Anatomy Of A Songwriter Signing; Jessi Alexander

[Editors Note: This interview with TuneCore Artist Jessi Alexander originally appeared on NEKST. David Ross, author of this piece and the founder of Music Row Magazine, uses NEKST as a platform to cover ‘music and the technology it powers’.]

Music Row streets are filled with new and experienced songwriters hoping to climb that next career rung by finding the perfect home to nurture and support their creative efforts. But in an industry where success gets more elusive every day, only a fortunate few will find what they seek. Therefore the importance of these decisions—for both writer and publisher—cannot be underestimated.

This Music GM/Partner Rusty Gaston recently signed Jessi Alexander and both parties graciously agreed to discuss the dynamics of the new partnership and why they are so excited about a shared future.

According to Gaston, “This Music is a joint venture with Warner Chappell. The company was formed in 2006, with myself and songwriters Connie Harrington and Tim Nichols. We signed Ben Hayslip on our first day, who at that point had only charted one single. Since then he’s become a two-time ASCAP “Songwriter of the Year”. Today we’ve grown to five employees and 13 writers. As good as we put it on paper, knock on wood it has gone better. As we celebrate our 10-year anniversary we’ve won five “Song of the Year” awards, and had 40 ASCAP/BMI award winning songs. It’s been a super blessing.”

But despite This Music’s great track record, operating a boutique publishing company leaves little room for mistakes. So what goes into an important decision such as adding a songwriter to the team? “I always ask myself would I mortgage my house for this?” says Gaston. “If I can’t say ‘Yes,’ I don’t do the deal. I also don’t do pieces of business. Maybe a writer has a record deal or a cut bringing a certain amount of income and signing them could be a good business decision. But for me it’s about how much I believe in this person. I make my decision based upon people first and music second.”

Rusty Gaston

Rusty Gaston

Enter Jessi Alexander. “Jessi has been deeply involved with our company as a co-writer for years,” says Gaston. “For example, she co-wrote ‘I Drive Your Truck’ with Connie Harrington and Jimmy Yeary; and ‘Mine Would Be You’ with Deric Ruttan and Connie. So when Jessi approached us to say, ‘I’m thinking about looking around,’ we knew immediately we’d love to work with her. Jessi has tremendous respect for those 16th Ave. craftsmen like Bobby Braddock or Bob McDill who worked every day, chiseling people’s emotions onto a blank piece of paper. And she fits so well with our philosophy of a great work ethic and positive attitude.”

It’s easy to understand why Gaston would be excited to sign Alexander. Above he explained the “people first” side of the equation. But the new addition also ‘brings it’ musically. For example, her Grammy nominated co-write, “I Drive Your Truck,” won triple-crown Song of the Year honors from the CMA, ACM and NSAI. Her inspirational ballad “The Climb,” (inked with Jon Mabe) topped the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart for 15 weeks, garnered a Grammy nomination and won Best Song From A Movie from MTV.

I sat down with Jessi Alexander, (named after Jessi Colter) to get her side of the signing process and learn about her background. I wanted to know what career concerns mattered most, and what brought her to the conclusion that This Music was where she belonged. Unexpectedly, she also weighed in about gender on Music Row, offered some interesting advice for new writers and revealed some very personal feelings about why “The Climb” became a personal breakthrough moment.

NEKST: Did you interact with music growing up?

Jessi Alexander: I remember my grandfather sitting at a piano and playing a game with me. I’d say, “Hey Granddaddy play ‘Love Me Tender’,” and he’d tap it out with one hand. But my dad was probably most instrumental. He was a hippie child of the ’60s and during college collected all the great records—from Led Zeppelin to Jimi Hendrix. He also discovered Will The Circle be Unbroken which led him to Ralph Stanley, Willie Nelsonand even Joan Baez. His music library offered Bluegrass infusing with rock n roll, gospel, delta blues and more. I was an only child with few friends, so while everyone else was out playing, my pastime became absorbing this music. Now that I have a 7-year old it gives me more perspective on how weird I was. My daughter might know what bluegrass is, but by her age I was encyclopedic in my approach to music. And everyday I still draw from those experiences.

Sounds more like you were “gifted,” not weird.

Well, I love how your weaknesses can become strengths. Being from a broken home in the country (Jackson, TN) without siblings, much TV or toys, music was an easy choice. At age nine my Dad asked me what instrument I wanted to learn. I chose electric bass. If he had gotten me that bass then maybe I wouldn’t have learned guitar, but he couldn’t afford a bass and an amp, so he got me a pawn shop acoustic guitar thinking I wouldn’t know the difference. Of course I did, but that started me playing guitar.

Did you imagine yourself being an artist or a songwriter during those early years?

jessiI grew up around blue collar type factory workers. My first jobs were working at a dry cleaner, at Subway and the car auction. Even after moving to Nashville around 1999 I approached the music industry in a blue collar way thinking ‘work hard then you’ll get that raise or promotion.’ Pretty quickly I saw it wasn’t like that and it seemed frustrating to realize how elusive it can be as to why certain people have success and others don’t. A promotion can be a song hold or an award. But I also understand how fortunate I am just to get to do this.

Continue reading David’s interview with Jessi Alexander here!

Making Music After a Major Life Struggle

[Editors Note: This blog was written by Patrick McGuire. Patrick is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician based in Philadelphia.]

 

I used to admire how some of my favorite artists could seamlessly convert the most difficult challenges of their lives into incredible songs. But I found it nearly impossible to do just about anything, let alone write music, in November 2016 after my right elbow was shattered in a hit-and-run biking accident. Realizing that the process of pulling potent lyrics and memorable melodies out of my sudden intense pain and turmoil was going to be anything but easy and straightforward, I’d stare at my computer screen for a few minutes and retreat back to bed after using my good arm to set up my small MIDI keyboard that I planned on writing melodies and bass lines with.

Yes, making and experiencing music can be a powerful agent of therapy and comfort in all things – not just life’s unexpected traumas and setbacks – but it can be hugely difficult or downright impossible to keep writing songs after experiencing death or loss, or any other significant trouble. After undergoing the first of two surgeries I’d eventually need to bring full functionality back to my arm, I soon defiantly returned to songwriting in a percocet-induced haze, but the ideas I managed to eek out seemed uninspired and forced to me.

‘I’ve got plenty to write about,’ I thought. Why isn’t this working?

After a major setback, we’re often eager to make something good come out of a horrible experience, but that’s not always the way it works. For me, I couldn’t make meaningful music again until I was able to fully process and cope with what had happened to me. Yes, I needed and still need a consistent songwriting practice to feel happy and fulfilled, but I was woefully preoccupied at the time with more pressing matters like simply staying afloat as a human being.

Depending on your situation, you simply might not be able to find the time, energy and resources to make music after the trauma you’ve experienced, and that’s okay. That’s not a failing on your part or representative of you as a person. This can be a really difficult thing to accept if you’re a person who uses music-making in your life as a means to stay sane and creatively productive; but like with most things, the passing of time is the only thing that can get you back to doing the things you love.

It took me months before I was able to start making music again at full capacity. The most obvious challenge in writing and producing music after my accident was the temporary loss of my right and dominant arm –– I play guitar and keys –– but depending on your unique trauma, you’ll face an entirely different set of hurdles that need to be cleared.

If you’ve experienced the death of someone close to you, the act of creating music might be something that loses its meaning for a while.

For someone experiencing financial trouble like the loss of a job or an unforeseen medical expense, you might be forced to choose between finding time to make ends meet and making music.

But like with everything after experiencing a huge setback, it’s paramount to keep trying to get back to a sense of normalcy. Maybe you’ll be able to make some incredible music after your trauma about what you’ve experienced, but a more realistic goal is to return to your usual songwriting process whenever you’re able to. This way you won’t have to deal with your problems while facing pressure to create a masterpiece out of them at the same time.

Some musicians are able to completely immerse themselves in their work as a means for coping with life’s struggles, but you shouldn’t be discouraged if you’re someone without the means and inspiration to do the same thing.

Stories of how artists make music inspired by death, breakups and other traumas are good for dramatic bios and press releases, but they don’t reflect the often tedious difficult work of songwriting. If the music you make after a life struggle isn’t emotionally raw or moving, that’s okay. It might take a long time for you to make compelling music again, but you should do everything you can to be kind to yourself and to celebrate your songwriting efforts after experiencing hardship no matter what sort of music you manage to create.

It’s coming up on the 12-month anniversary of my accident, and my songwriting isn’t the same if I’m being honest. But how could it be? I’m a little better after what happened to me in some ways and noticeably worse in others. That’s life for you, right? All I can do is move forward the best way I can and be grateful that I still have the desire and means to still be making music.

5 Reasons It Pays To Collaborate

[Editors Note: This article was written by Suzanne Paulinksi, an artist consultant with over 10 years in the music industry and owner of The Rock/Star Advocate.]

 

They often say, “Teamwork makes the dream work,” but what does that actually mean? Sure, we all know the benefits of growing our own team to carry out our own vision, but what are the real benefits to working with others who don’t work for us?

In years past, as I tried to get former businesses off the ground, I had been approached many times to collaborate with other business owners. More often than not I said no, afraid someone else would cloud my overall vision or try to usurp whatever I was currently working on and take it for themselves. I also had bad flashbacks of school projects when group work meant me busting my ass and four or five others benefiting off of my all-nighters.

So I pushed ahead on my own.

After two businesses failed to reach their full potential, I realized it was time to get out of my own way and realize the potential of combining forces. It’s one thing to hire internally and have a team help execute your vision – in fact, it’s crucial – but it’s quiet another to work with someone else who is in your same position (the captain of their own ship), but who brings a different perspective or skill set to the table.

Whether you’re a business owner or a songwriter, when it comes to true collaboration, it’s no longer about making your vision work, it’s about doing what works, period.

You don’t have to abandon your vision, but you do have to be open to improving it.

If you can trust that it’s just as important to have people who work with you as it is to have people to work for you then you can profit (in more ways than one) from these five benefits of collaboration:

1. Opens you up to a new or larger fan base: If you’re an artist who is trying to build their fanbase, positioning yourself to be a featured artist on someone else’s track or reaching out to share a stage with an artist who has already established a tour can get you in front of others who may not be familiar with you, but who are already primed to be potential fans of yours. Don’t stay up on other musicians as a way to “keep an eye on the competition,” but stay informed on who’s making moves as a way to keep an eye out for collaboration.

2. Opens you up to more prominent industry attention: Especially if you’re in the songwriting business, collaborating with another writer who already has the ear of industry decision makers can elevate your chances of getting their ear as well. That’s not to say you should only work with people who have reached a certain recognition – working with someone else who is on your same level can be just as beneficial. Not only are two brains almost always better than one, but creating something from two different perspectives can give your project the unique spin needed to make others listen.

3. Gets you a life long partner in this industry who has your back: Creating art is a very vulnerable process. Creating art with someone else can create an almost immediate bond. In an industry that can be very unforgiving, forming a close relationship with someone who can 100% relate to your specific position in the industry can be invaluable as you grow together.

4. Makes you better creatively and professionally: As I said above about not needing to abandon your vision, but being open to improving it, collaboration causes you to reflect on what you bring to the table and push further. A strong collaboration will force you to dig deep and put it all on the table. Much like an accountability buddy when trying to finish a task, when there’s someone to answer to you’ll try harder. On a professional note, knowing how to work with other personalities and talents is never a skill you should let get rusty.

5. Gives you a great story: When you bio is all about you, it becomes a snoozefest. Everyone loves a good love story in the movies, and everyone loves to hear how a song or project came together from a successful collaboration, especially if it’s an unexpected one. It gives you plenty of content to share and drip out as part of your promotional campaign. It makes cross-promotion a no-brainer, once again getting your work in front of a larger audience.

A little bit of skepticism with who you choose to let into your creative world is healthy, but paranoia or being overly controlling has never served anyone in the long run. Remember that in the end, it’s all about presenting your fans with the best version of yourself and sometimes it takes others to bring that out of us.

Here’s to making the dream work!

7 Great Ways to Accelerate Your Songwriting Skills

[Editors Note: This was written by Zac Green. Zac is a regular contributor to the Zing Instruments Blog.]

 

There’s nothing more intimidating than a blank piece of paper. Starting the process of writing a new song can take just as long as finishing it. So here’s seven tips to help you speed up your songwriting.

1. Work in a group, then alone

Having a few people to bounce ideas around with helps the creative process get started. After you’ve got your song started, the democratic process is more likely to slow you down. If you’re writing songs as part of a band, it can be better to go and complete your parts individually once you’ve gotten the overall idea in place.

2. Drink alcohol, then coffee

Research has shown that drinking alcohol boosts your creativity, but makes it hard to focus. Coffee, and other drinks containing caffeine, has the opposite effect. For your brainstorming session, loosen up with a few drinks. This works especially well if combined with the first tip, but be careful not to get carried away and turn it into a drinking session. Once you’ve sat down to start writing the ideas you have onto paper, fire up the kettle.

3. Give chance a chance

After a long music career, you might find that all of your songs are starting to sound the same. There’s nothing wrong with having a recognisable sound, but you don’t want to get stale. Shake things up by writing different elements of songs onto pieces of paper, such as keys, lyrical themes, and so on. Place them into a hat and draw five at random. Force yourself to use these, no matter how badly they seem to go together. The results can be surprisingly good – and more importantly they help you to think outside of your usual boundaries.

4. Write somewhere different

Creativity doesn’t exist in a void. If you want to be inspired, go for a long walk somewhere far away from your usual haunts. The change of scenery, fresh air and act of walking itself can be great for generating new ideas. If nothing else, it gives you a chance to let yourself relax. Stress is a major impediment to creativity.

5. Learn your music theory

I don’t care how unappealing this seems. You might think that learning theory chokes your freedom or that it’s boring. However, if you don’t know what the rules around music are, it’s impossible to break them in a way which is both purposeful and well-executed. This applies no matter what genre you’re in. For example, my own personal foray into EDM was vastly improved when I started learning about cadence, a concept from choral music.

6. Steal from other songs

Now let me just clarify something before we go any further. I am absolutely not telling you to copy somebody else’s song in it’s entirety and try to pass it off as your own. That’s not songwriting, and you’re unlikely to get away with it for very long.

What you can do, is jot down interesting chord progressions, licks and lyrics. Playing around with these later, such as using inverted versions of the chords, trying it in a different key or modulating can lead to something brand new as the changes you’ve made will lead to a naturally different conclusion.

7. Use good notation software

Writing music by hand can take quite a while, and you can’t always check to see if it sounds right straight away. By using notation software, such as Sibelius, or if you can’t read music, just programming the notes into a digital audio workstation (DAW) can transform your songwriting process completely, as it’s quite easy to quickly change sections of your music without having to rewrite every single note.

Armed with these tricks, your songwriting skills will change practically overnight. It doesn’t matter if you apply all of them at once (although that isn’t entirely practical) or try them out a few at a time. Your own process is going to be a factor in this, so perhaps some of them won’t be entirely applicable. Don’t fret about this, just do the ones that feel ‘right’ to you.

Industry Navigation Tools for Songwriters

[Editors Note: This is a guest blog written by TuneCore Artist Skela. Enjoy her tips to better network, collaborate, and engage was an independent songwriter in the music industry!]

You have to work very, very hard for a just a little bit of luck in the music industry. There are so many beautifully talented artists in this world, and it’s so easy to become overwhelmed by the idea of being one small fish in what feels like many oceans. Instead of being intimidated or striking up ugly green competition with your counterparts, use the multitude of likeminded artists around you to your advantage.

Songwriters are special creatures. We are spectators, empathetic beings, and constantly translating emotion onto paper. You may not know it yet, but one of your greatest strengths can be the ability to connect with others.

So do it.

Interact with the musicians around you. You may have written your best song alone in your bedroom, but it’s about more than that. Creating a long lasting career takes a village – or, people who support one another. Here are a few navigation tips I wish I knew in the beginning of my career:

1. There is no way of knowing who is going to be plucked from the bucket next.

Don’t cling to the cool kids. Don’t pursue people that you think are going to be the next big thing. Find the artists whose work you admire and connect with them. If you vibe with someone’s music, there’s a good chance you’re going to work well with them. Find your people, not your posse.

2. Go to your friends’ performances.

This seems obvious, but you would be surprised how many people don’t show up and support their music making peers. It’s important to show face because there is going to come a time where you need heads in a room and the favor returned. Also, buying tickets to concerts is what makes the industry go round. Most importantly, seeing someone in their element live is inspiring and always an opportunity to learn something new!

3. Never, ever stop writing.

If you’re going to be “something” in this world, then be the best damn “something” there is. If you’re going to call yourself a songwriter, then make sure you have an arsenal of material ready to work at any given time. You never know what session you might be asked to hop in on. Make sure you have it together so you don’t miss any opportunities to work with people.

4. Don’t burn bridges.

Again, you never know who is going to make it next in this industry. There is no foreseeable timeline attached to musicians so don’t write them off just because they’re not growing parallel to you. There’s a way to speak to people and a way to end relationships amicably. Lead a relationship by good example and leave the future open not barbed with past fallouts.

5. Speak up!

Just because you’re not a producer doesn’t mean that you should sit next to a producer in the studio silent. No one knows the sound you’re after better than you do. You might not know the technical aspect of how to create the palette and structure of a song, but you should know what it takes and be able to find the appropriate references and language in order to properly articulate your vision.

I know that working with producers can be intimidating. When I first started working with producers, I was just so grateful to be working with anyone at all that I nodded my head in agreement to almost everything. If you know what you want, don’t be afraid to speak up. The sooner the better, trust me.

6. When you know, you know.

Don’t force relationships. They should come naturally. It’s impossible to have a strong connection with every musician you meet. Take the session, try it out, and if it doesn’t work, both parties are going to feel something is off. Maximize your time by listening to your instincts when it comes to producers, songwriters and instrumentalists.

7. There is no such thing as an overnight success.

It is so easy to be jealous of others who are finding success in the music industry, but know that the people who are excelling probably worked extremely hard for their bite. It doesn’t come easy or without struggle. If one of your friends is finding success, it means that you’re surrounded by the right people. It’s a good thing when another musician starts to make traction. Your time will come because there is no expiration date if you don’t give up.

3 Problems Most Lyricists Face

Being the main lyricist for a band is arguably one of the most difficult positions in music that one can hold. You have to be part musician and part poet, and you have to learn a ton of rules and techniques that go above and beyond what the average musician would have to know.

Because being a lyricist and a musician is such a balancing act, there are a host of problems that can occur. In fact, there are way more than can be named in this article. However, time and time again there seems to be three main stumbling blocks that lyricists happen to run into.

If you’ve been having trouble as a lyricist, or just want to avoid running into to some all too common problems, you’ve come to the right place. This article will give you three great tips to help you on your road to being the lyricist you’ve always dreamed you could be.

Side note: Yes, there are exceptions to every rule below. No, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve found a flaw in my logic. They are the exceptions that prove the rule, and most of them are either purposefully breaking a rule as a part of a larger message (“I Am The Walrus”) and/or work because the other elements that make them up are so strong, (a lot of Bob Dylan’s work).

1. Not Simplifying Your Song

Ideally, every song you right should have one main point. Everything else in your song should work to flesh out this point (or in some cases cause the listener to reinterpret it). Think of your song like an essay. You have your thesis, a few points regarding it, and then a few supporting details.

A common problem with a lot of lyricists’ songs is that they don’t follow this. By not outlining and sticking to one clear point their song becomes almost unintelligible. It confuses the listener, and it keeps your song from resonating with your audience.

To use the essay analogy again, imagine if an essay about the history of Coca-Cola had a five-paragraph section in the middle about party clowns. This would (rightly) confuse the reader and distract from the main point of the song.

2. Inconsistent Rhyme or Meter

You don’t necessarily have to rhyme to make a good song. You can also be relatively flexible with things like meter. However, you cannot have wild swings with either element. For example:

                  The red duck is red

                  He hides under my bed

                  Next to my bed is a trunk

                  It opens with a solid thunk

The example above would be okay. The syllable count is similar enough (a deviation of a syllable or two isn’t overly distracting) and everything rhymes. This on the other hand:

   The red duck is red

                  He curls up on a blanket under my bed

                  Next to my bed is a chest

                  It opens loudly with a very solid thunk

Would definitely not be okay. It doesn’t flow well, and quickly abandoning a rhyming scheme is distracting. Again, in certain situations this could work, (for example, it could be used as a technique to increase tension or draw attention to a line), it’s just not something you should do without a larger purpose. This isn’t the most elegant analogy around, but hopefully it illustrates the point.

3. Being Overly “Artsy”

If you analyze the work of your famous poet, you’re most likely going to see that the complexity and beauty from their point comes from the subtlety of their language. They don’t use overly descriptive phrases to sound deep, because by doing so they remove the audience’s agency.

The reason that a lot of poetry and/or lyrics resonate so deeply with people is that the author leaves room for the words to resonate with the audience. They leave their work open to interpretation so that the audience can fill in the gaps with their own experiences or expectations.

There’s a famous story of Ernest Hemingway winning a bet with some friends to see who could write the best novel with only four words. His response was “baby shoes; never worn.” These four words tell a huge story because they’re so open to interpretation. The story you thought of when you read them could be about a couple who miscarried, or it could have been a variety of other situations.

The lesson to learn with this anecdote isn’t that Ernest Hemingway was awesome, (even though he was!), it’s that in order to have a piece of media that resonates with a variety of people you have to leave enough gaps for them to insert themselves into.

Bonus: Use Relevant Themes

This isn’t necessarily a tip to make a better song, which is why it isn’t getting a number of its own. Rather, it’s a way that you can help your songs become more popular.

Something you should strive for if you’re looking to appeal to a wider audience is writing songs with themes that are both relevant to a wide number of people (heartbreak, having a lame job, having a p.o.s. car) and easily identifiable in a song. There are countless examples of this, and pretty much every famous artist has at least one.

To do this, just pick something that’s happened to you in your life that happens to other people. If you have a tense relationship with your folks, write a song about it. If you had a significant other cheat on you, put your experience to music. Just make sure that the basic storyline is easy to follow.

In Conclusion

Writing a good song is hard, and writing a great song is even harder. While this article may not give you all the information that you need to start pumping out hits, it can give you a leg up on your competition.

And most importantly, don’t forget to have fun and write music that artistically fulfills you. We may not all get to be famous, but we can all have a great time playing music.