For our Fall 2021 SongU Special Event Pitch, “Staff Writer for a Day,” the Creative Director of Winsongs Music Publishing, Kirby Smith, listened to over 200 songs. She selected one writer, Jonny Born, to win the coveted “staff writer for a day” prize which featured a co-writing session with Winsongs’ artist/writer Eric Van Houten. This month Jonny flew from his home in Utah to Nashville, TN, for that session. He told me later that he was glad he made the trip to write in person because the visit was full of surprises, and the creative energy in the writer’s room was tangible.
Jonny, how’d your staff writer session go?
It was amazing! In addition to Eric Van Houten from WinSongs, Kirby added a new artist/writer named Nick Boyd to the meeting as well, and I am so glad she did. Watch out for this kid. He is the real deal!
You had another happy surprise too, right?
We wrote in Liz Rose’s office and I was pumped. I can’t even imagine how many monsters have been written in those walls. I took a picture before the meeting. I know it looks like I’m not happy, but that’s my “Jon, get your head in the game and show up and contribute, it’s time to go to work” face!!! HAHA. Honestly, I just wanted to get a picture before anyone saw me taking a selfie and figured out I was a nervous rookie!
You don’t look like a rookie! What happened when Eric and Nick arrived?
After we chatted for a while and just got to know each other a bit, we talked about what we wanted to write.
How’d the writing process go?
I had about 15-20 hooks/ideas I’ve been saving for that day. I pulled out what I thought was the most intriguing one — a concept around the word “Unmade,” with the chorus starting out, “I can’t lie, the way you kissed me, left me drunker than the whiskey.” And ending with: “Now, I can’t lie, in this bed that we unmade.” They dug it, and we dove in. I was SUPER worried about keeping up and adding value in that room, but was happy that by the end of it, I’d contributed about 40+% of the lyric, most of the music/progressions, and the hook. I felt I belonged in the room.
That’s terrific! It’s great that you came prepared with so many ideas, even though they liked the first one you presented.
Those guys made it modern, and fresh, and really really cool. It’s certainly one of the better ones I’ve written, but those boys write every day. They also seemed happy with it.
Did you learn anything new about the writing process from this experience?
The experience did shine a light on some areas where I get to improve and up my writing game. New ways to approach a lyric, and a top line. How to get out of my comfort zone and do things lyrically, and musically, that aren’t expected and are new and fresh. Mixing up the lyric syncopation, etc. I’m going to dig in and really get to work on that. You’ll see an improvement in my writing because of this. It makes me wonder how good I could get if I was here, and had the chance to write with better writers every day.
What was your overall experience with the Staff Writer for a Day Special Event?
I just wanted to express my gratitude again for creating this opportunity for me. I feel really, really blessed to have had the chance to be part of SongU and get better at the craft, and have the chance to meet you, and be able show up and be “in the room.”
Jonny, THANK YOU for chatting about your “Staff Writer for a Day” experience so that we can all learn from it! Here’s the WORKTAPE of “Unmade” (with your vocal).
Congratulations to all of our Top Tier Marketers who pitched their songs the MOST times at SongU.com in 2021, including our SongU “Mover & Shaker” John Cirillo who pitched 634 times and says that SongU.com has been the best investment of his career.
About John Cirillo: Personally, John has impressed me not only with his determination but his modesty. He routinely highlights his cowriters’ participation and talents, heightening their abilities and profiles. But what truly sets John apart is that he makes time to help other songwriters, at every level, reach their own goals by setting up collaborations and connections, sharing leads, and frequently referring writers to SongU.com (thanks, John). His spirit of mentorship and community is what SongU is all about and what truly earns him his SongU Mover & Shaker title. Below, John tells us about his SongU experience in his own words.
John says: About a year or so ago I was fortunate enough to win a one year membership with SongU (I have since renewed!). I was curious as to the value and the potential of the tools that SongU had to offer and was anxious to get my account up and running. I have worked with several different publishers and organizations in pitching my songs into this ever-changing market. With SongU I found an organization that posted what current successful independent songwriters were looking for; both with artists and with Synch opportunities; which basically covers my catalog.
I was also looking to find a site that was simple to use for any kind of changes or opportunities. SongU’s web site and applications definitely made my efforts easier to get my songs into the right hands. Because of the industry pros that SongU has developed relationships with, I have been able to pitch to opportunities almost every week. Also, the cost of doing so is much more affordable than many other organizations. This has allowed me to submit songs to a solid list of artists and synch opportunities. I have known a few of the industry pros prior to my subscription to SongU. But because of the opportunities to work with each other through SongU, I feel I have strengthened my relationships with a few Pros and started building new relationships with others.
Because the info that SongU provides from the Industry Pros, along with the deadlines and any other important information, I feel that I am able to present my best material for each particular opportunity. Sometimes I don’t have anything, sometimes I have several. But with SongU I feel much more confident that the songs I do pitch fit the opportunity.
Over the past year I have been able to sign several non-exclusive single song contracts with different Industry Pros. Because I am an independent songwriter, it is almost impossible for me to reach the level of artists that I would like to reach without paying a pretty hefty price for a quality sungplugger. But SongU has basically put me in touch with Industry Pros that can help me reach these artists. That is a valuable asset that not all songwriting organizations can provide.
Overall, between the ease of use, their connections to the right Industry Pros and the cost of using SongU, I feel that it certainly has been my best investment in my career as a songwriter.
Congratulations to all of our SongU Top Tier Learners for participating in the most instructor-led and private mentoring sessions this year! This is a huge accomplishment at SongU where our philosophy is that education leads to success. Our members, like our Valedictorian Karen Mitchell, have proven there is a direct correlation between furthering their knowledge of the craft and business of songwriting and meeting their personal songwriting goals.
About Karen Mitchell: I have had the pleasure of getting to know Karen since she joined SongU in 2019 and has participated in over 115 live courses this year. She has always impressed me with her humor, humility, and hard work. That combination has made all the difference. Below, she tells us about her SongU experience and successes. She even mixes in several of her song titles to prove she has learned to write her truth!
Karen says: I am honored to be at the “head of the class” for “Top Learners” in 2021. My SongU journey started in July 2019 at the suggestion of another member, co-writer and special friend. She thought I’d benefit from a membership and she was so write (pun intended)! Since that time I’ve had the awesome privilege of having songs I’ve written or co-written signed to numerous exclusive and non exclusive agreements! The SongU format of having a professional mentor(s) and five members in the live feedback classes is so valuable! It’s great to work with exceptional people who willingly share their thoughts and encouragement! I’ve also benefited from DIY classes, private sessions and written critiques. All services offered are extremely valuable and add to the in-depth learning experience! SongU has been instrumental in helping me see personal growth and I plan to continue with that process! Some critiques can be tough and when I can’t “Escape the Sad” I’ve learned to pour those emotions into a new song. In fact, I’m “Stronger Than I Think” and “Stronger Than I’ve Ever Been.” This year I started co-writing with an amazing and talented musician! We met in a SongU class. Writing with him has made me a “Better” writer! SongU has changed my life and I’m confident there’ll be many more incredible songs in the near future! In fact (for one mentor in particular) I’m just “Waiting” to see what new doors open in 2022!
Winner of our February/March 2021 SongU Special Event Pitch “Staff Writer for a Day with Curb/Word Entertainment,” Matt Soileau (pronounced in Louisiana French as “swallow”) answered our questions about his writing process. He also filled us in on the co-write session set up by Senior Creative Director of Publishing Ciara Shortridge with hit songwriter Bobby Tomberlin (“One More Day”).
Matt’s interest in songwriting started in 2016 in Texas from a random conversation about songwriting with one of his physical therapy patients. He was hooked when he learned that he could write the words to a song without the music. Until then, he didn’t even know there was such a thing as a “lyricist.” He admits that his first attempts were “horrible.” He and a co-worker would banter back and forth. He would create titles and lyrics to songs from the conversations, but they were always joke-type songs. They would watch a Country Music channel sometimes at work and would hear songs like T-Shirt and Trailer Hitch and say, “man, that’s pretty easy, simple, everyday stuff right there. We can make up lyrics and titles like that.” He learned later that it was a little more complicated than that.
Like many new songwriters, Matt says the ideas for songs, titles, and twists on clichés were not the problem, but writing a complete song in a song-form to a melody was. Motivated to enter his lyrics into song contests, he teamed up to co-write with musicians and vocalists and started submitting his first “bad” songs. The contests led him to educational sites for songwriters, including SongU, and he began studying everything he could find about songwriting.
He wrote in secret for a year in fear that he “may not be good enough” and that those around him would laugh and think this was crazy. Eventually, he started to get some honorable mentions in songwriting contests, then semi-finalist, then finalist placements. He says that only then did he feel comfortable telling his wife and friends that he had entered into this new mid-life experiment. He says, “I didn’t understand why it was happening at that time but I just knew I felt so fulfilled when I was writing that this must be my purpose in life.”
How often do you write? Do you have any set schedule or unique ways to enhance your creative process?
I “work” on songwriting every morning, but I do not write songs every morning. I have a family with three kids and a wife, and a day job. For that reason, my writing time is anywhere from 4 AM to 9 AM before my family wakes up. That sounds bad, but I am an early riser that needs little sleep to operate. I like a quiet setting and some strong coffee to aid the process. I get to go longer on weekends if the kids don’t have early activities. I have dry spells like every other writer. When I’m not feeling inspired, I do clerical work related to my songs, like organizing e-mails, reading educational things, and looking for new networking opportunities. If the lyrics aren’t there, I sometimes find new ideas for titles or songs in general. Some mornings I listen to other artists, and that spurs ideas.
Tell us about the pitching for this Special Event with Ciara Shortridge, Curb/Word Publishing Creative Director. Four of your songs ended up on the contenders’ list! How did you decide which of your song to submit to the Special Event Pitch?
This was difficult for me. I have demos of a lot of songs already completed because it seems like my creativity is a steamroller at times and won’t stop. I enjoy that completion process so much. It is hard for me to choose my best song because you think all of them are good when you create them. But then, if you get into an evaluation or pitching process with professionals, you start to realize their flaws. But I was simply submitting a few Country songs and few Contemporary Christian songs. I have had several bursts of inspiration in Contemporary Christian, which I think are some of my best songs. I’m glad that Ciara agreed when she judged the contest.
That seems like an excellent strategy to show your range as a writer. What were your first thoughts when you found out that you were the winner?
It was such an honor and validation to have a professional from a major label saying good things about my songs and picking me as the winner. Ciara’s comments were so nice and just gave me a good feeling about what I had done with my songs and how they could affect people in a positive way. She said that my song, So Help Me God, “resonates with me,” and she “loved it,” and “the double meaning of the hook knocked me out.” I played this song for a family member, and they cried because of its emotional impact. Even if this song never gets on the radio, it has still changed the world in some way and touched people already. That’s a great feeling and one of the goals of my writing.
I was also immediately anticipating the gift of a pro co-write with Bobby as well, and it was a really neat experience. This win [in addition to the Nashville Songwriter’s Contest win] has led to a couple of in-person co-writes when I make a trip to Nashville in November.
Here’s the song that rose the to top of the Special Event Pitch contenders list for Emily:
I noticed that you submitted very well-done guitar/vocals rather than full-band productions. Ciara seemed to be drawn to them, which says a lot about the quality of the writing. You invited one of your co-writers to the session as well (with permission from Ciara and Bobby). Why was that?
I write with Brandon Chase, who does the vocals for most of my songs. He is now singing with the Christian group I Am They and was a former Voice contestant. His vocals are amazing! He is also very strong with melody, and that’s how we usually divide up the labor in our writes even though he has lyric skills as well. I just knew having him present would enhance the writing. I also wanted to invite him to show my gratitude since he was a co-writer on most of my contest songs, and I couldn’t have won without him.
How did you prepare yourself ahead of time for the co-write session with hit writer Bobby Tomberlin? Did you come with ideas or just let the ideas flow after you got in the “writer’s room” (aka online meeting)?
Because I consider myself the “idea and lyric guy,” I prepped by going through a lot of my song ideas stored on my phone and in my e-mail. I’m constantly jotting down new titles, ideas, and lines. So I suggested a few different songs, and we then decided on “Happy Accidents” as the best choice for our write. I can’t contribute to melody much because of my skill set, so I wanted to try to really contribute on the front end of the song. We completed it in two writing sessions about a month apart. I prepared for our second writing session by doing a lot of lyric writing on my own for the second verse and bridge. I can write and contribute in the moment during a writing session, but, because of the way I usually write, I like to slowly ruminate on lyrics in the early morning hours.
Can you walk us through the writing process a bit?
It was a Zoom session since I live in Texas. We did introduce ourselves and just said a few things about ourselves to get started. There was a little talking and joking, but we started getting into the write quickly. I shot out a few ideas, and Bobby picked the one he liked the best. Brandon agreed and very quickly started playing some melody options on his guitar. We did two sessions to complete the song. The first was about 40 minutes after dealing with some tech issues and the second one was about an hour to finish up.
Are you, Brandon, and Bobby happy with the song you wrote? Is anything happening with it in terms of pitching?
The writing team was happy with the song when we finished it. We thought it was a unique presentation of the common but never old theme of love. We felt like the chorus was pretty “catchy” and could get listeners singing along. We didn’t get a lot of feedback yet from the Creative Director. We have not decided to do a full demo on this song yet, only a phone recording so far. I’ve learned that to pitch a song effectively, you can’t just throw it out there to everyone. It took me a while to learn that. But pitches should be strategic and targeted to specific artists that are looking for specific types of songs. So far, we haven’t found a match for our song in that way, so it is not being pitched. But if I see the right opportunity, I will definitely put it out there.
Thanks for sharing the worktape that came out of the session…
Your overall experience with the Staff Writer for a Day Special Event?
It was a great experience and opportunity. It was great to meet Bobby and write with him when you look at his songwriting accomplishments and cuts. I am very grateful and will always give SongU credit for my first co-write with a major-label pro writer. It’s just a great way to get a more quality writing experience in my back pocket to move the songwriting journey forward. It’s another step along the way to network and also hopefully get closer to my goal of getting some cuts in Nashville and commuting there regularly to write at some point..
Matt, thanks so much! We appreciate your sharing your experience so we can all learn from it.
Thanks to singer-songwriter Brad McKinney from Kentucky (SongU.com member since 2014) for taking the time to answer some questions about his songwriting process and his experience as the winner of our October/November 2020 SongU Special Event Pitch “Staff Writer for a Day with Deluge Music.”
Brad, let’s start at the beginning. When did you first realize you wanted to write songs?
I’m definitely a late bloomer. It’s funny…I grew up around music but didn’t think I had a creative bone in my body. My extended family is FULL of musicians and creators, and my uncle Dave Maggard was actually a Grammy nominated songwriter for his song “Lefty’s Old Guitar.” Our family get-togethers usually ended up turning into bluegrass jam sessions where I wouldn’t participate but would admire from a distance. As for me, I was 37 when I wrote my first song, and…it wasn’t good. But the next one was a little better, and then the next one was better than that. As it turns out, the more you do something, the better you get at it!
How often do you write? Do you have any set schedule or special ways to enhance your creative process? Any regular collaborators?
I’m a network engineer by day, so all of my writing takes place in the evenings or on weekends. I typically have 4-5 co-writes per week on average, and I’m lucky enough to have a pool of co-writers who are not only awesome songwriters but also awesome friends. As far as enhancing my creative process? Coffee…lots of coffee!
What do you feel is your “strength” as a writer? In other words, are you more lyric-driven or music-driven, or something else?
I’ve always considered myself stronger lyrically, but I’m also melody-capable. I’m a bit of a “glue guy” in that I tend to do my best writing when there’s both a lyric and melody person in the room with me and I’m able to contribute equally to both.
Tell us about the pitching for the Special Event. How did you decide which of your song(s) to submit to the Special Event Pitch?
I submitted two songs to Emily, and she ended up marking both of them as contenders. I chose “Never Good at Math” (co-written with Kelly McKay and Kyle Jackson-Rachky) because we’ve gotten such great feedback about the originality of that one…it’s a hook that seems to jump off the page. I chose “I’ll Get Over You” because it’s a solo write (and my current single on all streaming platforms), and I think it best represents who I am as a writer and artist.
That seems like a good strategy to show your range as a writer. What were your first thoughts when you found out that you were the winner?
I was ecstatic!! My only regret is that I wasn’t able to attend the live reveal due to a scheduling conflict…I actually first found out through some congratulatory texts from friends and co-writers, and then later went and watched the reveal.
How did you prepare yourself ahead of time for the co-write session with hit writer, Danny Myrick? Did you come with ideas or just let the ideas flow after you got in the “writer’s room” (aka online meeting)?
I try to go into each of my co-writes with a starter chorus as a building block. Naturally, some ideas are better than others and we sometimes don’t use my idea at all. I made sure to go into the write with Danny with a good starter chorus and some other ideas around it. Luckily, Danny loved the idea and we ran with it!
How long was your writing session? Can you walk us through the writing process a bit?
The entire write lasted around two hours. Like previously mentioned, I came in with a starter chorus that Danny dug, then we discussed possible angles/counter-angles and just started knocking it out. He suggested some melodic and lyrical changes to my starter, and it came together pretty quickly after that. It was a very smooth, efficient, and entertaining write!
Did you learn anything new about the craft of songwriting during the session?
I learned SO much from Danny just from watching him work through the ideas! Watching and experiencing a pro writer’s processes from start to finish was eye opening for sure, and I’m trying to incorporate some of those processes into my own writes.
Can you elaborate on that?
It’s hard to really put that one into words. I basically just tried to soak up as much as possible from him…watched the different ways he would approach an angle, how he used the chorus melody to determine the feel for the verses, etc.
Are you and Danny happy with the song you wrote? Did you demo it/ pitching it?
Danny was able to produce a pretty awesome demo-quality worktape with his own vocals (that afternoon, mind you!), and I was blown away by the quality and sound. I’ve been pitching it through multiple avenues to whomever I see fit. I can’t speak for Danny, but I couldn’t be happier!
Your overall experience with the Staff Writer for a Day Special Event?
Much like with the write itself, I couldn’t be happier with this event! I think you’re providing unsigned writers an amazing opportunity to write with professionals, and I loved both the write and the end result. Thank you so much for the opportunity!
Brad, we appreciate your sharing your experience so we can all learn from it. Here is the demo of the awesome song that came out of the session…
All SongU members have the opportunity to forge a creative connection with any of our award-winning coaches. These mentors offer written feedback on songs in progress, focusing on lyrics, music, originality, and commercial potential. Today’s spotlight, Coach #814, aka Tom Paden, is one of SongU’s best-kept secrets since 2005. The insights he offers with his coaching feedback elicit responses from our members, such as, “Gave me chills just now reading your evaluation! Thanks so much for all you said here and saying you are proud. Really makes me feel good! Onward to the charts. Thanks to you and all you do. Nothing would happen without your wisdom!” Our songwriters want to make him proud because he never hesitates to let them know he’s rooting for them.
Congratulations on your recent success with the song “Window in the Wall” recorded by Olivia Newton-John and her daughter, Chloe Lattanzi. Your co-writers on this song are Eddie Kilgallon and Tajci Cameron. Tajci is from Croatia. Can you talk about how this 3-way Tennessee/Croatia writing collaboration came about and your experience working on a song with someone from another country and culture?
I met Tajci in 2016. I was president of my neighborhood’s Homeowner’s Association and her husband came to me with a problem with his house or something, I can’t quite remember. When he found out that I was a songwriter, he showed me all the pictures of when Tajci was a teen star in Croatia and introduced us. Tajci had been living in the states a long time so there was no language barrier or anything like that. She told me that she needed a song for the Eurovision song contest that is held every year in Europe. This is a huge competition. So, I called Eddie we went to her house and and wrote the song “Window in the Wall.” Initially, we wrote this song as a relationship between two people. Then in May of 2020, Eddie and I rewrote the first two lines, both channels, and most of the bridge to give it a broader “world” meaning.
Olivia Newton-John called you personally to tell you how much the song touched her heart. When and how did she hear the demo?
My cousin Cyndie who lives in Bremen, GA has always taken an interest in my songs. I had sent the song to her after I demoed it. This was in early June. (As an aside, Cyndie had breast cancer and met Olivia Newton-John in a clinic in Bremen and became friends over a few months. The director of the clinic is famous and Olivia would fly from Los Angeles to Bremen to go there.) In early October, I was working out at the gym when I got a text from Cyndie saying she had sent the song to her friend Olivia and hoped I wasn’t mad. She told me that Olivia wanted to record it as a duet with her daughter. I had no who this friend “Olivia” was because I had never seen a much earlier text mentioning her full name. By this point, I had pitched the song hard, over 150 times, and had not gotten any takers. So I texted back, sure, why not? I really didn’t care who recorded the song. I asked Cyndie what Olivia’s last name was so that I could get her a mechanical license. She texted back, I think she still goes by Newton-John. Well, I just about dropped the weights on my foot when I read that! Wow, Olivia Newton-John! That night, Olivia called me. She was so sweet and lovely over the phone. She told me that my song had touched her heart and that she was going to record it. She said the song was bringing her out of retirement. The whole thing was blowing my mind.
I’m fascinated by the unconventional route that led you first to Tajci and then to Olivia Newton-John. It really shows that you never know where those serendipitous relationships are going to come from.
I have always made it a point to follow every lead. When I was leaving home for Nashville in 1985, my grandmother, Nannie, told me to get in touch with a songwriter in Nashville. Her friend had sold him a house. I thought to myself, whatever, I certainly don’t need any help from Nannie. I loved my grandmother, but… Well, about two months in, I called that songwriter and for the next four years he was my mentor. He helped me write songs and I’ll always be indebted to him. His name is Layng Martine Jr. He wrote songs for Elvis, The Pointer Sisters, Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, and many others. I told myself then that I would always follow any lead that I was given because you just never know. Thanks Nannie!
Gotta love the Nannie! When I first moved to town in the early 90’s I met Layng at the Nashville Songwriters Association. He was always so humble and friendly. His song “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” (co-written with Richard Leigh) is one of my all time favorite songs.
Tom, as a producer, what’s your process? Do you have certain gear and/or software you prefer? Have you been writing and/or tracking songs with new artists?
As a producer, I rent a studio. It’s usually County Q because they do such great work. I’ve been producing independent artists since 1989. I’ve done a lot of projects over the years. If I’m working with an artist, I will pitch them over 100 songs from some of the best songwriters in Nashville. I always send a detailed budget and keep a balance statement. If there’s money left over after everything has been paid, then I send them back a check. I want to always be transparent with my clients. Many times I write with the artist and we record those songs as well.
If you could give emerging songwriters and producers one great piece of advice, what is it?
Join SongU! Haha. I would say a couple of things. Spend more time on your ideas. Artists are looking for fresh, new, different, and unique ideas and titles. Writing another “I love you” or “I’m broken hearted and blue” song will not get you anywhere. Once you have a pitchable song, pitch it to everyone and anyone. The music business is a numbers game. The more pitches, the more chances your song will be recorded. Also, pitch to the independent artists. I’ve probably had over 600 indie artists cuts. Some were great and others…well not so great. I still got paid and you never know who will be that next super star.
How have you been holding up during the quarantine? Besides your musical pursuits, what keeps you occupied? Any TV shows, books, activities you’ve been enjoying?
I always stay busy. I have my two kids, Thomas, who is 21 and attending MTSU and Grace Lee who is 19 and attending Birmingham Southern College. I love to write songs, workout and play racquetball and pickleball, hunt and fish, and I’m an avid book reader. My friends and family occupy my time. I am never bored. I am grateful for everyday and keep a positive outlook on life.
Thanks for taking the time to chat about songwriting with us today, Tom! As always, we appreciate your dedication and great mentorship to the SongU members!
What Our Members Are Saying:
1/8/2021 – “Yours is probably the most helpful and constructive evaluation I’ve ever had. I will get back to work on this! Thank you!! ” — Grahame M. (FL)
9/2/2020 – “Thank you SO MUCH for your encouraging words and the [Best of SongU] star! Stay well! ” — Robbi A. (TX)
8/14/2020 – “Thank you so much for the great thoughts! I always appreciate your insight! Take care and I have sent you a couple other things, so I’ll look forward to getting those back, as well.” — Kerry J. (KY)
6/30/2020 – “I’m beyond thrilled!! I was afraid you’d tell me it was too sad. This means so much to me and after I get the music and demo, I will send for you to listen. Thanks a million for this review. As always, you’re the best!” — Rita W. (OH)
About Coach #814:Tom Paden has had songs recorded by major artists, including Aaron Neville, Tammy Wynette, Restless Heart, Ricochet, Kenny Rogers, Lee Greenwood, and most recently Olivia Newton-John. This coach is also a producer and has a strong background in music and specializes in evaluating country and adult contemporary songs.
Coaching Philosophy: “I enjoy working with all songwriters. I will point out the positive things a writer does, but I am also honest and to the point, so the writer can learn and grow. I enjoy hearing new songs and I give my best on every evaluation.”
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!
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.
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.
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
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…
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!
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.
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: