Being a successful songwriter is one thing, but being able to write or co-write across several genres – and finding success in all of them – is a pretty rare thing to do. Robert White Johnson has accomplished this, with pop cuts by the Beach Boys and Celine Dion, southern rock with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Van Zant, Dove-winning Gospel and CCM with Larnelle Harris and Kathy Troccoli, mainstream rock with the J. Geils Band’s Peter Wolf and with his own 1980s major label band, RPM, and everything in between. He was a staff writer for Tree International Publishing in Nashville, among others, and his voice has been heard millions of times as the singer of some of the most popular commercial jingles ever.
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Johnson is still active with production projects in his own studio and can teach most of us a thing or two about not only how to write better, but about how to write songs that are universal. He answered a few questions for American Songwriter via email from his suburban Nashville home.
AS: You’ve been highly prolific as a writer and seem to be able to find great melodies and lyrics relatively easy. How do you plug into that? What advice might you have, whether writing by yourself or in a co-write, when the well seems to be dry?
RWJ: It’s mainly about being prepared. I have a gazillion titles I’ve accumulated over the years. I also have some melody ideas, or some themes to tap into. I generally try and have several hook/title ideas ready in advance whether I’m writing for/with a particular artist or songwriter. Nothing’s more boring than to sit around looking at each other, hoping someone comes up with an idea to light a spark! A great title/concept is usually the best place to start. It’s the springboard most of the time, imo!
AS: You were originally a drummer and then a singer – how did you approach songwriting in the beginning, especially since you weren’t a chord instrument player to start with?
RWJ: My songwriting started in 6th grade, and being a drummer/singer had its disadvantages. Early on I came up with mainly lyric ideas, and a bit of melody from time to time. Next, I’d sit with one of the guitar players in the band to work out the changes and full melody. In 8th grade however, I began to teach myself guitar. I was never great at it, but it did get me more on the page musically speaking. As I got older my musical ideas became more complex so I’d generally co-write with a guitarist or keyboard player who could help take things to a new level. I also taught myself a bit of piano. Quite often these days, I come up with an entire melody to a song off the top of my head. Thank God for digital recorders. I’ve got a half dozen of them filled with ideas. I’m actually doing more solo writing these days, and I can take my time in figuring out the changes prior to going into the studio to track. When we track, the players still may add some changes for coloring, etc., but I usually bring with or email in advance an MP3 of the full song that I’ve hacked away at.
AS: If someone isn’t born with the greatest sense of melody, what might you suggest they do to develop one?
RWJ: My guess would be to focus more on lyrics, and/or study the greatest songwriters … i.e., Lennon/McCartney, Elton/Bernie, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Barry Gibb, Willie Nelson, Kristofferson, Holland & Dozier, Dylan etc. Whatever your bag musically, pick the greatest songwriters in the particular genre you’re drawn to/interested in. Ultimately, however, a great melody is a great melody, whether it’s a contemporary writer/artist or Irving Berlin. Study the best till it seeps into your soul!
AS: You’ve written pop, southern rock, Christian/Gospel – do you have to put yourself in a certain frame of mind for a certain genre? Or do you approach it in terms of who the artist is or who the audience will be?
RWJ: I was blessed to have grown up in the ‘60s and ‘70s when I was exposed to almost every kind of music imaginable. Radio then was broad in its appeal and scope so I was inspired by every type of artist. Consequently, I’ve been able to relate to a number of different styles of music. I will say, however, it’s imperative to be familiar and get to know the artist you’re writing for in advance if it’s at all possible. I may spend hours talking with an artist before we even think about writing the first note. I’m always looking for a window into their soul, to understand what makes them tick. It’s always where the best stuff lies. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve prepared things in advance, only to go down a completely different road once I’m sitting in the room talking with the artist.
AS: If you were 27 again and just pulling into today’s Nashville, where would you suggest going and what would you do to get yourself and your songs heard?
RWJ: This is incredibly challenging to answer specifically. Times lately are pretty tough. When I began my songwriting career in Nashville, the business was centralized and very accessible. Today, it’s the polar opposite. It’s spread out all over the place, and getting an appointment to play songs for someone is akin to an act of Congress. It takes a lot more determination. If you’re a talented writer/artist, you may be able to gain attention/open doors by creating a buzz of sorts performing live around town. Sometimes you have to wait till the trend comes around to you! Years ago, there were just a handful of clubs in town, and you’d usually find A&R reps, publishers, promoters, even writer relations reps from BMI, ASCAP or SESAC hanging out at these places looking for talent. This has always been, and will always be, a people business. It’s about relationships, and those usually take years to build unless you’re fortunate enough to find a publisher or manager who’s willing to sign and work you. It’s how things generally happened in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s here, in LA or NYC. My publisher(s) at the time would help coordinate co-writes, and/or introduce me to other artists, writers, A&R reps or producers. Some people are finding success via social media/YouTube etc., but it’s got to be really great to catch the attention of people due to the overwhelming amount of people attempting the same thing. YouTube can change the entire scenario, plus it’s evergreen in the sense it keeps working for you even while you’re sleeping. Again, it has to have all the elements!
Like any business or career, it’s about perseverance, determination, and being that person that others want to hang with (in addition to talent of course)! Keep looking for opportunities without being too pushy. Sooner or later, you’ll find others to connect with, and one thing will lead to another. Anyone thinking they’ll give it a shot for a year or so to see how it goes is usually kidding themselves. If it’s not a passion, it more than likely will never happen, no matter your career path.