Phil Vassar: “Phil Vassar’s Humbling Experience”

move to Nashville, get a reality check

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Videos by American Songwriter

When songwriter Phil Vassar arrived in Nashville in the late 1980s from his native Virginia, he considered himself a pretty adequate writer who knew something about the craft. As he now recalls with wry humor, his shortcomings became apparent all too quickly.

“I always thought I knew how to write songs until I got here. Then I realized I didn’t know anything about writing songs! It was a humbling experience.”

When songwriter Phil Vassar arrived in Nashville in the late 1980s from his native Virginia, he considered himself a pretty adequate writer who knew something about the craft. As he now recalls with wry humor, his shortcomings became apparent all too quickly.

“I always thought I knew how to write songs until I got here. Then I realized I didn’t know anything about writing songs! It was a humbling experience.”

Fortunately, Vassar, 35, has the type of easy-going personality that makes it easy to laugh at himself. He also has a smart, disciplined work ethic that motivates him to keep pushing to improve his skills. Since his initial reality check, he’s refined his writing chops enough to see significant chart success with songs like “Bye Bye” and “I’m Alright,” with artist Jo Dee Messina; “For A Little While” with Tim McGraw; “Little Red Rodeo” for Collin Raye; “Postmarked Birmingham” with Blackhawk; and “Right On the Money” for Alan Jackson.

What is more surprising is that Vassar did not set out to become a hit songwriter for others. His initial goal was to become a recording artist. He grew up with music and says he listened to just about anything that was popular, as well as music his parents liked. His father was a professional lounge singer for many years and was a big role model for Vassar, besides providing a thorough grounding in the ins-and-outs of the business side of music. The budding musician learned to play guitar and keyboards, but also had an interest in sports and attended college on a track scholarship, while studying business administration. He says songwriting didn’t become a primary focus until after moving to Nashville.

“I met Linda Hargrove, a great songwriter. She’s one of the first people I met when I came to town and started knocking on doors. She took me under her wing. I really realized how bad a writer I was when I listened to her songs. It was like ‘Oh no, I’m really not good.’ But that’s what got me interested in pursuing it more seriously.”

Discussing how he practices his craft and the writing process, Vassar shows a lot of insight on what works for him personally. For instance, Nashville is known as a town where co-writing is often the norm. Vassar says there are some good reasons why he prefers it and what makes a good co-writing relationship.

“I think it’s a lot harder to write by yourself. I do it, but for me, the ideas are few and far between. I mean some people do it so well it’s difficult for them to write with anyone. I think co-writing is more fun for me. I really enjoy the relationships I’ve built because my co-writers are my friends. That helps, when you can sit there and talk about boats or softball and hang out. I really don’t write with a whole lot of people. You have to be comfortable with your co-writer so I want to write with somebody I can hang out with.”

He’s also pretty clear about taking a disciplined attitude in his work habits. He thinks a structured approach is more productive.

“Spontaneous inspiration does come every once in awhile, but I do approach writing like a job. I try to write every day. I think you have to. For me it works better to have appointments set up, to have that structure.”

Unexpectedly, Vassar doesn’t feel he has to have a specific idea or come to a co-writing session with song hooks in hand to get things going as some writers do. Nor does he have a preference about beginning with the lyric or a melody. Once he’s in a writing mode, he prefers to keep it loose and see what the energy created by sharing ideas will lead to.

“For the most part I’ll sit down at the piano and start playing and pull something out of the air. I don’t know that there’s a right or wrong way to do it. I have written songs where the lyric came first. Sometimes a co-writer comes in with an idea to start with. Having a good title idea is great, but probably 90% of the time I don’t do it that way because I don’t always have any ideas ‘til I get in there,” he concludes with a laugh.

Ask any five songwriters about how to produce a demo and you can get five different answers on what works best. Vassar states a definite taste for getting as complete a sound as possible. He admits he likes to hear as many licks on a demo as time and money will allow.

“I try to make my demos sound as good as I can. It’s not like a record where you get to spend as much time to finish a song as you need. You’re going in and maybe trying to cut five songs and there isn’t that much time, but I really do try to make them as good as possible. I have a great bunch of guys that play with me and I count a lot on them and what they hear for different songs. I’ve gotten songs cut on a piano/vocal, ‘Postmarked Birmingham’ was one, but that was a fluke.”

Talking about the many pitfalls awaiting novice writers just coming to town, Vassar shares some insight based on his own experience. “Well, I think the biggest mistake I made was thinking it was going to happen right away. I think the one thing I did right was deciding when I moved here ‘I’m staying here.’ The worst mistake anybody can make is trying to adjust their writing to trends, trying to fit into the wrong mold for them. I’ve done that. Whatever comes naturally for you is what you should go with. You need to trust your gut instinct and not always listen to what everybody says. There are certain people where, if you respect their advice, take it. But no matter how much somebody may know, they don’t know what’s right all the time for everybody.”

Reflecting on what advice to offer aspiring writers, he recalls that it was his dad who told him that he’d never get ahead in pursuing his career if he didn’t go to the scene of the action. Therefore he believes it’s necessary for serious writers to move to a music center if possible. However, he points out how important it is to have some clear priorities in mind when doing so.

“I think the most important thing is establishing roots. You need to decide ‘ This is where I’m staying,’ and you get a job or do whatever you’ve got to do to make money, pay your bills and set up some sort of normal life. Getting a foothold is the most important thing; then worry about getting into the music and establishing relationships, going to functions, attending writers nights. That’s not being lazy (about getting started pursuing your goals), it’s just being realistic.”

It seems that things really do have a way of coming full circle in life. After ten years as a successful writer for other artists, the guy who wanted to be one himself is getting his chance. Vassar signed a record deal with Arista Records last year and just completed his first project, produced by writer/publisher/producer Bryon Gallimore. He wrote or co-wrote all the material and is anxious to see where this new turn in his road will lead. As usual, Vassar plans to proceed with a clear vision of what he needs to do and how to go about it.

“Well, I see myself writing songs forever. I think I enjoy it too much to ever stop. Five years from now, hopefully, I’ll be having a successful career as an artist. Hopefully I’ll be right in the middle of it. I have a little girl and making sure she’s taken care of is my ultimate goal. That’s the most important thing and all the music stuff is way down there after that, but I think they all kind of tie in together. My personal goal is that I want her to be involved in my life as she grows up and sees me do well and be a well-rounded kid. That and to shoot under par just one time in golf!”


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