Michael Laskow, Moderator

Hit Songwriter Panel. From left to right: Kara Dioguardi, Michael Laskow (panel moderator), Tia Sillers, Barry DeVorzon, Ron Miller, and Mark Selby.

Kara Dioguardi – cuts by Jessica Simpson, Hilary Duff, Lindsay Lohan, Enrique Iglesias, etc.
Mark Selby – cuts by Jo Dee Messina, Trisha Yearwood, Mindy McCready, etc.
Tia Sillers – cuts by the Dixie Chicks, Alan Jackson, Wynonna, etc.
Barry DeVorzon – cuts by Mary J. Blige, The Carpenters, The Eagles, etc.
Ron Miller – cuts by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Celine Dion, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, etc.

After doing panels with many of the top songwriters in the history of the music business year after year, you might think that I've become bored. Not true! And this panel was the most impressive of all. Part 1 is pretty darn interesting and informative. Part 2 is even better, and Part 3 is just plain riveting. I hope you take the time to read all three parts over the next three months—these writers will transform your life as a songwriter with their incredible wisdom. — M.L.

Kara, I remember not too long before I first met you, that you were right on the edge of becoming a recording artist. You were offered deals, then you just decided—nope, that's not what I want to do, I want to be a songwriter. Why did you choose that route rather than being a star, because I'm sure you could have been?

KD: Well, things have changed since then actually. Now, I am a recording artist. I just finished my video two weeks ago. It's coming out on Interscope. I'm in a band with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. It kind of came together organically. We got put together for a writing session. A label paid for me to come out and hang out with Dave Stewart, which was a pretty cool thing. He's an amazing guy and an amazing talent. For two weeks, we sat around and we tried to write for this group. The chemistry for that just wasn't there, but we stumbled upon a thing of our own. There was a little bit of synchronicity and we formed a group. Now I'm doing that, so next year that'll be my life.

Kara Dioguardi - cuts by Jessica Simpson, Hilary Duff, Lindsay Lohan, Enrique Iglesias, etc.
Are you gonna go on the road, tour, and do the whole deal?

KD: We'll see if people react to it. If not, I'll probably continue with what I do now, which is basically writing.

Why did you initially turn down the offers for a record deal four years ago?

KD: Because I'm not 20, I'm not an MTV artist, and I wasn't sure they would know how to market me in a way that wouldn't be sort of cheesy. I didn't want to do music that I wrote for other people because a lot of those songs were for a younger audience. I wanted to do something that would be a little more sophisticated, and because I'm a collaborator, the combination of Dave and I was really special. It brought out a different side of things. And he's a genius with the marketing and putting together stuff, and that was something that I was always very weak at. I really felt like a partnership was kind of a winning thing, and I didn't want to jump ship from my career unless I felt like, "Okay, this is something." And it's been fun.

Desmond Child was here yesterday and I asked him if he has to put himself in character for the artist that he co-writes with and for. You are a very similar writer in that regard. Are you able to go from Hilary Duff to whomever, and when you sit down do you write at a target? Do you put yourself in their shoes and think, "If I were them, what would I talk about?" What would the concept be for the song and subject matter? How do you do all that?

KD: Well, I think there are three types of writing. There is writing for artists; there is writing for yourself; and then there's writing for my group. Sometimes I'm writing for the artist or with the artist which then becomes a very different situation than just writing for myself, because we'll talk about what we want to write about, and you try to pull from that place inside of you that relates to what they're talking about. Whether it happened to you when you were 16, or whether it happened to you when you were 20 or 30. Basically, what you feel at 16 is just a more dumbed-down version of what you feel at 30. We all have love, we all have loss, we all fight with people. It's just a matter of how you put it into a song. So when I'm writing for or with somebody, it's more that I'm trying to help them be the best that they can be, and help them put out something that they relate to.

Then there are songs that I write for myself, which are pitchable songs—like the song "Come Clean" that Hilary did—that come from me, from a point of truth, but then they're sort of crafted in a way that we cut them. But the people cutting them have to feel a sort of attachment to them. They have to sort of say, "Yeah, I've felt that way before."

Barry DeVorzon - cuts by Mary J. Blige, The Carpenters, The Eagles, etc.
Do you ever get sweaty palms when you're pitching your stuff? As successful as you are, do you still ever get butterflies?

KD: No, I don't get any butterflies. I don't because, for me, part of what's made me sort of successful is that I have a very, very tough stomach, because for years I couldn't get arrested. I just went on hope and faith and no money and no nothing. I just kept going and going, and everyone was like, "You're crazy. What are you doing?" And then finally I got "lucky" and everything just sort of came together... So I never worry about that. For me, I have to more worry about whether I'm cool with it, whether I like it. Whether somebody likes it or not... I want them to like it, but if they don't... I can't get too hung up on it, because I've gotta keep moving.

I hope everybody in this room gets as lucky as you are. I think you made your own luck.

Mark, so many aspiring writers seem to have an image of Country music as being drinking, pick-up trucks, and trailer parks.

MS: It's not?

I go to Nashville three or four times a year and I've become pretty friendly with a lot of people in the songwriting community. I've gotten quite an education over the years, and have come to learn that the Country writers are some of the best writers on the planet Earth. What are some of the rules of the craft in the context of writing Country music?

MS: I think crafting a great song is the same for any genre. You know the rules of craft don't change much—trying to make a song that really works and is kind of airtight lyrically and musically. There may be certain lyrical touchstones or parameters for Country music, which can be bent. But getting a good knowledge of that is very helpful—or absorbing that [knowledge] can help you write songs that actually will fit in that market, and with the artists that are working in that market.

Maybe the best example is lyrically. Country songs usually have pretty direct lyrics. They tell a story. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. You feel like you've been on a little journey with the person who sang that song, whereas with Pop or Rock, the lyrics are more obscure. Did you have to train yourself to always be in that mindset of writing in a direct mode, less visceral?

MS: Yeah. I think it can be very visceral actually. But it often needs to be more direct, and one attribute of Country lyrics is that they are often very conversational in the story telling aspect. It's important for it to really sound like conversation. I like to equate it to movie dialog. If you hear or see great movie dialog, you feel like it's real, like you're really in the room with these people. I think great Country music has that same quality, of really feeling like it's somebody saying something they really would say.

Ralph Murphy (V.P., ASCAP, Nashville) wrote an article—I keep telling him to turn it into a book—called Your Song Is a Script.

MS: I also feel like there are some songs that couldn't really fit anywhere else but Country music. But there are also a lot of Country hits that could be Pop hits. It's just a matter of the production and the type of singer that's on the song.

Tia Sillers - cuts by the Dixie Chicks, Alan Jackson, Wynonna, etc.
I'm really glad you brought that up. A lot of our members will take a Pop demo, that's not even really clearly Pop, they will throw a pedal steel sample on top of it, and an acoustic guitar, and inject the word "beer" into the lyric, and think they've got a Country song. Can you set them straight, please?

MS: Yeah, everybody knows it's better to have "whiskey" in there than "beer." I would like to say something about demos—especially for our market in Nashville. I think as a songwriter you're probably trying to attract the attention of a publisher in Nashville. Publishers are the people most capable of listening to a simple demo because their songwriters at their publishing company are frequently bringing them guitar/vocals, or very rough versions of a song. So if you're trying to make that first step of getting a publisher interested, I think very often people should be spending more of their time writing songs, writing a lot of songs and improving their craft, and not as much money on elaborate demos, which if they're not in the middle of that market—just as you indicated—they may not get the tone of the demo quite right for what's really happening there in Nashville. So I think often you're better off just to get a solid guitar/vocal, maybe with a harmony vocal that helps show how the chorus lifts—something simple like that. Then you're spending more of your quality time on writing, and not trying to do demos that maybe aren't going to serve you the best anyway.

I've got to bounce back to Kara for a minute. As you remember, in Kauai, I hit you with the question, "Do you really need to produce sophisticated demos?" I agree with you Mark, but Kara laid me out with her answer and said, "Hold on, Laskow. You're wrong. I think you do need to more fully produce your demos."

KD: It's two different things. Nashville is traditionally song-oriented. I think the people down there—the "creatives"—can really hear through just a guitar demo. Whereas in the Pop market with the corporatization of music, you have guys running labels now that are not really "creatives." So when they're listening, they're listening to see if they feel it's a hit, and a lot of what they think makes a hit is the soundscape behind the song. It's a different kind of thing. Nashville I think still is really involved in the song, while what I do is involved in the song, but there are other things that go around it like who's the hottest producer right now.

MS: I want to second what Kara is saying. We still do big full-blown demos on most of our songs that are being pitched. But it's our publishers in Nashville that are most able to hear a good guitar/vocal. I'd say that with maybe half or less of the A&R people in Nashville—especially lower tier A&R people—do we have much of a chance of a song cut with a guitar/vocal. I think if we're able to get songs to a good producer and a good recording artist, most of them can appreciate its simpler form. They can hear it that way, and a lot of times, they actually prefer it that way, because it allows them to shape vision around the song and not be swayed by someone else's vision. And I think that's especially true of really good record producers. We have some good ones and some not so good ones in Nashville.

Mark Selby - cuts by Jo Dee Messina, Trisha Yearwood, Mindy McCready, etc.
I tend to agree with you. If you take something relatively simple, a good solid sketch of a song, either producer or A&R guy allows them to inject some of their own... "Oh, wow. I can hear a great background part there." They're more likely to fall in love with it. But for the kind of music that Kara does, basically, she's not taking a chance on their weak imaginations by sending them something half-baked.

KD: Right. But that's to say that's where music is right now and what I do. I mean, I would prefer to never do those kinds of things. I would prefer to sing a song with a guitar and hand it to an artist. It really depends on the artist you're working with. When I'm working with Christina (Aguilera), it's a different thing. We collaborate together and she takes it to the next level. She makes it her own. So it really depends on who I'm working with. When I'm working with a 16-year-old girl who's never really been in the recording studio, then I have to say, "OK, this is the way I think it should be."

I feel like a lot of my career has been controlled by what the market has wanted in some way, because as a songwriter, I have to have those kinds of concerns. It's like if I could write with artists that could just do everything themselves, I'd love that. It just depends on who you're working with.

Let me go to Tia with a follow-up on what you just said. Do you write for the market? Do you write just whatever comes out, and if somebody likes it, great. Do you have a sensibility of what's current and what may be current a year or two down the road? And do you try and write hits for the marketplace, or do you just write what comes out of your heart?

TS: I think my biggest curse for my career is that I'm utterly unable to write for the market. Can't do it. [applause]

She said it's a curse, and the audience is clapping!

TS: I just kind of consistently write things that pop into my head—or that other people have pop in their heads. It's more the joy of writing that seems to get me up in the morning, and I think it has definitely held me back. During the huge "I Hope You Dance" craze my publisher was begging me to come out here and write with all of these wonderful people. And I'd be lying if I didn't say that I'd love to get to work with Christina Aguilera or someone like your caliber. But the truth is, I went on the road and sold CDs for my husband, Mark Selby, because he was touring and he needed a merch girl, and he didn't have it in his budget. And that's what I did. [applause]

Ron Miller - cuts by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Celine Dion, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, etc.
I told you. They are so, so, so in love.

MS: Bad career decision right there.

TS: We were just married and I knew that a huge amount of marriages fall apart in those first couple years if you're not on the same page, and it seemed more important to me. But I will say this, I managed to have a whole lot of hits; I've never used the word "beer" in a hit; I've never used the word "Jesus" in a hit; I think I've had "Lord," and I've used "heavens." I've got a song right now where it says, "I've shook my fist at Jesus." But it was absolutely imperative to use it in that song. So many songs that I hear from beginning songwriters and various established songwriters, it seems like.... The thing that I love the most about Country music is that at times, at its best—like the classics that these fellows have had a part of—is that the lyric is preeminent, and it is poetry on page, and it's timeless, and it's classic, and it's humbling, and it makes you feel fantastic. And Country music at its worst is sort of entertaining and fun and makes you laugh once or twice. It's clever. And both of those pieces of music are valid in and of themselves, but I'm not necessarily good at writing one. I'm just sort of good at writing the other. And even good is a nebulous word. Everyday I wake up and I go, "I'm gonna network. I'm gonna return phone calls. I'm gonna lose 10 pounds."

MS: I do have to point out that she has used the word whiskey in songs.

Be sure not to miss Part 2 of this interview next month, and Part 3 the month after that!

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