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).
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…
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!
Between May 1st and June 30th 2020, SongU.com is running a special event: Staff Writer for a Day. This is an opportunity to pitch your songs for a chance to see what it would be like to be a staff songwriter which includes getting set up by our guest publisher for a CO-WRITE SESSION with a hit songwriter!
If you aren’t sure what the term Staff Writer means, you’re not alone. When I moved to Nashville in the early 1990’s and got serious about my songwriting, many of my peers were hoping to become a full-time paid songwriter for a music publishing company (aka a staff writer). The concept was so strange to me that I had to wonder if I ever had the chance to be a staff writer, would I even like it? At the time, I questioned whether I would really enjoy writing songs on demand, on a timetable, with a quota, being “set up” on blind co-writing dates, writing to make the creative director at my publishing company happy, and asking their permission to demo songs.
After about four years of engrossing myself in the Music Row experience of constant writing, re-writing, networking, co-writing, over-coming performance fears, sheepishly meeting with ASCAP reps and music publishers who would listen to my songs, and politely or not-so-politely tell me that I wasn’t quite “there” yet, I built a strong catalog of songs. By then, the idea of being a professional songwriter had grown on me. One day, miraculously, I was hired by a little music publishing company called Zamalama Music as their first staff writer (cue the Rocky theme song).
It turned out that this job gave me valuable lessons in how to prepare myself mentally every morning to “show up and write” whether I was feeling creative or not. I made sure to arrive at those blind date co-writes with lots of potential titles and ideas to jump start our meetings. I learned to leave my ego at the door and do what was best for the song. Most importantly, I found an inner confidence that only comes when your songs have been rejected so many times, you can laugh and moooove on! Here’s a picture of the bay window of the Zamalama writers room on Music Row where I eventually co-penned a hit song!
Check out the staff writer experience for yourself:
A SPECIAL EVENT PITCH – STAFF WRITER FOR A DAY! This is your opportunity to be selected by Kirby Smith, Creative Director of WinSongs Music Publishing, for a chance to find out what it’s like to be a professional staff songwriter for a day, including a meeting with Kirby and a CO-WRITING SESSION with hit songwriter, Sandy Ramos! Read about our guests.