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Songwriting Tips by Jason Blume


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When I teach songwriting classes I often start by writing "Songwriting" on the blackboard. I ask if everyone is there for the songwriting class and when they all say "yes," I tell them that they're in the wrong place. I put a big "X" through "Songwriting" and replace it with "Song Rewriting."

Songwriting looks deceptively easy from a distance, but even the most experienced, successful writers work hard at their craft. Jimmy Buffet says that he wrote "Margaritaville" in six minutes and it's true that occasionally, the planets line up just right and a great song pops out very quickly, requiring little or no effort. It's almost as if the song has come "through" the writer, but you can't base a career on that rare occurrence. It doesn't happen often, even for the most successful writers. When it does, it's a gift. The chances of that happening without having first mastered the craft are infinitesimally small.

It's said that Picasso painted up to a dozen versions of each of his most famous works, destroying each one until he felt it was the best it could be. Having to struggle and rewrite (and rewrite and rewrite) doesn't make you a bad writer -- but failure to do so might.

"Be yourself and then keep honing your craft. I know that a great song is rarely written quickly and that it is important to learn how to go back and re-work, re-work, re-work until good becomes great."
Kathleen Carey (Senior V.P. of Creative Affairs, Sony/ATV Music Publishing)

My entire career is based on rewriting (and re-demoing!) a song seven times. In 1983 I went to a "temp" agency to find any kind of office job that would put food on the table. Fate must have been smiling that day because they told me there was an opening, two days a week at RCA Records in the Country Promotion department. I'd be answering phones, typing, filing, and mailing out new releases to the radio programmers.

I just knew this was going to be my big break. Wow, my foot in the door at a major record label - - and no one slamming the door shut! The only drawback was that I'd have to listen to country music all day long. At that point in my life, I thought "Country Music" was an oxymoron. As far as I was concerned, being forced to hear whiny, twangy, stupid, cheatin', drinkin', redneck songs could only be retribution for some unspeakable thing I must have done in a former life.

My first hour on the job I was told I'd be sending out the debut single release by a brand new act signed to the label. It was a mother and daughter act - - The Judds. I could hardly believe it when I heard the music. I was totally prepared to hate it, but I LOVED IT. I thought it was some of the best music I'd ever heard. Wynonna's voice possessed a richness and emotion I could hardly believe and those harmonies delivered me straight to heaven. But when I listened to the entire album, over and over again, it was the songs that surprised me the most. They were powerful, rockin,' fun, and poignant. They touched a place in me that few songs ever reached, and I decided right there and then that I wanted to write like that.

I started my first country song, "I Had A Heart," with The Judds in mind, but it wasn't quite working. So, when my friend Leslie Brenner mentioned that she was collaborating with a songwriter from Georgia, I asked if she'd introduce us. (It hadn't occurred to me yet that someone could be from the South and not write country music!) I met Bryan Cumming at an ASCAP annual meeting. (They're great places for starving songwriters - - free food and industry schmoozing! The only problem was that sometimes I'd have to park up to a half mile away. It's not easy to find free parking places in Beverly Hills and I couldn't afford the parking garage).

Bryan played sax in the band "Sha-Na-Na" and was the first real "professional" I had the chance to work with. I told him my idea: "Where I had a heart - - there's just a heartache." It sounded like a country song to me and Bryan agreed. We got together at his home studio and really hit it off. Not only was he the sweetest man, but he could play almost any instrument and he had a studio where we could demo songs for free. That was a real plus considering my financial state.

After our first writing session together, the song was infinitely stronger than what I had written alone. We did a rough, 8-track demo and brought it to Jim Vellutato, a publisher who at that time was at Famous Music's Los Angeles office. Jim was an early supporter of my songwriting. He was encouraging, but felt the song still needed lots of work. He pointed out specific weaknesses in the melody and lyric and sent us back to the drawing board. Well, this scenario repeated itself over and over again. It was frustrating and disappointing each time that we were told that our rewritten masterpiece still required major surgery - - but it was getting closer each time and we were determined to get it right.

We rewrote and re-demoed that song seven times. The last several times, when we were certain that we were done, we hired professional singers. (Stuffing those envelopes at RCA was paying me enough so that I could kick in $15.00, which was my share back then.) We'd thrown out those verse lyrics at least five times and tweaked that chorus melody again and again before we heard that magic word from the publisher. "Yes."

Yes Yes Yes!!!

It was a Monday afternoon when Jim said he'd FedEx the song to his Nashville office. Less than twenty-four hours later, I got the call that my first country song had already been recorded in Nashville and was going to be a single! (That was 1986 - - and it's never happened to me like that again!).

Don Goodman, a wonderful songwriter/producer with hits by artists from Alabama to Reba, had recorded the song with a new female artist named Darlene Austin, on Magi Records, a tiny independent label. They had changed my favorite line of lyric, and the record didn't sound quite like I had envisioned it, but the next thing I knew, I had a song on the Country charts! It wasn't exactly a smash hit, but it was a big step in the right direction and it gave me the confidence and credibility to pry a few doors open.

The producer's wife Gayle was a real sweetheart and suggested that on my "next" trip to Nashville I cowrite with Don. I'm sure it never occurred to her I had only written one country song and that my only experience with the South was that I had been born in South Philadelphia. I knew I'd need fourteen days to get a low price on an airline ticket, so without a moment's hesitation I told Gayle that my "next" trip to Nashville would be in two weeks. . . and I got out the credit card.

Then I set to work, preparing "starts" - - song ideas that I could bring to cowriting sessions. Sometimes it was just a title; other times, a rough draft of a whole lyric, or a chorus melody. Writing with such a successful writer was an incredible opportunity for me and I didn't want to leave anything to chance. I wanted to know I'd have something strong to bring to the collaboration, so that even if I happened to wake up feeling like a slug on that particular morning I could still bring something good to work on. One of those "starts" I'd prepared was a first draft of a lyric titled, "Change My Mind."

The plan was for Gayle Goodman to meet me at Nashville's airport. I had spoken with her several times on the phone and was charmed by her Oklahoma drawl and down-home southern expressions, so imagine my surprise when a Japanese lady said "How Y'all doin'" and introduced herself as Gayle!

When it came time for my cowrite with Don Goodman, I was nervous, and more than a little intimidated, but I felt good about the "starts" I had brought along, especially "Change My Mind." I showed up at Don's office, Bull's Creek Music, at the designated time - - but he didn't. Gayle couldn't find him and after about thirty minutes went by, she said that she'd try to find someone else for me to write with. She went down the hall and returned with another writer signed to Bull's Creek. She said, "Jason this is A.J.
- A.J. this here is Jason. Now, ya'll go write a hit." And that's exactly what we did.

About forty-five minutes later, A.J. and I had finished the song that would change both of our lives. When Don Goodman finally showed up, he listened to our song and swore he'd never go out to lunch again! When A.J. played the song that night for his wife Stephanie, she cried and said, "Our kids are going to college!"

All of that happened because I did the seventh rewrite on "I Had A Heart." If I had stopped after rewrite number six, I might still be sitting behind a desk, saying how unfair the business is; it's all who you know, etc. . . and never knowing that success was waiting just a re-write away.

There definitely is an element of luck or fate in this crazy business, but
if you're consistently writing great songs (not just good ones) and taking care of business it'll be hard to avoid success. The most direct route to success is to rewrite each line of lyric and melody until it's the very strongest you can possibly make it. This means that even after you like it, you might still want to try several different approaches to see if you can beat the one you've already got. If not, you can always go back to your original draft.

Following is an excerpt from Jason Blume's 6 Steps to Songwriting Success: The Comprehensive Guide to Writing and Marketing Hit Songs (Billboard Books).

One of the few writers to ever have singles on the Pop, Country, and R&B charts - - all at the same time, Blume's songs are on albums that sold more than 45 million copies in the past two years. His songs have been recorded by artists including Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and country stars Collin Raye, the Oak Ridge Boys and John Berry. Blume teaches songwriting workshops for BMI in Nashville and throughout the United States.