Moderated by Michael Laskow
Michael Laskow, TAXI CEO introduces Steve Seskin at TAXI's convention, the Road Rally: Steve Seskin is one of the most successful writers in Nashville today. The ironic part is that he doesn't live in Nashville. He's an A-list songwriter with a boat-load of songs recorded by people like Tim McGraw, Neil McCoy, John Michael Montgomery, Kenny Chesney, Colin Raye, Peter Frampton, Waylon Jennings, Alabama, Mark Wills, Peter Paul & Mary, and on, and on, and on. Some of Steve's other hits include "I Think About You," "Life's A Dance," "No Doubt About It," "You Got Love," and "Welcome To The Club." He is a man who has really truly proved that you can grow up in New York, live in San Francisco, and still become a major player in Nashville.
[Steve begins by playing his song "Grown Men Don't Cry" a recent #1 Steve wrote for Tim McGraw—followed by applause form a roomful of 2500 songwriters]
Steve Seskin: Good morning. I'm really impressed that you're all here at this time. I know things went on pretty late last night. This is my first time at a TAXI Road Rally, and it's pretty cool. A lot of good stuff is going on. I've got a few topics that I chose to talk about today. Before we dive into those, I just wanted to give you a little bit of background about me, for those of you who aren't familiar with me at all.
I grew up in New York City. In 1972, I moved to San Francisco where I began a career as a singer-songwriter. I say "singer-songwriter" in the sense that every single song that I wrote back then was for me to sing. I had no notion of anybody else ever recording my songs. There is nothing wrong with that, if that's the scope of what you want to do as writer and as a singer-songwriter. It was great for me. For 13 years that's all I did. Occasionally, people would say, "That song would be good for so-and-so." I'd say, "Yeah, well how do you do that? How do you get it to them?" It just didn't occur to me. Everything I wrote back then was based on things that happened to me. Everything was in first person. You could pretty much know what was going on in my life by whatever song I just sang. I think that it's a great place to start as a writer, but I don't think it's a great place to stop. There was a big change for me when I realized that I could write about anything.
In 1985, I did some shows with a woman named Crystal Gayle, who some of you may know from Country music. I have to tell you, I had never listened to Country music much. I grew up listening to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Cat Stevens--singer-songwriters and folk groups--but no Country music. So when Crystal Gayle came up to me and said, "You ought to go to Nashville," I looked at her like she was nuts. Me? Nashville? No. She said, "I just think they'd like what you do there." And boy, she was right. I took a trip there about two months later. I didn't know a soul. I had one appointment at ASCAP, and I got to play three songs for a fellow there. He got me some appointments with some publishers.
What really attracted me to Nashville is the songwriting community and the fact that there is one. That's growing other places now. I think that things like this conference are great for all of you to network and to meet. I don't know about you, but for me, for years, writing songs was a lonely endeavor. I was in my room by myself. The notion that other people did this, or that I could talk to them about it, was pretty foreign to me. In Nashville, you'd be eating breakfast somewhere, and like at the table behind you, you'd hear, "I don't think it needs a bridge. If we just develop the second verse..." And then over here they'd be saying, "Well she's cutting on September 15th. When are you going to do the demo?" And I thought, wow, there are other people that do this, and they're everywhere!
I was very attracted to that and it kept me coming back to Nashville. As Michael Laskow said, I've never lived there. I love living up in San Francisco. But I've made a commitment to Nashville. Nothing that happened to me would have happened if I had just stayed in San Francisco. San Francisco is a great music town. We have fabulous players up there and fabulous musicians. But it's not a music business town. It's certainly not a songwriting or publishing capitol, which I define as Los Angeles, Nashville and New York, basically. But if you don't want to live in one of these places, you need to make frequent trips to one of them. It can't just be like once every ten years either. I have been to Nashville seven times a year, times seventeen years. Somewhere around 130 times I've been to Nashville in the last 17 years. I've gotten to the point where I do it like clockwork. I go just about every month and a half or so. I go for ten or twelve days. I have to tell you, a lot of people in Nashville think I live there. If you think about it, other than your close friends, people like an A&R guy from a label or a producer--how often are you going to run into them? So when I'm in town, I make sure I run into everybody. People constantly say to me, "Hey where have you been?" And I just say, "San Francisco." And that's just fine.
Anyway, I've been going to Nashville ever since. I've been through bad publishing deals and great publishing deals. I'm in a really good one now. I think it's important to have somebody in your corner in a major music market, at whatever point you're at--whether it means getting involved with a publisher with a single song deal, or getting a staff deal at a publishing company. A good publisher really does his or her job. Every time you write a song, you are the songwriter and the publisher. If you want to effectively do that second job, then keep your own publishing. Be your own publisher. There is nothing that says you can't do that. But be prepared to do that job. It's a full time job. I don't want to do it. I'd rather write another song, personally.
To me, the thing with getting involved with somebody in the music business is to try to get involved with somebody who is passionate about what you do--not just because you feel like they think they can sell what you do. That's going to be part of the equation for them for sure, but there is nothing like meeting a music business person who is just as passionate as your are about your art and selling it, and who is also passionate about you. They're a fan. They dig you. They dig what you do. I've been very fortunate in that sense to get involved mostly with publishers in Nashville who are real fans of mine. They understand what it is I'm trying to do.
Every writer should have some sort of vision of who you are, and what you're trying to say, and what kind of writer you are. As you develop as writers, I think it's really important to figure out what your niche is. What is your thing that you need to be true to? By this I mean, for instance, I'm a very literal writer. As a listener, though, I love moodscapey kinds of things that just evoke a feeling, and I don't really know what the heck they're talking about. To this day, I don't know what Steely Dan was talking about most of the time. However, it's great music, and I can listen to it all day long. As a writer, though, I wouldn't be as good as they were at that. I'm a storyteller, and a fairly literal storyteller. I gravitate toward what I do best. I can write love songs like Diane Warren, let's say. But not quite as good as she does. So I dabble in other things, but I mainly stick to what I do best. I'm always trying to broaden that, but I think you owe it to yourselves to keep trying to figure out who you are--what your voice is, as a writer, and to keep nurturing that. You're going to have to nurture that in the face of a whole lot of people saying, "You can't do it. This isn't good enough."
One of the things that I worked on quite a bit early on in my career is developing my own level of self-critique. A lot of you are going to these one-on-one things and getting feedback. Heck, the whole backbone of TAXI besides getting music out to other people in the industry to trying to make something happen for you all, is also the critique service and feedback. I think that's great. I think TAXI goes a great job at that, by the way. However, I think it's limited in the sense that you have to understand that when you get feedback from anybody in this industry, they come to the table with baggage. What I mean by baggage is they have years of their own opinions. They are also telling you things within the scope of the music industry and what will sell--what they can sell, and what they're willing to pick up a phone for and call somebody to listen to it based on what they can plug in to sell. Art and commerce are an interesting mix. My notion of it is that there is nothing wrong with mixing art and commerce, as long as you don't let the commerce poison the art. Create the art from a pure place. As soon as I finish a song, I might think, wow, that's great, and I've done all of the re-writing I need to do. The next thing I think is, wow, who could cut this song? But I never think of who could cut this song while I'm writing it.
I know there are people and writers that don't agree with this. There are writers that do great work on demand writing for projects that are ready. It's like the old Motown days. Lamont Dozier was at the Northern California Songwriters Association last year, and he was talking about how Berry Gordy would walk in and say, "By 4 o'clock, I need a song about rain, by the ocean, with love. Do it." And they did it. They wrote some of the greatest songs ever written. I can't do that. I have problems with that. I have to write whatever I'm feeling like writing, and whatever moves me. Then I try and figure out who could do this song. There is nothing wrong with that. I don't need to starve with this. None of us need to starve to be vital writers and artists. I don't quite agree with that theory either.
So I wanted to start this talk about creativity. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about where I think songs come from, or at least where they come from for me. Again, I used to write songs just about myself. It was all very momentary. Whatever happened last week, that's what I'd write a song about. I wrote about ten songs a year, because let's face it, our lives go through peaks and valleys, but they also go through periods where not much is happening. So if you only write about yourself and your own life, you're not going to have stuff to write about all the time. These days, I write 40 or 50 songs a year--not that quantity is that important. I spend 120 days a year or so writing songs, locked in a little room. I love it. But I don't have enough stuff going on in my world to write all of those songs about.
One of the big jumps I made as a songwriter was to realize that I had the ability to write about anything and anybody. I can read the newspaper, and as long as I had a reaction to what I read, as long as I was moved in some way, as long as I said, "Wow, that's great," or, "Oh man, that's terrible. Can you imagine going through that?" I could then be like an actor and put myself into that position and write a song about it. I could talk to friends who were going through a rough time, or somebody who had just fallen in love with somebody and was really happy. That kind of thing. I could literally write about anything.
The other thing I realized early on is that I could write about it in any person that I wanted to. We're not tied to writing about things as they happen. If something happens to somebody else, I am just as apt to write it in first person as I am to take something that happened to me and write a third person story song about it. I'll write it in whatever the most powerful way is to tell that story. Each song presents itself differently.
I wanted to give you a couple of things I heard from Randy Newman years ago. He said things that always stuck with me. Those of you who are familiar with Randy Newman's music know he writes about everything. Somebody asked him once, "How do you write about all of these things?" He had a song about a coal miner, and it was written in first person. The guy said, "It sounds like you've been digging coal in the mines for 20 years." Randy Newman said, "Well actually, I met this coal miner on the subway in New York. We went out to get some breakfast, and he told me about his life digging coal in the mines. I went home and wrote a song about it. It's a lot easier than digging coal in the mines for 20 years." He said, "That's my job. I'm a songwriter. Not everybody can do what I do." Not everybody can do what we do. Part of our job is to be, if you will, Cyrano de Bergerac almost, the voice for somebody else, to put forth something that happened to somebody. He also said that our job as songwriters is to be a grand observer--to always be listening. I don't know about you, but I can't go to a movie without saying to my wife, "Hey, did you see the way he just looked at her? Do you have a pen?" I'm constantly 'on'. It's a blessing and a curse, as you all well know. I hear people say things all the time, and part of my job as a songwriter is not only to listen to what they said, but possibly to add a different context to what they said. I had a really strained relationship with my father that is pretty darn true to life in the second verse of "Grown Men Don't Cry." Another example is about a year ago I was taking a hike in Virginia. I was at a songwriters' retreat, and this guy was talking about how he couldn't help but get his kids really expensive gifts for Christmas. He was just kind of a softy. He always bought them things he knew he shouldn't. My friend was with me and said to the guy, "Man, I wish you had been my dad." I had always wanted to write a song--and the song ended up being called "Father's Day."
The lyric goes:
Another Father's Day and I know what I'd like to say
I wish you'd been my dad
I wish we'd spent more time
I wish you hadn't gotten mad when I tried to speak my mind
And I needed you
It didn't come through
And I never understood
But I wish you'd been my dad
I'm going to give you one other example of this--what I call "the transfer of emotions." Every day something incredible happens in your life, or somebody's life, or you observe something amazing. I chronicle emotional moments. How many of you write down titles and stuff as you think of them? Yeah, we all do that. But what I also try and do--and I'm not standing up here and saying none of you do this, maybe you do, but for those of you who don't--I write down and chronicle emotional moments that happen. I'll give you kind of a funny one that happened. I was standing in line at a grocery store, and right behind me was this woman and her two year old son. He went to reach for the candy and he tripped. He hit his kneecap into some sharp pointy thing that was sticking up. It was bleeding and he started just bawling his head off crying right in the middle of the grocery store. His mom picked him up, and she held him up and kissed his kneecap. She said, "All gone." Nice try mom. Then she did it again. She said, "All gone." And then eventually he calmed down, and he looked at her. When she said "all gone" to him, it didn't really do that much for me. It was okay. But it was when he looked back at her and said, (in the voice of a two year old -ed) "All gone." I said, "Do you have a pen?" (audience laughter) I don't know why I never carry one. I should, but I never seem to have one!
I wrote this thing down in a little book. It said, "Kid falls into candy and mom comforts child." Blah blah blah. "Finally he's okay. The nurturing kind of thing." For two years that sits in a book. I'm just giving you this as an example, because I do this all the time. Two years later, my wife comes home from work one day. She had just had of one of those days. I kind of took care of her, and nurtured her. Two days later I was thinking about that, and I was looking through my book and I was thinking about writing. I didn't have anything on my mind to write about. I'll just play you a verse and a chorus of how it ended up to illustrate what I'm talking about...
You don't have to say a word<> From the sigh that I just heard
I can tell you've had one of those days
Baby, you can talk to me
Or we can sit here quietly
Just let go
It's gonna be okay
I'm here now to hold you through the laughter and the tears
I'm here now to chase away your fears
When you get your scrapes and bruises
When the world simply refuses
Baby, I will love you through whatever's wrong
Until it's all gone
Until it's all gone
My point is, I never could have written that song that way if the baby hadn't fallen into the candy counter, and if my wife hadn't come home after work after a bad day. There is a transfer of the emotion.
The thought I want to leave you with is: Be observant. There are song ideas everywhere, everyday. A lot of things that I write in that notebook never become songs. It just took two minutes to write it down, though. It's not a big deal. I know there are things sitting in my notebook that happened two years ago that are going to be songs five years from now. Something else in a synergy sense needs to happen to make that moment turn into a song. So please start doing that if you're not doing that already.
The other thing that Randy Newman said that I think is really interesting is that we have a responsibility to our times. That has always stuck with me. The music that we write reflects the era that we live in. We don't often think of ourselves in that way, but think about people listening to the music being made today 50 years from now. All you have to do is think back to, like Forties music. Let's just (talk about) love songs, (for example). Relationships between men and women - and men and men, and women and women, hey - have changed in the last 100 years. We relate to each other differently. And the songs reflect it. A love song lyric of the Thirties and Forties wouldn't fly these days. It would almost sound corny, and yet sometimes it's still nice to hear from back then. But it's a different time, and I think it's important to stay on top of that and know the time you're in.
I also think that we have to realize that we have the freedom to fictionalize. Anybody sitting in this room that doesn't realize that, please listen to that. We have the freedom to fictionalize. Meaning that even if you write something about you and an event that happened to you lyrically, you owe it to the listener and the song to leave out the boring parts. You can edit, and make things up. I love to make things up. I don't know about you, but I rarely get whole songs. An event happens, and it inspires a verse, maybe a chorus. Then it's time to make some stuff up. That's my favorite part. Do you think all of the great fiction writers thought of the whole book, that the whole book just happened to them? No. Something happened that made them want to write that book. They were inspired or moved by something. Then the characters led them where they wanted to go.
There is this guy named Andy Breckman. He's a screenwriter, and he has a song called "God, I Love To Write." I'm going to do a terrible job of quoting it, but I can quote the best parts. It's a story song and it starts off, "Railroad Bill was a friend of mine, and he'd go walking home." And he says, "One day Bill on his way home from work saw this cat stuck up in a tree," and it goes on about how he was going to go save this cat. And then his character revolts. It says, "Bill said no. I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to save no cat in no tree. This is a stupid song and no folk singer is going to make a fool out of me." And then he goes on, "Why don't you have me save a beautiful woman on a railroad track? What is it with this cat fixation you have?" (lots of audience laughter) It goes on and on. At one point, he says to Bill, "Look, I've got the pen in my hand. You are the character. Get up in that tree and save that cat!" And Bill says, "No I'm not going to do it." It goes on and on, and then in the third verse it says, "Just then, a lightening bolt came down from the sky and struck Bill dead where he stood." At the end it says, "The cat came down from the tree, had a bowl of warm milk and went to sleep for the night. Bill is survived by a wife and three children. God I love to write." (more laughter) I think there is interesting stuff in there. We have a lot of power with that pen. Just ask people who we've been in relationships with who did us wrong. They know. How do you judge a good relationship? By how many songs you got out of it. Some of the worst ones are the best ones, really.
My friend Alan Chamblin always says, "Never let the facts get in the way of the truth." A great writer never lets the facts get in the way of the truth. What's the truth? An emotional truth. Why are you writing this song? What's the feeling you're trying to evoke? I think that's the important thing. Here again, you have to know what kind of writer you are.
I have a friend, Bob DePiero, and in Country music, he has probably written about 30 Top10 hits. Every single one of them is a fun, roll-down-the-top, ride-to-the-beach radio song. That's what Bob does, and he does it really well. He said, "Music is for people to forget about their troubles. It's to roll down the top, drive down to the beach, and forget about their life and all of its problems." And I said, "No, Bob. Music is to move people, to make them feel, to make them think, to make them cry, to make them laugh, to move them." And you know what? We're both right. It's for all of that.
Music is fabulous. Imagine the world for half a second without it. I think there is a reason why there are all kinds of music. Some people dig jazz. Some people think jazz is too busy for them. They want a folk song, kind of thing. Other people like country music. Other people hate it. Pop music, alternative rock music - it's all good. It's nice that it all exists because it gives us the choice as listeners of an amazing array of things to listen to. I think here again you have to figure out who you are and how you're going to fit into that mix. I don't write fun radio songs like Bob DePiero does as well as he does. I wrote a song called "Daddy's Money" that was a fun radio song. Who did I write it with? Bob DePiero. I was there. I remember contributing to it to some extent. But I'm not going to be writing a whole bunch of those any time soon, because it's not where my focus is. I tend to write social issue songs, and things that I really care about. That's just what I do.
When people ask me, "How did you make a dent in this crazy music business?" I do think that one of the reasons that a lot of my songs have been recorded is because they are somewhat unique in nature. I do write some love songs, but I haven't had too many of them cut. In Nashville, like I'm sure is true in L.A., everybody writes love songs. So when I get a love song on hold with an artist, and they're thinking about what they're going to record, I'm guessing 150 love songs on the same topic as mine come through the door. Well guess what, one of them probably has a little better melody than mine, or one of them has a little more unique line. But when I write something like "Grown Men Don't Cry," for instance, and when Tim McGraw got interested in that song, it stuck around because there weren't 100 other "Grown Men Don't Cry's" coming through the door. By topic, I'm talking about, it's unique in nature. I'm not telling you that you should do this, but I'm just saying this seems to work for me. When an artist or a producer has a slot, and they're looking for something they haven't been able to find, mine might fit that slot. That's opposed to the type that they have so many choices to fill that slot with. Even if you write mainly love songs, try and come at it from a little different, left-of-center place. I think all of us are trying to do something that has been done a million times. Everything has been said. Have you ever felt like that? Like there is nothing else you could possibly say? Baloney. There is another way to say it. I think we have to keep thinking of unique ways to put things.
Another thing that I wanted to talk about this morning are the opportunities that you may not be aware of to get your songs out. Everybody wants so-and-so to do their songs - big star #101 - whether it be Pop music, or Country music, or whatever. Why not? It's a nice goal, but it's difficult to achieve right from the get-go. However, I think there are lots of opportunities, right here at this TAXI conference, for instance. I heard some really good music last night on this stage. Maybe most of it was written by the people that were doing it. Maybe not. What I'm urging you to do is to go out into your local communities - I know a lot of you live in all parts of the country - and find the hot new band. Find the singer-songwriter who is out there who maybe doesn't have all of the songs they need. Pitch your songs to people that don't have a record deal that are still trying to get one.
I want to share with you a little story that will illustrate this. My friend John Ims wrote a song called "She's In Love With The Boy." Back in 1994 I think, it was Trisha Yearwood's first hit in Nashville. How did that song get pitched? I'll tell you - I was there. It was in Kerrville, Texas at the Kerrville Folk Festival, which is a songwriter festival that I go to every year. John was sitting there at a campfire, because at night we'd all sit around and swap songs. He said, "Let me play my new song," and he played it. A woman named Christine Albert was sitting there. She is a really good singer from Austin, Texas. She was getting ready to do her second or third independent record on her own label. She said, "John, I love that song. Can I record that song on my new album?" He said, "Sure." This album was destined to sell probably only 2,000 to 4,000 records, so it wasn't exactly going to be a financial bonanza for John Ims. But so what? At worst, you're just getting music out in the universe.
What a nice thing to do. And at best, I'll tell you what happened. She did that CD. She sold it off the stage at her gigs, and she also sent it Nashville to about six or seven producers trying to get herself a record deal for the next album. One of them was Garth Fundis. He heard her record. He didn't like her enough to sign her, but he heard that song and really dug it. He put it in a file. I asked him once how this happened and he told me he put it in his file called "Songs I Like." That was not a big filing cabinet! (laughter) At the time, he was not producing anybody that that song fit. That was 1993, approximately. What was Trisha Yearwood doing at that time? She was singing demos for me and everybody else in Nashville. She was the best demo singer in history. She could walk in and sing a song in 20 minutes and get it right, and put feeling into it. Two years after Garth Fundis got that song and put it in a drawer, Trisha Yearwood got her deal with MCA Records. Who did they hire as the producer? Garth Fundis. They had a first song meeting, and he pulled open that drawer and said, "I've got a song I want you to hear." It became her first single. It was BMI's Song of the Year. It has gotten over 2 million plays so far. It sold 3 million records. Where did that song get pitched? At a campfire in Kerrville, Texas. So, get your music out in the universe any way you can. If you perform, get out there and play. You never know who is going to see you.
Also in that same tone, I want to ask how many of you perform - get out and play? Well, it's not like the rest of you are screwed, but I will tell you this. I can't imagine being a writer who never performs. I know some writers in Nashville who never perform, and the only feedback they ever get on their songs are like from A&R people, and producers. But the truest, most real thing that I ever get about a song of mine is from an audience. There is nothing like an audience en masse. They don't have any baggage. It either works or it doesn't. Even if I pull you aside and say to you, "Hey listen to my new song. What do you think?" Baggage. You don't want to hurt my feelings, or you think it might be a good thing for you to tell me it was great. Whatever. I've poisoned the interaction. But with an audience, they don't buy into that. You either get them or you don't. I don't mean just applause. Those of you who play know what I'm talking about. You can feel it. I can feel when a song is working. I can feel when it's not working. A lot of them I rewrite because I get a song out and play it, and I realize there is a certain point in that song where I'm losing people. There is something I've said where I think I've chosen the language that they are going to go down the road I want them to do down, but I haven't. They're going down some other road.
So take advice from A&R people and the critiquers at TAXI, and from your wife, or husband, or mother, or child, but take it with a grain of salt. Know that all of those people come to the table with a certain amount of baggage. Your wife, or husband, or significant other will love everything you do probably. You're brilliant, as you should be in their eyes. But it's not exactly a barometer of what the rest of the world is going to think. They love you. I met a woman once who said, "My husband hates everything I write because he's really jealous of the fact that I do this and spend all of this time with music. He's always very critical." I told her to leave that marriage!
I don't really have time for this whole topic, but I will say just this about it: Rewriting: please be good to your songs. Be true to yourself. Be willing to work hard. I have written songs in like three or four hours for the whole song. Alan Chamblin and I wrote a song called "Don't Laugh At Me." We wrote that song in about four hours. And you know what, at the four-hour mark, we went to lunch, came back, and everything felt right. It was done. We have another song called "Cactus In A Coffee Can" that is a story song. It took us 100 hours, six months of phone calls, of driving to North Carolina together, of hashing it out. We must have tried 25 lines for this one line in the song that didn't quite work. What does that tell you? That I'm willing to spend 100 hours. Do I like spending 100 hours? No. I'd much rather everything just come rolling out, and in four hours I'm done. It's a masterpiece. Does it happen like that often? Not for me. I don't know about you. I'm willing to work. I have a level of self-critique and a standard that I need to achieve. I don't always easily achieve it. Also I try not to beat myself up when I can't easily achieve it. I'd rather commend myself for having the standard in the first place. You cannot judge songwriting by any standard other than itself, in the sense that you can't judge how long you spend at it with how much it yields. If you have a job hanging sheet rock, let's say, and you put up a piece of sheet rock and then you spend the next eight hours admiring the left hand corner of it. The boss comes in and says, "You've only put up one panel." "Yeah, well but look at it. The left corner is gorgeous, the way it fits in there." Then he says, "You're fired!" However, if you write songs, and if I spend six hours writing a song, and at the end of that six hours I have one line, or one piece of music that I love, that's a great day. I think of the muse as some sort of really sneaky little devilish muse. But also a fair muse sooner or later. My notion is when I spend 100 hours writing "Cactus In A Coffee Can," that the muse was very impressed. One day he or she looked down and said, "You know, you guys deserve this 'Don't Laugh At Me' thing. Four hours - here." I don't know, it's just a theory. Be willing to work hard, is all I'm trying to say.