The editor of American Songwriter asked me to talk about the songwriting group I’m a part of and how it might help jump-start my songwriting process. Since about 2010, I’ve been a part of a songwriting group that Bob Schneider started. Songwriters have rotated in and out over the years. I took a while off when things got crazy a couple times, but for the most part I have turned in one song every week.
Right now, I think we have about ten writers in the group, including: Jason Mraz, Anya Marina, Bob Schneider, Billy Harvey, Billy Galewood, Matt Davis, Ari Hest, Annie Stela, and Clint Wells.
Some weeks, I’m scrambling to get a song in before Sunday night’s deadline. Like last week, I’d just come home from tour, and all I wanted to do was relax and watch the Oscars, so I knocked a song out pretty quickly and sent it off. Other times, I’ll sit around the house all day and work on one for hours and hours.
Sometimes when I’m touring, I’ll finish a show and I’m dead tired at 2 a.m. I’ll get in bed and realize, “Goddammit, the song …” So, I get up and try to get one done and turned in. It’s really great to be able to take my time and finish one, and not have it be last minute. But those last-minute songs can be the gems sometimes. You never know when just forcing yourself to create something is going to turn into an important part of your next song. So, I think we’re really on to something.
It’s kind of in line with what my poetry professor in college said, “The first and most important part of being a writer is: APPLY ASS TO CHAIR!”
The busier I’ve become with touring and working on music business stuff, the more important it has become to be a part of a songwriting group like this that keeps me on task.
I generally just turn in acoustic rambles and scribbled, improvisational lyrics sung right into my microphone on my phone. Very lo-fi and un-produced, but that’s how I’ve always written. I allow space in the studio for the songs to take shape and become finished. Otherwise, if songs become too-finished on the front end, I feel like you can miss out on magical moments of inspiration that often happen during the moment of recording.
My new record So On And So Forth included many ideas that took shape over the last few years as a result of the songwriting game with Bob. The recording process itself was very inspired. Even though I live in Nashville, I traveled to Asbury Park, New Jersey to record my album. I’d never met any of the musicians. The studio owner, Jon Leidersdorff of Lakehouse Recording Studios, helped put together a band. I flew in, showed up at the studio, played the guys my songs, they made some charts, and we just all got into a room and recorded it all live.
We did very minimal overdubs, and did not use a click-track on any of the recordings. We kept a lot of the live vocal takes. My goal was to create a dynamic album that makes the listener feel as if they were in the live session with us. In today’s world of technology, it is tempting to put everything to the grid, so it is easy to fix stuff, and overdub until you get it just right. But I wanted as much human performance, emotion and feel to be captured as possible.
Radio stations are playing my single “Yesterday Lies,” so I think it proves you don’t have to be recording to a click to get on the radio. It is not a secret that working with limitations can be beneficial in the studio, and that maximizing all the technological tricks can suck the grit and soul out of a recording, but there tends to be a message that you if you aren’t using a click, aren’t tuning the vocals, and aren’t making your track perfect with all these fixes, that you are shooting yourself in the foot. I think, for me, it is the opposite.
A lot of times, at my shows people tell me they think I’m better live than on my records, and my favorite recordings we have done have all been ones where we were tracking live. “Waterfall” on Lost and Found is a good example of that. And I hope people will be able to feel that on this new record as well.
I am sure that with limited time as a touring musician and full-time dad, being a part of this songwriting group made it much easier to have more material to work with for my new record. The weekly challenge to deliver a new song to the group does motivate me to: APPLY ASS TO CHAIR!
If my college poetry professor (Steven Bauer) is reading this, I hope you don’t mind that I borrowed your phrase and passed it on to all the professional and aspiring songwriters everywhere. It truly is the best writing advice I have ever heard. We are in the South, so if you want to make a bumper sticker out of it maybe it could be “APPLY ASS TO CHAIR, Y’ALL!”