Interview with BUSBEE, songwriter for Rascal Flatts, Katy Perry, Timbaland, Lady Antebellum - Apr 4, 2011
“Having strong relationships with the [performance rights organisations] is paramount. I always suggest that writers start with the PROs - they know everybody.”
In this ultra competitive industry, the successful modern songwriter is expected to be ultra versatile, able to turn a hand to any chart-friendly genre and produce readymade pop hits from out of their living room. A fitting poster boy for this new breed of artisan is busbee, having notched up a country #1 with Lady Antebellum, a UK Top 3 dance-pop hit with Katy Perry and Timbaland, as well as being a production wiz able to create major label songs on a laptop at home.
The L.A.-based songsmith talks to HitQuarters about whether songwriters should acquire production skills, their role in developing performing artists, and the value of performing rights organisations to unsigned writers.
How did you first launch yourself as a professional songwriter and sign with Crosstown Songs?
I moved to L.A. in March 2000 to assist a record producer (Eric Valentine). At that time I didn’t really know I was a songwriter, I just wanted to make a living in the music industry. After a year with that producer and a brief stint with another producer I started freelancing and was producing full-time and writing on the side, but my production was what was bringing in the income.
I became full-time as a songwriter in 2006 when I a buddy of mine, Greg Becker, started inviting me to Nashville to write songs with him. He introduced me to [publishing executive] Darrell Franklin, who works with [producer] Dann Huff. Darrell liked some of my songs and offered me a publishing deal.
What was your first significant breakthrough?
My first significant breakthrough as a writer was my first big single, which was ‘Summer Nights’ by Rascal Flatts. That was late Spring of ’09.
What is it that appeals to you about writing for other artists?
If you want to make a living writing, you either sing the songs yourself or write for other people, and being that I don’t have a desire to tour or any of that kind of stuff, it makes a lot more sense for me to write for other people. I did make a few records as an artist, but never seriously went for that.
I really love writing for other people. It’s a great challenge to write with and for a broad range of people. It’s an interesting exercise to try to get in their head and try to write the kind of song that makes sense for what they are doing and needing.
So how does the approach differ from writing for yourself – are you always conscious of catchy hooklines, certain universal themes for example?
In general I love melodies that stick in your head, but when I’m writing strictly for myself there is less consideration for whether a song will work for this or that, or if it’s the right kind of song.
I always use the metaphor of painting; when I’m working with a different artist you have to know what colours to paint with, but when I write for myself every colour is available and there is a broader canvas.
If your publisher sets you up for a particular project then why would they be choosing busbee – what do you think they see as your specialist contribution to a songwriting session?
Typically people would have heard something I have written and or produced and would have been drawn to that.
Why did you choose to sign with your publisher?
When I first signed with Crosstown that was through Darrell and Dann. They have a great reputation in Nashville and not only really loved what I do, but really communicated a strong vision for how they saw my writing career evolving.
When I signed to BMG it was more of an extension of the great working relationship I already had in place with Darrell and Dann. BMG bought Crosstown about the same time my deal with Crosstown ended. I really like the vibe of Hartwig, who runs BMG and his vision of building in Nashville with Dann and Darrell as well as continuing to build a strong pop presence worldwide.
On a very practical note, like in a lot of relationships, at a certain point you just go with your gut; you can’t do every piece of vetting that you hope to do before you sign on a dotted line, you just have to do your research and go on a vibe.
What important aspects must songwriters think about before signing with a publisher?
It’s important to consider the relationship first and foremost. You should have a great working relationship with the people you work with because that’s going to be very useful long-term - they’re your marketing team among other things.
It’s really important to view all of these types of business relationships as the partnerships that they are. Creative people in general aren’t always business-minded, and it’s really important to remember that you are the CEO of the business that is you. You are running your business and you’re choosing to partner with other businesses.
What is your relationship like with your publisher – what do you expect from them and what do they expect from you?
On the purest level I expect marketing and creative support and they expect great songs from me. I have a very interactive working relationship with my publishing partner worldwide.
And what is your actual day-to-day relationship with them like?
I talk to one of my publishers typically at least once a day. I have several publishers in many territories. There’s Darrell and [VP of Creative] Megan [Galbraith] in the Nashville office.
And then I have day-to-day in L.A., Suzan, as well as working with the other creative heads, the film and TV department as well as the admin department. Part of the partnership is knowing who to call and when.
Crosstown Songs were acquired by BMG Rights in 2009 - how has that affected your position?
As I mentioned, I was signed to Crosstown through the Nashville division - even though I’ve never lived in Nashville. It has affected me most by giving me a stronger support worldwide than I’ve ever had. My Nashville team has always been really supportive, very pro-active, but with the acquisition of Crosstown by BMG … I've just experienced a much broader support network.
Publishers play a major role in networking on behalf of a songwriter, but if a songwriter has yet to find a publisher then how can they get in contact with the right people and get their name and their songs out there?
One of the best resources is the performance rights organisations, whether it’s BMI, ASCAP or SESAC. Having strong relationships with those companies is paramount. I’m currently with BMI and they’ve been really great.
Something that some people seem to forget is that everybody is looking for quality - there’s tons and tons of talent out there, but not a lot of truly great stuff. So if your stuff is really special it’s not going to be that hard to find somebody who will be interested in it.
Another practical tip is that if you live in the middle of nowhere, it’s going to be more challenging to meet people and build strong working relationships than if you live in Los Angeles or Nashville as it affects your access to people. But I always suggest that writers start with the performance rights organisations - they know everybody.
Should they seek some kind of representation to work on their behalf, such as a manager or a lawyer?
It depends on the person and where you are in your career. Finding a manager is often a Catch-22 because if you’re not at a certain point in your career then it’s it can be hard to find a great manager.
I don’t always recommend that a new writer goes and gets a manager straight away. I just recently took on a manager and I’ve been doing this professionally for years. Whatever you do and whenever you do it i think it's very important to partner with someone you trust and get along well with and someone who will represent you in the way you want to be represented. I've been working with Myles Lewis for about nine months and it has been really great!
What advice would you give to aspiring songwriters who want to showcase their material?
Make the great sounding, believable recordings of the best of your best songs. And then play those for anyone who will listen.
Aside from writing for and with artists, you also develop them as well. Can you explain what artist development involves from your own personal perspective?
Providing what’s missing. There is a girl named Alexi I’ve been looking at signing. She’s so talented but she’s very brand new: she’s just turned 13; she’s only performed publicly a few times; she’s just beginning to learn how to write; and she doesn’t yet have a fanbase … So, in her case, providing what’s missing is a much bigger chunk. We’re going to have to help develop her as a writer - she already has incredible intuitions, but needs to learn some of the structure of songwriting, and the nuances of performing. She already has charisma and confidence, but it’s just a matter of refining that.
Another example would a guy I’m working with named Curtis Peoples. He’s in his early twenties and already plays a lot of shows and has a fanbase. He’s very pro-active. He's at the point in his career where wants to make a go of being a more mainstream artist and having songs on the radio. He and I wrote some stuff that’s really clicked, and so we did a deal. In his case I would still use the term ‘development’ but it’s not like I’m teaching him how to write songs or how to perform, I’m just refining what’s already there.
It’s the same kind of thing with another guy, Cameron Jaymes. He was more of a singer/songwriter and we transitioned him to more of a programmed pop artist, which is great for him. He is a dynamic performer as well.
How did you come across those artists?
Like most of this music industry, it’s all random and very relational. For example, with Alexi, a guy who goes to my church who is teaching her guitar lessons was like, “Hey, you should meet this girl.” And quite frankly, when someone says you should meet this 12-year-old girl, she’s great, I tend to roll my eyes so to speak. But I set up a meeting with her and was blown away. She sounds like a female Jason Mraz, or an Ingrid Michaelson or Colbie Caillat, and just has a great voice and a great vibe.
Curtis Peoples I’ve known for several years. A buddy of mine produced his last record, and we’re friends of friends, and kind of knew each other. Cameron I’ve known since he was 15. I’ve been involved in his career since the beginning; he’s like a little brother to me.
Is a 12-year-old not too young to start working with an artist?
That question is something we’re trying to figure out right now.
We’re not trying to make her a teeny pop act; she is a unique singer-songwriter. As such, we are looking at a potentially longer development arch with her.
When you were signed to your publisher did you undergo any kind of development?
Well, honestly, I always feel like I’m developing. In the relationship I have with my creative team at large, whether it’s my publisher or my manager, I thrive on interaction and feedback, and I feel like as soon as I start to think that I’m not undergoing development then I’ve lost it. The reality is that you always have something to learn, and there are always things that can improve.
In the early days, I had a lot to learn in the sense of just how things worked; some of it was just about how does the infrastructure of the music industry works -what is a publishing deal, all those types of questions … When I signed my publishing deal, I obviously knew how to write songs but I grew as a writer by writing with other people and from the feedback of my publisher.
It’s all a process of continuously stretching yourself and getting out of your comfort zone. As soon as I think to myself, ‘Oh I know how to do this. I got it figured out,’ that’s where I probably go wrong.
What are the challenges of writing with an artist rather than another songwriter – do you have a responsibility to help encourage the ideas out of the artists you work with, particularly if they’re not natural songwriters?
Absolutely. The thing I always say is as long as the artist has something to say and knows what they do and don’t like, we can usually come up with something great.
The artist also has to have opinions because at the end of the day it’s their art; I’m not the artist, I’m just the midwife so to speak. I tell the artist, ‘If our job is done well and we write a big enough song, you will have to sing these songs for the rest of your life. So you have to love it. Whereas I will write this song with you but then go on to the next project.’
With non-artist writers sometimes the creative process can be a bit of a guessing game - meaning, what kind of song should we write?
I’ve gotten to the point where, unless I’m being asked by the artist or their manager or an A&R person to write for a specific project, I much prefer to just write the best song I can regardless of who it might work for. At the end of the day people want amazing songs, they don’t want good songs - good songs don’t get cut.
When you’re writing with an artist, would you introduce a song idea and then develop it together with them in a session?
Absolutely. And conversely, like yesterday I thought I was all clever and introduced an idea to this artist I was working with, and she said, “I think that’s really great, but it’s just not for me, can we try something else?” And that’s where it becomes really important for me to have a firm understanding of my role in the creative process; I can’t get offended because it’s not about me, it’s about writing a great song that's right for who she is an artist. And she’s a strong enough artist to know what she wanted to say and do.
Who was she?
Cady Groves. She’s a young artist on RCA Records. She’s incredibly talented and has a very clear sense of who she is, which is very refreshing, and it’s been a pleasure to work with her.
To get an idea of how you write together with artists, can you talk us through how a hit song like Lady Antebellum’s Country #1 ‘Our Kind of Love’ was written?
When I wrote with them I didn’t really know a lot about them. I had just heard some of the music and really liked it, and my publisher thought it would be a great co-write.
I don’t usually do a lot of preparation. I don’t tend to walk in with a ton of song ideas, it just sort of happens on the fly. But on that day I was a little nervous for no apparent reason and so before they arrived I sat down at the piano. I started playing that riff and was like, oh that’s kinda cool. When they came in, we said hello and got to know each other a little bit, and then I said, “Hey, I got this riff”. Charles [Kelley] was like, “I love that!” and we then started writing.
When we finished the song that same day they communicated to me that they thought that it would be a single for them. That is something I never count on until the record comes out and the single is on the radio, but they were faithful to that and they took it to No.1.
As you’re also a producer, how important do you think it is now for an aspiring songwriter to have production experience?
There’s always tons of examples that break the rules, but I do think it’s more and more imperative to have as many solid skills as you can.
I know people who do just write songs, but it can be a challenging lifestyle. Outside of Nashville, where there’s a more structured approach, if you’re just going to be a top-liner [songwriter] and not the track person [producer] then you have to go around to all the various producers and travel to wherever they are. So, it’s a better lifestyle if you can be the producer as well and have your own space to work out of.
If you really don’t like technology or just don’t want to be a producer, it’s still very doable … if someone is a great writer then it will happen. But if somebody is on the fence about whether or not they should also be a producer I would definitely suggest going for it.
When you say your “own space”, you mean your own studio facilities?
Yes. I use that term so loosely because as it stands I’m making major label records, some of which are getting on the radio and they were recorded at my house using very little gear; sometimes I feel like the poster child for gear minimalism. I use my laptop; I’ve one great mic with a great preamp and compressor, one bass; one acoustic guitar; one electric guitar. If I need anything more specialised than that I hire people or rent something.
The studio facility I’m building at the house is just a very soundproof space that’s the size of a garage.
What mic is it you use?
It’s a 1973 Neumann U 87.
What do you see as some of the positives and negatives facing the songwriter pursuing a career in the current climate?
The positives are that, as always, great songs can still find a home. You can still make a living making music and there’s tons of opportunities.
The negatives are that the industry is shrinking. Records aren’t selling as much, so you really have to write singles in order to build a substantial career as a writer. You used to be able to make a good living by having songs on albums, but now if you don’t have singles it’s a lot harder.
What cuts of yours should we be listening out for?
I have a song that’s going to pop radio shortly called ‘Not Your Birthday’ - that’s with an artist called All Star Weekend.
There’s several songs on this upcoming Cady Groves record that i'm excited about, and then there’s an artist in Nashville called Hunter Hayes, and I have a couple of songs on his record that I’m really excited about. There was also one each on the recent Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and Jason Aldean records. And there are a couple other things I can't yet talk about. And then obviously the artists I’m developing: Curtis Peoples, Cameron Jaymes and Alexi.
Are there any artists you would like to work with?
Tons. I would absolutely love to work with Beyoncé. I think she is amazing. I mean, there’s a long list of artists. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some amazing artists already that I’ve really admired for a long time, which is a dream come true. The exciting part now is what is yet to come.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Manager Jamie Binns on developing clients Taio Cruz and Paloma Faith
Read On ...
* busbee publisher and renowned songwriter Billy Mann on the songwriter reading list
* Rascal Flatts/Kenny Chesney publisher Troy Tomlinson on strong pitching
* Jeff Kempler on the real story behind the signing of Katy Perry
* Songwriter Stephanie Salzman on looking after your own publishing
* Flying Without Wings writer, Wayne Hector, on writing the perfect ballad