IIt was the night before New York, and all the shoppers in line were tired. A song played over the radio at the dingy grocery store, and I watched the feet start tapping, all down the cue. I don’t know if they even realized it, such is the subliminal power of music, cutting through the daily grind and grime.
On the bus to the city, the same song played in my headphones. I’m sure if I had an 80’s boombox instead (and was permitted to remain on said bus), that everyone would have danced.
New York City
In the halls of The New Music Seminar, there was the guy who had written the song – Best Day of My Life – the remarkably chill James Adam Shelley from American Authors, and his extroverted publisher, Jonnie Davis, hit songwriter extraordinaire, and most recently, Round Hill Music executive.
A few minutes later, we were sitting down in the media room. “James, I brought you something to try!” I enthused, handing him a cigar box guitar I had built. As he picked out a bluesy tune, the interview got underway.
I’m a songwriter. I hang out with songwriters. And I interview songwriters. Here were two tremendously successful guys, and I wanted to know how they did it. After all, a songwriter is a modern-day wizard, casting a spell that even exhausted, grumpy shoppers can’t resist dancing to.
I inquired about their process – was it formulaic? Alchemic? “There’s really a million different ways.”
“Do you get inspiration outside of music?”
“Oh yeah, absolutely” James said.
Jonnie added “He’s a mountaineer, you know.”
James continued: “Anything can give you an idea. I feel that if people bottle themselves down, and say “This is how I do it” they’re missing out on opening themselves up to a million different ways to write other things. So if you can get ideas from watching the news – if you feel something, even something that simple, if you feel emotion in that, you can totally write about that. Or if you feel something in your own life, you can write about that.”
Jonnie jumped in: “So, there’s something that James wrote…When I was listening to the first album, you said “and some birds just aren’t meant to be caged.” And I thought that was SUCH a great line. Then I’m watching The Shawshank Redemption, and I’m like “Oh my God, that’s where they got the inspiration for that line!” Am I wrong?”
Thinking, James replied “I think it’s kind of subliminal, and there’s versions of that phrase, and it’s just a powerful phrase that…you feel.”
I was curious to know if they both felt under the gun to deliver the next hit. “Do you feel the pressure?”
“Whew!” Jonnie exhaled with the weight of the answer, leaning back.
“Yeah of course, and that’s what you’ve got to get away from” said James.
“The position that he’s in right now…it’s very tough, and there’s a lot of pressure to deliver.”
“It’s intense” James replied.
“And it was so good to see you open up about that in front of all of those people.” continued Jonnie, referring to a panel discussion earlier in the day.
“I’m always swinging for the fence, and it needs to start with a great concept.
James might not be quite the same as me, but the synch aspect [placement in advertising, movies, TV in addition to album sales] to me is so important. So, I try to steer my songwriters away from writing ballads, no love songs, no romantic love, generally speaking…Now of course, you can always have an album track, which is important because is shows the depth of the group…”
“Or be a Sam Smith” quipped James.
“But these guys just come up with these anthems man, and it’s not love songs, and that’s how you get the syncs. That’s our business model, speaking for Round Hill. We want groups and performing artists that can get syncs with the songs.”
The cigar box guitar
As a guitarist myself, I was excited to ask James the next question: Who were his guitar influences?
“Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan for sure. I spent my whole childhood learning those guitar players.”
Jonnie asked “How’d you get so good at the banjo?”
Laughing and shaking his head, James answered “Ahhh if you’ve seen a real banjo player…”
Jonnie wouldn’t have any of it. “You’re a real banjo player.”
“Well…a metronome and learning old banjo songs…And learning from great banjo players.”
“I don’t know…maybe Steve Martin.”
Jonnie was the first to laugh. “I was so glad you said that!”
The two men, while very different in personality, shared an obvious mutual admiration for each other, and great success in the music business. “Coming into the industry, was there anything different than you had expected about the songwriting process?”
“Yeah, the small minor details that make all the difference…just like you said” (James, pointing to Jonnie, who replied:)
“Ninety percent of the work takes ten percent of the time, and the other ten percent, that’s where ninety percent of the work goes. And he’s living that now”
Building on Jonnie’s theme, James finished with “That’s the biggest lesson to learn”
“Any advice for emerging artists?”
The first to reply was James: “Yeah: learn from your mistakes and keep going forward. Learn why your song didn’t work, if it didn’t work. If you’re an emerging artist and you’re at the table still scratching your head, then figure out why the songs you released in the past didn’t work, and why other hit songs did… and what do you want to listen to.”
Jonnie continued the theme. “And study what’s on the radio, because it can be rather formulaic, certain chord changes, certain tempos…
My best and worst quality as a human being is the inability to quit at anything I do, like when to give up. You just can not quit. You can’t have a backup plan. NO backup plan! And the thing is, I just said the word can’t, and I shouldn’t have. If you substitute the words can’t and can for will and won’t, it could change your life, if you think about it.”
“Here’s a silly question for you. If you put Elvis and Beethoven in a cage match, who would win?”
Jonnie was quite decisive in his opinion. “@#$# Beethoven, Man!”
James appeared on the fence: “I don’t know, though, Elvis was in the military…..”
“Beethoven would kick Elvis’ ass!”
“I leave mine unanswered.”
“He’d go primal!”
With a laugh about the imagined fight, and round of handshakes, everyone went their ways as New York City swirled outside the hotel’s hushed conference rooms. Special thanks again to James Adam Shelley and Jonnie Davis for the insight, advice, wit, and time at The New Music Seminar ‘15!
Josh Urban is a writer and musician living near Washington, DC. Say hey on Twitter @DontJoshMe