Interview with JOHN CAPEK, songwriter for Rod Stewart, Cher, Diana Ross - January 29, 2007
"Although technology is a wonderful tool, I donít believe that it has resulted in better songs. We find ourselves still listening to the songs of the past"If you've already read some of John Capek's exclusive columns for HitQuarters, you know this man has plenty of invaluable advice on songwriting.
Capek has written hits for giants such as Rod Stewart, Cher, Diana Ross, and Joe Cocker, and currently has a song in Rebecca Valadez' Grammy nominated album.
He talks to HitQuarters about the scarcity of classic songs in contemporary songwriting, the need to be able to predict trends and why it is good to have no idea what your are doing when sitting down to write a new song.
Have you been nominated for a Grammy?!
An artist who I have been working with a couple of years named Rebecca Valadez, recorded one album that I have one song on that I wrote and produced. And that Tejano album has been nominated for a Grammy.
What was key in finding your own musical vocabulary?
I had a classical training. I started to play piano when I was two years old. My father was a very accomplished classical piano player. He sat me on his knee and I was picking out songs. In my classical training I always had a problem reading music, and I still do.
I would fake it with my music teacher because Iíd always make it up, and he wouldnít realize that I was not reading notes but making some music up, so that he wouldnít get angry with me. I was making music up right from the beginning.
Did you attend any music school before you became established as a songwriter?
Only private classical training. My actual qualification is that I went to college and became a chemical engineer.
How did you approach the business with your songs?
Because I was always improvising, I started playing in bands, quite well known ones in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. These were mainly blues bands, very focused on improvisation.
Out of the improvisation came some instrumental tunes I composed. A music publisher in Sydney heard some of my instrumentals and put me together with a lyricist. Thatís where it began.
Publishers were acting very much like A&R people. They were going out listening to music, watching bands. Perhaps he saw me playing in a band or there was a small network of people and somebody suggested he should hear Capekís instrumental compositions. It went through a more natural cause of events rather than me trying to force anything.
That introduction led me to a lyricist who was accomplished in Sydney who had had some records. The first one or two songs that we wrote got covered.
How did you manage to write compositions for all those popular music icons?
We started in Sydney with people who were famous but not outside of Australia. Everybody always assumes that the piano player must know some theory or has some qualification. People always turned to me as the piano player for being the arranger or the director, even in rock Ďní roll bands.
Some of my friends started to become successful and I was invited as a recording studio musician. I had quite a big career doing that, starting in Sydney and then later in Los Angeles.
I was hired by some very famous producers like David Foster, Humberto Gatiga (the producer for Celine Dion now), John Boylan, who produced Boston, Linda Ronstadt, Charlie Daniels and the Little River Band. If you Google my name you see my name on many albums.
As a studio musician, part of the job is not only to play the score in front of you, but to improvise, to make things up. I became very sought after in the 80ís in LA. As I was doing these recording sessions and improvising, I found that often the part that I would play would become a major part of the recording.
If Iíd come up with an interesting intro or instrumental section then I felt like I was really contributing much more than just the job of the musician, that I was in fact helping the record along the way.
As well-paid and sought after as I was as a musician, I thought itís not enough in the sense that I was actually writing some of this. I decided to not make myself available anymore as a musician and that I would try to just writing songs.
What was your breakthrough?
By total coincidence. My sister was visiting me from Australia while I was in LA. On her travel she met Nat Kipner, who was the original producer of the first hit with the Bee Gees. He was a very accomplished songwriter.
He had a big hit with Johnny Mathis and Denise Williams, ĎToo Much, Too Little, Too Lateí. He gave me a call asking if Iíd like to write some songs.
The first songs we wrote through his publisher in LA were recorded by Sylvie Vartan and Freda Payne, who used to be in Band Of Gold.
The first big song, Diana Rossí ĎPieces of Iceí was co-written with Marc Jordan. It was released a single and we were watching it move up the charts.
We were so disappointed that on Billboard it was not so successful and reached only No.35. This was in the late 80ís. Now I look back and think: ďI had a Top 40 hit with Diana Ross!Ē In retrospect it looks much better than it was at the time.
The next three songs we wrote were recorded by Manhattan Transfer.
We realized that we had a style that was worth pursuing. We spent the next several years trying to write more hit songs.
Is there a certain style your name stands for?
I was born in Prague, in the Czech Republic. Looking at the history of the Czech people, the first archeological find of bagpipes is somewhere in Bohemia. I often wondered if somewhere in my heritage many years ago there was some Celtic tribesman who had these bagpipes and they made some genetic strand, because I love Celtic music.
The other thing that I have a great passion for is American gospel music. If you listen to my music it has that continuum of a musical stamp - a little bit of Celtic and a little bit of gospel. A strange combination but thatís what it is.
What is the difference in songwriting between the 80ís and nowadays?
In the early days we wrote a song. Now we write a recording. Thatís a big difference. And I think an unfortunate one, because the song has suffered. Songs are not as good as they were before.
We incorporate the technology into the writing process. Although the technology is a wonderful tool, I donít believe that it has resulted in better songs that have lasting power, that you will still enjoy listening to 50 years from now. Or that your grandchildren will listen to. Or that you will play at a wedding or some celebration. Those songs donít seem to be written now.
We find ourselves still listening to the songs of the past. If you look in the iPod of my students, they have The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and The Rolling Stones. Itís the first time that a young generation has been listening to their parentís music. Thatís very unusual.
Do you still co-write?
Marc Jordan was my main co-writer for my entire career. We have had the biggest successes together. We wrote together for about 30 years. Lately we got a little bit burnt out from writing together, and went our separate ways.
Iíve been writing my own lyrics now. The song thatís on Rebecca Valadezís Grammy nominated album, a lot of the lyrics on it are mine, although I did collaborate on that with somebody else.
Do you prefer writing solo?
Writing solo is a lonely experience. Itís a challenge to write with somebody else. Itís like when you play tennis, you donít want to play by yourself or you donít want to play with somebody whoís a lot worse than you. You want to play with somebody who challenges you to do better.
How can an aspiring songwriter enter the professional level?
Whenever I do my seminars, workshops and lessons, this is the biggest question. Everybody asks, ďHow do I break in? Iím an aspiring songwriter. How do I get into the business?Ē And there is only one answer nobody wants to hear: you write a better song.
Create something that stands out. It has nothing to do with who you know or what contacts you have or which doors you knock on. Thatís irrelevant. Write a great song and make a great demo of it that sounds like a recording, because nobody makes demos anymore, you make a record.
At that point it will find its way if itís good enough. It may take some time, but it has to sound better than what youíre hearing on the radio. And that is a challenge. It takes you time, effort and money.
It has nothing to do with contacts. If you create something great then your friends will hear it and they will know somebody and somebody will know somebody else, and it will find its way.
How can today's musicians think outside the box of traditional approaches?
With all the technology that we have available the box is infinite. There are so many possibilities. This is popular music, itís not rocket science. I sometimes compare it to the idea of fashion and fashion design.
If you speak to a fashion designer they know exactly that in 12 months the color will be beige, the shoes will be pointed instead of flat, the pants flat and not tight.
In popular music, the people who are good at it have a sense of what is happening. If you copy whatís on now, thatís old already. That was created six months, a year ago. We have to think ahead of what is coming and what we can do to give us some new information.
When rap first started it was simply rhyming on the beats. Now you hear a lot of rhyming on the beats but there is melody and other content where we are sampling pieces of old records. Even in hip hop there will be more melody, more song, because people want to hear a little more melody.
Is it important to move to a major music city?
I grew up in Australia and I enjoyed life there. However, there is no precedent. Nobody has ever sat in Melbourne or Sydney and made a career as a songwriter for people who I write with. I canít see myself sitting in Melbourne or Sydney writing for Bonnie Raitt, Cher, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker. Nobody has ever done that.
Then again, you probably should not go to Nashville unless you love country music. Few writers in Nashville have done other pop music. I wrote recently with somebody who had Jennifer Lopezí first hit single written in Nashville. It is possible.
How should they present their material nowadays?
One of my close friends wrote Christina Aguileraís ĎGenie in a Bottleí, her first big hit single. That was no demo, that was the record. They did the demo like that and put Christinaís voice on it.
My recent cut with Bonnie Raitt on her new album; that is the demo. She just added her voice and a few little touches to my demo. The demo and the record are the same. And thatís time consuming and expensive.
People donít want to accept that songwriting is a profession like being a doctor, lawyer or dentist. You put in the same amount of hours, the same amount of effort, time and attention to detail. I work sixteen hours a day at what I do.
You speak the language of song. What kind of language is that? Is it easy to learn?
If you ask me how Iím feeling today, I can play it on a keyboard much better than I can speak it. I speak song better than I can speak English. A lot of it is craft. Iíve spent sixteen hours a day working at this for most of my adult life.
I tell my students; write 300 songs that you like. And after 300 songs you might have an idea of whether youíre any good or not. If youíve written 12 songs, then thatís not enough. Write 300 good songs and then come back and tell me what you think about songwriting.
You do consultancy covering all aspects of the art, craft and business of songwriting. What is the John Capek method?
Itís very workshop-based. I have invented songwriting games. I donít believe you can teach songwriting academically. Popular songs are really songs of the people. Itís a form of folk music. George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Paul McCartney did not go to songwriting-school.
A little shortcut instead of writing the 300 songs is to play songwriting games. For instance, I would get a class of 12-15 people and I give each member in the class the identical lyric, and send them home to write a melody for this lyric. Everybody comes back with some different melody, rhythm and chords.
We play it for each other and everybody sees that their way is not the only way. Some of them work, some of them donít. Just by virtue of playing this game a lot of people learn.
What is your writing process like?
I was recently teaching at Berkeley. Not only I had students there but also the entire staff of professors of songwriting who came to my classes, which is very intimidating.
All the professors told me afterwards that they didnít believe my opening remark. I said: when I start my next song I have absolutely no idea what Iím doing. And not to know is my starting point. The more I can take out of my brain and start with a complete fresh slate, going to the strangest craziest wildest place in the world, thatís my process.
The second part of it is to realize that the rubbish bin and the erase button on the computer are the most powerful friends I have. 95% of what I do ends up there. And I never have writers block.
But didnít you develop any writing technique over the years?
There are three stages of any form of creativity. One is where we copy and emulate. We start to copy what we like. All young bands will copy. When weíre sick of copying weíre going to break all the rules. We write a song with one chord and it lasts 20 minutes. In the end we try to make our simplest most beautiful statement.
First of all you copy something because thatís an easy way to begin, and then see how many rules you can break, and then throw 90% of it into the trash and youíll come up with something interesting.
I have a slide that I put up in my lesson saying Ďspontaneity is greatÖ for a momentí. Thereís nothing special about spontaneity. That may be your first idea. Thereís nothing that makes your first idea the best.
Can you explain something more regarding your so-called Ďcringe factorí?
Iím my own biggest editor. When I come back the next day after working I listen to what Iíve done and if something in me says, I wish I could have changed that chord, or this word sounds awkward, or this melody is cliche, or some note is out of tune, then my shoulders go up and I say I canít live with that or I canít send it out into the world.
Everything that I do is edited. And thatís where the trash comes in. When I have those feelings I have to get rid of them and make it different. I work at it over and over again until thereís no embarrassment and no cringe factor.
No I-wish-I-could-have or I-wish-I-should-have or if-only-I-had-enough-money or if-I-only-had-a-different-singer or if-the-guitar-player-had-been-better. Well, get a better guitar player. If the singer is not right, get another one. If the note is out of tune, fix it. Everything has to feel good to me before it goes into the world.
When are you absolutely sure that itís right?
When I can listen to it without cringing, without feeling embarrassed. On the other hand, sometimes I have had to wait for the moment. My biggest hit ĎRhythm of My Heartí was written seven years before Rod Stewart recorded it.
The Bonnie Raitt song ĎDeep Waterí was written three years before she recorded it. I knew it was great. I had the feeling; yes, this is perfect. But I had to wait for the right artist and the right situation.
Do you stick to structures like verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus?
My songs may obey those rules but I never ever think about it when Iím writing. I donít think itís important. Thereís a common factor to all pop songs. They all have a chorus or a refrain. How you get there, I donít care.
Do you let the rhythm of the melody be the foundation to the lyrics, or do you write songs from the words?
Lately Iíve been writing words first and then set them to music like with a film, like the words are the score. Sometimes I write from a drum loop. Sometimes I start with music and I put words later. Every new start gives you a fresh approach.
Do you usually have specific tempos in mind to best suit certain songs?
A great starting point is to emulate or copy how words are spoken. How-words-are-spoken already has its own melody. As a starting point, if you speak the words, that establishes a beginning melody. Itís a very simple approach. Itís not the only one, but itís one that I use.
Can harmonic richness be an obstacle to reaching a wide audience?
Thatís a problem with contemporary music. It feels as if all harmonic possibilities had been exhausted. And now all songs have one, two, maybe three chords and nothing more. I find that kind of limiting factor very sad, because there are much greater possibilities and many more layers of emotion.
Itís like somebody saying, well, we only have two emotions; happy or sad. But there are hundreds of subtleties of emotion that can be expressed harmonically. I hope this is just part of a cycle where we will rediscover interesting harmony.
What importance do you attach to the lyrics in regards to popular music?
We go through cycles. There has been tremendous interest in street lyrics from rap music. People feel alienated and disenfranchised. The audience is identifying with the angry lyrics. These are the times that we live in. I think popular songs are a form of folk music, and they reflect the times.
Do you ever disagree with the direction a producer is taking a song?
I was incredibly impressed with Rod Stewartís ĎRhythm of My Heartí. They did a fantastic job. However, on another song of mine called ĎThisí that Rod Stewart recorded I was somewhat disappointed because itís a small song and he tried to make it big with a big orchestral arrangement. I thought that missed the point of the song.
Can you offer some words of advice with regards to publishing contracts?
I have very positive experiences with publishers. If you have a good personal relationship, if you feel good about the person and you are beginning, I had not been afraid to enter a contract that is presented to me by the publisher, no matter what the terms, just to get activity.
I donít think anybody in the music business would agree with me on that, but that has been my own personal experience. The publishers have been my partners. They helped me tremendously and been very helpful and responsible for activity that Iíve gotten in my career. I wouldnít have done a lot without them.
Our expectations of what publishers do are the wrong expectations. Itís like any business. They have priorities. There are only so many hours in a day. Theyíre all people who have jobs and they have to report to somebody. They have their own situations to deal with.
I have a publisher that Iíve worked with for many years in LA. I see him and I take my songs and he gets very excited for the period of our meeting. We meet for half an hour. Heíll love one song and heíll make three phone calls while Iím there.
He calls Christina Aguileraís producer or somebody, but thatís it. Thereís no follow-up whatsoever. Thatís the way he works. If something happens, fine.
If a person who is much more successful and has a better track record than me has the next meeting and comes up with something, he will get first shot before me. Itís the real world of business, and I understand that.
To expect a publisher to spend 20 hours or 40 hours or 60 hours of his work time promoting a beginner songwriter, is unlikely. The songwriter has to make the move and do a lot of the promotion and come up with the goods themselves. The publishers are there for other kinds of support.
What artists are you currently involved with?
I would like to do some more with Rebecca Valadez, because of her Grammy nomination. I just came from Australia where thereís Renee Geyer, whoís the Aretha Franklin of Australia, she has recorded ĎOver the Yearsí with Joe Cocker and toured with Sting and Chaka Khan. Sheís recording a new album and wants to record one of my songs.
Then there is another record label in Australia that Iím working with on some of their newly signed artists. I did the music for a childrenís television series last year in Canada. Iíll be starting another one this year for television.
The most recent thing is a new film coming out in August 2007 called The Alice Story. Itís a big American film. The opening song is a song that I wrote.
Who did you contact to place your music?
Somebody introduced me in LA. A publisher who works with film and television knew about this movie and introduced me to a lyricist who was connected with the film. She also happens to be responsible for most of the music for the film.
This would not have happened to me in Toronto or in Sydney, but being in Los Angeles that was definitely an advantage to working on this film.
What style of music would you like to see gain more popularity?
Melodies that are been written now will not be around in fifty years. I think we need some new melodic invention.
The last people who made new melodic inventions were Sting and Avril Lavigne. Since then there has been very little being done with melody. U2 a little bit, but not so much. The R&B people are just doing blues riffs, thereís no melody there at all.
Some new sense of melody will return. John Mayer is very retro. Itís beautiful stuff, but nothing new. Alicia Keys is doing beautiful stuff, nothing new though.
How do you view the current music business climate?
Music business is in the worst shape it has ever been. 20% less CD sales. There was a report that in this financial period iTunes went down 17%. People are not even buying iTunes.
I donít believe that itís totally because of downloading. I believe that the music is not good enough. Thatís why people are not paying for it. People will go to a record store and pay for Rod Stewartís The Great American Songbook, theyíll pay for Josh Groban, theyíll pay for Michael Bublť and theyíll pay for Il Divo.
Theyíre not downloading those, theyíre paying for them. Because the songs are good. If songs were better, people would be happy to pay good money.
If you could dramatically change any aspect of the music industry, what would it be?
A&R people are making bad decisions. The young people at the record labels are choosing a direction that doesnít make economic sense, because theyíre not resulting in money.
I was recently at a party with one of the big A&R guys in Hollywood and I was trying to introduce him to my artist who subsequently won the Grammy. I said: ďI have an artist that I think is just fantastic. I believe that you could sell 5 to 10 million records with this artist.Ē He said: ďCapek, youíre out of your mind. A hit for us at our record label, one of the biggest labels in LA right now, if we can sell 500.000 copies thatís a hit.Ē
It used to be so much more. When Celine Dion was at her peak, she was selling 40 million records. Now sheís lucky to sell 4 million. Thatís a 90% decline. Thatís huge. Theyíre choosing the wrong songs.
Is there any specific message in your writing?
A lot of my songs, especially songs that I wrote that Rod Stewart recorded, are a reflection of the troubles of the world. Thereís so much violence and so much war. There are so many people who are disenfranchised and who are poor. If my songs can address that in some way, thatís a good thing.
Also, you want to make the world a better place by creating some sense of beauty. If you write a beautiful melody that lasts and make people smile, then thatís a wonderful thing.
What are your future plans?
I would like to do a little more of film and television. I find that very powerful and fun. And something that Iíve never done would be to do some theatre or musical theatre one day if I find the right story with the right person to work with.
Which song written are you the most proud of?
Thereís probably two. One is ĎRhythm of My Heartí, just because it really touched the world. It was a huge hit and continues to get played all the time.
And thereís another song that I wrote that Manhattan Transfer recorded. Itís called ĎThis Independenceí. Itís very much a reaction to the war and the violence in the world. Itís probably the best song Iíve ever written.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Know Your Label Part 1
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