If your plan is to become a professional songwriter, Nashville is holy ground. It’s that magical place where old men ride in from the farm on John Deere tractors, head to Music Row, and write the kind of country song only sung by legends. So you chart a course, like legions before you, for Nashville. The truth is, as friendly and laid-back as the South can be, Music City can be incredibly intimidating. One stroll down lower Broadway on a Tuesday afternoon and you’ll find hundreds of artists and bands performing for free in every bar, restaurant, coffee shop and street corner, hoping to catch a break. You’ll also soon learn that everyone, from the bartender to the barista, is a songwriter, singer or musician. So what’s an aspiring songwriter to do? Well, here are a few tips.

Peter Daniel Newman

Peter Daniel Newman

First, I assume that your songs aren’t seven minutes long and have five verses. This might seem a little ridiculous, but I’ve met a lot of artists who can easily write “good” songs, but they head to Nashville prematurely – because those songs don’t fit a conventional song structure. What we hear on the radio now is primarily “verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus” format, and transpires within about three minutes and 15 seconds. Most beginners feel that their songwriting is divinely inspired, and therefore not in need of editing. But like many endeavours, songwriting is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. If you’re writing commercial music, it’s absolutely necessary to compare your songs to what’s current and hip on the radio. If your song needs more work, which it probably does, then re-write!

Country music also has its own lyrical standards. In Nashville, there’s a saying that “lyric is king,” meaning that storytelling within the song is paramount. The music is important, but the song has to say something, and it has to be said in a conversational style. That simply means that the lyric should sound as if you were having a conversation with someone. I’ve been in pitch meetings where the publisher would comment on a lyric, and say something to the effect that “you wouldn’t say it that way.”  An example would be “her favourite hat, she always wore.”  Most people wouldn’t say that. In a normal conversation, you’d say, “she always wore her favorite hat.”  This makes the song more immediately accessible to the listener.

As a rule, Nashville usually writes to the “hook” or title. Take a song like “Jesus Take the Wheel,” a hit for Carrie Underwood. The first verse is about a woman who loses control of a car. The first chorus literally asks Jesus to take the wheel and save her. In the second verse we learn that she’s made mistakes in her life, and by the time we reach the second chorus, the words take on a new meaning. She’s now asking Jesus to spiritually take the wheel of her life. This dual meaning technique or “hook” is utilized a lot in country music. “Jesus Take the Wheel” is written so that when you hit the chorus there’s a lyrical as well as musical payoff, and when the listener reaches the second chorus, that lyrical reward is heightened all the more.

In other genres, lyrics can be more stream-of-consciousness than conversational. The lyrics are secondary to the emotion and mood of the song. Artists from Dave Matthews to The Fray use this style of writing. The listener can view the song through their own lens and imprint their own meaning upon the lyrics. Country music doesn’t use this style of writing, and almost exclusively uses a conversational lyrical approach.

Before you go to Nashville, make sure to contact anybody who might be able to open a few doors for you, especially to connect you with other writers interested in co-writing. If your songs are ready, a contact may be able to hook you up a pitch meeting with a publisher. Associations such as BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC regularly host Nashville writers’ groups and sessions that are open to the public. The Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) is another helpful organization based in Music City. There are writers’ groups online, and on Facebook and LinkedIn, and with a little legwork you can meet some fine folks who are more than willing to co-write. It’s all about networking and building your contacts.

When you do get an opportunity to write with a professional songwriter, it’s usually because someone has taken a chance on you. A friend or industry professional made a connection, and convinced another writer to take that chance, too. Now you have an opportunity to make a good impression. Don’t come in unprepared!  Although the publishing is likely to be split equally, don’t view yourself as equals. If you’re a newbie, and you’re writing with an established songwriter, you’re writing up. What does this mean?  It’s an unspoken rule that it’s your responsibility to bring the creative ideas to the session. You need to have several musical and lyrical ideas ready to go. Bring along that list of song titles that you’ve been sitting on, and let the established songwriter pick the direction of the session.

You’ll also need to be comfortable voicing your ideas. If you pitch a line and it doesn’t grab the writers in the room, let it go and move on. Don’t feel bad about it. The best writing sessions in which I’ve participated are those where everyone feels comfortable, and lines are coming quickly. When the golden line enters the room, there’s typically instant agreement on it. Be sure to be polite and courteous, and don’t be a know-it-all. After all, you’re not only trying to write a great song, but you also you want to be invited back. If things go well, your network will have just expanded exponentially. You may be lucky enough that the other writer or writers have a publishing deal. If that’s the case, he or she is likely to play that song for their publisher. If the song is strong enough, the publisher may then pitch it around Nashville. Maybe you’ll win big and land that elusive cut on a record. At the least, your name will now become familiar to Nashville publishers, and that may create opportunities for you.

When I moved to Nashville, I first started writing with a neighbour a few doors down in my apartment complex. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had publishing deal. The songs that we were writing, he was taking back to his publisher, and before I knew it we were in the studio with Clint Black. Sadly, that deal fell through, but that opportunity opened a lot of doors for me. So stay open-minded to anyone you might bump into on your trip.

You never know where your next break might come from.

There’s a big difference between an organized two-day songwriting session and a professional song camp. They’re often expected to be the same thing, and yet they’re vastly different. So what’s a professional songwriting camp? Having been to countless, quote unquote, “song camps,” as both an artist and a songwriter, I’m now fortunate enough to have attended the real deal.

I recently participated in my second professional writing camp at the infamous Black Rock Studios (One Republic, Justin Bieber) in Santorini, Greece – thanks largely to SOCAN. This is an event where 20 songwriters are sequestered to live and create together, with none of the distractions of the outside world, for five days. This creates a unique atmosphere of intense creativity that can’t be duplicated in a makeshift Los Angeles recording studio. If you’re fortunate enough to attend one of these camps you need to know that one of the keys to success is to treat it professionally.

To that end, here are some of the DOs and DON’Ts that I ‘ve learned. Some of these are from my own experience, some from observing others. I’ll let you guess which are which.

Read all the information that you’re sent. Every song camp is different, depending on the organizer and the person running it. There’s information about master ownership, song splits, etiquette, scheduling, other writers’ bios, and protocol that you should always know before you touch down.

Go to a camp with a pre-conceived notion that you’re either more OR less important than anyone else attending. Talent is relative, and it’s essential to understand that 90 percent of professional songwriting camps are by invitation only, and everyone’s been asked to be there for a reason.

Maggie Szabo

Maggie Szabo

Bring the gear that makes your talent shine the most. Whether you’re a producer who loves a certain midi keyboard, or a singer with that one mic that makes your vocals sound just right, you never want to sacrifice room in your suitcase for a great piece of gear. It’s not worth exchanging that space for the perfect pair of shoes. (Unless that’s truly what you need to perform at your best.)

Over-prepare. Whether you’re a track writer or a top-liner, understand that bringing pre-cooked and fully prepared ideas to the table is not going to be a plus. It diminishes the uniqueness of other peoples’ ideas in the room, and can create an atmosphere of creative animosity.

Realize that one of the skills to great writing and collaboration is vulnerability. This may be a professional environment, but it’s also a social experience/experiment. Be brave enough to allow your walls to come down faster than they might in a normal songwriting situation…. Now see below.

Hook up.

Network, make contacts, and build friendships. Understand that most of the connections you make during these camps will be lifelong relationships, leading to many opportunities. At least 50 percent of your success at a songwriting camp will happen after the camp is over. It’s a stone in the lake, a ripple effect. You’ll continue to participate in sessions with people that you connected with – and other attendees that you never even had the chance to work with – after the camp. They’ll be some of the most important relationships in your professional life.

Write an article on song camps that ends in a DON’T. It’s too negative.

OK, just kidding. In my experience, there are a lot more DON’T’s than DOs, like arguing song splits at an equal-split camp, but maybe we’ll get to that another time.  Bring your A-game, have fun, and know that some of your favourite songs on the radio were probably written by me at my last song camp. Wink, wink!

Kevin Young

Kevin Young (Photo: Caroline Legault-Forest)

Over the 20-plus years I’ve worked as a professional musician, my experiences in songwriting sessions (predominantly with my band Moist) have run the gamut from exhilarating to infuriating. I suspect that other songwriters and composers – whether they work alone or with others – have experienced a similar range of emotion.

One of the most interesting projects I’ve been asked to work on lately was as a facilitator for corporate songwriting events run jointly by Rock The Stars (RTS) and SongDivision. In doing so, I found that writing with people who have little to no musical training offers benefits that, frankly, surprised and inspired me.

A little background: Rock The Stars (RTS) is a Canadian company based in Toronto and San Francisco that Jeff Pearce (Managing Director for Canada and Moist’s founding bass player) has worked with in a wide range of settings, conducting approximately 300 events for participants ranging in number from six to 600. SongDivision is a global company with offices the U.S., Brazil, Singapore, Australia, and the U.K. They serve Canada in partnership with Rock the Stars (RTS) and run events with capacity from 10 to 10,000 people.

I found that writing with people who have little to no musical training offers benefits that, frankly, surprised and inspired me.

RTS has multiple programs where participants write lyrics, play instruments and play and perform the songs they’ve written. “Our flagship program is getting people to form groups and play multiple songs,” says Pearce, adding that SongDivision concentrates more on large groups collaborating on a single song.

Both Pearce and SongDivision’s Music Director, Nashville, James “Roto” Rotundi, admit that convincing an audience made up of people with limited, if any, musical background to write and perform a song requires tact. “We reassure them that music is collaborative,” says Rotundi. “No one is asked to sing alone.” And both companies use a series of small steps to essentially remove the participant’s inhibitions, one by one.

Jeff Pearce

Jeff Pearce

At the outset there are some jitters, but once the process is explained, even with initially reserved crowds, “apprehension gives way to a level of enthusiasm and teamwork that consistently amazes and delights both the clients and ourselves,” says Rotundi.

“We’re teaching rudimentary skills,” Pearce adds. “We might have multiple guitar players playing one string each, a keyboard player playing with one finger and a drummer playing a ‘row, you bastards’ beat, so it sounds like a band.”

To be honest, during the first RTS/SongDivision collaboration I worked on, I found the prospect of writing a song with 150 people, and getting it stage-ready in about an hour-and-a-half, a bit daunting. But seeing the light switch on in participants’ eyes as they realize they can be musical, creative, and stretch their personal boundaries was incredibly inspirational. As familiar as I am with collaborating to get a tune written and ready to perform, it reminded me how necessary it is to constantly expand my own boundaries in order to progress as a musician, performer and songwriter.

The events are far more interactive than a typical concert. By writing and performing, the audience becomes an integral part of the band. “It’s rewarding to see the energy this kind of creative exchange produces,” Rotundi says. “It’s made me a better performer, more attuned to the people I play for. And the lesson that songwriting is largely a matter of sitting down and getting to work – rather than waiting for some flash of inspiration – is one that cannot be repeated often enough.”

By adulthood – whether you’re a songwriter or not – chances are your sense of wonder has taken a bit of a beating; doing this type of gig recalls, for me, the power of music, and the reasons I wanted to write music in the first place.

It’s a reminder that Pearce takes into his own work. “When you start writing you haven’t learned ‘the rules’ – what can and can’t be done in songwriting,” he says. “And, in some cases, I think the biggest detriment to a songwriter is learning those rules. People writing a song for the first time break the rules because they don’t know they exist. That reminds me, as a songwriter, that doing so can help make a song special.”

James Rotundi

James Rotundi

Writing a song with people who normally would consider that well out of their wheelhouse – and a song that, by necessity, is written according to a specific formula and largely about a company, corporate culture or range of products – might initially not seem terribly inspiring. The response from every musician I’ve spoken to who’s been involved in this type of gig, however, is that they came out of it not only inspired by helping someone else expand their creative capacity, but with a greater desire to expand their own.

Jeff Pearce is a founding member, former bass player and principal songwriter for Moist. He’s also collaborated with a variety of other artists as a producer/songwriter and is the founder of Rock Star Live.

James Rotundi is the leader of Nashville’s Roto’s Magic Act, and guitarist for New York City hard rock quartet Hundred Hounds. He’s also worked with the French electro band Air, Mike Patton’s Mr. Bungle, The Grassy Knoll, and collaborated with members of Pearl Jam, Santana, Faith No More, Jellyfish and the ?Saturday Night Live Band among others.