Notes on Napkins

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Featured SongU Mentor: Alan Roy Scott – Oh, the Couches He Has Known

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. They often become creative sounding boards on rewritten drafts of a song until it has reached its full potential. Some, like today’s spotlight Coach #3762, aka Alan Roy Scott, also serve as instructors of our online song feedback group sessions and offer private consultations.

Alan Roy Scott has been one of our most beloved feedback instructors and coaches since 2009 when he became a SongU.com mentor. During that time he has worked with literally thousands of songwriters at SongU. He has a self-proclaimed “gift of gab” and is known for his sense of humor, personal engagement, and wisdom. This often means that his “1-hour” group feedback sessions last quite a bit longer than an hour! I took some time to ask him about his personal mentoring philosophy and his UNIQUELY 2020 EUROVISION experience. Make sure to listen below to his song ‘Cleopatra’ recorded by Azerbaijanian contestant Efendi.

Alan, one of the things the SongU members seem to appreciate the most is that, even though all our coaching and courses are (and always have been) online, you really take the time to get to know them as people — their likes, dislikes and goals. Can you tell us how you make that personal connection and why you feel that is important?

Being a songwriter myself for such a long time (professionally since 1978) and having gone through so much in my own life and career over that time, I just have a lot of empathy and respect for all the SongU members overall,  and especially when they come to me for feedback and guidance and put their trust in me. I like to give them a full and thorough response with TLC they deserve. I have always felt that if we songwriters can’t support each other as creative people and lift up our own community first and foremost, it will be hard to expect that same level of camaraderie and compassion coming from anywhere else. In my case, how that plays out and how I deal with the writers is I get excited to know about THEM — where they’re from, how they feel about things, their lives and experiences, what their own goals are, and just being friendly and supportive of them and with each other about a myriad of things — in connection with the nitty gritty nuts and bolts of evaluating their songs when we get to that. So, when we do get to that whether in a live online feedback session, a private one-to-one, or in written form, I pride myself on dishing out my own brand of ‘tough songwriter love” when needed. With emphasis on the love.

I have always felt that if we songwriters can’t support each other as creative people and lift up our own community first and foremost, it will be hard to expect that same level of camaraderie and compassion coming from anywhere else.

You bring a unique international perspective to your song feedback, having travelled all over the world, judging song contests, doing seminars, and writing with up-and-coming artists. Can you tell us some of the places you’ve been and what you have learned by working in the international music scene?

Well, believe it or not, since my international travels started in 1984 with Japan as the first country I visited outside the USA, I have been to 124 countries and counting. I know this because I once sat down and literally counted all the countries I’ve been to with the guidelines that just being in airport transit doesn’t count, and at least 24 hours has to be spent in a country for it to qualify. So, among those 124 countries visited would be every continent except Antarctica (a song seminar for the penguins coming soon?), every former Communist country except North Korea, exotic places from Greenland to India, Bali to Ghana. Almost ALL of them for music activities, writing trips, writing camps, seminars and/or workshop events, concerts, or some kind of musical application. Quite often without much money in my pocket. So, the name of my eventual book I hope to write will either be “Couches I Have Known” or “Passport To A Musical Planet.”

Hah! I’d love to read that book…please write it! Tell us more about co-writing with writers from all over.

I have collaborated along the way with people in a variety of markets, styles of music, and languages. Although I could write a multitude on all the things I have learned along the way, one striking and overriding truth that I have found to be so by walking the walk is that truly music IS the universal language! Many differences and nuances abound in that, but in the end we are much more the same than not. I know this answer may sound a bit Disneyesque or “Koom-ba-yah”, but I don’t know how else to answer it.

Alan Roy Scott collaboration session

I know you had a big disappointment with one of your own songs, “Cleopatra” that was headed to Eurovision. What happened?

The answer to that is the pandemic happened. Eurovision was canceled for the first time in 64 years! Of course, there were some positives. For example, the video of my song ‘Cleopatra’ by the Azerbaijan artist Efendi got over 8 million views on YouTube among other good things. And most of the various reviewers and broadcasters from around the world had said that my song would surely have been in the Top 5 or 10 of all the entries, with a few even saying they thought it would win. So, all that at least is some consolation.

Congratulations! That’s no small accomplishment! Tell us how that came about.

As always, is the story behind the scenes is always the most interesting. Some of that unknown backdrop and saga is as follows: The writing of the song is a lesson in itself for all songwriters because the day we wrote it at Las Negras Camp in Spain in November 2019 ( a collaboration between myself, Dutch writer, Luuk Van Beers, and Norwegian/British writer, Sarah Lake) was just a magical three-nation writing collaboration experience where we were laughing hysterically the whole time, and just having pure fun around the joy of songwriting without any other thoughts in mind. Surely, we were not thinking about Eurovision. If we had TRIED to write for Eurovision, it might never have come out the way it did.  So, after the writing and production of it, we then moved into the whole politics and international business portions of Eurovision. In Eurovision, every song that makes it to being the song for a country literally ends up having like a whole team of people involved, and ours was no different in becoming “Team Cleopatra.” Some countries pick their artist and song the artist will sing to represent them through extensive and high profile national competitions and TV shows to pick the national winner before they head off to the finals to represent that country. But some other countries just pick their artist and song WITHOUT open competitions through a private process known as “internal selection.” This also involves team connections and private resources. That’s the way it was for us.

First, our song was submitted internally to the small country of San Marino for their artist Senhit. My collaborators flew to Bologna, Italy to work with her on the song and see how she sounded on it. In the end, although her team and committee wanted her to do “Cleopatra,” the artist didn’t think it was right for her, and she went with a different song. Then it was pitched to the last country choosing via “internal selection”, Azerbaijan.  They had selected an artist named Efendi to be their artist and so “Cleopatra” was chosen to be their song. My collaborators then flew to Baku, Azerbaijan to try Efendi out on the song and it worked out. Therefore, after all that when the many months of preparation time and money spent by 51 country “teams” to get to that point of being in Eurovision, besides the cancelation of the whole event, it is the final chapter that should come as no surprise in the annals of the way songwriters are so often treated. After the cancelation of Eurovision, the ruling was made that for 2021 the ARTISTS for each of the countries who were to be involved would be allowed to come back again if they chose to (and most of the artists from 2020 ARE returning in 2021), but NOT THE SONGS !!! All the songs have to be NEW songs and all the effort and competition it takes to make it, plays out all over again for the songwriters. Fair, right? The Artists get to return automatically, but the songs and songwriters involved this year get thrown under the bus. Every heard that before? My Azerbaijan artist Efendi WILL be returning in May to again represent Azerbaijan, but with a different song!!! And as they say, that’s that!!!

Thanks for sharing your story. Let’s get you some more views on YouTube. Maybe we should start an international SongU movement to save Alan’s song in 2021! 😉

When offering song feedback to emerging songwriters, do you find that there are certain pieces of advice or suggestions that seem to come up a lot? If so, what are some of the most common?

Surely when it comes to the actual nuts and bolts of song craft part, I find there are a lot of common and recurring themes I encounter quite often that I talk about, that many people who are reading this who have worked with me might have heard already. Such as how as beginning songwriters, we often come up with a really good idea that we don’t fully develop before moving off it too soon, or leaving it feeling unfinished or jagged. I call this “not milking your own good ideas” as fully as possible. And I also find that quite often songwriters who are not great singers (or even some who are) will write their melodies to fit within the limits of their vocal range, which often means melodies may get squashed because of those limits from the full range of what they could be. As for me, I call it not being afraid to sound like a “shrieking chicken” in reaching for notes I hear in my head if the right melody is out of my range for my ‘songwriter singing his own songs the best he can” voice. So don’t let any vocal limitations stop you from reaching for the best and most contrasting melodies possible. And surely I find a big part of my job is editing with my big scissors hence “song surgery.” That’s because you need to remember in the end as much as it is about expressing ourselves and writing the best song possible, it is also about communicating our songs to the listener we want to embrace our music,  and speaking to them in ways and methods they can follow and appreciate. Attention spans are short and getting shorter all the time. So great old adages like “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” still apply even today. But also as nothing is cast in stone and every rule is meant to be broken, my only “golden” rule of songwriting as I call it is….”if it works, it works.” So when it feels right to me, I will go with it even if it goes against my usual judgement of such things.

Besides writing songs and mentoring, what have you been doing to pass the time during the pandemic?

What? Has there been a pandemic ? What’s that? LOL !!!   Really, I just want to say that my job at SongU.com is made so much easier by the fact that, by any measure, we just have so many talented and wonderful members as songwriters and people. Because of that, it’s never stopped being as joyful to be a part of SongU from the very beginning until now. All that is equally made possible by the wonderful ongoing relationship I have with the SongU.com administrative staff (Sara, Danny, Martin, and the ever awesome Benn), and to the caring, giving, faculty alongside me, all combining to make Songu.com the magical place it has always been and continues to be. Here’s to 2021 and beyond !!!

Awww, thank you for saying that. Of course, thank YOU for your countless hours providing professional advice and songwriting education to the SongU writers and to so many writers around the world! You rock!

What Our Members Are Saying:

1/8/2021 – “Thank you SO much!! Your evaluation got me there to that finish line almost right away after sitting on those lyrics being all over the place with it for a few weeks. I so appreciate it!!!” — Robbi A. (TX)

12/1/2020 – “Thank you so much Coach for all your help and I’m so happy with the final result and the reworked chorus per your suggestion. It’s been a labour of love with the subject matter and all. So, thanks again!!” — Mike R. (UK)

12/20/2020 – “Alan’s classes are about as much fun as you can have legally, and you can always count on a good honest critique. I love it when he sings along often forgetting to turn his mic off. Ha. Fun stuff. Go Alan!” — Lon C. (NY)

12/20/2020 – “Alan is a perfectionist. He listens, remembers, and knows. I am grateful for such opportunities.” –– Ewa R. (Poland)

About Coach #3762: Alan Roy Scott has had over 200 songs recorded across multiple genres by various artists around the world including, Celine Dion, Notorious B.I.G, Cyndi Lauper, Patti LaBelle, Gloria Estefan, Oak Ridge Boys, Journey, Ricky Martin, Luther Vandross, The Neville Brothers, Cher and Ray Charles. This coach also has significant credits in Film/TV, including “Top Gun,” “Fame,” “Coming to America,” “First Wives Club” and “Beverly Hills 90210.” This coach is comfortable in evaluating songs in virtually all genres, including Film/TV, Pop/Hot AC, R&B, Urban, Christian, Country, World Music, Singer/Songwriters and Rock

Alan’s Coaching Philosophy: “I consider myself a real colleague and advocate for songwriters and will give whatever I feel is needed in each individual situation from “tough songwriter love” in a direct fashion, to being a cheerleader. I enjoy working with all levels of writers and have been known to throw in some stories from my own songwriting career when needed.”


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Featured SongU Coach: A Conversation with Michele Vice-Maslin.

Today, I have the pleasure of talking with one of SongU’s long-time mentors and coaches, two-time Emmy Award winning songwriter and producer, Michele Vice-Maslin.

Michele Vice-Maslin

Michele, I’ve got to start by asking what’s helping you cope during this time of Corona?

Well I am a complete hermit so besides my lack of a hot tub to slip into I’m doing just fine and feel blessed! Also I really aspire to be a “Happy Girl” as one of my songs is called. That always helps one c ope, finding and holding on to their “happy”. A little “hippy dippy” I know but it’s true!

…But first off what helps me cope are my amazing Students at SongU and in my FROM SONG TO SYNC course! I am so busy coaching, mentoring, teaching, guiding, hand holding and seeing “light bulb moments” go off!… It is beyond rewarding and fulfilling!

I’ve actually never been busier so I think I am too tired to have to cope. LOL. In addition I’ve been writing with my favorite artist smooth jazz R&B legend Jonathan Butler for his new album and writing /producing songs for my own little pet artist project (2 of the songs appear on the Mpath PHENOMENAL WOMEN album series), plus other productions so I’m busy with that. I’m busy guiding my new intern Jeremiah. I’m busy pitching. I’m busy participating in tons of webinars mostly about all things music biz like Neighboring Rights, The MLC, Music Licensing, and so forth. I’ve been speaking on a bunch of webinars too… and so on and so on. All a great distraction from the difficult “mess” at hand that we all share.

And to top it off, as you and I discussed a little while back Sara…all the cooking. OH MY! Right now it’s after midnight I’ve been up working since 7am and I still have dinner to cook. Hahaha No time to think of coping

How has the current state of the world affected your writing, production, and pitching?

It hasn’t much affected the producing and pitching and solo writing. I am still doing that. Yes there are much less specific projects in production but still I always have backlogs of new songs that need to be pitched and brought to the attention of the “powers that be”. It has however very much affected the co-writing for me. I don’t like to collaborate virtually at all!  In fact I usually have a strict policy of “in the same physical room at the same time from complete scratch”. The only person I write virtually with is my main collaborator Larry Treadwell whom I’ve worked with for 39 years and know so well. I’ve also made an exception with Jonathan whom I’ve worked with for 20 years.  

Actually I’m always impressed by the Songu members I coach and their ability to co-write virtually even before the pandemic.

What qualities do you look for in a co-writer?

Of course if they are what I consider a good writer, which is subjective any way but after that mostly I look for someone I like, who is a nice human, a good human, an honest human. 

As a coach and mentor, you inspire so many songwriters. What inspires you?

The songwriters I coach and mentor! They inspire me everyday!  Some of them are soooo talented they could be teaching the class!  In the last 2 weeks alone I have heard some really amazing songs from them!  Life itself as well has always inspired me! Paying attention to all that is going on. Listening, watching, participating.

Do you have a favorite story you can tell us about one of your song placements? 

I have so so many but probably it’s my first one. That is what is coming to mind. It was 1987 and I was the songwriter, producer, arranger, creator of a “performance art project”. I had films and slide shows and actors doing skits accompanying the songs. The songs themselves and the whole project made Bjork look “normal”. 🙂 The whole thing was beyond alternative and avant-garde. I had a friend who was directing his first feature film TAPEHEADS. It stars Tim Robbins, John Cusack and the R&B/Soul legends Sam Moore (Of Sam & Dave) and Junior Walker (Of Junior Walker And The All Stars) Sam & Junior were playing the fictitious duo “The Swanky Modes” in the film. The director(my friend) asked me if I had any friends that created R&B/Soul music and if so could they submit some tunes for the film. So I grabbed my writing partner Larry, whom I previously mentioned, and we wrote and produced up (after much careful research and listening) a song to submit. Now remember I am a weird “Performance Artist”  who writes very odd songs, so what to do what to do… how to submit…? The director (who actually directed the films and slide shows in my performance art project) would never have considered any R&B/Soul song I might come up with so…I submitted it under a pseudonym… and voila!! In the movie. With the legendary Sam Moore and Jr. Walker recording it. My first cut and placement at the same time. In a major big budget film…and then haha I became knows as an R&B writer. Crazy stuff! I think the moral of that story is just go for it!!! Give it a try! Ya never know…

What music have you been listening to lately?

I listen to so much music. I’ve been listening to a lot of hip hop as I am producing a really cool hip hop/rapper artist. Khalid, Kanye, Money Can’t Buy, A.J. Tracey, Troye Sivan, and others. Also a lot of pop music. Katy Perry, Halsey, Dua Lipa, Sean Mendez, Jonas Brothers, Charlie Puth, Kim Petrus, Tov Lo, Hayley Williams, Ellie Goulding… so so many and the songs of my friends, colleagues and students. Every day I listen to new music. I subscribe to some online newsletters that are always introducing me to new music.

Thank you, Michele, for offering professional advice and songwriting education to our SongU writers ! You rock!

Thank you for these really great questions Sara and thank you so much to you for having me. It’s really an honor. This is my 14th at Songu and it has enriched my life beyond measure. I’m so proud to be a part of the Songu family! I love my students!

I can’t believe it’s been 14 years already! Time flies when you’re having fun (and learning new things all the time). Thanks again for your time, Michele!

ABOUT COACHING AT SONGU.COM

In addition to our 20+ live audio/video small-group song feedback courses each month, our members have the opportunity to forge creative relationships with any of award-winning coaches in the form of individual written feedback with detailed song (or lyric-only) evaluations and constructive suggestions emphasizing lyrics, music/production, originality, commercial potential, and even a chance to be awarded “Best of SongU!”

HERE’S WHAT OUR MEMBERS ARE SAYING ABOUT COACH #2245 (aka Michele Vice-Maslin)!

“I am really thrilled with your Best of SongU recognition – you had awarded that for [my other song] ‘Marisol’ as well – and it means a lot. Both were probably more work than I would care to admit so it feels great to be recognized. I’m so happy that you liked it and found it relatable – THANKS!” -J.M., CT

“Thank you for the feedback. Once again you’ve opened my eyes through your insight. I definitely want to get away from cliche writing and hope to look get better at recognizing it when I write. Thx again!”D. Brown, GA

About Michele

About Michele: This coach is a two-time Emmy Award winning songwriter and producer who has written hit songs in multiple genres for artists all over the world, as well as having several thousand film/TV placements. This coach is also a music producer and music publisher who is well versed in song pitching and placing, and business issues pertaining to the music industry. Specializes in evaluating Pop, R&B, Hot AC, Top 40, Dance, Alternative, Urban, Country, Singer-Songwriter, Film/TV/Songs for Sync Licensing.

Michele’s Coaching Philosophy: “My coaching philosophy is one of empowerment and inspiration along with some real and straightforward honesty about what I believe is important in the way of crafting a great song – for personal satisfaction of course – but also for commercial success.”


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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!


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Featured Coach: A Conversation with Michele Vice-Maslin

Today, I have the pleasure of talking with one of SongU’s long-time mentors and coaches, two-time Emmy Award winning songwriter and producer, Michele Vice-Maslin.

Michele Vice-Maslin

Michele, I’ve got to start by asking what’s helping you cope during this time of Corona?

Well I am a complete hermit so besides my lack of a hot tub to slip into I’m doing just fine and feel blessed! Also I really aspire to be a “Happy Girl” as one of my songs is called. That always helps one c ope, finding and holding on to their “happy”. A little “hippy dippy” I know but it’s true!

…But first off what helps me cope are my amazing Students at SongU and in my FROM SONG TO SYNC course! I am so busy coaching, mentoring, teaching, guiding, hand holding and seeing “light bulb moments” go off!… It is beyond rewarding and fulfilling!

I’ve actually never been busier so I think I am too tired to have to cope. LOL. In addition I’ve been writing with my favorite artist smooth jazz R&B legend Jonathan Butler for his new album and writing /producing songs for my own little pet artist project (2 of the songs appear on the Mpath PHENOMENAL WOMEN album series), plus other productions so I’m busy with that. I’m busy guiding my new intern Jeremiah. I’m busy pitching. I’m busy participating in tons of webinars mostly about all things music biz like Neighboring Rights, The MLC, Music Licensing, and so forth. I’ve been speaking on a bunch of webinars too… and so on and so on. All a great distraction from the difficult “mess” at hand that we all share.

And to top it off, as you and I discussed a little while back Sara…all the cooking. OH MY! Right now it’s after midnight I’ve been up working since 7am and I still have dinner to cook. Hahaha No time to think of coping

How has the current state of the world affected your writing, production, and pitching?

It hasn’t much affected the producing and pitching and solo writing. I am still doing that. Yes there are much less specific projects in production but still I always have backlogs of new songs that need to be pitched and brought to the attention of the “powers that be”. It has however very much affected the co-writing for me. I don’t like to collaborate virtually at all!  In fact I usually have a strict policy of “in the same physical room at the same time from complete scratch”. The only person I write virtually with is my main collaborator Larry Treadwell whom I’ve worked with for 39 years and know so well. I’ve also made an exception with Jonathan whom I’ve worked with for 20 years.  

Actually I’m always impressed by the Songu members I coach and their ability to co-write virtually even before the pandemic.

What qualities do you look for in a co-writer?

Of course if they are what I consider a good writer, which is subjective any way but after that mostly I look for someone I like, who is a nice human, a good human, an honest human. 

As a coach and mentor, you inspire so many songwriters. What inspires you?

The songwriters I coach and mentor! They inspire me everyday!  Some of them are soooo talented they could be teaching the class!  In the last 2 weeks alone I have heard some really amazing songs from them!  Life itself as well has always inspired me! Paying attention to all that is going on. Listening, watching, participating.

Do you have a favorite story you can tell us about one of your song placements? 

I have so so many but probably it’s my first one. That is what is coming to mind. It was 1987 and I was the songwriter, producer, arranger, creator of a “performance art project”. I had films and slide shows and actors doing skits accompanying the songs. The songs themselves and the whole project made Bjork look “normal”. 🙂 The whole thing was beyond alternative and avant-garde. I had a friend who was directing his first feature film TAPEHEADS. It stars Tim Robbins, John Cusack and the R&B/Soul legends Sam Moore (Of Sam & Dave) and Junior Walker (Of Junior Walker And The All Stars) Sam & Junior were playing the fictitious duo “The Swanky Modes” in the film. The director(my friend) asked me if I had any friends that created R&B/Soul music and if so could they submit some tunes for the film. So I grabbed my writing partner Larry, whom I previously mentioned, and we wrote and produced up (after much careful research and listening) a song to submit. Now remember I am a weird “Performance Artist”  who writes very odd songs, so what to do what to do… how to submit…? The director (who actually directed the films and slide shows in my performance art project) would never have considered any R&B/Soul song I might come up with so…I submitted it under a pseudonym… and voila!! In the movie. With the legendary Sam Moore and Jr. Walker recording it. My first cut and placement at the same time. In a major big budget film…and then haha I became knows as an R&B writer. Crazy stuff! I think the moral of that story is just go for it!!! Give it a try! Ya never know…

What music have you been listening to lately?

I listen to so much music. I’ve been listening to a lot of hip hop as I am producing a really cool hip hop/rapper artist. Khalid, Kanye, Money Can’t Buy, A.J. Tracey, Troye Sivan, and others. Also a lot of pop music. Katy Perry, Halsey, Dua Lipa, Sean Mendez, Jonas Brothers, Charlie Puth, Kim Petrus, Tov Lo, Hayley Williams, Ellie Goulding… so so many and the songs of my friends, colleagues and students. Every day I listen to new music. I subscribe to some online newsletters that are always introducing me to new music.

Thank you, Michele, for offering professional advice and songwriting education to our SongU writers ! You rock!

Thank you for these really great questions Sara and thank you so much to you for having me. It’s really an honor. This is my 14th at Songu and it has enriched my life beyond measure. I’m so proud to be a part of the Songu family! I love my students!

I can’t believe it’s been 14 years already! Time flies when you’re having fun (and learning new things all the time). Thanks again for your time, Michele!

ABOUT COACHING AT SONGU.COM

In addition to our 20+ live audio/video small-group song feedback courses each month, our members have the opportunity to forge creative relationships with any of award-winning coaches in the form of individual written feedback with detailed song (or lyric-only) evaluations and constructive suggestions emphasizing lyrics, music/production, originality, commercial potential, and even a chance to be awarded “Best of SongU!”

HERE’S WHAT OUR MEMBERS ARE SAYING ABOUT COACH #2245 (aka Michele Vice-Maslin)!

“I am really thrilled with your Best of SongU recognition – you had awarded that for [my other song] ‘Marisol’ as well – and it means a lot. Both were probably more work than I would care to admit so it feels great to be recognized. I’m so happy that you liked it and found it relatable – THANKS!” -J.M., CT

“Thank you for the feedback. Once again you’ve opened my eyes through your insight. I definitely want to get away from cliche writing and hope to look get better at recognizing it when I write. Thx again!”D. Brown, GA

About Michele

About Michele: This coach is a two-time Emmy Award winning songwriter and producer who has written hit songs in multiple genres for artists all over the world, as well as having several thousand film/TV placements. This coach is also a music producer and music publisher who is well versed in song pitching and placing, and business issues pertaining to the music industry. Specializes in evaluating Pop, R&B, Hot AC, Top 40, Dance, Alternative, Urban, Country, Singer-Songwriter, Film/TV/Songs for Sync Licensing.

Michele’s Coaching Philosophy: “My coaching philosophy is one of empowerment and inspiration along with some real and straightforward honesty about what I believe is important in the way of crafting a great song – for personal satisfaction of course – but also for commercial success.”


Write Your Truth

Last week I watched an email exchange between Danny ArenaCo-Founder of SongU.com, and a fellow songwriter. The focus was not just about writing songs but about how we can listen to each other and have honest conversations about difficult subjects. I asked him if he could take a portion of that email and modify it into an article that might be of interest to our readers. Here it is:

One only needs to glance at any news organization’s social media page to see the current state of divisiveness in the world. We choose our sides. We engage in hostile micro-tweets. We post snarky memes and comebacks. As quickly as our fingers can type, we rattle off hurtful labels and insults like “libtard” and “trumptard,” “commie” and “nazi.” We cease listening to each other and stop talking to each other. We use our words as weapons to further drive a wedge between “us” and “them.”

While our choice of words can be used to divide us, they can also unite. As songwriters, this notion of unity should align with us. After all, at the very core of the craft of songwriting lies the principle of universality. Even the words unify, unity, universal all originate from the same Latin word, “uni,” meaning oneness. Who hasn’t been to a music industry seminar and heard some publisher or executive recite the mantra — a successful song must strike a universal chord? Part of our creative job is to find a way to express a single idea that resonates with an audience. This sounds much simpler to do in practice. Song after song by aspiring writers gets passed over because it fails to “ring true” to a broader audience.

At SongU.com, one of our courses teaches us that the most effective way to reach the universal is through the specific – a story that you can tell using your own truth. What does this mean? I know that I can never fully comprehend what it’s like to walk through this world as an African American male. No matter how “woke” I become, I will never know the enormous weight someone carries throughout life simply because of the color of their skin. This does not mean that I do not understand prejudice or hate. It means that for me to write about the subject in an honest way that resonates with others, I must find my own truth and then tell that story.

So what is my truth? I understand religious hate — my wife is Jewish, and I have lived with antisemitism and watched it through her eyes. This past weekend, the Holocaust Memorial at our local JCC was vandalized with nazi symbols and white supremacist threats. I also understand homophobia and hate — my sister is gay, and I have lived through times where “neighbors” put letters in her mailbox, telling her to move out of the neighborhood simply because of who she chooses to love. While I am not Black or Hispanic, I understand what it means to judge someone by the color of their skin. Sara and I adopted our daughter at birth from Guatemala. Every day, I see the world through her eyes. I know the pain it caused when her history teacher walked up to her desk while conducting a lesson on citizenship, asking her if she was born in the United States. Upon answering no, her teacher proceeded to tell her in front of the entire class that she better have a conversation with her parents that evening because she might be in this country illegally. I know the truth of what it feels like to have the police called on my daughter’s boyfriend for playing soccer at dusk with a few of his Latino friends because someone thought they “looked suspicious.”

How can I channel my truth into my creative process? If I’m inspired to write a song about Black Lives Matter because I am outraged by the injustice I see, I cannot write the same song as LL Cool J or Trey Songz. There is no possible way I can approach the topic of injustice from the same honest perspective they did because that is not my truth. No matter how much I admire or attempt to emulate their approach, it will not ring true or have the universal appeal of their messages.

I need to write my own truth. I can write an honest song about having a daughter who’s judged every day because of her skin color or how we worry she and her boyfriend could get pulled over at night when he’s driving. Or I can change direction and write an honest song about what it’s like to love someone who is hated simply because of which religion they follow or gender of who they choose to love. The point is that if I do my job well as a songwriter using my truth as a vehicle, I will wind up with a song that makes an impact and resonates. That means more listeners are likely to hear my song and identify with its core message.

Recognizing your truth and being able to tap into it creatively, in an honest way, will make your songs more universal. And it seems to me, the world could use a little more “uni” right now. So use your voice and speak your truth. Your songs and this world will be a much better place for it.

Stay the course and keep the faith.

-Danny


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Why Should I Get Feedback Before Pitching My Songs to Film and TV?

At SongU.com, we offer a variety of of small group feedback sessions that focus on different aspects of songwriting and the music business. Writing songs for synchronization with film, TV, and other media takes unique skills beyond crafting a great song. For example, do your vocals and instrumentation work to the benefit of your production? Is your hook relatable for certain situations? Do you know the specifics of the sync licensing market in order to submit your songs appropriately to music supervisors?

Today we’re shining the spotlight on “FDBK 330 – Song Feedback for Film-TV-Media.” Join us to learn from the pros and your peers.

About: This 1-hour advanced feedback session is geared toward analysis of how your demo recording will compete in Film, TV, and other media-related pitches. Focus is given to your songs’ production as it pertains to pitching successfully for sync licensing opportunities in TV, Film, and Media. Limit 5 participants.

Our Facilitators: Nancy Peacock, CEO and Owner of Washington Street Publishing which focuses on securing placements in Film, TV, and Media; and Creative Director for Washington Street Publishing, Queenie Mullinex.

“Queenie and Nancy are soooo good. They are encouraging and yet candid when they hear things that need improvement. I learn a lot from their feedback on my song and the feedback that they give others. Always very, very helpful.” -Becca B. , SC

Always a joy to learn from them.” –Ricki B. , WI

“Great insight for tailoring your songs for music supervisor pitches.” Shawn F. , NJ


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The Two Biggest Songwriting Mistakes and How to Fix Them

The first lyric I wrote was critiqued by master songwriter educator, Sheila Davis, in 1990 at the Songwriters Guild in NYC. From that moment on, I have enjoyed digging into the nitty-gritty how to make a song “work” and connect to the listener. As a songwriting mentor myself for the last twenty-plus years, I’ve critiqued several hundred original songs-in-progress in multiple styles and genres by songwriters from all over the world. I have even had the privilege of training other music industry professionals on how to successfully offer song feedback. I’ve observed that there are certain craft points that, if not executed correctly, get flagged over and over again by song coaches and mentors.  Here are the two most common:

Big Mistake #1: Trying to put too many ideas into one song.

In order connect emotionally to your audience, it is important for your song to have a “universal idea” such as falling in love, falling out of love, unrequited love, or just about any love-adjacent subject including family life, loss, escape and so on. But here’s the trick – you get to the universal through the SPECIFIC. In other words, the more you can whittle down your big idea into a concise moment or feeling in time or a very specific story that illustrates that idea, the more you will keep your listener engaged, and the more your own personality and “voice” as a writer will come through.

Your Fix

Make sure you can sum up your entire song in ONE simple sentence that starts with “This is a song about…”. If you cannot complete this in a sentence, you probably have too many ideas. It helps to know your title before you write the song. Then, make sure every line in that song leads the listener to the title in some way specifically and emotionally.

Hit Song Examples:

  • I Will Always Love You written by Dolly Parton
    • This is a song about a woman who is telling a man that although she knows they aren’t meant to stay together, she will always love him anyway.
Example of a single idea about the universal theme of love.
  • Blank Space written by Taylor Swift.
    • This is a song about a woman who thinks of love as a game and is seducing a new lover to play with her.
  • Love written by Kendrick Lamar.
    • This is a song about a man who is finally ready to commit to the woman he loves and is asking her if she loves him too.

Big Mistake #2: Not enough musical, lyrical, and/or production contrast.

Contrast is another way of saying “change it up.” While it’s true that you need a certain amount of repetition in a song to give the listener something to sing along with or dance to, too much repetition becomes boring and the listener will tune out. If the entire three-and-a-half-minute track basically sounds the same – boring. If the melody sits in the same pocket the entire time – boring. If the lyric says the same thing over and over without any new information along the way – what do you think? I know this seems obvious, but it’s very common for the first draft of a song to be a real snooze fest.

Your Fix

Shoot for having three distinct parts to your song for the listener to latch on to. Musically, the tools at your disposal are the melody, the chords, and the rhythm. Make sure at least one of those things changes between each distinct section such as the verse, chorus, and bridge. Lyrically, you can contrast the rhyme sounds, the rhyme scheme, the pronoun emphasis (I/You), the rhythm (e.g. long lines vs. short lines), and general or detailed images. In the production, you can create subtle and not-so-subtle transformations in the track with the instruments, the rhythms, the vocals, and so on.

Hit Song Examples:

  • Somewhere Over the Rainbow written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg is one of the most covered songs of all time. Notice in particular the rhythmic contrast of the long lines in the verses that contrasts with the staccato rhythm of the bridge section.
  • Chandelier by Sia. Chandelier has it all when it comes to contrast. Notice in particular, the clear rhythmic changes between the verse, pre-chorus, chorus. Also, note the huge soaring melodic contrast in the chorus, as well as the harmonic (chord) contrast in the bridge. And of course, the way the production builds and breaks down and builds again throughout.
Example of musical and production contrast.

When you listen to songs from now on, see if you can pick out the universal theme as well as the more specific way that the theme is addressed by the songwriter. Ask yourself if the title or hook is clearly explained. Also, listen for musical, lyrical and production contrast throughout the song. Will every song you hear be a perfect example of all of these techniques? Definitely not. But my guess is you will hear them a lot more when you know what you are listening for.


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March into Metaphors

“March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.”  marchI actually remember the first time I heard this saying in Mrs. Harris’ third grade class. When she asked us to tell her what we thought it meant, my hand shot up.  It describes the weather perfectly in New Jersey where I grew up!  From that moment on, I was hooked on the wonder of metaphoric language. Metaphor – a  comparison of two disparate objects to suggest a similarity (e.g. “I am a rock, I am an island” Simon & Garfunkle);  and simile – a comparison using “like” or “as” (e.g. “I feel like a stone that’s been picked up and thrown to the hard rock bottom of your heart.” Shout out to songwriter Hugh Prestwood!).

Why do we use metaphor and simile all the time both in everyday speech and, of course, in song lyrics? The use of this kind of comparison enhances our sensory connection to the subject. And why is that so awesome? When our senses are heightened, our emotional connection is heightened as well. As songwriters, it’s our job to write lyrics that draw in our listeners emotionally. We want them to FEEL love, heartache, joy, or surprise when they hear our song. The music works on one level, the lyric on another.

Just for fun, since we’re in the month of March, what are some song lyrics that use ANIMALS in a metaphoric way? Use the comments area for your solutions, or join the Facebook discussion in  SongUNews .


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Writing About Current Events From a Different Perspective

“With history piling up so fast, almost every day is the anniversary of something awful.” – Writer & Artist, Joe Brainard

Recently, while cleaning out my closet, I happened upon a small book of Daily Meditations given to me by a friend a long time ago called The Promise of a New Day (copyright 1983). The book goes through each day of the year and offers a quote and a short spiritual reflection.  I hadn’t opened this book in well over a decade, but last week I found myself turning to the February 7th meditation which begins with the quote at the top of this page. 

At first I was surprised to read this quote from the 1980’s that felt so relevant for today’s world. But then I realized that in every decade, at every point in history change is inevitable, and with change comes discomfort, fear, anger, and as the quote says, “the anniversary of something awful.” Joe Brainard died in 1994 of AIDS. Can we take a moment of pause to reflect on how incredibly scary and sad that time in our history was until, thank goodness, we found a treatment for HIV?  Our amazing scientific and medical community created an antidote to something horrific.

Obviously, as writers and artists, we have a responsibility to reflect the trouble in the world around us as songwriters like Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan did in the 1960’s. But can’t we also create an antidote to the daily assault of awful news? If history is comprised of times of trouble, war, disease, hunger, and hate, isn’t it just as important to highlight the love, compassion, simple moments of trust, help, hope, and success?

As a songwriting exercise, try making a list of the little things that have kept you motivated, inspired, happy, or brought you peace of mind, during these difficult times. Kissing your loved one good night, scratching your dog’s tummy, taking a walk near a stream, sipping on a hot cup of coffee, holding open a door for a stranger and exchanging a smile. Keep a section in your “title book” or idea journal specifically for a daily dose of positivity. See if you can practice a heightened awareness for the the good things that we often take for granted like a compliment from a friend, being in the fast line at the grocery store, having enough gas in your car, birds chirping when you open your door, or a warm coat when it’s cold outside. Write it all down.  These specifics will inform your lyric with a universal theme of gratitude and  provide a different perspective on our current events. Bring this perspective into your next song.

 


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The Power of Simplicity by Danny Arena

On December 31st, when discussing what our guiding words would be for the new year, I chose the word “joy”, and Danny chose the word “simplify”. So with no further ado, it gives me great joy to offer up one of Danny’s timeless music related articles for songwriters. Read on to find out how to simplify your music. 

-Sara


music notes clipart

The Power of Simplicity – by Danny Arena

As the boundaries of popular forms of music continue to expand, it’s easy to get so caught up in modulations and syncopated rhythms that we can forget the power that a strong, simple melody can have. In my songwriting classes, after covering several new musical techniques, I always make a point of giving an assignment to write something simple musically. 

Simple Isn’t Easy
While a melody may be described as “simple,” the writing of it is usually far from easy. It involves achieving a perfectly natural balance between repetition and change so that the song is easily singable, but not boring. In this column, we’ll look at two of the components that make up a strong, simple melody. We have a tendency to think our own melodies may become dull when a musical phrase is repeated two or three times. As a songwriter full of musical ideas, it’s easy to end up with a song that has too many melodic ideas. In truth, some of the most well-known melodies like, “Yesterday” (Lennon/McCartney) and “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” (Leigh) rely heavily on repetition. If one of our main goals as a songwriter is to write something that’s easily memorable, then by far the best technique available is the power of repetition.

Using Variation
The downside of repetition is that too much of it can bore the listener. I like to think of it this way:

Suppose you were eating spaghetti with red sauce for dinner four nights in a row. Probably by the time the third or fourth night rolled around, you’d be tired of eating the same exact meal. Now, imagine that you change the meal slightly each night: the first night – spaghetti with red sauce; the second night – Chinese sesame noodles; the third night – lasagna; the fourth night – penne pasta with garlic and olive oil. By making a few changes, the same meal can still be satisfying. It’s like that with your music – a little variation goes a long way

An Example
As an example of the power of repetition with change, let’s take a look at the John Michael Montgomery hit single, “Home To You” written by Arlos Smith and Sara Light (my lovely wife). The verse consists of a total of eight measures, but only two musical ideas, one of which is the following two-measure pattern that starts the song:

Home to You – Example 1a:

musicnotes1-powerofsimplicity

What makes the melody particularly memorable is the fact that this musical idea or motif is immediately repeated two more times (see example 1b below).

By the time the second verse rolls around, the melody is very familiar.

Example 1b:

musicnotes2-powerofsimplicity

From the song, “Home To You” written by Sara Light & Arlos Smith. © 1999 Mamalama Music (ASCAP)/Good Ol Delta Boy Music (SESAC). All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.

Although the initial musical idea (in example 1a) is repeated three times in a row, there are several subtle variations employed that help keep us tuned in to the music, allowing the repetition to work its magic without us becoming bored.

Notice the first time the musical idea appears, the chord pattern is a G chord followed by D (with an F# bass). But when the musical idea is repeated, the chord pattern changes and an Em7 chord is substituted for the G, which is then followed by C chord. This small harmonic variation in chord structure the second time allows us to return to the initial chord pattern again (G, D/F#) for the third time with fresh ears. Also, notice that each time the two measure musical pattern repeats, the melody begins the same, but ends a little differently. This is a type of variation commonly known as melodic variation and it is often due to the changing of the chords in the musical motif as in the case here. Finally, notice that rhythm of the melody changes slightly each time the musical phrase is repeated but is close enough to the original musical idea that it still reinforces it.

So the next time you hear one of your favorite songs on the radio, try to listen for some of those subtle variations in the music. They may be small, but they can make a big difference.

Hope to see you on the charts.

–Danny

Image-0-Danny Headshot1

Danny Arena is a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, a Tony-nominated composer, and the co-founder of SongU.com.