Road Rally 2007 Hit Songwriters Panel, Part 1

Their songs have been on tens of millions of albums sold, (from left) Brian Howes, Don Rollins, Adam Watts, Andy Dodd, and Mike Elizondo.


Brian Howes, Hits with Daughtry, Hinder, Puddle of Mudd, etc.

Don Rollins, Hits with Alan Jackson/Jimmy Buffett, Randy Travis, Reba, Faith Hill, Carole King, etc.

Adam Watts & Andy Dodd, Hits with Jesse McCartney, Hannah Montana, High School Musical, etc.

Mike Elizondo, Hits by 50 Cent, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, etc.

Michael Laskow, Moderator

At what point do you become good enough that you are no longer an up-and-coming songwriter, but you're somebody who is a professional songwriter?

Andy: When you're not looking, I guess. Just workin' hard the whole time, then all of a sudden something happens and it's like a relief, more than it is like, "Yeah, I finally did it!" It's like, "Oh gosh, yes. OK, nobody move."

Don, what's your barometer?

Don: Well, ultimately, it's whether the song gets cut or not. It's some artist or producer that has to finally validate. But for my own personal thing, I've had to deal with so many pluggers and publishers and the people that sit behind the desk that are not creative over the years that it's like you develop a thick skin and little bit of a sense of security. So, I'm pretty prone to say, "Well, I like this." If nobody else gets it, that's OK. I'll write something else tomorrow that they will get. I'm past the point of letting it bother me.

If there has been a central theme to this particular Road Rally, it's that even the most successful people continue to learn. Is this true for you as well Don?

Before I started writing songs for a living, I was a high school band director in Texas. That was my day gig. So I used to tell my kids, "There is no such thing as a stasis in music. You're either getting better or you're getting worse. Standing still does not exist. And I still think of it that way. My favorite song is the one I'm gonna write next week, you know.

Brian, most Rock groups don't often use outside writers. You've certainly become the exception to that rule. How did you do it?

Brian: Well, I played in bands, and I've had two deals myself and I'm currently still signed as an artist. I think I have made a lot of relationships on the road, and while my fellow bandmates were out drinkin' and partying, I'd be sitting on the bus with my acoustic ripping apart hit songs, which I think is the best way to hone your craft—to just take your favorite songs and study this melody against this chord. And that's all I would do is just study, study, and keep writing, and keep writing. And I think through the relationships I made... Because sometimes when the label says, "We want you to write with these writers"—especially with a Rock band where it's perceived as uncool... but since I'd toured with a lot of these guys—like I just worked with Chris Cornell, who at first was really hesitant, then he heard that I was on the road, and then we hung out and it was great. It's not like the L.A. writer stigma or whatever. But I think just being in the trenches with those people kind of gave me the cred to do it with them. That's how I learned; I just keep writing with different people too. I always pick up little tricks from each writer I work with.

Mike, how did you end up becoming the master of Hip-Hop?

Mike: I grew up in Los Angeles. I started off playing in bands, doing everything. I played in orchestras; I studied classically; I also played a lot of Jazz music. I actually didn't grow up listening to much Hip-Hop at all. I listened to what my dad listened to, which was a lot of Jimi Hendrix and Beatles and Led Zeppelin. My brothers were the ones listening to NWA and Public Enemy. So it kind of would—from the next room over—be an influence, but not directly. Then it was a completely random thing, but a friend of mine that I went to high school with became an engineer who worked with Dr. Dre, and Dre was looking for new musicians. I got recommended to come in and play a bass line on a song, and pretty much thought that that was gonna be it. Then I got called a couple days later to come and play some more bass. And it kind of went back and forth like that for about a year—just coming in playing bass lines while I tried to make ends meet on other avenues. Then one day I started messing around on the keyboards, not trying to impress Dre, but just messing around. Then that song became the first song that I co-wrote, which made it on to a Snoop Dogg record. From that point on, Dre asked if I wanted to be a part of his small little crew of musicians and writers, and it just kind of evolved from there.

How old were you at the time?

I was 23, 24.

Did it freak you out?

Yeah. Dre is one of those types of people where I was freaked out the first time I met him. Then, after about 10 minutes, he kind of puts everyone at ease. I mean, he's still this very imposing figure, not by anything he tries to do, but just by everything he's accomplished and been through. You just can't help but be in awe. Even 10 years later, I still have that sense of awe regarding all the things that this guy's done.

But basically, I was a musician and I started coming up with ideas, and little by little, he just kind of included me in the songwriting process. So it was completely nothing I foresaw. It wasn't like I was someone with my MPC in my bedroom making beat tapes. It was a completely backdoor type of thing where I happened to meet the right person at the right time, and he saw something in me. He created an environment where we can kind of just flourish and try things out. I started playing more guitar, more keyboards, and just experimenting in the studio with one of the greats of our time.

So you're the rare bird that didn't bust your hump for many, many years working.

Oh yeah, I busted. I busted maybe not as a songwriter, but in terms of being in bands and playing $50 wedding gigs; you know, driving all the way out to Long Beach to play in a hotel not unlike this. There were plenty of times when I was doing other things, but I was in bands where I was a songwriter, but it wasn't a profession that I foresaw. I wanted to be in a band; I wanted to be in a Rock band. That was my dream. I think my coming from a different place than most maybe DJ or Hip-Hop guys might be coming from kind of intrigued Dre. You know, someone who listened to more the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and how do you infuse that into what he was already doing? I think something happened there.

Great story. Congratulations.

Adam, before all this good fortune befell the two of you, did you have a market that you were specifically writing at? I know that you're a Christian artist and had a great Indie career at that. But as a Pop writer, when you and Andy started working together, did you have certain artists that you were writing for? Were you writing at a target, writing at a niche, or did you just write whatever came out of you and the niche called to you, so to speak, and helped you define what you were doing?

Adam: I think we both started as players, similar to Mike. We were out playing drums and he was playing guitar, doing wedding gigs and punk gigs, a little bit of everything. Then when I started doing my own music, it was very much like Rock stuff. So when we met and decided like, "Oh, let's join TAXI..."

Editor's note: A single connection made through TAXI was the beginning of their relationship with Disney, and as of this writing, Adam and Andy's songs are on nearly 25 MILLION records as a result of that contact!

So you guys had just met shortly before you joined TAXI?

Adam: Kind of, yeah. I think I might have been a member when we started working together and I said, "OK, let's go Country. Let's write something like that."

All these years I thought I knew you guys and I never knew that.

Adam: I was a member before and I had been sending more of my solo music in. We both love a lot of styles of music, so, we would just say, "Let's do this Country song. We both like these Tim McGraw tunes, so let's do something kind of like that. Or here's some smooth Jazz." I remember when we played some Jazz fusion together to see if we could morph it into that. So we kind of grabbed from our player history or just stuff we liked, and we'd just go for it.

Andy: We still have smooth Jazz songs that play on Muzak that were placed through TAXI like six years, or however long ago it was. I still get ASCAP statements for them.

We'll have to add that to the Web site where we brag about you guys all the time. They've got stuff on Muzak. And it's no joke it actually does make money.

Andy, I was really impressed the day I was hanging out at your studio with you guys. I remember sitting there as you played me some stuff thinking, "How did they get that good?" How do you get that good being self-taught? Where did you pull that information from? Just listening to other records?

Andy: Yeah, listening to other records and picking up any information we could from articles or interviews and stuff, and just working at it. I think that was the biggest thing. Every day we got together. Even when there was no real reason for us to be getting together and working, we would just get together at 10 and start working on music and just kept at it. And we have definitely gotten better the more we did it. It was kind of just a trial-by-fire kind of thing. Adam had been recording his music for a few years before we got together, and we just kind of dug into it. We are real intrigued by sounds on records, gear, and all that stuff, so, I think just being really into all that, when you hear stuff you like, you try to do anything you can to make something sound like that. By just trial and error you start to figure out what things work and what things don't work.

Adam: I recall us trying to make things sound a certain way with just EQ and compression and going, "There's nothing else we can do to get it to sound any more like it, but it doesn't sound like it. So, we go, "All right, what's the gear, then? Maybe it's the kind of EQ and the kind of compressor." So we'd sort of go through that road and investigate and find out, "Oh, OK. You can't make a crappy compressor sound like a good compressor. So let's get the good one."

And so much of it comes out of the instrument into the microphone. I always found as an engineer that you could take a really crummy set of drums and put a great drummer on them and they would sound amazing with very little EQ and very little effort. You take a great set of drums that have been miked and EQ'd all day long and sound amazing and put somebody who doesn't have the touch on them and they would sound completely bad.

Adam: Yeah, you investigate the signal chain, start with the player, and then just go, "Where did it go wrong?"

As it relates to genres, is it better to be niche-y or versatile?

Brian: I think you have to do what you do best to get in the door, but I think it is good to be versatile. Specifically, with me there are no genres or borders. It's just write great songs within those genres. Make sure they are amazing, but, obviously, you have to do what you do best once you get in there, and then try and learn other forms. I'm a big Country fan to Hip-Hop fan as well, and I'm not going to go in there and try and write a Hip-Hop song on my own, but I'd love to work with someone and learn off them. But you have to get in the door with what you do best. And, obviously, that's your bread and butter, so...

How long did it take you to become great at Rock, to be that guy?

Brian: I just kept writing and kept working. What I found funny is once "Lips" broke... Because I always had publishing deals and I was always working with people and I had hits internationally, which I've lived on most of my life. But my first big kind of North America thing was "Lips," and as soon as that broke, I had everybody combing through all my back catalog and I've gotten all those cuts since. So suddenly those songs that weren't good enough were now suddenly good enough. It's pretty funny. So I'm like, "take 'em all."

Don, how do you feel about the versatility thing? What's the Nashville perspective on versatility?

Don: Well, for writers, versatile is OK. I think the lack of versatility in Nashville really has to do with the publishing business, because we have such a machine going there. I think Nashville is really the last songwriting community in the sense that there are a bunch of people in town that write for a living; we pretty much all know each other; we all work together to a certain extent. There a big assembly line of "write the song, demo the song, go pitch it, it gets passed on, write another song, go pitch it." It's like this constant thing. So if you come out with something that's like a great R&B song or a great Pop song or some jazzy thing, and hand it to a Nashville publisher, 99 out of 100 are gonna go, "Oh, that's cool. What do I do with it?" So you have to find access out of the machine if you want to be relevant. As an artist, though, versatility kills you. For doing a wedding gig, it's great.

Tell them why it kills you as an artist.

Don: Well, for me, I think that the record companies don't want to have to think too hard, you know. They don't want to have to listen to a demo by a guy who can sound like Kenny Rogers, and then he can turn around and sound like Bon Jovi, then he turns around and sounds like Bill Withers. That's great for a wedding gig, but it's like record labels are thinking about marketing, and they want to focus in on, "Here this is, it has identity, it has focus, I can sell that." And the more diverse it is, the less they can do that.

You two have been so successful at doing music that's a huge commercial success. Do you ever fear the reverse of the last question—getting stuck in one genre?

Adam: Well, I mean, it's such a blessing to have any success at all that the last thing we think we are is stuck. So I think really we love getting information and writing songs for specific reasons. It's really great to be at a place (Disney) that does that. It's like, "Here's what we need," and we just... There's a lot of psychology in what we do, just trying to figure out what they're talking about. It's really fun. We were talking about this on the way to the Rally today, that there's sort of tendency to look into the past for what they need now, rather than looking forward into some creative amazing future of something nobody's ever thought of. And we sort just kind of accept that and go, "OK, let's figure out what they need and give them that." And that's sort of our attitude across the board, because we work with a lot of different artists, and it just so happens that the Pop stuff took off. To our surprise, really, because we're centered more in a Rock place. But we're just kind of like, "All right, let's do that." We spend a lot of time just trying to humble ourselves and just go, "All right." And I'm a drummer and we end up using drum machines, and I'm like, "Ah, that's fine. Let's do that."

Andy: It's cool to have that be a part of what we do. Knowing that it's a part of a bigger picture, we can appreciate that stuff for what it is and not try to make it anything different, and try to make it the best it can be for the kind of music that it is, and still enjoy it. You know, have a good time working on it, trying to make it sound fun, for people that don't have long attention spans. But it's cool to be able to do that and to be able to do other things, you know.

Adam: You have to believe it while you're doing it, and let it be what it is. Like you said, it's all about good songs.

Mike: I'd just like to say if there's anytime you can be a part of something that the masses embrace and completely...and there's a phenomenon, you just can't help but feel completely grateful and appreciative for that opportunity. And specifically, to these two guys, I'm grateful for the music that they create. I have three little girls, a 7-year-old and twin 5-year-olds, and they actually get together, they have friends, they have parties where all they do is put on CDs by these guys, songs that they've written, and sing their hearts out. And for me, it's the greatest joy to see that they are embracing music. Even if they don't go on to become musicians or anything, just the fact that they are getting together with groups of friends and singing these songs and having parties and watching movies that these guys... For me, there's such a joy that comes out of it, I would imagine, being a part of something like that and seeing kids and all kinds of people embrace it and just have a good time.

Read Part 2 Next Month!


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