Interviewed by Michael Laskow

When a friend of mine who is an A&R person in Nashville heard that I was going to interview songwriter Gary Nicholson, he said, "Wow, he's the man!" I already knew that. That's why I wanted to interview him.

When I got to Gary's studio, it became clear to me why he's "the man." He's one of the top writers in Nashville, yet he's still got books like "Cliches" by Eric Partridge, "The Songwriter's Idea Book" by Sheila Davis, "The New Comprehensive American Rhyming Dictionary" by Sue Young, "Write From The Heart" by John Stewart, a book on American slang, another book called "Metaphorically Speaking", "The Essential Songwriter's Contract Handbook", and a few others on his shelf. Why does a songwriter of Gary's stature need to have these books? Because they're the tools of his craft. - M.L.

When did you know that you wanted to be in the music business?

I started playing gigs when I was about 15 or 16. I played at VFW Halls and Victory Dances for high schools... I got the bug early. My summer vacations were spent playing night clubs, and after that I went to college at North Texas State. I was playing almost every night of the week while I was in college.

Did you go to music school at North Texas?

Yeah, they had a live band program there. I started out as a Psychology/English major and switched to a Music major the second semester.

When you were in college and you were playing all these gigs, did you have any inkling that you wanted to be a songwriter vs. an artist?

I went to North Texas for a couple years, and soon figured out that I wanted to write songs, get a record deal, and be in a band. Don Henley also went to North Texas, and he was the lead singer in a popular cover band. I wasn't much of a singer, but I formed a band, kept working at my singing, and we got gigs. But we knew there was more on the horizon, so we left North Texas and moved to Hollywood. When I got there, I got a real low vibe publishing deal with a guy who just gave me a little bit of money and said "bring me all your songs," and I just did that. It made me think that I needed to be writing songs all the time, and so I started writing songs-all the time. I was about twenty at the time, and prior to that I'd only written about ten songs.

At what point did you feel that you had become somebody who was writing songs that other people would cut? Was there a time in your life where you said "Okay, I feel like I've mastered this craft now?"

Well, I don't think about it in terms of mastering the craft. I wrote all day long today, and the whole time we were writing the song it felt like it was the first song I ever wrote. It's just always brand new and it doesn't seem to get any easier.

That said, I will tell you that things started to get pretty "real" for me when I left California after being there for ten years and moved to Nashville. Jim Ed Norman (big-time producer who went on to become president of Warner Brothers, Nashville) cut a song of mine with Mickey Gilley for the "Urban Cowboy" movie. He also signed me to a publishing deal before he became President of Warner Brothers. When my wife and I first moved to Nashville with our two small kids, Jim Ed let us stay in a house he owned. He's been a great friend.

From the writer's perspective, how has the business changed in the last couple of decades?

There are a lot more situations in which professional songwriters are writing with the artist. When I first started writing, that kind of thing never came up. The thought of me going to someone like a Mickey Gilley, Charlie Pride, George Jones, Don Williams—any of those people who were recording my songs, and proposing that we co-write-well, it was just never mentioned.

Now, in a lot of instances, I get hooked up with artists to write songs and there are pluses and minuses to doing that. Vince Gill's a great songwriter. When you go to a Vince Gill show, he plays songs that he wrote—all night long, and they're all hits. He's developed into a better and better songwriter. Alan Jackson's obviously a great songwriter and I've written with Alan. I think it's a great opportunity to write with an artist, because they know what they want to do, and if you can help them realize their vision ... it's a good deal. I love writing with Lee Roy Parnell. We've written a lot of songs together.

There are a bunch of recording artists that I've really enjoyed being able to write with. That's one way it's changed. Another thing that's happened is that you can get one song cut with a major artist like Garth Brooks, and it can be a life changing event. In the Eighties, if you had a cut with a major artist, it was great, but it probably wouldn't make you enough money to pay off the house.

Do you have any advice for songwriters who would like to earn a living at it?

I think you have to give yourself up to it. I think it's like anything else, if you want to be a songwriter more than anything else, you have to bleed for it—you have to be willing to work at it as hard as anyone would work at any career. You have to get up in the morning, drink your coffee, and then start working at songwriting—all day long. You have to live it. You look for every possible way that you can write songs. If you put that much energy into it, there's no way that you can not have some kind of results-something's going to happen—if you work at it. I would also recommend that people try co-writing when they feel like they've hit a block. Go get with one of your buddies and work all day at writing a song, and at the end of the day if it's not a very good song—then at least you tried. Another thing writers can do to keep themselves sharp is to listen to a lot of different kinds of music from different cultures. They'll start to find things that they're are attracted to as far as grooves and feels and sounds and everything from all kinds of sources.

How important is the support of your family in pursuing writing as a career?

Well, I have incredible support from my wife. She knew when she married me that I was going to be a musician, and I made a living—not much of a living—I could have probably made more of living working a trash route. But she taught school and I played guitar in nightclubs. Since we moved to Nashville, she hasn't had to work to bring in money, but she's been carrying way more of the workload of raising children than me, so I was allowed to work a lot harder at songwriting. That's an incredible thing to have someone to be your partner who will share your dream and believe in you to the point where they never even consider suggesting that you get a day job.

But I'm not suggesting that everybody who wants to be a songwriter should go out and quit their job. There are some writers who get cuts with top artists and still work at a day job. They just work harder at their songwriting.

How important is it to write songs in traditional, accepted forms?

Well, it depends on the kind of music. When you're a Pop artist, there's more freedom in those forms. You can be Bob Dylan and break the rules, but there's a form in what he does, and there's a form in what Beck does. If there's an emotional reaction to it and people respond to the music and they like it, then it's right. But I'm from the school that says you should write in the forms that are most easily acceptable to the listeners in this world that you live in—which, for me is Country and Blues and Rock & Roll. Whether it's the Verse/Chorus or Verse with a tag line at the end of it and another Verse with the same thing and then a Bridge or a Breakaway.

All those forms are documented in every kind of songwriting book you've ever seen—they're all there, laid out AB or ABC structure. I think it's important to do that, especially if somebody is trying to get songs recorded in a particular marketplace. The people, the filters you've got to get through, all the gate keepers, people in A&R departments—that's how they're judging your material; as it adheres to those structures. And after it gets past them, it gets recorded, and it gets out in the marketplace. I think the listeners out there are used to hearing things in certain ways, and for me, when it's done well, it sounds like something that occurred in nature.

In the world of Country music, can you pitch a Pop song in Pop form to a Country artist and expect it to be greeted as warmly as it would be if it would be if it were presented as a Country song?

I don't think so—although it depends who you're pitching to. But in general, I would think your chances are always better to have a demo that nails the genre that you're going for.

How important is it to have all the bells and whistles on a demo?

I think it's different for every song. Some songs are great as guitar/vocal. I love to get guitar/vocal demos myself. But then there are songs when I fell totally in love with the demo and did my very best to try to capture what the demo made me love about the song and maybe I wouldn't have heard it if it were just done as a guitar/vocal. I do think that it's always the stuff in the middle that's the worst—the stuff that's trying to be a real—produced demo and it's got a bunch of junk stacked all over it and you constantly have to tell the guys while you're working on it, "Hey man, I know that they did that on the demo, but forget about that. I don't wanna hear a guitar sound that's anywhere near like what that guy did—I can't stand that."

Then it's a distraction, it's something that you have to overcome.

Do you start writing with lyrics or melody or whatever hits you?

I love to start with a title—a piece of lyric.

How important is it in Nashville to have the title be in the hook?

Oh, it's huge, it's everything.

So, you get up in the morning, you have your Cheerios, make your cup of coffee, come out here to the studio—it's ten o'clock in the morning, you have the rest of the day in front of you and you decide you are going to work on songs. You look around the room, and find your inspiration. Maybe it's that new Yamaha keyboard and you see 88 black and white keys—and now you have a title. What do you do?

I just start playing. I try to start singing out something that feels good and humming a little bit of a melody and just trying to channel it in. I'm trying to get something that will occur as a piece of form that I can start building on to. There's all kinds of ways to go at it. It might just be sitting there with a blank piece of paper looking at it writing a bunch of notes; there's a technique called clustering—where you take an idea in the middle of the page, then around it you write everything that could possibly pertain to that particular idea with little circles all around it—cluster all around it. And if you come up with a few words that rhyme, then you write that down—or a line that really fits, you write that down. Whatever you do, you keep your pencil moving to try and trigger that right brain activity get a bunch of words on a page. I do that same kind of brainstorming thing, by playing the guitar—it's just like I'm strumming around and I don't know where I'm going with it. Once you get the initial inspiration and the vibe of it and you know what you want to say, that's where the crafting part comes into it.

So at that point do you sit down and look for that special, one in a million way to say what you're trying to communicate?

Yeah, it's always a thing as you're writing—you're looking for a way to say something fresh.

Do you keep a notebook or any sort of diary of ideas so you can go back to them?

I've got a computer, and I put all my song ideas on there—I have pages of song titles and lyrics.

And you actually go back and look at them?

Oh, every day. I have this long list of song ideas up the ying-yang. It's like a safety net. My co-writer and I got together today and I went through my list of titles and she went through her list—and she said something with a phrase, then I changed the phrase, and she said something about children. Then the song we wrote today was "Love Like A Child"—you know, like I'm just gonna take you by the hand and love you like a child. That was a title that didn't exist for either one of us until we got together—we call those "Room Songs"—they come out of the room when you get together. They're always the most interesting and the most desirable. That's the thing that keeps your fire burning.

You know you have a safety net, but the ultimate is to have that moment of inspiration that turns into a song?

Yes, it's great, it's exciting that way. I'm sick to death of looking of that big old list of songs—I've looked at it a million times. I'm always interested to look at somebody else's list and say "Oh yeah, that's good!" and start playing around with it until something comes from it.

What happens when you sit down to co-write with somebody and your co-writer says I've got a song titled "The Bottom Third Of My Heart" and you say, "That's great, try this," and you throw something out on the table. You're absolutely head over heels in love with their title and what's just spilled out of you to go along with it and they look at you and say, "Yuck." That's got to be tough moment, or is it something that happens so frequently among pro-writers that you guys get right past it and keep right on track?

The main thing that's important with co-writing is to never shut anybody down because it can't be a collaboration if you can't really learn from each other. It's hard, sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in and other times you have to stay open.

You know, the weird thing is that I've done so much co-writing, that I find myself doing that in other aspects of my life now. I get off into the world of remodeling my kitchen and I'm sitting there co-writing with my contractor. I'm sitting there and I go "Yeah, well we could have the stove over there, but what if the refrigerator was here and we turn the island around here?" I've already "written" the kitchen re-model three or four different times.

If you had to write your own epitaph, how would you like to be remembered when you're dead and gone?

Well, I don't know ... I guess I'd like people to say that somehow I made a difference in their lives. Maybe I made them curious, and they weren't curious before. Maybe something I wrote helped them to relate to their loved one in a way that they wouldn't have before—or that a song really meant something to somebody, that it could have the power to change somebody's life. I've had songs that definitely did that to me. I can hear songs that defined a period of my life and I think that's what we're all trying to do. If you look at the gift of songwriting as a service or profession, that's what you aspire to ... to affect somebody's life in a positive way, and give them something that they couldn't have gotten in any other way. It's something noble to aspire to. In my little world, I've had people come up to me and tell me that one of my songs meant a lot to them, or maybe they played the song at their wedding—you know it's that kind of thing. But to more directly answer your question... I guess you could put on my tombstone, "I never said I was an engineer!"

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