Steve Is Going To Rock Our World
A Blog Series By: Allison Barrett
[ALLISON] All right, everybody! Welcome to the new version of the Allison Asks blog. Now we are doing a written format as well as an audio format and I'm super excited because Steve O'Brien is my first guest on the audio format. So, let's all welcome Steve. If you want to, tell me a little bit about your journey to Nashville and how you got into writing.
[STEVE] Let me see. I've always, well, first, thank you for having me here. So nice of you. I think I've been a member of NSAI since the beginning and almost Maggie Cavender days back way, way, way when so. But, let me see. So, I've always loved music. I've just been crazy about music and grew up in Connecticut and was always sitting at a piano when I was a little kid, went to college, I was an English major there and came down right after college and was interested in songwriting. I always had bands and stuff when I was in school. So, I came down here and I was on a motorcycle, and I had a girl and a guitar with me, and I think I've still got the guitar somewhere. But, let me see, then I just moved down here cold. I didn't really know anyone. And, I had a place on Music Row there, a little apartment there, had some songs placed with a few publishers those first few years there and a few songs recorded. And meanwhile, I was supporting myself. I'd always liked to build things, so I was doing, working on people's studios and, and stuff and I got to know- I was working for Owen Bradley for a while, Chet Atkins, and Ray Stevens, they had studios and buildings. So, I was super fortunate to just get to know those sort of icons and see how they approach things, you know, and how they ran their businesses and just get to know them.
So, then I had a few songs recorded of my own and I had a song I wrote with Pam Tillis, it was sort of a minor hit for Barbara Fairchild back in the mid 70s there and I guess because I had gotten to know some of these other people, they always, they may have worked for other companies, but they always had their own businesses and studios and all. So, I decided I wanted to have my own publishing company and bought a house and built a studio on the bottom of it and started recording with people. And I really enjoyed that too. Did a lot of engineering and I think the first hit that was demoed there was Ronnie Rogers’ song, Dixieland Delight, for Alabama. So that gives you an idea of how long ago that was and I worked with some great writers. People like him and John Hiatt, Pam Rose, Mary Ann Kennedy, they had a band, Kennedy Rose. There were a lot of hits that I engineered the demos and some of them made them onto records, people like Art Garfunkel and all. I sort of got away from writing for a little bit because I enjoyed the studio so much, but then I sort of realigned my days to spend more time writing and had some songs recorded. People like Brooks and Dunn, “Rock My World (Little Country Girl)” and others. Basically I just feel lucky I wake up and get to do what I love to do every day. It's not always easy, but I just love music and that's what I do.
[ALLISON] Yeah and you mentioned it's not always easy, and that's something that our writers need to hear a lot because it is not always easy. Is there a hurdle that you look back on and you're like, oh, that's actually a positive thing that happened?
[STEVE] Um, I'm trying to think. I've had so many of those, actually. You know, things that seem like it's sort of a block of some kind, but then you find your way around it and things are sort of better because of that. So, I'm trying to think. There's just so many of those little events like that that I look back and I go, oh, well, I was sort of upset at the time, but that's okay. I think one thing, this is sort of off the subject, but I think one thing starting out that was a bit of a hurdle for me is that I remember several times having written something that, I tend to work pretty hard and not everything I write is great and not even that good, you know, but once in a while when I get something I'm just crazy about, I think, oh wow, that should be a hit or, or something like that. You know, I think I've learned to be maybe not quite so precious about some of those. In other words, I remember, an artist named Katy Moffat. This was probably back in the 80s or something and she had recorded a song called “I Know The Difference Now” which I just remember I wrote that with her brother Hugh Moffat and we just thought this was this wonderful thing and John Boylan produced it. It was producing Linda Ronstadt and Little River Band, along with Michael Martin Murphy, they co-produced it. And yeah, we were sure that was going to be a hit. I remember John Boylan walking me out of Woodland Studios saying, ‘Steve, it's 3:30 in the morning, but the Mercedes dealership opens at nine, so go over there and order you a new Mercedes because this is going to be a smash’ and fortunately I had sense not to do that. But, you know, there's a lot of songs that you think they're good, but you just have to just sort of relinquish yourself to the process and just enjoy what you do because that's what it really comes down to. I mean, just waking up and having the opportunity to have a profession where you get to wake up and spend your days, like there's nothing I'd rather be doing than talking with you here and then I have a writing appointment after I mean, I just love what I do.
[ALLISON] So you said really low key “Rock My World (Little Country Girl),” but that is a huge song. So, how did that come about? What was that day like?
[STEVE] I co-wrote that with a great writer, a brilliant writer actually, Bill LaBounty and he is married to Beckie LaBounty. I worked with Beckie a lot in my studio. She was writing for, I think, Screen Gems at the time and a lot of the songs that we recorded, that we did demos for, they were recorded by different people. Bill and I got to be friends and sometimes he'd come by and we'd go to a movie or something together and one day he said ‘let's write a song sometime.’ So, so we worked on that. We were actually working on another song and then it sort of dead ended and someone had said that title, Rock My World. I think it was Sandra Bernhard in Madonna's movie, Truth or Dare. It was a long time ago and so Bill said, “well, this isn't happening. What if we wrote a song called Rock My World?” And I picked up this old Les Paul that was Robbie Dupree's, I think, and just slammed an E chord and started playing that Creedence based sort of, not the lick, but a reference to Creedence, and said, ‘what if we made a country like, “Rock My World (Little Country Girl)?”’
And he looked at me, and I looked at him, and we said, ‘hmm, we might have something there.’ So, we worked on that and got the first few verses and part of the chorus, and even included Madonna in one of the lines there. And then Becky, and I have to be so thankful to Becky. She came down into Bill's studio and heard it and she really, really loved it. Don Cook was co-producing Brooks and Dunn at the time with Scott Hendricks and Don was a friend of theirs and came over for dinner I think that evening or something and she played it for Don and Don said ‘that's really good. We've got Brooks and Dunn's new album finished, but Tim DuBois, who was running Arista, said they could possibly use another up tempo song for them.’
So, Bill and I got in gear and we got together time after time and we gradually, it was a difficult song to finish. We got together a number of times, actually, over the next month or even month and a half and I just, we knew it was pretty good, but we were focused on Brooks and Dunn, so we were listening to Boot Scootin’ Boogie, which was a giant hit at the time, and you know going ‘Blackjack Cadillac’, so we were going ‘one step, two step,’ but we couldn't really finish it. Then one day we were out of irl rhymes, and Bill, who as I mentioned is brilliant, he came up with this line. He said, ‘Someday she's all ribbons and curls.’ And I just remember jumping up and said, ‘Bill, that's awesome. Now she can go out and have a good time, party, whatever. But she's basically a really sweet girl.’ And we sort of saved her at the end there, you know.
Then Becky, we did a demo, we did the tracks at Bill's, he had a little studio at his place and I brought it back to my studio and mixed it and did some stuff. Then Becky FedExed it out to Don Cook at a hotel in Phoenix where Brooks and Dunn were performing and I remember Bill called me up, I think it was a Sunday afternoon, and said, ‘Hey Steve, I just got off with Don Cook and Kix and Ronnie and they sang me our song over the phone.’
So, I said, ‘so they like it?’ He said, ‘they love it.’ I said, ‘so like, are they interested in it? Is it on hold?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, it's on hold.’ So, that's basically the story and so I'm very grateful to Becky for that and also Bill had a great publisher he was working with at the time, Pat Higdon, I don't know if you know him. Pat was just invaluable staying in touch with Kix and Ronnie and the label and making sure they didn’t forget how much they liked it. So, it was a, you know, very fortunate there. And I have to say, I mean, Kix and Ronnie, they are brilliant writers. I mean, you know, look at their catalog, both of them in the Hall of Fame and just those incredible songs that they've both written. I mean, that first album that of theirs is just like a textbook in country's songwriting. It's just amazing.
[ALLISON] And then they both have their solo careers on top of that, so it's crazy.
[STEVE] It is crazy. But once again, if I was to give some advice, it's, you know, find something you love to do and then do it. You know, because those people like that, like Garth or Reba. I mean, they've, I could just go on and on and on. I mean, Taylor Swift. I mean, at this point, they've all got more money than they could probably spend. You know, well, I don't know for sure, but I mean, there's always another yacht, but, but, you know, there's something when you're, I remember being 13 years old playing guitar and just loving music and, and now I’m older than that and still doing the same thing.
[ALLISON] Yeah! So that kind of makes sense. You were an English major in college you said so the songwriting kind of makes sense, but you said you wanted to own your own publishing company. Why was that a dream?
[STEVE] You know, I've got a lot of friends that have just incredibly great writer publisher relationships. I shouldn't say a lot, but a large handful through the years, and there's nothing better than that. So, if a writer has a great writer publisher relationship, you know, they've got a great person that believes in them and loves what they do, and almost more importantly, loves what they think they're capable of doing in the future. You know, someone that just really believes in you. I think that's a wonderful thing. For me, I just, I would not recommend it necessarily, but to writers coming here, I would say, you know, meet with publishers and try for that. You know, especially since it's a, such a complex business, especially nowadays.
So, I would definitely recommend, you know, you know, building relationships with publishers. But, um, I remember back then I just would look at some of the writers I admire at the most, you know, and still through the years like that, the Irving Berlin, Irving Berlin music, Diane Warren, Real Songs, you know, Luke Laird, his company, Craig Wiseman, you know, so many you know, writers, Harlan Howard, I remember back then had left his publisher and was intent on starting his own company, which he did and had a success with that. So, I just, I've just always been an entrepreneur, I guess, having my studio and just liking to own my company. So, it's worked out for me, but I really would not. You know, take that with a grain of salt.
[ALLISON] That was another question. In your studio, how did you learn how to do the engineering?
[STEVE] I was around studios and I really liked that. I just sort of taught myself really. I was around people like Joe Mills, who's a great engineer, Bobby Bradley that worked at Owen Bradley's Barn and learn from people like them and going along with the principle of why not earn while you learn?
[ALLISON] I love that!
[STEVE] I remember it's funny because I started the studio and I offered, everybody I knew, all my songwriter friends, I said, ‘come on in, you can do a song, a session for free.’ You know, three, four hours, come in for an afternoon or a morning, something. And a few of them did, but not, not that many. Then I started, you know, “Dixieland Delight” was a hit very, very quickly, actually within the first six months or a year that I had the studio. And then I remember people calling up and saying ‘Hey, Steve, you know, I heard you had a studio.’ And I said, ‘well, you know, I told you I had a studio,’ ‘I just thought, you had, some, you know. That's a real studio!’ ‘Yeah, yeah.’ ‘So, well, how much do you charge?’ So, they didn't want to use it for free. They wanted to pay me then. So, it was sort of the Tom Sawyer theory with the fence, you know. If it's for free, nobody wants it. But if you charge people, then maybe they do. I don't know. But I was so fortunate to work with some really great writers that I learned so much from, you know, people like John Hiatt in particular, but, you know, Ronnie and Pam Rose, Mary Ann Kennedy and Pat Bunch and, you know, a lot of, probably most of all of their hits were demoed there.
There are a lot of other people too, it's been a while, but as far as learning, I'd be working, but I'd also be learning from them all the time. I remember John came in one time and he'd been over in England and working with Glyn Johns and he said, you know, ‘Hey, instead of using all those mics on the drums, let's just try maybe three or four mics.’
And I said, ‘yeah, we won't’. He said, ‘yeah, let's, you know, I've been working on a project with Glyn Johns’ and this became the famous Glyn John's mic technique, you know, having like one overhead and one to the side near the floor tom, and maybe one on the snare possibly, and then, one on the kick drum, and pan sort of not exactly like you would expect, and so we tried that, and went into the control room and said, ‘wow, John, this sounds great.’ He said, ‘yeah, I told you.’ And so, I learned something, but I learn some stuff every day working with, you know, my people I work with now writers and stuff. So, I love that.
[ALLISON] So I've been asking around about you and people say you're quite the businessman.
[STEVE] Oh really?
[ALLISON] Yeah! So, do you have any business advice or how do you make your business decisions? Like when you are offered a deal or a, you know, a project, how do you make those business decisions and is there advice you'd give to our writers?
[STEVE] You know, the main business advice I would give in any business thing is to get to know the other person and try to get an idea of what's good for them. This thing popped in my mind a year or two ago. I remember I said to someone, ‘you know, what's good for you is great for me.’ So, if you can find a situation where everybody comes out ahead, then that's a good business deal. So, that's what I would shoot for. I mean if you're trying to sell a used car and you want to get a new car and you've got this thing, it runs, but it's, maybe got some issues, but you want to sell it for $1,000 and someone wants to buy a car that just runs and now they've got a car that runs and, you know, it's just it's sort of simple. So, I would say that and then I’m always learning about the business, but especially the music business. So, I would say the more you can stay informed the better off you can be. So, the music industry and the songwriting and publishing industries, they are changing by the nanosecond almost and I would say one of the best things you could do would be to join NSAI. I've known Bart forever and some of the staff here, like yourself and Jill and the other people through the years and you send out all this informative stuff and you have ways for people to meet people and integrate into the business, stuff like that. I mean, that's priceless. And then on the other end, from the publishing side, the NMPA, or National Music Publishers Association, is very, very valuable if you're someone interested in publishing, or say that you own some of your own copyrights, you can become a member. Also, the AIMP is another organization for independent music publishers. They have seminars, AIMP, they're just fantastic. They do some online Zoom meetings every month or two where you talk to people about copyright and this and that.
You know, I would say the other thing is just take care of business. Because, you know, if you're a songwriter, make sure your songs are registered with your PRO, ASCAP or BMI. Bart and David Israelite with the NMPA, I just cannot say how grateful I am to them for what they've done with the Music Modernization Act. If you've got songs out there, make sure they're registered with the MLC. If you're a publisher, if you have a separate publishing company, do it that way, or you can even do it as a writer, and you can do the same with BMI. There’s money out there that you're earning so make sure that you're collecting it.
[ALLISON] It’s so nice that you reinforce some of the services here and like the MLC, because we say this to writers all the time, but when it's something from someone like you, that isn't the staff, they might you know really look into it a little further. So, yes guys, use your services and definitely check out the MLC.
[STEVE] Yeah, well, I would be honest. It's just priceless.
[ALLISON] Awesome. So, you wrote a book called the Ferrari Club. That probably stems from your English major as well, but how did that happen?
[STEVE] Well, it's funny. As I mentioned, I grew up in Connecticut and I was an English major and I've got several pairs of cowboy boots. I'm not wearing them today, but I don't wear a cowboy hat usually.
[ALLISON] No, it's a ball cap, guys.
[STEVE] Right, just a ball cap. So, I remember I'd be out at a bar and have a few beers and someone would say, ‘Well, so you're from Connecticut and you're an English major. How did you ever become a songwriter in Nashville?’ And one time, I'd had a few beers and I said, ‘Well, actually, I was in grad school in New York City working part-time in a pizza restaurant in Greenwich Village and there was a mafia shooting there, an assassination, and I managed to survive it. I ducked behind the bar. One of the bullets hit the water line from the ice machine and doused me with water which prevented me from burning to death when they firebombed it afterwards’ and people had their eyes open and I just would go on and on and I said, ‘so then, you know, I was interviewed in the hospital by the FBI and they wanted me to try to identify whoever did it. And I was terrified to do so, because it was a mafia thing,’ but they said they could put me in the witness protection program, and I said, ‘you know, well, I love music,’ and they said, ‘well, how about being a Nashville songwriter?’ And so, they put me in the witness protection program as a Nashville songwriter. They had a producer in Nashville that was a really good guy, but he was sort of under their thumb because of a possible payola thing, but he didn't know that they weren't really after him, but they had sort of had the squeeze on him. So, they got him to take me under his wing down here and we hit it off and he helped me learn how to write songs and had some success with that.
And people would say, ‘well, well, is that true?’ I'd say, ‘no, I just made that up.’ So, one day I just thought, well, that would be an interesting first chapter for a book. So, I just started writing it. I wasn't really planning on completing it. I just started writing and then I couldn't stop with it. I used a number of stories that I had, you know, encountered through the years of different musicians, things that happened in studios, or, you know, different producers, or people that ran record companies, or in a lot of cases it was people I really looked up to. It's not sort of negative stories or anything like scandalous stuff or whatever.
Just like there's one well-known producer that was a story that he got his start in Los Angeles working with some of the great artists back in the 50s and 60s and you know, Frank Sinatra and people like that and supposedly on his first big session it was like a 60 piece orchestra and it was all done in mono or stereo. Nothing could go wrong. I mean, the pressure was on. So, he snuck into the studio the night before, bribed a janitor, and changed the notes on one of the violin players charts to some incorrect notes. And so, then the next day, they got in the control room and the all the Sinatra and the entourage and everybody was there and, and they started running the song down and the producer hit the talk back. He said, ‘excuse me. Uh, excuse me. Second violin bar 31 going into 32. Shouldn't that be like an F sharp rather than an A flat there? ‘And the person looked down and, ‘oh, excuse me, excuse me, sir. I think the copyist must have made a mistake.’ And they erased it and fixed it and then went back to this. And, of course, no one has ears that good. I mean, this, then, but he got a reputation for, wow, this guy, he could hear bugs walking. I mean, so I use, you know, sort of, funny stories like that through the book. And I think, and of course that was like about 15 years ago, but it's sort of a fun story. The guy, the songwriter, hits it off with the producer and the producer loves sports cars. So, he has these, this entourage of people in and out of the music business that have these Ferraris and other sports cars. They have all these adventures. Uh, the songwriter meets a young singer and they have this rocky romance and the mafia sort of never totally disappears till the end, but you'll have to read the book to find out what happens.
[ALLISON] I hear these stories and I can see it playing out in my head and like we should put some music and do a little video series with these. I don't know like I can see them all playing out. This is great. You are writing with a lot of our up and coming writers, so I love that, first of all.
[STEVE] Well, I love it.
[ALLISON] Yeah! So, talk about that because you could be writing with all these pros.
[STEVE] You know, I just love music. I just love working with talented people. You mentioned something about being a businessman. I'm always thinking about business and always thinking about how songs might get recorded, but after all these years, I sort of had this naive belief that I still believe, which is the music always wins. So, eventually, maybe, maybe not, I don't know, but I still believe, and I'm gonna stick to my guns on that. So, I go to a lot of writer's things, you know, nights or rounds and stuff, and I love people, so if I hear someone I really like their music or whatever I'll usually start talking with them and, you know maybe meet for coffee or just get to know each other and maybe write.
Another thing that I found myself doing once again, coming down to just loving music. If I encounter or I hear someone who I think is just really great that I don't know, I'll go out and whether they're well known or not, I will go out and pursue possibly trying to get to know them. And then, you know, ask them if they'd be interested in writing and, depending, you know, very often they're not. They're just really, really busy or have their own business concerns that have them sort of tied up or whatever. You know, because they've got to work through their management and publishers and stuff like that. It’s funny because I've had a number of people record songs recently that I'm just so proud of. A group called Chapel Hart. Have you heard of them by any chance? They're really good. I was just a big fan of theirs and then went to one of their shows. They were playing Whiskey Jam one time and you know met them and their manager and spoke to them about writing and I guess I emailed the manager later and he got back to me and we got together and wrote a song I was really proud of called “If You Weren't Wearing Boots” and then I kept thinking ‘this song is pretty good and I love this song.’ I listened back to it, but I just never really heard too much from them again and then I got a text from one of the band members who said, ‘Hey, have you seen this?’ It was an article in Garden and Gun magazine about the song on their new album that was coming out in a couple of weeks. So, sometimes you're the last to know.
[ALLISON] In Garden and Gun, that's interesting.
[STEVE] Of all things, you know, but they're from Mississippi if you're not familiar with this group and then I remember a couple of months ago, they did it on the Opry and they're so nice. They invited me out to come backstage with them and they're just lovely people. We've written more since then, you know, hopefully will in the future. Another person that a similar thing happened to is an artist named Dee White. I don't know if you're familiar with him, but he has one of the most amazing voices that I've ever heard, really. I just became familiar with his music, he was on Warner Brothers. Dan Auerbach with the Black Keys produced his first album and had some amazing songs on that. So out of the blue, I remember texting or messaging him on Facebook or something and he politely responded, you know, and I said something about writing and didn't push it and whatever, but six months later I heard back from him, he said, ‘You want to get together sometime?’ So, we did and we've written a number of songs. We've also become good friends with him. He’s a really nice young man and his family's just been, you know, lovely, too. So, I have a song on his new project coming out that Tony Brown produced. Tony's one of my heroes. I'm so thrilled to have a song produced by him and recorded by Dee. So that's just another you know it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't pursued it out of the blue. But I wouldn't have done it unless I thought these people were really amazing.
Another guy that's like that is Rob Mayes, who's an actor. I saw him perform over one of Terri Jo's nights over at The Local and got to know each other and he's recorded several songs. Another one, Hayden Coffman. I had a single with him out recently and he's fantastic. You know I think David Ross introduced us Hayden and I, but I had to chase after him a little bit, but, now we've had some good songs. I mean, I just love music and this is some advice, I've had to learn this lesson myself. In working at my studio through the years, most of the work was with some super talented writers, but occasionally they would bring in some of the bigger artists. So, people like Reba McEntire, Vince Gill. When you're dealing with people like that, two things I found with them, when you're actually in a working situation with some of the artists like that is they're nicer than they would have to be. They're just usually exceptionally nice and gracious. And then they are beyond good. They, you know that they're good, but they're better than you had any idea. So, you listen to their music on the radio and you know they're great, can't wait this and that and then you get in the studio with them and it's like, wow. I mean, they are, like, really, really good. So, I just found that all the really successful people are also really, really good. However, being good is not going to make you successful, but you can't be successful without being good. So set your life up so that you can work at what you love every day. You can get better and better and better at it and also that will help you be in the right place at the right time for things to happen. And when that does happen, it increases the likelihood that you would have something good to offer. So, does that make sense? It was a long, convoluted thing. There’s so many great songs and to have something to get recorded it's going to have to be better than anything they have and these people are, all the artists, they are so good. And there's only room for ten records in the top ten, so you have to have something that is special. So, try to be good and in the meantime, you get to do what you love to do.
[ALLISON] That's awesome! And I appreciate one thing that you're a pro and you're still so humble. I love that. Also, you mentioned that you're going out and reaching out to these new artists. You're doing the same things we tell them to do when they want to write up or even meet other writers on their level where like you have to go out and don't say let's write immediately, you know, like get them for coffee and stuff. So, you're still doing the same things we recommended them, which is really neat.
[STEVE] Yeah. And the other thing, and I'm sure this is something that you've encountered and maybe even tell people is that Taylor Swift doesn't need me right now. You know what I'm saying? So, so if you're coming to Nashville hoping to just jump in, I'm not saying it couldn't happen that you'd be, you know, writing with some of the top people, but a lot of them have paid a lot of dues for a lot of years. There’s a lot of value in, say, if you're at a writer's night or something and you meet someone and you really like their music, get to know them and sort of develop a circle of friends in this class of, it's like the class of ‘23 or something and it sort of ends up moving up together and if those people are good, eventually, they will find success in their different professions, engineers, or it could be the executives or people at A&R and stuff, and there's just as much talent in people in the business end. Scott Borchetta, he's as creative as Steve Jobs or Picasso at what he does. Look what he's invented, you know basically the whole big machine world or Craig Wiseman, those people. So yeah, just get to know those people and you all tend to sort of move up together. I mean, it's very competitive and sort of like a big high school, more like junior high, I think. It’s like, who's cool, this and that, but you know, don't worry about it too much.
[ALLISON] Also, one of the songs that has stuck with me the most that I've heard from a member is “Brooks And Done” that you wrote with Mark Taylor and Dan Harrison. So, every time I see Mark or Dan play I'm like, ‘Oh, you have to play that one.’ I love it!
[STEVE] Mark, I'm sorry I slipped up mentioning him. I’ve got a single out with him now. Mark's one of the most talented guys that I've ever encountered and what a hustler, he's a hardworking guy. And a lot of the talent is working in the business, and look at Mark or Hayden Coffman out playing 200 nights a year. Julia Cole had a song out with her, same thing, just nonstop, but I'm a fan of Mark. So, I feel fortunate to work with him, and I think he's gonna put that song out sometime next year. That brings me to another thing is the way I met Mark was through Nicole Zeller, who is his PR publicist and has really taken on sort of a management role with him or at least was, you know, voluntarily doing nice things. There was a really talented singer named Bailey James, who I had a number of songs recorded with her and Nicole was doing her PR and she's the one who called me about Mark and asked me if I'd be interested in writing with him, and that was several years ago, and I did, and I remember going up to his room at the Holiday Inn and squeezing into a corner on this little desk and wrote this song that I really loved and we wrote quite a few more.
So, the song “Brooks And Done” we co-wrote with another collaborator I've worked with a lot, a super talented guy, Dan Harrison. I think we were over at Dan's house where he has a little studio and I'd written with Dan before and I'd written with Mark before and I think they were roommates actually. So, that was Dan's idea, “Brooks And Done” and it just sort of popped out, probably thanks to those guys. So, I was smart enough to be there, but that was Dan's idea and those guys, you know. We made a little recording of it that afternoon, and that sometimes they're like that. You can get it all done in one day and very often the good stuff comes very quickly, you know, but then sometimes there's a lot of work to refine it. But that, that one came very quickly. So that's another bit of advice, work with talented people. Thank you for mentioning that.
[ALLISON] Yeah. It's always stuck with me since the first time I heard it and you know we hear a lot of songs here. So, as we go into the new year, do you have tips for people to keep developing their writing? Or, I had one person specifically ask, how do you overcome writer's block? So, what are your processes?
[STEVE] You know, I've always studied songwriting and I've studied writing and all sorts of things. It’s funny because you I didn't know what you were going to ask or what I was going to say. My mind was sort of a blank, driving over. I said, ‘what am I going to say?’ Fortunately, you have wonderful questions and took all the pressure off, but one thing I thought on driving over here is that I've studied songwriting and writing, different aspects of writing since I was a kid. Then coming to Nashville I would read everything I could, everything. So, I think probably a lot of your members would be able to say something similar and I don't mean to be arrogant to say this or anything. I feel like I know everything there is about songwriting, but it doesn't help me one bit to write a good song. So, you can know everything about songwriting, but it doesn't help you write a good song. There is something else involved. I don't know what that is, and if you find the secret put it in a bottle and throw it in the ocean and send it my way.
[ALLISON] I thought we were going to drop some crazy hints right now, but I guess that's, that's what it is.
[STEVE] So, no. I would say that you have to get to know yourself and as a writer you have to sort of show up, whether it's by yourself, and that's another thing. Everyone comes to town writing songs on their own, and then you start co-writing. Don't ever stop writing on your own. Do it once in a while, just so you know you can do it. But there's something magic that happens when a good song comes into being. You know, I don't mean to be too New Agey about it, but if that thing should happen and you've got a guitar in your hand, or you're sitting at a keyboard, or you've got a notebook or computer in front of you, there's a lot better chance than, that you'll end up with a song than if you're out somewhere else. So, I would say if you've got writer's block, don't push it because there's a little kid inside you that, it's almost like schizophrenia or something, but there's some little person inside you that you have to be very careful with, and you sort of have to feed it and give it room to run around, or something like that, and if you're nice to it, eventually, something will happen. It’s a lifelong psychological process, or something, if that makes any sense. There’s a balance between not pushing it, and you know, working hard at it.
So, if you're writing with co-writers, it's much easier because usually someone will have an idea, and if you don't have one yourself, someone's gonna, or else you'll just be talking and something will happen. But as far as your initial question, I got off on this tangent here, there's some really interesting books about writing. One of them is an author named Dorothea Brande wrote a book called Becoming a Writer. Which I remember was very valuable to me quite a number of years ago when I read it, it was exceptionally valuable and she talks about things like that, you know, writer's block and how to deal with it. So that's something I would recommend. There's another really, really good book. It deals with a lot of aspects of writing by a fantastic writer named Sam Hollander called 21 Hit Wonder that came out about a year ago, which I would recommend to anyone. It's probably about the best book about contemporary songwriting and collaboration that I've encountered and some of his stories that he talks about with some of the people he's worked with are just invaluable and he's such a great writer, songs like “High Hopes” and just numerous others with Train and all sorts of people, but the way he talks about dealing with collaboration and things like that are really just sort of priceless.
But one thing he says, and this is not directly about writer's block and I try to do this every day, first thing in the morning I'll wake up and I'll sit down and I'll try to come up with half a dozen or a dozen titles or ideas or phrases and it could be something stupid and it usually is, but, if you do that every day or if you work on a song every day, at the end of the week, you're going to have something, but in particular, he talks about a number of different things that would happen with co-writing situations and how he would approach that, that I found were very, very valuable.
He also previously in past years had a studio, he probably still does. But, as far as writer's block, I just don't really think about writer's block anymore. If it's not happening, I just sort of maybe do something else and try to listen for that little person inside because it'll come up with something. Raymond Chandler, who is one of my people I admire very much, the author, he said that he would allocate so much time a day to writing, and he wouldn't force himself to write. It might be three or four hours in the morning, every morning from, you know, eight till noon or something, but he wouldn't let him do, let himself do anything else. He wouldn't be writing letters or reading books or anything, he'd be sitting there with his typewriter, and he said, ‘it's like you put a bunch of little kids in a school room with some encyclopedias and globes and things like that and just let them loose in there. Eventually they'll learn something, eventually something will happen.’
But Sam's book is great. I know from my experiences in engineering with the studio, if I was working with a new client, I would often try to research that person's music and it was back before the days of Spotify and all, I'd go to Tower Records or I'd listen and so then when they would come in I would have an idea of their music and maybe mention one of their records that I really liked and it would sort of break the ice with them and they would be impressed that I would have taken the time to do that and it just gets things off on a good thing. So, if I'm co-writing with someone and I don't have any ideas as far as writers block, I'll sort of look up their social media, try to listen to their music, and maybe go through some of my ideas before that I might have that I might be able to bring to the table or something like that. A lot of times you're just talking with people and it gets things going.
But I know Sam, he would go so far as to, you know, actually come up with a track or a chorus or, you know, things like that. He's, there's one great story in there with Ringo Starr. He'd always wanted to write with Ringo Starr and this is after Sam had, you know, quite a few giant hits and finally he got the opportunity. So he and his collaborator on the east coast, they came up with this idea, maybe a chorus and sort of a verse, and did a little track for it, sort of a work tape type track, and was out in California and drove up to Ringo's mansion in Beverly Hills, wherever, and he said, ‘Ringo is just so nice, he's just so gracious,’ and brought him in, showed him around the place, they had some coffee, and he then went into his studio and he had his engineer there, and he said, ‘well, what do you want to write about today?’ Sam said, ‘well, I've got this idea.’ And he played him the verse and a chorus. And Ringo said, ‘well, that's great, mate. But what do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘well, it needs a second verse.’ And so he said, ‘well, all right’ So they, they got in the studio there and came up with a verse and modified what they had and Sam said they left with a complete song and Sam got in his rental car and he was driving down the driveway and he thought you know, that was just one of the most special days, but I have no idea of how to get ahold of Ringo. He never gave me his number or email or anything. I hope I hear from him again. And he didn't! The song eventually was recorded. So, he just, he reached out to his manager and never really heard anything back. So, he got together again with his collaborator, I think it was the same person and he had this other idea that he thought might be good for Ringo, and so they came up with a chorus, or whatever, and verse, and made this demo and sent it to the manager. This is after he just went silent on him a little bit and there for a bit and I may have some of the details here wrong, but he sent the manager a copy of this demo, emailed or texted it to him. And he said a couple of hours later, he gets a call from the manager. He said, ‘Hey, what are you doing tomorrow?’ So, he got on a plane and went out and wrote another song with Ringo.
So, you just don't know. And you just gotta just jump in there. I couldn't have predicted that song with Mark Taylor and Dan Harrison, “Brooks And Done,” I couldn't have predicted that we would have written that, but it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't showed up that day. I don’t know.
[ALLISON] Well, those are all the questions that I had. I don't know if there's anything you want to add. This has been so great. Thank you so much.
[STEVE] You know, one other thing is I think every writer has something special in them, and I think it’s worth spending some time trying to, number one, figure out what that is and never forget what that is. Because, you know, as I mentioned, there's a really special song. There's something, there’s something magic that sort of happens with it and don't forget that you've got that magic in you, I think. If, if that makes sense. I think it's easy to maybe when you first come to Nashville or you're visiting, you go to a writer's night or something and you see these people and you go, ‘How could I ever be that good? That's unbelievable.’ But, you know, that person has something, but you have something too.
So, if you have something to say, I remember Oscar Hammerstein, talk about books here again, he has a book that he, Rodgers and Hammerstein. He said in there, it's a short book, and it's an old book, it's probably, 50 or more years old, 60 years old, but he said that he felt that anybody could write a hit song if they had something important to say. So, if you feel like there's something important that you have to say, just go for it, but don't forget that you've got that in you, because part of writing, any kind of writing, is having something to say, and the other thing is having the skill to do it, to bring it to life. And if, if you have an overabundance of one or the other, you can do something really, really good.
If you don't have something to say, but you're just super skillful, a beautiful melody writer, producer, whatever, you could possibly come up with something really great. But if you've got something really great to say, it may not need to be all that sophisticated. So, songwriting is, it's a separate but related skill to being a musician. They're both related, but some of the best writers are actually not really good musicians. I mean, I am always trying to learn how to play guitar, piano better, things like that. The more you can do, the better.
But Irving Berlin, possibly America's greatest historical songwriter, songs like “White Christmas” and all, he learned how to play on the black keys of the piano when he was a kid, in the key of F sharp, never learned anything more. He wrote all those songs in one key, and when he got some money and had some hits, he had a piano built with a crank on the side that would move the insides of the strings back and forth. So that he would never have to learn how to play in any other key than F sharp, the five black keys and the couple white ones.
And another, possibly one of Nashville's most renowned songwriters, Harlan Howard, I remember years ago they had a big birthday celebration for him behind the BMI parking lot there, they gave him a guitar that had three frets on it, the rest was just all black ebony, because he wrote all those great songs, like “I Fall to Pieces,” and numerous, numerous other ones and he never got past the third fret on the guitar. You know, half a dozen, dozen chords or something like that. Those beautiful melodies, like “I Fall to Pieces.” I mean, so that, look at Irving Berlin, you know, ‘I'm dreaming of a white Christmas.’ I mean, you could hear those six or seven, eight notes anywhere in the world and nothing else sounds like that. I'm puzzled by that. I'm always, you know, just in awe of that fact, but the skill of melody writing, it helps to be a musician, but you don't have to be a great musician to do that, you know? So come up with a great idea like “ABCDEFU” or “Body Like a Back Road” or, you know, those things.
[ALLISON] Wow! Okay. This has been so great. Thank you so much!
[STEVE] Thank you for having me here.