Interview with MICHAEL GARVIN, Grammy nominee and songwriter of 80 chart hits (Jennifer Lopez, George Benson, Steps) - Jul 24, 2005
ďMy publisher wouldnít allow me to demo my first big hit, ĎNever Give Up On A Good Thingí by George Benson, because it took more than a minute to hit the chorus.Ē
Ö says Michael Garvin, Grammy nominee and songwriter of 80 chart hits, including ďWaiting For TonightĒ by Jennifer Lopez, Steps (UK No.1) and more. He has received 4 BMI Million-Air awards and spends half the year traveling to Europe to co-write.
How did you get started in the music business?
I just loved making music, right from early childhood. I don't come from a musical family but I always wrote songs and I never had another job. As a kid I learnt to play guitar and played in many bands and studied records like crazy. I only went to college for about a year. I hated it. Then at 18, I moved to Nashville, and had my first hit when I was 19.
When I moved to Nashville I supported myself for the first few years by doing session work, before I was able to make a good living just out of songwriting.
Why did you move to Nashville?
It was the closest music center to where I lived - I'm from Louisiana - and it was the closest community when things started rocking for us here, which was almost immediately - in 6 months I was signed and was getting records. I went there with absolutely nothing - we slept on the floor, didn't have a TV for a year Ö it was really tough. But it was fun - when youíre 18 years old it's just a big adventure.
I still think it's a great songwriting community here, but I will probably be moving to Stockholm because most of the work I do today is in Europe. Last year I spent more time in Europe than I did in America.
How come you started going to Europe so much?
Wherever the action was for me, thatís where Iíd always be. I love writing all different kinds of music. I had a huge run of country hits in the 80s - 18 top ten in about 6-7 years, it was just insane. But there was a period of time after when I wasnít having hits. And then I had a dance hit in the UK, so I went there trying to create some more activity.
I started having hits there and from there I expanded into the rest of Europe. The last publishing deal was with Warner Chappell out of Munich, Germany. That certainly embedded me in the European songwriting community.
I just made a deal with BMG for the Benelux and with Sony for the rest of the world based out of Stockholm. So it makes sense to be there now. I can still make trips to the US - Iíve got a studio here in Nashville with a bedroom.
Is physical location important to a songwriter?
I do think you have to be in the centres. But I literally spend about 7 months of the year living out of a hotel somewhere writing songs. You can live where you want to live, but you do need to take the time and energy to go where the action is and embed yourself in the communities.
I really enjoyed writing in different territories for those territories. For example, I wrote and produced Pop Idol records for the last 2 years in Belgium with Jan Leyers, and did a lot of work in Germany, UK and America. Whatís going on in these places is totally different, and you really have to be there to soak everything up.
Who helped you take the right steps in the early days?
Nashville was different in those days. It was a lot more of a fraternity than it is now.
A lot of people there were very helpful to me. There is Blake Mevis, who worked for a company called ABC Dunhill - he gave me my first writing deal - and Rick Shoemaker in the L.A. office of ABC Dunhill. I remember Rick buying me a bed. They were my first publishers. Now he works for Warner.
When I signed with Warner Chappell and wrote ĎWaiting For Tonightí for Jennifer Lopez, it was very neat after all those years being on stage with him getting an award.
How long did it take before you got your first publishing deal?
It was about 6 months, not a long time. But remember, Nashville was very different then - a publishing deal meant $75 a week, so we're not talking about a whole lot of money. It was easier to get publishing deals back then. I just hit the streets and went to every publishing company that would see me, playing them the songs with a guitar.
Even today there are people you can do that to, assuming you get an audience with somebody. But nowadays you usually have to bring in songs that are already recorded in order to get a deal. Back then it was a smaller industry and people had more time to see writers than they do now. And they really did take writers and let them grow.
How do you learn or improve your songwriting?
Thatís the beauty of co-writing, you learn things from everybody. Certainly my first biggest writing influence on a personal level has been Blake Mevis, the guy that signed me as a kid.
To this day every time I write with somebody I learn something I didnít know before. I write with new writers as well as established ones that have had hits, because I want to stay on the cutting edge, stay fresh.
I try to spend the majority of my time with people who have had hits, but I also try to keep an eye on people who are new as well. I try to be available to people at all levels. Iíve had more hits with people who have never had a hit before than I have with people who have had strings of hits. Unless itís an ongoing relationship, like with Tom Shapiro - we had probably 15 top ten hits together.
How is a co-writing session set up?
Usually it goes through my manager or my publisher. My manager gives me a list with people who want to work with me and we will sort something out. If itís somebody who hasnít had hits yet, or someone I donít already know, he sends me their material, some mp3s, and heíll say, ďThis guy is interesting, heís worth looking atĒ.
Or if a reference comes from somebody I trust a lot, I will do it without knowing anything about the writer. If itís somebody I know I just call him up myself.
Iíve got a nice studio here in Nashville and a lot of people over here. When Iím in Europe I usually work in their facilities. I tend to like writing without the clock running in the studio, but Iíve done it with the clock running, too. I wrote a song with Steps that way, for example.
Is there paperwork that needs to be done upfront?
Absolutely not, and I never have problems doing it that way. There have just been a few times when there wasnít a good match of personalities, but most songwriters are pretty easy people to get along with.
When you go to other places, who covers the costs?
Money never exchanges hands at all.
When you do a co-write, how do you split the Ďcakeí?
Ordinarily itís 50/50, and if you write a little more on a song than the other person I still normally do 50/50 because the next time you write with that person, he may contribute more - especially if itís an ongoing relationship.
The only time I will do it differently is when the majority of the song is already done. If another person doesnít do lyrics at all, another kind of split is fair. But most of the people I work with are doing both.
How do you bring ideas to a co-writing session?
Usually I just play and make comments and lyrical notes on the laptop to remind myself of the ideas Iíve been thinking about. It can be a title or even a working title, or a lyrical sketch that brings me to that moment, so that I can go, ďHow does this sound to you?Ē
How finished are the ideas?
I tend to have little bits and pieces that are the defining moments of the song. Because to me, what itís really about is that melodic thing that is the hook. If they are not interested in the hook, youíve sort of wasted your time writing the rest of the song around it.
I tend to present things like, ďIs this what you would like to sing?Ē and you proceed from there. Or they might bring something too. I love when people bring bits and pieces along, because that way itís not all on my shoulders.
How do you handle a situation where a co-writer turns down what is, in your eyes, a good idea?
I think you have to think about that on an individual basis. If you think you have a monster song idea and if you feel that what they want to do with it sacrifices it then donít do it.
There was a time when I did. Iíd think, ďItís a big artist - if thatís what they want to do, I better do itĒ. 90% of the time you donít get on a record if you do that. If itís not a good piece of work it wonít stand up. So if I know itís a hit concept, I wonít sacrifice it. If it is a frivolous, silly change, as long as it doesnít damage the integrity of the word, Iíll go with it.
You donít come up with a monster song idea everyday, and if you have something that is particularly good, wait. Wait until somebody gets it, and write it how it ought to be written.
Which artists are you working with in the moment?
Iím working a lot with a Belgium artist called Jan Leyers. I co-wrote his entire record out now on EMI. This last year Iíve done an awful lot of work in Belgium. Iíve written the majority of a record for an artist called Paul Michels, sort of classical actually - really long songs of about 6 to 7 minutes. Heís performing them with a 30-piece orchestra with him singing. He was in a band called Soul Sister years ago. A really exiting project! Itís a different arena for me, because itís the first sort of classical thing Iíve done.
Iím writing a movie theme for a girl named Sandrine on BMG in August with Jan. Iíve just come back from a trip in Sweden and I worked with a bunch of people I hadnít worked with before, who I was really impressed by. There was a gentleman named Per Aldeheim, and we wrote a fabulous song which I put the vocals on today.
How much do you stick to the usual song structure?
I think itís always good to push the envelope and do things that are slightly different. But you do have to make sure that people understand what youíre doing, too. Otherwise you end up like Vincent van Gogh, the people just care about you after youíre dead. So to some degree you do have to stay within the balance of certain structures. Itís about knowing how far you can push it without losing somebodyís frame of reference.
How do the publishers react to the experimental stuff?
You have to be emotionally ready for them to go, ďYouíve lost your mind!Ē and pitch it yourself until you get a cut. My first big hit - by big hit I mean way up from a million units - was called ĎNever Give Up On A Good Thingí by George Benson. I remember this song specifically because my publisher wouldnít allow me to demo it, just because it took more than a minute to hit the chorus, and that was like a big rule in his mind.
I had to spend my own money demoing it. Nowadays you have to do that all the time, but in those days the publishers tended to pay for the demos. For me the minute-plus that it took to get to the chorus made the tension so high that it was such a release when you hit that chorus... I stuck with the song and it ended up a huge hit.
Business people often need creative things to be proved right the one time, then all of a sudden everybody is doing extended versesÖ
How much do you let your publisher influence your writing?
I like my publishers to keep me in touch with who is looking for songs, and I always want to know their reactions, and what theyíre thinking. I take that very seriously. But if I think they are wrong about something, Iíll go by my instincts. Especially because I tend to be the one who gets the records.
Do you analyse contemporary music?
Always, I study whatever the hits are all the time. Iím not saying to necessarily copy them but you need to know what the frames of reference are, what artists and A&R people are looking for, because it does change, and you need to be aware of those trends.
How much time do you usually spend writing a song?
I would say, on average, a week. A lot of the time, especially when youíre on a trip, you may do a song with somebody in a couple of days but you need to get back together and tighten up little things to make it perfect.
There are times I will write a song lyrically in several ways, I do a lot of experimenting, even with a different point of view before I decide the right way to do it. Itís also good to give yourself a little distance from the time you actually write it, whether itís 1 or 2 days afterwards. Listen to it afresh and ask, ďWhat line is speaking to me?Ē
What would you say is the average of rewrite versions you make if you have an idea?
It might be as many as 10. The song Iím working on right now has 4 different verses. All of them work very well. To figure out which approach I like best Iím taking the singer and listening to each of them with the performance to it. Then I will see what affects me most emotionally.
Certain things that sound good on paper donít always work for a human being singing Ė lines take on a new life when they come out of the singerís mouth. Sometimes something really simple can be the perfect moment of a song.
When you present a song to a record label, how rough is the demo?
They tend to be very well produced, almost being records. Sometimes I get productions that way, too. They love the demo and release it. Another thing is, the artists are very young now and there are times when the artist is presented with 30 very good songs, and they have little experience with choosing a hit song. They can be affected by a dazzling presentation, and you know we are all guilty of that to some degree.
Anything that can help your chances and enhance your song is a good thing. The only danger is that the more you produce things out, the more they sound in a specific area. But the most important thing is: the singer sells the song. If the singer doesnít sound believable, to me it doesnít matter how good the track is. The main thing you are selling as a songwriter is the melody and the lyric.
Do you produce the demo by yourself or do you have outside producers?
I donít tend to bring outside producers in. When I write with another co-writer we produce the demo together or we split it up. For example somebody else will do the track and Iíll do the vocal. A lot of time I do the vocals here in Nashville because we have an incredible pool of singers here. But I worked with some great songwriters called Vacuum in Sweden, and the singers they brought in have just been phenomenal.
How do you handle a situation when the record company wants other producers to produce your song, and the finished song doesnít sound good?
The majority of the time you have to be willing to let it go, and realize that if somebody else is doing the song then it becomes their vision, their baby, too. Maybe itís an idea I just donít understand yet.
I can honestly tell you there have been times when Iíve gone, ďOh no! What did they do to my song?Ē And then it would be a big hit and all of a sudden Iíd go, ďOh, that was really visionary what they did!Ē Part of what makes the thing fun is, itís your creativity, the collaboratorís, the producerís and the artistís creativity. Everybody blending together, that makes something a hit. Iím usually very grateful and happy about that.
If a producer makes changes in the song and wants credits, how do you handle this?
I donít tend to give up writing credits on a song, especially if they are making frivolous changes just to get their name on. They are paid an awful lot of money to produce the record and the artist is going to make an awful lot with touring, singing that song. My temptation is to g,: ďSure you can have the name on the record for changing, but how about you giving me 50% of your live show for the next year.Ē It usually fixes it right there.
Sometimes you have to stand your ground. But if somebody makes a legitimate contribution, which is a reasonable change for the better, Iím happy to cut them. And thatís happened as well.
How important is it for an upcoming songwriter to have a publisher?
Iím a big believer in publishers. I think getting your song marketed is a different skill than writing a hit song. If you can do both, thatís great. But young songwriters especially donít know where the songs have to go. So I think itís important to have somebody critique your songs, give valid suggestions and help you market them.
How do you find the right publisher?
I think you need to see everybody you possibly can see. Thatís what I did. Then you get a feel for whom you think will make the best marriage between publisher and songwriter. Sometimes youíre wrong, but when it works it makes up for the times when it doesnít.
What percentage did your publisher take when you started?
I started out by straight 50/50, exclusive and for life of copyright. Still in Nashville the majority of deals are life of copyright. Most of my deals lately have been out of Europe, and I was able to make way better deals for me. These deals are sub-publishing deals. My company ĎEuro Stormí appears on the label-copy. Itís sort of in between an administration-deal and a publishing deal. The way the deal is structured and the percentage is more an admin-deal.
So you think for an upcoming songwriter a 50/50 deal is OK?
I think in todayís marketplace itís OK. I know that doesnít sound pro-songwriter. But I think if a publisher is making a financial commitment to you and you come in without having had hits, itís a reasonable thing to do.
I would just like to see the copyright reverting back to the writer at a certain point. The standards of the different territories are quite different. Recoupment from Europe for instance is from more sources than in America. But itís easier to get reversions in Europe.
Is there a monthly paid salary or just a percentage of the income?
It varies. I know a lot of people in Sweden where money doesnít change hands, where itís just a percentage. But sometimes the right publisher may not be the one who is offering a whole lot of money. If they get you cuts, then you are going to make money. The decision is, who is going to work the songs the hardest? The advances you have to pay back anyway.
How did you pitch the song ďWaiting for TonightĒ to Jennifer Lopez?
I made that song with Maria Christainsen for a dance group she had called 3rd-party, where it was an album track. This group subsequently broke up and I got a call 3 years later that the song had been recorded with Jennifer Lopez. I pitch songs a lot, about 5 songs a day, and thatís just me - thereís also my manager and my publisher around. If you get a "no", donít give up. Most of my biggest hits have taen a while to get cut, sometimes years.
Have there been many changes to your version of "Waiting for Tonight"?
Yeah it was very much a Euro-pop-song before, a very German-sounding production. None of the Spanish elements were there at all.
What advice would you give unsigned songwriters?
One thing is: study other peopleís work. What makes Max Martin Max Martin, or what makes Mutt Lange Mutt Lange? Even study things that you don't particularly like. If it's being a hit, you need to understand what it is that makes that song work (the writer, the style ...).
The songwriting game is not about having one hit, it is about winning over a period of time. Go over your own work and ask, "Do I really like it? What do I need to improve on? Does it move me? If I was an artist and I received 100 songs, would I want to record this one? If the answer is "Yes", you should really go after it, try to get the song out!
Did you ever intend to be an artist yourself?
When I was a kid I definitely wanted to be an artist-songwriter. These days I love the fact that you can be schizophrenic as a songwriter, which you can't as an artist: you can write a country song one day and a pop-tune the other. The musical world is a playground for a songwriter!
What has been the greatest moment in your career so far?
The first time I saw the ĎWaiting For Tonightí video. That was an awful cool moment. And nothing beats the feeling when youíve just finished a song you know is phenomenal, or if youíre acknowledged, a song comes on the radio, or you see other people in a restaurant reacting to it.
Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath