Moderated by Doug Minnick


Members of the Hit Songwriters panel obviously had a good time at the Road Rally this year. (L to R) Freddie Ravel, Jeffrey Steele, Franne Golde, TAXI V.P. Doug Minnick, Scott Cutler, Brian Holland.
The popular Hit Songwriters Panel was a star-studded affair in 2003. Here are the panelists who generously shared a wealth of knowledge and experience with the audience:

Freddie Ravel — Universal Recording Artist with cuts by Al Jarreau, Earth Wind & Fire, Quincy Jones, and his own #1 Contemporary Instrumental hit, "Sunny Side Up"

Franne Golde — Cuts by Christina Aguilera, Faith Hill, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, The Commodores, Randy Travis, Trisha Yearwood, and many, many more.

Scott Cutler — Co-writer of the Grammy-nominated Song Of The Year candidate "Piano In the Dark" by Brenda Russell and Natalie Imbruglia's smash hit "Torn"—the most performed song of 1998.

Jeffrey Steele — The hottest songwriter in Nashville today, Jeffrey has had over 200 cuts in the last three years alone. Some of his hits include "The Cowboy In Me" (Tim McGraw), "These Days" (Rascal Flatts), "My Town" (Montgomery Gentry) and many more by artists like Faith Hill, Trace Adkins, Collin Raye, Rascal Flatts, Diamond Rio, LeAnn Rimes, Lonestar, Joe Nichols and just about everybody else in Country music.

Brian Holland — Of the legendary Holland, Dozier, and Holland songwriting team that was responsible for most of the huge Motown hits of the Sixties. Please Mr. Postman, You Can't Hurry Love, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), Heat Wave, The Same Old Song, Baby Love, and dozens more timeless classics.

TAXI: An A&R person said yesterday here that if you aren't writing a song a week, you're not working hard enough. Is that a fair statement, Jeffrey?

Jeffrey Steele: Yeah, I think so. I try to write every day. Whether I finish something or not, I'm always working on something. I try to get ten a week if I can. I think the most important thing is to get to the next song, you know, to not get hung up too much on what you're doing, and get stuck in corners. Just get onto the next song. Don't worry, I've been knocked down before, but you get back up.

Scott Cutler: I'm probably not doing ten a week. [laughs] Maybe one every two weeks, so maybe I shouldn't be up here. I have a partner, and we write songs together. We work every day. Sometimes we get an idea and it fleshes itself out. And sometimes we're still working on it a week later. We just deal with that and try to do as many good songs as possible.

Brian Holland: I think it's a great thing to write as many songs as you can. Although I don't finish that many, I try to. I try to come up with ideas every day. That keeps my mind fresh and I try to stay musically tuned in to a lot of things.

Franne Golde: I think it's fair to say I write every day. I don't physically sit down and write a song every day, but I think every day that you're living, if you're a songwriter, [you're writing]. If you're having a rough day, if you're going through emotions, if you see a movie that touches you, if you have a family situation that touches you — a song can come out of anything. So in that way, I would say I write every day. But do I turn out a song a day? Not unless I'm in Nashville where they get up at 9 o'clock in the morning and write a song. (laughter)

Freddie Ravel: I think that writing maybe also means recording your ideas. I think everybody in the room has got to have a cassette or some kind of way to record your ideas. I think writing also occurs for me in the least likely places. I've written a lot of songs in my car. In other words, have your tools ready to go because the spirit hits you when it hits you. It's not necessarily an exact 9 A.M. kind of thing



Songwriter
Franne Golde

TAXI: A very well-known hit writer once said to me that he thought he needed to write 99 pieces of crap to get to the one great song. What do you think about that?

Brian: I don't know about that. Every time I try to write a song, I want something positive out of it—to make sure it means something.

Franne: I do believe that songwriters write—if they're lucky—one great song a year, or two, that is that magic hit song.

Freddie: I don't know about 99 pieces of crap, but I think that most of what surfaces is something that more spiritually comes through you. Sometimes it's a soaring melody. Sometimes it's that killer bass line that ends up actually being part of the hook of the song. It's more of a surrender for me. I think you do have to write about 20 or 30 songs before the one emerges, but that just implies the discipline that we all have to do.

TAXI: Do songs just "come to you" in complete form?

Scott: Oh yeah, all the time [sarcastically]. No, there are only so many times in a month or whatever when an idea comes, and I'll sing it into my phone machine. It's an idea, it came. But a lot of times my process is I fiddle around, something comes, I'm aware enough about songwriting now to note a good title or a good idea, and then from that point out, it's a process. I'll write it. We'll work on it. I'll reflect on it the next day, and say the verse is crap, but the chorus is great. We just kind of take it from there. But usually one part of the song is incredibly inspired.

Jeffrey: Occasionally, I get struck by lightning. You all know it's few and far between when you get that zap—oh my god, I've got a great idea! That's what I was saying before about writing every day. It's kind of like being a singer—I sing every day to keep my chops up. You do what you do every day, so when you do get struck by that occasional bolt of lightning, you've got your craft together and you know where to chase it. You don't get stuck in a corner and get to that second verse and go, shit I got stuck. I hate this verse.

When it does come, it's usually in my head before I pick up a guitar or play the piano. The music is already there. It's just a matter of playing the music coming from my head. I don't think of it as I go along. It just comes from what the idea already was that hit me.


Nashville's
Jeffrey Steele

TAXI: What is the process when you go to a collaboration meeting? What do you bring with you, and how do you introduce it?

Franne: Well I just had a really interesting circumstance... Some guy that I had never met—he's here from England in a band—walked in and he said, "I've never collaborated. What do I do?" I said, "Well, sit down. Just hit a chord." I think if you're an innate songwriter, somebody can literally play a chord and you can just go with it. (the panelists are nodding their heads - ed.) Something will come out of that—a melody, a lyric. You play another chord, and all of a sudden you've got two chords. I'm really pleased with what we came up with, as was he. I think collaboration is great also when you have maybe a little bit of a dry spell for a moment, and you want some inspiration and excitement from someone else when they have a good idea.

Jeffrey: In Nashville, it's like a little music campus. It's about 16 blocks of houses where all kinds of writers get together and write songs every day. I do write alone quite a bit, though, which I love. It ends up a lot different than the songs I write day to day in Nashville with some of the writers there. It gives me a chance to stretch out musically and do more of the stuff that I like to do, but I love to co-write. Co-writing is a great way to get right down to the core of what the best part of the idea is and get right to it. You gotta kind of edit each other down to the best thing and take it from there.

TAXI: Who do you trust as critics or as editors? When you're writing a song, who do you go to when you want an opinion that you can trust?

Franne: Myself. I always trust my own instincts. I figure I've been doing this for 20-something years, I'd better know what I'm doing. I'm usually the one that will make the fuss. If I'm working with one or two other people in a room, I'm usually the one to say, "It just doesn't feel right to me yet. I feel like we really need to work on it some more." I'll be the fly in the ointment. I really trust myself more than anybody. Then if I take it to somebody and they don't like it, but I love it, I'll fight for it, if I really believe in it.

Scott: I don't play things for many people, because I'm incredibly phobic. I shouldn't even be up here right now. [laughter] I really don't want to hear any criticism. I've done it, and it gets out there somehow. Somebody records it, God willing. But what I do find that helps me is just time. When I write a song, I put it down. A few days later, I listen to it, and that's usually when I can tell if it's is good. I usually won't change my opinion of it at that point. All the way up until that point, it's touchy. I don't even know if I want to listen to it a day later because it might freak me out.

Brian: I'm like Scott. I don't like to play my material when I first write songs. I don't know if I'm afraid that they might become negative about it when I really like the song. I just don't like opinions from people until I'm through with exactly what I'm trying to do. It's just like a guy painting a picture. He normally doesn't like to show his picture until he is finished with it because he doesn't want any negativity about the picture.

Jeffrey: I was going to say the same thing about myself. I moved to Nashville in about 1994. I think for about the first four years I was there, I was trying to write what everybody was saying you need to write to get in. I finally made up my mind to just write things the way I heard them, and the way I felt them, which included a lot of the music that I grew up with that wasn't mainstream country. Once I started doing that, I started getting my songs recorded. I think it's really important to trust your ideas.

Franne: Can I just add that I think equally as important as the songwriting is being a great editor, and self-editing. You can look at your own work and really be honest. That comes with doing it all the time and being able to say, this is really good or really bad.



Songwriter
Brian Holland

TAXI: How often do you give up on an idea?

Franne: I think a lot, considering all of the ideas that flow through. It's unfortunate in this day and age, my whole view has changed on songwriting. I would say now more than ever, unless I think something is really viable and it's going to get cut, a lot of times I won't finish it. That's unfortunate, and I didn't always feel that way, but due to circumstances and how things are now, I think it's really important. I walked into an A&R guy's office, and he said, "We don't want hits. We want smash hits. We want hits that are going to be three or four weeks at #1 — or more." This isn't about an okay, mediocre song anymore. You really need to walk in and be able to show those goods, and believe in what you're playing, and say, "This is a smash hit."

Scott: Lately I've been trying to focus less on that. The hit thing has always screwed me up a lot whenever I've been that focused on it, when I'm really trying to make it a hit. The songs that I've had successes with have always been ones that just felt good. Lately, even though I should be pressuring myself more, I've been pressuring myself a lot less, trying to stay looser and relaxed and write songs. The songs I've had that have been successful I could hide under a stack of 20, and someone would point to it and want to hear it again. I didn't know that that was the one. I thought the one I put at the top of the stack was the one.

Franne: When I say I let ideas go, I only do what feels absolutely 100-percent good to me. Like if something just feels—eh (shrugs)— I let it go. I might have explored it in the past. Now, even if it's unconventional, if it really feels good to me, I go with that.


Universal's
Freddie Ravel

TAXI: Jeffrey, do you think about who might be able to cut a song that you're writing when you're writing it? Or do you just write the song?

Jeffrey: I just write the song. A lot of times you'll get called by your publisher saying Faith Hill or Tim McGraw needs such and such—they need one more positive ballad with a negative feel. (laughter) I just got one of those calls a couple of days ago. It was the funniest message. It had everything—negative, positive, uptempo, mid-tempo with a groove,(laughter) and we're looking for a couple of them.(more laughter) You can't help it. Your publishers get jacked up, and if they know that there is an open slot on a record, man let's get it. So I never try to do that, but there are occasional times when that arrow will go through my head when my publisher will say it, and so it goes through. I don't know if it directly affects what I'm trying to write, but the seed is there. It's kind of going around, but I try not to ever think about that.

Scott: I also think, don't let that contrarian song—the song that's not out there—hold you back from sending it out. It could be the one that is not the mid-tempo, positive, negative, with the hook coming in by 59 seconds, or the magic fade time at 3:24—that's so much of what we hear. We have to get to the emotion. Sometimes a song like—I keep referring to the Beatles—but "Yesterday," when Paul McCartney did that thing in Russia. You can see the people just crying who couldn't even get the music in the Sixties, and it's still making a difference. It's a song that is just vocal and guitar. At the end of the day, that's really what a song is. It comes down to, can you sing it? Can you put it on a piano or a guitar, and does it convey?


Songwriter
Scott Cutler

TAXI: What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting out?

Brian: I think the first thing would be to recognize that you should go with your feelings if you've got something you've written that you really like. Now, how to get it published and get it out there, that's another question. But go with your instincts on your songs. Go with your feelings.

Freddie: I think to not be distracted by all the different options that are out there—to find who you are. On one level, I think all of us have melody inside of us. When I say melody, I mean your essence, who you are—the character, the spirit of what you are. And once you really know what your song is that you're singing in life—and I'm using this in a very broad sense—you narrow down the paths and the doors you knock on. That's actually a blessing. Stravinsky said, "Give me boundaries so I can be free." There is a lot of comfort when you know what doors not to knock on. Sometimes there is a tendency in our business to knock on every door you can. The philosophy is the more logs in the fire, whatever sticks to the wall. That is sort of a prevailing philosophy in our business. But I think it's better to focus on what your exact song and melody is, and I mean for who your essence is.

Scott: For me—and this is probably the first time that I've reflected back on my career, because I'm sitting here—there was never really a question. I didn't have to think too hard about it. So if this is what you want to do, you just do it—whether you do it here, or Nashville, or New York, or wherever. You come, you commit. If it doesn't grab you, you stop. If it grabs you, you'll just be doing it—no matter how the business is going, no matter what is going on, you'll just be doing it. Maybe in a year you'll have a hit, or maybe in two years, or maybe tomorrow. The signs will come, and you'll continue. It's not that complicated. You'll learn how to do it if it's something you really want to do.

Jeffrey: Embrace all of your failures—every quirk about you, everything that is wrong about you in the eyes of those who know everything. Embrace all of it. Those are the things that make you what you are. I wish I knew that then. Man, I had a twelfth grade guitar class that I failed. The reason I failed was because I couldn't do the finger picking exercise that we were being tested on. There was a Jim Croce song, and I couldn't play it. I still can't play it properly. I could only use two fingers, and I couldn't get the whole deal going. Twenty-five years later, I used my little screwed-up technique on most of the hits that I've ever had. You know what I'm saying? I had a guitar teacher that said, "Man, you ought to think about taking up piano." I sucked. I ended up being a bass player. I'm a frustrated, wanna-be rock star guitar player. But at some point I learned to embrace what I could do as mine. The same thing with my singing style too. There were things that I did with my voice that back when I was living here in the Eighties, everyone was saying it was too country. When I went back to Nashville to try to get a record deal, I was too rock and roll. Now everybody is cutting my songs because they're edgy, but they're still country.

Franne: I love this quote that Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein) said: "It's not something you earned or paid for, it's who you are."











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