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.