Jesse Saint John, Nija Charles & Rick Nowels Share Songwriting Secrets at SONA Summit: 'Just Don't Stop'

David-Simon Dayan
Jesse Saint John

The songwriter trio discussed compensation, collaboration and why success doesn't free you of insecurities.

"Truth Hurts" co-writer Jesse Saint John is at the top of his game right now, as the track charts its third week atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart. But even still, as he told a packed ballroom Sunday evening at the West L.A. recording studio The Village, he suffers from the same anxieties he did when he was first starting out.

“I'm grateful now to have security in that way, but it's the same,” he told a crowd of his peers at the Songwriters of North America’s (SONA) fifth annual summit. “You think, 'Oh my god I lost this cut, I'm giving up, my career is over’ or whatever. My career has been over every day since I started.”

Saint John was speaking as part of the event's “Songwriting: Past, Present, Future” panel, which brought him together with fellow songwriters Rick Nowels (Belinda Carlisle, Madonna, Lana Del Rey) and Nija Charles (Beyonce, Cardi B, Jason Derulo), the 21-year-old wunderkind who has carved out a stunning list of singles just two years into her career. Moderated by songwriter Erika Nuri-Taylor (Meghan Trainor, Little Mix, Usher), the panel represented songwriters at various stages of their careers, from newcomer Charles to industry veteran Nowels, who got his big break writing a chunk of Steve Nicks' 1985 solo album, Rock a Little.

Though he's enjoyed a tremendous level of success as a songwriter over three-plus decades, Nowels certainly hasn’t been resting on his laurels since selling his lucrative catalog in 2007. “The secret is, just don't stop,” he told the crowd of the secret to career longevity. He's certainly been following his own advice. Since the catalog sale, the legendary songwriter has penned tracks for of-the-moment artists including Lana Del Rey, John Legend, Sia, Keith Urban and Kesha. 

Much newer to the game is Charles, who dropped out of NYU’s Clive Davis School of Music during her sophomore year her mentor, RCA Records senior vp A&R and marketing J Grand, convinced her to focus on songwriting full-time. After two years, she's already speaking like a veteran. “I make sure that I demand respect when I walk into the [studio],” she said of how she deals with being a woman in a male-dominated industry. And when asked about her dream collaborators for 2020, she replied that her "wishlist is complete” -- before eventually conceding that Rihanna is one artist she’d be keen to work with in the future.

“You will,” said Saint John, pointing to Charles’ meteoric rise. “In about two days, probably.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Nowels said he put in roughly “30,000 hours” of work before becoming a successful songwriter in his late 20s and early 30s, having honed his craft beginning at age 13. Unlike Charles and Saint John, the legendary songwriter has borne witness to a huge shift in the industry since he started his career -- when physical media was the dominant way people consumed music -- to the streaming era of today, when royalties for songwriters have experienced a sharp decline.

“You went from a CD, which sold for $15 with 10 songs on it, to now [when] you get all the music ever recorded since the beginning of time for $10 a month,” he said. “I know the labels are getting a lot of the money. I don't know exactly what the rate is. But either Spotify or the labels have to give more money to the songwriters.”

Nowels’ plea cut to the heart of the summit’s purpose: Encouraging SONA members to take an active role in securing their future, in an industry that is becoming increasingly inhospitable to their bottom line. Earlier in the evening, audience members took in a lively presentation by SONA executive directors Michelle Lewis and Kay Hanley, who went through a list of priorities for the coming year, including passage of the CASE Act and the need to work towards collective health insurance for music creators. The audience was also treated to a crowd-pleasing performance of Consent Decree: The Musical, which brought the complex titular issue to life through song.

Also on Sunday, Azoff Company co-president Susan Genco took the stage to introduce the audience to the newly-formed Music Artists Coalition (MAC), an organization created to advocate for and protect the rights of artists and songwriters. The organization -- which includes artists Don Henley, Dave Matthews, Maren Morris and Anderson.Paak on its board, alongside managers, attorneys and executives such as Irving AzoffJohn SilvaJordan Bromley and Kristen Foster -- is designed to give music creators a voice in the decisions that affect them most.

“We decided we had to have an advocacy group that would never compromise, that when these conversations happen ... we will think about nothing other than what is best for the people who create the music,” said Genco from the stage, before encouraging those in the room to join up by emailing info@musicartistscoalition.com.

Securing increased compensation for songwriters was naturally on the minds of everyone in attendance on Sunday night. For their part, Hanley and Lewis engaged in a protracted bout of Spotify-shaming, particularly for the streaming service's recent appeal (along with Amazon, Google and Pandora) of the Copyright Royalty Board’s mechanical rate determination that would give songwriters and publishers a 44% rate increase by 2023.

Issues of compensation were also top of mind for the panelists, despite their relatively lofty positions in the industry. For his part, Saint John said (rather counter-intuitively) that he “comes from a place of no” when receiving offers to work on projects now and encouraged others in the room to do the same.

“A lot of times you are paying to go to work,” he says. “You're paying gas, you're buying your lunch that day, so you kind of have to decide, 'Is this worth my money, this one whole day where I'm giving my ideas, my talent, and so much of myself away?' And then decide, 'Is it worth it?’”

Another interesting moment came when Saint John and Charles admitted that they recently worked on a session together, only to cut the day short when they mutually decided the “vibe” between them was off. “If it's not working, that's your time,” said Saint John, noting that he and Charles have since become friends. “You have every right to get up and leave. Obviously, you don't have to storm out or cause a scene or anything ... but sometimes the session isn't right, and if it doesn't feel right you don't have to force yourself to stay for any reason.”

In an effort to expand their horizons, both Charles and Saint John have recently ventured into careers as recording artists, with Saint John self-releasing his debut EP Don’t Stop Dancing. Life Gets Sad in May and Charles currently at work on her debut release after netting a featured spot on the song “My Power” from the Beyonce-produced-and-curated Lion King soundtrack The Gift -- now the focus of an ABC special slated to air Monday night (Sept. 16).

“In order to get my beats heard, I was singing on top of my beats and put some of the stuff on Instagram,” said Charles. “And eventually other producers started seeing that, and were like, 'Oh, can you sing on top of my beats, too?’"

Though she’d flirted with the idea of releasing material under her own name for awhile, compliments from Queen Bey herself were what finally gave Charles the confidence to move forward. “[After that] I was like, ‘Okay, it makes sense to do the project now,’” she said.

For Saint John, putting out music under your own name provides a gratification that simply doesn’t come from writing songs for other people.

“We don't have control over when the artist releases the song that we wrote,” he said. “So it's kind of nice to have a project that's just for you that you have control of that you feel ownership over…it’s important to have something outside of songwriting that you're passionate about to kind of fuel you.”

Following the panel, a brief Q&A saw the panelists doling out advice to those in the room who hope to one day share in the same level of success -- or at the very least carve out a sustained career.

“Nothing is ever as bad as it seems or good as it seems,” offered Saint John.

"Do what feels good,” added Charles. “Don’t think too hard about the songs ... it shouldn't be rocket science. Honestly all of the songs that are my hits came about like that because I took the pressure off.”

As for the most established member of the panel, Nowels encouraged a back-to-basics approach on a night that was largely focused on looking forward.

“Know your chords,” he advised. “To me, in the music business now, I would say 50% of the producers don't know middle Cs on the keyboard. Music literacy is disappearing quickly.... Look at all the great songs throughout history and learn to play them, so it sort of goes into your system and you understand how the melody and the chords go together. Study the craft of songwriting, study the craft of lyric writing.”


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