Hit Songwriters Panel, Part 2

TAXI Road Rally, 2007

hit songwriters Brian Howes, Don Rollins, Adam Watts, Andy Dodd, and Mike Elizondo

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

We have an issue with our members. Some of them don't like that we use a la's much like publishers do when they reach out to pro writers looking for songs. Nashville always uses a la's. Actually, the whole industry uses a la's. It's, "Find me something that's a la this song or a la that artist." Our members respond by saying, "I don't want to be a cookie-cutter artist. Why are they only looking for hits and they're only looking for hits a la somebody else? I'm really creative; I'm outside the box; I'm doing something fresh and new."

Why does the industry use the a la system, and why are they looking for hits, Brian?

Brian: What I've found with publishers and A&R people is that they don't like to think outside of the box. They want something that's going to make their job very easy. Whenever I was developing bands and shopping bands to labels, I would always joke about it. I would just tell them, "It's Nirvana meets Bon Jovi." And they would go, "Oh my God, that's perfect." If you package it up for them and tell them exactly what it is, they're gonna go for it. They don't want to think too much. They just want it kind of packaged and sounding great. They want everything done for them. And if you take out all the question marks, then you probably have a better shot at delivering the goods. They just don't want to take any chances. They can't afford to these days because CD sales are so bad now. So you have to take out all the question marks. I can see from their point of view, but you've got to learn the game and learn psychologically how to deliver to these guys, and you'll have definitely more yeses than no's.

That's a great answer. I've often noticed that when I ask somebody what kind of music they do, they say, "Well, it's kind of ethereal; some of it's a little Bluesy, some of it has some great Rock guitar in it." Five minutes later they're still describing it and, as the receiver of that information, I still have no clue what kind of music they make. I think that it's not just record companies and publishers that want it sliced and diced, so it's digestible. Consumers want to hear something they can tap their foot to, something they can sing along with and something that's memorable. How do you craft 'memorable,' Don?

Don: Well, you have to tap into common emotions. As a musician, as a songwriter, as someone who listens to music with a microscope in your head, you perceive songs differently than a consumer. We are writing for consumers, so you have to keep that in mind I think. I tell co-writers in Nashville that we're not really writing songs for each other; we're writing songs for some woman who's driving to work, talking on the cell phone, putting on makeup with the radio on.

I know that woman well—she's usually right behind me on the 101 Freeway.

Don: Right, it's got to cut through that, and it's got to be something hooky enough and attractive enough about that song to make it through all the distractions that it has to make it through. And yet it has to be familiar—that's the hard part about songwriting, walking that fine line between fresh and familiar. If you say something the way it's been said a gazillion times over the years, why should somebody listen to your song and not the one from 30 years ago? But if you go too far past the comfort zone, then you might as well do the song in Erdu, in some other language.

When an artist goes to a record label—at least in Nashville; probably the numbers are larger elsewhere—and you say, "Give me a deal," what you are really saying is, "Invest a million dollars and your career in me—a million dollars of your company's money and your future in this business in me." And you've got to give them something worth putting that on the chopping block for. So, consequently, those guys are all operating from a position of fear, somewhat. The Nashville joke is if a songwriter goes up to the A&R person and says, "What did you think of my new song?" and the A&R person goes, "I don't know, I haven't played it for anybody yet."

Now I want to go to the actual craft, the process of writing. Adam and Andy, when you walk into the room and you guys start, do you come in with a melody idea? Do you come in with a lyric idea? Does it happen differently every time? Do you follow the muse? Do you walk into the room and say, "OK, today we're gonna write a song..." How do you do it?

Adam: First we turn on a strobe light and the fog machine. We light some incense. [Audience laughs]

Andy: Usually it comes from an inspirational place, like somebody has a spark. Sometimes we'll be in the middle of a mix or something and an idea will come, and either one of us will run out and work on the idea for a little bit, or we'll put the mix on hold and work a long day. It's all about—especially for me—capturing those little sparks. If I didn't have a little handheld tape recorder, I'd have maybe one song, because you've got to capture it. How many times have you been in a co-write and somebody had an idea and the tape wasn't rolling, and you can't get it back. So it's really about just being available to the idea and being ready to capture it.

What happens if ideas don't come to you? Do you just sit there and look at each other all day?

Adam: Yeah, we spend hours just staring into each other's eyes. [Audience laughs] I'm kidding, I'm kidding!

Andy, any input on that?

Andy: Yeah, you've got to start with something, so, someone will have some idea—it could either be a guitar thing or it could be a song title or a concept. You kind of have to start with something that sparks a desire to create a whole song around it or something. It could be any one of those things. Then there's just a back-and-forth. It can be pretty different, actually. There's not usually just one set way that we always work. It can kind of just come from anywhere. We've sat there for literally hours just trying things and been stuck, and I think there's a tendency to want to give up or do something else. A lot of times we'll just hammer through and be so glad that after three hours we finally get something that's worthwhile.

Good thing you're not getting paid by the hour.

Mike: An interesting story about being persistent as well. There are times collaborating—particularly with Dr. Dre—where you'll find a keyboard sound, just scrolling or doing whatever, and that keyboard sound will speak in the room and something will happen. Then it's, "OK, wait—we've got to find something for this sound," and you'll just keep trying and trying. I remember Dre had a drumbeat going and he'd really believe this drumbeat has got to be used for something. We tried all day to find something, and I think it was probably about the 11th or 12th thing that we did... It was only the two of us and the engineer in the room, and we said, "All right, let's put this one down." We put each one of them down, but we felt that was the strongest one. And then it just sat there on a DAT tape—that was back when DAT tapes were being used. Then track ended up becoming "In the Club." At some point we were going through DAT tapes looking for other ideas we were trying to recall, and that tape got put in. It was just amazing to listen to the other 10 ideas that lead up to the track for "In the Club." And if we had just given up on the first or second try—"Ah, this sound isn't working," or "That beat's not working"—we would have never gotten to "In the Club." So, there are definitely times where you've got to keep pushing. But then there are times when you've gone through all 12 of those and you still at the end of the day... I always like to have the morning after test where you come back the next morning and listen and go, "Let's move on and not be afraid to just kind of move on." But, there are times where it pays off.

How do you stay fresh on beats? At some points, it almost seems like there's a finite number of combinations and permutations, and that some of the stuff gets redundant or sounds like it's programmed beats that come out of your sample book from the box with your Roland stuff. How do you know that it's still fresh? How do you find fresh?

Mike: The interesting thing for me is that my introduction... I was more a traditional songwriter before meeting Dre. I had many years writing in bands and writing with other people. So meeting Dre was like getting to go to school. He really taught me that you need three and a half minutes—especially in Hip-Hop, where there aren't a lot of changes—where you need to be able to engage people. And if it's a club beat, it needs to keep people on the dance floor, it needs to provide a certain purpose. Same thing is if you're doing more of a storytelling type of beat, where it's almost kind of cinematic and you're scoring a three- or four-minute mini-movie or something like that. I'm always just trying to find a way to infuse both worlds—approach it like it's a song in standard or traditional type of forms. Even though the chord progression isn't changing, there are certain elements that are coming in and out and keeping people's attention. The beat stays the same nine times out of 10, but there are ways you can manipulate it and make it sound like things are evolving and changing and building from a production standpoint. And then I think, from a songwriting standpoint—especially in Hip-Hop—a lot of it comes down to just something that's hooky and simple, but won't get boring. You know, all you have is those three and a half or four minutes, and as long as you're pushing those envelopes and finding sounds and manipulating ways of using the same sounds... I've gone to a Fender Rhodes and then just put a bunch of plug-ins on it, and it sounds like something completely different, and I'll write to that sound. Or a new soft synth or something will come in and half the time I'll have it come up on the wrong track in the setting that I had for... You know, a different delay was supposed to be on a drum and it happened to go on the keyboard sound and it completely changed everything. It's like, "Wait a minute. This is a hundred times better—let's go with that." So it's just allowing yourself to experiment and find new ways to create. I'm the type of person who gets bored easily, so I think I just naturally want to keep pushing myself and try new ways to create, and hope that it sounds interesting to other people.

You said something that was really key, that Adam and Andy were talking about yesterday. You guys were talking about how you almost had to score by the choice of voicing or chord to go along with the picture and what the thought process in the script of "High School Musical" was.

Andy: Yeah, we had basically finished a whole song, and the verses were over this guitar/chord groove that was different than what it ended up being in the end.

Adam: It was hitting a lot of the chords in the scale. In all of the majors and relative minors in kind of all like a four-bar phrase.

Andy: So we finished the song and we were about to turn it in to the people doing the movie, and we were listening to it and it just didn't seem right. There was something about it. From what they had described to us... It was definitely cool on its own, but we knew something wasn't quite right, and that's kind of a hard time, because you know it's going to be a lot of work to go back and completely change something. So we went back and we basically changed all the chords and all the parts underneath the vocal or the verse, which we had already recorded. It turned out in that case that following our gut instinct was really the best thing to do, because we knew what they were looking for, and we knew that what we had wasn't quite right. So, we went ahead and spent some time to redo all the acoustics and reprogram everything around the lead vocal.

You actually mention changing the voicing of the chords—like going to minors or ninths or something or whatever—to reflect the mood of what the actors face was saying.

Andy: In the verses she needed to be saying that she was having a hard time deciding what to do. In the story, like in the third act of the movie, she is basically deciding, "I need to get out of here, and you need to do your thing. I'll see you later." So in the verse it needed to kind of unsure and emotional, and we had been hitting the G-major and the relative E-minor in our old verse, and it was really going in these two drastically different places too much. So, we ended up saving the E-minor chord for the chorus. It was sort of like we had this bomb in our pocket, so we were kind of leaving things in this floating place in the verse. So, we were really trying to find chords that spelled out that emotion, really. That's the simple way to say it. When it came to the chorus, that's when we dropped that big E-minor bomb. It sounded really decided. I guess what we're talking about is just listening to what chords are emotionally doing and saving the bombs for when you need them.

Adam: It was much simpler too. The chords we ended up using were a lot simpler than what we started off with.

I think that's interesting that this keeps coming up and that Mike reflected it just with beats—that guys will use beats as part of the story. It's awesome.

Mike: Yeah, beats and the music. There are certain sounds that are just going to convey a certain type of thing.

Brian, when you do co-writes, are there uncomfortable moments, like when the band walks in the room with the guy who normally writes most the stuff for the band? The band comes in and you say, "Hey dude, how ya doing? What's on the agenda today? What are you thinkin' about?" And you can just feel your deodorant not working well, and you see that guy is like, "I really don't want to be here with this guy. My label's forcing this." I know you said that most these guys kind of look up to you and are attracted to working with you because you're one of them. But I'm sure that, first of all, they see half the writer's share walking out the door in your direction. And that's become a big issue of late because CD sales are down and performance royalties and writer's share matter a lot. Do you see the tension? How do you get over it?

Brian: Yeah, there are different situations too. Like I said, when I worked with Puddle of Mudd, they had turned in a record and Jimmy Iovine rejected it and didn't think there were singles on it. So they were already like very aggro about having to co-write. I remember it was the bass player and singer, Wes, who came in, and first thing he says is, "Hey, where's your beer?" He goes in my fridge and starts poundin' shotguns and beer. I'm like, "Oh, this is going to be interesting." But you just have to kind of win them over. You have to earn their confidence. With a situation like that, where I know I'm going to have to win the band or the people over, I always try and come up with a shell. I try and come up with something like... If I don't know their material, I make sure I'm familiar with everything they've done, and I try and have overtones of something they would do. I write the melody line in the key that he's most comfortable with, and that kind of thing. So I come up with a shell, and that immediately loosens the tension. But writing with bands is a whole different story, because there's always a guy—no offense to bass players and drummers—that sits in the corner and goes, "I like [the word] 'and,'" and wants half the song. "Add a word, get a third," kind of thing, which is sometimes uncomfortable, because I hate writing in those kinds of situations. When you start thinking about percentages, when you actually sit down, you're already defeated. I don't even think about that stuff. Like, I notice when I write with professional writers, that doesn't even come up—it's never a concern. It's always the rookie writers who are like, "Oh, let's see... at 27.3.3%..." Because, you know, 50% of nothing is nothing, but 20% of a big hit is a lot. It's always best to do whatever's best for the song. But you definitely have to win them over.

Don't miss Part Three in next month's issue!

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