The Secret Lives of Superstar Songwriters

What is the secret to writing great music?

Well, why not ask the writers behind some of the biggest hits of recent memory?  That was the idea at the ASCAP “I Create Music” Expo in Hollywood on Thursday, where a healthy lineup of superstar writers shared their processes.  But the takeaways were a bit unexpected.

Perhaps the fascination surrounding the downfall of the recording industry and the emergence of direct-to-fan channels is drowning out the songwriting component.  But writers are just as hungry, creative, and entrepreneurial as aspiring performers, and many told tough stories of struggle and perseverance prior to success.

Thaddis “Kuk” Harrell, co-author of recent smashes “Umbrella” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” was quite candid on the matter.  Harrell told stories of painting houses to pay the bills, and only experiencing serious success more recently within his broader career.

Harrell has been active since the early 90s, and overnight success has never taken so many moons.  “That’s a long time, but I can look at a lot of people that have known me for years, and they always say the same thing: ‘you never gave up, you kept going’,” Harrell relayed.  “But I was realistic that there were other things that I had to do.  If that meant painting a house, I’d go paint that house.”

Others told stories that shed light on a lifestyle that is anything but creative bliss.  “A song a day keeps the IRS away,” said Jane’t Sewell-Ulepic, a co-writer behind the recent smash, “Empire State of Mind.”  Ashley Gorley, the Nashville-based creator behind “You’re Gonna Miss This,” talked about his rather ‘blue collar’ mentality towards writing.   “I’m not the guy that has to wait for it be a 75-degree perfect day; the more blue collar part of me is like, ‘okay, I gotta go to work’.”

The flip side is that all of these writers indicated that money was never their primary motivation.  But the discussion raised a very complicated debate surrounding the conditions that breed creativity.  One argument is that cushier situations tend to bleach creativity out of people, while hardscrabble realities create some of the most timeless work around.  And, artists oftentimes find their greatest creative inspiration after surviving harrowing experiences.

But that is perhaps a debate left to the academics and bigger thinkers.  Because when it comes to writing a hit, Jean-Baptiste urged fellow writers not to over-think, and to flow with the energy of the song and artist.  Jean-Baptiste recently penned “Boom Boom Pow” and “Meet Me Halfway,” among many others, but surprisingly, the author noted that artist collaborations that feature “lots of push and pull,” constant challenges, and arguments often produce the biggest hits.

But can any of this be bottled and taught?  Superstar writers have that ‘special something’ that makes chart-toppers, and spinning magic from thin air is hardly formulaic.  Instead, the ability to deliver a hit seems reserved for that uniquely-gifted individual, one whose talents are impossible to clone.  There is no machine that can do this, and it cannot be taught.  In fact, these writers are oftentimes unaware that a song just written will ultimately become a hit.

Still, some common themes emerged, including the importance of tapping into powerful emotions that listeners can relate to.  Paul Williams, chairman of ASCAP and a well-known songwriter, joked that an artist emerging from a romantic break-up is “like a cornucopia” of creativity, while C. Tricky Stewart noted that great songs often carry an “emotion that strikes a chord with a lot of people.”

Suddenly, everyday conversations can become the material for a great ditty.  “Hit conversations lead to hit songs,” Stewart continued.  Tricky is a frequent collaborator with both Harrell and the Dream, an urban hit-making combination.

The writers also encouraged aspiring songwriters to focus on what they do best.  That means sticking to their strongest genres, at least initially, and moving outward from there. “You know what you’re good at, and what your strengths are,” Gorley shared.

Report by publisher Paul Resnikoff in Los Angeles.