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Writing Hit Songs, Part 4
(Left to right) Hit songwriters Jason Blume, Michael Laskow (moderator), Richard Harris, Allan Rich, Marlin Hookman Bonds, and Ralph Murphy huddle up for a photo after their panel at TAXI's Road Rally 2015.

Hit Songwriters: Jason Blume, Richard Harris, Allan Rich, Ralph Murphy, and Marlin “Hookman” Bonds

Moderated by Michael Laskow

Songs from these writers have been cut by and been on records with artists like: Britney Spears, Barbra Streisand, Jordin Sparks, Oak Ridge Boys, Randy Travis, Shania Twain, Whitney Houston, Rod Stewart, Jason Derulo, Katharine McPhee, Tyler Shaw, Leila Broussard, New Kids on the Block, Koko LaRoo, Crystal Gayle, Ronnie Milsap, Greg Holden, and many, many more chart-topping artists. Our conservative estimate is that their songs have been on more than 300 million records sold!

Ralph, sorry I cut you off.
Ralph: I was just saying it doesn’t matter whether it’s L.A. or London or New York or Nashville or wherever. Work ethic. I ran into Josh Kear, and when he first came to town for like two years I thought he was so great, and I hauled him to a whole bunch of publishers and producers and whatever… nothing! So he got into a little cabal writing with Chris Tompkins and whatever. Well, he has won now two Grammys - “Before He Cheats” and “Need You Now”- and I ran into him at the awards the other night, and I said, “Oh, man, let’s go and how ’bout breakfast?” He said, “I only have one breakfast a week. The rest of the time I am working.” And he is working from literally 7 in the morning until 7 at night. He has a 12-hour day. And his work ethic… You would think, after a couple of Grammys and endless cuts and whatever, at some point in time he would slow down, but he has not. He is just as committed. Ashley Gorley… I mean, all of them. Dallas Davis. They are all workaholics, and I would suggest that everyone on this stage is workaholics and turn up on a regular basis for whatever it takes to make it. It’s really important; you’ve got to be present to win. I said that to Georgia Thomas this afternoon, and she came out and said, “Man, this is so great. There are so many people here.” And I’ve met this producer who is pitching songs for this film-and-television thing, and he said, “The Road Rally is such a cool event.” And I said, “You have to be present to win.”

"There have been some horrible days when I wanted to shoot myself in the head with a blunt pencil than actually do a song."Richard Harris

Jason: I’m sorry, I have to jump in. I can imagine if I were sitting out there and there was no way that I can move to L.A., or there’s no way I can move to Nashville, or wherever. I would find that very depressing thinking, “Then what am I gonna do? How am I gonna do this?” I think that there are ways to do it in increments. I have seen people become very successful with well-timed trips to a music center three or four times a year. I work a lot with somebody who became very successful not living in a music center; he became more successful than me not living in a music center. And then when things got to a certain level where it was just crazy, now he spends at least half his time here—but only half—but still was present a lot of the time. In other words, three days a year is probably not going to cut it.

I don’t know if anybody knows, Steve Seskin has never lived in Nashville. He lives in the Bay Area, and a lot of people I know don’t even realize that he doesn’t live in Nashville, because he’s always been a presence there. They don’t realize that he’s coming in for two weeks, or he’s coming in for three weeks three or four times a year.

But don’t walk out of here going, “Oh God, it’s impossible because I can’t move.” I think there are a lot of things you can do, including joining songwriting organizations wherever you are.

The panel before you guys was all about TAXI members collaborating all over the world. Collaboration is at the root of all this it seems these days. Well, Skype, the Internet, you don’t need to be in the same town to collaborate with a producer anymore.
Jason: I’m almost never in the room anymore when I write with anybody. For 12 years I went to a writing room on Music Row and I wrote songs face-to-face with somebody, and I just don’t do it anymore. Somebody sends me a track, or we go back-and-forth. My co-writers are in Scandinavia, or they’re in L.A., while I’m in Hawaii or I’m in Nashville. And I’ve done recording sessions when I’m in Hawaii and my finger is in Nashville, and I am micro-managing/producing how they are singing every line of that demo, just as if they were in the recording booth and I’m outside. I’m just outside, 5,000 miles away.

Audience members, do you have any questions? Raise your hand if you do.
Audience Member: About your last comment, how do you do that when you’re working with someone in Nashville and you’re in Hawaii and you’re micro-managing a performance. Is it just Skype?

Jason: That particular one was on Skype. And I will say I had my headphones on and I’m listening to it through Skype, and when I thought it was what I needed it to be, I asked them to send me an MP3 so I could listen and the quality would be better than on Skype. I mean, it wasn’t a mix; I was just making sure the vocal was right. So they sent an MP3, and I was able to say, “Everything is right except this line.” And they re-sang it, and it was done.

"You have to be present to win."Ralph Murphy

Ralph: The only one thing I would say, for me, I’ve got to have that first writing experience in the room. I can’t Skype cold. I don’t meet anyone on the Internet, and I don’t meet anyone on Skype. That first encounter I really have to get a feeling for them, how they move, what they do. I’ll blurt out a line, and they’ll go, “No, I hate that.” And rather than say, “Well, how ’bout this if we move there?” Whether they are part of the successful result or not, I need to know that. I would imagine that basically all of your early—the ones you were Skyping with now—you actually physically sat in a room, and it’s an ultimate thing.

Jason: Not really, because if I were writing Nashville songs, I would be in the room sitting there playing guitar with somebody going back-and-forth. But I have written to tracks; the track is my co-writer. I wrote to a track that the finished song has been on more than 20 television shows and movies, and some of them were big: Scrubs, Friday Night Lights. I’ve never met the person who did the track. To this day, I’ve never met her. A publisher handed me the track. You know, my co-writer is the track, not the person. But that’s different from trying to write a Nashville thing with somebody.

Marlin: You bet. How can I say it? Being able to write to a track, you’ve identified as something that works for you. I’ve learned that my best songs come when I sit at the piano versus a track where I can’t control the chords, everything’s already set for me. I bring that up to say you have to identify where you did your best work. I’ve actually had some success writing tracks, but more consistently, when I can play the piano that’s my favorite. So everybody’s different.

Richard: And it’s nice being in a room with somebody else; a lot of chemistry goes on. It’s a lot of fun sitting in the room writing a song with some people, then there have been some horrible days when I wanted to like shoot myself in the head with a blunt pencil than actually do a song. But I tend to agree with Ralph, I always want to meet the people that I’m gonna write with. At least in that first contact, we’ve got to be in a room together. Because for me, it’s about chemistry. I’ve written with some amazing writers and we just didn’t click. This chemical thing just didn’t work that day, you know? And there are times when I just work with somebody who didn’t have a lot going on, but there was some chemistry and we wrote great songs because that chemistry was there.

"I’ve learned that my best songs come when I sit at the piano versus a track where I can’t control the chords."Hookman

Do you know it when it happens right away? Do you know if five or 10 minutes when you sit down with a writer for the first time and go, “This is feeling great.” Or does it take an hour or two or four or…?
Allan: It takes lunch. [laughter] I’m just kidding, but what I’m saying is… Because when you said that the first thing I think of how many times I’ve been a room with somebody and I’m thinking, “This is not happening, this is not happening, I can’t believe this.” Then I go to the bathroom and I’m talking to myself, “Oh my God, how are we gonna get through this?” And then, if we’re stuck, I say, “Let’s go to lunch.” And so much of the time if it’s not happening at the beginning, sometimes at lunch the person will loosen up a little and you get back and, “Oh my God, there it was.”

Jud [Friedman] and I have been writing for 25 years, and we’ve written with a lot of artists and a lot of people in a room, and sometimes it’s like if you’ve ever meditated, or if you’ve ever taken a yoga class: Your head is spinning for about 15, 20 minutes and your body is jumping, you don’t want to sit down and lay down and calm down. All of a sudden you hit this plateau and suddenly you get into a vibe. Most of the time I have a very short attention span, so I’m sitting there and I’m all jumpy, but if I sit there long enough, we get past this plateau and then… I remember so many of the artists that the first couple hours weren’t happening, and then all of a sudden we got into our little groove. So I think you shouldn’t give up on somebody too quickly. But you also have to be honest if it’s not happening. And it may take more than one song too. You have to give it a little chance.

Somebody has a question?
Gretchen: I was wondering, when you talk about writing to track, are you saying that somebody else does a chord progression without a melody and without lyrics. Is that what you mean?

Jason: Correct. More than a chord progression, it’s pretty much the whole finished record with no melody and no lyric. It’s the drums, the bass, the keyboards, the keyboards, the guitars, all the percussion. Everything is there, but no melody and no lyric. People like Max Martin and Dr. Luke, that’s their typical way of writing. The track comes first.

Audience Member: So if you are a producer and you make tracks, how do I get it to you, because I do the beat and all the other stuff. So I’m looking for more people who write lyrics. But if I want to get to somebody like you, how do I… Do I get to the publisher? What do I do?

Jason: Hey, I’ve got a question to try and answer his question. Raise your hand if you are the kind of person that would want to co-write with somebody like that. Look around the room; people connect.

All right, he will meet you in the bar in about seven minutes.
Allan: The bar is probably the best place as any, right?

A lot of magic happens in that bar. We’ve actually had three TAXI babies that have all started in that bar. I’m not kidding. [laughter]
Jason: Wow! Remind me to stay out of it.

Audience Member: How long does a typical song co-write last?

Richard: I just think you go as long as you can until you get so tired you’re just writing rubbish at the end; then you just keep going and you get back together. You’ll know when it’s finishing, and I think you have to trust your gut on that one. I just don’t care if it gets done that day, or it gets done in a week, or it takes a month. I just want it to be right, because it’s not about quantity.

Marlin: Honestly, I get frustrated because writing for a Chris Brown or writing for Trey Songz, usually it’s like one day, done. But collaborating more in the Pop world, which I love, we might revisit the same song for three weeks. Not necessarily every day, but we might wake up one morning and look at the lyrics and I’ll email somebody and go, “We need change verse two. This is way better.” It happens all the time. You keep going until everybody—whoever the co-writers are—are like, “We love it.”

"When you feel a little down and you feel discouraged, just remember it may be one day away, one month away, or one year away, or one song away."Allen Rich

Ralph has made the comment a million times that very often the second verse should be your first verse. Was that you, or another one of my songwriting…?
Ralph: You will probably write the second verse first, because it’s writer’s assumption. You’ll get this wonderful idea for a song, but by the time you get your laptop open or your crayons—whatever you use—and you write that out, you’ll start at that point in the action on down the road. You have to invite the listener in. You have to explain all the things that are going on in that second verse, so it’s really important. Writing the second verse first is great, because then you get to… “Well, who’s he? He was the captain of the football team. Who was she? Well, she was the cheerleader in that car that they had that were driving to Oklahoma. What happened in Oklahoma?” Unexplained details. That’s called normal. Most writers write the second verse first.

Audience Member: First of all, thank you all for being here. We all really appreciate it. My question is, what’s the best piece of advice you all have received?

Richard: Never stop learning. My dad said that to me. He said, “Just keep learning every single day.”

Marlin: I have recently signed with this huge management company, and the guys who looks after me is Jeff Aldrich. And he called me and goes, “Hookman, one song at a time, buddy. One song at a time.” And that somehow really stuck to me even at this stage.

Jason: What do you think he meant by that? I’m not quite getting why that was so powerful.

Marlin: How I took it was, I do a lot of songs, but at the end of the day if I’m looking at each song individually, caring after every single song, treating it like one song at a time. I don’t want anybody to hear it until I’ve sat with it for two weeks and looked at it and re-looked at it and I love it. And now I’m like, OK, one song at a time.

Allan: I’d like to tell you a quick story, so that maybe it’ll inspire you a little, because it’s a true story that happened to me. My dad loved music, and in fact he was a very big influence in my life. Every Sunday morning, my dad would put on the Sarah Vaughn records and the Cab Calloway and the Lionel Hampton records. The first song I ever heard was Billie Holliday’s “Hush Now, Don’t Explain.” Every Sunday, my dad put them all on. I think my dad was proud that I was in the business, but my dad saw me struggle for a long time, so one day he took me aside and he said to me, “Allan, you know, I think you gave it a great shot, but I think you’re getting to an age where I think you better find some security, and I think you better find something else to do.” And it about killed me. I could not believe my father was saying that. And I loved my dad; he’s no longer on the planet. But it about killed me. But it was the next year that I had my first hit record, and if I would have listened to him… And every time I had a gold and platinum record, I made a copy for my mother and father to have in their house.

This is what I wanted to leave you with. I came home one time, and I saw the records all in the hallway, all the gold records across the hallway, and my dad said to me, “I put them there because even when I sleep I get to see them.” That made me feel so great that my father felt so proud of me that even when he was lying in bed he wanted to see those gold records against the wall.

So what I’m trying to say to you is, if someone talks you out of it, if this is your passion in life, unless you really realize that this is not for you, you cannot be dissuaded if it’s what you’re meant to do in life. When you feel a little down and you feel discouraged, just remember it may be one day away, one month away, or one year away, or one song away. [Applause]

Jason Blum, Richard Harris, Allan Rich, Ralph Murphy, and Marlin “Hookman” Bonds, you guys just dispensed one boatload of great information and inspiration. Thank you all very, very much! [Applause]