Allison Asks: Inside Winning The Song Contest with Drew Schueler and Lauren Murray

Allison Asks

Inside Winning NSAI's Song Contest with Drew Schueler and Lauren Murray

A Blog Series By: Allison Barrett


Administering the NSAI Song Contest is one of my favorite projects because I get to hear so many of your songs and then I get to be so proud of everyone and their accomplishments when the contest is over!  I sat down with Drew, our Song Category winner, and Lauren, our Lyric Category winner, to see how it’s going, learn a little more about their writing history, and find out what got them interested in the contest!


I started out with Drew!




[ALLISON] So, how did you get into writing?


[DREW] I kind of grew up in a musical household.  My dad is in an 80s cover band in Cincinnati, so I grew up watching him play and he was a songwriter, has been most of his life as well, so I grew up listening to old records of his from the 80s of his original band.  I always knew that ‘ok, this is something that I can do’ and he always told me the story – they went to LA, tried to make it in music, and it wasn’t for them. They ended up kind of giving it up and stuck to cover music, so for me he was like ‘hey, if you want to do music just go all in, if you love it just do it’ and so for me that gave me the inspiration and also the drive to be like ‘ok, this is not only something that I love doing, but something that I can actually have a future in if I just really work for it.’  So, ever since I was seven or eight years old, I started writing.  They were terrible, terrible songs, but I was at least trying.  Even in my junior high days I was cowriting even though I didn’t know what it was, but I would form little bands and I had friends that we’d get together and work on songs and flesh out these ideas, so it was essentially what I’m doing now, I just didn’t know that I was doing it back then.


[ALLISON] What keeps you focused and inspired to keep writing?  What keeps you going?


[DREW] For me, I think I’m constantly inspired by other art that I discover and I think my perspective is interesting because I view it as an artist, as a producer, and as a songwriter, so I can kind of listen to a new record and say this is stretching me creatively in a lyrical way, like they had a great lyrical twist that I’ve never thought of and then it makes me think that I need to take that into consideration.  Or if I hear a song, I’m trying to think of an example, there was a recent Ian Kirkpatrick song, I heard his production and I was just blown away by the production.  It enhanced the song so well, so for me I think it helps me to be able to dissect each part as separate entities and then keep the fire, the passion.


[ALLISON] You’re also doing the artist route.  Do you just write for yourself, or do you write for others and what kind of differences are in writing for yourself versus others?


[DREW] I do a bit of both. How I work in sessions just depends on what my role is needed to be in the room because I act as the artist, I act as the producer, and I act as a songwriter depending on who else is in the room and what else is needed.  I have a handful of songs that I already have ready for release under my artist project, but I am always ready to beat them so if I write a better song, it will just bump up in the queue, but if I’m working with another artist who is like ‘I’m looking for songs for this next project’ I’m always down to write for that.  It definitely changes my perspective, but back to the previous question I think that’s also what gives me the ability to stay fresh because I’m not always only focused on being an artist or always focused on production.  I can kind of sit in different chairs in different rooms which for me makes it more exciting.  I could be sorting through kicks and snares and synth sounds for most of the session and barely inputting on the song or I could be the one spearheading all of the melodic conversations and the lyrical twists, so it just varies from session to session and that’s what I love about it.


[ALLISON] What’s one of your proudest moments as a writer?


[DREW] I wrote this song that is supposed to be coming out with Aaron Wagner and Levi Hummon and it’s a really special song.  That’s one of them.  My other answer would definitely be ‘Hurtable.’  That was a song that helped me win the competition and I couldn’t have done it without my co-writers.  Those two are just two of the best and it’s one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written.  It just feels so powerful to me. 


[ALLISON] Have you ever had a song surprise you?


[DREW] Yes, for sure!  I think the best example for me is my song ‘Head Start’ that I put out in 2020.  I love the song.  I also wrote it with Nell Maynard who I wrote ‘Hurtable’ with.  No surprise there, she’s incredible.  I didn’t expect it to have the reach that it did.  I thought it was leading up to this other single and I thought that was the middle one because it’s a slow tempo song, so it might just be an album type song or one that people discover and think is really cool.  To date, it’s one of my highest streaming songs, like 1.6 million right now on Spotify.  So, that’s definitely the song that has changed my career the most thus far.  It’s been a pretty special one. 


[ALLISON] I do love that one!  That was the one I was playing when one of our interns asked, ‘who hurt him?!’ HAHA!  So yes, that is a great song.  Next question, how do you overcome writer’s block and those types of challenges?


[DREW] I think the best way that I overcome writer’s block is just writing through it and what I mean by that is it’s ok to write a bad song, it’s ok to write a bad verse, it’s ok to write something that is not great, and you can edit it later.  So, I think continuing to move and continuing to push forward is huge, it’s vital. So much of creativity is what are you doing right now before you lose that creative stride.  I find its most beneficial for me to push forward and if I need to go back and edit stuff which I often do and that’s ok.  I could rewrite a whole verse and scrap the whole thing, but I think it’s vital to just continually move forward.  If it’s bad it’s bad, who cares?  Everyone writes bad stuff, but you have to write a lot of bad stuff to get to the good stuff.


[ALLISON] How did you decide what song to enter?


[DREW] The day Nell, Claire, and I wrote ‘Hurtable’ I knew it was a special song.  I think we all knew.  We hit that chorus.  We finished writing it and all looked at each other and said, ‘this is special.’  So, in my mind, I viewed it as a song that says a lot lyrically, but also emotionally. Just by listening to it you can just feel.  Since that day, I thought this song was going to reach people and I was submitting to the contest, and we wrote it right before the contest deadline, so it was at the top of my list. 


[ALLISON] I’m glad you all wrote it when you did then!


[DREW] We wrote it in October if I’m not mistaken or around that time, but the day we wrote it we knew it was special.  Obviously, I didn’t expect to win the competition.  That was a huge, awesome surprise, but we knew the day we wrote it that song was different. 


[ALLISON] I love that!  So, when you entered, was there a certain prize that you were most excited for?


[DREW] Let me think…


[ALLISON] I know there was a lot to choose from!


[DREW] There were so many I was excited for… the most exciting… I think probably the mentor session with Blanco. All of the prizes were incredible, but that was the one I looked at and said, ‘that would be insane.’ 


[ALLISON] Noted!  When looking at the top 12, is there a song you wish you wrote?


[DREW] OOH. All of them?  They were all phenomenal.  And I was genuinely nervous because every single one I thought, ‘that could win.  That was amazing.’  I think if I had to pick one… the other one Nell wrote-


[ALLISON] ‘Playing House!’


[DREW] Yah!  That was phenomenal.  Again, I’m the biggest Nell fan out there.  I just think she’s so good and so talented, but that song.  I heard that and thought ‘that is just brilliantly written.’  So, yeah if I had to choose it would definitely be that one. 


[ALLISON] I get that though.  I make the playlists for the judges and every time I listen to the songs I have a new favorite or a feeling that a different one is going to win. 


As always, I derailed the conversation for a minute, but then Drew came in with this nugget of wisdom. 


[DREW] I like having the different perspectives on the judging panel because that’s what music is.  We write music in Music City, but most of the time the people hear the music are outside of the industry so everyone’s listening with different ears than we are.  I think about this when I write songs a lot, not that I intentionally don’t do this when writing, but I could write a song with a 1,5,6,4 basic chord progression, but if it hits the emotional heartstrings that’s all that matters.  I don’t need to impress you with some musicianship if I’m pulling on the emotional heartstrings how I’m wanting to then that is all I’ve wanted.  I’m not trying to write to impress a musician or something. 




[DREW] Not to say that there isn’t a space for that, because there are a lot of bands that musicians really appreciate, or producers really appreciate.  Like, I’ll show someone my high school friend and they’re like ‘I don’t get it.’ But then you can show a friend Ed Sheeran and they’re like ‘oh, I get it.’  It’s commercial.  There’s something there that’s universal, but to be universal it has to be somewhat simple, but also unique and new and that’s the beauty of how do you find that?  Or at least that’s what I find beautiful in songwriting.


Well, now I’m speechless.


[ALLISON] Is there anything else you want to say about the contest?


[DREW] I absolutely love the contest.  This is my fourth time I’ve submitted a song, but the third time I was in the top 10.  Every time has been such an honor and I’ve been so blown away that I’ve had that opportunity.  The fact that I got to have the winning song this year feels like a monumental moment in my career, and I think a tone shift.


That was great!! 


Then I got to chat with Lauren!


[ALLISON] So, how did you get into writing?


[LAUREN] I think it just started from a love of writing in general.  I remember younger being in school and I always loved to write poems, stories, essays, whatever it was.  Then I started taking piano lessons so that’s when the music part started to come out.  Then in middle school, the first song I ever wrote was for our 8th grade graduation.  We did a little moving up ceremony, so I wrote a song called ‘Moving Along’ and played it for my music teacher and then the whole chorus ended up singing it during the ceremony.  It was a great first songwriting experience!


[ALLISON] You basically got a cut on your first song!


[LAUREN] Yeah!  So, it started there and then have just been loving it ever since.


[ALLISON] So what keeps you focused and inspired while you’re writing?


[LAUREN] It’s funny, I feel like I have over the years gone through waves of high volume writing periods and then sort of taking some space, and now I’ve gotten to a great place where I think I’m finding inspiration everywhere and I think part of that comes from just listening to great music and anytime one of my favorite artists comes out with something new I’m listening and I’m reading the lyrics at the same time which I’m sure other writers who are reading do also.  I had a cowriter one time say, ‘you can’t write about life if you’re not living it.’ Isn’t that great?  So, reminding myself sometimes that if I’m not actively writing you’re still creating by experiencing and taking note of when you notice something or hear something that could become a title later.  So yeah, ‘you can’t write about life if you’re not living it.’


[ALLISON] I love that!  Since you’re not taking the artist route, do you feel like you’re trying to write for artists or are you writing for yourself?


[LAUREN] I feel like I’ve made that change recently as I’m walking into the world of songwriting.  So, for me it was just writing for myself as an emotional exhale trying to get things out so it was always me trying to get my voice across and now since doing more cowriting and meeting true, true artists it’s been a little bit of an exploration for me honestly to do a little bit more listening because it’s not me trying to get my voice or message out there, it’s me trying to help someone else get their voice across. I think it’s been about asking questions, listening, and helping shape their story.  Something that I’ve also found to be helpful is checking in as we go to make sure throughout the song that they feel good about it and like the way that it’s developing.  The worst thing for me would be to not check in and then it took a turn that they didn’t want.  So yeah, just checking in, listening, and helping someone get their story out there.


[ALLISON] What is one of your proudest moments as a songwriter?


[LAUREN] It has to be the song contest!


[ALLISON] Shameless plug haha!


[LAUREN] Yeah! I think for me, I’ve always really enjoyed the process and the storytelling aspect of creating something from nothing and once you do it, it just exists, but things like the Song Contest are moments to celebrate and to just really reflect on some of those things that you introduced into the world that didn’t exist before and now they do.  So that is such a highlight, and I was so excited to be part of it. And also, I try to feel proud every time I try something new because we are all constantly learning so any time that I can let myself be a little bit vulnerable and meet a new cowriter, or go play an open mic, or try out a new technique or something, I think I just try to acknowledge when I’m being brave and then when those two things go together it’s very exciting.


[ALLISON] Have you ever had a song surprise you?


[LAUREN] There have been a few for sure where I had a title or someone had a title and we thought that it was going to be about this and then we end up twisting it and it ended up better, so I think leaving space to be surprised is something that Nicolle Galyon shared with me in our session that she does too.  I think that’s been really, really important to me.  I’ve also been really surprised any time a song just spills out spontaneously.  Of course, we all have dedicated writing times and appointments with cowriters, but then you’ll be walking to get a coffee or on the subway or something and you either get some words, or a melody, something and I’m on the subway making a little voice memo.  So yeah, I think the surprises can come from all angles.


[ALLISON] Interesting!  So, how do you overcome writer’s block and challenges like that?


[LAUREN] I think that’s very real.  My 9-5 also involves a lot of writing, strategic thinking, and brainstorming, so I think after a day like that and then to go into a writing session I think sometimes it’s very real to have a block or a lag.  For me, it’s trying to do any thing to change my headspace or change my environment so I can come in a little more refreshed.  So, if I’m taking a walk or if I’m home and have my car I’ll take a drive, take a shower.  The ideas can come from anywhere!  Something that physically refreshes you and mentally refreshes you.


[ALLISON] Yeah!  How did you decide on the song that you entered for the contest?


[LAUREN] ‘Killing Flowers’ was always a top contender for me because I loved the title and it’s an interesting song from a writing perspective because I actually had written the first draft of it in 2016.  I call it one of my certified refurbished songs, like if you go buy an iPhone 9 or something from Apple where they’re like ‘we can give you this one which is just as good as a new one, but we’ve spruced it up!’  So it’s my certified refurbished song because I sent it in for a song evaluation and got some great feedback and incorporated it, I changed the song structure, I flipped a couple of lines, and ended up just feeling really confident about it and that all was happening around the time that the song contest was coming out so I was like ‘I have to put this in there.’


[ALLISON] I love that you also mentioned the Song Evaluations!  That’s a program I oversee and I’m always trying to get people to use them. 


[LAUREN] They’re great!  I think last year was the first year that I didn’t let any go to waste.  I’ve really enjoyed them, and I’ve used a number of the different evaluators and have gotten some really great feedback so I’m so appreciative that it exists. 


[ALLISON] Awesome!  So, which of the prizes were you most excited to get?


[LAUREN] Definitely the mentoring session with Nicolle.  I mean, she’s so amazing and inspiring.  I was just pinching myself the whole time we were talking and the time that we spent and the conversation that we had was so priceless.  The one thing I’ve now been sharing with others, not even in the realm of songwriting, is just her mantra that ‘songwriting will always be good to me’ and that’s something that she has carried with her through her career of like ‘of course this will work out.  Songwriting will always be good to me.’ And I just love that so much.  There were a couple of tidbits like that in addition to advice about cowriting and setting goals for myself and everything that I’m now putting into practice.  That was incredibly valuable.


I was so excited that she also found value in the mentor session.  It’s one of the prizes we offer that I feel is so beneficial. 


[LAUREN] It was crazy.  It was funny because I was listening to an interview that she had last year with Bobby Bones about the release of First Born and how she always knew that she was going to release it in 2022 even though I think they put the track list together in 2020, because 22 is her lucky number and it lined up with her birthday in July so she said ‘this is what we’re doing.’  And for me, my lucky number is 23 because I wore it on my jersey in college, this song contest was the 23rd annual, and the winner was being announced in 2023, so I was like ‘this is my year!”


[ALLISON] IT WAS! That’s awesome!  So, is there a song from the top 12 you wish you wrote?


[LAUREN] Totally! If I had to pick one, I really loved ‘Porchlight’ as a concept.  As soon as I saw it I was like ‘I know what this is going to evoke emotion wise.’  How with such a small symbol like that, everyone would immediately have the same reaction or recognition, like ‘yep, I know what you’re talking about.’ I thought that was so special so conceptually I thought it was magic.  I loved ‘Playing House’ too as a concept, but ‘Hurtable’ is a jam so of course, congrats to Drew and company.  I wish I wrote that too!


This was so much fun!  It’s been great getting to know these two and I can’t wait to see what happens with their next songs and this year’s contest!