Nashville songwriters work both sides of the fence.
Blake Shelton and Beyonce do not make the same kind of music, but both of them gave the same basic assignment to a handful of songwriters in August: Write me a hit.
Approximately 15 writers showed up at Brett James' Music Row compound for an ASCAP songwriting retreat Aug. 27-29. Songwriters grounded in several different genres-country, pop, dance and Christian-spent the first two days writing songs for the next Beyonce album and used the last day to target Shelton's next project.
The chance to land a cut with a major artist and the opportunity to mix up genres were at the heart of the camp, the first in what will likely become a series of targeted ASCAP Nashville retreats. "The whole reason for this particular retreat is just to expose the diversity of the writers in the Nashville community," ASCAP Nashville senior creative director LeAnn Phelan says. "Sometimes when I go to L.A., I sense from some people this thing that Nashville's just about country music. While I'm pretty proud of that, I want people to know there's so much more here besides great country music."
Participants got marching orders from reps for both artists. Birch Street Music founder/CEO Jake McKim, whose company manages numerous music figures and does A&R consulting, showed a highlight reel of Beyonce's career on the first day and reportedly requested uptempo songs with uplifting attitudes. Warner Music Nashville senior VP of A&R Scott Hendricks gave an eight-minute pitch the final day, asking for uptempo songs with meaningful lyrics.
"My bar," Hendricks told them, "is song of the year."
McKim suggests that the stylistic cross-pollination provides the opportunity to improve the quality of pop music by drawing on Nashville writers' strengths. Country's tendency toward telling stories encourages stronger verbal imagery, and it's a trait some pop producers would like to hear in more of the material they get pitched.
"In pop, the writing can be very simplistic a lot of times," McKim says. "If we can put top-line country writers with pop producers, we can elevate pop music lyrically, give it more substance, without taking away the fun of it or stripping it from its element."
The opportunity to work outside of country was inspiring to songwriter Hillary Lindsey (Sara Evans' "A Little Bit Stronger"), who grew up in Georgia listening to a mix of country, pop and rap. "It's so nice to be able to put on another hat and try something different," she says.
But Lindsey still employed that story-driven verbal approach that's so central to most country songs, even when she wrote a song at the retreat with songwriter/producer Mathieu "Billboard" Jomphe, who's worked with Ke$ha, Britney Spears and T-Pain.
"It could be a country song, just by reading the lyric," Lindsey says. "But what made it pop obviously was the incredible beat that Billboard put behind it and the track he made, and then the melody that Catt [Gravitt] and I came up with."
Last week's retreat was the first ASCAP has hosted in Nashville, though it's not the first of its kind. James Lindsey will participate in a similar gathering at a castle in France in late September. That same location yielded Keith Urban's first No. 1 single, "But for the Grace of God," in 2000 when he teamed with two members of the Go-Go's, Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin.
ASCAP expects to hold more retreats in the future. McKim would like to participate again-a sure-fire signal that the event yielded promising material. "I see such amazing talent in the country writers," he says, "and I really want to be the bridge to making them have that level of success in the pop world as well."