rolexes.” With that they each held up their gold-adorned wrists to much laughter and applause.
All involved, however, were understandably apprehensive about putting out a record which uses the F-word over and over. But they knew it was great, and it was brave and new, so they put it out.
“And you know what that song teaches us?” Mars asked the crowd. “It taught us to f**k radio. It was a hit without radio.”
* * * *
A highlight of Saturday’s offerings was a panel offered by jazz legends Lee Ritenour and George Duke called “Producing a Professional Jazz Recording on a DIY Budget.” Revelatory from the start in that even living legends struggle constantly with financial restraints to make their art, it was a panel filled with practical information and warm-hearted support for fellow musicians.
“How many people here are working on some kind of indie recording project?” asked Duke. The entire audience raised their hands. “How many of you have home recording capabilities?” asked Ritenour. Again, it looked like the whole place raised their hands. Lee laughed. “See, that is a lot different than even five years ago,” he said.
“Your options are this,” Duke said, “to make a record you go into a studio, and spend a lot of time and a lot of money recording in a professional place. Or you do it yourself. Mostly people are opting for that option. And it is possible, even in today’s economy, to create great work on a low budget.” Both Duke and Ritenour said they prefer Logic to any other recording software, and explained that Logic and Garage Band are linked, so any Garage Band recording can be opened up on Logic. And they expounded on effective ways to get good sounds, grooves and performances even in a small, home studio.
Duke discussed that a chief challenge of recording jazz is having a studio large enough to record drums, which is increasingly rare. “Much of what we do revolved around live performance,” he said, “real musicians playing together in real time. And to capture that, you need space.” He’s gotten around it, he said, by using drum samples and loops, some so good “that I could even fool myself,” and sometimes adding real drums later.
They took many questions from the crowd, including one from a songwriter who wanted to know how best to demo jazz songs directed for jazz singers or artists.
“First of all,” Duke answered, “if you’re gonna send a song to Anita Baker, for example, do not get a singer who sounds just like Anita Baker. I know from her and other singers that that never works. Anita doesn’t want to hear it. Much better you get a totally different kind of vocalist – maybe a man if it’s for a woman.”
“Don’t overdo it,” said Ritenour. “Don’t overproduce it, so that the song doesn’t come across. You’re not trying to impress anyone with your chops as a producer or arranger. So keep it simple. Often a piano-voice demo, in which you have a great singer, is the best way to go.”
Duke didn’t entirely agree. “For many projects, I know I have to provide a full picture for people. I cannot expect an A&R guy or a publisher to imagine what a song can be. They don’t have that imagination. So you have to do it all – you have to make a demo that captures your vision exactly.”
At the same time that Ritenour and Duke were talking, lawyer and author Don Passman was in the Grand Ballroom discussing the “Nuts and Bolts of the Music Business,” while five panelists discussed the art and science of writing songs for commercials in a panel called “Ding Dong, the Jingle’s Dead: Building Your Career in Commercial Music.”
Stopped in the hubbub of music and networking and laughter and some notable exhaustion to give his highlights of the event, songwriter-publisher Barney Zlotnick of Des Plaines, Illinois said only, “Carly.” He meant Carly Simon’s master class on the opening day. Asked to expound, he rolled his eyes, and said, “I have always loved that woman. She’s written some of the best songs ever written, and just to be in the same room as she is in – to breathe the same air! – was a thrill. And she was so humble, and so gracious to those who supported her, and so sweet to fans like me who stammered when we tried to ask a question! And she looked more beautiful than ever. Wow. Carly.”
All photos: Paul Zollo