Writing Up: Interview With Songwriter Joe Leathers
Newly Signed to Curb Music Publishing - Nashville
We are in a local coffee shop in Hillsboro Village in Nashville, TN, 8:30 on a Friday morning, summer of 2003.
[Doak Turner] Joe, you have a 10 AM co-writing appointment this morning – right?
Joe Leathers I sure do, as I usually start with a 10 AM co-writing appointment. I’m writing with one of my songwriting hero’s, Walt Wilkins – I can’t wait!
[Doak Turner] Joe, please tell us about your songwriting journey and getting you first publishing deal with Curb Music publishing.
Joe Leathers It was about seven or eight years ago when I started pitching songs to publishers, A&R reps and anyone that would let me in for an appointment. I played out one or two nights a week in Nashville. I decided that although Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee, are 200 miles apart, they are about 1,000 years apart for the music scenes. I played in several bands in Memphis and the local music scene as a side gig as a guitar player in bands. I cut a couple records with Nashville producer named Jack Holder. Jack has been an “A List” guitar player in Nashville, played on Johnny Lang and Tracy Chapman’s records and I really respect him. He has taught me a lot about songwriting and the music business.
One day I played him a couple songs and he asked if I had ever pitched some of the songs. I told him no, and he said he has some friends in Nashville, and that I need to go and see them. We laughed about it, and I saw him about a month later. He asked if I had made any of those calls, and I said no. He laughed at me and told me that I could do it (write songs in Nashville).
Players in Nashville (studio and touring musician’s) aren’t usually real free with compliments like he was giving, as they are around the top talent all of the time. I thought at first he was just being a nice guy, but he was serious. He was really interested in what I was doing.
[Doak Turner] What did you do then?
Joe Leathers I started making trips to Nashville, pitching songs and learned a lot during that time. I learned a lot from the feedback that I got from the publishers and producers who heard my songs. I started developing co-writers through playing out at nights for about six years. Last summer, I cut a couple demos over at a local studio, County Q. I submitted the songs to my contacts at Curb Publishing, and their eyebrows raised a little bit. I kept pitching songs all last winter, and around Thanksgiving, they offered me a publishing deal. It took about six months to get the contract completed and we signed the agreement a couple months ago, in early May.
[Doak Turner] You developed several relationships over the years in Nashville. How did those relationships during that particular time result in co-writers?
Joe Leathers It was a lot of personal relationships with other songwriters in town. A publisher would say, “I like the way you think, why don’t you go see my friend over at Combustion Music Publishing, or my friend at Almo Irving Publishing.” Sometimes those appointments would work out, and sometimes they wouldn’t. But every time I booked an appointment, I would be there on time for the meeting. You have to be a pro, even if you are a rookie.
I would always confirm the appointment in advance of the day of the appointment. I always followed up with a thank-you note. I would call a day or two in advance to re-confirm the appointment. It was just picking up a phone and asking if I could come and play a couple of songs. A lot of people said yes. I wasn’t afraid of that process.
[Doak Turner] Tell me about that first appointment with a publisher.
Joe Leathers I remember I had a five-song demo that was pretty good production quality, so I felt good about the songs. Until you sit in a pitch meeting, you just do not know what you have, even though you think it is good. The best songwriters in the world are right here in Nashville. These people that you are pitching to hear the best songs written every day.
The publisher listened to three entire songs, as opposed to what I have heard that they listen to about ten seconds of a song and move on to the next one. I just leaned back in a chair, stared at the ceiling fan, there was silence in the room, and I just wanted to hear him say something, because the silence was killing me. He gave me the obligatory. “That is pretty good and I think one day you can become a songwriter, bring me something else in a month.” I took that as next week, and I remember thinking, this guy said I could be a pretty good songwriter!
It was a pretty positive meeting, as I look for the good part of everything. I decided THEN, I was going to be a songwriter; I am not going to look back and wonder if I could have done it!
[Doak Turner] What did you do after the meeting?
Joe Leathers I got serious, organized and committed myself to the craft … I was told by someone to write every day, even if it is one line, three chords and a little melody, do SOMETHING every day, or you are going backwards. Once you get out of that process, your creativity can wane a little bit. That is what I did, either early in the morning or late at night, middle of the day, sometime I would come up with a line or two, the process never stops.
[Doak Turner] You developed a songwriter’s antenna – always looking out for song ideas?
Joe Leathers I decided that the ideas were the things for me. If you get a co-writer, you can write a song every day, but the idea or the spin on the idea is the key. I try to always be alert and aware to look for that next idea, overhearing a conversation and hearing a line, and knowing that is pretty cool and will be in a song I am going to write. Someone told me that if everyone is looking at the tree, that I need to be looking at the shade. Most people miss the shade!
There is a book called “Learning How To See” by Annie Dillard. She talks about [how] most people walk through life looking at the big stuff, and miss the little things that make life great. I think that is pretty cool stimulus for being a songwriter. A painter will paint things like a shadow that most people do not see, so as songwriters, we have to look from a different angle.
[Doak Turner] What has been your best resource for ideas?
Joe Leathers I am aware of my surroundings. I will get in my car and go for a drive or watch people, and I read all the time. I go to as many songwriter rounds as I can while in Nashville. I keep the songwriting process in front of me.
[Doak Turner] It took you six years to get your first publishing deal. What kept you going when you realized that it has been three, and four and five years, and I still do not have a publishing deal?
Joe Leathers Everyone tells you that you are not going to get a deal. Then you have the group of songwriters that are jaded with their deal and they haven’t gotten cuts. If you listen to those people, it will turn you around and send you home. I have always had the attitude that if your songs are good enough, for the most part, through all the politics, if the song is a hit, it is going to get cut. Many songwriters that I have spent time with, in my opinion, have a bad attitude. Maybe they have not had a cut in five or six years … or for whatever reason they are mad at the whole industry. I decided that I was not going to listen to talk like that, and know that if my songs have wings, they are going to fly. I kept trying to improve and would not settle for just a good song.
We can write a good song anytime, but I want to write the ones that just blow your hair back. What kept me going were the people that told me I could not do it, and laughed when they heard I was going to pitch songs in Nashville. These were people involved in the music business, people I have known for a long time. They fired me up by telling me I would fail. On the other hand, I also had a couple friends that were constantly encouraging me. I decided after that first pitch meeting that I could be a songwriter, and that I would never quit; it is just a matter of time before I have success as a songwriter.
[Doak Turner] Is it what you thought it would be? Is it intimidating?
Joe Leathers It is intimidating because the songwriters at Curb Music Publishing are all just incredible, top to bottom. They are all special in their own way. I have been fortunate to write with several of the songwriters at Curb. I am gaining confidence, and whatever you do in life, you have to wake up in the morning and think to yourself. “I’M THE MAN” or “I’M THE WOMAN. I am going to go out today and will outwork everybody, I have the brain and work ethic for what I am doing in life.”
You ask yourself, “What is going to stop me?” The only thing that is going to stop me is me, and I will not allow that to happen. I feel I am gaining confidence, and can hardly stand it. The difference is that I had a seven year job interview, and now I want to make the people that bet on me at Curb know they were right in signing me to the publishing deal. I want to be the songwriter that they made the correct decision to have on their staff of songwriters.
[Doak Turner] Tell me about your co-writers. How did you meet them?
Joe Leathers It has been friendships that I have developed with other songwriters that have helped me to be able to write with other signed songwriters. I wrote yesterday with Danni Carroll, and she is amazing, She is going to be a star in the future. I met her at the Hall of Fame Lounge playing a songwriters round. She had just moved here from San Diego and it was her first night in town. We met and stayed in contact, and she recently signed to Famous Music. We stayed in touch all along our journey, and are now co-writing.
I also write with Chuck Floyd and Skip Black. I met them both at a Barbara Cloyd weekend in Marietta Georgia. We have sot of become a band of brothers, it is really cool when you are totally on the same page with another songwriter. The people at Curb are really great at setting me up with co-writes. They are good at paring me with people that will be good co-writers for me. You want to put people that are weak in melody with strong melody writers, and vice-versa.
[Doak Turner] Let’s talk mistakes on your journey. Did you make any or have you seen others make mistakes as a songwriter?
Joe Leathers I am sure I have made mistakes, but I do not dwell on them. I learn my lesson and move on. I have tried to listen to other songwriters and learn the UNWRITTEN rules. That was one of the first things that I asked the people at Curb.
[Doak Turner] What did they (Curb) say about the rules?
Joe Leathers Write hard, be credible and don’t put your foot in your mouth. Be honest and have integrity. It is a very small town, and be a professional. It is basic business. For example, if you have a co-write set-up, then show up. That sounds pretty simple, but I have had a couple songwriters no-show. I had this happen and wonder how someone could not show up for a co-writing appointment. If you do not want to write, do not make the appointment in the first place! What are you from the first time that you no-show? You are the songwriter that is a no-show. There is no excuse not to call someone and tell him or her you are not going to be at the co-writing session. Things pop up at the last minute, and I understand that, but pick-up the phone and call to re-schedule. The biggest mistake that I see, is people that self-destruct because of their own attitude. Your mouth gets you in trouble in this town more that anything. Keep your head down so that you do not get shot, and write every day.
[Doak Turner] Anything else you would want to say to another songwriter?
Joe Leathers Find a core group of people that believe in you and write everyday. The publishing deal provides you with access to everything in the industry that we need as a songwriter – access to other songwriters, the ability to get songs heard. When the publisher hears a song they believe in, they are going to go and grab that eight hundred pound guerilla and get him to put his shoulder behind it and push your song! I would not be able to do that on my own, but if you have three songpluggers out there every day pitching your songs, the chances go way up to get a cut. The songwriter does want the publishing deal.
[Doak Turner] Talk about single song contracts.
Joe Leathers I did that early on with a publisher in Memphis. One day I was in a meeting with Scott Gunter of Almo Irving Music. He has been a tremendous asset and resource for me. He is a great guy. Scott hooked me up with a friend of hi,; Chris Olgelsby, and they have a songwriter’s night that they will host at BMG or Almo Irving. I went to that event a couple times and we were in a conversation regarding single song contracts. I had been offered a single song contract by another publisher in Nashville and was unsure of what to do about it. I asked Scott what he thought about it. He said he would never offer a single song contract, as that is chicken. If the song is good enough to be offered on a single song contract, you are a good enough songwriter to be signed by a publisher. That is a broad statement, but I think he is right. Why sell yourself short? I want to do this right. The one song that I had in Memphis with a publisher had expired, and I now own that song’s publishing rights.
There is no telling how many songs within a word of each other that have been #1 songs, so when I have an idea and look at BMI or ASCAP for a song with a similar title, there are twenty-five of the same songs. I go ahead and write it anyway. You can talk yourself right out of great song or talk yourself right out of the songwriting business. If you think too much of whether the song has been written too many times, or too many clichés, you can talk yourself right out of a great song. I know songwriters that have had a big cut, but then they listen to so much advice they cannot write a word without analyzing it into the dust. Then, they end up with twenty-five half written songs.
People will tell you that it is too down the middle, it is not out there enough, it is this or that, so they are afraid to write songs! It is crazy and you do not want to co-write with that person, unless you can help bring them out of the funk. Listen to those people that know the industry and take the advice that you feel is valid, do not let the negatives slow you down.
[Doak Turner] How has NSAI and Memphis Songwriters helped your songwriting career?
Joe Leathers NSAI is a great resource. They have writer’s rooms, and they are very supportive and can help with the education for songwriters. They do not shop you to publishers. They are in the business of educating songwriters and are fantastic with that process. They have done several great things on the legislative issues for songwriters, and that is another strong point of NSAI.
The Memphis Songwriters is a totally different organization. In Nashville, everyone is trying to write the next cut and #1. In Memphis, it is more of an aspiring artist, with most of the members trying for the artist deal in that association. They are not going to move to Nashville, and they do not have access to the publishers to play their song. They are not going to drive back and forth to Nashville. I have driven to Nashville (which is two hundred miles each way) for lunch and turned around and drove right back home to Memphis. Someone has called me at eight-o-clock and asked if I could write today, and I replied that I would be in Nashville at one-o-clock to write a song. The people that I have talked to in Memphis are not going to do things like that to make it in the songwriting business.
The Memphis Songwriters do writers nights, have regular meetings, had a great guitar seminar with the famous guitar player and guitar instructor, (Box Tops guitar player) Gary Talley, last month. It is a great organization and I try to attend every meeting when I am in Memphis. The whole networking process is great because you do not know when you are going to meet the next songwriter that you are going to click with on the journey.
[Doak Turner] Thank you, Joe Leathers, for your time and we look forward to hearing your great songs in the future!
Learn more about Joe Leathers, and hear his music at www.joeleathers.com.