Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Get Back, again

Country music is like a mean girl in your class at school. You try so hard to get her to like you. Well, you probably don't, but I do. And every time I try to do what might make me cool in her eyes, she hastens to tell me that whatever it is I'm doing is so last year. The country genre, from the songwriter's perspective, is ruled by oligarchs who are mostly men hogging the top 50 with songs about, well, you know. Those sex-in-a-pickup-truck songs we hate. Although I couldn't help noticing a great lyric in a Florida Georgia Line song about Friday night at the swimmin' hole / creek / bonfire / cornfield / dirt road / place where country boys get country girls to undress, which is "Victoria's secret ain't a secret no more." Well done.

The genre is also ruled by gatekeepers who want an unforgettably hooky, fresh-yet-comfortable, witty-yet-conversational, relatable-yet-not-cliche thing about something we can all understand that has never been written about that way before, with an irresistible groove and guitar licks that they definitely absolutely have heard a million times before, that is always anything but what I have just written. It reminds me of a scene in "Tootsie," (an old, old movie from the eighties with a lot of truth in it, kids) where Dustin Hoffman is auditioning and the director says "we want somebody taller" and "we want somebody older" and Dustin Hoffman keeps showing that he can be those things and the director finally says "we want somebody else." Oh. Okay.

To be fair, I started listening to country music when I wanted to write country music, and if you had to pass a test of country music literacy, I would fail. (In Yoda voice: "hmm, maybe your problem that is.")

Anyway, I finally wrote a country song last year that They liked, and They liked it a lot; except for the lyric. It was a great lyric, but it was all wrong. Too young, too dated. And isn't that horrible - putting words in the mouth of a young person that are the words of an old person. Yeesh. And it took almost a year for me to get the critique where people finally told me every word and idea that was wrong, and it took five of them to do it, but finally I got it.

Because God is merciful, I was able to re-write it, anticipate three things that They wouldn't like, re-write those, and find a new singer who is a fine replacement for the girl who used to sing my country songs before she went off to get famous.

And so far, in 6 days, my preliminary impression is that They like it. They might even like it a lot. Oh and go click and like Chelsea Stepp because she has a great sound and is a good writer too.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Apparently it's all about Karns

I know that internet radio isn't exactly the big time, but still, it's fun. My song "Feel This Way," featuring Sydni Stinnett, will be played starting at 5 today here.

She's a 14-year-old from Karns.

And then there's the girl who sang this song of mine, Emily Roberts. She's on "The Voice" tonight. Somebody let me know how she does because I have rehearsal. She's also from Karns. I don't know what's going on up there but I like it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Singing Friends

When my son was about four, he brought me some sheet music I had just printed and said "Mama, here's your singing paper." Early on, he learned to distinguish between my "lady friends" - usually there is cackling, food and wine - and "singing friends" - there is singing, cackling, and usually not wine. Because wine.

I love singing friends, and I need them. I have some in the Knoxville Choral Society (alto section = much cackling), and some at my church singing gig, and some who go way back and are precious to me. I have my producer, Steve Rutledge, who is like the brother I never wanted, and the random characters who come in to play.

Some of my favorite singing friends are the singers who come in to sing my demos. I look for great, unforgettable voices, and I look hard. It's not always easy; this past week I dragged myself to the Tennessee Valley Fair after slaving over a hot microphone all morning, to go sit in the Pepsi Tent and hear a lot of 9-year-old girls in cowboy boots sing their hearts out in the talent competition. The jazz guitarist should have won, by the way; and I really want to find the girl who sang "Jar of Hearts," and they should have turned her track down. If you see her tell her to call me.

...and by the way if you are a talented very young person and you put your stuff online without saying your city or a way to get in touch with you, you are making sure that pedophiles don't find you, and you are also making sure that people like me who want to give you recording opportunities don't find you either. May I suggest a Reverbnation account where the parent can check and screen the messages? Unless you just want to have your stuff on Youtube forever, reaching only your three friends who say "omg your amazing."

Anyway, I look hard to find the singers who get my songs signed to sync deals, the singers who make the publishers say "who's the singer?" before they talk about the song. I'm pleased with this unexpected outcome in my life, which is that all the voice studying I've done hasn't given me a money-making voice, but I've got great ears.

My favorites of these singing friends climb into the song and make it their own and I love where they take it. I also love the collaboration, so much, because I don't love working alone. When I don't get the cut I'm not so much sad about the money that I won't make, as I am sad that there is a musical party going on and I don't get to go. But I'm realistic. The singers I pick are on their way to bigger careers and record deals, and when they get where they're going I have no illusions that they will remember me at all; this is why I'm not going out of my way to get the cut.

There is usually a parent or other members of the entourage, and I also love the joy the parent gets when they hear it. There is a mystery to your child's gift - they just walk into the vocal booth at age 14 or 16 or 20 and wail out an incredible vocal without really thinking much about it.

My latest singing friend just recorded this for me and it's ... oh right. Go listen. I'll wait.

Right? She's kinda bluesy kinda R&B kinda her own special thing. I'm moving away from the squeaky clean young songs that nobody wants, and loving her earthy sexy energy and she's got some chops too. She writes her own stuff so she hasn't got much use for me, alas. Now go give her some money. I'll wait.

Anyway, Alyssa has chosen to live in Kentucky just to thwart my deep need to have her record my songs but I'll recover. When I hear a voice I like, I start hearing it a lot, and I usually can't help but write for it. I've got another one waiting and by the time she decides to cross state lines again I'll probably have others.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Open for business

I finally took the digital distribution plunge. I'm not dying to sell my songs on Itunes but it's kind of a thrill to see it there.

Sometimes you're the pearl.... #1

... sometimes you're the swine.

I rely heavily on song critiques. I get them from my industry organizations and from independent song coaches and from peers sometimes. The "industry pro" versions are often anonymous, and they evaluate my song on characteristics like lyric, melody, commercial potential, structure, arrangement. I think getting critiques is crucial for anyone who wants to get his or her song on the radio. I often hear people saying that those who give critiques aren't qualified, "how many cuts do they have?" etc. The answer is often lots of cuts. And then a lot of people don't agree with what the critiques say. I think critiques are valuable for the advice they offer (sometimes), but also they require that I step outside myself and look hard at my song, and most of the time, they require that I make edits.

I generally try to saw my brain in half for critiques. It only hurts for a second. Half of my brain wants to talk about whether the song is good, and the other half wants to do what is necessary to get the song on the radio. When I started trying the commercial thing two years ago I promised myself that if I never agreed with the critiques I would stop, because trying to change my songs in a way that I fundamentally disagree with would be too soul-killing. But I generally agree, either because they truly make the song better or because I want my song on the radio. Bad.

Now, two years in, I'm ass-deep in critiques, and after the brain-sawing, sometimes I notice that the critiques aren't always helpful. Some are awful, painful, and/or laughable.

Two of the worst evaluations I have had lately happen to be for "Feel This Way" and "Don't Miss Out," which are songs that have done kinda well for me lately. (coughcough first and second place grand prize cough)  And it's not just a Smoky Mountains Songwriters Festival thing... "Feel This Way" was my first Taxi forward (I hate Taxi! I will write about them one of these days) and I have an exclusive contract for it sitting in my "What do I do about this" pile. "Don't Miss" has arrangement issues, and other problems, but damn it's got some fun na-nas in it.

Here are a few excerpts from the "Feel this Way" critique. I won't give you identifying info for this evaluator, but if you are a songwriter and want to know, message me privately.

Lyric: "but I just / feel this way / don't know much about it / one more day / I want to see you again / pointed to you like an arrow / oh I don't know I just follow.."

"don't know much about it""oh I don't know I just follow" "what can I say" I think you should change these lines. It's best to refrain from saying you don't know things in a song. It's your job as a songwriter to tell a story and you should say instead of "I don't know" something that describes the situation. This is my first time, I've never felt this way before. I won't try to understand it, I'll just follow the feelings.

Hmm... how about "pointed to you like an arrow, oh I don't know I just follow?"

 "You unwrap me like a kid at Christmas" This means that you unwrap kids at Christmas. The correct metaphor would be you unwrap me like a christmas present. I don't know if you should put a holiday reference in this song unless you want to make it a holiday song.

 "Pointed to you like an arrow" This metaphor is unclear as well. I'm an arrow pointed to you. 

 "Ladadeddadeda" This is a good melody, why not put some words to it?

While the evaluator's comments on metaphor are sort of funny and sort of wrong, there is probably nothing wrong with trying to make the metaphor tighter and more obvious. It's not obvious enough already? I guess not. And the song is not perfect; its hook is not nearly as shiny and clever and aerodynamic as Nashville requires. Although "Feel This Way" is a pop song, and the pop market is a little bit less fervent in its worship of the hook as the country market. But, whatever. The idea that it's a bad idea to mention a holiday in a song seems silly to me, and has not stopped the publishers and music licensing pros who have offered me deals on this song so far. Particularly since this terrible holiday reference doesn't occur until the bridge, where you've either decided you like the song or you've turned it off.

The troubling comment is the last one; it is common, understood, obvious knowledge that la las and whoa whoas are very, very hot right now and any analysis of the #1 songs for this year and last will show you that most of them have some kind of melismatic or nonverbal vocal hook. Larry Beaird would back me up on this if he were here.

So, yes, that last comment is not a subjective opinion, in my opinion, but a lack of understanding or insight about what is commercial right now. Did it invalidate the whole eval? Sort of, but sort of not. It's possible for an evaluation to get it wrong here and get it right there. I'm not going to change "Feel This Way;" it's an old song, it's in the can, and I'd rather write another, better song than tinker with an old one. Nevertheless, as whack as a lot of this eval is, it's made its* mark, and in the future I will probably diagram some of my metaphor-laden sentences to make sure that the unwrapper and the unwrappee are clearly differentiated, and that items indicating direction are also clearly represented by a pointy, directiony thing. Maybe an arrow?

*You're welcome.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

"Waiting" Recording: "Broken"


I didn't get to tell you about Awesome August, but part of it was 12 house guests who came to my house to stay while we recorded 10 songs in 2 days. Members of the "Waiting" cast trekked to E. Tennessee to record songs from the show. It was a risk - hosting 12 houseguests with a 40-gallon water heater and three air conditioning units that are old enough to vote, throwing them into a studio environment requiring three separate vocal areas, 12 sets of headphones, a way to record tap dance without ruining the floor, and a lot of singing. I don't know how many Michelin stars I got for my breakfast casserole and lack of bathrooms, but the recording went amazingly well. Everyone was prepared, nobody was a diva, nobody got sick or got red light syndrome or anything. The young woman above sang this and other tracks with a shimmering beauty that I crave to hear on just about any song I have ever written, and her friends did as well with spirit and that wonderful texture and power that only theater singers have.

I also got to drink a lot of red wine with some of their moms and their teacher and her husband; I am now a fan of Dan Hobson because he fixed the broken shower, was tech-theater useful at many other stages, and, like his wife, is pretty fun. My son is a fan because Dan is practicing to be a grandpa and that means Daniel got to climb on Dan's back like a monkey. A lot.

I am ambivalent about writing musicals. I love it. It's stressful. I love it. There's no money in it (indeed, I am deep into the red for this show and not likely to get out of it). I love it. It's a time-suck. I love it. I need a collaborator and despair of finding Mr./Ms. Write. I love it.

Musical theater is kind of my genre native language, so I think I won't know how to quit it anytime soon. Anyway, the music featuring members of the original cast will be available on CD in time for Christmas, and you will be able to buy it here at my website. No, not now, silly. When it's done.

I'll let you know.

P.S.: The "Broken" lyric did not win or even place in the Smoky Mountains Songwriters Festival competition; it lost to others, including my lyric about a woman breaking up with her boyfriend and his recliner. But I still like it a lot.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

I won

I want a cute way to tell you that my song "Feel This Way" won the Grand Prize in the Smoky Mountains Songwriters' Festival Competition on Saturday, like just putting up a picture of the certificate. But I don't have my Grand Prize certificate. Because, actually, someone stole it from the SMSWF when it was still blank. I know right? That's weird. There will be pictures of me holding my... well, not holding my Grand Prize certificate, but looking kind of rumpled and joyful; standing for pictures with the festival director and my singer. That's coming later.

This festival, this contest, mean a lot to me because it's my community, and because this is where I started. I love the workshops and meeting people and sharing songs. Deciding which song is best is subjective and dicey and all that, but I am also deeply concerned and interested in what makes a song successful, what makes it well-crafted, and what reaches people. Not all the same thing, at all.

I heard some other great songs. I had a finalist song in the folk category, and came in second. I didn't think my song, "Bad Bad Thing," was a winner, and the song that won was "China Plates" by Jess Chizuk and I am glad that song won. The winner in jazz / blues (which was really just blues) was Cari Ray, a smoky single-malt-voiced gal from Indiana who is cooler than you or I will ever be. Some guys I know nailed all the country songs, and I'm glad for them. Last year I heard a guy named Joe Hash in the slot before my gig at Tom & Earl's Back Alley Grill, and loved his songs and his voice. I urged him to enter the contest, and then kicked myself while waiting for results on Saturday, since his song "I Found Jesus" won the gospel category and the Listener's Choice award. I thought he might win the whole thing with it. I thought "Feel This Way" would be an audience favorite, but I also thought the judges would choose an "important," serious song over my breezy little pop song about young love.
Margaret Andrea, Sydni Stinnett, me, Steve Rutledge

I might not have won if I hadn't had the friends above with me. Sydni Stinnett, my 14-year-old vocalist phenomenon, sang my two pop songs better live than on the recording, and I was able to rely on Steve Rutledge's guitar while limping along on my own. And dear friend Margaret added her usual rich and creamy background vocals as well as her treasured friendship and moral support. 

Friends! I have some! And singing friends are some of the best. I also had some friends from Chicago, now transplanted to Chattanooga, come up to see and support us, and that made things better. Like an idiot I took no pictures of them but love you S & V. 

What can I say? I am competitive. I won the grand prize, took another first prize in lyrics, took two second prizes, and it was a bucket list moment, a dream come true. I know that Nashville doesn't give a hoot about contest wins, and I know that many contest winning songs aren't the ones that end up on the radio. But I'm still thrilled. I'm also inspired by what I learned from hearing other songs, from workshops, from seeing what did well and what didn't in the eyes of the 5 music industry people I met and had some good conversations with. 

I'm learning, more and more, that it's the people that matter in these experiences, and I was so grateful that Steve and Syd would travel to Gatlinburg just to help me out, and that they got to be part of my win, as they should be. My favorite moment was Margaret, crying when we found out I won; Margaret who has sung my songs with me for more than 20 years, saying "it's been a long time coming." It doesn't feel like a long time, it feels like a great time that's just getting better.

and oh by the way, here are links to the songs:

“Feel This Way,” which won the Pop category and the grand prize:

“Don’t Miss Out,” which won #2 in Pop:

“Bad, Bad Thing” – second place in Folk:

“Be Mine” – this was my lone “honorable mention”

La-Z-Boy: this was my “lyrics only” entry, which won first prize. There is no music for it at the moment, but here is the lyric in its entirety:

Sarah Motes Ashley copyright 2015

I lost two hundred pounds the day he moved out
his recliner was the second thing to go
It smelled like ancient beer
I dragged it out of here
it's at the curb
on furniture death row
the guy spent every minute
watching ESPN in it

So goodbye
You did your best work laying down
Something to vacuum around
You'll miss its corduroy embrace
long after you forget my face
I wish you joy

I remember that first time at his old place
we drank champagne and snuggled in that chair
romance and candlelight
I didn't know that night
I'd need dynamite to get him out of there
He's the only man I know
who DVRs a fishing show


I hate to say I miss him
but when I needed kissing
he wasn't lazy at all
my friends roll their eyes
but I just realized
I'm gonna give that lumpy guy a call