Road Rally 2006 Hit Songwriters Panel, Part 2

How They Do It, and Why It Works?

Kara, James, Muggs, and Jason listen as Dave Stewart (2nd from left) talks about the Pussycat Dolls.


Kara DioGuardi: One of the industry's most sought after hit songwriters, whose recent songs include Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man," Kelly Clarkson's "Walk Away," Ashlee Simpson's "L.O.V.E." and "Pieces of Me," Gwen Stefani's "Rich Girl" and "I'm Feeling You," the first Santana single with Michelle Branch. Kara is also currently collaborating with Dave Stewart in the band Platinum Weird.

Dave Stewart: Singer/songwriter/musician and record producer who is best known for his work with Eurythmics. Dave has produced Aretha Franklin, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, and the Neville Brothers. He is currently part of Platinum Weird with hit songwriter Kara DioGuardi.

James Dean Hicks: Has written five #1 songs including "This Crazy Love" by the Oak Ridge Boys, and "Jesus and Mama Always Loved Me" by Confederate Railroad. He's also had more than 150 songs recorded by artists like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Charlie Daniels, Aaron Carter, Jessica Simpson, Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, Lonestar, Reba McIntire, and Vince Gill.

DJ Muggs: DJ/producer/writer for Cypress Hill; produced House of Pain's biggest smash hit "Jump Around"; also written and produced tracks by Ice Cube, Tricky, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Mobb Deep, Pearl Jam, and has produced several feature film soundtracks, including the hit comedy/cult classic "Friday."

Jason Blume: Has had singles on the Pop, Country, and R&B charts—all at the same time. His songs are on three Grammy nominated albums, have sold more than 50 million copies, and have been recorded by artists including Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, Jesse McCartney, John Berry, the Oak Ridge Boys, and more. He's also the author of three best-selling songwriting books.

Dave Stewart - member of the Eurythmics and has produced Aretha Franklin, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, and the Neville Brothers.
James Dean, do you write with a target in mind, or, do you write a song, then decide who it would be a good pitch for?

JD: Both. I do about 250 days on the road of performing because my first love is as a performing songwriter. I try to do as many shows as I feasibly can. So with my writing now, I write with a lot of artists—whether it's Bryan White or Jimmy Wayne or John McLaughlin, or whomever I can get in the room with. Of course, I'm writing for them and those purposes. But then I have people like Craig Wiseman and Chuck Cannon and Jeffrey Steele that I write with, and we're just getting together and trying to write the best song we can write, and the songs tend to find a home. We demo them, and some of my friends are now writer/producers so they're able to plug some songs here and there. But most of the songs I've had recorded were just written because I loved writing, and I try to write something that moved me that day. Then I tend to go out and place the songs after that.

Nashville writers collaborate a lot and you guys have writing "meetings." When you walk into the meeting, does one guy bring in the idea then the other guy chimes in? Or do you bounce ideas off of each other so you both go, "That's the one we want to work on today"?

JD: About 60% to 70% of the songs we write... about half the hits I've had, I wrote with someone the first time I met them and we sat down and wrote a song. I didn't need to go to lunch with 'em to know. I just wanted to sit down and write a song with 'em. So, with most of the songs, I didn't need to know my co-writer. Most of the songs come from the conversation we had at the coffee pot...almost every time, almost every hit I've ever had. Or, I'll ask when I'm with an artist, "What's going on in your life. Are you dating somebody? Do you have a family? What's going on?" And there's usually a mood in the room. There's a mood in what's going on in somebody's life, and I just try to pick up on that. Or sometimes somebody just brings in a half a verse or a chorus that's fantastic and we go with that.

Kara, I remember when you and Dave first started working together you told me you went for a writing meeting with him to co-write something, and Dave said, "Hey, I've got an idea, let's form a band." How do you guys write together?

Dave: It was a bit different than that, actually. What happened was, I had these girls staying with me—two or three of them. The Pussycat Dolls, right? I had no idea what I was meant to be doing, apart from Jimmy Iovine sent these girls. I thought because I'm from a different era—I was born before television and all that stuff—it was some kind of like dark, curt, vile, kind of German expressionist cabaret show. That's what he kind of told me, because he speaks so quick to me on the phone, you know. [He imitates Iovine.] So I was writing something and my little daughter runs into the studio and says, "Hey Daddy, 'love' is my favorite word." And I go, "Ah, that's the song of the day: 'Love Is My Favorite Word.'" So I'm busy writing this in a very sort of existentialist kind of German cabaret 1940s kind of thing, and then these girls arrive that look like gazelles, dressed in not very much.

DJ Muggs - member of Cypress Hill, produced House of Pain, Ice Cube, Tricky, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Mobb Deep, Pearl Jam, and the soundtrack for "Friday".
And they were staying with you?

Dave: Yeah, and I'm living on a farm; they looked so out of place. It was like the farm gates opened and my wife's going, "Uh, Dave, some people to see you at the farm gate." This has happened a few times.

Then Jimmy rings me and goes, "I'm sending you a spitfire." And then Kara arrives—she's the spitfire! So, I handcuffed her to me, literally!

We wrote a song in about 10 minutes, which is on our [Platinum Weird] album, actually, and it is nothing like anything to do with the Pussycat Dolls. And I said, "Hey listen. I've just opened an erotic store round the corner, which is true. In fact, for everybody here who lives in Los Angeles, I've just opened another one. It's on Melrose Ave. It's amazing. Anyway, so I said to Kara, "Let's go have a look at it, and I handcuffed us together." We were together all day, and we went to dinner with handcuffs, and the head of Universal was looking at us like we were crazy... trying to eat our dinner with handcuffs was not easy. And that's how we met. What was the question?

I don't remember. As soon as you mentioned "Kara" and "handcuffs" in the same sentence, I lost track. [audience laughs]

Kara: That's a perfect example of two people meeting, trying to do something, and just being like, "Yeah, I know. Let's do this." Dave and I were not meant to write that kind of music; that was just a weird pairing. The Pussycat Dolls is a beat-driven project that's very viable in a commercial market, but we felt a sort of "thing" creatively for each other, and we followed that. You have to know when you should go down a certain road and when you shouldn't. When it looks like a good road, you need to go for it because you never know where you're going to end up. You could end up in a sex shop with Dave Stewart!

Not exactly my cup of tea, but let's forge ahead. [audience laughs]

Muggs, Rap and Hip-Hop have a completely different set of rules from conventional songwriting. What are the rules? What are the boundaries?

Muggs: I know a lot of songwriters who write for publishing companies and they submit songs to different artists. We don't really work like that. It's based on relationships that you make with artists and writers who are fans of your work. They come in the lab and you get together and work on some music, you know what I mean? A lot of times that's how we do it.

There's got to be more to it. You're one of the best that's ever been in this industry. You make it sound like it's easy.

Muggs: You don't really over think it. I just write music, I get one of the home boys that writes lyrics, they come in the studio, and two hours later we got a song done. Sometimes they're great, sometimes you never hear 'em.

What percentage are great, and what percentage are throwaways?

Muggs: Most of the songs I use, and the ones that we don't use, we put out on the underground through the Internet or through mix tapes to feed them to our fans.

Kara DioGuardi - member of Platinum Weird and cuts by Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, Ashlee Simpson, Gwen Stefani, and Santana with Michelle Branch.
I'm mildly obsessed with guys who get paid tons of money to create beats, who just get to sit down with a drum machine and some cool samples and come up with beats. Who would have thunk that people could get six figures for something created with a drum machine? How did that become an art form, and how do you learn that art form?

Muggs: We learned just from DJing backyard parties and running breaks back and forth, just extending the four-bar break at the beginning of a song and extending it to make it 30-40 bars and just let the break rock. Then they came out with drum machines, where you could actually loop that break. So it was just an extension of being a DJ, and taking that experience and putting it on a drum machine, and taking that live-experience DJ and an MC, where you would extend the break for a rapper to rap on and loop it in the drum machine. On that, sampling started from there. Then we just started taking little bits and pieces of different records and making a collage with samples. I have never gone and just taken a hit song and looped it and sampled it and made a record from that. I'll take little pieces from maybe 20-30 records that you aren't gonna recognize and make my own piece out of it—real similar to a collage and cuttin' up pictures and making your own picture out of that.

How did you get from backyard parties to being where you are now?

Muggs: It's just the culture I grew up with, you know what I mean? The Hip-Hop culture was something I grew up with—break-dancing in the streets, the new music, the youth. It was fun, it was exciting, and it was ours. Just caught the fever and it didn't stop. Then one day I started actually writing songs, and I got a song in the movie Colors in 1988. That was probably my first production credit. From there it's just been non-stop since then.

How did you get discovered?

Muggs: It was kind of a process. I was DJing, then I started winning a lot of DJ contests, and I met some kids in the business who had a record deal, and I started DJing for them. That went sour, but in the midst of all that, we had a deal on Geffen in '87—the band was called 783—and I got to understand the business and see all the ins and outs and the workings of it and how all this went down. I had my own group called Cypress Hill, and we were doing demos. The experience from that first band helped me a lot with creating Cypress Hill—what to do and what blanks to fill in and how I wanted this to be and what I needed to do at this time. You know what I mean?

Jason: Michael, rather than have you ask me something, there's something I really want to share. There's not one way to do this, and I'm listening to what these people are saying and I'm completely in awe of the way they write. But I also want you to understand that I work with a lot of people who do it very differently, who really approach it much more methodically and much more literally. For me, personally, it's got to start from a place of pure inspiration. That has to be the beginning place, but for me, there has to come a point where I then back up and I'm putting everything under a microscope, asking myself, "OK, this is what I felt when it came out of me; now can I make this better? Is this the strongest melody that I can possibly come up with? Are these opening lines gonna grab somebody and hold on to them?"

So, I just didn't want you all to get the impression that all anybody has to do is just feel whatever they feel and it comes out of them. And it might work for you to do that—especially if you're an artist writing for yourself—but for me when I'm writing, which is virtually exclusively for other artists, I'm not writing for myself, I'm writing to get outside cuts. I've got to really put my songs, my lyrics and my melodies under a microscope. And just so you understand—and that I'm clear about this— that's not where it starts. It starts from inspiration, but then there is a next step for me of really studying it and honing it and polishing it and making sure it's as strong as I can make it.

James Dean Hicks - cuts by the Oak Ridge Boys, Confederate Railroad, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Charlie Daniels, Aaron Carter, Jessica Simpson, Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, Lonestar, Reba McIntire, and Vince Gill.
You're thoughts are counterpoint to what Dave and Muggs have said. People think that formula or song structure is a dirty word, and I'm constantly trying to tell people that you have to be able to write a song in form first, in order to break out of it when you want to.

Jason: I fought using structure initially. I thought it was just horrible to squash my songs into a structure. But now I understand that it's about communicating. The structure does not change what I'm trying to say; it doesn't change the essence of the song; it just allows me to deliver it to my listener in a way so they can receive it. For me, I don't think there's anything wrong with that. When I turn on Pop radio—I'm talking about Pop—I couldn't tell you what percentage—probably 90% of the songs fall into a half a dozen structures.

Kara: I think the greatest songs are where inspiration meets craft. Some of my songs that have done well were written in probably 15 minutes or less because they came from a place of inspiration. Then when I went back to look at them, I saw that I definitely used my craft, which is something that I develop as a muscle every day. It's not so much about sitting down and asking yourself, "Is this a verse? Is this a pre?" As you write, you develop that muscle—the "craft" muscle. One day you're going to wake up and the two will come together in a way that you weren't forcing it to. It becomes second nature—you just get better at it. And it becomes a natural thing.

When I work with young writers, or writers who have just started, I've often noticed that everything that they write is precious to them. It's the best thing ever on the planet, and chances are it's not. But what's inspiring about it is that the more that you can do it, the better you'll get at making it a great song. And a lot of that does rely on the craft, but most of it is about the inspiration. And if at some point you get a little bored, then you just try different things. I think that that's where it gets fun, because eventually you're going to have to keep doing things to inspire yourself. You can't do the same kind of music, use the same kinds of chords, or the same kinds of instruments over and over.

But the craft will always be the underlying... It's like turning the blinker on in the car. You don't even think about it, but you know it's the right thing to do.

Kara: Well, go back to your first song, and then look at the songs you're writing now, and you can see what's different.

Jason Blume - best-selling author and cuts by Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, Jesse McCartney, John Berry, the Oak Ridge Boys.
Jason, do you keep any sort of idea diary?

Jason: I've got a file called "Future Hits," and that file has my ATM receipts, napkins, and anything else that have snippets of ideas—titles, melodic ideas on CDs—so that if I'm having a bad day, at least I know I can rely on craft to try and suss out an idea that at least started when I was having a good day and started from a place of inspiration.

Muggs, how do you stay on top of the marketplace? Or do you not even consider that? Do you just do what you do? Do you listen to radio and you know where the kids coming up are? How do you stay ahead of them?

Muggs: I pretty much listen to a lot of Classic Rock when I listen to music. I don't listen to too much Rap at all, except for the old stuff. But, I've been blessed coming into the game doing what I wanted to do on my own terms. All my radio hits have not been traditional radio records, if you listen to what was going on in radio at the time of my music. So, I kind of do what I want and how I want it. I've been lucky on that end.

Kara, we get this question every single day at TAXI: "People seem to like my song, but you didn't pitch it because it still had some things about it that weren't right? Why can't you just send it to the artists, or send it to the label and let them decide if it's ready or not?"

Kara: I think that we all think everything we do is so great, and we're precious about it. I think to get better you have to open your ears to people who have criticism. When I was starting out, I didn't like to hear the word "no," but at the same time, there were often times that they were right.

Did you realize that at the time, or did you hate their guts?

Kara: Oh, of course not. I was a real bitch. I didn't want to hear "no." But now I listen to those songs, they were terrible, and I needed to hear "no." But it kept me going, and I think the key is not to let rejection slow you down. The key is to listen and get someone's opinion that you really value, and then try again and again, and don't give up. That's really why I'm here.

I believe that's the reason all of you are up here today and why you've have been so successful in your careers. I want to thank all of you. It was an honor to have you here. [applause]


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