Moderated by Michael Laskow

Hit Songwriter Panel. L to R: Jason Blume, TAXI's Michael Laskow, Kara DioGuardi, Dave Stewart, DJ Muggs, and James Dean Hicks.


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.
Let's get right down to the rudiments. How often do you write? How many hours per day? Do you have any sort of set schedule?

Kara: I don't really have a set schedule. I'd say that in the beginning, when I was first starting, I would just do everything. I was just kind of ubiquitous—I'd go anywhere, everywhere. Now, I don't write like that anymore. As you do this year after year, you have to kind of make sure that you're evaluating your co-writing situations, and that you're in the room with someone who's better or at your level, or else your work can get kind of stiff. Luckily, that's how I met Dave, and that's been the highlight of my songwriting career, and also in terms of being an artist. But there's really no rule. Some weeks I work two weeks straight, working 14,15 hour days, and then I'll take a week off.

Do you do it like a business, or do you wait for the muse to strike you? Is most of your writing done with other people so you're kind of forced into some sort of schedule?

Kara: I'm a collaborator, so I kind of go with what's in the room, depending on who I'm working with. If I'm working with somebody who is more track-driven, I might get inspired by the track. When I'm working with someone like Dave, it's more from an organic place. It's a different thing; we're listening for wind chimes outside the house, right Dave? That's how we usually do it. A little bird flies by and we just kind of tap into that. It's true.

Dave, what motivates you to make music?

Dave: The thing with me is that I'm so dreadfully insecure about everything. I'm always thinking people are gonna find out that I really don't know what I'm doing. So now, everybody's looking at me and I'm like, "Shit." I'm trying to sort of remember what I did and how I did it. I have no idea what I do. I'm really worried from the minute I wake up, then I go to the studio and I'm really nervous. I never eat properly, and she's (Kara) always eating my food. As soon as I buy a sandwich, she eats it. So I'm always a bit stressed and a bit hungry and really nervous. And I try not to look at my schedule because that's usually terrifying, like going around Bob Dylan's house and making his breakfast or something like that. Then, at the end of the day, miraculously there's something on a CD, which I take home and play it to my kids, who say, "That's shit." And then I get really anxious again and nervous again and go to bed with sleeping tablets, probably. Sorry, I know I'm meant to be illuminating, but...

You're driven by your own insecurities.

Dave: Exactly. It's just so nerve-wracking, you know.

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".
What made you choose music?

Dave: Well, these guys used to keep waiting for me outside of my dad's house and beat the shit out of me. I was one of these people who refused to give in, so I'd wear like crushed blue velvet skin-tight trousers. This was in the northeast of England, which is, I suppose, the equivalent of a very rough area of Pittsburgh or something. So they'd beat me up for wearing them, so I'd go back in and I'd come out with kind of yellow crushed velvet trousers. I just got sick of [being] beaten up all the time, so when I was about 14, I used to get pocket money and I'd go to the train station every Saturday and say, "How far can I go with this?" Then I'd get on a train and stay away for about eight hours and then get the train back and sneak home. And the more pocket money I got, the further I went, and then the last one I didn't come back.

Where did you end up?

Dave: We've wondered off songwriting, haven't we? I ended up here ... and it's been very interesting along the way. I must say that I'm nowhere near as gifted a songwriter as 99% of the people I write with. I'm more a sort of catalyst for them to write something great, and then very quickly make them sign a 50/50 agreement (laughs).

Ah, so you're insecure, but you're good at business.

Dave: Yeah. I say, "I've got this vague idea about a song to do with a railway track or something," and then they write it all, and I say, "Can you just sign that?" (more laughs)

I knew this panel was going to be fun, but I didn't know it was going to be quite this much fun. James, how many years did you write before you got your first cut?

JD: I started writing when I was a little kid growing up on a farm in Kentucky. I used to sit in this little swing out at the walnut tree by the well, and I started making up songs from the time I was old enough to talk. My dad bought me a little guitar, and I taught myself how to play from a chord book. So I started writing when I was pretty young.

I came to Nashville and I was kind of like a child star. We used to do shows with Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn and some of the names of the past in Country music. I came to Nashville and got a publishing deal I guess within my first few months there. I got pretty lucky. I'd written a lot of songs. I was in a Heavy Metal band; I was in a Country band; I studied Classical music; I did a lot of different things to get me to Nashville to write Country music as it were. But as with everybody, we all come to Nashville, or most any town, to be an artist. But Nashville is a place where you can write songs and other people will record them that are recording artists. Some parts of the industry aren't quite as friendly to that, but we have people like Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and a lot of those artists don't write their own songs. So Nashville is a great place to write a great song, hopefully, and when people hear it you'll just start flying it to different artists, and certain songs will fit quite a few artists within our genre in country music. So, I started getting cuts in my first year in Nashville. I was pretty lucky I guess.

Kara DioGuardi - member of Platinum Weird and cuts by Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, Ashlee Simpson, Gwen Stefani, and Santana with Michelle Branch.
Muggs, how much does socialization and networking have to do with getting songs cut in your market?

Muggs: That's a big part of if, just building relationships with people and making sure you get out and just being around people and getting to know them. Because if you stay in the studio and you ain't getting out meeting new talent and new kids that are doin' things, you just have a lot of good music just sittin' on your tapes at your place, you know what I mean? So I get out there and hustle all the time.

Where's "out there"? Do you go to clubs? Do you go to parties?

Muggs: All of it. Clubs, parties, events. I get most of my work done by goin' out. Executing stuff in the studio is the easy part.

Does the song take form almost by accident in the studio, or do you have a vision, you walk in, create a beat and build around that? Or do you have the idea for the lyrics and then build the beat around that?

Muggs: All of the above. Basically, sometimes we have an idea we start with and it ends up taking a different form and turning into something else we never even expected and it comes out better than the original thought. We just let it sort of take form and take shape and let it kind of take on a life of its own. But we usually have a kind of preconceived notion of what we want to do. But you've got to let the song take on a life of its own.

Jason, how much does socialization play a part in your world as far as getting cuts?

Jason: I don't think it does for me in the way that you're really asking. I think for me what it really came down to is being with the right publisher at the right time. I think if I had been with any other publisher on Earth, I would not have been writing with Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys who were signed to my publisher. So, I think it wasn't a matter so much of going outside of that community to interact with people, but taking advantage of working with people who were within the company.

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.
How much does the input you get from your co-writers and the artists that you work with affect the outcome of the songs that you work on?

Kara: I had an experience recently where I thought the lyric was degrading to women, and I tried to soften that up with the artist. I thought it was too much of the woman giving too much power up to the man, and that is kind of an issue for me. So, as I've gotten more into this business I've realized that I'm not just writing songs, I'm also putting ideas into people's heads—especially little girls. In the beginning I didn't really realize the power that you have. A lot of what I write is commercial Pop, working with anyone from Britney to Christina to Gwen, Hilary—all of these girls. But, you know, your job is to write great songs—or hit songs—in that kind of market. But, also, I want to be able to put something out into the ether that isn't negative.


And I have put things into the ether that were negative, and when I'm listening to them I'm thinking, "If I have a kid someday, I'm not going to be proud of that." Especially when the girls are saying, "You make me want to la-la on the kitchen floor..." There are certain lyrics that I've put out there that I don't always think are the greatest for our world and where it's at this point. But, I'm changing that.

You've made up for it in other ways. I want the audience to know that I'm very proud of Kara. She called me up several months after last year's Rally and said, "I'm building a studio..." Can you give the audience a little synopsis of what you're doing?

Kara: Well, I think that in today's world—and I think Dave will agree with me, because Dave does a million things for a million people... but today, I think the music programs in some of the schools have become just terrible, and I know music saved my life in a lot of ways. It focused me in a really serious way; it was my outlet; it was where I could go when I was depressed or sad, and it was a healthy place, as opposed to drugs or alcohol or sex or any of those things.

My brother is a social worker in something called the Phoenix House, which is a drug rehab facility that deals predominantly with kids and I'm building a studio there—actually with TAXI's help. Michael has helped me tremendously. It's kind of an experiment for me to see if this is helpful to kids in trouble, if it's a good place for them to go and put there energy into something positive. Hopefully it'll work out. I hope to do some seminars, bring some of my friends out there, and if it works, I hope to build one a year in different places and really raise the awareness of music, not only because it's beautiful, but because it does save a lot of people's lives. It keeps them from doing a lot of destructive things, and in the world today that is so destructive, I think it's a healthy alternative.

I want you guys to know that Kara, in our discussions about Phoenix House, said to me, "I know, why don't we do a contest?" And, while we can't guarantee this will happen, Kara suggested we should do a contest and whoever wins the contest will end up co-writing with her.

Kara: It's not such a big prize...

Well, yeah it is. Kara's a bigger deal than she lets on. She suggested that maybe we do a nationwide contest and that the winning writer gets to co-write with her, and she will talk to the president of one of the labels, and possibly a major artist, and get a pre-ordained release of that song with a major artist to raise money for Phoenix House. I'm incredibly proud of you Kara. I really am. We'll keep you posted when we pull it all together.

* Unknown panelist chimes in: Where do I submit my song? (laughs)

Jason Blume - best-selling author and cuts by Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, Jesse McCartney, John Berry, the Oak Ridge Boys.
Dave, you've always been on the cutting edge. You've created trends rather than following them. Do you have any sort of self-filtering mechanism, like a little person that sits on your shoulder and goes, "Hold on, Dave, you may have gone too far this time"? Or do you just let it rip?

Dave: That happens every day I think. Just by the skin of my teeth I get home, you know. "Darling, I'm home." And I get into the wildest scrapes. You couldn't possibly imagine. Kara has seen some of them. What I do every day is get up and immediately meditate for 30 minutes—a good little bit of songwriting advice, I suppose. And I'm very sneaky when I meditate. I have a little notepad beside me and I open one eye every now and then and I just write down song titles, or crazy ideas. Then, after my wife comes home, I say, "I finished meditating," I quickly rip off the paper and put it in my pocket, and that's my day's work. I kind of invent my day's work. Now, these little notes could be anything from a song idea or an idea to revolutionize the whole music industry, which I'm busy working on. Or it could be an invention, an idea for a painting or a book, or whatever. But I keep all these little notes, and I gradually do them all and tick them off. I don't just leave them. It's all about doing it, basically, rather than just going, "Oh, I've got this great idea." So do a million other people. But when you actually do it, your idea has this kind of momentum.

So, in the last month, for instance, as well as writing, I'm doing about four or five different movies at the moment. I'm writing the songs in the Simpsons movie; I'm writing a whole full-length feature animated movie song score, which is gonna be a Broadway show; and the end title song for Charlotte's Web that I just recorded Sarah McLachlan singing. As well as all of that, in between I'm sort of going, "Oh, I think Greenpeace needs a new anthem." So I wrote this song for Greenpeace and we recorded it with many people, and it's going to be coming out on Earth Day globally.

You see, this is all happening in a space of four weeks. It's just nonstop. There are so many things you can do, and it doesn't always have to be about the thing that you usually do. But it kind of has a cyclical effect, it comes back to you, you see. The more stuff that you actually throw out there into the universe—as Kara was saying—in a positive way, you find that it comes back 10 times more. So in the end, there's such an abundance of it that you never worry about what's going to happen next 'cause they're knocking on your door.

It's a common thing. I've been in the business for 31 years, and so many of the most successful people that I've worked with give a lot more than people know. It's nice that you guys don't just take the money and make it all about you, you, you. Thank you for doing socially conscious stuff with the money and the power and the fame that have come from your accomplishments. It's very nice to see. [applause]

End of Part One. Don't miss Part Two next month. This panel just kept getting better and better—you really don't want to miss any of it! — M.L.

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