One of the most valuable lessons I learned over years writing for artists, writing with artists and taking direction from my publisher was to not study too hard.
I learned this the hard way! I’ll go way back for some examples. I was writing for a major publisher during the 90’s, and I knew that part of my job was to stay current. I would shoot for the biggest artists of the day and usually had a heads up on direction from my publisher, other writers and even producers.
I’ve always loved great singers and found it easy to hear their voice in my head when I was working on something to pitch for them. Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Aretha Franklin, Wynonna, Chaka Khan…I was a channeling fool. For years cuts were coming along but the ones I really wanted were eluding me. I would listen to everything they’d done, groove, key, subject matter and try to nail something I could hear them doing. What I didn’t think about is a really, really great artist isn’t looking for “something that sounds just like them”.
During these years I can’t tell you how many songs were put on hold by the powers that be thinking the song ( and demo) sounded exactly like their artist. At the 11th hour something would usually go amiss. You may have been there. Everything looks perfect, time to start spending the money you’re going to see…nothing to it, I’ve done my homework, my 10,000 hours and damn it…I deserve it!
As you know you need a thick skin and crazy confidence to take the rejection this career will hand out so I would grieve for a time and then jump back in. Then a funny thing happened….
As I was writing for the market I was also getting with better and better co-writers. We had the same war stories but if we wrote long enough we would eventually say let’s forget it and just write what we want, something that we can walk away and say “ I don’t care if this ever get’s cut. Then one did.
In a short period of time Tina, Joe, Chaka and Wynonna cut songs that didn’t sound remotely like ones written “for” them. All songs I was proud of. Sometimes it was a creative publisher who had the imagination to hear a song as the next step for an artist even when all the powers that be said they were nuts for sending them a song so different than what was being asked for. Sometimes it was using one of those people in my network, whatever it took to get the artist to hear it.
So the big lesson for me was a true artist is trying to move forward, not repeat themselves. They want to be challenged and they want to challenge a listener or fan. Usually they don’t know what form that will take until they hear it but if the song moved you first maybe you can move them and hopefully they can move a few million other people and then…you can take that to the bank!