Gary James' Interview With Songwriter
Her songs have sold more than fifty million records and have been recorded by the likes of Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Keith Urban, Mandy Moore, Brandy, Celine Dion, Joe Cocker, INXS, Meredith Brooks, The Backstreet Boys and Reba McEntire to name just a few. Her audio book, Confessions OF A Serial Songwriter has been nominated for a 2018 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album. The "her" we are referring to is Shelly Peiken.
Q - I would say the best thing about being Shelly Peiken is that you get recognized in your lifetime. That doesn't happen all the time. Case in point, Stephen Foster.
A - I don't think I would get the recognition either if not for the book. We are the unsung heroes behind the title. And we sort of sign up for that in the way that celebrities sign up for fame and then get upset when people invade their privacy. I'm okay with that. What' I'm trying to fight for instead is income recognition and fair income recognition for songwriters and creators. I would rather make a mark in that movement in my lifetime or my career time than know everybody knows my name.
Q - How is your audio book selling and who are you directing it to? Future songwriters?
A - How is it selling I don't pay attention to, although I think since the Grammy nomination it's doing even better than it was and it's funny Gary because when I sat down to write it I wasn't thinking about who my audience was. I was just telling my story and then when it came to "I need to get this published," every publisher I went to would say, "Who is your audience?" And I realized what an important question that is. So, that said, I think my stories are my stories, but every songwriter out there has an identical story to mine with maybe different names, or they were in a different room or writing for a different project. But most of those stories were universal, the indignities, the thrills, the ups, the downs, the rejections, the 10,000 hours of practice. That said, I like to think in retrospect that the book is not just about a songwriter's journey, but any dreamer's journey. If you believe in something strong enough, there's a book called Alchemist. It's a classic. It's a story of a young boy and it seems like a very simple story, but it's written so beautifully. He's just a young boy who goes out on a journey and believes in something so strongly that the universe conspires with him to make it happen. As soon as you pull back and don't believe in it, the universe pulls back too. So, if you really were a dreamer, whether you want to be a songwriter or a recording artist or an actor or an accountant or a painter, if you don't lose a connection with that vision it's inevitable. In that way I like to think that it's not just a songwriter that can read this book and be inspired to stick with whatever it is they feel is their calling.
Q - You don't have a songwriting partner, do you?
A - Over the years I've had many. Carole King had Gerry Goffin. She pretty much stuck with him along the way. John had Paul. Cynthia Weil had Barry Mann. Billy Steinberg had Tom Kelly.
Q - Mick had Keith.
A - That's right. I never found that steady partner. There have been writers I've gone back to over and over again, but even they have changed over the years. So I think had I found that perfect partner I might've stuck with them, but I never have. Maybe it's just part of my personality to get excited and invigorated by change. I think that every person you work with brings out something different in you. Their strengths cover for your weaknesses, and I've always enjoyed switching around. I'm pretty good at following somebody's lead and I like to discover different things about myself which I can only do I feel if I'm writing with.
Q - Do you typically write the music or are you writing the lyrics? Or, a little bit of both?
A - I do a little bit of both. Very often I do 100%. I sit down and write a song all by myself and there's a real joy in that in that nobody can really interrupt your thought. Nobody can dilute your idea and it really comes out 100% what you want to say. There's a beauty in collaboration too. There's a lot to be learned from collaborating. I do a little bit of everything. I play piano. I play guitar and I do lyrics.
Q - Yes, you have it all down.
A - (laughs)
Q - Now, where does the inspiration come from to write a song? Are you maybe watching a TV show? Maybe you go to a movie? Maybe you're reading a story in a newspaper? Maybe you're just pulling an idea out of thin air?
A - I very rarely pull the best ideas out of thin air. For me the best ones just come from life. I'm at a red light in my car and I have a thought. I think to myself, "That would be a good song." Usually something universal, something that everybody feels, but maybe I caught it from a different angle. My career has been supported by not just writing on my own and how I feel and a song I would want to pitch to another artist, but it's come a lot from writing with, collaborating with that artist, that recording artist that's making their record. So sometimes those ideas don't come from me at all. Half of my job or my profession is being able to help somebody else who's making their record say what they want to say. If they have ingredients, I can help them bake their cake. I'd say half of my ideas are from my own personal experiences and half are helping other people with theirs.
Q - How does this process work? When you get an idea, do you have a room you go to for quiet time to write? Do you have an office? I would think it would be difficult to write at home with the phone ringing and people banging on the door. Do you have an office?
A - I do. I call it my cave.
Q - A woman cave!
A - A woman cave, not a man cave. Usually when you get an idea it's not a convenient time. You get it at the supermarket. You get it in the shower and you're getting ready for an appointment. I mean it's not always a convenient time to explore it, so I try to at least, on a voice memo on my phone or on a Post-It, document it, write down the title if it was a title and try to just jot a couple of lines or paragraphs on not just the idea, but the way it revealed itself because you can write down your idea or title and the next day not be able to actually remember how it came to you. So, you'd approach it in a very generic way. Ideas can be written over and over and over again. What makes a song unique I think is seeing it from a unique way. So, as long as you capture the angle in which you saw that idea so that when you are ready to explore it, you can feel, you can connect with that initial impulse.
Q - You take a song like "What A Girl Wants". I'm guessing that was an easy write for you. You were probably somewhere and that phrase took hold and off you went with it. But, did you write it the way we hear Christina Aguilera sings it or did the producer add a lot to that song?
A - Well, the guy that I wrote it with, Guy Roche, also produced it, so the record was a glorified demo really. It was pretty much there. Ron Fehr, he was A&R at RCA at the time, helped with it and gave Guy a lot of direction to him what bells and whistles to add and how to change the tempo, but the heartbeat was there. The interesting thing about that song is when we wrote it, we actually called it "What A Girl Needs" and it went What A Girl Needs, What A Girl Wants. When Ron heard it and wanted it for Christina he asked me if I would be willing to switch around the "needs" and "wants", in which case if I had chosen to do so I'd have to change some of the other words in the chorus because I'd have to fix the rhyme scheme. As I write about this in my book, his feelings were that the word "wants", the feeling of wanting something is sexier than needing something. Needing is needy and wanting something is desire. Also, we had the whats and the wants. What A Girl Wants is an alliteration. He just thought that was more ear candy. I have to tell you, at the time I was really resistant and I didn't understand what he was talking about, and I get it now. I'm sure happy that he asked me to do that and I listened because that song is still getting me through life.
Q - What do you mean by that?
A - It's an annuity. It still gets licensed and synched. So does "Bitch", the Meredith Brooks song and I'm just thankful for it because sync fans at least pay the writer fairly. Sycn fans pay the copyright and the publisher as much as they pay for the master recordings, the label. So, if there's a $20,000 sync fee to put a song in a film, the master recording will get $20,000 and the songwriter, the copyright owner will get $20,000, or $10,000 and $10,000, whichever. It's matched, but that's not how it is with digital streaming. The record label is getting about 94% and the writer is getting about 6%. So, go figure that out. That's why a lot of songwriters are sort of getting out of trying to write songs that get on the radio because radio is going away. It's all going to be streaming soon and they're concentrating more heavily on licensing for TV and film because it's way more lucrative and fair.
Q - What part did you write in "What A Girl Wants"?
A - I wrote all the lyrics, and music is a funny thing. Guy sat down at the keyboard and was playing some chord changes and had a groove up, but the melody is part of the music as well. So, I would say we both participated in the music and Guy was very instrumental in phrasing and arranging where the words would be or the feel of the words. It was absolutely a 50/50 contribution on both of our parts.
Q - Is it easier to write for a Country artist as opposed to a Pop artist?
A - For me?
Q - Yes.
A - No.
Q - When you're sitting down, writing a song, you really have no idea who will record it, do you?
A - Yeah, but there's certain nuances in Country songs that don't come as naturally to me and I wish I could tell you specifically what they were. If I knew what they were my answer to that question might be different, but I haven't pegged it. The best way I could write a Country song is to write it with a Country writer who can steer the boat because my navigation is off. The songs of mine that I think are Country, I go down to Nashville and they just laugh at the idea that I think it's Country. Ironically, the five or six songs I've written that were recorded by Country artists weren't written with the idea or play that that's what would happen. They were just random acts of God, (laughs) really. I think as soon as I start planning on this is going to be a Country song, I just go off the radar.
Q - When you write a song, or should I say after you write a song, who's pitching it to an artist?
A - Nobody's really doing that anymore. Most writers are writing for themselves or writing with another songwriter if you can get in the room with them. That's a different question, and writing with that songwriter for themselves. Most recording artists are not taking outside songs anymore and that's because when the industry sort of fell apart when Napster came out and nobody was making as much money anymore, even recording artists weren't, everybody was trying to figure out how to make some more money. So, everybody realized they need a piece of the publishing pie. Managers did that too. Artists started writing for themselves. A lot of artists can write for themselves and should, but a lot of them can't, and shouldn't, but they are. It's not like the days when an artist looked to their A&R person to find material for them. They just want to write it themselves. So, it's not impossible, but the publishers really don't do that job anymore. It used to be the publisher's job to find a writer. It's more acquisition now and the writer has to fend for themselves. Every writer is trying to get into the room with the artist or do something on the song to warrant a piece of the copyright, but it's just really unusual to write a song and send this to Adele and maybe she'll cut it. It's an exception.
Q - What do you do if you wake up one morning and have no ideas for a song? Have you ever encountered writer's block?
A - Sure. Then I'll go to the gym. I'll work out or take a run. I usually get ideas or I'll cook. I don't panic. It always comes back.
Q - Do you write a song every day or every week?
A - Well, up until I wrote the book, I was probably writing three songs a week, but the book really got me out of the songwriting room. It took a lot of time and dedication writing the book and I felt like when I went to a writing session, a songwriting session, I was really thinking about the book. It wasn't fair to the people I was working with. So I stopped for awhile just to finish the book and then a year of promoting the book. I was going around to colleges and talking to music students about the realities of the music business, a lot of advocacy on Capitol Hill to get songwriters paid. All of these things, very purposeful things, took me out of the writing room for awhile, but I'm back. I was in last week in Nashville with Desmond Child, who as you know wrote "Dude Looks Like A Lady", "Livin' On A Prayer". He's just unbelievable. So, now I'm back. It's never going to be three songs a week again because there's too many other important things I want to do.