Bleu: Serious about Songwriting
Alumnus Bleu '96 admits he's been known to court attention. After all, the songwriter (alias William James McAuley III) got his stage name from the color he used to dye his hair. At an August clinic as part of the Songwriting Workshop, he confessed to a particularly outrageous costume in his Berklee student days: a child-size one-piece bathing suit.
While he's not entirely over it—"There's a very thin line between 10-year-old bathing suit and these sideburns," he said, gesturing at his muttonchops—these days he'd prefer to get your attention with music.
He's succeeded not only with fans, who helped fund his 2010 album Four via Kickstarter, but with stars who have recorded his songs or written with him, including Boys Like Girls, Demi Lovato, Meat Loaf, Hanson, Joe Jonas, and Selena Gomez. "I am making music literally every day, 365 days a year," he said.
For all his humor, Bleu is dead serious about craft, encouraging students to embrace the technical aspects of creating great songs even when their own emotions aren't involved. But his performances at the clinic were anything but clinical: over the years, he's strummed a hole in his acoustic guitar.
Here are selections of his advice that day.
On being eclectic
I've done pseudo-alternative rock all the way to almost what you would call folk ballads and everything you could imagine in between. The variety keeps life interesting for me. It's been difficult to brand myself a little bit because of that, but I wouldn't want it any other way. Most of us like a lot of different kinds of music. As long as you're making them all well I don't think that should be a problem.
On becoming a songwriter
At a young age I got really obsessed with the idea of who writes the songs. I noticed that it sometimes wasn't the person singing it. My middle school choir performed a song that I wrote and I got the bug. But the real epiphany I had was at a Poison concert. I realized that there were things about what they were doing that weren't rocket science. It was almost like the top of the arena opened up and this light shone down. I never looked back from that moment. I only applied to Berklee and I thank my lucky stars I got in.
On writer's block
I've never had it. I think it's a myth. I don't know any professional writers, people who write songs for other people, who experience what they call writer's block. And I think as you become a better writer, if you've ever experienced it you will cease to experience it as you get more tools in your belt.
On cover songs
I don't perform covers. I mean, I have done them in the past, but as a fun reinterpretation of something within a set of my own material. I wouldn't really suggest that you do that. It's a trap. Make your own songs good enough that they get people's attention.
On being commercial
I work on at least one project every year that has very little commercial value, to remember that music-making can be purely fun. And I have ended up making money from some of those, despite my best efforts! I'm working on a record that sounds exactly like Def Leppard, but it's new songs. It's as if they wrote an album between Pyromania and Hysteria. The band is called LoudLion, and all my friends who like metal are in it. Rihanna's guitar player is the shredder. It's so stupid, but I've gotten more placements in film and TV with that project than I have with my own music.
I collaborate constantly. There's virtually not a song, certainly no cuts that I've had that weren't cowritten. What I try to encourage a lot of kids here to do is make relationships with your peers and write with your peers constantly—the people who you think are talented or who you connect with. Keep working with those people, because everyone comes up together. I just had a cut with Meat Loaf that's coming out in the fall, written with a guy that I met when I was 17 in college.
On cowriting songs with young artists
What I appreciate is when the person is open, when the person is not precious about their work. If you have an opportunity to write with a more experienced writer, let them guide you. Let them help you write a better song.
On his biggest hurdles
I looked like an idiot. For a long time. It took me a long time to learn how to perform effectively—to be comfortable in my own skin on stage. It just does take some experience. I mean, some people are naturals at it. I wasn't. My whole story is kind of that story, which I hope is encouraging. I didn't start out as a good singer. I didn't start out as a good performer. The only head start I ever had was songwriting. But in terms of singing, performing, personal style—I had to spend a long time getting better at those things. And failing, miserably.