songwriters sure could use a brill building

i’ve been spending some time with "the essential carole king" which was handed to me after a meeting in new york recently.  it has two discs.  the first is "the singer" the second is "the songwriter" and the text in the liner notes has me thinking all over the place today.

it strikes me – so much education happened at the brill building that we can’t even quantify the impact. 

(now, let me head you off at the pass.  i’m sure other things not so wonderful happened there, too.  i mean it wasn’t oz or anything.  but for the purpose of this post, let me be the optimist.  come with me – and let brill become something else for the sake of discussion…)

the stones talk about having gone to the brill building just to learn from listening to carole king’s demos of hit songs for other people.  they learned how to hear the things in a demo that inspire performers, producers, players and marketers to turn around and make something brilliant.  and they said they went to brill to learn how to understand america in order to reach the people in a meaningful way.

how do new acts learn these skills today?

and what are we doing to encourage cross-collaboration, exposing artists of one genre to another? 

i don’t just mean john mayer and kanye west being thrust in a studio together for a day.  or young pop stars having ghost hit writers who are not acknowledged come award time (and on wikipedia). 

i mean new, young artists really being exposed to the way other artists work. 

aside from opening for people, i just don’t see it that often.  and even then, the headliner and opener seldom realize the opportunity they have being in the same city on the same night.  most of the time, they just hide in their respective corners.  and when they do interact – it’s about the live show.  rarely to they get to songwriting or recording.

i suppose the only example i’ve heard of a songwriter getting that kind of education is taylor swift.  say what you will about her, but she’s certainly done her homework in the songwriting labs of many great Nashville writers.  i don’t know the back stories.  but it sounds kinda brill-esque to me…


i’m obsessed with the process of recording lately.

what’s ritual.

what’s work.

what’s magic.

what wheels don’t need to be reinvented. 

what wheels need to be discarded for the new unknown.

what changes because of technology, and what has always been a constant in making music.

how we keep ourselves open to lessons others have already learned, so we don’t hold ourselves back or waste precious time.

how we accept the lessons we have to learn physically by doing, even though in our heads we know it to be true.

how we make music that is truly original AND accessible to a broader audience at the same time.

as music makers, we have to remind ourselves not to get sucked into the abyss of self-involvement.  the music isn’t about us.  it has to be about something else.  someone else.  something more. 

it strikes me that the muscle carole king conditioned at her career’s beginning is a muscle most young songwriters don’t even know they have, much less cultivate.  and when they do know they have it, they avoid it because they think it’s bad.  they think represents "selling out.” 

i’m not even sure what constitutes selling out anymore – it’s not that simple.  but i encourage you to resist the monster of worrying about that!  really.  and i assure you that great songs are written by making decisions that serve the song – not the writer.  certain considerations should be made for the singer, but only so much as to be sure the lyrics and range support the creation of the character narrating – not the vocalist singing.

a great songwriter writes songs.  and the songs are in charge.  not the ego. 

even when hit songs are written, the song’s in charge.

i’m especially obsessed with the second disc of this carole king set – "the songwriter" – fifteen hit songs she co-wrote in the 1960s during her Brill Building years (with one Billy Joel exception).  songs like "will you leave me tomorrow," "the loco-motion," "up on the roof," “one fine day,” “natural woman.”

so many characters, so many singers, one writer.  men, women, rock, r&b, soul, folk.  that’s something.