The Writer’s Block: JT Harding Shares Tips for Writing Hits

Songwriter JT Harding has several chart-topping music hits under his belt. He’s written 7 No. 1 songs, including “Smile” with Uncle Kracker, “Somewhere in my Car” with Keith Urban, “Somewhere With You” with Kenny Chesney, and Blake Shelton’s number-one song “Sangria.”

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Born in South Detroit, Harding is putting his knowledge to the page. His latest book, a memoir called Party Like a Rockstar: The Crazy, Coincidental, Hard-Luck and Harmonious Life of a Songwriter is due out on February 22. The book follows Harding’s life from growing up in Michigan to writing number one hits for artists like Urban, Shelton, and more.

“This is the book I wish someone had written when I was trying to get in the music business because I did not know what to do,” Harding told The Shuli Show. “People out there you are going to cry when you read my book because it is so funny.”

American Songwriter caught up with Harding to talk about all things songwriting, including his big break, what it takes to get started in the music business, and some tips to writing hit songs. Check out the interview below.

American Songwriter: How did you get started in songwriting?

JT Harding: Jumping around to KISS records with a hockey stick for a guitar started it. Then one day MTV came blasting into my living room and like Dorthy leaving Kansas and landing in OZ my world went from black and white to technicolor. I wanted to crawl inside the TV to get as close to this magic music video world as I could so I started a band and began writing songs in 6th grade. My first song was called “Lockjaw” about a lifeguard girl with braces.

AS: What was your big break in songwriting?

JT: I toured the world as an assistant for the superstar rock act Linkin Park and they let me open for them on occasion. A burned cd I handed out to the crowd was passed around and landed me a publishing deal in Nashville. A new demo I made in Nashville caught the ear of Uncle Kracker who I met and we wrote “Smile”, my first hit. It was a pop hit, a country hit, and has sold close to 4 million copies.

AS: What do you think it takes to get started in the music scene?

JT: One hundred percent dedication. It has to be your top priority. There are so many people putting music first in their own lives if you don’t do the same you’ll get passed up.  If you want to write country songs I believe you have to move to Nashville. This is where country music happens. Every dog is a lion at home, you have to move to the big city and start writing among the best writers to have a career. Nashville is a great community, writers inspire and encourage each other here like no other place I’ve been.

AS: What goes into writing a hit song?

JT: Writing a lot of not hit songs. Haha! If I knew a secret formula I’d have even more hits. You simply have to write a lot. To me, a hit song should be catchy enough for any 5-year-old to sing along to. So keep it catchy. Also, try to say something in the lyric that no one else has said in the same way before. There are more love songs than there are stars in the sky, how will yours stand out? Mix a simple infectious melody with a clever lyric and you’re on the highway to hit the town.

AS: Can you share your songwriting process? (Do you have a specific formula?)

JT: I live in Nashville and we write songs 5 days a week, it’s a full-contact sport here so I prepare.  I save tons of titles in my phone, I strum my guitar late at night humming melodies, and coming up with riffs while Diners Drive-In’s and Dives glows in front of me on mute. Going into co-writes every day with a spark of a song idea gets the ball rolling. Then we throw gasoline on it and hope it catches our hearts on fire. The answers are in the work. START writing something, anything… and the inspiration comes, don’t wait for inspiration.

AS: How do you find inspiration when working toward a deadline?

JT: Personally, I’ve never had a ‘song deadline.” I don’t try to rush songs. I have a feeling when a song is right and I’ve tweaked it enough, that’s when it’s done. Then I turn it into my publisher Rusty Gaston at Sony Music and he pitches it to all the artists. You can’t force a song to greatness any more than you can force a butterfly to land on your hand.

AS: What is the hardest part for you when it comes to staying motivated to keep practicing and writing?

JT: Being in one place all the time can stifle my creativity so I travel. Writing trips to NYC, beach towns, New Orleans, you name it. A change of scenery makes everything seem fresh, and new ideas seem to pour out like Mudslides from a Bourbon Street blender.

AS: What is the best piece of songwriting advice/tips you can give to aspiring songwriters?

JT: Be yourself. Don’t try to copy what’s popular, be the next trend. I wrote “Somewhere With You” that Kenny Chesney recorded and turned into a massive hit. At the time it had a unique fast singing melody that wasn’t on country radio and a unique breakup angle. If I had tried to write a beach song or a sexy tractor song, Kenny would never have noticed it. My song stood out from the crowd. I didn’t know it was unique but I wasn’t trying to be anyone else either. Also, co-write. Your ideas become better when looked at from different angles, and your network of people that can get your songs heard grows as well when there are a few writers on a song….all write, all write, all write!

AS: What do you love most about songwriting?

JT: Hearing a song I wrote on the radio feels like running down the stairs on Christmas morning to unwrap presents, or finding out your high school crush feels the same about you. It’s a thrill that never gets old. I truly hope every aspiring songwriter gets to experience that feeling and I believe they can. I didn’t know anyone in the music business, I kept writing, stayed positive, and here I am jumping around to my own songs on the radio with a hockey stick for a guitar.

Photo by Fred Hayes

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