Tunesmith Tales

Songwriters from Nashville to LA talk craft and career

  Makeba Riddick '99

With the demand for music soaring and the new-media options of the digital marketplace burgeoning, songwriters now have many more outlets for their creative work than in the past. A handful of Berklee songwriters with full-speed-ahead careers paused to share their insight on what it's like to be a songwriter in the fast lane.

Beyoncé and Beyond
After studying music business and songwriting at Berklee, Makeba Riddick '99 headed to New York to launch her career. It was a stroke of luck when she ran into veteran songwriter Curtis Richardson, who recognized her gift for songwriting and began cowriting with her. Through further networking, word spread in r&b and urban music circles that Riddick had serious chops as a songwriter, singer, and producer. Max Gousse, senior vice president of A&R at Epic Records, helped place her songs in projects by Jennifer Lopez and B2K. In 2002, Riddick signed with Bad Boy Music Publishing/EMI Music Publishing and has since gotten her songs cut by such artists as Janet Jackson, Toni Braxton, LeToya Luckett, and Jessica Simpson, to name a few. She cowrote five songs with Beyoncé for her blockbuster B'day album, including the number-one hit "Déjà Vu." Other credits include "Do What You Do" by Katharine McPhee and "If It's Lovin' That You Want" by Rihanna.

Now living in Los Angeles, Riddick keeps a busy schedule in the studio. She is frequently called on to create the melody and lyrics for an existing track. "Once I hear the beat and the music, I ask myself what it makes me feel," she says. "Then I start to see things and begin writing them in song form. As I've honed my craft, I've come up with a formula I like for writing songs."

Working directly with the artist is a plus, because it increases the chances that the resulting song will make the album. Riddick has learned how to make these sessions productive. "I've done this with so many artists now that I know how to sit with them and find out what they are thinking and want to say," she says. "You have to really consider their ideas. They will have to sing the song every night and have to be comfortable that it represents them. In most cases, I end up becoming friends with them after the sessions. Personality is key to being a good cowriter. Talent is probably 60 percent of it; the rest is being liked and sociable."

Notwithstanding her notable collaborations, Riddick often works on her own. "Most of the time, I write by myself," she says. "I'm self-contained and pretty quick. I'll block out eight hours in the studio and come out with two songs fully arranged with vocals and backgrounds, mixed and ready to go to the label that night."

Riddick is a prodigious writer with a growing catalog. "People don't believe it when a writer claims to have written 1,000 songs," she says. "But when you're writing multiple songs in a day, over the course of a year, you produce a lot. Some songs may never be heard, but they are part of your legacy. These days I concentrate on the quality of the songs more than the quantity. I could write three songs per day, but I'd rather try to write something once a month that has hit potential."

  Greg Becker '95

More Than Words
During one of Professor Pat Pattison's Nashville spring break trips with Berklee students, Greg Becker '95 resolved to relocate to the Music City after graduation. It was the right move. He is currently signed as a writer to Sony/ATV, and his successes include three songs on two hit albums by Rascal Flatts; "That's Where It Is" on Carrie Underwood's Some Hearts CD; a song in the movie Flicka; and cuts by LeAnn Rimes, Chris Cagle, George Canyon, and others.

"I realized that I didn't have to be the guy onstage to have a music career," Becker says. "Being a songwriter offers a chance for a more normal home life. In Nashville you can almost have a nine-to-five job where you write all day and then go home." That's an important consideration for Becker and his wife, who just had their first child.

Becker can attest that there's no such thing as overnight success. It took four or five years before he got enough cuts and sufficient income to become a full-time songwriter. Despite signing publishing deals with Warner Chappell Music and Almo/Irving, he continued to work at Home Depot on nights and weekends to pay the bills and keep weekdays open for songwriting appointments. He jeopardized his job at Home Depot the day he wrote "Words I Couldn't Say" with songwriter Tammi Kidd and celebrated English producer Steve Robson.

"My boss wasn't happy, because I was supposed be there to unload a truckload of shrubs," Becker says. "I called to say I'd come in that afternoon. Then it was evening, and the song still wasn't done. I called back to say I needed more time. Finally, when I called at midnight, they said, 'Don't bother coming in.' I felt bad about breaking a commitment, but I knew this was an opportunity I couldn't miss." The song ultimately became Becker's third major-label cut after Rascal Flatts included it on the group's platinum-selling Me and My Gang CD, which propelled Becker's career to new heights.

Becker is primarily known as an expert lyricist and top-liner, or melody writer. He's become a go-to-guy for an edgy or deep lyric. "I feel the country-music genre is the crème de la crème for lyric writing now," he says. "This doesn't go for everything in country, but overall I feel the lyrics of the songs on the charts are very well thought-out. A lot of very real scenarios make it into those songs."

Becker likes a song to be fully polished before it's recorded. After that, he lets it go. "I look over everything until I feel it makes sense from A to Z," he says. "But I've never attended the master sessions when my song is being cut. It might be hard to keep quiet. On one of my first cuts, the artist or producer took out the pre-chorus. The band was making it their song, and I have to honor that. It would have been hard to sit there as they cut out four bars of music and lyrics. You have to remember that it's just a song. You'll write thousands of them in a career."

Eve Nelson '86  

Ready for Prime Time
Before January 2007, Eve Nelson '86 had a thriving career in New York writing jingles and songs, creating tracks, and producing various artists in her Long Island recording studio. After reaching a milestone birthday, she reassessed her life and decided that, despite her success, she needed a change.

"I figured out that I was hiding in the Hamptons," Nelson confesses. "Even if you're doing well, you can still get to the point where you feel burned out. A friend of mine, [songwriter] Michelle Lewis, told me it was time for me to come to Los Angeles. I wanted to focus on songwriting because that's my first love. So I came here with a scaled-down Pro Tools rig expecting to stay for two months. But I've found this place to be buzzing with energy and talent. Now I'm planning to buy a home with a built-in studio and stay here."

After her arrival, Nelson's West Coast colleagues facilitated introductions that ultimately led Nelson to Sylvia Webster, the creative music services director at ABC TV, who listened to her music. A week later when music supervisor Dawn Solér asked Webster to suggest a writer who could quickly write songs for the series Samantha Who?, Webster recommended Nelson.

  A Nashville Writing Appointment

For songwriting collaborators, the practice of scheduling appointments has become an enduring Nashville tradition. Many music publishing houses on Music Row have writing rooms where songwriting teams gather with guitars, keyboards, notebooks, laptops, and mini-recording devices to work out ideas for new songs. The art of this process was evident during a session with veteran songwriters Joe Doyle '87 and Dillon Dixon '91. Over the years, they have written several great tunes, and the duo understands the value of collaborating.

Doyle has had a lot of success, including the number-one hit "In Pictures" recorded by Alabama. Kenny Rogers, Reba McEntire, Joe Diffie, Luke Bryan, Dan Seals, Jason Aldean, and many others have recorded his songs. He's currently signed to Amylase Entertainment. Dixon, also signed to Amylase, scored his first cut with country icon George Jones and landed tracks in six motion pictures. Josh Gracin and Rodney Atkins have recently recorded his songs.

"When a writing appointment begins, you just visit," says Dixon as he picks up his guitar. "As you talk, you try to find out where your cowriter is at that day. Sometimes everyone's creativity starts flowing, and ideas are flying all around the room. Other days I figure I'm going to be the one doing most of the driving."

Doyle pulls out his notebook of ideas for lyrics and titles. "If I'm walking in the woods and something strikes me as a song idea, I write it down. If it's not a hook, it may be an idea for a story line."

Doyle and Dixon approach writing differently, hence they're a good match. Dixon likes to start with a musical idea and see where it goes. During the cowriting session, Doyle starts with a concept. He throws out a lyric theme, and Dixon starts to improvise chords and a melody, imagining a story line. But Doyle isn't feeling it and throws out another line with the word shadows. Dixon offers a scenario. Doyle says, "Maybe" and then begins to explain his idea more fully. They discuss possibilities of the shadow metaphor. Could it be a shadow cast on the barroom wall by a neon light, or is the character afraid of shadows more than the real thing? Dixon says, "I've never written a song about shadows, so let's roll with this." They consult All Music Guide online to check for titles using the word shadows. "You never want anyone to think you ripped off your idea from someone else," says Doyle.

Ultimately, they move on to other concepts. And according to Doyle, this is all part of the process. "Sometimes you'll land on something after going through a handful of ideas," he explains. Dixon prefers to complete a song in one sitting whenever possible, but Doyle likes to live with the music and lyrics a bit and work on them at home.

"We usually take two or three sessions to complete a song," Dixon says. "I can throw out musical ideas all day long, but Joe likes to work systematically. He doesn't just write a song for the sake of coming up with something that day." And before leaving a session, they book another appointment.

From the left: Dillon Dixon and Joe Doyle
Mark Small

"They contracted me to write six songs for specific scenes in the show," says Nelson. "They were looking for songs that had a Euro-café feel and Brazilian undertones. Lyrically, the songs had to support the main character, a woman who has lost her memory. I wrote them in about eight days and sang most of them myself. They loved everything and contracted me to write 10 or 11 more."

The floodgates began opening for Nelson, and she was asked to write songs for General Hospital and other shows. To help with the workload, Nelson has tapped a number of young, gifted songwriters and singers, including Berklee alumni Kyler England '93, Dan Petty '90, Deanna Della Cioppa '99, and other unsigned artists. Through these collaborations, Nelson has been able to write music in a variety of styles when the assignment calls for songs that sound like specific artists. "I've been able to give ABC access to a lot of great young talent," says Nelson, "and they have really been pleased. These projects give my cowriters some money and writing credits, and their music gets out there and people start asking who they are. TV is becoming a good way for artists to get discovered."

There is a buzz around Nelson, and new work arrives almost daily. She recently completed songs for Ugly Betty and licensed a master from her catalog for America's Funniest Home Videos, to name a few. The songs she produces go into ABC's music library, which means they will yield royalties when reused for other projects at the network. "This is exciting, and I feel I am very much in the music business through television. I'm on fire in the sense that I love every minute of the work I'm doing here."

Snow Chills
Tom Snow '69 chats with me in the living room of the exquisite home he and his wife MaryBelle built in the hills a few miles back from the harbor in Santa Barbara, California. Snow, 60, shared perspective on his spectacular 30-plus-year career as a mega-hit maker writing for Bonnie Raitt, Deniece Williams, Selena, Kenny Loggins, the Pointer Sisters, Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, Diana Ross, Peabo Bryson, and dozens more. (Visit /tomsnow.html to read about Snow's extensive credits and career highlights.) Despite being largely retired now, new opportunities continue to crop up. Some old songs from his vast catalog are delivering in unexpected ways.

Tom Snow '69

"Two years ago, the song 'Thunder in My Heart' that I wrote and recorded in the seventies with Leo Sayer was remixed by DJ Mack and entered the charts at number one in Britain," Snow says. "He made it an eight-minute club song that was big in England, Holland, and Germany. It was a trip to have a song I wrote 26 years ago become a hit again. This came out of the blue, but stuff like that happens all the time. I'm always getting requests to license my songs for films, video games, and ringtones."

Additionally, Footloose, the musical he cowrote that was a hit on Broadway in 1998, is still going strong. "It had a long run in the West End in London, three years in Scandinavia, two years in Italy through 2005, and [now] runs in Japan and Australia. It will come to the Granada Theater in Santa Barbara next year," Snow says. The show is also among the top three or four musicals rented for high-school and community-theater productions.

After a four-year hiatus, Snow has recently gotten back into writing. "I'd been driving down to L.A. regularly and was mentoring a young writer. When that didn't work out, I felt I'd had enough of the music business and all that goes on in it. I figured I'd written enough and gave myself permission to stop. Then, last year, I started archiving my music, collecting every reel-to-reel, DAT [digital audio tape], and cassette tape and putting the music into Pro Tools. I found some great songs I'd forgotten about because they never went anywhere. Then I began fooling around with the new version of Pro Tools. One thing led to another, and I created something with a house beat. Pretty soon, I had a tune. I'm writing things now that I never would have dared to write for the commercial world. I've become interested in electronic music and chill-out. I found a guy with a studio down by the beach. After I get some music together here, I put it on a FireWire drive and go over there to record a singer and do a mix.

"I'm also not collaborating anymore. I don't have to deal with anyone else in the room, and I'm enjoying that. I am trying to find my own lyric voice, avoid the usual clichés, and write about subject matter that's not the typical stuff."

Snow is enjoying writing without the pressure he had before to come up with hits. "All I need to do is write something fresh that I like," he says. "I can make my own records or put things on a website. You never know what can happen when you put stuff out there. That's the fun part of the business that has gotten me excited about writing again."