Interview With Hit Songwriter and Author Jason Blume
Blume's New Book, 'Inside Songwriting: Getting to the Heart of Creativity'
Hit Songwriter and Author Jason Blume’s new book, “Inside Songwriting: Getting to the Heart of Creativity” (Billboard Books) was released earlier this year. Jason’s cuts include songs with Britney Spears, the Backstreeet Boys, John Berry, J’son, LMNT, five cuts with Collin Raye, the end credit in the animated Barbie of “Swan Lake” movie, and many more. We met at Jason’s home in Nashville, where his doorbell plays his tune, “Change My Mind,” his first hit song (recorded by Country artist John Berry.)
[Doak Turner] Jason, you have a new book, so tell us about that book!
Jason Blume “Inside Songwriting: Getting To The Heart Of Creativity” is my second book for Billboard Books. My first book, “6 Steps To Songwriting Success,” is a “how to” book: Structure, lyric writing, melody, pitching, business, and demos. This book is completely different. The new book is teaching lessons, but they’re in between every line. It’s much more personal, the stories and lessons from my career are included in the book. My publisher at Billboard Books was nervous about the book, as they publish “how to books.” But they are very pleased with the results. I get personal and honest in the book, and with the book being real, it is so much like our songs. I discuss what it is really like behind the scenes of songwriting – not just the writing, but the business, pitching, and collaborating.
I am hoping that the book shows that the invisible wall that we think separates us from success is not real. It shows that successful songwriters still have pressure and stress, they have to produce, they get scared when they do demos and they feel the pressure when they write with huge artists. We are sitting just a few feet away in my house, from what I’ve dubbed “the Melissa Manchester suite,” where she stayed for a week. There was nothing on this earth to me like that experience, as I worshipped her when I was a kid. She was the Beatles and Elvis and every other superstar rolled into one for me. Waking up in the morning and knowing “Oh my God, I am having coffee with Melissa Manchester – in my pajamas” was unbelievable to me. Well, let me say that a different way, Melissa Manchester was NOT in my pajamas! I was in my pajamas; she was in her own pajamas. I was in another world wondering, “How did this happen?” Those are the kinds of stories that I am trying to show in the book, that it is NOT impossible for them to happen.
[Doak Turner] What brought you back to reality to realize she is just a woman, a very successful woman?
Jason Blume Of course I knew that, but it doesn’t always feel like it. I worked at RCA in LA to pay my rent, and I dealt with a lot of celebrities, but even though you know they are just people, it’s hard to get beyond that feeling. I worked with Britney Spears writing a song, and I produced a demo with her singing the song. She was just this normal person, she was fun, seemed like my sister’s little girl and it really wasn’t that big of a deal. However, Britney was not an icon to me growing up. She is simply a successful artist. Melissa Manchester was bigger than life to me. I spent a lot of time and wrote a couple of songs with her before that “Oh my God” feeling passed. Now my heart does not do anything strange when the phone rings and Melissa is on the other end of the line. It takes time to realize that these are just normal, talented people. One of the greatest rewards of my songwriting success is the opportunity to work with these extraordinarily talented people. I have worked with a handful of people that I know when I’m with them, that I am in the presence of genius. Luckily, it’s not required to be a genius to be a success in commercial songwriting. Those rare instances when I have experienced those highs make me realize that one of the greatest gifts of being “successful” is to be able to get to work with those people.
[Doak Turner] What do you think that you did to put those very successful people at ease with you?
Jason Blume One day I was writing with the hit songwriter Skip Ewing, and I was nervous because he is so talented. What helped me was I knew I had brought in a fantastic idea to the writing session. I think that is the key because every songwriter wants to “write up” or write a song with a more successful songwriter. There is a concept I teach in workshops and it’s like an umbrella that is above everything else I teach: we must give the listener a reason to choose our song over the competition. The song has to bring in a different element – to make someone feel that they have not heard it said that particular way. It has got to go to that level that just makes them think, “WOW – I have never heard this expressed this way lyrical or melodically.” I want to scream that statement to the developing songwriters! But we can’t get to that level until we go through the level of first learning the craft. Then we write songs that are “almost good”; then, songs that are “perfectly crafted,” but not “special”; then – we can get to the point where we can go to the next level to write a song that a listener will just have to hear it again – a song that will jump out of the pile and demand to be recorded. Starting with a really fresh or interesting concept or idea is going to put you light years ahead of the competition.
[Doak Turner] Tell me about the first time that you just know it, this is it – a great concept for a song, and ready to “write up.”
Jason Blume I know my strengths, and one is coming up with really good ideas that people are going to be drawn to and respond to in a song. It is analogous to a pinball: you come up with an idea and the pinball hits the side and gets pushed back towards the center. That is what happens when we come up with an idea and nobody responds to it the way we thought they would. Your publisher does not respond, the teacher that you played the song for, or your peers at a critique—nobody gets excited. That pinball just got pushed back to the other side. You do this over the years with hundreds of songs, and then we get a sense when you have a viable idea for a song. It is difficult when you factor in that we have to consistently come up with fresh and brilliant ideas. There has to be that slightly new angle. Something about it that is fresh. Two examples that come to me are: “My Front Porch Looking In” – that has got to be one of the best, one of the finest crafted songs I’ve ever heard, in terms of the detail. But what makes it special is that the concept is very fresh. It’s not “I’m in love,” or “My life’s terrific,” or “I’m grateful,” or “I’m blessed.” All of those things are the average, predictable way to say it. The unique way to say it was, “I’ve seen so many beautiful things in this world, but the MOST beautiful thing I’ve ever seen is the view from my front porch looking in.” To me, that is totally fresh, totally wow -- and something that millions of people could relate to in a song.
[Doak Turner] Do you remember the first time that you heard that song?
Jason Blume Absolutely! The other song that strikes me as exceptional is not just unique lyrically, but melodically and rhythmically. The first time I heard it, my head jerked. It turned out to be Jason Mraz, the pre-chorus hook is “You’ve go the cure, I’ve got the remedy, the remedy . . .” (Jason sings). That’s the most infectious, can’t-get-it-out-of-my-brain, got-to-hear-that-song-again rhythm and melody. There is a chapter in my book INSIDE SONGWRITING called, “Reaction Songs.” It tells about when my publisher sent me a list of songs that artists were looking for, and at the bottom of the page, there was a note that said, “We are looking for reaction songs.” I thought, “What the hell is a reaction song?” I had never heard of that kind of song.
A “Reaction Song” is one that evokes a powerful reaction in the listener, meaning when the listener hears that song, they are going to say, “Wow, did you hear that song, the one about, da,da,da.”? It’s the kind of song that when you hear it, you have to go and buy that song! My job as a teacher is to try to teach readers of my books and my students how to do that with their songs, and to try to accomplish that as a songwriter. The keys are uniqueness and freshness--and something that millions will relate to. Yet in some way the writer has approached the melody, the rhythm and lyric, or all of the above hopefully, with some fresh angle, without being so far out there in the song that you lose your listeners. READERS – this is YOUR ASSIGNMENT! It is what we must all do to make a real impact with our songs! ANYTHING LESS WILL NOT EDGE OUT THE COMPITION.
[Doak Turner] The journey of developing self-knowledge, part of the power of experience, is also the pitfall of frustration. Please explain that chapter of your book.
Jason Blume A couple of things come to my mind. The songwriting journey tends to be a long journey, longer than any of us believe it will be. You could never have convinced me at the beginning of my journey that it could possibly take more than one year for me to have hit records. The truth is eleven and a half years later I had my first tangible success. It was five more years after that, for a total of sixteen plus years, before I felt, “Okay, now I have gold records on the wall, money in the bank, and a house. That looks like success.”
The reason that I bring that up is that it typically is a long journey. I feel that we have to be learning about ourselves as we are growing over this time in our lives and have it reflect in our songs. Songwriting is communication, We want to share ourselves, so we need to learn about ourselves. Those songs that really come from the heart, not necessarily self revelation, but talking about things that are inside of us of just wanting to be expressed, coming through us because there is a need to express ourselves. Those songs could include up-tempo, dance, R&B … not just deep reflective songs. If you are gong to write fluff, make sure you are feeling fluffy, or it is going to be fake, and it won’t be as good as the person who is down the block who feels fluffy that day.
Something else that I want to discuss is writing for ourselves as the artist, versus writing for artists who do not exclusively record songs they wrote themselves. If you write for yourself, there is so much more latitude in terms of symbolism and abstract imagery. So many of the songs that are successful on pop radio today, if we analyzed the lyric, we would ask, “What are they talking about? This doesn’t make any sense.” It may make sense to the artist, but we as songwriters do not get that option when we are writing for artists who record outside songs. Those types of artists do not typically record vague, symbolic, abstract lyrics that make no sense. The artists that take outside songs tend to choose lyrics that are very literal--things that make sense. One line leads to the next in a logical order, the story and emotions are clear--and you know what they are talking about in the song.
[Doak Turner] With the pop lyrics, the writers study their 18-34 audience and perform what their audience knows – correct?
Jason Blume They do not have to go out and pitch those songs. It is a whole package that they are selling, it is a look, a sound, an image and the songs are a crucial contribution to that package. If they were literal, it would not work for them. If you prefer to write the kind of songs that would be appropriate for self-contained artists (e.g., Alanis Morrisette, Train, Creed, Michelle Branch, or any of the alternative, rock, or R&B acts), collaborate with some seventeen year-old who can be the visual image and provide the voice for your message and words. Find artists to cowrite with and develop. Another option is to find an artist that you can write for -- an artist that does not write his or her own material, and write those songs that are so special that the artist will feel compelled to record your songs.
I wrote what I thought was a “perfect” song the other day -- beautifully crafted, and after looking at it, I knew it was a well written song. Then, I went back and re-wrote the song into something that was really unique and really fresh. I re-wrote each line. I had to open up and let the song flow more freely instead of being so cautiously focused on “it must say this” and “it must say that” to be a great song. I wanted to come up with something more unexpected and I loved the new version of the song.
[Doak Turner] Was that a co-write?
Jason Blume It was a co-write where I wrote virtually all of the lyric. The co-writer’s contribution was the melodic part of the song.
[Doak Turner] If you had written that song with someone else, how does that work with you, when you do a lot of changes in a song?
Jason Blume The key is open communication. The thing that is totally wrong is to just change the song, then go out and demo it. Hopefully your co-writer is on the same wavelength and will be blown away as you are on the song.
[Doak Turner] What do you do if they’re not blown away with your changes?
Jason Blume I have only had it happen one time, and I’ve written with probably hundreds of songwriters. This was a writer that I was in awe of. He had written classic songs that I thought were brilliant and I liked him, but we had totally different vision as the song was developing. It became clear that we were not going to agree; we were talking about an entirely different groove, melody, and lyric and I reached a point where I chose to let it go. I told him to go ahead and have it demoed, I never pitched the song or spoke to him again. I think that falls under the category of where you chose the wrong co-writer. I take my contribution, you take yours, let’s write it both ways, we co-write both versions, and may the best version win. We can also just say that we are sorry it did not work, separate, and if it is my title, I can use it again for another co-write.
I am in awe of Steve Seskin as a songwriter and teacher, and as a person. (In addition to both teaching at an NSAI song camp this summer, we’ll also be teaching together in Utah in June.) I had what I thought was an incredible song idea. We worked one intense day, and when we were done, it was obvious that he and his publisher were underwhelmed with the result. I asked him if I could take the title back and he agreed. I later took that same idea to Steve Azar, and we had a hit single with that song on Steve Azar’s first album, it was called, “I Never Stopped Lovin’ You.” The key is communication. I did not sneak around. Steve Seskin said to take it back. After I wrote the idea with Steve Azar, I sent Steve Seskin a copy of the song, to make sure I had not borrowed or stepped on anything that we had written previously. He said he did not need to hear it, that he trusted me, but I insisted on him hearing the song to make sure everything was ok. The new song was nothing like the first song with that title. As a matter of fact, the one that Steve Seskin and I wrote was a ballad, and the Steve Azar co-write version was an up-tempo song.
[Doak Turner] Wasn’t that back in 1996?
Jason Blume Yes, it was a year that I remember very well. I was within six months of losing my staff writing deal and it was very clear that I either came up with a hit, or I was going to be out looking for a day job. I wound up with the John Berry top-5 country single, “Change My Mind,” Steve Azar’s “I Never Stopped Lovin’ You,” and J’Son’s “I’ll Never Stop Loving You,” which became a #1 R&B video and was in a Disney movie called First Kid. Years later, Britney Spears also recorded “I’ll Never Stop Loving You.” It was a wild coincidence that I had two totally different songs with such similar titles.
[Doak Turner] Down To The Wire is a chapter in your book. What is that about regarding your songwriting career?
Jason Blume I lived on two hundred dollars a week for a very long time. When I was about to lose my staff writing deal, I begged my publisher to give me six more months. I knew in my heart it was about to happen for me, and that I was willing to do anything and work so hard. A lot of songwriters would have said if the publisher did not want them then “the hell with you.” I think a lot of my success has been the result of letting my ego be squashed in the short run. It is difficult to be told that our perfect child, our new song, is not so perfect in someone else’s eyes. The advantage of it being a song, (and not a child) is that we do not have to support it for eighteen years and put it through college; we can cut it loose.
The only way we can grow is to stay open to the fact that each song is not necessarily our “best,” and that we are hopefully not as good of a writer today as we will become. I have become a better songwriter each year that I’ve worked on this. Just because this melody popped out, is it as good as it can possibly be? Maybe I need to go back and re-write it five more times. Maybe I need to go back and do some of the exercises in my own book that I am weak on and need to improve that part of my songwriting. If I think that I am perfect, because (sarcastically), “It’s all about who you know, darn it, I just do not have the right connections, and that person over there is no good,” then I will never grow as a songwriter.
[Doak Turner] So, one of the best things to do is surround yourself with positive people?
Jason Blume Liz Hengber (writer with numerous cuts by Reba and other artists) calls these people “Black Holes” – avoid them!
[Doak Turner] You refer in your book to a silver haired man who thinks just because he is older, that he has everything figured out, He does not understand why everyone does not just love his songs. He thinks you must be wrong if you critique his songs and do not think his songs are the greatest.
Jason Blume In between his screaming and cursing me, he mentioned that he had been writing for 37 years. How dare I criticize his song! He said I had no right and who was I to tell him his song was not great! It was at one of my free BMI workshops (that anyone can sign up for by calling 615- 401-2000). They are held monthly and they are always full. His real problem was his inability to stay open to creative criticism. He kept frozen to the same place he was in 37 years. You can write a thousand songs, but if you don’t take input and feedback and alter your songs, then song number one thousand is not going to be any stronger than song number one. You have to figure out where you are falling short and missing the target--what is and isn’t working. Squash the ego short term to have the long-term success.
[Doak Turner] Was he at the seminar to learn, or this was his big shot to have his “great” song heard and recorded? This happens in the local NSAI workshops when professionals like you go and spend a day teaching songwriting. Some of the people do not think they need to learn anything, just for you to hear what a great songwriter that they think they are.
Jason Blume Absolutely! The reason that I know this is the case is that I sat in those chairs for years! I never brought a song to a critique in the hopes that I would learn how to make it better. My expectations were that if they were a songwriter, they would write with me, take me to their publisher and it would all change! How many times could I keep believing that my song was going to blow someone away and it would change my life that night or the next day? But that’s what I thought.
My life actually changed when I became open to the reality that my songs were not competitive to say, “My Front Porch Looking In” or anything by The Matrix. FYI, the Matrix is a production and writing team of one woman and two men that have been around for a long time, at least twenty years, and they recently exploded with Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” and most of the other hits on her CD. They are now working with people from David Bowie, Britney Spears, Liz Phair, and others. They also wrote the song, “The Remedy,” the song I cannot get out of my head. In analyzing what they are doing – their rhythms and melodies are so laden with hooks at the intro, verse, pre-chorus, the bridge, every section -- you cannot get the songs out of your brain. Rhythms that are fresh and impossible to forget--THAT IS ONE OF THE KEYS!
So many young songwriters focus on lyric, lyric, lyric. It is easier for someone to point out what is wrong with this line or that line of lyric during a critique, or to say, “This word isn’t the strongest” or “This image doesn’t make sense.” HERE IS THE DARK DEEP SECRET – whether you have hits or not, is probably going to be contingent on the melodies! I am in no way saying that lyrics are not important -- of course they are important, but without that incredible, fresh melody, it is probably not going to matter what the lyric says. That lyric can be incredible, and if the melody and rhythms are boring and predictable, or just not good, the song is not going to be a hit.
[Doak Turner] Is there a particular CD that a songwriter can purchase that will help with melody writing?
Jason Blume Funny you mention that, Doak. I have done two instructional CDs and one is Writing Hit Melodies with Jason Blume. The other one is, Writing Hit Lyrics with Jason Blume. I am most proud of my melody CD because I came from the thinking that I could not write hit melodies. I was not and am not a great instrumentalist; I’m not as good a guitarist as 99% of everyone else in Nashville. I now embrace the fact that playing guitar or piano is a totally separate issue from the ability to write a smash hit melody. I have spent years analyzing what melodically makes these songs smash hits--what makes a melody I cannot get out of my head. It is not just chance and I am extremely proud of the melody CD and what I teach about melodies in my books and workshops, because the feedback that I get back is that I am truly identifying and explaining why certain melodies have that ability to stick in the brain. I am very non-technically oriented musically, with very limited knowledge of music theory—so that’s why my explanations are in plain English and really resonate. Knowledge of theory and the ability to play an instrument are completely different skills from being able to craft melodies that stick in the brain.
[Doak Turner] Tell me how the emotions tie into the business of songwriting.
Jason Blume When you embark on this journey, it’s like get ready to have your skin ripped off and be raw to experience every emotion from A to Z. They are all part of this business. I have felt very few rejections in my life that are as painful as ones I have felt in this industry. Having a song cut by a superstar artist, and then it does not make the CD, or every day going to write another song when over and over and over the doors slam in your face. People say “No, it is not good enough” and “I don't like your song. You're> not good enough.” That is devastating and I've had hundreds of those experiences with my songs being ripped to shreds. The other side of that coin is that I have had some of the highest highs I could ever imagine as part of this industry. Hearing my name being thanked on The Billboard Music awards by the Backstreet Boys when they won album of the year. I thought I was going to drop dead, that my knees might go out from under me.
I was unbelievably lucky; without negating the fact that I have talent, I was incredibly lucky to be on two of the biggest selling albums in history. Week after week, month after month, to open Billboard and be at #1. What could be higher than that? But we do not all get the good stuff. The emotions can be so high in this business and I do not really have a magic answer. I have a platitude to share, and it is: extract your sense of self worth and of success not from “hits,” but from the fact that you are using your creativity and allowing yourself to be a channel -- and pushing yourself to do your very best work. I would love to say I feel that all of the time. But the truth is that happiness comes from good news about a cut, and despair comes from bad news, or bad chart position with my songs.
In reality, we can only control those things that we have control over in life. I have control over how hard I am going to work to make my song the best that I can make it. I have control over how much time I am going to put into my career -- learning the writing and the business side including the pitching. These are things I can control and if I can get part of my self worth from those areas, I will be all right.
We are called to wear two hats in this business, as we are the creative individual who bares the soul and exposes these deep emotions and feelings -- and then we have to put on a different hat to go and pitch the song with the skin of an Armadillo. We will consistently be rejected and frustrated and disappointed, and that is just a normal part of the process, no matter who you are in the business. I think it is important to separate emotionally, and the most successful songwriters are those who are able to take off one hat and put on the business hat. You need to say that, “Today I am a plugger pursuing a publisher.” Or, “Today I am acting as a publisher and pitching my songs to labels and management.” Do not be the raw emotional person today -- just the businessperson, who has X,Y and Z to accomplish today.
[Doak Turner] You are talking about setting the appointments, the phone calls and so forth to do the business?
Jason Blume I have to say that the ability to do all of those activities mentioned above, contributed to why I ended up becoming successful. I worked for many years in temp jobs and ended up in public relations and worked with many recording artists. I was in my early twenties, and what it taught me was a lot of letter writing and communication skills, and a lot of not taking no for an answer! If twelve doors close, find the thirteenth door. That attitude and way of doing business came in handy. I then spent eight years at RCA Records with most of the time in A&R, and some in the Country Promotion department. It taught me how to do business and got me comfortable typing cover letters, picking up the phone and calling in a professional, non-groveling manner.
[Doak Turner] You are a successful songwriter, why take the time to write books to help others learn how to compete with you? You share so much with your books and seminars!
Jason Blume Being an author and a songwriting teacher is as much a part of my identity as being a songwriter. What is really odd about me is that from day one, when I moved to LA to become a songwriter, I knew I wanted to teach. I remember my first workshop that was presented by The Songwriter's Guild and I will never forget sitting there, looking at the teacher, who was a songwriter, and knowing that's what I want to do when I grow up. I want to be a successful songwriter, so that I can teach; that was more than twenty years ago. I am more centered, more in touch with who I am meant to be, probably more that any other time in my life. A lot of time when I am writing songs, there is still conscious effort involved. But when I am teaching, especially an event like the TAXI Road Rally that will have 1,500 people in the room, I am alive, not nervous.
[Doak Turner] Jason, you are teaching people to come and compete with you! I know a songwriter that says he will NOT teach a songwriting workshop and teach someone how to come to Nashville and compete with him. Why do you do it?
Jason Blume I call that person an a_ _ hole; that is the technical term that I give it. You know, there are so many slots for incredible songs. I refuse to believe that I am going to miss a cut because I have taught someone to do it better than me. There are ten or twelve slots on all the CDs, and if my song is good enough, I will eventually find one of those slots on one of those CDs. It never happens in my time frame, but in its own time. I could not teach and could not function as a songwriter if I did not believe with every inch of my heart and soul that an incredible song will win out. There are too many good songs on Music Row. I am not afraid to share the tools that someone may use to express an incredible song. If they get the cuts, more power to them. If there song is better than mine, then they deserve to get the cut.
One of the things I’m most proud of is that one of my students from the BMI workshop is signing a staff writing deal with a publisher who was a guest at one of my workshops. That’s where they met. This year I’ve had two other students sign staff writing deals and get their first cuts – and they were big cuts -- Martina and Reba! I’ve also had students win first prize in two of the biggest songwriting competitions this year. That just tells me that I’m doing my job.
[Doak Turner] How can songwriters use your books to help themselves, even songwriters that have been in Nashville a while, maybe even had a cut or two?
Jason Blume I hope this new book, “Inside Songwriting: Getting to the Heart of Creativity” (Billboard Books) helps people to learn from my experiences; it’s not about the nuts and bolts of “How To.” It’s much deeper and addresses accessing our creativity and how to take care of business. People who need to learn the details about how to structure and craft a song, as well as how the business works, should read my first book, “6 Steps to Songwriting Success: The Comprehensive Guide to Writing and Marketing Hit Songs”(Billboard Books). “Inside Songwriting” is what I went through, and you can learn so much from those experiences. The number one thing that I want people to learn through this book is that the invisible wall that seems impossible to cross over may be impossible to cross over today, and it may be impossible three years from now. But, there are some people who will read the book and will learn to scale the wall—even if it takes them five or more years.
I want this book to convince people, deep in their heart, that it is possible to get to the top. But even if you only get a third of the way up, there is so much to be gained from the view, and the view is better from two-thirds of the way up. And for those who get all the way over--that’s even better! It is not impossible to get over that wall, and the process of climbing itself is powerful and worthwhile!
[Doak Turner] Is there anything else that songwriters should know about your new book or about you? What about your website?
Jason Blume Yes – www.jasonblume.com. Your readers can get autographed copies of both of my books and the instructional CDs -- and we’re running a special – free shipping on any order that includes “Inside Songwriting.” My artist CD, The Way I Heard It includes my versions of songs that other major artists have recorded: Collin Raye, the Backstreet Boys, the Oak Ridge Boys, etc., is also available at the website. You can read an excerpt of the new book and learn about upcoming workshops, too. Thanks for letting me share with your readers!
[Doak Turner] Thank YOU, Jason Blume, for speaking with me today.
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