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, Chris Janson shares what he has learned as a songwriter.
Chris Janson has been grinding away in the Nashville music scene for over a decade. One of the most respected artists and songwriters in the business, he saw his biggest success earlier this year when his single “Buy Me a Boat” went to No. 1. After years of getting his songs cut by other artists (Tim McGraw, Justin Moore, Hank Williams Jr., Frankie Ballard, Randy Houser and Joe Nichols to name a few), he released his debut album of the same name on Friday (Oct. 30). I was fortunate to chat with him months ago for CBS while he was promoting his single, which had just hit the Top 20. In our discussion, he shared his journey as a country artist and songwriter.
“I decided I was gonna do [music] professionally when I got to be about 18 or 19,” he tells me, but he’s quick to admit that he has been playing music his entire life as a hobby. “I never wrote songs until I moved to Nashville and got in that scene. I just never thought about that side of things, I just wanted to play music. When I started writing, it was a whole other thing.”
Chris says Nashville is a town that’s built on songs and there is a big community for it. While he’s had his fair share of ups and downs over the years having been dropped from two labels, he says he never considered giving up.
“I’ve had to work real hard at it, but it’s finally paying off,” he says. “I just figured if I had a guitar and harmonica that I can probably just do it on any platform or level, and it just goes to show that persistence pays off.”
Chris adds that it’s important to him that his songs are relatable and that he always writes from a real place. When I ask him if he’s ever afraid to reveal too much of his life in his songs, he admits that’s a question he has never been asked before.
“Good question. I don’t think so. No. The answer would be no.” He pauses for a moment. “This is the beauty of being a songwriter: I can reveal as much as I want to and as little as I want to. So I try to keep a good meter on it, but I’m a pretty open book. What you see is what you get. We live an honest lifestyle and just try to be good people. I think that’s important. As far as my fan base is concerned, it always has been real people in the American working world, and I think they gravitate towards real songs and real stories and dudes that they can relate with that are singing.”
He’s quick to add that being a hard working man and an honest songwriter is very important to him and he won’t be chasing radio hits.
“I don’t ever want to record, write, or cut anything that’s just a hit song, per se. It has to be something that I can identify with myself and something that I can get up and pull my boots on in the morning and say, ‘Yup, that’s me singing it.’ I’m real happy to be the ‘Buy Me a Boat’ guy. Not only is it on the radio, but I really like the song.”
When I share with him a fan’s question on what he would tell a struggling artist he admits that he gets the question a lot.
“First of all if you’re gonna do music for real and take it serious, you gotta move to where the music’s at, where there’s a scene, like Nashville,” he asserts. “If you wanna do country music, you need to go to Nashville.”
He adds: “I definitely encourage people to do it their own way and never fold into what anybody else thinks they should do. That’s the number one thing. Take it from a guy who’s seen it from all walks of life, and I’ve had every up and down you could imagine. ‘Buy Me a Boat,’ that song came out independently. My wife and I did it right out of the house, and just kind of made that happen by the grace of God, and we did it our way. And we’re still doing it that way even with a brand new record label, it’s pretty awesome. So I guess bottom line would be just do it your way and don’t ever budge from it.”
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, Leigh Nash shares what she has learned as a songwriter.
After spending over a decade with Sixpence None the Richer and years honing her sound as a solo artist, Leigh Nash released her debut country album The State I’m In last month. On the 12-track release, Leigh co-wrote each song and says writing was a pretty big leap as it was often difficult for her.
“I love to write but the issue for me is having the confidence in yourself,” she admits, speaking softly as we sit at Nashville’s Headquarters Coffee on album release day.
Throughout the writing process, Leigh would often question if she was capable of writing material that people would want to hear. Having grown up listening to Conway Twitty, Charley Pride, Johnny Cash and Jim Reeves, she wanted to keep their melodies and style of music alive within her album.
“The way they wrote songs, I really love it and that was my school as far as songwriting goes, by listening to those old classic songs,” she adds.
So how did she get over her lack of confidence with songwriting?
“Just by doing it,” she explains. “I’ll get my guitar out and come up with something I feel like is a strong story and a good solid melody and I want to finish it.”
Leigh looked to friend and songwriter Jesse Hall to help her craft some of the songs on her new album. He’s someone she says is like a brother to her. When she played him her ideas and he wasn’t bored and didn’t shy away from the project, she knew she had a partner in the project.
“He helped me make it exactly what I dreamed of in my head. Him loving it gave me confidence,” she adds. “As you go and more people hear it, it drew more out of me. It fed off of itself. Now I have immense confidence in my writing abilities. It took exercising the muscles enough.”
Some of the more vulnerable moments on the album come in the form of songs Leigh wrote with her husband, musician Steven Wilson, including “Tell Me Now Tennessee” and “High Is Better.” She stresses that vulnerability is the key to everything in life, especially in songwriting.
“If you can be vulnerable, I think a lot of good things will come to you,” she adds. “That’s when we’re the softest and our ears are the most open.”
While Leigh admits to having had some arguments with her husband during the writing process, ultimately the songs that made the album were written together from true life, relationship struggles and things she had said to her mom on the phone.
“We both have to be in the right mood,” she says of writing with her husband. “I think it’s hard to write with your spouse because they’re the ones that get your worst. I would never say to a friend, ‘I don’t like that chord.’ I get real cutting. If we’re in a good space we work off that. I love writing with him. Subject-wise, we do a good job. It helps when we’re writing something we’re both excited about.”
Leigh Nash’s album The State I’m In is out now. Read more of my interview with her on Taste of Country.
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, country artists Dierks Bentley, Kacey Musgraves and Charlie Worsham share what they have learned as songwriters.
Charlie Worsham admits that songwriting is “just a switch you can’t turn off.” He is quick to explain that it’s something that never leaves him.
“I’m always jotting something down on an airplane,” he says. “It’s this thing that keeps you up at night. It wakes you up in the middle of the night, it gets you up early. You just can’t shut it off. You can’t ever put the pen down. It’s constantly gnawing at you in an excruciatingly beautiful way.”
Stuck on a chorus or song idea? Charlie suggests stating a universal truth.
“Some of the best advice I ever got on chorus writing was listen to the Beatles and Tom Petty,” he admits. “If you listen to their choruses, ‘And I’m free. Free fallin.’ ‘All you need is love.’ If it’s a really powerful truth sometimes all you need to do is say it and then repeat it two more times.”
Most of the artists I’ve spoken with in the past have said the best songs often come from something he or she has experienced firsthand, Kacey Musgraves being no exception.
“The best songs for me come from things that I have actually experienced or have some kind of insight on,” she says. “It all has to resonate somewhere within me. It can’t be completely fabricated. It always starts from me and that’s my favorite kind of music. You can tell it’s truthful.”
So you want to be a songwriter? The most important advice Dierks Bentley has for an aspiring songwriter is to write every day.
“One guy said to me, ‘You know what? You need to write about 500 songs, and just put them all in a drawer. When you get done doing that, call me up and I’ll write with you,’” he recalls. “I thought he was being a dick, but basically what he was saying was—you can’t be precious with your songs—you just got to write ’em and file ’em.”
He continues: “You want to be a songwriter? Write every day. 500 songs is a lot, but I got what he was saying. Don’t type them up on a nice sheet of paper and put ’em in a three ring binder. Just write ’em up, then go on to the next one. Keep writing.”
For more tips from country songwriters, visit my article on Radio.com.
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, several artists showcased at the Americana Music Festival share what they have learned as songwriters.
This week, Americana music fans and artists flocked to Nashville for the Americana Music Festival and Conference. Six days of industry panels and artist showcases ensued, many of which the topic of songwriting was addressed. Below are some highlights from Don Henley, the founding member of the Eagles, songwriter Mary Gauthier (Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw), Patty Griffin and Whitehorse.
During his Keynote interview, Don Henley discussed co-writing with his friend and frequent collaborator Stan Lynch, who he met in the late 80s.
“When I write songs, part of it is just hanging out. When you write songs with somebody you have to develop a closeness and a musical understanding. We just have to hang out and laugh.”
Later, he said that it often helps him to imagine an artist singing a song he is writing to help with the writing process. Another thing he does before working on a new album: read.
“When I was doing Cass County I went back and read Thomas Wolfe’s book You Can’t Go Home Again and I found a lot of familiarity and wisdom in that book,” he said before he began to quote Henry David Thoreau.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
“That’s why I maintain a little farm in my hometown so I can go back to the land to the country when I need to get out of the city,” he explained. “It’s really good for songwriting and for thinking. When I get on those two lane blacktop highways and I get out of the urban environment my mind opens up and I can think and I can dream. To be successful in the music business I had to leave my hometown. But oddly enough I find myself going back there to write.”
While Don Henley goes back to his hometown to write, Mary Gauthier relies on her emotions to see if a song is done.
“If I don’t give myself the chills, if I don’t cry when I write, then I’m not there yet,” she said. “Songs are the great human connectors of our time. Songs are how people connect with each other. A song is the vehical of the heart.”
As difficult as writing songs might be, Patty Griffin said it’s most important to write from the heart.
“When you get to a more honest place with your heart, it may hurt but it feels better. When there’s a deep hurt in your soul, write it down and let it go.”
Meanwhile, Luke Doucet of Canadian duo Whitehorse said he doesn’t always write from personal experience. Instead, he tries to embellish within his songs.
“I ran out of pages from my diary I could exploit,” he joked. “You have to decide how to embellish things. The truth is overrated. There’s different ways to be honest. You’re allowed to embellish things. Anybody can be a memoir writer, it takes a creative writer to write a novel. Think outside the parameters put on yourself.”
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, Lady Antebellum share what they have learned as songwriters.
As you may have already guessed, I am fascinated by the craft of songwriting. So, when I sat down with Lady Antebellum last October to discuss their latest album 747, I asked them to share some tips for aspiring songwriters. They gave some helpful advice which you can read below and watch a clip of as well. If you’re looking for more suggestions on how to write a song, read the Top 10 tips I’ve compiled from country songwriters on Radio.com.
“There’s no right or wrong way to write a song,” Lady Antebellum‘s Charles Kelley advises. “We’ve written many different ways. We usually start with the melody first and then it always evokes some kind of feeling, whether it’s a somber melody or a fun, exciting one. It always finds its way. Some people come in with lyric ideas or even a poem.”
He stresses that the key to being a great songwriter is to “write and write and write.”
“The more you write, the better you get,” he adds. “You’re going to write 100 bad songs before you write one good one and that is the truth.”
Bandmate Hillary Scott couldn’t agree more.
“The more consistently you do it, the better you get. You can always grow and improve,” she says.
Charles says as with anything, there are little tricks to songwriting the more frequently you do it. Like writing a novel or essay, there is an intro, body and conclusion to a song.
“Your bridge is something that needs to sum up and reinforce the tag of the song,” he explains. “If the tag of the song is need you now — well then you get this bridge, what are you trying to say there that when the listener hears it’s one of the last thoughts? It’s ‘I guess I’d raher hurt than feel nothing at all.’ That’s why they’re feeling all of this.”
Hillary adds that the bridge is the writer’s “bring it on home moment.”
“It’s the all-encompassing one or two lines that really describe the rest of the song, the rest of the lyric,” she says.
So what does a songwriting session with Lady Antebellum sound like?
“We love great melodies and a lot of times we start there, whether it’s an idea that’s born on a piano or guitar or some other instrument,” Dave Haywood says. “If you were to walk in on the beginning of a writing session with us, there’d be a lot of humming. Everyone’s humming these big melodies trying to find something we love and gravitate towards. And then for us, a lot of times we jump in, ‘What about this story? What are you going through? What can we write about today?'”
Meanwhile, Hillary stresses the importance of being aware of what’s around you as a writer.
“You have to keep your heart open and your ears and eyes open. The best songwriters are those that allow themselves to be vulnerable,” she confesses. “When people really feel what you’re singing about is when you allow yourself to be vulnerable going into the room. Don’t be afraid because we all feel alike. We all feel the same emotions. The listener knows when you’re being authentic.”
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, singer-songwriter Erik Dylan shares what he has learned as a songwriter.
The path to a career in songwriting is different for every writer. In Erik Dylan‘s case, it took rejection from a songwriting program at Middle Tennessee State University to fuel his determination to make it as a songwriter. The Kansas native transferred from University of Kansas to MTSU in Murfreesboro, Tenn. with the goal to get accepted into the songwriting program. Erik recalls the professor of the program said he wasn’t cut out to be a songwriter. Harsh words for any aspiring songwriter to hear, Erik put his songwriting dreams on the back burner and gave up writing for two years.
“When somebody says that to you–that they don’t think you’re qualified to even be in their program–it makes you question whether you’re on the right path,” he says over the phone from his home in Nashville. “It took a little while but I realized I wasn’t happy unless I was writing and that was what I was meant to do. If one guy said I wasn’t a writer it didn’t matter to me, I was still going to chase it. I’m 100% glad I did that. I proved him wrong.”
Erik graduated from MTSU with an audio engineering degree and started working on his songs. It was that early rejection that gave him the fuel to keep writing. He says it took six years working day jobs in Nashville and getting better at his craft until he felt like he was ready to start playing open mics.
“That’s where Kip [Moore] saw me and that’s how I got my publishing deal,” he adds.
In 2011, country singer Kip Moore heard Erik performing from the speakers outside of an open mic in a nearly empty room as he walked by the venue. At a time when Erik himself was wondering why he was even there, playing to three of his own friends, his luck was about to change. Clearly moved by what he heard, the country singer introduced Erik to his publisher, Brett James, and shortly after Erik got his own publishing deal with Cornman Music. Since then, he has written with a wide range of artists including Kip Moore, Eric Paslay, Randy Montana and Logan Mize.
“One thing I’ve noticed after writing in town for a publisher for almost four years is that I write my best stuff when it’s coming from the heart and it’s exactly what I want to be writing,” he explains. “If I’m trying to chase something that’s out right now, that’s on the radio…some people will ask you to write songs to sound like this type of song that’s out on the radio right now. I’ve noticed when I’ve tried to chase things that I don’t feel the songs aren’t going to be that good. Write what you know and write from the heart and you hope someone else understands that.”
Erik adds that the listener can always tell if the emotion within each song is true or fabricated.
“If it’s real and from the heart, people notice that. They believe it,” he adds. “In general, the best songs that I write are always ones that have a personal attachment, that something has happened to me or I see a friend go through something. That’s where I tend to write my best stuff. When it comes down to it, I like to write about personal experiences and things I go through. I try to channel back to where I grew up in Kansas. It’s a very blue collar farming community and I write songs that relate to the people that I grew up with.”
One of those songs is “Comeback Kid,” which can be found on Kip’s new album Wild Ones. Erik wrote the song with Kip, Ross Copperman and Jeff Hyde and recalls what was going through his head in the writing session.
“As songwriters you understand struggle and that it takes a while for things to happen. I was thinking about my wife in that position,” he recalls of the songwriting session. “Me spinning my wheels in Nashville trying to get a publishing deal while she helped out economically more than I could.”
He explains that the hardest part of writing a song is whittling down a story into three minutes while trying to describe a large idea in as few words as you can. He says the best person that does that is Ernest Hemingway. While he wasn’t exactly a songwriter, he was a storyteller.
“In five words he could tell any story. He could whittle any idea down to five words and you could understand what he’s talking about,” Erik asserts. “A lot of that is trial and error when you’re writing and realizing what needs to be in a song and what you can leave out of a song and still get your point across.”
Erik explains his writing process as trying to write whatever is on his mind that day. He has lists of different titles and song ideas he has compiled over the years and often brings those to his co-writes to brainstorm.
“It always seems like the strongest songs and the strongest ideas are the ideas that show up on your way to co-write,” he admits. “I turn off my radio for 30 minutes on the way to Music Row and try to think. You hope an idea falls out of the sky. Fifty percent of the time it does and the other 50 percent you hope the other co-writer had an idea fall out of the sky.”
While Erik writes mainly on acoustic guitar, he says many songwriters are also track writers. The writer will get a track going with drums, bass and guitar and begin writing melodic and lyrical content to that track. For Erik, his first step is guitar and then the lyric and trying to make his lyric melodic. He admits this is often the toughest for him.
“I’ve always been great at lyrics but I’ve always had a hard time making that lyric work melodically. A lot of writers who don’t play instruments, I recommend to get karaoke music to the genre that you’re trying to write to and sing along with those songs. A lot of the chord changes are similar no matter what song it is. You could start finding other melodies just by listening to that music.”
He adds: “It’s a really good way to think of new melodies. You don’t have to think about playing guitar or lyrics. I’ll play karaoke from different artists–they have instrumentals of everything–and I’ll start singing melodies along with that music. Usually I’ll find something that falls out. It’s always a good way to cure writers block. It works, I’m serious. Because you’re singing along with songs that are on the radio and you’re not hearing that melody, you can take the melody and take it to a different place and change the music to what you’re doing and you have a song. It’s a good thing to do if you’re not an instrumentalist.”
While he admits songwriting is a lot of trial and error, Erik stresses the importance of finding people you feel comfortable writing with.
“What I start seeing in certain writers that I write with a lot is I know we write this type of a song well together. I know how to pitch my ideas to certain writers. We know each other so well in the room that we don’t have to think about whether the other co-writer is going to like the idea. We already know.”
So how does he know if he wants to keep the song he wrote for himself or give it away to another artist?
“The cool part of what I do is seeing the song shine whether it’s coming from me or coming from a different artist. I’m prouder of the song than anything else. That’s a win win for everybody. To a songwriter, the song is always ours,” he stresses. “Getting a song into commercial radio is such a difficult task anyway that there’s no way I would hold songs just for myself and run the risk of maybe they’ll never get released. I would rather see that song out there and that it means something to a listener. A lot of artists bigger than me can reach more people with a song. I’m more than willing for them to take the song and make it their own.”
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, country singer-songwriter Toby Keith shares what he has learned as a songwriter.
In July, I spent some time with Toby Keith at a tour stop in Connecticut during his Good Times & Pick Up Lines Tour for my first cover story for Nash Country Weekly. Our chat was focused on songwriting as the country singer-songwriter recently was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the only award Toby says he has ever wanted. During our chat, I asked him how important it was to be able to play guitar or piano in order to write songs. Surprisingly, he told me being familiar with guitar shouldn’t be my main focus. Below is an excerpt of our chat.
“You don’t have to be a great musician, but it’ll help you if you can play enough of one instrument, a guitar or piano,” Toby tells me while lounging on a leather couch at the front of his bus. “You’d have a hell of a time writing on a flute I think. As long as you can play chords and understand how music’s made you can create your own melodies then.”
He then asks me if I play guitar and I admit that I only picked it up a few months ago and have been taking lessons every week. I explain that my biggest problem is hearing the melody, so my hope is that by learning guitar it will become easier for me to hear the lyrics that I’m writing and the flow of the song.
“There are people who have written big time songs and never played anything,” he says, explaining that it’s not important that I learn how to play guitar, but instead that I should understand the structure of the music.
“In your case, I’m gonna tell you to hear a song, write one down that you like and then throw the music away and read the words and see how the poem is on paper,” he advises before he starts to recite his first No. 1 hit, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” to me word for word so I understand what he means and notice the rhythm of the song.
“So it’d be like, ‘I betcha never heard ol Marshal Dillon say/ ‘Miss Kitty have you ever thought of runnin’ away?’ / Settlin’ down would you marry me / If I asked you twice and begged you pretty please / She’d of said yes in a New York minute / They never tied the knot his heart wasn’t in it / He just stole a kiss as he road away/ He never hung his hat up at Kitty’s place.'”
In that moment I could hardly believe my luck, getting songwriting tips from the Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee himself, Toby Keith. His advice didn’t stop there, though.
“And then you can see the structure of that particular way to write it. Just open up a bunch of lyric sheets on the Internet and read people’s songs. If you’re just going to be a lyricist I think you can write like that and then somebody can take a great idea that you had and put music to it,” he stresses. “You could do that. You’ll probably be more productive quicker that way but they go hand in hand when you’re writing songs.”
Toby Keith’s 18th studio album, 35 mph Town will be released on October 9.
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, songwriter Westin Davis shares what he has learned as a songwriter.
Last week, I kicked off my songwriting column with Kip Moore. During our chat about songwriting he raved about his frequent collaborator, Westin Davis, who shares four co-writes on Kip’s new album Wild Ones including current single “I’m To Blame.”
“Me and Westin are thick as thieves, and he keeps my sanity a lot of times,” Kip asserts. “There’s nobody I’d rather have a hit with than Westin.”
He adds: “Westin and I, we’ve been scratching and clawing for a long time. We met when we both first moved to town 10 or 11 years ago, and we were writing together from sun up to sun down. He’d crash at my house, and then we’d get up and do it all over again, and we’d go to work and come back and meet that night.”
All that hard work is now paying off as Kip and Westin’s song “I’m To Blame” is now in the Top 20 on the country charts. “We had dreams of having songs on the radio together, and now we have them. To be able to have a big hit with him would mean more to me than having a hit by myself, that’s for sure.”
Westin moved from Florida to Nashville to pursue a career in songwriting but the journey wasn’t easy. He moved back to Florida after a short time in Nashville, but Music City called him back. He now has a publishing deal with Magic Mustang Music and in addition to cuts by Kip Moore, he has written tracks for Thompson Square, A Thousand Horses, Hinder and many others.
In a candid chat, Westin opens up about his songwriting journey (it started in the 4th grade), why he doesn’t hold back in his songwriting and much more.
“I carry all of my yesterdays into my co-writes,” Westin asserts. “I carry my hometown, I carry everything bad that ever happened to me. So when I’m writing, I’m giving everything I have just like an entertainer would if he was performing for an audience.”
He adds: “You never know where writing will take you. The beautiful thing about writing is it gives you freedom and a sense of pride.”
Take me back to the beginning. Do you remember the first song you wrote?
I kind of stumbled into writing. I lived in a pretty rough area when I was a younger kid. In 4th grade they gave all the 4th grade and 5th grade students something to do: go home and write a song to stop the violence in the area and the drugs being sold at the school and the killings. Before they even finished giving us that task, the song was already wrote. I ended up winning. I would like to say it started there. I always had a knack for it I guess. I didn’t think about it till years later.
I left writing and focused on sports. Played basketball in college. It wasn’t until I was going through more things in life and putting a pen to paper and words to melody that I remembered the first song I wrote. “Oh my gosh. Am I supposed to be doing this?” One thing led to another. I started writing more and more only to find out that the songs I were writing were terrible. I did have something. I had that natural way with melody and words that I would say an inner city black dude would have. But I didn’t start learning the craft until I rolled my sleeves up. I said, “You know what? I’m going to put as much work into this as anything else. I’m going to learn how to write, the proper way to write. I’m going to learn, not only songwriters but people who write books, Hemingway, Robert Frost. People like that.” That’s when it became almost an addiction. I was about 23.
Why did you decide to move to Nashville?
I moved to Nashville and luckily became friends with a guy who was very successful in the business. He took me under his wing and told me the do’s and the don’ts. I never would want to get the cart before the horse. I didn’t want to start knocking on doors on Music Row until I was absolutely ready. I’m my toughest critic. I’m glad I had people open those for me or I’d probably be still sitting on the sideline.
I moved back home to Florida because I missed the beach and after about a year I flew back to Nashville and said, “Look, I’ve been writing these songs by myself.” And he said, “Shit. You’ve been writing by yourself?” And I said yeah. I started writing with my buddy Kip [Moore] and we just had this crazy dream that we were going to write songs and he would sing them but we knew we could make it a reality as well.
Do you prefer co-writes or writing by yourself?
I like writing alone but I also like co-writing as well. I’ve done it long enough now to know my circle who I mesh really well with and vibe with. It’s fun to go into a room with another person who you trust and they trust you and you walk out with the best finished product.
What’s your songwriting process like? Do the lyrics or melody come first for you?
It’s different every time. I’ve written so many songs. There’s a number that started with just me picking up the guitar, there’s been a number of them with me driving down the road and thinking about my life. For example, “I Killed a Man” and thinking how I killed that person. And then thinking, how would that go? The only way that I know is to be totally honest. I draw inspiration from everything. Billboard signs, somebody saying something to you. I draw inspiration from so many things. You may say something on the phone and I may go, “Oh what was that?”
I’ve sat in place–back home especially–looked at somebody and not know anything about them, their name, whatever, but could tell a lot about them by the clothes they had on. I created a character and wrote a story about them not even knowing anything about them.
Do you have to be in a certain mindset to write a song?
I refuse to fail. I’m very, very…I don’t know. I wrote with a guy the other day and my publisher called me and said, “You killed it. The guy was a little intimidated by you. He said you were pretty intense.” And I said, “I’m not fuckin’ around. This is business to me. I’m not going to write just a bunch of cliché stuff.”
I carry all of my yesterdays into my co-writes. I carry my hometown, I carry everything bad that ever happened to me. So when I’m writing, I’m giving everything I have just like an entertainer would if he was performing for an audience. It used to be, before I quit doing things, even if I was writing a good song, a happy song whatever, I needed to get up, I’d take a little sip of cough syrup, do other extracurricular activities and light up cigarettes. I had to be that guy. Now I learned how to not do that. There still is that thing deep within me where the only motivation I need is my past. I take what I do very seriously. Kip is a prime example of he takes what he does very seriously and that connects with people and my writing is the same way. It’s not fabricated.
Songwriting is often described as therapy. Is it difficult to open up in a co-write?
I think writing in general is therapy. Somebody told me recently, they said, “Man, I can hear you in every song that someone else sings or every song that I hear you play. I can hear your life story in it.” I’ve been very fortunate to have very rainy days and sunny days. I’ve been very fortunate to live in black neighborhoods, to be poor, to be around crack dealers and drug dealers. To drive to a family member who lives 30 miles down the road and has more money than he knows what to deal with and to see that side of life. And also be in love and out of love and heartbroke and losing somebody.
I know that might sound crazy. It wasn’t until I started writing, that I looked back and actually thanked God for hard times because I can draw from a deeper well than most people. It’s cool to write about, “I’ve had a hard life, I’ve done this” when most people’s yesterdays are a walk through Candyland compared to mine. You can tell it’s all fabricated bullshit which comes with them but with me it’s real.
What’s the most honest song you’ve written?
I have no idea. They are all pretty honest. Even in songs I haven’t had cut yet I have lyrics that are pretty honest to me that I have tattooed on my body. I wrote a song called “I Killed a Man.” Killing the old Westin. There’s so many.
The big man has blessed me. I can’t complain. There’s always somebody way worse than me. I have put several buddies in the ground and seen them laid to rest from a community that is constantly going through uphill battles. I’m just thankful to still be alive and still be here and doing what I do. I know at any minute it can be all over. I’m just very thankful.
Are you ever afraid to reveal too much in a song?
No. I’ve learned with anything…I’m a very, very vocal person. What you see is what you get. I’m never trying to impress everybody. I’ve always respected the people that who they are is who they are. I can smell out a poser from a mile away. I respect people who are not gonna be nobody else but them. I’m not trying to be nobody but me. Even later in life, I’ve battled demons with addiction and drugs. Most people, they try to hide from that. To me, it’s therapeutic to get it out there. This is who I am. I’m a long way from perfect but I’m trying.
I’m not trying to knock anybody and I would never do that. When you take somebody from my side of the tracks it’s comical when someone is pretending to be a character that they’re not. We can tell right away. It’s the people that have been through the rain that I respect. They learn more, they look at life differently. I just love those people.
One of the songs you wrote with Kip Moore is “Lipstick,” which is so catchy. Do you have any tips on writing catchy choruses?
To be honest, I don’t even know. Whatever melody hits and it feels natural to go with I go with. I’m not one to think too much about melodies because they come so easily at times. I don’t know if that is because of my black past where I can rap and flow, I don’t know. When a melody does hit and it seems to stick the verses just write. Obviously, married to the right words you’ve got a good song and a hit song.
Do you need to play an instrument in order to write songs?
No. I told a guy one time, [he asked] “How’d you come up with that line?” and I said, “Dude to be honest with you I’ve considered myself to do the ebb and flow, had the words and melody in me.” To come up with those lines that stop you and make you feel something it proves you’re on top of your craft or your art. It’s just like if you went to the gym everyday and worked out your biceps every day, they’re gonna grow. If you exercise your brain it’s going to grow. If you want to be the best writer, read books. Find out words. Follow the people you look up to. See how they said something and, “Oh my gosh, they said that in a different way. How could I do that?” It’s like anything.
Guys in prison who are on a death sentence, when they went in they didn’t know they were artists. Then all of a sudden they find out they can paint or draw. They’re locked in a jail cell, they’re locked in their own mind and talent. You discover that and you work on that and get better and better and better.
Is there a song that means more to you now then when you first wrote it?
There’s a few. I have the ability to tap in. I wrote with somebody recently who I asked them straight up, “What are you going through right now?” He said, “Man, I just ran into an ex two days ago and I was just stopped in my tracks. She didn’t see me.” I could see his pain and I know that pain. Luckily I had been in his shoes before, even though I’m happier now than I have ever been, I’m more in love, I knew what it was like to feel that heartbreak and to see that somebody.
I think that’s maybe a gift as well. To be able to get that low. I thrive on misery anyway. To get that low and to feel that pain. I wrote the first line of the chorus and he looked at me. A lot of that is from working on my craft but also being addicted to being sad. I would say that sometimes I’m the happiest when I’m sad.
Is that because you know you’re going to write a song from that?
I’ve pulled all night therapy sessions on myself asking that same question.
How do you know when a song is done?
When I write alone I’m really, really hard on myself where I’ll go back and make changes and make changes that I’ll make it so damn good that it will be horrible and I should have just kept it the way it was. If I’m co-writing with someone I’m not hard on myself at all. I’m really hard on the other person. I’ve been doing this professionally now for 5-6 years. Writing every day you find your circle of people that you connect really well with. And then also they’re seasoned as well. I still have days when I go into a room with a newbie that comes into town and I remember being that newbie and thank God for people like Dan Couch when I first got to town, he showed me right from wrong. He’ll tell you that I was great. But me, knowing my own limitations, I was good at making things rhyme but he showed me the correct way to write a song.
What’s the best advice on songwriting you’ve ever received?
I’ve gotten some great advice from some old-timers. If I’m gonna do something I’ve gotta be the best at it. I can’t fake my way through it. If I’m going to go into a write with another writer, say someone who has 10 No. 1’s, I want them to know that I’m there pulling my weight, too. And hell, I have. I’ve proved it several times. If I ever came across somebody and I have, who ask what can I do to be a good writer, the best writer, I would say, “Look, man. Study writing. Don’t just study songwriting. Study writing period. Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, go all over the place.” Study lyrical geniuses too.
One guy said, “Florida Georgia Line aren’t saying that.” I get it, but you can do that. When somebody sits down with you and they want to be able to write a song you wouldn’t be able to deliver. Study the writing. I’m not chasing the radio. Yeah, I need a little bit of money to put food on the table but I’m not going to sellout either. I take what I do very seriously. Take yourself seriously, don’t give a shit what everybody else is doing. Run your road, study your craft. Work on your craft and your art. Study the best writers. Read. Keep putting one foot in front of the other.
You never know where writing will take you. The beautiful thing about writing is it gives you freedom and a sense of pride. A lot of people can’t do what you do. It’s a cool thing. When you can be on top of your craft where it just comes naturally and you can connect with people, then you’ve done it.
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, country singer-songwriter Kip Moore shares what he has learned as a songwriter.
Songwriting is a serious trade. It’s not for the faint of heart. In fact, as Kip Moore once told me, he doesn’t encourage people to take the path of songwriting as a career.
I have to preface this by saying that Kip Moore is my all-time favorite country songwriter. While I’ve interviewed him four times now, my most vivid chat happened last November backstage at New Jersey’s Starland Ballroom, a venue I grew up seeing shows at. It also consisted of him telling me that songwriting isn’t for everyone. It’s all or nothing he basically told me. It was a bit of a slap in the face, but something I’ve come to realize I desperately needed to hear.
You see, before that interview I had dabbled in songwriting. I took an online class over the summer that taught me the basics of songwriting and wrote my first song. But nothing quite prepared me for his honesty. As he told me, though, songwriting isn’t something you necessarily can learn but something you have to pursue with every ounce inside of you.
“I always tell people to chase their passion,” he tells me. “My advice to songwriters is, unless you’re truly serious about it, and it’s all you can think about doing, it’s all that’s in your heart, leave it alone. Trying to do it for a career, it has to be all or nothing. It’s gotta drive everything in you.”
Kip is a passionate guy. If you’ve been to one of his shows you can see that unyielding energy he leaves on the stage every single night. In person, he’s quite serious and even a bit intense. When I mention this to him he laughs and says he can be playful, too.
In an interview with Kip, you have to know your stuff. He can read right through you if you don’t. He says he’s a no BS type of guy and that couldn’t be a truer statement. Lucky for me, I have lived with his excellent debut album Up All Night for three years now so I’m pretty well researched before our big chat on songwriting. Possibly a little nervous too.
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At first, he admits that he truly doesn’t know where to start when I ask him how to write a song. And then there’s a long pause. Right away I’m thinking maybe this wasn’t a good topic to discuss. But before I have a chance to ask another question he begins to tell me about his journey as a songwriter. He explains that he used to sit down for years and years and make himself write two songs every day.
“I would force myself to write, write, write,” he admits. “Now it’s more of an organic process where I almost always come up with the guitar groove or melody in my head and then I sing it into a recorder and then I live with it for days in my bunk and let it soak into my brain and what I feel like it’s supposed to be saying.”
Like many songwriters, he said the process varies every time. Sometimes he has an idea for a song, sometimes he has a title and other times he has a groove. While he says that you can teach the craft of songwriting, ultimately songwriting has to be in your soul to succeed.
I explain to him that what’s most difficult for me is writing a catchy chorus. I want to create something people want to sing along to–like a big Kelly Clarkson chorus–but often struggle getting there. Then he gets honest, simply saying, “You gotta fuckin’ study.”
He elaborates on that point. “You’ve got to sit down and you have to listen over and over for hours and hours of laying there at night and trying, understanding who your greats are, who your favorites are and paying attention to how they did it. It will soak in your mind and teach you how it’s done. That’s what I did. I studied the greats and the guys that I loved, and that’s how I learned how to write songs.”
Some writers are lucky enough to find mentors the moment they step foot in Nashville, but Kip is quick to admit that was not the case for him. In fact, he couldn’t get in the door to save his life. So, instead he had to teach himself. He did this by listening to the people he loved. By the time he got into the room with guys like his producer and songwriter Brett James, he was ready to go and just paid attention.
So why is he hesitant to urge others to follow his path into a songwriting career? He admits that things are even more difficult today than when he first started and often he doesn’t know what to say to songwriters.
“I don’t encourage people to take this path. It’s fucking hard and the window is getting smaller and smaller and the publishing companies are going away every day. I don’t know if I want to encourage someone to chase something that seems so out of reach all the time.”
But if songwriting is truly the career path you want to pursue? He says to study your butt off like he did.
“I can remember how discouraging the whole process was for me and how much it beat me up to where I just don’t know how to tell people. It was such a tough road. It was all I wanted to do, that’s what kept me going.”
Kip Moore’s sophomore album ‘Wild Ones’ will be released August 21. Pre-order it on his Website. His single, “I’m To Blame” is out now.