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Songwriting Session with Lori McKenna
CATEGORIES: Songwriting Session


Photo by Becky Fluke

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, Lori McKenna shares what she has learned as a songwriter.


The youngest of six children, Lori McKenna grew up writing songs in her journals. Her two older brothers were songwriters and as a result, she thought that everybody wrote songs. It wasn’t until she got to high school that she realized songwriting wasn’t the norm.

McKenna remembers writing songs as early as twelve years old and the first one she wrote, a track titled “Take,” she first presented to her brothers.

“It was a country song and my brother, Richie, was like, ‘How in the world did you just end up writing a country song?’” she tells Sounds Like Nashville over the phone. “We didn’t grow up listening to country music. We grew up listening to songwriters; James Taylor, Carly Simon, Neil Young. I remember my brother being like, ‘What just happened? How does that come out of you?’”

She kept writing but never thought to pursue music professionally until she was 27 and her sister-in-law talked her into doing an open mic night in the Boston area. (McKenna still lives in Massachusetts with her family and five children). The open mic night was successful as the man who ran it invited McKenna back to perform.

McKenna has since made a thriving career as a songwriter with her home base in Massachusetts where all her siblings live within 45 minutes of each other. While many of her peers reside in Nashville, McKenna instead makes several trips a year to Music City to co-write and when she’s not in Tennessee she writes by herself back home. Her writing credits have not suffered as they include songs recorded by Faith Hill, Reba McEntire, Alison Krauss, Little Big Town, Hunter Hayes, Tim McGraw and Keith Urban, among others.

“It would be hard for the kids to leave their cousins or their school or for my husband to relocate and all that, and it’s worked out really well for me to just travel back and forth to Nashville because I’m not an everyday writer,” she admits. “I’m not really built to write every day. Some of my friends are and they write one or two songs a day. I need to simmer on things more.”

Simmering on songs is suiting McKenna just fine as she recently celebrated a No. 1 with “Humble & Kind,” a song she wrote with her five children in mind that Tim McGraw took all the way to the top of the country charts. It also marks the first time in over four years a song went to No. 1 with one writer. (The last was Taylor Swift’s “Ours” in 2012).

During a recent performance at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, McKenna says she wanted to write a list of things to tell her children so she wouldn’t be accused of not sharing important life lessons later on.

“I had the title and I knew I wanted it to be things I wanted my kids to know,” she says, explaining her process. “Once you get there, there’s a lot of information. You could overshoot the song. It was more about editing and taking out ‘put the toilet seat down.’ That didn’t necessarily have to be in it.”

McKenna says that the song itself is fairly simple and the list of hopes and dreams was easy to write as a parent. While she always starts with verses when it comes to songwriting, McKenna said for “Humble & Kind” the chorus came first.

“I knew that I lucked out in finding that chorus, to be honest, and then everything else, like I said, was easy to put in there,” she explains. “It was just a matter of editing it down and putting it all in the order that worked in my head the right way.”


For more of my interview with Lori McKenna, visit Sounds Like Nashville.

August 14, 2016 | | (0) comment comment
Songwriting Session with Marc Cohn
CATEGORIES: Songwriting Session


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, Marc Cohn shares what he has learned as a songwriter.


As a teenager, Marc Cohn was constantly inspired by songwriters. He admired artists like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Paul Simon and Randy Newman and says the art of songwriting moved him so much that he willed himself to be a songwriter.

“I wanted to learn if it was possible for me to do the same thing and have been on that journey to find out ever since,” he tell Sounds Like Nashville over the phone during a recent tour stop.

Cohn wrote his first song as an early teen. “It was about a girl, of course,” he says with a laugh. It wasn’t until he was 29 years old that he signed with Atlantic Records and later released his first album. This year, he celebrates the 25th anniversary of his debut self-titled album which included his timeless single, “Walking In Memphis.”

While Cohn has seen much success as a songwriter, it was a long journey. He says there were many times he was close to giving up. In those dark hours, it was always someone in his life that encouraged him or an opportunity arose that convinced him not to throw in the towel.

“I had people in my life that believed in me more than I did and were really very loving and very supportive and encouraged me to try a little bit harder. That was important,” he shares. “The truth is, it’s a matter of luck and fate, too. It’s not just being good. There’s a lot of good songwriters that don’t get discovered. I was lucky.”

When he was in his early 20s, Cohn moved to New York and found work as a session singer where he sang demos for other songwriters. He eventually began writing for commercials and movie scores, which kept him going financially as he continued to pursue a songwriting career.

He credits his songwriting success to putting in the hours. Much of his time was spent eating, breathing and drinking music, whether he was writing on his own, jamming with friends or listening to records.

“I would spend any time I had at a piano or a guitar or with my legal pad writing lyrics,” he recalls. “Month after month, year after year, honing my craft and trying to find my voice. It took a long, long time. Longer than I hoped.”

Cohn says it’s important for songwriters to study the people that inspire them and perhaps even imitate them for a while. Sooner or later, what makes an artist’s music resonate is when he finds what is “essentially you and not someone else.” For Cohn, it was listening to the advice of a hero of his, James Taylor.

“He gave advice in this article to songwriters who were stuck for ideas. He said, ‘Go somewhere you’ve never been. Get in the car, get on a train, take a guitar, keyboard, whatever, and go some place you’ve never been,’” Cohn recalls. “He called it a geographic. Do a geographic. His advice was that if you get out of some familiar territory, you might come up with something you wouldn’t have thought of if you just stayed at home. Go places. Open up your sensibilities. That’s what I did. That’s why I went to Memphis. I was following James Taylor’s advice. It was great advice.”

Cohn admits he would have never written “Walking In Memphis” if he didn’t travel to Memphis. Writing the song was a big moment for Cohn. He wasn’t signed to a record label at that point, but he knew he turned a corner as far as finding his songwriting voice. As he explains, he felt that there was something about the song that was essentially him as he wasn’t imitating anyone else.

“It was a wonderful beginning to my songwriting and artistic journey, no doubt about it,” he says of writing “Walking In Memphis” when he was 25 years old. “It has opened up and continues to open up a lot of doors.”

Cohn said after traveling to Memphis for the first time in 1985 he knew he had a song. During his trip, he visited Al Green’s church and met an inspiring woman named Muriel Davis Wilkins who played piano at The Hollywood. All these experiences made their way into “Walking In Memphis.” While he took some poetic license, Cohn says the song is as close to a true travel log as they come.

“In the end, that song is about the transformational power of music itself, which is why over all these years, it’s still easy to sing, because that’s still true for me,” he explains. “It resonates the fact that music is really a healing thing.”



For more of my interview with Marc Cohn, visit Sounds Like Nashville.

July 17, 2016 | | (0) comment comment
Songwriting Session with Caitlyn Smith
CATEGORIES: Songwriting Session


Courtesy Essential Broadcast Media

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, Caitlyn Smith shares what she has learned as a songwriter.


Caitlyn Smith’s first song dates back to elementary school. She was eight years old when she began writing the verses for a song she titled “It Felt Like Magic.”

“Then I co-wrote and finished it with one of my friends on the playground and we’d sing it to our recess lady,” she recalls with a laugh over ice cream at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Nashville’s 12South neighborhood. “It was there that really sparked an excitement and a curiosity for me around songwriting and so I continued to do it.”

By the time Smith was a teenager, she was frequently traveling back and forth to Nashville from her home in Minnesota to co-write and meet with publishers. It was during these visits that she realized she could have a career writing songs and she set a personal goal to write 52 songs a year. She quickly learned the Nashville style of writing, which she says typically starts around a title or a riff, melody or groove.

Smith’s dream was to be an artist but she saw writing songs as a “really great plan B,” she explains. Through a series of connections she met Beth Laird, who worked at BMI at the time, and introduced her to several publishers. For years, Smith would travel to Nashville to meet with publishers and after being featured on a BMI showcase she found herself with several offers. Now writing for Cornman Music, she spends her days writing for other artists as well as focusing on music for her solo album which is due out next year.

“It was years and years of writing and rewriting and coming back and forth,” she explains. “The best decision was moving here though because it made it a lot easier to be submerged in the culture and have the luxury of co-writers around you at all times. When an idea strikes you can call someone and they’ll write it with you and it’s way easier that writing by yourself.”

Living in Nashville for the past six years has allowed Smith the ability to write with a number of artists, one being Meghan Trainor, who was just a songwriter when they sat down with Justin Weaver to write what would become her No. 1 song “Like I’m Gonna Lose You.” As Smith recalls, the song had a reggae feel with her singing on the demo and Trainor playing ukulele.

“My publisher set the three of us up and I was really excited about it because I had heard some of her stuff and I was already obsessed. It was a super fun day,” Smith recalls of the write several years ago. There was no pressure because she at that time didn’t have a record deal so we were like, ‘Let’s write the best song that we can write today!’ Someone threw out the title and the song happened pretty magically and quickly.”



For more of my interview with Caitlyn Smith, visit Sounds Like Nashville. Her EP Starfire is out now.

July 10, 2016 | | (0) comment comment
Songwriting Session with Tia Scola
CATEGORIES: Songwriting Session

Tia Scola

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, Tia Scola shares what she has learned as a songwriter.


Tia Scola has always been passionate about music. From the moment she began speaking as a young child, Tia would sing and make up songs as her mother captured the footage on a VHS tape from their yard in New Jersey.

“I used to take over my dad’s cassette tapes in my karaoke machine. That’s how I recorded my first songs,” she recalls with a laugh. “There was definitely more advanced technology than that but that’s just what I had so that’s what I did.”

In high school Tia’s passion for singing and writing songs only grew, prompting her mother to suggest she continue it professionally. One summer she attended a songwriting camp at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass. where she learned of the songwriting program at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. She applied and was accepted, saying her acceptance was the “first statement of validity” she had about a career in music.

Now a student at Belmont, Tia has lived in Music City for nearly two years where she spends her days co-writing and interning at various management companies and publishers as she tries to navigate all aspects of the music industry.

“Since I’ve been here it’s been the most absolute amazing journey,” she gushes.

One recent evening Tia found herself on stage in a writers round beside hit songwriters like Billy Montana, Dan Couch and Erik Dylan. Having come a long way from hosting her own songwriters showcase at her high school, Tia held her own as she debuted new songs she wrote with friends and paid close attention to the greats who played before her.

“They’re all really talented writers in their own way and lyrically is what is most impressive about all of their writing to me. It just makes me strive to have better lyrics,” she says. “It was such a rush. It reminded me how much I love performing.”

Tia didn’t begin co-writing until she moved to Nashville and remembers being nervous during her first co-write, not knowing what to expect. As she explains, it’s a great way to meet people and it’s always more fun to write a song with someone else than writing it by yourself.

“I do have a few people that I write with all the time but I am trying to find that circle where it just clicks for everyone, every time,” she adds. “I’ve only been here for a short while so I’ve been grateful to be able to write with people [but] I never want to lose the ability and the love of writing very raw and my own thoughts in my room. I book co-writes four times a week but then those other days I’ll just write by myself.”

Tia says when writing a song she’s strongest with coming up with a melody. So, each song she’ll usually start with a melody in mind before she figures out the lyrics. Her song, “Dead Roots,” came together for a class assignment. She was paired with a classmate, Derek Scott, who had the idea dead roots. The term had her immediately think of moving away from home and leaving everything behind while he envisioned it more as the end of a relationship. The song soon evolved into a universal theme where every listener could relate.

“I think it’s something that resonates with a lot of people because if you’re in that relationship, whether it be a bad friendship, a bad intimate relationship, or even your family, it’s hard to leave all of that behind and just move on,” she explains. “We combined both of our stories; me leaving my town that was holding me back and no longer fertile and he had a relationship that didn’t end well. I think that’s the song that most defines me as an artist.”

Currently, Tia is working on a project with producer David LaBruyere (John Mayer). She makes her demos available on Soundcloud where her equal love of Kelsea Ballerini and Jason Isbell are apparent. Recently, one of her previous projects, Worktapes by Tia, found its way to former X-Factor contestant Alyssa Mezzatesta. Loving what she heard, Alyssa recorded three of Tia’s songs including “The One,” “Over You” and “Learnin’ Lonely.” While Tia credits being honest in her songwriting as a reason why some relate to her music, she says the best advice she has received is to write every song like it’s the song.

“Like it’s the song that’s going to make or break you,” she explains. “If you leave a room and you don’t really believe in the song then you did not do your job that day. I think that if I leave the room every day and I love that song and I can go back a few days from now and still be proud of that song, then I did my job as a songwriter. My songwriting teacher, Drew Ramsey, said write every song like it’s going to be the one that puts you on the map.”

Living proof that hard work and determination always pays off, Tia Scola is one songwriter to keep on your radar.

Tia will perform on June 7 at Neighbors at 8 p.m. and Aug. 3 at The Listening Room in Nashville. To hear more of Tia’s music, visit her on Soundcloud

June 5, 2016 | | (0) comment comment
Songwriting Session with Rachael Turner
CATEGORIES: Songwriting Session

Rachael Turner

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, Rachael Turner shares what she has learned as a songwriter.


Rachael Turner caught the music bug at an early age. While growing up in Sugar Land, Texas, she began singing in a children’s choir at church and by the time she was 11 years old she had the solos. She began taking voice lessons as a teen and her passion for music led her to study at Nashville’s Belmont University where she received her degree in Commercial and Music Performance.

“I loved every second of it,” she says of her time at Belmont over coffee at Nashville’s Edgehill Cafe. “I think that really grew my love for music in general and it was a really great place to cultivate [my] style and who I was, because for a while I struggled.”

As Rachael explains, she wasn’t sure the genre of music she wanted to pursue. She grew up listening to country music but loved both the pop and country genres.

“There was never anything on the radio but country growing up,” she adds with a smile. “Dolly Parton, Lee Ann Womack, I wore those records out. My mom was probably tired of listening to me sing in the car, but yeah, Belmont helped me experiment and decide.”

At Belmont, Rachael discovered that she loved country too much to stray from it. “That’s where my heart and soul is,” she explains.

In 2012 while a senior at Belmont, Rachael signed with Rustic Records and has since released four singles while trying her hand at songwriting and working on her debut album. She says her degree from Belmont has helped her communicate with the musicians she works with and her producers, allowing her to speak their language and gain insight into the industry as a whole.

Her previous singles have been written by well established songwriters including Brandy Clark, Jeff Cohen and Lance Carpenter. While Turner doesn’t have a writing credit yet, she says she is learning the importance of co-writing within the Nashville community.

“I come up with great concepts and ideas and every now and then I’ve got some great little one liners or a good melody piece, but I’m not the strongest of pulling it all together in the best way possible,” she admits. “I’ve come to really value extra opinions and other ideas to help weave the fabric together.”

She adds that she loves being able to bounce ideas off her co-writers because it keeps things fresh and allows her songs to come to life. Rachael says she plans to co-write more often in the coming year with the goal to make her music relatable to listeners.

“I really think that will help solidify who I am as far as what music I make,” she explains. “There’s something about having something you wrote that came from your heart. I only sing about things that I can personally relate to. I want people to get to know me and my music and also be able to emote though music as well, because music is the best therapy. You can lock yourself in your car and sing at the top of your lungs and let all of that emotion go in song. That’s what I want people to do with my songs.”

Rachael’s previous single “I Don’t Love You,” written by Brandy Clark, does just this. As she explains, she heard the song years ago but had trouble relating to it herself. After going through a difficult breakup, she stumbled back upon the song and her entire perspective on the song changed.


“The very first time I heard the song I knew there was something special about it, but it didn’t strike a chord with me,” she recalls. “A couple months down the road, a boy broke my heart, and I just remember going through the CDs again and I heard that song again and I was like, ‘This is my life right now.’ I was in a place where at night I would go to sleep and I couldn’t sleep. Just this constant loop of, ‘What did I do wrong? Was there somebody else? Why didn’t this work out?’ All these questions and self doubt, [my] broken heart talking. Everybody’s been there.”

Rachael says recording the song helped her move on from the heartbreak and she hopes it will have the same effect on her listeners. More recently, she released her new song “Aftershock” to country radio. It tells the story of the end of a relationship and just like on “I Don’t Love You,” her emotion shines through as she sings of trying to pick back up the pieces after a heartbreak.

Rachael is currently working on her debut album with producer Chuck Ainlay (Miranda Lambert’s Platinum, David Nail’s I’m a Fire) and says what is most important to her is showing her authentic self throughout her music. Additionally, she hopes her music shows her versatility.

“I want to be real. I want people to able to reach out and touch me and touch my music. I just want to be an open book for people,” she concedes.

For more on Rachael Turner, visit her website.

April 17, 2016 | | (0) comment comment
Songwriting Session with Danae
CATEGORIES: Songwriting Session


Photo by Sarin, Text Design by Brad Wolf

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, Danae shares what she has learned as a songwriter.


Danae is living out the lyrics of her debut pop single, “Direction.”

For the past 10 years, Tiffany Danae Thompson has been refining her sound and as she sings on “Direction,” she has “got a new direction,” both figuratively and literally. A recent Nashville transplant from D.C., the former singer-songwriter is leaving this genre for her new pop project, which is a blend of what she loves musically.

“I’m pulling the intimacy of being a singer-songwriter into the pop space with songs that are personal but also larger than my own life,” Thompson explains. She looks to Chris Martin and Bono as champions of this type of music, and as inspiration for her writing style. Their lyrics are “often poetic and vague, but the songs still tell us stories about their lives,” Thompson explains.

Thompson says a quote she lives by is “what is most personal is also what is most universal.” Her latest songs reflect this motto, as the lyrics tell her heart’s stories with words that could be describing any number of situations. In her song “Prove,” Thompson writes, “I’ve got nothing left to prove / Couldn’t walk away if I wanted to / I’ve got something left to say / My fire for you won’t fade away.” Perhaps it’s about love or maybe it’s about a dream; the listener gets to choose.

Coming from her singer-songwriter background, Danae’s music is not only influenced by EDM (Electronic Dance Music), but also jazz, folk and rock.

“I’m excited that each track on my first EP sounds different. ‘Prove’ and ‘Direction’ might remind you of Katy Perry or Coldplay; while ‘Gold in the Dirt’ reminds me of Imagine Dragons. I’ve started a few songs and immediately thought, ‘This isn’t a Danae song.’ I know what I want my new music to feel like; so I’ve been leaning into that,” Thompson says. “I want it to leave people feeling encouraged and with a sense of momentum. That doesn’t mean all sunshine and flowers, but I want to make sure each song is in some way an echo of my core.”

Since her move to Nashville a year ago, Thompson has been collaborating with her executive producer, Sarin Kuruvilla. During their first co-write, he asked if she had any titles in mind and she immediately cited the title of what would become her first single under Danae – “New Direction.”

Over the next six months Kuruvilla and Thompson brainstormed melodies and verses while thinking about the overarching question in the song: “what does it mean to have a new direction?” Thompson said that after several sessions it was clear the lyrics were more than just a one off song, they were describing her evolution as an artist.

Danae 'Direction' music video

Danae’s first music video was shot in Nashville with the help of a motorcycle, an old truck and a friend’s minivan

As Thompson continues to find her own momentum for the new music coming out this year, she encourages other songwriters who are questioning a genre change not to be scared.

“Going in a new direction, being vulnerable in a place where you are unfamiliar is intimidating. But, if you’re being called to a creative adventure, you have to just do it,” she urges. “I don’t know what the next year or five or 10 years hold for me, but I know I’m growing and excited to be in this new season.”

Thompson adds: “Don’t let where you’re at today limit where you can go tomorrow.”

While jumping out of your comfort zone may be scary, Thompson explains it’s more terrifying to not push yourself, at least in her mind. “A mentor once told me, if you never fail at anything you are probably not taking enough risks,” she says. “Change is risky. But I believe we were created to grow and change. Isn’t that why they call life a journey?”

To get an exclusive pre-release download of “Direction” visit For more on Danae, visit Instagram and Facebook.

March 13, 2016 | | (0) comment comment
Songwriting Session with Jeff Cohen
CATEGORIES: Songwriting Session

jeff cohen

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

January 31, 2016 | | (0) comment comment
Songwriting Session with Robyn Collins
CATEGORIES: Songwriting Session

Robyn Collins

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, Robyn Collins shares what she has learned as a songwriter.


Robyn Collins has been writing for the better part of 20 years but it wasn’t until four years ago that she wrote her first song. After years as a journalist, Robyn decided to try her hand at songwriting but she couldn’t find anyone who would take a chance with a new writer. In conversation on the back porch of her home in Hendersonville, Tenn. in between a day of co-writes, Robyn opens up about her path into songwriting and shares the lessons she’s learned along the way.

After a mission trip to an orphanage in Haiti, friend and songwriter Gerald Trottman encouraged Robyn to write about her experience. She wrote down everything that happened during her visit working in an orphanage and the two came up with her very first song sitting in the airport. Titled “Who I’ve Been,” the song details how she traveled to Haiti thinking she would help change lives but in the end the people she met helped her and gave her a new perspective on life.

“It was my first song and it was the moment when Gerald told me, ‘You are a writer,'” she recalls with a smile. “He’s told me that this entire four years. That has been super encouraging.”

While writing with other co-writers, Robyn says she learned the value of painting a picture in her songs. She quickly got the songwriting bug and in her day job as a children’s creative director at Long Hollow Church she started creating reasons where she would need a song so she could ask people to write with her. Songwriter Jordan Reynolds, who was a worship leader at the same church, became an early collaborator and the two would go on to write “Give the Love You Need,” “Sweeter” and “Love Is Like Rain,” which won a songwriting contest through SongTown USA garnering them a spotlight in Guitar World Magazine. The prize awarded them a co-write with hit Nashville songwriters Marty Dodson and Clay Mills and Robyn instantly knew songwriting was something she had to continue to pursue. Later, she’d win another songwriting contest for a song called “Magic In a Mason Jar.”

Robyn says her time as a journalist has made its way into her co-writes as she asks a lot of questions in each write to her fellow songwriters.

“Throughout the process, you ask, ‘Well, what did it feel like when this happened? Do you remember her saying anything? Where were you?’ Things like that all the time,” she shares. “Honestly, it feels like I’m interviewing when I’m in a write because I’m constantly asking questions. As a writer, you may write the best article in the world and someone’s only going to read it once. Maybe twice. They might bookmark your page because they want to remember one point. But if you write a great song somebody will listen to it 100 times. It’s such a blessing.”

She has several songs on hold by A-list country artists to record, but no definitive “yes” yet. However, Robyn says it’s these small milestones that she has learned to celebrate.

“At this point, there are little milestones. At least someone’s hearing my name again for a second time,” she says optimistically. “When you don’t have any other way to track your progress and your success you have to find these small victories where you go, ‘OK, I’m on the right track.’ You can’t get bitter.”

Robyn likens Nashville to a city of dreamers where everyone believes that something will happen because they’re investing their entire lives into their careers. Friend circles often include fellow dreamers and anywhere you go in town you find yourself among songwriters and performers.

“Most people come here with a dream. There is no city in the world like Nashville,” she explains. “I think an important thing to remember is as you’re struggling, that something good for someone else doesn’t equal something bad for you. There’s not a limit to how many songs can be written. Every day there are new artists coming to town needing new songs. The hard part is finding someone who believes in you. You want someone who believes in your message and your cause. Most of the time you have to be your own cheerleader.”

Robyn says she loves that songwriting allows her to trap the emotions of life within a song so that feeling is preserved. While she often draws from things she has experienced, she also looks to her friends and family for song ideas. One song idea, “Wow,” came from a story her cousin told her about her son’s best friend. His friend calls his girlfriend “Wow.” She says she had to write a song about that and then she sent it to him.

“I loved sending that song to the guy who’s story it was,” she says. “You immortalize memories and a lot of times people have gone through similar things so it will connect with their heart too. That’s my favorite part about it. It’s so fun to be in a room with someone where you walk into a room and have nothing and leave and you have something that matters and you touch someone’s heart.”

She adds: “You can write something that helps somebody else walk through whatever they’re feeling. Music is so emotional. It’s the most emotional way to use your writing gifts. It transports you. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that? It’s such a privilege to get to do it. It’s by far the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

For more on Robyn Collins, follow her on Facebook and SoundCloud.

January 17, 2016 | | (1) comment comment
Songwriting Session with Phil Barton
CATEGORIES: Songwriting Session

Phil Barton

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, Phil Barton shares what he has learned as a songwriter.


Phil Barton is as animated as they come as far as performers go. A staple in Nashville’s songwriting community, he can be found playing writers rounds multiple nights a week and in co-writes three times a day. It’s this dedication to his craft that has made Phil as successful as he is, having many of his songs cut by artists like Sara Evans, Eli Young Band, Jana Kramer, David Nail, Eric Paslay and Mickey Guyton, not to mention a No. 1 for Lee Brice with “A Woman Like You.”

Phil got his start writing and performing children’s music in Australia while he was in college, which he explains was great training for his move to Nashville.

“The kids music thing gave me a grounding in writing catchy little songs and melodies that stuck with people,” he explains over coffee at Nashville’s Frothy Monkey. “Honestly, when you do a show for kids they get bored so quick that it was a real training ground for everything. The songs have to be great, the shows have to be amazing or people are going to get bored. That was a really good education for moving to Nashville.”

Phil Barton, Jeff Cohen and JT Harding perform at Nashville's The Listening Room Cafe

Phil Barton, Jeff Cohen and JT Harding perform at Nashville’s The Listening Room Cafe

He soon signed a record deal with ABC Records in Australia and made a name for himself as a songwriter as some of his songs were performed on children’s television shows like Bob the Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine. He’d play close to 400 shows a year, many days driving to two towns in one day to play for as many as 30,000 people where kids would hang on his every word.

ABC Records also had a country label in addition to its children’s label and this is how Phil was introduced to the country genre, soon making friends with then up-and-comer Keith Urban.

“I got to meet everyone who was doing country music in Australia and became friends with them and started going to country music festivals and was loving the music. I met people like Keith Urban and watched him succeed,” he recalls with a smile. “I remember the times when we were getting emails from Keith Urban saying, ‘Oh, my song is 38 on the charts in America, this is so amazing. Keep believing in me!’ And then the next week it would go to 36. It was such a big deal for us Australians. When ‘But For the Grace of God’ went No. 1 it opened my eyes and it was like, ‘Oh man, I should go and check out this Nashville place.’ It seemed like this amazing world and you could do something amazing over in America.”

phil barton

In 2005, four years after Keith’s single hit No. 1, Phil packed his bags to visit Nashville for the first time and immediately knew he had to move.

“It just felt like home flying in. It was the weirdest feeling ever,” he admits. “The first time I walked down Music Row I was shaking my head in disbelief. It wasn’t what I was expecting but it was even better. It’s just such a moment. I knew my whole life would change in that moment just walking down Music Row. I knew everything I wanted, everywhere I wanted to be.”

For the next few years Phil would spent three months in America and three months in Australia since he didn’t have a visa. While in Nashville, he’d make friends at writer’s rounds and open-mic nights and began co-writing in Music City. When he was in Australia, he’d continue writing children’s songs and music for Australian pop stars to save enough money to come back to Nashville. He likens it to having two separate lives. Eventually, he acquired a three year visa and thanks to the success of his No. 1 song in 2011 with “A Woman Like You,” he finally received his green card.


“A Woman Like You” was special for Phil because all the songwriters involved — Phil, Jon Stone and Johnny Bulford — as well as Lee Brice, shared their first No. 1 together.

“It was a big moment for everyone, really. It got us nominated for Song of the Year at the ACM Awards, ACA Awards, sold 1.5 million. Got us a lot of awards,” he says. “Me and Johnny won Breakthrough Songwriter of the Year on Music Row that year which is pretty prestigious when you look at who won that award, the Kimberly Perry’s and Chris Young’s, just some amazing writers. It was something special. It’s also great to have a No. 1 with your friends.”

So how does one even get a No. 1 song? Years of writing and embracing every opportunity. Phil says once he was living in Nashville full-time he took a writing boot camp held by acclaimed songwriter Jeffrey Steele. Steele’s advice to him: If he could write day in and day out he’ll have a hit.

“I worked my little butt off just trying to be a part of it; breaking into Nashville, trying to write with everyone. I write three times a day. I jump on every opportunity I can,” he explains. “When I first was here I would never say no. You never know when you’re going to meet the right person that’s the right co-writer for you, the right song. I would never have expected ‘A Woman Like You’ on that day but it happened and it changed my life. You just have to say yes to everything.”


Currently, Phil writes for Liz Rose Music and he said his publishing deal came after years of writing, friendships, studying the great songwriters and most importantly, producing good songs. But that’s not to say he hasn’t had his share of struggles.

“It’s hard,” he says of making a career as a songwriter. “You just want it to happen straight away and you start wondering why you can’t get these writes. People are going to cancel because they might not know you when you get to town. Don’t give up and don’t get discouraged by that. It’s a part of it. Know it will happen again and you might have to wait two or three months.”

He adds: “Try and write the best song you can write every day with all different kinds of people. You really never know. If you don’t enjoy a write, don’t rebook. It’s not like you have to say yes to everything.”

Phil further explains that being headstrong that he was going to have a hit in America kept him going during the more difficult moments. He says there was no way he’d go back to Australia without making something of himself.

“I was so focused on it. It was never not going to happen. It just had to happen so I’d do anything to make it happen. Along the way you have to be patient and know that the time will come and just be ready for when the time comes,” he adds. “I just had passion for Nashville and wanting to be a part of the community and writing hit songs with all these people who are writing hit songs. It’s kind of a drug. It’s definitely a drug once you have a No. 1. You just want more. You’re super focused on that. You know how great it feels to have success.”


Follow Phil on Twitter where he frequently posts about the shows he’s playing around Nashville.

January 10, 2016 | | (0) comment comment
Songwriting Session with Sarah Aili
CATEGORIES: Songwriting Session

Sarah Aili

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, Sarah Aili shares what she has learned as a songwriter.


Music runs in the family for singer-songwriter Sarah Aili, who moved to Nashville nearly two years ago after living in New York and California.

“I grew up in the theater,” Sarah says over a cappuccino at East Nashville’s Ugly Mugs. “My grandmother was a singer. She grew up in New York City and she taught me to sing when I was really young. I always heard her stories about New York and being in shows so I did that because I fell in love with her and the whole thing.”

From an early age, Sarah took piano, dance and vocal lessons and was involved in community theater and musical theater. Once she hit high school she found herself in the lead roles of her school musicals and the fire of being on Broadway was lit. It wasn’t forever, though.

“My uncle who’s in the music business gave me my first guitar at 14 and he said, ‘You’re a songwriter, but you don’t know it yet,'” she recalls with a smile. “He’s always been a huge support and comrade in music for me.”

Once she got to college, Sarah began co-writing when a production house was interested in her and signed her. Things went fast and at 21 she performed her first big show at a festival at The Warfield, San Francisco’s historic rock venue which had acts like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin perform years prior. It freaked her out so she took a break from music for a few years, eventually moving to New York to pursue theater again full-time.

“I don’t think I was ready for whatever reason,” she admits.

Fast forward years later. Sarah’s living in Brooklyn and acting but once again gets the music bug. She recorded two EPs by the time she meets Grammy nominated singer-songwriter Amanda Williams, who urges her to get involved in a songwriting program she was running which eventually took Sarah to Nashville.

“It was amazing,” she says of her first experience in Nashville. “That was the first time I stepped into the music business with songwriting. That weekend, Amanda gave out three awards and I received the 2nd place award for most original songwriting which got me a meeting with a publisher and record label, a recording session and a photo session. All of the sudden, Nashville was on my radar. I must have heard, “you oughta move to Nashville a dozen times that weekend. So I opened myself up to the universe. I was living in Brooklyn at the time and I thought, ‘I will listen for the signs.'”

Three months later, those signs spoke loudly and Sarah found herself driving cross country to move to Nashville in January of 2014. Her move was prompted by the desire to learn the craft of songwriting. Since then she’s written over 100 songs, 11 of which appear on her new album Sessions which was released yesterday (Dec. 12).

“I co-wrote every day and worked the muscle. The first year [in Nashville] I wrote and this last year was about being in the studio and it’s been awesome. Playing shows, seeing what the business is about, having meetings with publishers. I’m still independent and looking at the idea of maybe a publishing deal.”

So what’s Sarah’s advice to aspiring songwriters?

“I’ve always heard, just write. Write, write, write. It’s so true. It’s like going to the gym,” she explains. “The blocks that I had before when I moved here a year and a half ago, I don’t have those blocks anymore. I know that I will always be writing. It’s just write, write, write. It’s like building a muscle and learning yourself how you want to speak and how to be honest.”

She adds: “It’s about finding your strength and letting that lead everything else. My voice is what led me to songwriting and led me to the stage and to dance even and the people I know. I think that’s the most important thing.”

Sarah says every song on her new album is “truthful and meaningful and written with people I love and adore.” One of those songs is the powerful “Arsonist” which is about her last relationship.

“When we broke up there was a lot of juice to fuel my songwriting. A lot of the songs on the album are inspired by this particular emotional journey,” she explains. “What I love about music is you can go into an emotion fully and create a world out of it and move from it and keep on moving in your life but that moment is captured within a song. It’s defining but we all change. It hurt and felt like a major, major burn. But at the same time with fire, when something burns down something else is built from that.”

Sarah says that revealing so much of herself in her music is a welcomed change from her musical theater days. No longer is she hiding behind someone else’s words. Instead, she’s speaking her own truth.

“It was scary at first to be so honest but I can never not write honestly. My relationships with people are honest. I’m a thinker and a feeler. I don’t know how to make myself other than that because music is from the heart and that’s a step that helps us through,” she says.

By Sarah allowing herself to be so honest in her songwriting, she often has fans share their stories with her. One song in particular is “Vacancy,” which she wrote about her brother’s addiction.

“People who’ve heard it I’ve had conversations about their family members. That’s the stuff that really moves me. I share the human condition and connecting at the heart and connecting at the mind,” she says. “Music is amazing. There are some things you cannot say, but when you say them in a song for three to four minutes you don’t have to say anything, you just feel. I hope to make music like that.”

“I like when songs do something,” she continues. “There’s something to be said of songs on the radio that make you feel good. Look at the Adele record, it slays me. It makes me feel.”

Before our chat comes to a close, Sarah explains that there’s often a stigma about people coming over from the theater world into the music world but there shouldn’t be. She says her background in theater has only helped her become a better artist.

“I studied storytelling for a long time so when I write a song, I see the music video in my head like a scene in a play and that helps me tell the story. Also, in a performance, the talking between the songs, I love talking to an audience. I’m used to being onstage looking at the audience and doing my thing. I love seeing artists being personal with their audience. You gotta love what you’re doing because it’s going to be a long road if you don’t.”

Sarah Aili’s new album Sessions is available on iTunes.

December 13, 2015 | | (0) comment comment
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