Songwriting Session is a new weekly column that goes behind-the-scenes with artists and songwriters. Each Sunday, a new songwriter will share their journey and provide lessons they’ve learned along the way. This week, Jeff Cohen shares what he has learned as a songwriter.
Jeff Cohen left what many would call a dream job at BMI in New York as Senior Director, where he had a hand in discovering and signing Jeff Buckley, Kara DioGuardi, Lisa Loeb, Joan Osborne, Ani DiFranco, Spin Doctors, Wilco and many other artists, to pursue a career as a songwriter.
“My attitude was, ‘If I think you’re good, I trust my instincts. I don’t care what anyone else thinks. And if you’re willing to work hard I’ll work with you and we’ll try to get this going,'” he says of his time scouting bands at BMI over lunch at Nashville’s J. Alexander’s.
After nearly a decade at BMI, a serious illness caused Jeff to take some time off and he says while in the hospital he came to realize that his favorite time of day was at midnight when he’d be home with SportsCenter on the TV and pick up his acoustic guitar and write songs.
“I said, ‘You know what? I may not be the best songwriter in the world but I don’t want to be 40 years old and never show anyone these songs,'” he recalls. “I had just been writing for fun where I’d write four or five songs a year at two in the morning or on a Saturday about some girl I had a crush on or someone who wouldn’t date me. I never showed anyone. My close friends knew, my sisters, I’d make cassettes for them. I never pitched anything. My job was to help other writers and other bands. I was very focused on that and very conscious of not having anyone think I wasn’t doing anything but that. I didn’t want people thinking, ‘He’s up there behind a big desk and a big salary doing his own shit.'”
So, the then 33-year-old Jeff Cohen took a major leap and quit his job to pursue songwriting. “BMI was the greatest company to work for but I needed to prove to myself that I could do this,” he explains over tortilla soup and salad.
Jeff’s vision was to go full speed ahead writing songs and not looking back until he was 40. He survived on slices of pizza and turkey sandwiches while he got his start. The first thing he did was make a CD of 10 songs he wrote which he passed around to friends. As fate would have it, a friend in Los Angeles passed along the CD to Roxanne Lippel who worked at the WB television network, and she wanted to use two of his songs in a pilot. He edited one song down to 40 seconds and it became the theme song to television series Jack and Jill.
Jeff’s songs then found homes in films and television shows including Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Stuart Little 2, The Exes, Dawson’s Creek, Party of Five, One Tree Hill, The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, among others. Meanwhile, Jeff continued to try and get work in New York and L.A. writing with bands, but also decided to go to Europe for co-writes, focused on his own project, Pancho’s Lament, and continued to write music for television and film.
Along the way, he came in contact with Jaron Lowenstein of Evan and Jaron and the two wrote “Crazy for This Girl,” which would rise to No. 3 on the Billboard chart in 2000.
The song hit radio a little over a year after Jeff left BMI and he admits he got lucky with the success of the song. Two years later, a friend called him from Nashville and said a co-write fell through in New York with two unsigned artists and asked if he was available to write that day. He was and that duo was Big Kenny and John Rich of Big and Rich. The guys sat down and wrote what would become “Holy Water,” Big and Rich’s third single and the song that helped land them a record deal.
“We wrote what I thought was a really good song but would have been a song that was on a cassette in my storage if they hadn’t demoed it,” Jeff admits. “I didn’t know how good it was. If they had not demoed that song no one in the world would have ever heard ‘Holy Water.’ They demoed it and combined with ‘Save a Horse’ got a record deal and that was my first Nashville cut in 2004.”
Jeff was living in New York when “Holy Water” began getting airplay on country radio and admits he regrets not taking advantage of the momentum and not traveling to Nashville to write more often.
“I didn’t take advantage of the momentum from ‘Holy Water’ even though we were Top 10. I probably could have worked with a lot of people at an early level but I didn’t know.”
Jeff says there are pros and cons to not having a publisher or manager. Sometimes, those cons mean the songwriter doesn’t get asked on as many projects. However, Jeff has made the best of the opportunities he has had. He came to Nashville frequently in the 2000s and eventually bought a place in 2005 while he continued to split his time between Nashville and New York. It wasn’t until 2010 that he finally called Nashville home. In that time, he realized Nashville was the place he wanted to live and write songs when he was in his 40s and 50s. He has had cuts with many artists including Sugarland, The Band Perry, Josh Groban, Laura Bell Bundy, Macy Gray, Nick Lachey, Mandy Moore, Marc Broussard, Spin Doctors, and many others.
“I think there’s a lot of integrity in a lot of the writing [in Nashville] and the direction that I naturally write,” he says of his move to Music City. “Go to Nashville, get to the back of the line and try to work your way up and try to earn the good work. No one cares what I did in TV, film or pop. I have to earn it in country. I was lucky to have good songs with Sugarland, The Band Perry, Laura Bell Bundy, Big and Rich and I’ve tried to put my time in and do good work.”
One of his frequent co-writers is Kristian Bush of Sugarland. Jeff has seven songs he wrote with Kristian on his debut solo album Southern Gravity released last year and the writing began simply as something to do for fun. Kristian and Jennifer were taking a break from Sugarland so Jeff invited Kristian along with him to Europe to join on some co-writes.
“Next thing I knew we had all these songs and he’s like, ‘I’m gonna do a record.’ When we wrote, we were just writing to write great songs. We just had fun writing. He works so hard that I’m so happy for all of his success,” Jeff says. “I think he proved to people that he’s amazing live and he’s a great talent.”
Two years ago Jeff started his own company, Nashville International Music, where he works with songwriters and artists in Nashville and abroad.
“I think when it comes to co-writing the most underestimated facet of it is chemistry. Think about it, on a date why can you sit with someone and talk all night effortlessly and not even think about it and you’re so attracted to someone and you don’t know what it is? And then there are some people that you really actually like but you don’t have a great conversation. It’s the same thing with songwriting. Just because you have two No. 1 hit songwriters doesn’t mean they’re going to write well together. You don’t know until you try. That’s why it never hurts to get in a room and spend a day writing a song with someone. If it works, it works and if it doesn’t it’s not personal.”
Jeff adds that the secret to writing a good song is that a lot of times your first instincts are your right instincts. Most of the time when he writes alone 75 percent of the song flows out of him while the remaining 25 percent he says will make or break the song.
“That’s when I roll my sleeves up and rip a song apart to piece it together. Certain songs I’ve worked on for years. To me there’s no rule that you have to write a song in four hours in a room.”
He concludes: “I just want to try to figure out a way to keep doing this the rest of my life. It’s about evolving with the ever changing industry. To me, you have two choices in life: you can complain about something or do something about it. The way the old industry was working for us as songwriters is not working anymore. It’s our responsibility to be creative and not just in creating songs. It’s a business so we have to find more outlets for our music. There is a way to do it, we just have to figure it out.”
For more on Jeff Cohen, visit his website. He’ll be performing throughout Nashville in the coming weeks, February dates below.
Feb. 6 @ Country Music Hall of Fame 11am
Feb. 6 @ The Bluebird Cafe 6:30pm
Feb. 17 @ The Bluebird Cafe 9pm
Feb. 27 @ Puckett’s Franklin 8pm