Interview with STEVE MCEWAN, songwriter for Carrie Underwood, James Blunt, Keith Urban - January 18, 2010
“Suddenly I’m this guy that Faith Hill likes. That was my ‘in’. I got to write with a lot of great writers thanks to Faith.”
Any jobbing songwriter worth their salt must be able to apply their talents wherever artists seek hit songs, regardless of genre or locality. Defining the innate versatility of the top modern songsmith is Steve McEwan, a much-travelled British writer who, in addition to writing for fellow Brit James Blunt (USA & UK No.1), has found considerable chart success with African music in South Africa and country music in the USA, and what’s more has an upcoming date with Jim Jonsin and Eminem pencilled in his diary.
HitQuarters caught up with the roving McEwan to talk about the writing process behind his number one hits for Carrie Underwood (USA No.1), Keith Urban (USA No.1) and Kenny Chesney (USA No.1), ask how he’s adapted to the Nashville style and to hear the secrets of writing with high profile artists.
We recently interviewed an archetype Nashville songwriter in Dave Berg. As a fellow Music City success story, how does your working life compare with his?
Nashville writers are typically 9 to 5 writers, writing every day. When I’m in Nashville that’s the writing I’ll do, because that’s just how it works out there. It’s probably the last place on earth that works like the early Brill Building days where you sit in a room with someone else and write a song. That’s the jobbing songwriting approach. It’d probably drive me mad if I did it all the time, but I do love doing it when I go down to Nashville.
If I’m going to Nashville, or travelling to L.A. or Miami, say, then I’ll work seven to ten days straight. But when I’m home in New York it’s varied. Sometimes I’m preparing for projects but generally I wouldn’t work as intensely as I do when I travel.
Do you have your own studio?
No. It’s always been my dream. I’ve been living in New York for four years now and to find a good space there is really difficult. So I’ve just been using studios in the city. I had a studio in London when I lived there. It was a fantastic space in the tower of a really old church with stain-glass windows. I didn’t have any computers at all, just an old 2-inch machine and some old school gear - old compressors and microphones.
So how do you record your demos now?
When I’m in Nashville, it’ll be Nashville style. You go to a studio with the Nashville cats and you’ll probably lay down five songs in three hours and they’ll all sound great, almost like masters. Those songs get then get pitched to the country artists in the next week or so.
The brilliant thing about country music is you don’t have to worry about the direction. In pop music the direction is so vital and important. In country music it’s all self-contained.
Obviously, outside of country recording demos is very different. If I’m working with a track guy then the track guy will be doing the demo. If I’m working on a project then I’ll do some of the demos in studios here.
Although you’re based in New York, you do work a lot in Nashville. How did a British songwriter end up being accepted into the heartland of a very American genre?
I ended up there by mistake really. I never purposely went to Nashville to write country music. A great Nashville writer, Craig Wiseman, was over in England, and when all of his dates got cancelled I ended up writing with him, and we hit it off. When he went back to Nashville he put in a good word and they asked me to go over there on a camp together with ten Nashville writers and ten writers from all over the world.
It’s probably the last place on earth where it’s all about the craft and the song. It’s all sitting down with someone you don’t know, talking about concepts - the concept is always really strong - and finding the story.
As someone that has found success in both country and non-country genres, what differences have you found between them in terms of song composition?
The traditional country music is still very much based around narrative. Narrative is important with each line following on very strictly from the last within a strict story. That’s very specific to country music.
But the areas are getting a lot greyer now. You hear modern country on a lot of the other formats besides country. With pop definitely, but then Keith Urban and some of the more country singers are even crossing over into formats like adult/rock.
Whether you’re writing for a country artist or someone like James Blunt, for instance, would you have to consider this target audience or the image they are projecting?
I think it’s more about being in the room with someone and sussing them out rather than getting bogged down by the image. People generally want something fresh anyway. They don’t want the same box as they’ve been doing before.
When you write with artists it is good to spend a few hours just trying to get inside their head. I remember with James Blunt that although we came up with something on the first day, the second day was a lot more direct, because we knew each other a bit better and I could see what he was responding to, and it was then we hit a homerun.
Your breakthrough hit was ‘Young’ as recorded by Kenny Chesney – how did that come about?
I wrote that on the last day of the camp. I didn’t even know who Kenny Chesney was. A week later they pitched the work tape that we’d done on a little Dictaphone. Kenny heard it and said, “This is great! I’m cutting this.” Then they called me.
Over the course of time I realised how big and successful he was. That was a great break. In the same week, Faith Hill had heard a record that I’d done with a band of mine called UnAmerican, and she and [her husband] Tim [McGraw] loved that record and recorded three of the songs that I’d written 100 per cent.
That was another breakthrough for me, because at the time Faith Hill was enormous - she was like the queen of country music then - and suddenly I’m this guy that Faith Hill likes. So, that was my ‘in’. I got to write with a lot of great writers thanks to Faith.
So how did that change your career?
Up to that point I’d just been in bands, and saw myself as an artist. I’d toured with The Who and Neil Young and people like that but after doing that for months and months I was thinking, “I don’t want to do this for another ten, twenty years …”
After these two songwriting breaks I suddenly realised, “Wow! I can sit in a room and write a song and let someone else do all the promotion work.” [laughs] It’s a good alternative to being in the back of a van. For a while I enjoyed being on stage but there’s nothing better than writing a great song.
How did you first discover your passion and talent for songwriting?
I started playing guitar and writing songs in South Africa. I went to a guitar teacher when I was about 12 or 13 and he always said to me, “I’ll teach you how to play guitar but what you really need to do is learn how to write songs.” He gave me the titles and then I had to figure out how to write a song for the next week. That was my first experience of writing songs and I just fell in love with it immediately.
And then because I was in South Africa at the time, I started playing African music. Some of my first cuts were with African bands and artists. Probably the most famous thing was with Miriam Makeba. She’s generally regarded as the queen of African music and her recording one of my songs was a big deal at the time.
If you adapted to African music then perhaps it’s no surprise you’ve picked up country music so successfully. In being rooted in classic songwriting, is it a type of music to which you are naturally suited?
Well, I grew up listening to American music. I just loved the west coast singer/songwriters. I loved Dylan and Canadians like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Even the English bands I listened to growing up were American-influenced, like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. I had an American affinity, so it came naturally.
I didn’t try and write country music, I just did what I did and luckily it worked. I think that’s what people responded to as well. When you just try and do something that you think other people are doing then they don’t get inspired the same as if you do something that’s your own.
What do you think it is you bring to a song from your own songwriting background?
My dad had those old reel-to-reel tape recorders and would play music twenty four seven. He loved melody and so I grew up on things like Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb. I think that formed my melodic backbone. In probably half of the country hits I’ve had, I brought a lot of the melody, because I’d be an idiot to think I could write a country lyric better than a country lyricist.
As country music is a genre dominated by co-writes, are you pretty comfortable working with other writers?
I am now. Before I went to Nashville I’d never really co-written anything. So it was a whole new thing to me. But I love the fact that you can get into a room with someone who is culturally a million miles away from you and write a song together.
I like the format of country because it’s very one-on-one and it’s very personal. Sometimes I’ve written somewhere where the guy just goes, “Here’s your track” and then they walk out of the room and leave you to do the song. That’s tough because there’s nothing to bounce off other than the track you’re writing to.
One of your biggest hits, Carrie Underwood’s ‘Just A Dream’ was co-write. Can you explain how that song was written?
That song was written with Hillary Lindsey and Gordie Sampson, two writers that I write a lot with in Nashville. We’ve got a really great connection together.
For some reason when the three of us get together we never settle and tend to write really good songs. We’re so comfortable with each other that we do very little the first day – just ponder a few ideas - do a lot of eating and drinking the second day and then suddenly go, “Oops, we better do something.” And it all comes together on the last day.
I think we wrote [‘Just A Dream’] over a few days. I had a rhythmic thing that Hillary just start singing over, and then the story of it slowly came together.
Was there a conscious decision to write something with a story that has a topical, even political, subtext?
No, no … At one point, we were going to call it ‘American Dream’ because Gordie didn’t like the title ‘Just A Dream’. He thought it was a bit bland. So then we were calling it ‘American Dream’, but then thought it was getting overly political when it was more of a heartfelt song about someone losing their love to someone involved in war.
It wasn’t really meant to be an overly political thing like a lot of blogs have made it out to be. Hillary had this thing in her head, “Wouldn’t it be great to write a song about a woman where you think through the song that she’s getting married but then you suddenly realise she’s actually going to her husband’s funeral.” That’s how it started.
Carrie has recorded songs by several established pop songwriters – would you say she is someone that is bringing country into the mainstream or is she a country artist that is becoming more pop?
She’s definitely been working on more pop items - on her latest album Max Martin has a song on there, and Kara DioGuardi, and Michael Elizondo had the first single - but it’s still country. It’s definitely still got the countryness to it. It’s not like she has sold out - she’s still very much a country artist.
Last December you celebrated another trip to the top of the charts with Keith Urban’s rendition of ‘Only You Can Love Me This Way’. How did you and John Reid create that song?
I had never met John Reid before. It was his first trip to Nashville and didn’t quite know what to make of it. I don’t know whether he was really enjoying himself or not [laughs].
We got together and were just talking when we were supposed to be writing, and didn’t do anything for a long time, and then I just said, “Oh, we better write a song quickly because that’s what we supposed to be here for.” And we wrote the song in maybe 15 to 20 minutes.
I had a little melodic riff thing that he responded to. He started singing over it. We thought of going over the lyric again and tweeking it, but I think the heart of it was there. Sometimes you just stumble upon something and it’s great as it is, and it’s best not to touch it.
How did you present it to Keith Urban?
We were in a studio when we wrote it so we put a little work tape down, just acoustic. John initially sang it - he has this really sweet pop voice - and the guy who pitches the songs for Keith asked me to do another work tape but with me singing instead. I think my voice sounds a bit more American. Basically it was just acoustic guitar, a little tiny drum machine and my voice - that was it. That’s what they pitched, and it worked.
In one of our recent interviews it was claimed the quality of songwriting in country music is being compromised by artists increasingly opting to write their own songs rather than choose tracks from a dedicated songwriter. Have you found this to be true?
In a few cases, yes. There’s a lot of pressure on the writers to write their own songs - just because there’s more money to be made from that. A lot of big name producers now are thinking that they should be writing songs as well.
I’d say sometimes an artist is forced to write a song to put on their album that wouldn’t necessarily be the best song. That has definitely happened. Although some artists are great writers and also some artists are brilliant at picking the right songs.
Kenny Chesney is a great writer himself but he will never let a good song fall by the wayside. If he hears a song he loves, he doesn’t care whether he has written it or not, he will record that song. I don’t think he’ll ever put one of his songs in front of another great song just because he wrote it.
But there’s a lot of new bands coming out now that are insisting on writing their own songs, and sometimes a good song will fall by the wayside because it hasn’t been written by the artist.
Although classed as singer/songwriters, artists like James Blunt and James Morrison typically work alongside professional songwriters. What happens in such scenarios – do they have a song idea that you refine, or do you have the basic song ready that they add their mark to?
As a songwriter it’s always a risk to go in with a high profile artist with nothing. Generally it’s good to have something in your back pocket in case nothing is happening. You naturally have that awkward moment for the first hour where you go, “Pom, pom, pom … what are we going to write about?” Then you can go, “Well, how about this?”
But I love it if I can go in there and just risk it with, “I’ve got absolutely nothing here. Lets see what we can get out of thin air.” Sometimes it really pays off. And sometimes it’s very embarrassing [laughs].
How did you come to work with Leslie Mendelson and how involved have you been with her career so far?
She’s a great artist I met through a friend, James Maddock. He moved to New York just before me and met her in a bar.
I spent quite a bit of time with her, getting a direction together and writing a lot of songs with her. I think I wrote all but two of the songs on her record [‘Swan Feathers’]. And I’m very proud of a lot of those songs. The first record probably wouldn’t sell a million records, because she’s a brand new artist and it’s really hard these days. Hopefully she’ll make another record and breakthrough somehow.
How do you usually choose your projects? Does your publisher actively sell your songs to artists or do artists come to you based on your reputation?
It differs. If EMI hear a song they think is suitable then they’ll pitch it. The pitching thing seems to happen a lot more in Nashville - it’s like the writers write the song and then the publishers pitch the songs to the artists.
In pop it’s a bit different. It’s about networking and being in the right place at the right time, and management is involved a lot more. But generally the publisher is good at making connections. A good publisher will know your work and go, “He’ll be great with this person and we’ll put him together with this person here and bring this artist in …”
Do you ever have to give up some of the publishing in order to get a song placed with a big artist?
Mostly I’m pretty principled about that. I wouldn’t give away publishing if I don’t think that they’ve anything to do with it. I just think it’s unfair.
Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned songwriters with regard to publishing contracts?
Publishing is a difficult thing. As a young writer, to think that you’re going to sign a publishing deal and the publishers are magically going to get your songs placed in all these different places is very naive.
Generally in Europe if you’re a young writer and you’re signed to a publisher, it’s basically like being given a loan from a bank. Generally speaking, a publisher is not going to do that much for you. You’re going to have to make your own success. But if you need the money you obviously go for it.
Do you think contacting and sending demos to producers is a good avenue for unsigned aspiring songwriters?
Anything and everything is worth doing when you’re at the bottom of the heap and you’re trying to find a way in. However, sending demos to producers is probably what a million of people are doing. To try and think of something that a million people aren’t doing is probably a better thing.
I was in a band called World Party for a while. That was a great break for me, because I was really young. I took a cassette into [Karl Wallinger’s] studio. I knocked on his door, and said, “Hi, can I give you this cassette?” And on it was three of my songs. And Wallinger - he basically is World Party - called me up about a month later and said, “These demos are great. Why did you come up and do that? No one has ever done that before.” And I said, “Well, I just love the sound of World Party and I’d love for you to do some production for me.” And he said, “I don’t really have any time right now, but why don’t you come and audition for the band, because we need another guitarist and we’re about to go on a world tour.” And so I went down, auditioned for the band, got in, and suddenly I was on a world tour.
After that tour I was suddenly offered record deals. It just all came together because of that break. It’s just trying to do things that will just set you apart from everyone else.
What’s in store for you in 2010?
I’ll be making a few trips. I’m going to be back in London in February. I’m working with Jimmy Hogarth again and might be doing something with Daryl Hall. I’ve got this thing I’ve done with Jim Jonsin in Florida and Eminem is hopefully doing that. I’m still looking for that elusive No.1 worldwide pop smash. Maybe I’ll write it this year.
It wouldn’t matter if was a co-write?
If I write it by myself then I’d be happy with that too [laughs] …
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: A special feature looking at the changing face of Music City USA
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