Any songwriters interview series must include a conversation with ole writer Monty Powell, one of the most accomplished and respected modern writers in Nashville. After years of service to the industry, Powell released a new album, 47 Minutes of Your Time (iTunes US store), which houses his own artistic vision. Given the depth of his experience, in this interview I wanted to explore his own development as a writer, the art of writing for other artists, how to create compelling characters in songs, and the pitfalls of Music Row. He also got me to think in new ways about the process of collaboration and how (not) to judge art.
UCN: Do you remember why you started writing songs?
Monty Powell: It was a little bit of an ‘I have to do this.’ My father was a songwriter and he made some independent records in the 60s back in Nashville, none of which really went anywhere. I think I felt like as my father’s son, I was supposed to, because as a kid you tend to feel like you’re supposed to do what your father does.
UCN: Yes, either that or go completely the other way.
MP: Yes, exactly, but I was definitely one of the conformers following the path rather than a rejecter going the other way. I also had the strange experience, that can’t happen to many people, of growing up in a family where it was considered normal to write songs, and pursue creativity and artistry as a career path. I grew up in the opposite of one of those “get a real job” type of families. The door was always open and it was very easy for me to walk through. The first singer-songwriter I fell in love with was John Denver. He is my biggest influence and one of my biggest heroes. It was hearing his material that made me feel like I have to say something, I have to be able to meet the energy that he’s putting out. I know that there are millions of people who can listen to it and that is their relationship to that music. I also had that relationship to it, but I had an additional relationship to it where I also have to comment on it by doing my own thing and pushing it forward.
UCN: I was always impressed not just with what he said but with the way he said it. How did you then start out, not copying him I guess, but maybe more thinking ‘let’s write something that sounds like he could’ve sung it’, and then from there develop your own style?
MP: That’s exactly what I did. He was one of the first artists, and of course many came after, of whom I felt like it wasn’t background music.
UCN: No, he always commanded your attention.
MP: Yes, he commanded my attention, and my job was always to listen and try to understand what he’s trying to say because he’s making a point. I felt I wanted to make a point and a way to do that is with words. I was around 11 then and I didn’t know how to play an instrument, so my first endeavors into writing were writing my own lyrics to John Denver melodies. I still have the notebooks where the top of the page will say: to the tune of ‘Sunshine on my Shoulders.’ [smiles]
UCN: Did it have anything to do with his original lyrics?
MP: Not a thing. I just needed the building blocks of the melody in music at that time but I had my own language. I always had language and word skills so I just used his template and put in what I wanted to say. I very much recommend this for beginning songwriters who try to tackle everything at one time.
UCN: Other people have told me that they started out with melody and then had to learn crafting lyrics. It seems to be that you have a natural talent for one of them and you then have to learn the other.
MP: That’s it. I did realize that it was on a dead-end path with those songs. I also had to become a musician, or I was just going to be a poet. But I didn’t want to be a poet, I wanted to be a songwriter. We had stuff around the house, I picked up the ukulele of my dad, bought a John Denver song book, and learned the chords and melodies. I learned the first few songs and realized it was the same chords for a lot of them.
UCN: Do you remember the first songs you wrote? Were you writing with other people already then?
MP: I didn’t collaborate until I came to Nashville, I just wrote by myself. I wrote story songs. I had a song called ‘Jesse Silver’ about a mountain man. My family was from North Georgia but we were all intrigued with the American West, and my grandfather used to take trips in a paneled station wagon, just like National Lampoon, around all the Western landmarks and bring back slideshows. When the grandkids turned 12 or 13 he would take each set on this big loop around the country. My grandmother subscribed to Arizona Highways magazine, which has fantastic, beautiful photography. We were really enamored with the West and the mountains, so John Denver fit beautifully into that. I started writing songs about things like that and it didn’t take long to find my own narrative in North Georgia and the southern version of that.
UCN: When did you move here?
MP: I moved to Nashville in 1979, right out of high school. I moved here as an 18-year-old to go to Lipscomb University, where my parents met. It was conservative Christian, Church of Christ; that’s how I grew up. That’s where they wanted me to go to school. Because it was in Nashville and I had by that time become quite a good guitar player and had my rock bands in high school, I thought Nashville made sense. But I was still never really considering it as a career. I was going to be an attorney. Of course, the beautiful thing about this town is that there are 100,000 people just as crazy as you are. We find each other really fast! I came to town and it didn’t take long for me to realize that, wait a minute, there is a music business? You can actually intend to be in this? I’m in, man, 100%! So I immediately started not giving a rats ass about my college studies, started working even harder on my guitar playing and songwriting, and intending to try to find a way to make that jump to that parallel universe where people were in the music business.
UCN: Although, in the music industry today, a law degree is probably a good thing to have. [smiles]
MP: You know, it wouldn’t have hurt! [smiles]
UCN: How did you find the Nashville songwriters community start to influence your writing? What remained of the story songs and what came in from other people that you worked with?
MP: What I learned was a lot of the hit song arrangement. I never had any problem with content but you learn really fast what works here, you know, the stuff that gets positive feedback, which is all you’re looking for early in your career. All we want to do is write a great verse, a good chorus, a good second verse and a bridge, and then go home. I ended up fighting that later in my career. Early on I think it’s good to learn that kind of thing. So I had content, I always had something to say. I started to find a way to put my content into packages that sounded like what the industry was looking for.
UCN: Craig Wiseman drew an analogy with building bird houses. He said everyone learns basic skills the same way, and then when you have that down you can get creative with different dimensions and different colors. I think with songs its same, where you learn that typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge, and then later you can get creative.
MP: Right, I agree. And here’s what the brilliant ones figure out: they figure out how much you don’t need anything other than that arrangement, and how difficult it is to do that perfectly.
UCN: And consistently.
MP: Yes, and consistently.
UCN: Because you can write the one great song but if you can repeat it, is not going to happen for you either.
MP: If you start really messing with that formula a whole lot, it generally means that you’re just not on a good track and you’re not writing a good song.
UCN: What about the songs that really do break that mold? It’s what I admire so much about the Kip Moore song ‘Somethin’ ’bout a Truck.’
MP: One of the biggest songs I have in my catalog is a song called ‘Could’ve Been Me’ by Billy Ray Cyrus. It was released directly after a ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ so it couldn’t have broken the mold anymore. There’s three hideously long verses before you get to the chorus. But it’s also a story song, you know. We told a good enough story that by the time the third verse rolls around and everyone else would be playing the chorus, our listeners are genuinely going “I have to hear how this ends.”
UCN: And I think it that song also ended up with the perfect performer for it to.
MP: Yes, absolutely.
UCN: That’s the other half, having the song end up with the right performer.
MP: Yeah, you can do the Bob Dylan style verse after verse after verse, and that’s because what I’m listening for is the content and for how he’s going to extrapolate on that lyrical theme and on the motif. It’s like what Philip Glass is doing with rhythm and modal notes that roll into each other and create new things. Bob Dylan does that with words; he doesn’t necessarily have to have choruses to accomplish what he is trying to do.
UCN: I think if the content is right, it matters less how you say it. But how long does it take for someone to learn that? If we had this conversation 10 years ago would you have had this insight already?
MP: Yeah, I think so. It’s something that’s come fairly quickly. I have always pushed a little against the box. I like to push out poetic, lyrical content that is telling at least two stories at once. There’s the top shelf story that’s obvious, and then the story that it’s referencing in pop culture or literature or history. The master of that is Elvis Costello. He’s telling you a story and every line also includes some arcane reference to another story that supports his story. If you go and look up the references you realize he’s also referencing this other thing. You get the front line and then you can go to two, three levels deep. That’s my goal as a songwriter.
UCN: So you can do that for your own material, but do you feel like you can do that if you’re writing for, say, Lady Antebellum?
MP: Yes, I do it all the time. It may be a different box because it’s their sandbox that I’m playing in then, but I’m constantly trying to drop little nuggets like that along the way. I think it’s what makes things multi-dimensional and multi-hued. Just like you have good truck songs and then you have those anybody-could-write-these-words-about-a-truck type of songs.
UCN: The politics of getting cuts and having songs on hold, how did you deal with that? Did that ever influence you?
MP: I think that process has absolutely influenced the outcome sometimes. I think I joined this community at a real high watermark, when the tail and the dog were wagging about the same oscillation.
UCN: That’s a great way of putting it. [smiles]
MP: Now, the tail wags the dog.
UCN: Is it hard to deal with or is it just about accepting that’s how it is.
MP: You will make it hard to deal with it if you don’t accept it. If you are not in acceptance of what is right now, you’re fighting a losing battle. So yes, the thing to do is to be in acceptance of it and make it work for you. Use its energy and its weight to work for you. That’s what I’ve tried to do throughout my career. I learned really early on that you can sit at home and mope over the fact that you think you have better songs than the guy down the street, and it isn’t going to get you anything. So when I got here I figured out I needed to learn how to produce, because that would give me one more level inside the fence of the gamekeepers. If I’m a producer I have a little bit more control of maybe seeing that some of my songs get heard and get cut. It could help me create possibilities for my material. And that’s something I’ve done really successfully throughout my career, and has given my material the best possibility to find its way into the marketplace. I learned how to produce and I did A&R for Tony Brown and Tim DuBois. I built and owned a studio. At the end of the day, the studio never made me a dime. It was always about getting songs cut. When that started to fall away, I went into hiding for a while trying to figure out the industry one more time. I thought it was going to be about artists, they were going to want to write their own material and be part of the process. And if they wanted to be part of it, I wanted to write with them. So I sat down with a few people like Keith Urban and Chris Cagle. I told Chris “let me jump on the bus one week, because you guys are losing hundreds of hours of creative time sitting around the bus and playing video games.” I told him we could use that time to write and he looked at me like I had four heads. I told him that a second time and we did it. And it really started the trend of songwriters immersing themselves into the road time of artists and helping them make that time creative. They’ve usually spent their whole lives writing their debut record but then they suddenly have six months to write the second one.
UCN: Yes, while they’re touring on the first record.
MP: Exactly. That way of working solved a lot of problems for a lot of artists and for me, and for a decade it was the only thing I did.
UCN: Was there artist development involved with that too?
MP: It was almost the opposite of artist development.
UCN: I don’t mean artist development as in telling them what to do, but more as is in helping them grow and find out who they are.
MP: Oh I see, yes, absolutely. I became the silent member of a lot of growth in certain artists, and became the person that would help them find their artistry and find their songwriting, and they grew to trust that. I would tell them that songwriting is a service industry. And they would shake their heads and be “what?” We are here to serve the people that are going to record and put out our music.
UCN: That is a brilliant way of looking at it!
MP: And some writers rooms to this day are still filled with people who think that they are the artist. I recognized early on that it was the artist who was out there on a bus, not being at home, and that it was their gig and they should be able to say what they want to say. I’m here to help them say what it is that they want to say. And if along the way it also says things I want to say, that’s a win-win.
UCN: And then if it’s something that audiences gravitate toward its win-win-win.
MP: Yes, win-win-win all the way. The artist feels good about promoting it, they have ownership in it, they feel good about our relationship because I’m not saying “hey, cut my song.” I am also not sitting there saying “that’s the dumbest idea I’ve heard.” There’s no such thing as a dumb idea from an artist, there is just “okay I hear that, what’s making you want to say that, what do you want to say to the world today?” Then they’ll say something and I’ll go “well, let me ask you this, do you really think that that is the best way to say that?” And either answer is okay.
UCN: So you’re making them think about how they’re saying what they want to say.
MP: A thousand times it’s been “no, that’s not really what I’m trying to say, what I’m trying to say is this.” And then I’ll go “ok, well then, let’s say that.” But it’s also been “yes, I think that’s the best way,” and then I will encourage them to write the best song they can with those lines. That’s how you push an artist’s career forward.
UCN: Does that work with any type of artist? What if somebody doesn’t know themselves very well yet, or the industry?
MP: Tons of artists have absolutely no idea and that’s okay. I’ve worked with people who couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper bag, and five years later they write beautifully. Everyone is on a continuum. Our job is to be at that point wherever they happen to be, not at some other point, but to meet them where they actually are, do the work that fits where they actually are and then allow it to happen from there.
UCN: And then be patient.
MP: Be patient, or have a boundary, either one. I have had to look at that person in my life and think ‘you know, there’s a limited amount of time and money, and I have to invest in someone else because I don’t think this is going to get anywhere.’
UCN: Is being able to make that decision something you learn through experience?
MP: Yes, I think you do. You start to feel real early whether this is worth investing in, from both sides. It has to be a win-win for both or it’s just not going to happen. And then you have to walk away.
UCN: Well, yes, otherwise it would turn into some sort of codependent relationship.
MP: Oh yeah… There’s plenty of those too! [smiles]
UCN: The first few cuts you got, how did they come about and how did that feel? Did you feel like ‘I made it,’ or was it more ‘this is great, but now I want more’?
MP: It felt like ‘this is great now I want more’, yeah. I was lucky to hook into a great group of songwriters early on who I think recognized that I had something to offer and they pulled me into their circle. I knew I was in the right crowd, these guys are writing hits all around me. It was just a matter of having the patience and to keep going. I will never forget the first number one I had which was ‘Norma Jean Riley’ for Diamond Rio. I was in South Carolina on a beach vacation with my family and my mom comes running screaming down the beach “It went to number one! It went to number one!” I remember waving at her and just walking down the beach. I also remember thinking about how do I explain it to other people, without sounding like an ass, that that is the natural progression of the work I put in. When I finally got there I was like “Whew, okay, that was work.” But that’s the work, that’s what I’ve been working for! It didn’t surprise me. I was thrilled but it didn’t surprise me, it didn’t come out of the blue. It was more like “yeah, that’s what I do everyday, to try to occupy that spot.”
UCN: When I think about it sometimes that it is such a strange career… [smiles]
MP: A very strange career. [smiles]
UCN: The comment you made before about fighting the writing-in-a-box, when did that manifest?
MP: It took a long, long, long time.
UCN: Hundreds of songs had been written by that time?
MP: Thousands. Because I was so invested in the service notion of the industry, and because it is the sole way that I ever made a living, for many many years I, on purpose, stifled my own creative instincts to stop what would’ve been my natural process. Had I not shared it with someone or had I not turned to shine that light on some specific goal, like a hit song for country radio, had I just done my own process it would’ve wound up in a completely different place. For about 25 years I stopped that process and tried to gather up the creative content that was resting in the things that were racing in that direction, and put them in a holding pen, to be able to then dole out to people I was working with to make a living. That’s the best way I’ve ever said that, I hope the recorder is running. [smiles]
UCN: It is, I promise. [smiles]
MP: That’s what I did. I shut down my artistry. Once it had enough content inside of it to still be relevant to what it is that I did for a living, I redirected it towards that instead of letting it just take the path that it would have naturally taken.
UCN: Was that because of pressure from without, where the industry was telling you to do that, or from within, where you knew that that’s what you have to do.
MP: It was about knowing that’s what I needed to do. I had to provide for my family and I hit the sweet spot there, so I’m not here to bite the hand that feeds me, and I’m not here to change the world, and I’m not here to draw attention to me. Yet… [smiles] And in a way, my new record is the one that took me 51 years to make. I finally got to the place where I could think, this is going to go absolutely down the road that I envisioned, 100%, is not going to deviate even an atom for anyone else. In fact, no one is even going near it, and no one can play on it, no one is going to turn a knob, nothing. And no one is going to hear it until I’m ready to deliver it. It is a complete thought, unsullied by anyone else’s hands.
UCN: When I was still in Europe, I would sit there and pass judgement on some songs, but since I’ve been here, and especially doing these types of interviews, it’s been like going to class. I learned to appreciate the place of what I would have considered to be bad songs. I learned to understand why they exist and appreciate the space they occupy.
MP: The thing to remember is that they all come from a place of superior talent.
UCN: They didn’t know Blake Shelton was going to put it on the radio, it’s not their fault, so I feel no one can go after those writers. Blake also pitches the song perfectly. It achieves what it sets out to do so I gave it a positive review. People started jumping on that telling me “you know this is a piece of crap.” But it’s really not!
MP: No, it’s not. And the people who don’t think that, well, go ahead and write it. Be my guest and give it your best shot! Anybody who wants to line up and write a song as clever as ‘Red Solo Cup,’ be my guest. I bet you can’t.
UCN: Yes, same with ‘1994’ that [Jason] Aldean cut. People were telling me how awful that was too. But here, it’s not Luke Laird‘s fault that it got put on the radio. I’ve always been adamant about that in reviews that people leave the songwriters alone.
MP: There’s excellence imbued in every single thing that makes it out to the marketplace. Really shitty stuff does not get out, it just doesn’t. Now, stuff that doesn’t crank my chain or stuff where I wish the ratios were different, sure. But each individual piece of work it’s all way above the bar.
UCN: Because somebody thought it was good enough to attach their name to.
MP: Absolutely. And millions of people don’t love it because it’s a piece of shit, they love it because they connect with it. And if those people found a way to connect with that audience not down the same hallway that you connect with them, so be it.
UCN: I am interested in exploring the idea of writing somebody else’s story? For example ‘For You,’ the song you and Keith got the Academy Award nomination for, how did you approach that write, almost I guess I don’t want to say “on assignment”?
MP: You can say it, it was on assignment.
UCN: How did you approach that is a lyricist?
MP: I think it’s a perfect example to talk about. Our assignment was to write the end song for the movie. They said “the song you’re going to write will start right here. No, here’s the movie, watch it.” It was fantastic to do, I loved that. Show me the canvas and I will write edge to edge. So, we watched the movie and got their story arc and at the end of the movie, Keith and I both felt strongly that we didn’t want to recapitulate the story arc they had just told. We wanted to continue to write beyond the border of the movie. I was happy about that, we both felt strongly about that. We both felt strongly that we were not going to write some ‘hoorah, patriotic, go-shoot-em-up-America’ type song. It’s not where we come from. I don’t like war, I don’t care who’s doing the shooting, and neither does Keith. So we talked about what was on the screen that we can in our own consciousness talk about and continue the story. We had just watched this guy give his life for his friend. I don’t have to talk about his motives, I don’t have to decide whether patriotism is a strong enough reason to do that, that’s not my job. That’s the job of history. But I do know that this guy felt strongly enough about this man to give his life for him. Now, what’s my question? My question is, is there anyone that I feel strongly enough about to do that for? And I’m like, of course there is. But I realized how short that list really is. Well, that was a lot of talk, but I’m glad you asked the question.
UCN: I’m interested in it because it is so different. It’s not the usual two guys getting in a room and deciding what to write about. You already knew what the song needed to point toward and it was a story seemingly outside of yourselves.
MP: Totally. The last scene is the surviving guy sitting in a wheelchair that it pans in, and we were thinking ‘what must be going through his mind?’ The movie kind of sets you up to think about that. But I was also thinking about what’s going through the mind of the guy who just died. What if we wrote a song about the guy 30 seconds after looking down on the scene of what he just did, and having his own moral struggle asking him whether he made the right decision or not. Now, that we could write about. So it’s ‘all I saw was smoke and fire, I didn’t feel a thing, suddenly I was rising higher, and I thought to myself have I just made the greatest mistake.’ Now we have the story beyond the story!
UCN: So it’s like you said before about looking for different layers of the story. Did you do that consciously?
MP: Yes, totally consciously. That’s why we have him say ‘I thought about my unborn child and I thought about my wife’ because that’s what he was giving up to save his friend. And then it’s ‘the answer rang out clear from somewhere up above, no greater gift has man than to lay down his life for love.’ That’s actually a biblical quote, so that’s what I’m talking about. The line is part of the story but it also references something else. After that, the rest was easy. You only have to pose the question: would you do it? If it came down to it, would I do it, and the answer is: I would, for you.
UCN: And that would be a very short list of names.5
MP: Yes, and everyone has a completely different list. When I say those words, or you do, it’s not the same people on the list.
UCN: No, the people on my list don’t know the people on your list. [smiles]
MP: Exactly. [smiles] That to me was the beauty of that process.
UCN: Of the different parts of songwriting, is for you the most invigorating part getting to puzzle it all out?
MP: The most rewarding thing is the puzzle, you know. The most rewarding thing is to use language in a sophisticated and unexpected way, to make a simple point. That is the payoff for me. I like sophisticated language, I like poetry and Shakespeare, but I like that at the end of the day when it has all come out and you figured it out, if I put the puzzle together, I like for it to have been talking about very simple things like life and love and happiness.
UCN: Now that you’ve said that, the song that jumps in my head is ‘Til Summer Comes Around.’ I think that of Keith’s recorded songs that’s arguably one of the most poetic songs that you guys have done.
MP: And that is the lyric I wrote by myself. (smiles)
UCN: Well, there you go! (smiles) I love that song! You know the whole debate about show-and-tell in songwriting, that song is all show, there is no tell.
UCN: I just love it, I think it’s phenomenal.
MP: Thank you.
UCN: In that song, you are also telling somebody else’s story but then, you tend to write what you know, so was it similar to ‘For You’ in taking another story and putting your own experience into it?
MP: It was totally a similar process. It was the first time that I’ve requested from Keith as a co-writer to let me take this. Let me take this and bring you back a lyric. We just had music and I said “I think I know what this is.” It was great that he was comfortable with that, because he knew that when I came back the story wasn’t going to be about the guy who wins, it was going to be about the guy who loses.
UCN: But I guess that’s because that trust relationship has been built up over the years.
MP: Yes, that’s right. So I was like “dude, you need to lose every now and then.” The best way for you to lose as an artist is to create a character that’s not you who loses, who you embody in the song. It’s that thing where you go “I have a really good friend who has a problem,” you know. [smiles] You put it one level up and you’re given the safety of it being about I’m fixing to tell you a poetic story about someone’s life. And then we can all go “we get it man, we love you, we know you’ve been through those days of standing on that New Jersey pier wondering’ what’s happened to my life’.”
UCN: Did it get built off imagery and then you created the character? Because it’s such a strong image of the fairground as it sits there doing nothing. It’s mirrored in what he’s doing, the waiting, the apparently purposeless waiting.
MP: What person believes strongly enough that they have this one experience at this amusement park in the summer, where they fall so deeply in love that they come back year after year? So much so that they actually take a job there in the off-season for five long years, fixing the tracks, because God forbid that the place gets run down and not open up in the summer? If it doesn’t open up in the summer she might not come back, so I now have taken on the Sisyphus task of pushing this rock up the hill, only to have it roll back down every summer when she doesn’t come back around again. That’s a kind of an awesome story. [laughs]
UCN: Yes, it is! [smiles] I recently had a discussion about Brantley Gilbert‘s ‘More than Miles,’ where I said the only thing that bothered me about the song is that it’s not true, because he did move to Nashville. The person I was talking to said that people want a happy ending, but I think not everyone does, at least not always. I’m more interested in the story of the guy who says “I love you but I have to pursue my dream.” Like you said, sometimes you have to lose. To have those happy songs have meaning, you need those songs where you lose.
UCN: Do ever feel like you create a character to express something that you have trouble saying in real life, and then you create a character so he can say for you?
MP: Yes. With the soldier character in ‘For You,’ we got to talk about our politics a little bit and our take on the world. We were given a great mouthpiece to be able to speak through a character. One of the first hits I had was a song called ‘Dancy’s Dream’ by Restless Heart. In that, we got to talk about her own frailty and human weakness, through the mouthpiece of a fallen Baptist minister who has an affair one time in New Orleans. He is so consumed with it and he goes back and murders the girl, because he has to end it. When you listen to it, you’re like ‘I get it.’ it’s every man, it’s Bruce Springsteen‘s The Ghost of Tom Joad, it’s Jackson Browne, it’s every man. We either do it confessionally, or we build a fictional mouthpiece. I’m comfortable with both.
UCN: When you write with artists, how do you get in their headspace? When you write a character like the guy in ‘Summer,’ that you yourself can speak through, when you write with an artist how do you then create a character that they can speak through? Or is it simply that they take the lead?
MP: They take the lead, always. I always ask them “What can you say, what do you want to say, how can you say it?” Would you be comfortable doing this, and would you be comfortable with the fictional character we created doing this? You always want to let the artist take the lead because their the ones who are going to have to step up and represent it.
UCN: And if it’s a hit they’re singing it for the next 20 years.
MP: Hopefully! [laughs] And an artist can also become defined by that hit, and then they never really wanted to be that character.
UCN: Exploring something else, I remember you wrote with Marcus Hummon for a while…
MP: When Marcus first came to town, we started writing together. We wrote tons and tons of things. I was his producer, I produced the first tracks on him when he got his first record deal, which was a development deal with RCA. I had three cuts on the CBS record that yielded all those hits. We had a wonderful writing relationship for years. It ended up being one of those things where he kind of went one way, I kind of went another and started producing other artists, and he got on the road doing his thing. I think he is one of the best to ever occupy a chair in this town.
UCN: Yeah, the first time I saw him play was at the Bluebird, and I was just blown away. But he is one of the names that comes up when people go “I don’t understand why such-and-such didn’t have the huge performance career.” You know his name will be on that list. Jeffrey Steele is on that list.
UCN: And Brett James… This could turn into a long list. [smiles]
MP: Oh sure!
UCN: I have tried to look at their careers and explore if there is one thing, or a few things, they have in common, something I can point toward and say “that’s why it didn’t work.” Or is it really just arbitrary?
MP: I think it’s completely arbitrary. I think it’s absolutely 100% math. And someone like Dan Huff would agree with me. We had this conversation and he said “Monty, it’s random.” And I’m like “yeah, you’re preaching to the choir, dude. It’s random.” [smiles]
UCN: So it’s talent and luck and timing. In any certain proportion, or can you really absolutely not quantify this?
MP: I don’t think you can do it. I don’t think it is proportional, or we would start choosing people and going “okay, they’ve got the 70% talent that you need.” It just wouldn’t work.
UCN: There’s always some element of luck that you don’t control.
MP: Right. One of the big things you don’t control is that you don’t control the mood of the American public at any given point in time. Tim DuBois used to say “we’re gonna make a record, we put it out, and then we see if America loves us or not.” And you just don’t know. Some things get a reaction and some things don’t. The things we feel the strongest about sometimes don’t react, and the things that sneak up behind us have enormous reactions that we would never have guessed. It’s random.
UCN: Are there certain things you hear when somebody brings you a new song and you go “that’s a hit, I can bet my house on it, I’m sure”?
UCN: What is it about those songs that you hear that makes you think that? The most recent example I have is when I first heard Lee Brice‘s version of ‘I Drive Your Truck,’ I said “that’s the number one song.” The first time I heard Keith Urban’s ‘You Gonna Fly,’ I said “that’s going number one.” But I’ve tried to examine what it is that makes me say that, and I don’t know. Are there certain criteria you look for, or is it intuition?
MP: The main criterium is mostly that “X factor.” We have just risen in the industry and it’s become gut, we kind of just know.
UCN: So it comes through experience?
MP: Yes, it references one of my favorite quotes of all time: How do you know if a piece of art is good or bad? The answer is to look at one million pieces of art and after you’ve looked at one million pieces of art, you will never be wrong. That’s an artistic corollary to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. I think we are starting to understand the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity better than we ever have before. I think were starting to understand that subjectivity is a lot more objective than we realize.
UCN: I’m very interested in that concept. I think that’s been one of my big lessons. When I get given a song, whether it’s somebody I work with or song by an established artist, I try to hold onto as much objectivity as I can, while accepting that part of it will always be subjective.
MP: What I’m talking about is the long arc of objectivity and subjectivity. Let’s take music out of it right now and talk about visual art. Thomas Kincaid is never going to be in any major museum as an artist, and yet he has sold millions and millions of his paintings of light. Most people who know anything about serious art know that they are not very good. Do they do a certain thing that resonates with a certain crowd of people who aren’t trying to understand the difference between okay art and great art? Yes. Do country songs do the same thing? Yes. Do lots of them do the same thing? Yes. Have many of them risen to the level where they belong alongside Beethoven? Yes. But that arc where something lives, I’m talking about the long arc of history…
UCN: It’s like you said before that history judges things we can’t?
MP: Yes. You can pluck someone who doesn’t have a lot of art knowledge and take them up to the Museum of Modern Art and put them in front of a William de Kooning painting. Their reaction might be ‘my kid can do that.’ Here’s what people don’t realize, when you go to the Museum of Modern Art and stand in front of that painting, the painting is judging you. You are not judging the painting. Whether you get the painting or not is about where you are on the arc of understanding, because the painting is in a Museum of Modern Art!
UCN: Oh, I get it! Because somebody thought highly enough of it to give it some of that limited space on the wall.
MP: Enough people over an arc of time and thought and continuity have put this up here. You are in no position to judge whether that’s a good painting or not. The only position you are in is to learn how little you know about how to judge whether that’s good or not. That’s the continuum I’m talking about that happens a lot in music.
UCN: I like that, thank you for that lesson. And it’s similar with songs, like the stuff that gets accepted into the Library of Congress? Or people who make songwriters Hall of Fame?
MP: Yes, it’s that kind of thing. When you have gone over that sort of arc of time in consensus, then you have really made that move from subjective to objective. There’s a lot of things out here right now about which we’re not sure where on the continuum they are going to end up. And there’s a lot of things out there about which we are sure where they will end up, a lot of disposable stuff that’s come and gone that we can look at right now and go “nobody’s going to remember this 25 years from now.” Was it good for the summer, was it fun, did we drink some beers to it? Absolutely. Has it made an indelible mark and a longer arc? Absolutely not.
UCN: For you, does it then still hold value if it seems disposable? Soon we will have whatever will be the big summer hit of 2013, and it will be fun, but will it still be listened to 20 years from now?
MP: Probably not, but then again, what’s a funner song then ‘Hey Good Lookin’, What Ya Got Cooking?’ [Smiles]
UCN: So am I then saying that those disposable summer songs are less valuable than a song like ‘I Drive Your Truck’?
MP: I think you’re absolutely saying that, and I am completely comfortable saying that. There’s no doubt that that painting right there is less valuable than an original Monet. [points to the painting on the wall]
UCN: Because the Monet stood the test of time?
MP: Exactly right!
UCN: I’ve also started to think that context matters. Last year Craig Campbell released a five-song EP, four of which were great and one that was kind of so-so. We had that conversation, he understood what I meant and I understood where he was coming from. Then I went to watch his live show and he opened with that song. After the show I went up to him and I told him “I get it, I understand now why it’s on the record because live it sounds great. It works, it’s a great show opener. I get it.” Is there a difference between writing a song for a record or a song that needs to work live?
UCN: The song I’m thinking about is ‘Stars Tonight,’ the Lady Antebellum cut.
MP: Well, that’s the song I was going to reference.
UCN: Oh cool, we’re on the same page. (smiles)
MP: That song was purposely written to open the live show.
UCN: When I first heard the record I thought “well, I don’t know about this song, but I know that this is going to work live.”
MP: That’s exactly why it was written.
UCN: How did that practically translate into the writing room? Did you have the conversation where somebody says “I don’t really care if it is going to translate less on the record, but we want this kind of line, and that kind of melody, and this kind of groove, and that kind of hook, because that will work live”?
MP: Yes, we did. That’s 100% what happened.
UCN: Do you remember the decisions being made for that specific song on how to achieve this?
MP: Yes, I do. We simply said “let’s write a song that can open the show.” They said they were going to headline the next year and said “we’ve built our career so far on midtempos, and our biggest song is a serious midtempo, so we need something that rocks, we need some things that have guitar riffs. You know, everybody’s playing AC/DC before their show, that’s what gets everyone pumped up. And you know, we don’t really have anything to kind of continue that energy over into our show.” So we went “let’s write that!” Here’s a guitar riff and we’ll go ‘Hey! Hey!’ We pulled from the Ramones, we pulled from AC/DC. Then we thought about who is the song for, and well, it’s for the people out here. Okay, so let’s sing about them. It wasn’t hard. I mean, it’s hard to do well, but it’s not hard to establish what it is you’re trying to do.
UCN: Yes, it’s still hours of work to get it to where you need it to be after you have the idea. Is writing specifically for a certain setting something you do often?
MP: Yes, actually it is.
UCN: What do you think the natural habitat for a song is, the record or the stage?
MP: Either one. There’s no doubt when I write with Keith, he’ll be like “I can’t hear 10,000 people singing along to this. I got a have something that 10,000 people can sing along with.” And I agree. So let’s keep working until we get it.
UCN: Yes, for an artist like him, when you have such a strong live show, he’s going to feel that that’s where the songs belong more than on a record.
MP: That’s exactly right.
UCN: More mellow performers might prioritize the album. I was told that’s how Kacey Musgraves sees it, she wants to be an album artist first. That’s why she will allow herself melodies where we were going like “you’re going to have to be really careful how you are sequencing your live show because people aren’t used to this.”
MP: Yes, exactly.
UCN: They hear it on country radio and expect a Miranda Lambert show and you’re not going to do that, so you’re going to have to be careful about the set list.
MP: Absolutely. But you know, again, people like everything. There’s enough people in the world to like everything at a big level. I don’t really feel like you have to pigeonhole, I don’t really feel like you have to chase the most obvious gold ring. People like everything. If it’s presented to them well and interesting, they’ll watch a TV show about women who make cupcakes for a living…
UCN: I know! [laughs]
MP: If it’s presented in an interesting fashion and you can invest in the story, then people will like stuff. So I don’t encourage people to run away from their artistry at all, I encourage them to run as deeply into it as they can, and then try to find out what it is about that that will probably jazz a few million people.
UCN: Thank you so much for doing this! I feel like I went to class. Do I owe you tuition? [smiles]
MP: No! [laughs]
UCN: Well, you know what, I’ll go buy your record. That will be my tuition. [smiles]
MP: Deal! $9.99 tuition! [smiles]
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