Tech Tip:A&R Insider: Steve Seskin, Hit Songwriter Part 1
Part 1 | Part 2
Moderated by Michael Laskow
Michael Laskow, TAXI CEO introduces: Steve Seskin is one of the most successful writers in Nashville today. The ironic part is that he doesn't live in Nashville. He's an A-list songwriter with a boat-load of songs recorded by people like Tim McGraw, Neil McCoy, John Michael Montgomery, Kenny Chesney, Colin Raye, Peter Frampton, Waylon Jennings, Alabama, Mark Wills, Peter Paul & Mary, and on, and on, and on. Some of Steve's other hits include "I Think About You," "Life's A Dance," "No Doubt About It," "You Got Love," and "Welcome To The Club." He is a man who has really truly proved that you can grow up in New York, live in San Francisco, and still become a major player in Nashville.
(Starts with the song "Grown Men Don't Cry" a recent #1 Steve wrote for Tim McGraw-followed by applause form a roomful of 2500 songwriters)
Steve Seskin: Good morning. I'm really impressed that you're all here at this time. I know things went on pretty late last night. This is my first time at a TAXI Road Rally, and it's pretty cool. A lot of good stuff is going on. I've got a few topics that I chose to talk about today. Before we dive into those, I just wanted to give you a little bit of background about me, for those of you who aren't familiar with me at all.
I grew up in New York City. In 1972, I moved to San Francisco where I began a career as a singer-songwriter. I say "singer-songwriter" in the sense that every single song that I wrote back then was for me to sing. I had no notion of anybody else ever recording my songs. There is nothing wrong with that, if that's the scope of what you want to do as writer and as a singer-songwriter. It was great for me. For 13 years that's all I did. Occasionally, people would say, "That song would be good for so-and-so." I'd say, "Yeah, well how do you do that? How do you get it to them?" It just didn't occur to me. Everything I wrote back then was based on things that happened to me. Everything was in first person. You could pretty much know what was going on in my life by whatever song I just sang. I think that it's a great place to start as a writer, but I don't think it's a great place to stop. There was a big change for me when I realized that I could write about anything.
In 1985, I did some shows with a woman named Crystal Gayle, who some of you may know from Country music. I have to tell you, I had never listened to Country music much. I grew up listening to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Cat Stevens-singer-songwriters and folk groups-but no Country music. So when Crystal Gayle came up to me and said, "You ought to go to Nashville," I looked at her like she was nuts. Me? Nashville? No. She said, "I just think they'd like what you do there." And boy, she was right. I took a trip there about two months later. I didn't know a soul. I had one appointment at ASCAP, and I got to play three songs for a fellow there. He got me some appointments with some publishers.
What really attracted me to Nashville is the songwriting community and the fact that there is one. That's growing other places now. I think that things like this conference are great for all of you to network and to meet. I don't know about you, but for me, for years, writing songs was a lonely endeavor. I was in my room by myself. The notion that other people did this, or that I could talk to them about it, was pretty foreign to me. In Nashville, you'd be eating breakfast somewhere, and like at the table behind you, you'd hear, "I don't think it needs a bridge. If we just develop the second verse..." And then over here they'd be saying, "Well she's cutting on September 15th. When are you going to do the demo?" And I thought, wow, there are other people that do this, and they're everywhere!
I was very attracted to that and it kept me coming back to Nashville. As Michael Laskow said, I've never lived there. I love living up in San Francisco. But I've made a commitment to Nashville. Nothing that happened to me would have happened if I had just stayed in San Francisco. San Francisco is a great music town. We have fabulous players up there and fabulous musicians. But it's not a music business town. It's certainly not a songwriting or publishing capitol, which I define as Los Angeles, Nashville and New York, basically. But if you don't want to live in one of these places, you need to make frequent trips to one of them. It can't just be like once every ten years either. I have been to Nashville seven times a year, times seventeen years. Somewhere around 130 times I've been to Nashville in the last 17 years. I've gotten to the point where I do it like clockwork. I go just about every month and a half or so. I go for ten or twelve days. I have to tell you, a lot of people in Nashville think I live there. If you think about it, other than your close friends, people like an A&R guy from a label or a producer-how often are you going to run into them? So when I'm in town, I make sure I run into everybody. People constantly say to me, "Hey where have you been?" And I just say, "San Francisco." And that's just fine.
Anyway, I've been going to Nashville ever since. I've been through bad publishing deals and great publishing deals. I'm in a really good one now. I think it's important to have somebody in your corner in a major music market, at whatever point you're at-whether it means getting involved with a publisher with a single song deal, or getting a staff deal at a publishing company. A good publisher really does his or her job. Every time you write a song, you are the songwriter and the publisher. If you want to effectively do that second job, then keep your own publishing. Be your own publisher. There is nothing that says you can't do that. But be prepared to do that job. It's a full time job. I don't want to do it. I'd rather write another song, personally.
To me, the thing with getting involved with somebody in the music business is to try to get involved with somebody who is passionate about what you do-not just because you feel like they think they can sell what you do. That's going to be part of the equation for them for sure, but there is nothing like meeting a music business person who is just as passionate as your are about your art and selling it, and who is also passionate about you. They're a fan. They dig you. They dig what you do. I've been very fortunate in that sense to get involved mostly with publishers in Nashville who are real fans of mine. They understand what it is I'm trying to do.
Every writer should have some sort of vision of who you are, and what you're trying to say, and what kind of writer you are. As you develop as writers, I think it's really important to figure out what your niche is. What is your thing that you need to be true to? By this I mean, for instance, I'm a very literal writer. As a listener, though, I love moodscapey kinds of things that just evoke a feeling, and I don't really know what the heck they're talking about. To this day, I don't know what Steely Dan was talking about most of the time. However, it's great music, and I can listen to it all day long. As a writer, though, I wouldn't be as good as they were at that. I'm a storyteller, and a fairly literal storyteller. I gravitate toward what I do best. I can write love songs like Diane Warren, let's say. But not quite as good as she does. So I dabble in other things, but I mainly stick to what I do best. I'm always trying to broaden that, but I think you owe it to yourselves to keep trying to figure out who you are-what your voice is, as a writer, and to keep nurturing that. You're going to have to nurture that in the face of a whole lot of people saying, "You can't do it. This isn't good enough."
One of the things that I worked on quite a bit early on in my career is developing my own level of self-critique. A lot of you are going to these one-on-one things and getting feedback. Heck, the whole backbone of TAXI besides getting music out to other people in the industry to trying to make something happen for you all, is also the critique service and feedback. I think that's great. I think TAXI goes a great job at that, by the way. However, I think it's limited in the sense that you have to understand that when you get feedback from anybody in this industry, they come to the table with baggage. What I mean by baggage is they have years of their own opinions. They are also telling you things within the scope of the music industry and what will sell-what they can sell, and what they're willing to pick up a phone for and call somebody to listen to it based on what they can plug in to sell. Art and commerce are an interesting mix. My notion of it is that there is nothing wrong with mixing art and commerce, as long as you don't let the commerce poison the art. Create the art from a pure place. As soon as I finish a song, I might think, wow, that's great, and I've done all of the re-writing I need to do. The next thing I think is, wow, who could cut this song? But I never think of who could cut this song while I'm writing it.
I know there are people and writers that don't agree with this. There are writers that do great work on demand writing for projects that are ready. It's like the old Motown days. Lamont Dozier was at the Northern California Songwriters Association last year, and he was talking about how Berry Gordy would walk in and say, "By 4 o'clock, I need a song about rain, by the ocean, with love. Do it." And they did it. They wrote some of the greatest songs ever written. I can't do that. I have problems with that. I have to write whatever I'm feeling like writing, and whatever moves me. Then I try and figure out who could do this song. There is nothing wrong with that. I don't need to starve with this. None of us need to starve to be vital writers and artists. I don't quite agree with that theory either.
So I wanted to start this talk about creativity. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about where I think songs come from, or at least where they come from for me. Again, I used to write songs just about myself. It was all very momentary. Whatever happened last week, that's what I'd write a song about. I wrote about ten songs a year, because let's face it, our lives go through peaks and valleys, but they also go through periods where not much is happening. So if you only write about yourself and your own life, you're not going to have stuff to write about all the time. These days, I write 40 or 50 songs a year-not that quantity is that important. I spend 120 days a year or so writing songs, locked in a little room. I love it. But I don't have enough stuff going on in my world to write all of those songs about.
One of the big jumps I made as a songwriter was to realize that I had the ability to write about anything and anybody. I can read the newspaper, and as long as I had a reaction to what I read, as long as I was moved in some way, as long as I said, "Wow, that's great," or, "Oh man, that's terrible. Can you imagine going through that?" I could then be like an actor and put myself into that position and write a song about it. I could talk to friends who were going through a rough time, or somebody who had just fallen in love with somebody and was really happy. That kind of thing. I could literally write about anything.
The other thing I realized early on is that I could write about it in any person that I wanted to. We're not tied to writing about things as they happen. If something happens to somebody else, I am just as apt to write it in first person as I am to take something that happened to me and write a third person story song about it. I'll write it in whatever the most powerful way is to tell that story. Each song presents itself differently.
I wanted to give you a couple of things I heard from Randy Newman years ago. He said things that always stuck with me. Those of you who are familiar with Randy Newman's music know he writes about everything. Somebody asked him once, "How do you write about all of these things?" He had a song about a coal miner, and it was written in first person. The guy said, "It sounds like you've been digging coal in the mines for 20 years." Randy Newman said, "Well actually, I met this coal miner on the subway in New York. We went out to get some breakfast, and he told me about his life digging coal in the mines. I went home and wrote a song about it. It's a lot easier than digging coal in the mines for 20 years." He said, "That's my job. I'm a songwriter. Not everybody can do what I do." Not everybody can do what we do. Part of our job is to be, if you will, Cyrano de Bergerac almost, the voice for somebody else, to put forth something that happened to somebody. He also said that our job as songwriters is to be a grand observer-to always be listening. I don't know about you, but I can't go to a movie without saying to my wife, "Hey, did you see the way he just looked at her? Do you have a pen?" I'm constantly 'on'. It's a blessing and a curse, as you all well know. I hear people say things all the time, and part of my job as a songwriter is not only to listen to what they said, but possibly to add a different context to what they said. I had a really strained relationship with my father that is pretty darn true to life in the second verse of "Grown Men Don't Cry." Another example is about a year ago I was taking a hike in Virginia. I was at a songwriters' retreat, and this guy was talking about how he couldn't help but get his kids really expensive gifts for Christmas. He was just kind of a softy. He always bought them things he knew he shouldn't. My friend was with me and said to the guy, "Man, I wish you had been my dad." I had always wanted to write a song-and the song ended up being called "Father's Day."
The lyric goes:
Another Father's Day and I know what I'd like to say
I wish you'd been my dad
I wish we'd spent more time
I wish you hadn't gotten mad when I tried to speak my mind
And I needed you
It didn't come through
And I never understood
Back then to all my friends
You were the hero of the neighborhood
But I wish you'd been my dad
Well, that's a big jump. I guess the point here is that I would have never written that song with those words if that guy hadn't said "I wish you'd been my dad," about a completely different thing. I'm always looking and watching.
I'm going to give you one other example of this-what I call "the transfer of emotions." Every day something incredible happens in your life, or somebody's life, or you observe something amazing. I chronicle emotional moments. How many of you write down titles and stuff as you think of them? Yeah, we all do that. But what I also try and do-and I'm not standing up here and saying none of you do this, maybe you do, but for those of you who don't-I write down and chronicle emotional moments that happen. I'll give you kind of a funny one that happened. I was standing in line at a grocery store, and right behind me was this woman and her two year old son. He went to reach for the candy and he tripped. He hit his kneecap into some sharp pointy thing that was sticking up. It was bleeding and he started just bawling his head off crying right in the middle of the grocery store. His mom picked him up, and she held him up and kissed his kneecap. She said, "All gone." Nice try mom. Then she did it again. She said, "All gone." And then eventually he calmed down, and he looked at her. When she said "all gone" to him, it didn't really do that much for me. It was okay. But it was when he looked back at her and said, (in the voice of a two year old -ed) "All gone." I said, "Do you have a pen?" (audience laughter) I don't know why I never carry one. I should, but I never seem to have one!
I wrote this thing down in a little book. It said, "Kid falls into candy and mom comforts child." Blah blah blah. "Finally he's okay. The nurturing kind of thing." For two years that sits in a book. I'm just giving you this as an example, because I do this all the time. Two years later, my wife comes home from work one day. She had just had of one of those days. I kind of took care of her, and nurtured her. Two days later I was thinking about that, and I was looking through my book and I was thinking about writing. I didn't have anything on my mind to write about. I'll just play you a verse and a chorus of how it ended up to illustrate what I'm talking about...
You don't have to say a word
From the sigh that I just heard
I can tell you've had one of those days
Baby, you can talk to me
Or we can sit here quietly
Just let go
It's gonna be okay
I'm here now to hold you through the laughter and the tears
I'm here now to chase away your fears
When you get your scrapes and bruises
When the world simply refuses
Baby, I will love you through whatever's wrong
Until it's all gone
Until it's all gone
My point is, I never could have written that song that way if the baby hadn't fallen into the candy counter, and if my wife hadn't come home after work after a bad day. There is a transfer of the emotion.
See Part Two of Steve's speech in next month's issue