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


Year 3

It was exactly two years ago, give or take, that I started the commercial songwriting thing for real. I went to the Smoky Mountain Songwriters Festival, learned a bunch of stuff, participated in the song competition, got lost on the way home, ended up in Greene County an extra hour away from home, muttered "ain't got time to see Rock City" under my breath as I tried to find my way back to Maryville without GPS, ended up writing a song about that, and that was the beginning. 

So today, the day after the Smoky Mountains Songwriter Festival, has become the end of my songwriting fiscal year. Accounting-wise I do January 1 like everybody else, but in terms of new ideas, new beginnings, taking stock, whatever: this is day 1 of my third year writing for (in spite of?) Nashville. Year Two, August 22 2014 until August 22 2015, was big. It started with me, sitting in the lobby at the Edgewater Hotel at last year's song competition. I was in the lobby because I had not made the finals, I felt sulky and ripped-off, and I didn't want to be in the room. But I heard last year's winner from a distance, without hearing the words; Charlie Katt's voice is beautiful and clear and I realized as I sat there that his songs lifted at least half an octave from verse to chorus. They soar. I realized that "chorus lift" was a thing I'm not naturally good at, and it was a thing I hadn't been doing well in my writing. I went home and put a jack underneath my choruses and cranked them up, even though it messed up the harmonics and made everything harder; then I realized that different (better) singers could easily soar into a higher chorus much better than I can. I also realized that "chorus lift" is a thing that Nashville insists on. A rule. And I had decided it didn't apply to me, but it does; and like so many Nashville Rules, when I started following it, it made my songs better. 

It's a combination of laziness and fear and that kind of insecurity pretending to be arrogance that gets in my way sometimes, when I write down a good lyric and hope I'll get away with not making it a great one, or I write the lyric I want to write instead of the one I'm pretty sure Nashville wants. The tension between "be yourself" and "I can't pitch this" is where I have to live. 

Year 2 was about me stumbling onto Music X-Ray and discovering the world of sync and library music; I have been offered 9 deals and signed 5. I have two exclusive contracts that I am afraid to sign, instrumental music sitting in libraries all over the place, songs and instrumentals on hold for movies, TV shows, commercials that might get picked up or might get dropped. It was also about me finding a couple of singers who take my songs farther than I ever dreamed, and me finding better ways to find more singers, a song or two of mine getting pitched or getting pitched to someone who might have pitched it (who knows). New cowriters have come out of the woodwork and a lot of things have happened to show that I'm inching my way forward. What hasn't happened? I have earned money from writing my play, from contest winnings, but not a dime in royalties yet. I had a shot at cuts on a promising indie project, but other songwriters got involved and suddenly it felt competitive and not in a good way. I told myself that getting my hands a little bit dirty to get a cut is probably "how it is," but I couldn't do it. 

Since I wrote a musical and wrote songs for sync (film / TV), I wrote very few "radio hits" and I feel like I want to focus on that in year 3. The best thing about year 2 is that most of my crippling doubt is gone. The "can I do this? am I kidding myself?" feeling is mostly gone. Year 3 needs to be about me daring to be myself more, and seeking validation for its own sake less. I want year 3 also to be about music business friends and I long for a mentor or at least more coaches / teachers I can trust.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Waiting no more

I wrote a play a long time ago, and now it's being produced again. Except it's completely different, I rewrote the whole damn thing and it's much better. I'd love to post the songs but the demos are too rough. On big numbers I am singing every single part because I recorded it all myself in my dungeon studio. Do you know what it sounds like when I sing 12 different parts? It kinda sounds like Satan after a while. So, no. No songs for you. When the show goes up I'll get a cast recording,

Playwriting is insane. And wonderful. I have to give up a lot of control and sometimes it's a huge thrill to see them do something different, but better, with the words I chose. Sometimes I want to run away and change my name because what I thought was so funny is just a bore, and it's my fault. Usually it's somewhere in between those two.

It's made me write songs on a deadline. It's made me write: a typical theatre song, a poppy theatre song, a couple of touching ballads, an anthem of redemption that makes me cry, a hip-hop song with rap (I know right?), a spoken word song with percussion and movement, a slinky jazz song, a splashy tap dance number, and more theatre songs. It's been fun and exhausting and rehearsal started today.

Friday, March 13, 2015

My girls

Last year I found a wonderful country singer and then in the fall I found a wonderful pop singer. Her name is Sydni and you would never, ever guess that she was 13 years old when she sang these songs for me. Obviously she has a bright future and I find myself writing with her voice in my head.

Here are three of her songs that I have so far. I am finishing a fourth one tomorrow, and can't wait to hear her on it too.

Don't Miss Out

Feel This Way

Not This Time Again

When I was a cabaret singer in Chicago, I sang with a cool, elegant singer/actress named McKinley Carter who has a golden voice and a wicked sense of humor. When we needed songs for our group the Blondes, McKinley always liked the "swanky" ones; sophisticated, in control, silky songs you could curl up in. Sydni's songs are like that - I'm leaning into the swank factor for her. The Stevie Wonder groove, the ukelele love song, even the middle-of-the-night heartbreak song - when Syd sings them she takes you to another place. Syd song #4, Valentine, will have even more of that mink coat and diamonds thing, I think.

I love writing for these wonderful singers. They're so young, and so talented. They have no idea that I am as excited to hear them in my songs as they are to sing them. I always hope that they will decide to perform the songs, and I can have more collaboration with them, but that's up to them.

I have a new country pop song that I can't wait to record with Emily, and next week I get to work with Isabelle, who is 11 years old. I ended up writing a song for her, and I think she's going to kill it.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Get back

You can just tell how much fun we had making this recording. The singer is Emily Roberts, who is barely sixteen years old and knocks it out of the park every time.

Get Back On

Thursday, October 30, 2014

That backyard of mine

The funny thing is, "This Backyard's Rockin'" was written after a completely tame, somewhat lame yet spontaneous get-together in my neighbor's backyard. The song is a total fabrication. But it just won again, this time the Dallas Songwriters' Association Lyric Contest, so that's plenty of reason to drink more wine. In the back yard.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

It might be done

Another "teenager song." My favorite songs to write. I should be saying "age-appropriate pop" or "age-appropriate country / pop" but whatever.

What's Her Name