Notes on Napkins

musings for songwriters


Leave a comment

Marcia Ramirez: Inspiration On and Off the Road

Marcia Ramirez

Marcia Ramirez one of the most experienced and sought after demo-singers in Nashville. She’s one of the funniest, brightest, and thought-provoking people I know. Music is the backdrop of her life: Not only with her own singer-songwriter projects, her family’s (her husband, Mike Waldron is one of the most sought after musicians and session players in Nashville), her spiritual home’s, the artists’ she goes out on the road with, as well as all those songwriters’, whose demos she breathes life into with her lead and background vocals.

In May, my eyes were drawn to a quote by songwriter Liz Rose (Little Big Town’s Girl Crush, Taylor Swift’s White Horse) in a Forbes magazine article about songwriting. Liz Rose said, “The lifeblood of Nashville was built on songwriters and studio musicians and artists. How are we going to grow the next Derek Wells if there’s no studio and there’s no songwriters doing demos to play on?”

Of course, I emailed the quote to Marcia. Not because of what Liz was saying, although she makes a good point, but because of the mention of Derek Wells – Marcia’s son – who, in 2016, was the youngest person in history to win The Academy of Country Music’s Guitar Player of the Year award, as well as the youngest person to have been nominated for the CMA Musician of the Year award. Marcia, quite literally, “grew a Derek Wells.” (Her joke, not mine.) I’ll brag for my #proudmama friend and mention that Marcia’s youngest son, Sam, is a fine musician as well.

I’m happy to have a chance to ask her a few questions about her career for “Notes on Napkins.”

Marcia, I have to start by asking what’s helping you cope during this time of Corona?

Schitt’s Creek!  I’m obsessed.

Hah! Great answer. I love that show too. As a song feedback mentor and coach at SongU, you inspire so many writers. What inspires you? 

People brave enough to be their authentic selves – no matter what. And I mean on all levels – personally, spiritually, relationally, and especially creatively! Fight for your unique voice and perspective.

You’ve been touring as a musician and backup singer with major artists for over 20 years, most recently with pop legend Christopher Cross. What’s been the most surprising thing you learned being on the road? 

Well, I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but it’s not nearly as glamorous most of the time as you might think! 4 AM lobby calls to fly to the next town can be brutal, or sleeping in a bunk on the bus every night that’s about the size of a coffin, or washing your hair in the dressing room sink because soundcheck ran long and you don’t have time to go back to the hotel before the show…road life can be difficult some days. And you can really get homesick too when you are gone for long periods of time. All that being said, I have LOVED my time on the road and made some truly strong friendships by traveling around the world with great groups of folks. I’ve been super blessed to have loved my road families!

Marcia Ramirez and Christopher Cross

Can you tell us the story behind the song you co-wrote called “God and My Girlfriends,” recorded by Reba McEntire on her Grammy Winning album Sing It Now: Songs of Faith & Hope?

My friends, Lisa Hentrich and Patricia Conroy, wrote that song with me one day during a writing session on Music Row several years ago. As soon as we wrote it, we just KNEW it would be perfect for Reba, so we pitched it to her as soon as we got the demo done, and she put it on “hold” right away for the album she was about to record. She ended up not recording it on that album, and we were super bummed. BUT…. almost 9 years later, she actually tracked the song down herself and recorded it for her first faith-based album. I guess she remembered the song and was at a point in her life where the words felt very real to her. She had just gone through a divorce, so she was truly relying on God and her girlfriends to get her through a difficult time. It just goes to show you that artists record songs that they really relate to.

That’s one of my favorite “songwriter stories,” Marcia. It shows that you can have a great song that the artist loves, but if it’s not exactly the right song at the right time, it may not get cut…but that doesn’t mean it’s forgotten. It’s a tribute to this song’s strength that Reba remembered it so many years later to give it the perfect home on her album.

Marcia Ramirez in Studio

You’re an in-demand demo singer in Nashville. What’s the best tip you can give songwriters about working with a professional demo singer to get the best vocal on their song?

I think being as specific as you can about how close you want them to sing the song like the worktape. Some writers tell me to just use the worktape as a reference, but “Just do your thing” — meaning, they trust me to use my own instincts with the phrasing and melody. Other writers want it EXACTLY like they have phrased it on the worktape, and they don’t want you to vary the melody one single note. That really helps me prepare for the session if I know that ahead of time so that I can make much more specific notes. ALSO, always let the vocalist pick the key ahead of time that works best for their voice. That is SUPER important.

Marcia, Thanks for taking the time out of your multi-tasking and busy day to answer my questions. I enjoy and appreciate you, as always!

Find links to hear Marcia’s music, book her for gigs, read her blog, and learn about her God and My Girlfriends ministry by visiting her website at marciaramirez.com.


1 Comment

Kelly McKay, Winner of “Staff Writer for A Day,” Tells Us About Her Experience.

I was thrilled to speak with Kelly McKay, SongU member since 2013, and the winner of our Spring 2020 Special Event Pitch, “Staff Writer for a Day” with WinSongs Music Publishing! Kelly is clearly a talented songwriter, but she is also a role model for what it takes to succeed in this business:

  • the desire to keep growing and learning
  • the ability to network bravely yet humbly
  • the persistence to carry on in the face of daunting odds 
Songwriter, Kelly McKay

Kelly, I’m so excited to hear about your co-write session and listen to the song that you wrote. But first, tell me about the pitch. How did you decide which of your song(s) to submit to the “Staff Writer for a Day” Special Event Pitch with WinSongs’ Creative Director, Kirby Smith?

I submitted four songs. Kirby said she likes fun, uptempo songs and unique hooks that surprise her, so I kept that in mind. I submitted “Kissed the Hell Outta Me” mainly because it was brand new and I was excited about it and that was the one she picked. 

What were your first thoughts when you found out that you were the winner?

I was just excited. Little victories are a big deal to me (see what I did there?), so any time someone digs a song, it’s a great feeling. 

What was it like when you first contacted WinSongs’ Creative Director, Kirby Smith, after the event?

Kirby was really nice and got a date locked in really fast.  

Your co-write session was supposed to be with hit songwriter, Sandy Ramos, but Kirby added Winsongs’ staff songwriter, Chase Fouraker. Why?

She added Chase so that we could write to a track. 

How did you prepare yourself ahead of time for the co-write session, which was online, I assume?

Yes, it was over Zoom. I had a bunch of ideas ready to go, some deeper ones and some fun ones. I basically wanted to have all my bases covered so if they wanted to write a certain vibe, I had a hook that could fit. I also listened to Chase’s material that he’s released as an artist to get a feel for what he does. 

How long was your writing session? Can you walk us through the process a bit?

We finished in about 2 hours, 45 minutes. We talked a little when we first jumped on. Sandy and Chase hadn’t written before, so we all introduced ourselves and got to know each other a bit. Sandy said she wanted to write a fun uptempo and they both liked the first idea I threw out, so we were off and running pretty quickly.

What do you feel is your “strength” as a writer? In other words, are you more lyric-driven or music-driven, or something else? What did you feel your co-writer’s strengths seemed to be?

I can be more lyric-driven or more melody-driven depending on the team I’m writing with. I think that’s probably true for Sandy and Chase too. Just based on that session, Sandy focused mainly on lyrics while Chase focused more on melody and track. But I got the feeling they both probably play different roles in the writing room on any given day. 

Did you learn anything new about the craft of songwriting during the session?

I loved seeing how Sandy approaches a lyric and how she would go back and make little changes that made a big difference to the song. It reinforced not to settle for the first thing that sounds cool, but to make sure you nail it. And Chase was sharing his screen so we were able to watch him build the track along the way. That was actually really cool. I’ve written with a lot of different track guys and girls, but I’ve never really had the chance to watch that process that closely while the song is being written. 

When you say you watched Chase build the track along the way, how did that fit into the writing?

We started with a chord progression and a loose melodic direction and he started building the track from there. At times, he was focusing on the track while Sandy and I were working on lyrics. For the most part, it was all happening simultaneously.

Any other thoughts or feelings you’d like to share about these two pros and/or the writing session itself?

Sandy was the first person to critique one of my songs at NSAI years ago. I’ve learned a lot from her, so I was really excited to write with her. She’s an amazing writer and just made the whole session so easy. And Chase is a multi-tasking wizard. I had a starting melody for the chorus and he took it to another level while he was building the track and helping with lyrics. He’s got a killer voice too. I could listen to him sing all day. 

Your overall experience with the Staff Writer for a Day Special Event?

It was an awesome experience that I’m truly grateful for. The Big Reveal session itself was really helpful. Sara, you asked a lot of great questions and Kirby offered a lot of insight. I really appreciate the opportunity to learn from two pro writers, the chance to connect with Kirby and to add another song to my catalog all at the same time. I can’t say enough good things about it. Thank you Sara, Danny, Sandy, Kirby and Chase! 

Kelly, you’re so welcome! Thank YOU for sharing your experience so we can all learn from it.

And now, without further adieu, here is the work tape of the awesome song that came out of the session…

“Heart’s A Drunk” by Ramos/McKay/Fouraker

Great work, Kelly! I’m imagining myself on the dance floor right now with the one I love. I hope we will hear this on the radio soon!


Leave a comment

Getting the Demo You Want: A Conversation with Producer, Justin Morgan

My guest today to talk about demo production is the owner of Pearl Snap Studios in Nashville, TN, Justin Morgan. As a singer-songwriter and producer, Justin is a sought-after mentor, teaching his monthly small-group live session: “FDBK 160 Song and Production Feedback.”

Justin, tell me how is your personal journey going in this time of Corona?

Thankfully, my immediate family has been able to avoid getting COVID but we have definitely had close friends and extended family get it which hits close to home. Industry wise, a lot of co-writes got cancelled when COVID entered the scene, which gave me space to slow down and really focus on writing for projects that I had put on the back burner. Now, my co-writes have moved to Zoom, which can be challenging, but it also opens up new opportunities to write with people who can’t be in the same room.  

Songwriting is such a personal and community driven industry and experience that this has definitely been a challenge. BUT it has a silver lining. I think difficult times breed some of the best art. It’s always been this way. I’m trying to use this time to be focused on creating great music! Luckily, technology has made that possible.

How has the pandemic affected your ability to produce demos?

We’re super thankful that our process isn’t terribly interrupted by the pandemic. Myself and my little team of players and producers are able to work remotely and still get great sounding recordings to our clients. We’ve seen an increase in songs being submitted, which I think is largely in part to writers having things they need to say about everything going on in our world.

Speaking of recordings, can you tell us what exactly is a “demo”?

When I was just starting out as an artist and writer, the word “demo” was thrown around a lot, mostly to describe rough recordings that my band would make and try to sell for $5 at our merchandise table. Now, years later I realize that the word “demo” is still a puzzling thing for a lot of writers. It’s actually an abbreviation for the word “demonstration.” A demo is a recording of a song used to demonstrate what the song might sound like if recorded by an artist. Think of it as a prototype. Car companies use prototypes to show off a car before it goes to market. They then take any feedback from trusted sources and various testing to perfect it before it takes its final form (ready to sell). A demo acts in the same capacity. A writer finishes a great song and needs to be able to show it to publishers, A&R executives, artists, or producers, hoping that ultimately an artist will fall in love with the song and record it on their album. In the songwriting world, we call it “getting a cut” when an artist chooses to record your song and put it out on an album.

Can a demo help you get a cut?

Demos can be pivotal in helping land a cut with an artist. I have personally seen songs not get cut because the demo wasn’t right, and then later, the song gets cut after the artist or A&R person hears a new demo of the same song.

Is there a difference between a demo and a master? Can you explain those terms a little bit?

It’s important to note that the artist does not typically use the demo track to record their vocals over.  The record label will use their own musicians, producer, and vocalist to create the final recording. Since demos are not intended to be used as the final recording, they will usually have restrictions from the producer or studio stating that they cannot be released commercially. A recording that is commercially released is considered a “master” and generally will cost quite a bit more to create than a demo. Sometimes a writer will negotiate a fee with the studio or producer in order to release the demo as a master, however permission will need to be granted from the producer, any players, and the vocalist who performed on the recording. 

How much does a demo cost?

Demos vary greatly in price from $150-$2,000 or even more depending on who is creating the demo and how it is being recorded. Sometimes just having an acoustic guitar or a piano along with a killer vocal is all a song needs to shine. Other times, a full production with a string quartet can be needed. It just depends on the song. Talking with your producer and mentors about what the song needs is always a good place to start.

What part does a producer like you play in the demo creation process?

Personally as a producer, I appreciate when a writer lets me have some creative leeway in the production process. I always welcome notes and reference tracks, however, being right in the middle of Music City and creating demos on a daily basis gives me a leg up on knowing what is and what is not working currently. It’s our job as producers to stay current and help your song shine like it should. This is why finding a producer you trust is very important to the process. A demo is an investment in your song and should be treated as such. 

What makes a successful demo?

A demo recording should be interesting and engaging, but should have room in the production to leave the song open to interpretation. I like to caution writers about wanting too much unique character in a demo. Some is needed and can be a great way to catch ears, but too much can pigeon hole a song and make it less recordable by a broad spectrum of artists. Here are some things to consider when you are looking to have a demo made:

  • Does this producer specialize in this style of music? 
  • Does this producer create current sounding recordings that sound similar to what I hear from current artists? 
  • Do I trust this producer’s work?
  • Is my song ready to be demo’ed?
  • Are all the lyrics how I want them?
  • Are all of the melodies dialed in? 
  • Am I financially able to make the investment in this song right now? 

Answering these questions will help you decide if it’s time to look for a great demo for your song!  

Thanks for taking the time to talk about the process of demoing songs, Justin, and for your great work mentoring the songwriters at SongU.com! I should mention that you also graciously offer a special discount to SongU members when they request a demo from Pearl Snap Studios directly from the SongU website portal.


1 Comment

Instructor Spotlight: Randy Klein Has a Cool NYC Debut This Month

Multifaceted songwriter, performer, producer and native New Yorker, Randy Klein, has been mentoring emerging songwriters at SongU.com since 2006 when co-creator, Danny Arena, randomly spotted Randy’s name online for winning a prize for one of his jazz compositions. At the time, we were looking for some additional genre-diversity within our coaching faculty, and once we read his extensive bio, we had a gut feeling that Randy could bring exactly what we needed to the table. As it turns out, Randy did have a “flair for feedback” and has since become a well-respected staple of our song feedback and coaching staff.

Adding to his award-winning credits from Emmys to gold records to fellowships and commissions with projects including jazz, musical theatre, soul/R&B, documentary film scores, and PBS children’s TV shows, he now has a World Premiere to look forward to. His composition “Fanfare For Jerusalem” will be performed in New York City by the 400 voice Hazamir Chorale at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center on March 26, 2017.

I asked Randy to answer a few questions about  songwriting and what this newest commission means to him.

When did your music career begin and what were your goals when you first began?

I’m not sure when my music career began because I have never done anything else but music. There are pictures of me as a toddler reaching up to the piano to play. And, as far as goals are concerned, I only wanted to be a good piano player. Songwriting didn’t come into the picture until way later when I was in my late twenties.

What are the most important lessons you learned about the music business since starting out?

To be nice to everyone. Admit when you are wrong. Remember that it ain’t a gig until the check clears!

You have a very exciting project called “Fanfare to Jerusalem” that will be a worldwide debut performed at Lincoln Center in New York City. How did you get this commission? 

The commission for “Fanfare For Jerusalem” came to me because of my relationship to Matthew and Vivian Lazar, the founder and director of the HaZamir Chorale. They are my neighbors and live in my apartment building in NYC. They knew I was a composer and invited me to hear the chorale a year ago at a performance at Carnegie Hall. It was excellent, the sound of 400 voices blew my socks off, and the concert was of a very high musical aesthetic. I ran into Matthew and Vivian in the lobby of our apartment house the next day and told them how much I enjoyed the concert and mentioned that I would love to write for the chorale. They told me that the theme for the next year was to be the 50th anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem. I thought about this for a while and then pitched them the idea of composing a piece called Fanfare For Jerusalem. I wrote the main theme and proposed some original text in English. The text was not approved, but the concept and the main theme were. It was suggested that I look at the Psalms of David for text that related to Jerusalem. I did the research and found, using translations in English, four excerpts from the Psalms which I thought would work. These selections were approved.

Was it intimidating to write the lyrics in another language, especially one that doesn’t use the English alphabet?

The only drawback was that I did not speak Hebrew and the Psalms are in Hebrew. Matthew Lazar connected me with an associate who spoke the Psalms into a recorder in Hebrew, including a recording of each word sounded out phonetically. It was from this recording that I wrote Fanfare For Jerusalem.

How long did it take for you to complete it?

It took about 5 weeks of non-stop writing. I would study the pronunciation of a syllable, then a word, and then a phrase and I slowly put music to it. Hebrew is a language with some guttural sounding syllables that don’t sing very well, like ‘o-ha-va-yich’ and ‘b’-chei-leich’. The challenge was to set them and be musical. While, I was composing the music, I was also imagining the 400 voice chorale singing it. So, I was learning the sound of the words, composing and orchestrating for chorale at the same time. I presented the first draft in Matthew and Vivian’s apartment. I had them look at the printed score as I was playing and explaining the piece. The reaction was overwhelming. Vivian sensed that this was a very special piece and said it was going to be in this year’s concert at the Metropolitan Opera House. Matthew was already making musical suggestions to make it better. And, that they had decided to make the piece a commission. To say the least, I was overjoyed! Through Matthew’s suggestions about chorale writing and a series of about 11 rewrites, the piece was tightened up.

You almost make it sound easy, Randy. I’ve done more than 11 rewrites on a 3-minute Country song!

As a writer, I was thrilled because the original structure never changed and except for ‘one mis-stress’, I had set the text correctly. I was able to hear the language as it was spoken and paint it in a musical setting. The final piece is about 6 minutes long. The skill set I used to compose this piece was the same as I use to write songs in English. Listening to the way a lyric speaks, I used my songwriting ear to learn how the lyric in Hebrew spoke and set it to music. Lessons to learn… don’t ever be afraid to pitch a creative idea to someone…music is a universal language….develop your listening skills! And, the cool news is, my collaborator is King David!

Yes, that’s a great lesson: “Don’t ever be afraid to pitch a creative idea to someone.”  So, what’s the best piece of general advice you can give up and coming songwriters?

This is easy. Write every day, even if you are not inspired. Take an article in the paper and write a song about it. Write a song about ketchup. Just keep your pencil sharp.

What’s on the creative horizen for you?

-A book on songwriting titled, “You Can Write A Song!” (Fall 2017)
-Musicals in various states of completion: The Black Swan, Jubilee, Pandamonium and Speak.
-A piano improvisation project: Ambient Spaces
-Teaching songwriting – ongoing!

Name three of your favorite non-music related activities.

-Sitting in the middle of Greenwood Lake, NY on my 1995 pontoon boat on a warm summer day.
-Freshly brewed coffee.
-Riding my bicycle.

 

For more information and to purchase tickets to the March 26th world premiere of “Fanfare for Jerusalem” go to:  

http://www.metopera.org/Season/2016-17-Misc-Season/Hazamir/