Songwriting Session is a 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, Willie Shaw shares what he has learned as a songwriter.
Willie Shaw grew up in a musical family where holidays were spent playing obscure songs on the record player while each family member guessed the musician who sang on the track. He says it was an unwritten rule in his family that each child picked up and learned an instrument at a certain age and his calling was the guitar. While he didn’t learn chords until he was a senior in high school, Willie recalls playing the guitar as a sophomore and writing songs in class.
“I grew up around music. I would always steal my mom’s CDs. I found her Beatles CDs and I would play them over and over and over again,” he recalls of his upbringing in Orange County, Calif. “I was the best shower singer in the world. My shower head knows all about my vocals. At that time, I didn’t even realize I was good at singing. I just did it in my shower, in my car.”
Even though music was part of his life from an early age, he didn’t fully realize he could sing until freshman year of high school when he learned he was getting a B in choir class. Willie and his football buddies sat in the back of the classroom and talked throughout each lecture and he soon learned that the only way to receive an A was to sing in front of 250 of his peers.
“I went up with my iPod and I put Stevie Wonder, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” in my ear and sang along to it. Everybody went from joking and making fun of me to really quiet,” he says. “I thought I messed up the words or something, so I started freaking out. After class the choir directors, they came up to me and said, ‘How do you feel about singing in our next concert? Have you ever sung in front of a large audience before?’ I was like, ‘No, but why not?’ So I sang two songs in that final concert of the year.”
Soon after he began writing songs, admitting that his first songs were “so bad.” Not knowing how to transition from verse to chorus his early songs were often seven minutes long. The more he wrote, though, the better he got. By junior year, he wrote what he calls his first real song, “Eskimo Kisses,” in geometry class. Writing songs was an outlet for Willie where he learned who he was and who he wanted to be.
Now, he immerses himself in songwriting and compares it to a job that he shows up for every day. “Some days you write a cool song you really like and some days you write a song that you give to somebody else,” he says.
Willie moved to Nashville last August after being discovered singing on a street corner in Williamsburg, Va. while studying at the College of William and Mary. A woman who had connections in Nashville walked up to him and asked what his plans for music were. An ego boost, he set up meetings with some of her contacts last June and two months later moved to Music City.
Currently, Willie works as an accountant for NASA part-time and once he finishes his shift each day he spends time honing his songwriting skills. He says his transition into Nashville living was slow at first, but now the people he has met feel like family.
“Before we even talked music, it’s like, ‘Who are you? Where are you from? Are you a good person? What church do you go to?’ Stuff like that where it’s very humanitarian based,” he says of the Nashville songwriting community. “In California, my experiences with the music industry, it’s very product driven first. Then, who are you second, if at all.”
Willie is a pop artist who cites acts like Andy Grammer, Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars as inspiration as well as Motown, doo-wop and jazz.
“I grew up by the beach in California, so I have that sound. I love 40s Big Band, swing music. As I’m cooking dinner, I’m listening to Glenn Miller and the Dorsey Brothers and Frank Sinatra. I love Motown, Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy. I also love the early rock and roll with Elvis, like everybody does,” he explains.
These influences can be heard throughout his music. Songs like “Good Feeling” and “Move,” available on his Soundcloud, were written when he was in high school and while he’s changed musically since then, they’re a good indication of where he came from.
Willie notes that an important songwriting lesson he’s learned since moving to Nashville is in being as honest as possible.
“People connect to things that are honest,” he explains. “I think that’s why you see a little bit of push back right now, especially in pop music. You listen to the radio and everybody’s talking about sex, drugs, alcohol. Not that that’s a new trend, but people can’t always connect. You look at people like J. Cole or Kendrick Lamar in the hip-hop realm, they are so brutally honest that people will follow them anywhere. It’s the same with country. Country’s a little more holistic because it’s so faith, family and values driven. Just being honest, whether that means you’re struggling with an addiction of some kind or you’re struggling with love.”
Willie also advises new songwriters and artists moving to Nashville of the importance of having a business plan and career goals.
“As much as it’s heroic and poetic to say ‘I’m chasing my dream,’ you have to have a goal with it too. If you’re just running around like a chicken with its head cut off, what’s the point? Where are you going to end up? You’re going to look back after a certain amount of time and be like, ‘I wasted X amount of money, X amount of time that I can’t get back.'”
He also urges those songwriters and artists to study people in the room when they’re out at writer’s rounds.
“Since I don’t sing country music, I have a five to ten second window when I first start singing to grab whoever’s there. That’s why often you’ll hear me sing something really jazzy, or I’ll start beat boxing, or I’ll play my mouth trumpet or something,” he explains. “That’s the hook, that’s the trailer to the rest of the movie.”