This is reprinted with permission from Songwriter Magazine UK. My article appeared in the Fall 2017 issue.
In the Beginning
When we all start out as songwriters we imitate to the best of our ability. You know the old adage “theres nothing new under the sun” well, in a way I buy it but…I also believe it’s what you do with those clone songs over time that makes all the difference .
I coach writers from all over the world and one of the common traits I find in the beginning is they tend to write the next Ed Sheeran song, the logical followup to Beyonce's last single or a song that brings to mind Elton John or The Beatles. Again, we all do it, we are our influences and we should embrace and celebrate them…and then put ourselves into the creation.
Years ago I remember a song of mine being critiqued by my then publisher who said “ this is great but we already have a Joe Cocker”. I admit it set me back a bit. My song was every bit as good as some of Joe’s classic’s in my mind but here’s the rub. He was right. Great artists aren't looking to repeat themselves. Sometime labels or managers are wishing they would and in fact, will even ask for that in song searches but in the end a great artist is constantly moving forward. a Clone just won’t cut it.
I learned this the hard way for sure. Once I had a publishing deal I finally has access to someone who could actually get my song heard by the powers that be. I was ready. When I got the call to write something for someones next record I did my homework. Studied the kind of language they used in past hit’s, the tempo and production style, the key the artist favored and on and on. And I got soooo close time after time. The happy part of the story is these songs sometimes got cut by another artist . Not the name I was shooting for but the fact that the song was good was good enough to appeal to another artist, usually in the same vein as my target artist.
The epiphany for me was one day , in Nashville getting together with my two favorite co-writers Kye Fleming and Brenda Russell to write for a few days. All of us had had some form of success but we also had war stories of getting songs on hold for some of our favorites only to have them fall through at the 11th hour. We sat down that first day and said “let’s just write for ourselves, forget what a publisher is asking for or what we think an artist will love, let’s just write something we love. So for those two days in Nashville we just wrote. We brought elements of each of us into the room without a thought other than to see if we could get each other excited. We did. To the point of hugs and tears and running ti the nearest studio two do our little demo. To spare you all the minor details it made it’s way to the very artist we had all been shooting for for a few years, Tina Turner. At the time a mega star. This song sounded nothing like anything we had ever heard her do much less like one of her recent hits. At the end of the day we saw her interviewed on Oprah talking about how she found the song to build her next album around and what it meant to her. The song was called “Dancing In My Dreams” and the album was called “Wildest Dreams, going on to sell over 6 million.
And In The End...
The lesson? All those songs we learned to imitate and deconstruct years ago went into our DNA as writers and we trusted those influences to come out AND and it’s a big AND…we put ourselves into it and trusted that if it moved us the chances were better of it moving someone else. I know for me that was a huge moment and changed the way I wrote. Many of the cuts I got after that came about from the same philosophy , I had to love it first. A side note, same thing happened with Joe Cocker for me a few years later. he cut a song that I would never have written if I’d been trying to write for him.
Information Into Inspiration
One of my favorite talks I’ve heard was one that John Mayer did at Berklee a few years back. he talked about the importance of studying the greats as well as the craft of songwriting but not stopping there. he called this part “Information”. He went on to say that “information without inspiration falls flat”. When it gets good is when you put yourself in it and in truth thats your best shot, to be a product of your information but to also be original, be you!
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About Mark Cawley
Mark Cawley is a hit U.S. songwriter and musician who coaches other writers and artists to reach their creative and professional goals through iDoCoach.com. During his decades in the music business he has procured a long list of cuts with legendary artists ranging from Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Chaka Khan and Diana Ross to Wynonna Judd, Kathy Mattea, Russ Taff, Paul Carrack, Will Downing, Tom Scott, Billie Piper, Pop Idol winners and The Spice Girls. To date his songs have been on more than 16 million records. . He is also a judge for Nashville Rising Star, a contributing author to USA Songwriting Competition, Songwriter Magazine, sponsor for the Australian Songwriting Association, judge for Belmont University's Commercial Music program and West Coast Songwriter events , Mentor for The Songwriting Academy UK, a popular blogger and, from time to time, conducts his own workshops including ASCAP, BMI and Sweetwater Sound. Born and raised in Syracuse, NY, Mark has also lived in Boston, L.A., Indianapolis, London, and the last 20 years in Nashville, TN.