Bonnie Hayes Takes Reins of Songwriting at Berklee

Mike Keefe-Feldman
August 26, 2013
Songwriting chair Bonnie Hayes
Photo by Tom Dellinger

Bonnie Hayes, the new chair of Berklee’s Songwriting department, is probably best known as the writer behind “Have a Heart” and “Love Letter,” tunes from Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time album that are widely considered to have played an integral role in expanding Raitt's popular appeal. Like Raitt, Hayes is a California native and a talented songwriter who in recent years has focused on blues.

In addition to her songwriting and composing work, Hayes has worked as a producer, an engineer, an educator, and as a performer, with the latter incorporating voice, piano, and guitar. Her credits include work with Booker T. and the MG’s, Robert Cray, and David Crosby, among others.

Read a Boston Globe cover story on Bonnie Hayes in the November 19, 2013 issue.

Hayes is also known for her 1982 pop-punk album with the Wild Bunch, Good Clean Fun, which included “Shelley’s Boyfriend,” a college radio hit that appeared, along with another Hayes song, “Girls Like Me,” in the 1983 film Valley Girl. Thirty years later, while many '80s pop offerings have lost their luster, the album continues to sparkle thanks to Hayes’s unyielding devotion to both originality and accessibility in lyrics and music.

Hayes recently discussed how she has nurtured that devotion in her own life and how she aims to foster a similar degree of dedication among students at Berklee. The following is an edited and abridged version of that conversation.

Clearly you’ve long had a passion for music, but when did you become interested in music education as well?

We moved to San Francisco when I was about 16. I had been taking piano lessons, so I could already read and had played lots of Bach and Bartok, etc. I come from a family of seven kids, and five of us went to take lessons at Blue Bear School of Music, where they taught me chord theory, blues scales, and improv. Four of us became professional musicians; my brother Chris was the guitar player and chief songwriter for Huey Lewis and the News for about 20 years, and my other brother, Kevin, toured with Robert Cray for 20 years, so we had a lot of success out of those years of studying at Blue Bear.

When I moved out of my mom’s house, I didn’t go to college; I started teaching full time at Blue Bear—theory classes and these band workshops where we’d put people in a band and rehearse them and then they’d do a show. I don’t think there were many other schools in the country doing that 40 years ago except maybe Berklee. So I started teaching really early, and I’ve always been a big advocate of music education.

You’ve worked in so many genres throughout your career. How have you avoided getting pigeonholed?

I started out as a jazz player, but when I started writing songs, I didn’t want to write jazz songs. I had gone to see the Sex Pistols in Atlanta, and I was like, “Dang, those guys can do whatever they want.” I played in a lot of bands. I played with Billy Idol. I started out as a Miles Davis and John Coltrane freak and then all of a sudden I’m playing this kind of bonehead rock ‘n’ roll. What I figured out is that every kind of music has something awesome about it. You just have to find it and embrace it.

In the last couple years, I’ve started playing a lot of blues—because when you get older, you have to play the blues, because it’s so sad (laughs). No, it’s because it’s a roots music that continues to be vital.

Will having worked in so many genres help you in chairing Songwriting at Berklee?

Yes. I want to have an inclusive sensibility in the Songwriting Department. I don’t want to narrow it down to the forms that are currently making piles of money. I just think we should embrace all different kinds of music, because some of the best music intertwines styles.

Can you tell us a bit about your teaching philosophy or philosophy of music education?

We want to make successful songwriters and successful musicians, but the soul of it is in the connection to others and the good it does in the world. Music makes communities stronger and it makes people soulful, which is what we want. Part of my teaching philosophy has come from teaching kids. They’re not really interested in you being the expert. They just want to know what they need to know to make music, so I try to make it really accessible and hands-on.

When I teach more sophisticated writers, I try to give them technical tools to work on their songs without using a bunch of fancy talk that freaks them out and shuts them down. So I’ve been coming at this from a place of making music education practical, technical, and yet supportive of artistic originality. As a teacher, I want to give each person the tools to bring out their uniqueness.

What are some of the key principles of good songwriting that you have tried to follow in your own work and that you hope to impart to Berklee students?

I always try to use some language that is atypical. I like there to be something in the lyrics that stands out or that isn’t regular and that also says something about who I am. The way that people use language is so unique and specific. My favorite lyrics are those where you can hear the way the person thinks.

I also like there to be something you can remember right away. I know that sounds sort of cheesy or commercial, like writing ads or something, but I’m a big hook girl. I’ve seen people who don’t write hooks in their songs and that can work, but usually I need a hook, and I think I speak for about 99 percent of people out there. I like a lot of different kinds of music, so the only overarching principles I’d point to are “don’t bore the listener” and “tell a truth.”

If you could point to one song to hold up as an example of phenomenal songwriting, what song would it be?

I got obsessed with the Radiohead record The Bends for about a year, and I analyzed every song on that record. “Fake Plastic Trees” is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. I still ask myself: how did they do that? There are a couple Joni Mitchell songs that I feel that way about—songs that keep working. “The Last Time I Saw Richard” is one of my favorite songs. But, I mean, depending on what mood I’m in, I also like “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party).”

Why study songwriting at Berklee? What does it offer?

When a songwriter has learned technique, I can hear it in their writing. When you go to write songs at Berklee, you’re going to be surrounded by people writing great songs, so you’re not going to be able to convince yourself that anything less than a badass song is great. You’re not in “good” mode. You’re in “excellence” mode, and you’ve got to show up with skills and technique.

One main reason that I teach songwriting is that you need to have skills for when you run out of inspiration. Those skills are hard to find and even harder to teach, but you have those people at Berklee. The songwriting faculty is amazing. Songwriting at Berklee can really change your writing for the better and get you used to delivering whenever you write a song—and not just delivering technique, but also delivering perspective.

How is the landscape for someone looking to get into songwriting different today than it was when you were just getting started—and what remains the same?

What happened to me was I started writing songs and I lost my mind. All I wanted to do was write songs and play in a band. I did that, made $10,000 a year, had a mattress on the floor of a one-room apartment, and that was totally okay with me. I was so happy and I didn’t care about anything else. Now, we sell singles as opposed to albums, so even if you have a successful record, how much money are you going to make? Probably not that much. But the reason I mentioned that first part is that I didn’t do it for the money, and neither does any songwriter that I know.

So in some ways, it’s the same as it has always been: crazy songwriters are always going to love writing songs above all else and do whatever they can do to do it. And I think it’s going to take another round of changes for them to be able to make a reasonable living at it. A huge concern of mine in running the department at Berklee is to tell people the truth without stealing their joy. If you don’t love it, you probably shouldn’t do it. But I would have said that 30 years ago, too.

What do you plan to be known for bringing to Berklee?

I want to make the world’s foremost songwriting curriculum—one that changes and adapts to the market and what’s currently going on but also acknowledges timeless principles of songwriting and the uniqueness of songwriters as artists. I think we can make an exportable curriculum that would be used in universities all over the place, because we’re already the farthest along and because we have the deepest bench in terms of the faculty and alumni and their experience.

I also want to know what the students think. My door is always open, but I’m also thinking about a weekly “hang out with the chair” thing. I want to give students the opening to talk to me about the program and what they would like to see or how they might like to change it.