Tech Tip:A&R Insider: Steve Seskin, Hit Songwriter 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, Collin 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.
Here is Part Two of Steve's talk at the Road Rally:
The thought I want to leave you with is: Be observant. There are song ideas everywhere, everyday. A lot of things that I write in that notebook never become songs. It just took two minutes to write it down, though. It's not a big deal. I know there are things sitting in my notebook that happened two years ago that are going to be songs five years from now. Something else in a synergy sense needs to happen to make that moment turn into a song. So please start doing that if you're not doing that already.
The other thing that Randy Newman said that I think is really interesting is that we have a responsibility to our times. That has always stuck with me. The music that we write reflects the era that we live in. We don't often think of ourselves in that way, but think about people listening to the music being made today 50 years from now. All you have to do is think back to, like Forties music. Let's just (talk about) love songs, (for example). Relationships between men and women - and men and men, and women and women, hey - have changed in the last 100 years. We relate to each other differently. And the songs reflect it. A love song lyric of the Thirties and Forties wouldn't fly these days. It would almost sound corny, and yet sometimes it's still nice to hear from back then. But it's a different time, and I think it's important to stay on top of that and know the time you're in.
I also think that we have to realize that we have the freedom to fictionalize. Anybody sitting in this room that doesn't realize that, please listen to that. We have the freedom to fictionalize. Meaning that even if you write something about you and an event that happened to you lyrically, you owe it to the listener and the song to leave out the boring parts. You can edit, and make things up. I love to make things up. I don't know about you, but I rarely get whole songs. An event happens, and it inspires a verse, maybe a chorus. Then it's time to make some stuff up. That's my favorite part. Do you think all of the great fiction writers thought of the whole book, that the whole book just happened to them? No. Something happened that made them want to write that book. They were inspired or moved by something. Then the characters led them where they wanted to go.
There is this guy named Andy Breckman. He's a screenwriter, and he has a song called "God, I Love To Write." I'm going to do a terrible job of quoting it, but I can quote the best parts. It's a story song and it starts off, "Railroad Bill was a friend of mine, and he'd go walking home." And he says, "One day Bill on his way home from work saw this cat stuck up in a tree," and it goes on about how he was going to go save this cat. And then his character revolts. It says, "Bill said no. I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to save no cat in no tree. This is a stupid song and no folk singer is going to make a fool out of me." And then he goes on, "Why don't you have me save a beautiful woman on a railroad track? What is it with this cat fixation you have?" (lots of audience laughter) It goes on and on. At one point, he says to Bill, "Look, I've got the pen in my hand. You are the character. Get up in that tree and save that cat!" And Bill says, "No I'm not going to do it." It goes on and on, and then in the third verse it says, "Just then, a lightening bolt came down from the sky and struck Bill dead where he stood." At the end it says, "The cat came down from the tree, had a bowl of warm milk and went to sleep for the night. Bill is survived by a wife and three children. God I love to write." (more laughter) I think there is interesting stuff in there. We have a lot of power with that pen. Just ask people who we've been in relationships with who did us wrong. They know. How do you judge a good relationship? By how many songs you got out of it. Some of the worst ones are the best ones, really.
My friend Alan Chamblin always says, "Never let the facts get in the way of the truth." A great writer never lets the facts get in the way of the truth. What's the truth? An emotional truth. Why are you writing this song? What's the feeling you're trying to evoke? I think that's the important thing. Here again, you have to know what kind of writer you are.
I have a friend, Bob DePiero, and in Country music, he has probably written about 30 Top10 hits. Every single one of them is a fun, roll-down-the-top, ride-to-the-beach radio song. That's what Bob does, and he does it really well. He said, "Music is for people to forget about their troubles. It's to roll down the top, drive down to the beach, and forget about their life and all of its problems." And I said, "No, Bob. Music is to move people, to make them feel, to make them think, to make them cry, to make them laugh, to move them." And you know what? We're both right. It's for all of that.
Music is fabulous. Imagine the world for half a second without it. I think there is a reason why there are all kinds of music. Some people dig jazz. Some people think jazz is too busy for them. They want a folk song, kind of thing. Other people like country music. Other people hate it. Pop music, alternative rock music - it's all good. It's nice that it all exists because it gives us the choice as listeners of an amazing array of things to listen to. I think here again you have to figure out who you are and how you're going to fit into that mix. I don't write fun radio songs like Bob DePiero does as well as he does. I wrote a song called "Daddy's Money" that was a fun radio song. Who did I write it with? Bob DePiero. I was there. I remember contributing to it to some extent. But I'm not going to be writing a whole bunch of those any time soon, because it's not where my focus is. I tend to write social issue songs, and things that I really care about. That's just what I do.
When people ask me, "How did you make a dent in this crazy music business?" I do think that one of the reasons that a lot of my songs have been recorded is because they are somewhat unique in nature. I do write some love songs, but I haven't had too many of them cut. In Nashville, like I'm sure is true in L.A., everybody writes love songs. So when I get a love song on hold with an artist, and they're thinking about what they're going to record, I'm guessing 150 love songs on the same topic as mine come through the door. Well guess what, one of them probably has a little better melody than mine, or one of them has a little more unique line. But when I write something like "Grown Men Don't Cry," for instance, and when Tim McGraw got interested in that song, it stuck around because there weren't 100 other "Grown Men Don't Cry's" coming through the door. By topic, I'm talking about, it's unique in nature. I'm not telling you that you should do this, but I'm just saying this seems to work for me. When an artist or a producer has a slot, and they're looking for something they haven't been able to find, mine might fit that slot. That's opposed to the type that they have so many choices to fill that slot with. Even if you write mainly love songs, try and come at it from a little different, left-of-center place. I think all of us are trying to do something that has been done a million times. Everything has been said. Have you ever felt like that? Like there is nothing else you could possibly say? Baloney. There is another way to say it. I think we have to keep thinking of unique ways to put things.
Another thing that I wanted to talk about this morning are the opportunities that you may not be aware of to get your songs out. Everybody wants so-and-so to do their songs - big star #101 - whether it be Pop music, or Country music, or whatever. Why not? It's a nice goal, but it's difficult to achieve right from the get-go. However, I think there are lots of opportunities, right here at this TAXI conference, for instance. I heard some really good music last night on this stage. Maybe most of it was written by the people that were doing it. Maybe not. What I'm urging you to do is to go out into your local communities - I know a lot of you live in all parts of the country - and find the hot new band. Find the singer-songwriter who is out there who maybe doesn't have all of the songs they need. Pitch your songs to people that don't have a record deal that are still trying to get one.
I want to share with you a little story that will illustrate this. My friend John Ims wrote a song called "She's In Love With The Boy." Back in 1994 I think, it was Trisha Yearwood's first hit in Nashville. How did that song get pitched? I'll tell you - I was there. It was in Kerrville, Texas at the Kerrville Folk Festival, which is a songwriter festival that I go to every year. John was sitting there at a campfire, because at night we'd all sit around and swap songs. He said, "Let me play my new song," and he played it. A woman named Christine Albert was sitting there. She is a really good singer from Austin, Texas. She was getting ready to do her second or third independent record on her own label. She said, "John, I love that song. Can I record that song on my new album?" He said, "Sure." This album was destined to sell probably only 2,000 to 4,000 records, so it wasn't exactly going to be a financial bonanza for John Ims. But so what? At worst, you're just getting music out in the universe.
What a nice thing to do. And at best, I'll tell you what happened. She did that CD. She sold it off the stage at her gigs, and she also sent it Nashville to about six or seven producers trying to get herself a record deal for the next album. One of them was Garth Fundis. He heard her record. He didn't like her enough to sign her, but he heard that song and really dug it. He put it in a file. I asked him once how this happened and he told me he put it in his file called "Songs I Like." That was not a big filing cabinet! (laughter) At the time, he was not producing anybody that that song fit. That was 1993, approximately. What was Trisha Yearwood doing at that time? She was singing demos for me and everybody else in Nashville. She was the best demo singer in history. She could walk in and sing a song in 20 minutes and get it right, and put feeling into it. Two years after Garth Fundis got that song and put it in a drawer, Trisha Yearwood got her deal with MCA Records. Who did they hire as the producer? Garth Fundis. They had a first song meeting, and he pulled open that drawer and said, "I've got a song I want you to hear." It became her first single. It was BMI's Song of the Year. It has gotten over 2 million plays so far. It sold 3 million records. Where did that song get pitched? At a campfire in Kerrville, Texas. So, get your music out in the universe any way you can. If you perform, get out there and play. You never know who is going to see you.
Also in that same tone, I want to ask how many of you perform - get out and play? Well, it's not like the rest of you are screwed, but I will tell you this. I can't imagine being a writer who never performs. I know some writers in Nashville who never perform, and the only feedback they ever get on their songs are like from A&R people, and producers. But the truest, most real thing that I ever get about a song of mine is from an audience. There is nothing like an audience en masse. They don't have any baggage. It either works or it doesn't. Even if I pull you aside and say to you, "Hey listen to my new song. What do you think?" Baggage. You don't want to hurt my feelings, or you think it might be a good thing for you to tell me it was great. Whatever. I've poisoned the interaction. But with an audience, they don't buy into that. You either get them or you don't. I don't mean just applause. Those of you who play know what I'm talking about. You can feel it. I can feel when a song is working. I can feel when it's not working. A lot of them I rewrite because I get a song out and play it, and I realize there is a certain point in that song where I'm losing people. There is something I've said where I think I've chosen the language that they are going to go down the road I want them to do down, but I haven't. They're going down some other road.
So take advice from A&R people and the critiquers at TAXI, and from your wife, or husband, or mother, or child, but take it with a grain of salt. Know that all of those people come to the table with a certain amount of baggage. Your wife, or husband, or significant other will love everything you do probably. You're brilliant, as you should be in their eyes. But it's not exactly a barometer of what the rest of the world is going to think. They love you. I met a woman once who said, "My husband hates everything I write because he's really jealous of the fact that I do this and spend all of this time with music. He's always very critical." I told her to leave that marriage!
I don't really have time for this whole topic, but I will say just this about it: Rewriting: please be good to your songs. Be true to yourself. Be willing to work hard. I have written songs in like three or four hours for the whole song. Alan Chamblin and I wrote a song called "Don't Laugh At Me." We wrote that song in about four hours. And you know what, at the four-hour mark, we went to lunch, came back, and everything felt right. It was done. We have another song called "Cactus In A Coffee Can" that is a story song. It took us 100 hours, six months of phone calls, of driving to North Carolina together, of hashing it out. We must have tried 25 lines for this one line in the song that didn't quite work. What does that tell you? That I'm willing to spend 100 hours. Do I like spending 100 hours? No. I'd much rather everything just come rolling out, and in four hours I'm done. It's a masterpiece. Does it happen like that often? Not for me. I don't know about you. I'm willing to work. I have a level of self-critique and a standard that I need to achieve. I don't always easily achieve it. Also I try not to beat myself up when I can't easily achieve it. I'd rather commend myself for having the standard in the first place. You cannot judge songwriting by any standard other than itself, in the sense that you can't judge how long you spend at it with how much it yields. If you have a job hanging sheet rock, let's say, and you put up a piece of sheet rock and then you spend the next eight hours admiring the left hand corner of it. The boss comes in and says, "You've only put up one panel." "Yeah, well but look at it. The left corner is gorgeous, the way it fits in there." Then he says, "You're fired!" However, if you write songs, and if I spend six hours writing a song, and at the end of that six hours I have one line, or one piece of music that I love, that's a great day. I think of the muse as some sort of really sneaky little devilish muse. But also a fair muse sooner or later. My notion is when I spend 100 hours writing "Cactus In A Coffee Can," that the muse was very impressed. One day he or she looked down and said, "You know, you guys deserve this 'Don't Laugh At Me' thing. Four hours - here." I don't know, it's just a theory. Be willing to work hard, is all I'm trying to say.
I'm willing to work. I have a standard that I need to achieve. I don't always easily achieve it.
This excerpt from John Braheny's book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting (2nd edition, 2002, Writers Digest Books) has been edited for length. It's available at bookstores everywhere. For info about John's critiquing and consulting services, go to www.johnbraheny.com.