The Writers Block: Keith Thomas on Songwriting: “My Barometer Is It Has to Give Me Chills”

Keith Thomas has spent more than 30 years as a sought-after songwriter and producer. The majority of that creative time was working in the Christian and pop worlds, writing with the likes of Amy Grant (“Baby Baby”) and BeBe & CeCe Winans (“Don’t Cry”) as well as penning career-defining songs for Selena (“I Could Fall in Love”) and Mandy Moore (“I Wanna Be With You”).

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The two-time Grammy Award-winning producer’s credits can also be found on songs and albums by Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, 98 Degrees, Gladys Knight, Michael Bolton, Vanessa Williams, James Ingram, Peabo Bryson, Debora Cox, Regina Belle, Tatyana Ali, Yolanda Adams, Wild Orchid, and Heather Headley. More recently, Thomas produced pop singer SYD’s latest song, “INSANE,” while “Don’t Cry,” written with BeBe Winans, was featured in the Houston biopic I Wanna Dance with Somebody.

“A well-written song that offers hope can change our perspective on life,” Thomas tells American Songwriter. “Songwriters have the ability to affect change, to evoke laughter, tears, hope, healing or a wide range of emotions that we experience on a regular basis. Songwriting is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal.”

Below, the songwriter/producer shares songwriting tips, advice on how to work through writer’s block, and the stories behind some of his hits.

American Songwriter: How did you get started in songwriting?

Keith Thomas: I was raised in a musical family and early on made my first record at nine years old. My father, who is in the Georgia Country Music Hall Of Fame for yodeling, was not only a mentor but an inspiration and while I didn’t write my first song until 1977, the developing years provided a good foundation and appreciation for the art of songwriting.

In 1977, I was playing keyboards and drums for the Christian trio, The Sharrett Brothers, who signed to Word Records shortly after I joined the group. This is when I wrote my first song titled “Song For the Heart,” which became the title track of their debut album. Three years later I sent two songs to Rob Galbraith in Ronnie Milsap’s office in Nashville, which resulted in me moving to Nashville and becoming Ronnie’s first staff writer. A year and a half later, I moved to Word Records as a staff writer and producer and the next six years would yield over 20 No. 1 records I either wrote and/or produced.

AS: What inspires you? How do you find song ideas?

KT: I consider my wheelhouse to be more melodic than lyrical, although one of my biggest hits, Selena’s, “I Could Fall in Love,” I wrote both music and lyrics. I typically write the melody first, with a lyrical hook, unless I’m moved by a particular story or situation and then I’ll dive in and finish.

In terms of songs like “Baby Baby,” I handed Amy Grant a track that basically had the hook baby baby and ever since the day you put my heart in motion. From there she took the melody and finished the lyric about her newborn daughter. My wife says I’m “Mushy” and I agree… I’m about anything that’s sentimental and has heart. My barometer is it has to give me chills.

AS: Have you ever experienced writer’s block and how do you get past it?

KT: I’ve heard other creators say there’s no such thing as writer’s block. I think for me, writer’s block comes from an empty well and not pushing through. I love to listen to what others are doing, which subconsciously, “Fills that Well.” I tell all of my artists, you have to write through the tough times, especially when you don’t feel like writing. This is what separates amateurs from pros. I have done this so many times that this is really a thing.

I will sit down to write and actually say out loud “I suck” but three hours later I have something I’m jumping up and down about and clueless about where it came from. It also took a while to understand my own process. Almost every time I sit to write, I get sleepy. For years I just talked about it and didn’t realize, this is part of my process, so now I just give in to it, take a nap and I’m good to go. Maybe I’m prepping my body for the download that’s about to take place because again, that’s the most amazing thing about songwriting. You walk into a room with nothing but an idea and hours later, you can potentially have something that brings the listener to tears.

AS: How do you approach tapping into someone else’s story during a writing session?

KT: It’s sometimes difficult for me to jump in on a narrative that I didn’t experience. I think that’s why I’ve placed more weight on the melody. What I feel I’m really good at is pushing the lyric to a better place from an overall perspective. Often writers will unwittingly write other people’s songs, which can sometimes feel cliche or pedestrian and I’m always trying to keep it as fresh and real as possible.

AS: Can you feel when a song is going to be a hit during a writing session or does it constantly surprise you which songs take off?

KT: Most of the time I predicted which songs I thought would be the hits and contrary to what some say, it is possible to know you’re writing a hit. This was far easier to do in the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s. However, due to the new paradigm, this is much more difficult to do because of an oversaturated marketplace. … Our engagement and how we listen has changed dramatically.

In 2022, the top 10 biggest hits only accounted for 0.425% of all audio streams. It is not uncommon now to visit an artist’s Spotify page to learn they have 25 million monthly listeners. 25 million monthly listeners in the ’90s would mean, you’re a household name. Building niche audiences has diluted the impact of the “Hit” playlists. People are becoming more diverse in their music consumption.

AS: Are you someone who has a very concerted writing process? Or are you constantly jotting down ideas and creating more sporadically?

KT: This has often been a point of contention. I tend to get super creative when I have to be out of the house for an event or deadline to go somewhere. I have no idea why, but I will sit down and things begin to flow and my wife is yelling at me, “We’re going to be late now.”

Additionally, I use my voice memo on my phone religiously. I will record snippets of melodic and rhythmic ideas as well as rain, ambient noises or anything I feel I can use in a track in the future. With the onset of sampling, I would sample any and everything I could record from dogs barking to background vocals in a massive parking garage.

AS: What advice would you give songwriters just starting out?

KT: My first piece of advice for new songwriters is to write when you don’t feel like it. Carve out a time at least five days a week and protect that time like you would if you were in school and have no choice but to write. It’s the structure that’s important and it’s you subconsciously saying to yourself, this is the most important thing to me.

That said, you have to be passionate about it. Also, understand, there is an art to writing “Hit” songs and the more you write and listen to other songs and songwriters, the more you’ll learn. Also, try to write with songwriters who have had hits or are currently in demand. The last one is more difficult because it’s like the chicken or the egg but if you’re writing at the level that deserves attention, most good songwriters will be able to hear that. Don’t allow yourself to become depressed because you can’t seem to break the glass ceiling. It only takes ONE song to change the game. Suddenly, all your past work becomes valuable and you’re a genius.

AS: Do you have a favorite moment from a particular writing session?

KT: I don’t recall a favorite writing session but a songwriting experience that hopefully will encourage future songwriters. At the time I wrote “Baby Baby,” I had already had 20+ No. 1 records on the Christian charts. After mixing “Baby Baby,” the label said it wasn’t going to be a single, so I sent it to Clive Davis, who then put it on hold for Aretha Franklin. Once the label learned that we were going to pull the song, they offered for me to go to L.A. and mix with one of their preferred engineers.

After dropping off the tapes (Yes, there were no thumb drives available then), I went back on day two to listen. After the engineer had replaced my keys, drums and added guitar, I said, “This is not the record I made. Can we at least get a mix of my record?” This was at 4 p.m. in the afternoon. He looked at his watch and said, “Well I’m going to a Dodger’s game at 7 p.m… Yeah, if we can do it between now and then.” That became the record. Instinct is so important and it taught me a valuable lesson that would come back many other times in similar situations. This answers the question, “Did you know you were writing a hit song?” I knew it was a hit… I didn’t know it would be nominated for Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Female Vocalist of the Year and Producer of the Year. That was a bonus.

AS: What do you love most about songwriting?

KT: The thing I love most about songwriting is how a certain sequence of notes can affect the human condition. For example, thematic compositions by some of my favorite composers like Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer, or Alexandre Desplat, literally sends chills down my spine and lowers my heart rate and can change my disposition. A well-written song that offers hope can change our perspective on life. Songwriters have the ability to affect change… to evoke laughter, tears, hope, healing or a wide range of emotions that we experience on a regular basis. Songwriting is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal.

(Photo Credit: Keith Thomas / Courtesy Industry Works 2)

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