SONGWRITER’S WRITING WITH ARTISTS

One of the surest ways to get your song cut is to write with someone who will record it. Many top-notch songwriters have developed great relationships with artists over the years and often get together with them to write for the artists’ upcoming album.

Once managers and record label executives saw how well that process worked, they began to call established songwriters to ask them to write songs with some of the new artists on label rosters. It sounds nice in theory, but does it work?One of the surest ways to get your song cut is to write with someone who will record it. Many top-notch songwriters have developed great relationships with artists over the years and often get together with them to write for the artists’ upcoming album.

Once managers and record label executives saw how well that process worked, they began to call established songwriters to ask them to write songs with some of the new artists on label rosters. It sounds nice in theory, but does it work?

Most of the songwriters who spoke with American Songwriter agreed that just because you put two people in a room, it’s not a give that they’re gonna write a song. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a new artist or one who’s had a series of number one records, if the chemistry doesn’t work, the people in the room will not produce a song, much less a hit song.

That fact is especially true if the artist has never written a song or has little experience at doing so. In fact, songwriters have come to resent the fact that in order to get a cut by a new artist, they are expected to write with them. Songwriters admit they are taking a hard look at who they’re being asked to write with, and, while they might meet with an artist to see what he’s about, they probably aren’t going to sit down to write any songs if the artist can’t show them a decent song that he’s already written, or demonstrate in some other way that he understands what songwriting is all about. As one songwriter put it, “Why should I sit in a room for several hours with someone who has no clue about the songwriting process, write a song, and put the artists’ name on it, just to stroke an ego and get a cut?” Not to mention that when writing with these artists, the controlled composition clause may be a factor. (see separate story on controlled composition, page 44)

American Songwriter talked with several songwriters to find out the pros and cons of writing with artists. While the songwriters obviously preferred to talk about their success stories, they were also candid about the current trend of being asked to write with new artists and how they handle that situation.

Bob DiPiero (“Queen Of Denial”)

Through the years it had just been my experience with new artists that it’s just like rolling dice; you don’t know if he’s truly a writer or just someone who has been signed to a label. I don’t think it’s fair (to be asked to write with a new person is if someone whose opinion I trust tells me they’re truly a writer. Sometimes I’ll run into a situation where an artist shows up and they’re intimidated and they clam up, and that’s opposite of what you want to happen.

I have written with Vince Gill, and he showed up at the writing session with ideas. Pam Tillis is a great writer. I just wrote with Terri Clark for the first time and she is very focused, had good ideas, knew the nuts and bolts of songwriting.

With any artist the only negative is the imposition on their schedule. They are inundated with “must do” things, so an artist may cancel at the last minute. It is maddening but I understand but I understand it. Or an artist may show up but be so overwhelmed by their schedule that they aren’t focused. It’s great to have an artist be truly great writer. The worst thing to hear is that they want to write a hit. It’s good when they come in with an idea, a song title, the rhythm—at least it’s a place to start.

I remember writing “World’s Apart” with Vince. I came into the session, he was already there and he had this musical idea, and we wrote “End Of My Rope.” So we went to lunch, proceeded to eat ourselves sick with grease, got back to the office, and he still had time before his next appointment. So we’re trying to decide if to keep writing or not, and I told him about this idea I had, “World’s Apart,” and it was magical. In two hours we had the song—it came into the room and let us know it was there.

Jeff Pescetto (“Lovin’ On Next To Nothing”)

A lot of times publishers will try and hook you up with new artists, so I’m always writing with new artists. It’s tougher to get with the main artists. Some of the artists I’ve worked with are Go West and a group from England called King of Wishful Thinking…we got together, we hit it off as people, and we continue to write. There’s a new artist on RCA/BMG, Andy Vargus, really a good singer, young guy, very talented with a lot of energy. He’s been writing for the past year so we just met and I have written two or three songs with him. I’m really confident I’ll end up with something on his record because we’re hitting it off.

But you can put two of the most talented people in a room and if there’s no chemistry, it won’t work. I feel really strongly about being with someone you like. A lot of times there are opportunities to work with people but you just know it’s not going to work so you don’t pursue it.

The up side of writing with an artist is, if you write a good song together, the chances of getting it on the album are a lot stronger. He will push his own songs to go on the album. Writing with them gives you the opportunity of knowing right from the artist what they like. You can get to know the person so you can really gear the song specifically for them. If you’re writing a song for an artist you’ve never met or don’t know, you may not be able to lyrically get inside their head. When you’re with them you’ll find out how they will want to come across and how they want to say it.

Going into a new writing situation you always do e everything you can to make it work, but sometimes you just don’t come up with anything good.

I’m usually willing to try again because it’s almost like you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. If that happens I leave feeling disappointed, thinking maybe I didn’t come through. Sometimes you walk away thinking it’s okay, I’m just not the right person to work with this artist. If I was asked to write with an artist I didn’t care for, even if they were selling tons of records, I’d turn the opportunity down.

Jeff Silvey (“He Is”)

My publisher, Word, puts me with different artists. In the past I’ve written with Toby McKeehan of DC Talk…I just now am writing with Jennifer Hendricks of Sierra and Randy Phillips of Phillips Craig & Dean. I played piano with Jeff of Aaron Jeffrey before they were together. He and I wrote “He Is”…Because we’ve known each other for so long it was a natural thing to do.

A lot of times when you’re writing with someone for the first time you just have to go in and see, you don’t know if you’ll get a great song, especially the first time you write, because you don’t know their strengths or weakness. When you write with someone, you want to see what they’re going through in their life. That gives you an idea of what they want to talk about—you don’t want to write something that they wouldn’t want to sing.

IF there are any negatives it would be if they don’t record the song on their record, it would be harder to get it recorded by another artist. But it’s not a major problem.

When I write with other artist, if they don’t write as much on the song as I do, just to have them in the room you know what they would sing and wouldn’t sing. Even if they don’t write a whole lot of lines, it helps to have their input, so I don’t look at it as a negative, it helps you to know where to target a song.

Mark Hudson (“Living On The Edge”)

I’ve written with Steven Tyler, Ozzy Ozborne, the Scorpions, Jars of Clay…when you go in to write with them you see another whole side. I saw no spiders in Ozzy’s house, no dungeon, he drank cranberry juice, not blood; this whole thing is an image. They know who they are, it’s not about me trying to change that at all. Being a songwriter coming into a situation, we’re nothing more than motivation. Their talent is already solid, their music and direction is already done. I’ve been doing this for a

very long time. I’ve been through the whole kitchen sink and sometimes it’s a great advantage to have such a knowledge of music, ‘cause when someone says let’s do a riff like so-and-so and you know what they’re talking about.

I just started working with Brendan Lynch, a new act found by Glen Ballard. I’m also writing with the Hanson Bros.—they’re 9, 12, and 16 year-olds from Tulsa, Okla. I wrote three songs for them. On one of the songs I said, “The chorus should be the bridge,” and I see Zack, his lower lip is quivering, and he said, ‘I liked it the way it was.’ So I see I’m having to be Mister Rodgers and a co-writer. In the end after he gave it a chance, he liked it. Steve Greenberg brought them to me. He had the vision. The coolest part, they came to LA to make a record and we became really really close by the end of it. They were almost cocky, I like that.

Bob Regan (“Running Out Of Reasons To Run”)

One of the downsides of writing with an artist is, once another artist sees that artist’s name they wonder if it wasn’t good enough for that artist to cut, why should I cut it? If I do write with an artist, it’s pretty much for them, maybe someone else will cut it but less likely.

Sometimes by building your relationship with an artist, even if you don’t’ end u getting a song, you get on good terms with them and you also have a much better idea of things they want to say and think about and what they’re looking for. So one of the benefits is knowing the artists and having direct access to them.

Earl Rose (“All For The Sake Of Love”)

You have to always remember when you’re writing with an artist, if you want to get great song, the song you are doing has to be a terrific song for that artist. But my goal is to create not only a great record but a great song so that another artist will do it too. Brian McKnight and I received an Emmy nomination for “Every Beat Of My Heart” which was used on As The World Turns. Brian recorded it and then Johnny Mathis recorded it. That’s the kind of thing I want to happen, you have to set those goals for yourself.

A lot times people say when you work with artists you get intimidated, but you have to look at the fact that they’re your collaborator, you have to forget that they’re the artist almost and know that the main thing is the great song. When you write a great song, everybody wins, it’s a team situation, and when somebody tries to take away from a member of the team, the team starts to weaken. But if something is really good everybody will benefit.

Vip Vipperman (“There’s A Girl In Texas”)

My theory is whether the artists really have a commercial idea or not it’s not so much about my vision but about what they feel and feel like they want to do. So whatever I can bring to the table to help them to create a song out of pieces is great. Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you do something that is more of a personal thing that the artist wants to say but then the producer may not think that it’s commercial, but at the same time the writer part of the artist is sort of fulfilled that way.

I usually try to bring the melody up from the artists themselves because they might have great melodies running around in their heads, and it’s more natural for them to sing things that come up out of their soul than something I might come up with. I help them brush it up, punch it up, suggest a few notes here and there, but they usually have a great sense of melodies they like and want to sing.

I always go in with a positive attitude and try to bring out what I can with the artist. I have written with some of the guys, some who were so young they didn’t have much experience to draw from life, and that’s what you bring to the table and try to contribute. We almost always get songs, whether or not they become records is out of our hands.

Chick Rains (“I’m Still Dancing With You”)

It’s kind of a blessing and a curse—you don’t have to go through the process of pitching songs and that kid of thing, but sometimes you get inbred and sometimes instead of writing the best song you can write, you bend it in a direction it may not want to go. But that’s what you’re trying to do, hopefully come up with something that is commercial and fits into whatever the artist’s persona is about. It was a great learning experience with Michael Martin Murphey; he’s a very poetic kind of writer and I’m kind of linear, so somehow we’d try to meet in the middle. We’d get as much of him in something we’d try to meet in the middle. We’d get as much of him in something and tailor it for radio, which seems to be the hardest part of it, trying to help an artist stay true to himself and still be commercial.

Really I guess the only negative thing is artists are continually on the road. You have to go out with them, ride the bus, it’s not one of those things where you can just call and go write. You have to block out time around their schedule, just hope you’re on that day. Just trying to find songs that pushed an artist emotional buttons is pretty much the ticket.

Sometimes you miss the mark in what you create, sometimes those songs get done but you didn’t have time to hone them as much as you would like.

Deadlines don’t bother me sometimes the song just isn’t ready. Sometimes you go ahead (with the song) because it’s times to do it, but with a little more time and effort you would probably change things in the song a little bit. With Michael on “Radio Land” we were writing the last verse when Jim Ed (Norman, producer) came in and said ‘We have to have it now or we don’t get it’ We’d been working on it for months trying to figure out a way to tie all together, and then it came together, so pressure actually helps sometimes.

Jim McBride (“Chattahoochie”)

(Writing with an artist) is a double-edged sword For one thing, if you write with an artist you’re gonna write something that an artist can cut, and then if that artist doesn’t cut it, you have a song that has been tailored for somebody else that you’re left to pitch. Whether it makes any difference or not their name is on it, and as often as not, when you co-write with an artist the song may get cut and may not.

I started writing with Alan(Jackson) a year-and-a-half before he had a record deal. Now songwriters usually get calls asking if they’ll write with this person, or are told that this person would like to write with you. I’m becoming kind of picky, because the bad part is they don’t say we’ve got this new artist, do you have any great songs for him, they want you to write with him. I think I can speak for other writers that they get tired of that. Just one time we’d like someone to call and ask for great songs.

The simple fact is, some of these new artists have the ability to write and some of them don’t, and it doesn’t take long to find out which ones can write and which ones can’t. The ones who can’t really write, if you wrote a good song, that you probably wrote mostly by yourself, they don’t even realize it. They might not go in and fight for it, they might not even show it, they just don’t know.

It’s difficult and pathetic that a professional writer has to get to the point of making another person feel they had something to do with writing the song. And it’s very refreshing to find a new artist that has great ideas and knows what songwriting is all about.

The other thing is, I like to write songs that say something one way or the other, and the simple fact is a lot of the newer artists haven’t experienced that much life, so you write a song like that and they’re not gonna cut it. I’ve had that experience more than once.

When I get one of those calls now, about writing with the new artists, I ask where they’re from, can I hear something they’ve written, what do they sound like? We might just get together and see what they’re like. There’s this mentality of ‘let’s put him with Kent Blazy and write another “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” or Jim and write “Chattahoochie.” You have one day to write a hit like that, and it’s a lot of pressure that I’m backing away from.

You’re almost forced into this situation, if you don’t write with an artist you won’t get a cut.

I’d rather hear a song written by a great songwriter himself than a mediocre song written with an artist.

Kent Blazy (“If Tomorrow Never Comes”)

Garth (Brooks) really did spoil me. He is so incredible a writer, and was when I first met him. The first song we wrote was “If Tomorrow Never Comes.”

I feel like a lot of the new artists would be better off finding the best songs in Nashville, because there are some incredible ones. A lot of them don’t have what it takes (as a songwriter) but they are able to get with established writers because they have a record deal. A lot of times their input is pretty negligible, so that’s the situation I run into. It’s kind of burned me out working with artists

I might get with somebody one time and see how we click, but if I don’t feel they are a writer, I’m not going t write a song for them and have their name on it.

If I get with somebody who I think has talent or has something to say, then I’ll work with them.

There are a lot of great artist/writers out there, but a lot of these new artists should just find the best song.


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