Walt Aldridge, Has #1 hits with Ronnie Milsap, Earl Thomas Conley, and Heartland
Brian Howes, Hit songwriter for Daughtry, Hinder ("Lips of an Angel"), and co-writer with Chris Cornell for David Cook's (American Idol winner) first single "LightOn"
Narada Michael Walden, Grammy-award-winning songwriter with major chart-toppin
hits by Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Starship, and Al Jarreau
David Pack,Grammy Award-winner and founding member of Ambrosia with three #1 singles and over 40 million units sold worldwide
Steve Seskin, Grammy-nominated songwriter for Tim McGraw's "Grown Men Don't Cry" and songs recorded by Kenny Chesney, Alabama, Waylon Jennings, and many more
David Pack you are one of the most eternally optimistic, upbeat, well-balanced guys I know. I guess by comparison you might be a bummer—sitting there next to Narada [laughter]. Actually, let that be a lesson, all of you guys are just positive people. Every time you and I are together, Davidů You and I might shake hands in a hallway at a convention or something and share a moment, and I walk away thinkin', "The guy's such a nice guy, so positive." How do you deal with rejection? I'm sure you've had plenty of rejection as all writers and artists have had in their career. How do you deal with rejection, because I have a feeling you deal with it better than most? Do you have any advice for these guys?
David: Wow, I don't deal with it as well as you might think.
Do you have little Jimmy Iovine dolls that you push pins into at home?
David: Well, like many artists, we are overly sensitive people. I mean, I'm actually pretty hyper-sensitive, frankly. There have been times when I've spent a year making a record only to see the record tank, and I felt like I was paralyzed for at least a good solid week. I just wanted to curl up on a couch and die. We've all been there before, where we've put our heart and soul into something and we think that this is the best we've ever done only to see it fall by the wayside or not get properly promoted by the record label. So, I think that, for me, I just basically will not accept rejection as an indictment against my God-given talent. I know that I'm going to rise up against that and there's going to be a better day. But, just like anybody, it takes me a little time to pick myself back up again. I just use that to really feed the part of me that's going to say, "Well, I'm gonna make it better the next time." I'm going to get on the other side of whatever that hurdle is. And a lot of it is my faith too. I have a very strong faith, so I realize that some of these barriers are only there to make us stronger, you know. It's to test your resolve. If you really want to make it in this business; if you really want to be a songwriter, you might have to have a hundred rejections before the one that finally opens the door for you. Look at Narada. Have you been rejected before? All of us have had some serious rejections, but you basically use that and turn that around, and write your way out of it, man. Nothing like a great song to turn that around.
Steve: Absolutely. And I think you also have to be a little bit bullet proof, you know, and have your own sense of self and your own sense of pride. If you ask Paul Simon what his two favorite albums he's ever done—I saw him in an interview. First one is Graceland, the second one is Hearts and Bones, which I love, which was the most dismal flop of his entire career. He still loves that work that he did, so there's always the connective tissue between what succeeds and what you feel artistically is your good work. You don't necessarily have to feel because it flopped that you failed or you did something wrong. Like you said earlier, there are so many outside things that can happen to not make something a commercial success.
David: You might not find out the reason why you or that song was rejected for three or four or five years. My good friend James Ingram tells the story of... I think it was his first hit with Patti Austin, wasn't it, Narada, "Baby Come to Me"? James tells the story that his song had to die and be resurrected to become a hit record all over again. That actually happened to me with a song called "All I Need." Quincy Jones had called me. He had signed Jack Wagner, the soap opera star from General Hospital. Why Quincy signed him, I don't know—no offense to Jack Wagner-but back in the mid-'80s he was the big hot star on soap operas. Quincy called me and said, "Would you write a hit record for Jack Wagner to launch his career?" So I got together with Glen Ballard and Cliff Magness and we wrote "All I Need." Cliff and Glen produced it and Quincy's label put it out and it flopped. Nothing happened. And then Jack performed it on General Hospital that entire summer, they re-released it in the fall, and it went to #1 and became a Pop hit.
Yeah, maybe that was our first hint that TV could drive record sales. Who knew?!
David: The one-hit wonder, right? But, you never know. You just try to write the best song you possibly can, and pick up and get on to the next one, you know.
Steve: And it's back to that hard work ethic. Just always workin' hard and puttin' it out there. And, besides hard work, I think we all love what we do.
I should hope so. We all love what you do. [applause]
I know you've got a plane to catch, Steve. It's 12:30. Are you guys in the audience wanting to hang out with these guys for 10 more minutes? Are you guys cool to hang out?
Steve: I probably have to go. But thanks. It's been a pleasure to be here and quite an honor. So, thank you very much.
Thank you. Steve Seskin, ladies and gentlemen. [applause]
I could stay here all day with you guys, but I won't keep you that much longer... Narada, do you write at targets? When you sit down do you ever know that Whitney is starting a record, and in the back of your mind, "Yeah, I'd love to get a couple cuts on that record." Do you sit down and write stuff that you hope at least drifts into her ballpark?
Narada: I believe in being focused. First of all, if you can write with the artist, that's always great. That's the best success. To have them be apart of something is always a wonderful thing. And then, for myself, I like to know I'm writing for someone. I don't like blind writing necessarily. I know that's a way of doing things, but in my world, I like to know I'm going to vibe on something that I'm going to imagine this person singing, that I can hear their voice singing.
And I want to say a few things about writing, and then also production. I remember Quincy Jones, who we all love, said one time to me, "Learn not to strangle the baby in the crib." You know what that means, right? OK, that means your songs are your babies, don't kill them, if in fact, they may be the genius baby. We are so quick to kill our ideas that can be genius ideas. So, I just wanted to put that on your brain, on your heart, because we wear two hats, one as a songwriter, and the other one as a producer. And, like Brian was saying earlier, as a writer you can be a little insecure. You can think that maybe this is not so good. But, as Brian was saying, the producer in him can come back later and say, "Well, I recognize this idea that maybe you guys have forgotten about it, but maybe it's really a special thing," and bring a light to it. And I do that all the time. I'm really happy I have both sides of the fence to work, because I see a lot of writers who have got good songs and good ideas, but maybe there's nobody to really bring them to fruition, to actually make it sound good. David Pack, I admire his records, his songs, but the sound of his records is genius, and that's just as powerful sometimes as a great song that it sounds like something. Make your music sound like something. That's how you stay competitive. You asked the question earlier, "How do you stay fresh?" Hey, it's what you eat, it's what you are, it's what you read. Yes, because if you're alive then your music can sound alive. I think that a lot of times great songs... Don't just throw them away because they're old or whatever. Just put a new spin on it, a new sound on it. Like what is the hot new sound of the day? Is the sound competitive? If that's what you want.
How do you develop the objectivity? I see so many people who aren't quite there yet. They're shooting to be a pro, but they have this lack of objectivity about their own work. You guys seem to have this ability to be far more objective. What helps you cross that chasm to go from being non-objective to being objective?
Narada: I don't think that that's so difficult. I think that if you love God, you love your heart, you love your soul, you love who you are, and you look at a thing and say, "What does it need? What does this thing need?" And you just try to bring to it what it needs, like capturing the genie in the bottle. What does it need? And the competition is out there. If a Christina Aguilera record is out there and it's a hot record, what do I have to compete with that? That'll force you real quick to wake up before the coffee.
Brian: But, the thing is, he is very humble in talking about himself and these gentlemen. You know, a great producer is a great producer because they have a gift. And you're looking at a couple of gifted producers. The Beatles had George Martin. They were still the Beatles, but George Martin produced those records, and he was the guy who gave them the long view. Narada's records are phenomenal records because he produced them incredibly, not only did he write them. And that's a gift. It's great if you have somebody that you write with or that you know can help you produce your tracks if you can't do it yourself, because that is important in pitching songs—the final production. Maybe not as much in Country, but wouldn't you say, Walt, even more so now? It's gotten a lot more competitive, wouldn't you say?
Walt: Yeah, and it is different. Different writers have different talents; different people have different talents. Some are producer/writers, and that's what they are so good at; some are artists/performing writers, and that's what they're good at. So, I think you have to know what your strengths are and play to those. If you're not a good producer, you don't need to be producing your demos, which I think Narada was saying.
Narada: Like Steve Cropper. You all know Steve Cropper. See, he's a genius, right? He's a genius writer, but also a genius producer. See, both sides of the fence can work. So I'm pushing you to have both sides of your brain work—your songwriting is about your babies. And don't kill yourself so fast. Love yourself. Let the song come out, and then you can step back and say, "Well, do I really love it?" And if you do, then put on your producer hat and say, "How can we make it competitive with what's going on?"
I'm gonna take a left turn here and do something that's probably not all that politically correct in this day and age. But I've got to say that God has been mentioned numerous times this week, starting with Lamont Dozier as my keynote this weekend. [applause] My wife and I took Lamont and his wife out to dinner like a week before the Rally, and we spent probably a half an hour talking about his belief in God, and that he feels like he is an antenna. So many of you guys from the dais this weekend talked about God, and I think it's awesome that you do, and I think that, clearly, some of you guys, many of you guys, have a God-given talent. But do you have to recognize that gift that you've been given from God and then take it beyond that? I'm guessing that you didn't just wake up and were imbued with this much talent at birth. Don't you have to recognize it and then work for it, or work with it?
Narada: Discipline is beautiful. [laughter]
David, do you want to roll with that one?
David: Just my own experience is that I moved to Orange County about three years ago, because my pastor is Rick Warren, who wrote the Purpose-Driven Life book. Really, the first line of Rick Warren's book—which has sold more copies of a hardback than any book in the history of America—the opening line is, "Why am I here? Why was I created?" The first line says, "It's not about you." It basically talks about finding your life's purpose. I think so many of us feel so grateful to have had a career in music that we realize that it's not an accident. It's not an accident once you realize that you have a purpose. A lot of it is giving back. I know I'm happiest when I'm serving other people. And I know that every one of us up here that produced records is almost happier when we're producing and helping someone else. And that's personally why I put my own career on the backburner for 20 years, I felt happier helping other artists. That gives us a focus, and once you're centered as a person and you know what your life's purpose is, it really helps your writing and your focus. [applause]
I've got one last question. I want everybody to stay in the room, though. I'm gonna hit Brian with this last question, and then I've got a special treat for you. Walt has got a little surprise that I asked him to do for you guys, something that he does that I just love. Then we're gonna give away a Yamaha guitar. So everybody just stay seated, please don't leave the room, and don't rush the stage.
Brian, the last question is going to you because you are the youngest and the closest to our members in your career arc—the time since you have become successful. What advice can you give them that can move them ahead faster, better, more efficiently, so that some day they can be up there and be one of you guys?
Brian: Well, in my situation, I just knew what I always wanted to do. And we were talking about what you believe and everything, I'm there too. It's all about your life. You have to get centered to be able to reach your full creativity. I think I just would never give up. I remember when I was 16, I showcased for a record company and I was all excited and thought this was our big break, and the company goes, "We'll sign the band, except for that guy," and they pointed to me. I was so shy, I just looked down and I wouldn't look up. He said, "That guy has got to go. He doesn't look out at the audience. He's got no vibe live. He's got to go." And I was just devastated. But then the guys go, "He can't go—he writes the songs." [laughter] But I was completely devastated, but instead of taking that and being bummed out about it, I used it as fuel to get motivated and go, "You know what? I'm gonna turn this around. I'm not gonna take no for an answer." And I just kept digging.
We talked yesterday about "Lips of an Angel" with Hinder, which was the song that broke the band. We did that song and we turned it in and they rejected the song. They loved the record, but they said that song's not going on the record, it's a B-side. And I said, "You know, I'm a rookie producer, and I will put my—excuse my language—put my balls on the table for this song." You know what I mean? And I did. I fought for it and I fought for it, and it went #1 and broke the band. But just don't give up, and also be very open-minded. I've written so many horrible songs. I think they're great at the time, then I go back a month later and go, "What was I thinking? Oh my God." You have to be open-minded, and you have to keep digging on them. A song that's written, I never stop diggin' on it, ever. Always try to make it better and better and better. Outside perspective, for sure. That's the quickest way.
I couldn't agree more Brian. We see it every day at TAXI. We see tremendous improvement from our members that take the feedback to heart. They find out what's valuable from our screeners and from their peers on our message board and use it to make their songs the best they can be.
Okay, before I ask Walt to play a great song that I'm sure every one of you in this ballroom can relate to, I'd like to thank all of our panelists. Mr. Walt Aldridge, Steve Seskin Mr. David Pack, Narada Michael Walden, and Mr. Brian Howes... thank you all so much, you were great! [applause].