Songwriters Make Magic Happen

By
Danielle Dreilinger
July 23, 2010
Songwriting professor Mark Simos has expanded his contacts from Nashville to Sydney—thanks to a student.
Simos performs at the college's Roots and Reason concert in February 2010.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Normally you hear about Berklee students making career-changing connections through their professors. For Berklee faculty member Mark Simos, the magic happened the other way around. It was almost like a fairytale.

In the spring of 2009, Simos, a songwriting professor best known for his work with Alison Krauss, had a normal, friendly student in his prototype class on Songwriting Collaboration named Jackie Barnes. He had a secret identity, though, which he eventually revealed. "He said, 'Yeah, my dad's this well-known musician in Australia,'" Simos recounted. "Very matter-of-fact."

In fact, his dad is the Bruce Springsteen of Down Under. Jimmy Barnes made his name in the country's raucous "pub rock" scene with the band Cold Chisel in the '70s and early '80s before going on to a successful solo career.

Watch Barnes perform the Cold Chisel hit "Khe Sanh."

Barnes junior, the hidden heir of musical royalty, had a gift for our faculty hero. His dad was visiting and thought it would be fun to try writing a few songs with Simos. So the two men met up in the Barneses' hotel room in Boston, where they wrote one song together and finished one that Barnes had already started with Jackie.

Simos figured that was that, end of story. But on the last day of the spring semester, he heard from Barnes. His label, Liberation Music, loved the songs. Not only that, but they wanted to fly Simos out that summer to write more songs. Not only that, but Barnes told the label, "It's his holidays—the least we can do is fly his wife out with him."

He spent 12 days in the summer of 2009 with Barnes and cowrote six additional songs, one a three-way collaboration with Australian musician Diesel, Barnes's brother-in-law. In the end, seven of the eight songs made it on to the Australian star's new record, which comes out next month. "I've never had seven cowrites on a single album before," Simos said.

An amazing result, especially considering how nervous he'd been given the differences in their life paths. Along with learning bluegrass/country songwriting, Simos spent years studying folk music traditions—old-time Appalachia, Québeçois, and Celtic. "What do I really have in common with a guy who was a rock star in Australia when I was learning to play Irish songs on the fiddle?" he asked.

That said, the guitarist, fiddler, and songwriter wasn't exactly an upstart Jack and the Beanstalk. He does, after all, teach a Berklee class on cowriting, and he's developed an approach he calls "360˚ Songwriting" to help musicians capture the full rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, and lyrical sources of inspiration. (His techniques all have poetic names: He teaches an approach to the guitar fretboard, for instance, that he calls "the Net of Jewels.")

For cowrites, he comes prepared with ideas that create "a vessel," as he put it, for his musical partners to pour their life experiences into. In Barnes's case, Simos imagined himself as an ex-pub rocker who'd gone through a lot. "The very first song idea I brought, the title idea was 'I've Seen It All,'" Simos said. "Sure enough, when we got together it just sort of took off."

The strategy often works even when the initial concept doesn't resonate. Simos imagined a traditional Scottish ballad looking back at the past. His lyrical ideas were "totally off-base," Simos said. But the general idea—and the tune—resonated with Barnes, and it made him think about a venue he used to play in Adelaide. Barnes started reminiscing about it. That did the trick. "Almost half the lyrics for that song came almost verbatim," Simos said.

Simos "knows how to get the best out of whoever he is working with," Barnes said in a statement. "I think the songs he and I have written together are the best songs I have ever written."

This summer, as the album, Rage and Ruin, comes out, Simos is returning to Australia to write more songs with Barnes and teach three weekend workshops coordinated by Berklee alumna Clare McLeod. Liberal arts faculty member Pat Pattison has been teaching in Australia for a number of years now, and music production and engineering professor Stephen Webber has given clinics on turntable technique. Pattison, an expert lyricist, "has been amazingly supportive," Simos said.

"It's been wonderful to see the growth and development amongst the songwriting community here since Pat Pattison first came out," McLeod wrote in an email. This summer, "I really wanted to provide songwriters here with a weekend devoted to harmony and melody. I'd been hoping to get Mark out here to do it."

Don't expect Simos to wake up anytime soon from the land where songwriters' dreams come true: He's signed an administration deal with Mushroom Publishing, part of Barnes's label's company. And there's always the next beanstalk—er, album.

Mark Simos's workshops take place July 31–August 1 in Auckland, August 7–8 in Melbourne, and August 14–15 in Sydney. Learn more and register at cmcproductions.com.au or by calling 0417 049 616.