Hit Songwriters Panel, Part 3

TAXI Road Rally 2007

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

Nashville's a town that thrives on co-writes Don. Is it scary as hell when you first enter the major leagues and you're sort of the "junior" guy in the room with somebody that has had songs on 200 million CDs, and you're the guy with "only" 2 million? How do you defeat the fear?

Don: Well, at this point I'm over it. I kind of do what I do, and I'm careful to make sure who I'm getting in a room with. As musically over-trained as I am, I'm a lyric guy—that's really my strength. So I make sure that I walk in the room with somebody who is a really good melody writer. That's the first thing I do, because if I know that's going to happen, then I'm not really worried about anything. You know, when I was the junior guy a lot, the thing is to always come in with an idea, because, that's the thing, when you write every day, when you're doing it for a living and you're in those little rooms five days a week and you're cranking it out, ideas go away. At least for me, I have trouble taking an idea and running with it at all. But coming up with a fresh idea every day, five days a week, is really, really hard. So when I was in those junior situations I tried to make sure that I had lots of what I thought were really strong ideas, so that if I'm gonna write with somebody like that who is several steps above me in the food chain, I'm gonna give them something to run with so that they don't have to do the work.

That just reminded me that I totally forgot to ask you how it went with Melissa Manchester. I got a call from Melissa Manchester about a month ago, and she said, "Hey, can you hook me up with some guys that you know that are great writers?" and Don was on my list. Melissa flew to Nashville...

Don: It was a blast.

Did you get a song out of the deal?

Don: Oh yeah. It was a great hang. I love getting together with people who have been in the music business for a long time. But, Melissa grew up in New York. Her father was a bassoonist for the Met. So we had this classical background in common. She started singing jingles when she was 15. By the time she was 18, she was making more money than her dad. Here's somebody—Melissa Manchester with "Don't Cry Out Loud" and "Whenever I Call You Friend" and all these incredible songs—who has never had a publishing deal. She's had admin deals, but she still owns everything she's ever written.

Do you guys want to ask some questions?

Audience Member: Hi, my name is Happy Ron. I sing the Blues. I was wondering, when I first got here, everyone was saying that there were two kinds of paths. One was saying do your own thing, and the other path, which I was hearing from this gentleman a lot, was find out what they want, and satisfy that. I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on creating a balance in doing those two things. I was really struggling with this for the first two days, and I finally decided that I'm going to write a Happy Ron song for me and my fans. It's going to be my own thing. If I see a listing in TAXI for a Garth Brooks song, I'm gonna write as much like Garth Brooks as possible. I'm wondering if you guys think there's value in that perspective.

Great question. Anybody.

Andy: Being scientific about it and looking at yourself kind of from as much of an objective point of view as you can, find out what it is that you do that makes you unique, and then really accept that, and then find out what it is that makes everything else unique in its own way. Then you know what you're shootin' for. If you are gonna shoot for something that's yourself, you know exactly what that means. If you're gonna shoot for writing something for Garth, like you said, then you're gonna know exactly what that means, and you can kind of separate the two. That's just kind of being honest with yourself kind of thing in what you do and are trying to do.

We've got one over here from one of our younger audience members (11-years-old ;-) ).

Audience Member: My question is for Adam and Andy. What do you think is the appropriate age to get serious about writing songs?

Andy: I think you could start right away.

How old were you guys?

Andy: I started playing guitar when I was 11. That's how I kind of got interested in music. I didn't start writing until much later, probably like in my early 20s. But I was into music all my life. I guess as soon as you can, start writing.

Let's go across the board. Mike, how old were you when you wrote your first real song?

Mike: I think it was later. I was more focused on being a musician and kind of studying my craft. But I think I was probably about 15. I was in a band, just me and a couple of the guys writing in the garage.

How about you, Adam?

Adam: I wrote some non-real songs. When I was a little kid we got a keyboard and I wrote a couple songs. I was like 10 or 11 years old. And then I fell in love with drums and I just focused on being a player for a long time, and I wrote a bunch of instrumental music, and then around 19 or 20 years old, it was like something was missing; I had a lot of stuff to express and hitting drums wasn't doin' it. But I realized that I'd been hearing songs and classifying why I liked them for a long time without knowing it. Then I realized that it was because I wanted to do that. I wanted to figure out how to express that too.

How about you, Don?

Don: I got a little Gibson guitar and lessons for my seventh birthday. I was making up stuff by the time I was nine. I didn't really get serious about trying to write songs and play them for someone else until I was in my early 20s. My roommate had a Fostex X15—if anybody remembers those—and he was a keyboard player and he would leave his tracks on the X15 and I would come along behind it and write lyrics when he was out of the apartment. He'd come back and I'd have this lyric written to this thing that he was working on. So I really got into it at that point.

How about you, Brian?

Brian: I was 15. I remember being in grade 10, and I'd just learned how to play guitar, and probably was writing songs before I actually learned how to play guitar. I remember just knowing a couple chords and really being into AC/DC at the time, so I'm like, "Oh, you need three chords, AC and DC. This is easy."

Audience Member: This relates a little bit to the question that Michael posed earlier about starting a song. I suppose it might be different for everybody, but the question is, do you feel that the melody is the most important thing when you're writing a song? Would you write a song starting with just "La-la-la"? Or is it with the lyrics, and then you adapt a melody? Or is it the chord structure and the beat, and then you put the melody and words on top of that? Is there any particular order that you like to go in, or does it just vary?

Adam: Follow the inspiration, whatever it is.

Andy: I usually start with melody because I find with me personally that the melody hooks me in first, and then lyric quality will take it to the next level. I always find songs that don't quite get to the Top 10 have great melodies but don't have great lyrics. Songs that have the combination usually rise fast most of the time.

Audience Member: Hi, Pat Ward from Fairport, New York. Just curious, how often do you end up rewriting or reworking a song after you feel like it was done, but then you've played it or demoed it for people, and then had to go back and redo it?

Brian: I keep digging on songs nonstop until I feel they are bulletproof, and then I'll play them for people that I trust who tell me the truth. Usually, I drive my wife crazy. She won't even listen to stuff anymore, because unless she says, "Oh my God, it's a hit," which she never does, I think she hates it. And so, she just runs [away] — "Oh no, I have to listen to another song." So I have a group of people that—age demographic, male, female—I trust who will tell me if it sucks or that it's pretty good, and then I know I'm on to something. So always get the truth from people, and don't stop digging until you think it's bulletproof, and then take it to the next level.

Andy: Do you ever think that you know the truth before you ask for somebody else's opinion?

Brian: Yes. But you're in denial.

You guys have that in common with TAXI members. We see that on the message board all the time. "I got a critique back today that told me a lot of what I already knew. So at least I know the screeners are paying attention." Mike, you want to jump in?

Mike: I know I've had a lot of experiences when you have someone else in the room listening to the song, you automatically hear everything that was wrong—even before they've said anything. There are just so many times where that's happened. It's just like, "Ah, I should have done that..."

Audience Member: Don, I have a question. Have you ever been into a situation where you were writing and you are collaborating with someone, and you guys have two entirely different paths that this song is going down? How do you resolve that situation when you guys are just not synching?

Don: That doesn't happen to me too much, because usually when an idea gets kicked out there, the next question is how is the story going to go? So, we agree on the plot line before heading down that road. There are a lot of ideas that are agreed to. The only time I run into that is with artists. Artists have such a—let me find a polite way of putting this—sense of self... [Audience laughs] ...that sometimes they're not willing to fictionalize something for the good of the song.

I had an artist who wanted to write a song about his grandfather, and he had two grandfathers that had two great stories. One of them was a high school football star in Florida, and he was such a football star that this kid had difficulty living up to his legacy even two generations later. Then, the other grandfather was in the army in World War II, and while hitchhiking home from the army had met this woman in Kentucky by the side of the road selling produce off her front porch or something. He married her, and they stayed married until they died. So I said, "Wow, this is great. We can have the first verse about the high school football star, and the second verse about the army." And he's like, "Oh, but it's two different grandfathers," and I say, "Nobody cares." He was not willing to fictionalize the story for the sake of the song. That happens with artists, not writers.

He's probably afraid somebody would Google his life story and find out that it was fictionalized.

Don: Or, he'd have two grandfathers mad at him or something.

Audience Member: Are there any exercises that you use when you're writing lyrics? If the story is not quite right, are there exercises you can use? How do you get your lyrics to actually tell that story?

Don: I don't know that I would call them exercises. I read a lot. I mean a John Grisham novel is probably three hours for me. So I absorb a lot of language, and I really call on that a lot. There's usually something in there that works.

Audience Member: This is for Don. You said that the hard thing is finding between fresh and familiar. I can come up with ideas all day long, but without being fresh, it's a really tough one for me. In my mind, sometimes it means knowing what the future of a particular genre is going to be. What does fresh mean?

Don: Well, for me, writing Country music, you have to know what's been done before obviously. You have to find a way to say something that resonates, that's a familiar feeling. And it's very limited. It's like basically some version of "Yes I have felt that way." So you have to do that, and you have to do that in such a way that it's not cliché, heard it all before, or boring. "Live Like You Were Dying" is a great example. I mean, I went skydiving, I went mountain climbing, I did 4.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu or whatever that means. You get that, but you haven't heard that in a song before. So that's fresh and familiar.

Audience Member: General conceptions about lyric writing... Are there things that you generally try to do in verses, and other things that you generally try to do in refrains as far as movement?

Adam: Maybe these guys would agree, but I think choruses are for summing up what the verses are. It's a real basic idea. So maybe your chorus is sort of a big idea, more of a summary, and your verse is explaining that in some way—backing it up.

I want to end it with one of my questions. Adam, about a year-and-a-half ago you called me up and you said, "I'm writing a book called Balance and Contrast in Songwriting." You printed one out and cut out a couple pieces of cardboard to make little covers and sent it to me. I read it, and it was, "Wow!" It was short. It was more like a booklet, but it was so powerful. Is there a way for you to synopsize this craft aspect that you laid out in this book about balance and contrast? Can you give us like three great examples in three to five minutes?

Adam: Yeah. It's kind of embarrassing to say you've written a songwriting book, because I've written lots of crappy songs.

That book is great. I can't wait for the day when you finally have the time to publish it and others can read it.

Adam: The main thing that the book is about is something that I realized that I'd been thinking about, and we had kind of been using in a lot of our songwriting. It seems like contrast is sort of what makes your brain turn on. Like if you go through a whole day and nothing really happens, you're bound to forget that day. But if something happens that's in stark contrast to the rest of your life, you're bound to remember it. I think songs are the same way. I kind of broke it down into 12 different things that dealt with all different aspects of songwriting, from lyrics to melody to rhythm. It's really powerful to like when you're in a verse to go to your chorus and do a lot of the opposite thing that you're doing in your verses. Such as, if rhythmically your melody is kind of broken up in a lot of 16th rhythms, then in your chorus, stop that and do something that soars. Or, if you're being very metaphoric in your verse lyrically, be straight to the point in your chorus. Then you have a good chance of being memorable. It kind of applies to everything, even production is kind of a similar thing. Nirvana is a great example. There use of contrast is amazing. A lot of times he's just barely screeching out something in the verse, and then he's screaming in the chorus. It's a clean guitar sound in the verse and a distorted one in the chorus. I started looking at a lot of great songs and there was really a lot of contrast and multiple levels. A lot of times the greater and more memorable the song, the more elements of contrast were used in the melody and in the lyrics and in the production. So that's kind of what it is—breaking it down into these separate pieces. So when you get stuck as a songwriter and you're like, "Where do I go now?" you can look at where you've been and think about going in the opposite direction.

That's a great note to end on, because I think that is amazingly good advice. If you're just stuck for five minutes and you don't know where to go, go the opposite way and maybe you'll write a hit.

I can't thank you guys enough. This was really one of my favorite panels of the weekend. Mr. Brian Howes, Don Rollins, Adam Watts, Andy Dodd, and Mike Elizondo. Thank you guys so much.

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