If you take pleasure in words as I do — even if you have no desire to write songs — you might find interest in my experience as a lyricist.
I have few gifts in life, but words seem to be my friends … whether I’m writing speeches, coaching a client on how best to deliver them, giving speeches myself or writing lyrics for an artist. I find satisfaction from the sheer power of words and from seeing that my writing can be part of someone’s success in the spotlight.
I first got involved with lyrics when I was in charge of meetings and events at Avon Products. Back then, companies often used “theme songs.” Even now, organizations that use the power of a song to drive a message home, seem to gain greater memorability with their audiences. The right song helps a message “stick” better into the brains of those who hear it.
After leaving corporate life and becoming a freelance writer, I had so much fun working on songs — collaborating with freelance composers for corporate clients — that I eventually asked several of my favorite writing partners to experiment with me …creating songs for the public, not just for motivating sales forces.
One of those was Jim Papoulis, widely considered one of the best choral music composer-conductors in the world. Working with the Young People’s Chorus of NYC, Jim was creating an album of choral Christmas classics called, “CoolSide of Yuletide”. Along with making songs like “Silent Night” sound fresher to young ears, Jim wanted to include a few original songs and invited me to come up with one.
Here’s a bit of the chorus from the result, combining the voices of choirs from around the world ….
HOW MANY CHRISTMASES
How many Christmases will there be
Till we learn to live as one
How many Christmases will we need
Before a new world has begun
When “peace on earth” is truly real
and not just words we’ve sung
This was my first song recorded for a non-corporate audience. I’ll always remember a tip from Jim, who had vastly more experience with music than I did. He urged me not to artificially establish a rhyme — becoming too “Moon-June” with my lyrics.
That advice — not to “force” it — has remained with me. Although in “How Many Christmases” (still a favorite of mine) I managed to create phrasing that, at least to my satisfaction, feels relevant and appropriate. BTW, whenever I do need a reminder of options for my words — which is often enough — rhymezone.com is a helpful service I turn to.
So what came next?
I’d just published that Christmas choral song (remembering that Irving Berlin, who created “White Christmas”, was born Jewish like me.) With Paul Guzzone — another composer I’d met on corporate assignments — I determined to pursue country music.
Key learning: if you’ve written a country song, do not try to pitch to Tim McGraw, etc., from afar. They don’t cotton to Yankee “New Yawkers” like me sending ’em songs from Up North, even though I grew up in Beaufort, SC. You need “boots on the ground” in Nashville.
After experimenting with several local song pluggers, I was lucky to find Chris Keaton. I’ve been working with him for 15 years and consider him the best in the business. For one thing, he understands music in a way many song pluggers don’t. He’s a former musician (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) from Virginia, now transplanted into Nashville. He is also a genuine extrovert which I’m not — even though I’ve learned how to comfortably give a talk to an audience of 5,000. I’d never have become a successful Fortune 500 VP if I hadn’t learned to conquer “stage fright” … knowledge that helps me now in coaching exec clients who hire me.
Chris maintains strong, ongoing relationships with the gatekeepers and decision makers of Nashville. He’s been part of my discovering how a song can mutate, collecting collaborators and opportunities along the way.
- Paul Guzzone and I wrote “Everything Happens for a Reason”.
- We produced a demo with a country sound. Chris began pitching it.
- Well-known Italian tenor, Michéal Castaldo, heard and fell in love with it when he and Paul were on the same radio show.
- Michéal not only recorded our song (in multiple production styles.) He translated and sings it in Italian as “Una Ragione”. ( “A Reason”.)
- What’s more, Michéal had my lyrics translated as video subtitles into nearly a couple dozen languages on YouTube (including American Sign Language.) Honestly, it thrills me that something I wrote is now so accessible to different cultures in the world.
- Next, Tony Moran heard the song. He’s a super-talented, twice Grammy-nominated remixer and Global DJ whom Billboard named one of the Top 100 Dance artists of all time. He heads his own label, Mr. TanMan Music.
- I was delighted when Tony and Michéal further transformed the work into a totally different production — in the Dance Club genre, with its own music video.
This evolution — and the ability to work with such talents — has taught me always to be open to fresh ideas and re-imaginings of a song … never to be limited by my own, initial conception.
But back to working with Chris Keaton in Nashville for the country market ….
Thanks to Chris, during my visit to Music City many years ago, I met Ralph Murphy, an ASCAP exec at the time. For those who don’t know, ASCAP is the acronym for the “American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.” If you want payment for your songs, you’ll need to register them with a performing rights organization like ASCAP, BMI or SESAC.
Ralph listened to my work and, as Jim had done, he cautioned me about over-rhyming. He warned against making my lyrics too obvious and “predictable” — the “Moon-June” trap, again. Ralph also pointed out that more women than men make the buying decisions for country music.
You can see the impact of Ralph’s counsel in my lyrics for the chorus of “Common Ground” — written with composer-collaborator Gil Polk and currently being pitched by Chris Keaton to artists in Nashville:
Everyone is different
All of us are equal
Can’t we find a common ground?
Think about our future
Everything affects us
It’s time we found our common ground
See what I mean? I didn’t struggle to find rhyming or sound-alike words for “different,” “equal,” “future” or “us.”
I’m tremendously proud of the song and the way Gil brought my words to life. I wish I could play it for you as part of this chapter, but if you search on the web for “Common Ground” and my name, you’ll find its music video.
Another key learning I’ve acquired over the years concerns the multiple ways one can get ideas for a new song. Whenever I hear a phrase that sounds like a song line or title, I make it a point to add it into the ongoing file I keep on my computer for inspiration.
For “Common Ground” the words came first, given my personal frustration at the increasing polarization I was feeling in American politics … and how often I heard TV news analysts wishing we could find better ways of getting along with each other — using the words I chose as my song title.
Sometimes I’m given a melody to work on, with nothing more than a starting word or two from a composer. That’s how I wrote several Billboard-charting Dance songs with Jim.
Our first was “Get Up” by Kimberly Davis. Jim simply said he had the idea of telling the listener just to “get up” and do something. The rest was on me and, as you’ll see, I never reject a rhyme if feels (to me, at least) natural and not forced.
Tired of feelin’ worried
Had enough of feelin’ down
No more time for sadness
Time to turn the world around
Sick of feelin’ under
Get yourself on top
Once you get it goin’
You won’t wanna stop
Get up, Get up,
That’s what life is for
Get up, Let go
Get out here on the floor
The song was published by Peter McLean’s D1 Music team and rose to #12 on the Billboard Dance Club chart. Several years later, Kimberly earned me a #1, in a self-empowerment song called “My Fire” which I wrote with Tony Moran and singer-songwriter, Audrey Martells.
I can feel the fire
burning deep inside me
Universe is glowing
and I’m right where I meant to be
I’ll pass it on to you
Share the light and sound
This Rhythm is my dancer
So dance like nobody’s around
Can you feel it- My fire
Can you see it- My fire
Can you hear it- My fire
Can you live it- My fire
Kimberly has recorded others of my songs, including “You’re Good for Me which became another #1 hit on the Billboard Dance Club chart. It was written with Jim Papoulis, Tony Moran and legendary Dance DJ and music producer, Tony Smith (famous for helping Disco music become a transformational success across the globe.)
Having told you of my consciousness not to force a rhyme, I notice that most of the examples thus far do rhyme … although to me, they don’t feel contrived.
In a bit of contrast, here’s another song I wrote with Tony Moran. It was superbly performed by a remarkably gifted artist, Jason Walker and became my first Billboard #1 on the Dance Club chart. You’ll notice that the lyrics avoid the conventional “a-b-a-b” structure of rhyming every other line ….
Was it a dream
That feeling when I saw you
Drawn to you
It was special
You felt it too
Takes two and we both knew
It’s not a dream
It’s time for us to say Yes
The lack of a standard structure didn’t prevent the song from becoming a hit.
Meanwhile, another song with virtually no rhyming at all became a major milestone in my life. I’d gotten a call from noted author/historian, Prof. James (“Bud”) Robertson, who wanted a new state song for his beloved Virginia. The previous anthem, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”, had been “retired” because of its racist overtones. It’s about a slave feeling nostalgic for slavery and picking cotton. The song had become culturally outdated and an embarrassment, so it eventually was “retired.”
Dr. Robertson said he wanted his beloved Virginia to have a state song again — one to be proud of. He asked me to write lyrics for the classic American folk song, “Oh, Shenandoah” — with Virginia, of course, being linked to the Shenandoah river and valley. If you check rhymezone.com for “Shenandoah”, you’ll get suggestions like “feather boa” and “protozoa.” No thanks!
You’ll always be
our great Virginia.
You’re the birthplace of the nation.
was changed forever.
Today, your glory stays,
as we build tomorrow
I fill with pride
at all you give us –
rolling hills, majestic mountains,
from the Shenandoah
to the Atlantic
rivers wide and forests tall,
all in one Virginia
With the help of Bud and his tremendously effective wife, Betty (a former high school principal whose charm and educational skills were valuable in lobbying state politicians) I became the author of the Official Traditional State Song of Virginia, signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe on March 28, 2015.
For sure, I’ve learned that, no matter how worthy a contribution I might be fortunate enough to bring to a song with my words … without the help of people like the Robertsons, or a “pro” like Chris Keaton in Nashville, I’m headed straight to nowhere.
Another example is Bobby Shaw, a top promoter in the Dance Club market. Without his help, I never would have attained 10 Billboard-charted hits, including the #1 toppers mentioned above.
Yet another example of collaboration: the diverse “remixers” who’ve recast my Dance songs into different styles for different clubs, DJ tastes and audience preferences. The accumulation of these options for varying tastes can help a Dance song get charted by Billboard. (If you search for my Dance titles on amazon or iTunes, you’ll find tracks by individual remixers, each of whom helped my songs become hits.)
Add one more collaborator: Curtis Urbina. He’s a music industry veteran, label owner and a steady source of wisdom and practical savvy.
I’ve also learned it’s important to invest in support services. Like the RowFax report, which lets me know which artists have needs that one of my songs might fulfill. “RowFax” was named for the “Music Row” area of downtown Nashville, home to hundreds of businesses relevant to country, Christian and gospel music. Founded in 1992, its listings used to be faxed to subscribers.
These days, I get alerts via email — e.g., that Luke Bryan with Capitol Records is looking for “quality songs” along with the contact info about how to submit them for consideration. For each weekly RowFax I receive, I compile a song list for telephone review with Chris. Together we decide if my catalog includes anything of potential interest for the performers who are looking. If so, Chris pitches the artists or management teams.
I never used to think about how songs are made and marketed. Today, the topic is always in mind. Which reminds me of another learning: the worst time to pitch to an artist is when they’re actively promoting a new or recent release. Their focus at that moment is on marketing current work, not some new wonder from Mike Greenly or anyone else!
Some other insights I’ve gained …
Song demos matter
Generally, I’ve learned it’s not wise to “over produce” a demo if you’re pitching a song in hopes that Artist “X” will record it. You want a demo to be well-produced, for sure, but not with the show-off vocal runs and ad libs that your target artist (or type) might exhibit on-stage.
The point is to help artists appreciate a song while picturing themselves singing it. These days, I don’t waste effort or funds on making a demo that sounds overly “polished” and “produced.”
The Internet offers access to musical connections and support that have vastly expanded since I began writing non-corporate songs in 2001.
A great example is the Indie Collaborative, a networking group for songwriters, musicians, artists and producers. It was founded and is administered by two independent songwriting artists, Grant Maloy Smith (an American Roots songwriter) and Eileen Sherman (playwright, lyricist and producer.)
This team performs a volunteer service for the entire songwriting community, holding meetings around the U.S. which are valuable opportunities to connect with other songwriters. You’ll find “Indie Collaborative” on Facebook and can request membership on their page.
As a result of the people I met at their meetings, I not only ended up creating “Common Ground” with Gil Polk, but was invited to create the first Spoken Word piece I’d ever written.
What color do you happen to be?
What love do you happen to see?
What are the joys that set you free?
Red … brown … yellow … black … white … all of it
Each has a place in the spectrum of light.
Different ages, different stages of the lives we each lead
Different genders, trans-genders, mind-benders — agreed!
My little piece was part of a charity project called Action Moves People United, created by three highly accomplished producers — Kevin Mackie, Krista Wallhagen and Rupam Sarmah. All participating artists shared their talents for free in order to benefit UNESCO-USFUCA, a grassroots organization affiliated with the United Nations that encourage world peace. Participants included a distinguished range of artists including Janis Ian, Julian Lennon, Patrick Moraz, Kathy Sledge, Lillias White and more.
I was honored to record “Common Ground” for the album. You can hear it on YouTube with the music of Grammy-winning composer, Paul Avgerinos.
One of my satisfactions from being a lyricist has been the opportunity to affiliate some of my work with worthy non-profit agencies and causes.
Example: “I Will Carry You” was written with Paul Guzzone, beautifully performed by Shara Strand and released by D1 Music, becoming another Billboard Dance hit. At the time, it contributed to the American Humane Association, protecting animal welfare. It was later re-purposed to help raise funds for the Rottweiler Foundation of America in hopes of curing the bone cancer that afflicts the breed. (This is in honor of my friend and client, John Cassese, who lost his beloved Stella.)
Example: “We Can Plant a Forest” promotes an award-winning agency, Trees for the Future, which helps communities around the world to plant trees — replenishing the forests that industry has stripped.
Example: thanks to Kabir Sehgal — another Grammy winner — I was honored to write a poem for Dr. Deepak Chopra and his project, “HOME: Where Everyone is Welcome”, a collection of poems and songs inspired by American immigrants. (You can hear this, too, on YouTube.) Also because of Kabir, I was invited to consult for Valerie Smalkin and her creation of an album in support of young students at the Maryland School for the Blind. These inspiring kids wrote and have recorded their own work, helped by many volunteers in addition to myself.
The Bottom Line
I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. I have not “made money” (yet!) from my songwriting. On the contrary, I’ve used my Day Job income as an executive speechwriter, speech coach and motivational speaker to fund the labor of love that writing lyrics is for me.
Money or not, I’m confident — sincerely — that I’ll be happier and healthier and will enjoy a longer life by following my passion with My Friends, The Words.
I publish this story, my two most recent songs are tugging at me to be included
with at least a “mention.” One celebrates women’s equality and performed by the
spectacular Natalie Jean. LOVE YOUR OWN POWER has received awards and
recognition on both sides of the Atlantic.
My newest project is I SEE YOU, written with and performed by Billboard Top 10 American Roots artist, Grant Maloy Smith. It’s intended to recognize and honor those of us who are aging. They often feel “invisible” to younger people who lack any awareness of the contributions and value of older generations.
Grant and I are grateful to be partnering with Masterpiece Living, a wonderful organization whose mission is to help older people across the country retire and live well … to “live long and die short” with maximum focus on a happy and productive live even in one’s final years. Amazingly, this important and visionary group has chosen “I See You” as the centerpiece of their anti-ageism campaign, launched in the autumn of 2019. I’m honored that my words can be of help in this way.
I close with the hope that my songwriting adventures have been of at least some small interest to you. Thank you!