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'It's a Muscle, Use It': Songwriters Talk Craft at ASCAP Expo
One of the most popular sessions during the opening day of the 11th annual ASCAP Expo was “We Create Music” on Thursday (April 28). Relaying the skinny behind what it takes to become successful songwriters and composers was what one audience member referred to as a creative “dream team”: Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley, OMI (“Cheerleader”), Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas, composer David Vanacore (Survivor, The Apprentice) and Dan Wilson (Chris Stapleton, Adele).
Moderated by Billboard news director Shirley Halperin, the lively 75-minute session teemed with revelations and insider perspective. To audience laughter, Thomas recalled spending two days playing and talking music with singer/songwriter Willie Nelson before deciding which songs to select for a project. “He’s a god to me. And if he lights up, that’s what you do.” OMI revealed that his hit “Cheerleader” wasn’t supposed to be a song. “I had this idea to just do all vocals: two verses and a hook with no instruments, he said. “However, my manager heard it and said, ‘You have to make this into a song.”
Among the session’s other dues-paying insights:
On whether songwriting is a natural talent or can be taught:
Thomas: You can teach the craft but people are born who hear melodies that no one else does. You either hear it or you don’t. I’m not saying I always hear great songs. Some are really shitty [to audience laughter]. But I’m trying to be open to that voice and hear songs again.
OMI: When you’re born with something, it stays with you forever versus being taught something that you could lose the passion for.
Kelley: The first 50 songs I wrote I hated. Now knowing the craft and structure so well, it can be hard to write with innocence. After nine years, I’m trying to write again with a little more innocence and less structure.
Vanacore: I attended a class taught by [late] composer Henry Mancini, whose advice was to write a piece of music every day and finish it, whether it’s 30 seconds, 1 minute, whatever. I left that class and started writing every day. I’m 50 now and I’m writing 10 time better than I did 10 years ago and 50 times better than I did 20 years ago. It’s a muscle and you have to use it … sing, hum … use it.
On writing solo or collaborating:
Wilson: I like collaborating. I got a late start. I wrote my first song at 29 and got my first hit at 37. Having been in a band [Semisonic], the writing was all very social. I like having a gang around to write better than the solitary genius trip.
Thomas: Two o’clock in the morning after three glasses of wine … It’s a pretty solitary process for me. My songs are depressive but I’m not. That’s my catharsis; like creating your own little world. For me, it’s always about working my way through something. But when Matchbox and I collaborate, it’s the greatest thing in the world.
Kelley: For me, it’s always been about collaborating. Some of my best songs like ‘Need You Now’ [which Thomas later called “one of the world’s greatest booty-call songs”] wouldn’t have happened if not for that. I feel like by myself I might get 80% there and then I go to Dave and Hillary [Lady Antebellum members Haywood and Scott]. Music has become more and more of a machine; there are some writers who can write a lot of songs at a time. But I’ll say this: half of all country music sounds the same.
Vanacore: I have a staff of about 60 to help handle the volume of music we do. It’s hard to work for me. You have to be good, which means you have to be true to what it is you do well. It’s OK to be versatile but don’t try to cover too much ground. If you do swamp guitar well, you don’t have to be Steve Vai too. At the end of the day, people can hear authenticity; they hear it with their heart.”
On fighting writer’s block:
OMI: I was experiencing writer’s block and becoming very worked up about it. I started to relax and live a little because with all the business aspects of the industry, you can forget about the root of the craft, which is music. A song I wrote recently which came in a dream at 3:30 in the morning. I was performing it for Will Smith’s wife Jada [laughter]. But I woke up and went to the piano where I started playing the melody and putting words together.
Thomas: You have to be able to write about what you live.
Kelley: Play golf; just do anything. You can get burned out writing every day. You have to find time to live your life. I was writing 100 songs a year; now it’s 30-40. If I could do it again, I would have taken more time between records and not feel that commercial pressure.
On creativity vs. plagiarism in the wake of the “Blurred Lines,” “Stairway to Heaven” and similar lawsuits:
Kelley: If we have an inkling we’re close to something, we let it go. It’s tough. But let’s face it, we’re all stealing from the Beatles.
Thomas: The best in the world have stumbled and moved on. It’s not intentional; it can happen.
Wilson: You can’t worry too much about it. You can’t let it inhibit you. Prince took a little from everything. But his originality came from his forward-looking ethic, passion and joyousness.