Veteran songwriter, author, and Berklee alumnus Billy Seidman reflects on the many experiences he’s had in the songwriting world. In this three-part series, Billy shares some of that hard-earned wisdom.
By Billy Seidman ’72
With years of song cowrites to reflect on, scenes such as the following have been a reminder for me to go with the flow, but having a backup plan can also save the day. Consider this scenario, inspired by my own experiences:
Taylor the “Pop Shark” was stalking an idea, pacing in a circle doing his usual routine; speak-singing nonsense syllables trying to tease out a melody.
Jordan had been lobbing titles at Taylor and me for 45 minutes; “How about ‘Too little, too late,’ or ‘The Wheel’,” he said hoping one would click and stick.
The clock was coming up on an hour and 15 minutes since the three of us settled into BMG’s NYC writing room and…nada.
So much for waiting on the muse to deliver the big idea to gain attention at Universal, Sony, BMG, Downtown, or Kolbalt Music Publishers.
Jordan needed a few more tracks for his next record. Our teams had put us together hoping for magic, but so far no one was pulling rabbits out of the hat.
We’d talked about what was happening in our lives, gossip, friends, girlfriends, the business, songs we liked, jokes, politics, played some tracks, pitched ideas, and nothing was working. No one ever wants to be in this position, sheepishly thinking to themselves that the session sucks and the chemistry bites.
Years of living and writing in Nashville and working with awesome co-writer/friends had taught me much, but one thing stood out: Know what you’re writing about and why it matters!
I was in the room because people believed in my ideas, and so I was starting to feel a bit more pressure than usual to deliver. My title list (or, list of song titles) is pretty extensive; it’s sorted by title name alphabetically, date, song category, or tempo. I’ve made it a habit to prune the list every few weeks turning hundreds of ideas in my notes to lists of hopefully 25 kick-ass, relevant ideas and song titles for exactly this kind of moment.
Years of living and writing in Nashville and working with awesome co-writer/friends had taught me much, but one thing stood out: Know what you’re writing about and why it matters! That will take all of the guesswork out of the audience listening and allow you to harvest the idea through each critical line of the song form to deliver a powerful one-two punch chorus title.
I looked down my list, saw an idea I’d been saving, calculated if this was the right time and the right writers to share it with and said,“Guys, what do think of this: “Settings?” And starting singing:
“You keep messin’ with my settings
N’ I don’t know where this is heading
Lettin’ you get close to me
Gotta few secrets I need to keep
South is north n’ north is south
Each time I kiss your pretty mouth
So sure I’d be regretting
But you keep messin’ with my settings…”
Taylor got on the board pulling up beats and samples. Jordan likewise started singing/improving, “messin’ with my settings,” over and over and started on a verse. A dumpster fire of a session was now a rocketship of momentum and a flurry of connectivity.
Listen to “Settings”:
The takeaway, no surprise, is: Ideas do the heavy lifting in songwriting. Sometimes they’re spontaneous and awesome, but when not, be like Smokey the bear and have a plan/be prepared…
When it comes to the music business, windows of opportunity open fast and close all too soon, but great ideas and talent will get you invited back…
Back to the room.
Billy Seidman is a veteran New York songwriter/guitarist/producer who’s logged studio hours with a diverse groups of music legends from Jimi Hendrix to top pop producers such as Jimmy “The Senator” Douglass, (Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams) and Steve Jordan (John Mayer, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton).
Billy’s songs have been recorded by legacy pop artists, including Irene Cara (“Flashdance), Vicki Sue Robinson (“Turn the Beat Around”), and Evelyn “Champagne” King (“Shame”).
He’s the author of The Elements of Song Craft published by Backbeat Books, an adjunct professor at NYU, The New School, visiting lecturer for Berklee Valencia, and a BerkleeNYC Consultant.