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Interview with DAVE BERG (part two), songwriter for Keith Urban, Rodney Atkins, Reba McEntire, Emerson Drive - Jan 4, 2010

“I think it’s the only genre where there is such a hyper focus on the lyric – it’s got to all tie together and it’s got to all make sense. You can’t leave it up to the imagination as much in Nashville.”

picture For anyone harbouring dreams of making it as a songwriter, Nashville is still the beating heartland, whether you’re a country music devotee or not. A city that cultivates and showcases music from all genres, its musical culture is best defined by being “all about the song” than the more common ‘country town’ tag.

In fact there are few more fitting ambassadors for this vibrant and diverse songwriting hub than this week’s interviewee Dave Berg, a rock musician who moved to the Tennessee capital with dreams of making a living out of songwriting over a decade ago and who now has number ones with Reba McEntire (US No.1), Keith Urban (US No.1) and Emerson Drive (US Country No.1) under his belt and a host of Songwriter of the Year awards to his name.

In this interview Berg talks about the strange lifestyle of the staff writer, the politics of co-writes, how successful demos are recorded and how songs are written in a town where the lyric is king.

It sounds like the songwriter’s dream come true – you load up the car and head to Nashville with ambitions of being a songwriter and eventually through sheer hard work you hit gold …

After years of nightmares comes the dream - hopefully.

In fact one of your songs is titled ‘If You’re Going Through Hell Keep on Going’ … So how long would you say it took from you arriving in Nashville to being the successful and accomplished songwriter you are now?

I’d say it was ten to eleven years before I felt that things were really happening, but during that time I had the occasional song cut.

Nashville is home to both staff writers signed to a contract with a publishing house or freelancers. You’re a staff writer now but did you freelance earlier on?

I’ve had a publishing deal and been a staff writer the entire time that I’ve been here. So that was lucky for me because I was able to concentrate on writing the whole time and have always had enough money to live on.

So you’ve always had that odd songwriter’s lifestyle where you go into the office every day and work 9 to 5?

That’s exactly what I did. It’s a very strange job when you try to describe it to people back home. They don’t understand it, but it makes you show up.

Who was the publisher that gave you that important first break? I presume you’re not still with them now …

No, I think this is my forth or fifth publishing deal. It was Almo/Irving – they did a co-venture with a company called Crossfire [Entertainment].

As someone new to the city, how did you manage to get that deal?

I was very lucky because one person I did know back here I would send songs to – well ideas really - and she rewrote one of my ideas with a friend and it got to an artist named Ty Herndon. He recorded it and it was a single when I came to town, so that opened a lot of doors for me. I had that in my back pocket and it gave me some credibility.

What was the song that really broke you through?

Well that first single was really just a fluke so I guess the first was probably ‘Somebody’ by Reba McEntire and that went to number one.

How did that change your life as a songwriter?

Well, it gives you credibility … but I thought it would get easier after that and it really didn’t for a while. It was still tough. Of course if you do get an artist of that calibre recording one of your songs it opens doors. In that respect it was all part of the grand design.

How would it work from that point on - would people then approach you for songs or would you still keep pitching songs?

It works every which way - it’s crazy. Usually the things you count on never happen, but then somebody will get a hold of your song that you didn’t even know had it - they got it from a friend or somebody heard you play it out, or your publisher pitched it three years ago and they held on to it. You just never know. So that’s why you just keep on writing and barking up every tree.

Co-writing seems to be very important in Nashville in particular – is that something that you’re actively involved in?

It’s very important politically, and probably now more so than ever. But it was new to me – I had never co-wrote before I moved here. I would like to get back to writing more about myself but it is something you do a lot of. There’s a way more majority of songwriters that co-write than write by themselves.

How would you find your co-writers?

Your publisher would set you up or else you just find them on your own. Sometimes it’s word of mouth or you might see someone play you like and want to write with them or vice versa. There’s really no rules to any of this.

So if you get together with another writer, how would the writing process happen? Would you start jamming or start off with an idea that you want to work on, for instance?

It’s such a lyric town, so often somebody will have a song title or a lyric idea and hopefully the music just happens simultaneously.

Usually your first instincts are right. When you start thinking about it too much is when it starts to go wrong – for me anyway. I would say the majority of times it comes from a lyric idea.

But a lot of times you’d be playing in a group and somebody will start singing a melody then of course you have to figure out what the song’s gonna be about …

Many people would associate Nashville with songs with catchy lyrics or titles …

It used to be more play on words. That’s not so much the case anymore but it’s still all about the lyrics. I think it’s the only genre where there is such a hyper focus on the lyric – it’s got to all tie together and it’s got to all make sense.

You can’t leave it up to the imagination as much in Nashville. I can’t tell you what any Coldplay songs are about but I like them. That’s not true with Nashville.

So it’s got to be a story or have a definite idea on what’s happening in the song, rather something more esoteric like just conveying a feeling …

Exactly. That’s why we sometimes start with the lyric or the idea as opposed to just making the listener feel good musically.

During your time here, would you say there has been a change in the country songs coming out of Nashville?

Absolutely. When I first got here country was much more country and now it’s become very pop. Although there’s actually a little bit of everything in it now. I came from a rock background so I didn’t listen to a lot of country before I came here. Being more open stylistically benefited me.

Would you say your rock background comes through in your songwriting?

It comes out all of the time without even knowing it. Even when I write something I think is very country my publisher tells me it isn’t very country.

Sometimes I’ll work with people that have a more country lyric understanding and they’ll know how to say things more appropriately. And then if you put that with a rock groove sometimes you’ll get a really cool thing.

Do you have a certain audience in mind what you’re writing?

I try to write the best for the idea – I try not to think of where it’s going to fall musically. Although, of course, your instincts take over and you know that you can’t say this or you can’t go to this chord because it’s too out of the box. You do try to keep it in a more commercial place.

I try not to write with an artist in mind because that doesn’t seem to work for me. I just try to make myself love it and if I love it then usually somebody else will like it.

Your rock background extends to having recorded some music yourself with a band, is that right?

I’ve recorded a couple of records that were more rock and roll. I definitely like to do that. Every four or five years I’ll make a record and not put any limitations on it, just let it come out – for the soul.

Do you play this stuff live yourself?

Usually when I play out I do a mixture of some hits I’ve had and then some of my more singer-songwriter stuff. I used play out with a band here too but I haven’t of late.

When I was in Nashville recently I was overwhelmed by the amount and variety of music that goes on every night …

We’re very spoilt here and we take it for granted that we can go hear such a high quality of music on any given night. There’s amazing musicians and amazing writers of any genre. I mean the rock scene here is incredible …

So it’s certainly not just country in Nashville …

No, it gets a rap for being a country town but it’s actually extremely versatile, and it’s interesting that that side of it isn’t so well known. The singer-songwriters especially tend to come here more often than they would L.A. or New York - I guess because it’s more about the song.

Are there any songwriters or singer-songwriters that you admire personally?

Absolutely. I grew up with Bob Dylan. That’s kind of why I came here. Although most of the time his stuff wouldn’t work in country it’s still very folk and acoustic based – just him and his guitar. It was always singer-songwriters for me growing up, whether it be Elton John, or Billy Joel or Tom Petty.

Could you describe what your normal working day is like in terms of working with your publisher, for example?

Usually I’m in touch with my publishing company every day via email, talking about various pitch ideas or various co-writes, or trying to get hooked up with artists. They’re working that end of things so that I can just concentrate on writing. Sometimes I won’t go into the office very often at all.

So you and your publisher Natalie [Harker] would discuss together who to pitch certain songs to?

I even stay out of most of that. I probably should be more involved.

This is a writer’s dream isn’t it, being able to concentrate on your craft while the business side is taken care of by somebody who knows best?

That’s the idea – they would rather have me focusing on writing and not on business.

Do you have a set quota of songs that you are expected to deliver per month for example?

Yeah, your contract usually says that you have to deliver 12 100 per cent songs a year. That’s pretty standard. If you and I co-wrote then that would be 24 songs. But you usually write way more than your quota. Well it depends on the writer, but I tend to.

How do you give them to your publisher - what kind of format?

Usually you just record them on your on your Mac as an mp3.

And as a guitarist you’d record yourself as guitar vocal?

Yeah. Sometimes they’re pretty rough as we won’t spend a lot of time getting a great guitar/vocal if we know we’re going into the studio to demo it to pitch.

So then what happens - who goes and demos it?

We have to be producers as well. That’s a very important part of the process actually. It’s important to get better in the studio – how you communicate with the players, for example. The demo is so important, and if you miss it then you’re out a lot of money and don’t have a good song to pitch.

So you would go to the studio and pick the players and organise the recording?

Well the session is usually put together for you. You tell them what players you want …

… but you have to do the creative and producing part at the session?

Yeah - Most songwriters I would say have to produce as well.

Do you sing your own demos?

I sing some of them. Although I tend to have a little more of a rock voice and so it sometimes doesn’t always come across. And if you’re writing with more of a rock edge to begin with then if you’re pitching it country you probably want more of a country voice on the demo.

If you’ve written a song that’s to be sung by a female artist then would you get a female singer to sing the demo?

Yes, unless it’s a lyric that could go either way and then you’d usually get a male to sing it because that, for some reason, makes it easier to pitch to female artists as well.

If you’ve written a song then what is it that makes you decide to then pass it on to your publisher? Do you have a gut feeling that this is a good one?

I think it just depends on your instincts and how long you’ve been doing it. Earlier in my time in Nashville I would probably lean more on my publisher to see if a song is right. I tend to have a better instinct now, but you still want feedback. You need fresh ears to hear it. Sometimes it can be one word that doesn’t quite work and they can point that out.

You often with songwriters they have a pain that they use songwriting to exorcise, is that the case with you?

I would say that’s probably true, unfortunately. It’s hard because painful songs are easier to write but harder to get recorded, but if they do get recorded then they can be very special. Sometimes it’s quality over quantity. I don’t tend to write happy songs very well. It’s not my forte, but I have to.

Are you planning on staying in Nashville for the long-term?

I am, it’s home now. I’m from Portland, Oregon, and I never envisioned living in the south.

What are your goals for the future?

Keep loving what I’m writing and writing what I love and trying to not feel like it’s a job. You’ve got to do it for the right reasons and for great songs, and sometimes I have to bring myself back to just writing because I love music. You sometimes forget that when you do it five days a week.

What cuts do you have out there that we should be listening for?

Probably the most recent is by a guy named James Otto – there’s a single called ‘Since You Brought It Up’. I’ve also got three recordings on the new Rodney Atkins record. And there’s a new single coming out by a new group called Halfway To Hazard on Tim McGraw’s new label, and that’s called ‘I Know Where Heaven Is’.

I’ve made a career out of writing for newer artists or artists that have been around for a while but haven’t quite hit. I’ve been lucky to have hits on a lot of those artists.

The country music scene has always seemed to have been quite a constant one where there are a lot of long-standing artists and there’s not the fast turnover of other genres. Is that still the case?

There’s certainly a lot more staying power than other genres because you still have your Reba McEntires, Alan Jacksons, George Straits that are still very viable radio artists. I don’t know if you can say that as much about other genres. But it is harder to break new artists and there’s a lot of them.

Read On ...

* The Dave Berg special opens with a interview with publisher Natalie Harker
* Next BIG Nashville festival CEO Jason Moon Wilkins talks about the thriving non-country side to Music City USA
* Senior VP of Bug Music Nashville and seasoned songwriter Roger Murrah offers advice on making it as a songsmith

Interview by Monica Rydell
Photo by Stacey Irvin

Next week: Ragga soca artist Michael 'Sparkey' Drakes presents his artist diary

Read On ...

* Rascal Flatts A&R Doug Howard on breaking Nashville talent
* Publisher and songwriter Roger Murrah on cutting it in the songwriting capitol
* Still all about the song? The changing sounds of Music CIty USA