Interview:Erik Hickenlooper & Jim Funk; Hit Songwriters
Interviewed by Doug Minnick
I am extremely proud to announce that TAXI members Erik Hickenlooper and Jim Funk have written the #1 Country song in America--"Buy Me A Rose," sung by Kenny Rogers! The song is #1 on Billboard's Country chart, as well as #1 on Radio & Records, and #1 on Gavin's Country chart. As if that weren't enough, "Buy Me A Rose" is also the #1 video on CMT (Country Music Television). A true grand slam! It just doesn't get any better.
Jim and Erik hail from Utah, have been TAXI members for a few years, cut the demo on an 8-track (using just one microphone) in a bedroom studio, and got the song picked up by publisher Rex Benson through TAXI. From the bedroom to the top of the charts--wow!
All of us at TAXI are absolutely thrilled that these two incredibly nice guys are having such tremendous success. For those of you who get frustrated pitching your material over and over, let this be a reminder to you that hit records come from hit songs, and that a hit song can come from anywhere, not just Nashville. It's also proof that quite often, an 8-track demo may be all you need.
Congratulations to both Erik and Jim from all your friends at TAXI. We're very, very proud of you.
Where are you from?
EH: I've lived in Utah my entire life.
JF: Same. I'm from the Ogden area, pretty much my whole life.
How old are you guys?
JF: I'm thirty-one.
EH: I'm twenty-eight.
When did you start writing songs?
EH: About four years ago--about 1996. I had read in a magazine somewhere about someone who had made what appeared to be pretty good money writing songs. I thought, well jeez, that's crazy. That's something that I love to do and I know Jim wants to do that. Why not give it a run and see if we could actually make a life out of doing something like that? So I called up Jim and asked him. We worked together, and we wrote some crummy songs and some good songs.
Had you ever tried pitching any songs to Nashville?
There was one time that Ty England came into town on a bus to do a local concert at the fair. I thought what a great opportunity. I'm just going to go in and be a spaz and give him a tape. I went up there, and I realized I forgot a tape. My wife said, "Well just sing it to him." I thought "oh give me a break." She said, "Just sing the first verse and the chorus, he'll like it." So I went up and he was rehearsing in what was basically an indoor rodeo arena. I pulled him aside and said, "Hey my name is Erik Hickenlooper. My buddy Jim and I wrote this song. We think it's a pretty decent song, and I thought you'd sound good singing it." I was so nervous. I said, "Do you mind if I sing a little bit of it?" He looked at me like I was nuts. I sang him the whole first verse through the chorus. He said, "That's pretty good. Come into my bus." So he took me onto his bus and introduced me to his brother. He was super nice. He gave me an address to send it to.
What happened after you sent the song to Ty England?
EH: I didn't hear anything. The song was on hold with Diamond Rio and Ty Herndon at one point too, and they both passed. It was an honor to have 'holds' with those guys, too. I don't think you ever have the right to do a "ha ha" type thing, because the fact is, sometimes the messenger has to fit the song. In this case, I think it's just a Kenny Rogers song. I don't think anybody questions that. It fits.
How many times do songs get put in the glove box, or pushed aside, or maybe the writers aren't recognized. You can't blame anybody. I guess in a reverse way, what I'm saying is thanks to Kenny Rogers for taking a chance on us, because he did.
Have you ever been to Nashville?
EH: No. We thought about writing a song called "Never Been To Nashville."
When did you actually write the song?
EH: Early 1997, I think.
JF: I think we started late 1996 and we had it done by early 1997.
EH: We came back from an N.A.S. Songwriters Expo in 1996 just completely beat up. I remember walking up to one guy with a lyric sheet. I wanted to show him my song. He was an A&R rep, and he was kind of flustered because I pulled him aside. I said, "Would you mind listening to this?" We had a walkman. He said, "I'd rather read the lyrics." I said, "Oh the lyrics don't really make sense but the music is so nice, you know." Anyway, he took the sheet. I thought, that's cheap. I don't want him just reading the lyrics. What if he doesn't get it, which is the whole point, right? He grabbed the paper, and he said, "I don't understand. There's this guy and this woman and they're in love. Then all of a sudden they're in this room that doesn't have a view or something." He said,"I don't know. Maybe it's worth a rewrite, but it's kind of confusing." He handed it back to me and just kind of walked off. Jim and I looked at each other and thought jeez, we're getting beat up.
There was a guy from Southern Cow Publishing, Phil Swann, who gave some really good pointers on what makes a good song. He basically just talked about keeping things simple and getting to the point, being conversational. We strove to do that when we came back.
When you guys wrote this song, did you know it was different? Did you know you had a hit?
JF: I was on the radio at KKAT the other night and Tracy Chapman who is this local deejay and really kind of kicked things off for us up here, said, "Are you and Erik excited?" I said, "I can't tell you how much." It doesn't seem that long ago that we finished that song in the back of the little farm house that I was living in, and we both kind of looked at each other and asked each other the question: "Do you think anybody is going to like this?" Then a few years later, we're on the charts.
EH: In fact, I remember saying, "Okay Jim let's just play it again. Let's just rewind and push play. Sit back and pretend you've never heard it before." As if you can do that when you're the one that put it together. "Just think objectively." And we'd listen. Is it kind of cheesy? Is it too touchy-feely? We just went through the whole thing.
The first TAXI convention we went to ñ which was the first one you guys had (in 1997) ñ had a great turnout. But Jim and I were clueless as to the impact of the song. You guys used "Buy Me A Rose" as an example tape to show, hey, this is what these guys did with seven tracks in a back room studio. You guys played it, and the whole place erupted. Jim and I looked at each other like, come on. That was really a validation point.
Technically speaking, how did you write it? What came first? Melody, lyrics, chord progression?
EH: I guess in its primordial state, it all kind of came together at the same time. In the very beginning, I was just getting ready for work one day, and I started humming this melody to myself. I had this idea of the paradox of men working hard to show women they love them by doing one thing, and women working hard to try and tell them that they're not quite meeting the mark. It happens all the time. It's easy for a guy to forget. I was thinking about that, and I started singing to myself.
I once heard that you want tons of verbs in your song because that makes you get to the point, and it paints pictures better. The first word of each line was a verb: Buy me a rose/Call me from work/Open a door for me... Once that was done, I bounced it off my wife Amy, and it passed what I call the chill test. She stuck her arm up and said, "Look." You know how women will do that, show you their arm for goosebumps? They're just more sensitive about stuff like that.
Well hey, if it gives her chills, them I'm in. So I took it to Jim and said, "I have this idea." I kind of got the rhythm going first. Jim is great because if you've got an idea, he just takes the ball and runs. He understands exactly where you're at. He doesn't go, "Wait. Explain. What are you talking about? You're weird." He doesn't do any of that. He's just right there. Then he takes it and makes it bigger and better. That's exactly what started to happen. We started taking the song and making a story. Then I'd go home and totally obsess over the way three words were lined up. Over and over again, I'd scratch it out and rewrite it. So I'd come back and it would be just a few words different. But then we'd start talking about that story again and work a few more things in. The nice thing about a song is it's so much shorter than a book. I was thinking about that the other day. Authors write so many words and so many chapters to finish a book. Music can be enjoyed with so few words. In fact, sometimes you're better off with just a few. Count the number of words in that song, and it kind of makes things simple. You've got to find the simplest way to say the most profound thing, and that's what we tried to do.
How much time do you think you spent writing this song?
EH: About a month. Maybe three weeks.
F: It may have been a month total. But we got together, I would say, less than five times to put everything together.
How many hours?
JF: You'd have to take into account Erik's obsessive hours!
EH: Every midnight to 4 a.m.--it adds up! It really is hard to say because Jim is practicing his chops on the keys all the time. He's incredible at arranging and hearing different things musically. He can pick it up and make it happen. When it comes to words and lyrics, I'm working phrases over as I drive from my house to the gas station in the morning. So to say how many hours? It really honestly is autopilot. When I get out of bed in the morning, when I get in the shower, I'm working on something.
Do you find critiques valuable?
EH: I think it's important with songwriting to bounce things off more people than your mom. There are people who are always going to tell you what you want to hear. Then there are those people who are brutally honest. You need to go to those people.
Let's talk about the demo. How many tracks did you use?
JF: Well we didn't have much then. We had one ADAT with a couple of pieces of MIDI gear. We just synced those together. So obviously we had to stripe a track. We had seven audio tracks, and then on top of that basically all we added was some rhythm sections, some bass and some percussion.
How many mics did you use?
JF: We used one. We used a Beyer dynamic the whole time on that one. It was a Beyer dynamic MCA 34 which is a little cardioid mic, but it seemed to do the trick.
Where did you record it?
JF: That was done in a back bedroom. At the time, my wife and I were living in a small home on the front of a 30 acre farm. Right in the back was an old ugly room with paneling and orange shag. That's where it was recorded. We would have to stop if a jet flew over, or a cow was mooing outside, or a farm truck was driving down the road with a broken exhaust. Luckily, whenever we'd have to stop and re-do a take, we could just punch in and not have to start over. At that time, I was just excited to have that much.
What kind of console did you use?
JF: I used a little Mackie 1604, one of the later versions I guess. They've got a new one since. It was a 16 channel Mackie. I think all I had at that time was a mike pre, a compressor, a Mackie, and a patch bay to hook it all together.
What did you use for instruments?
JF: I'm a keyboardist. I hate playing a guitar on a keyboard, although we had a patch on there to show the guitarist what we wanted. Other than an acoustic guitar, I just had a Roland J1080 hooked into my controller. That's where we drew the bass and drums and everything.
EH: Our buddy Greg Simpson played the 12-string guitar and we really think he nailed it. He's always been right there with us. Wherever Jim and I are involved musically, we're always disappointed we can't somehow mention him because he's been such a big part of everything we've done. We appreciate him.
So Greg played 12-string, and everything else is keyboard?
JF: Yes. I think we had one track with a little bit of room on it, so I added a shaker and a real tambourine in there just for a little bit of accent underneath. And we did throw in a fiddle. That was part of our seven audio tracks.
EH: We're kind of superstitious. Any time we do a song now we have to bring Robbie in on the fiddle, because he was the one that did "Buy Me A Rose." He's just a nice guy.
Well, congratulations guys! It couldn't happen to two nicer people.
We appreciate everything everybody's done to get this song where it's at. We understand that it's a team effort. Essentially, TAXI was the first link in that chain. Without TAXI, none of this would have happened.
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