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Mark Brickley: Stars Share Songwriting Secrets

A few of the industry's top artists and producers gather at L.A.'s House of Blues to provide insight and advice

“This is the best 20 bucks you will ever spend,” Broadcast Music Inc.’s Catherine Brewton said as she opened the “How I Wrote That Song” show Jan. 30 at the House of Blues in Los Angeles.

The stage’s high-backed directors chairs were soon filled with six of the top recording artists and producers in the business. Introduced first was the winner of this year’s Grammy for Best New Artist, country singer Zac Brown. He was followed by poetic hip-hop star Common.

Next on stage came award-winning female vocalist Colbie Caillat, then innovative hard rapper Nas. Lastly, the crowd welcomed two of contemporary music’s hottest and most influential producers, Sebastian Krys and Salaam Remi.

The Grammy-week songwriters event was moderated by Brewton, BMI’s head of writer/publisher relations, and Ann Powers, Los Angeles Times pop critic. Its “In the Round” format allowed each artist to showcase his or her recordings followed by a question-and-answer session.

Brown and Caillat performed live renditions of their hits, and they spontaneously joined Common as he sang “The Light” from his acclaimed Like Water for Chocolate album.

With the cut booming over the club’s loud speakers, Brown fiddled with his guitar to find the song’s groove. As the song ended, Brown continued playing the track’s main riff. Common picked up the beat and began rapping the lyrics. Caillat joined in backing Common as they flowed through the song’s melodic chorus: “There is a light that shines, special, for you and me.”

The trio’s impromptu performance was one of those extraordinary, unexpected live moments that seem to happen when you bring great talent together. Their collaboration unintentionally tightened the show’s main focus — finding the heart of songwriting’s emotive process.

Nas discussed his writing technique. “A song must be sung for an audience,” he said. “The performance is the key to a song as a writer.”

He related that “in the beginning, I was in my own world; nothing else mattered. I would sit in my room and write. I wanted solitude. Now I got kids. I’m watchin’ more, I can’t get caught in that, but I’m more cautious now.”

Nas revealed that he will release a new album featuring Damian Marley.

Common said he gets the music done first.

“I like being an instrument with the music. I put the music down and take a ride in my car. I can’t force it. I ride and write,” he said. “Riding around Chicago, you can see the struggle people go through, you see it in their faces. We feel different all day long — warmth and anger. You can release that in songs.”

Common described how he wrote “The Light”: “It started with a beat. I considered a woman I really cared about. I thought I had the song finished, but in the end, it didn’t happen. But I liked the way it sounded, though, so I kept it.”

The easygoing hip-hop star said great music has a soul or essence. “Music either sticks to you, nourishes you,” he said, “or it goes through you like fast food.”

The warmth and effortless control of Caillat’s voice was captivating.

“Emotions build up inside me,” she said. “Sometimes I won’t write a song for three months. I write about what I’m going through in life.”

You want to listen carefully when she sings because of the originality and intensity of her voice. At the event, her vocals built unexpectedly and elicited a stirring response from the audience. Caillat showcased her instrumental skill by playing solo rhythm guitar on a newly written ballad. The unusual jazz-tinged chord progression lifted the chorus and resolved the song’s alluring internal melody.

Brown said he wrote “Whatever It Is” from the Foundation album at the Thunderbird Club in Marietta, Ga. A bartender buddy helped him come up with the song’s beautiful melody.

“It’s about everything that a woman is,” Brown said.

He also previewed a remarkable new song that pop critic Powers raved about. The unreleased gem “Colder Weather” will appear on the band’s new album. It laments a country singer’s biggest challenge: constant one-night-stand touring. Brown is really singing the song to his wife and kids: “I want to see you, but I’m stuck in colder weather.”

The song may become a country standard. It’s that good. Wearing his ever-present wool cap, Brown performed his songs live on a nylon-stringed acoustic. His playing style includes holding a flat pick while finger-picking. By special request, he played his patriotic anthem, “Chicken Fried,” for the crowd. Brown’s advice to new songwriters: “Surround yourself with players better than you. That’s how you learn. You have to have an identity of who you are to be a songwriter.”

Breaking through with his deep fuzz “fat Joe beats” and Fugees sound, record producer Remi has had a nonstop career. Most recently he produced Beyonce’s and Jazmine Sullivan’s recordings.

Remi spent the past six months working on Amy Winehouse’s new album in his St. Lucia recording studio.

“Now you can score and compose on an airplane,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s not technology but imagination that’s got to be the thing.”

He used mandolins as a rhythm instrument instead of beats or percussion on Sullivan’s Grammy-nominated song “Lions, Tigers and Bears.”

“Her voice and what she is trying to say was more important and effective without drums,” Remi said.

He believes that a great producer helps unlock a great artist. “You create a tango and allow the song to go with it,” he said.

His songwriting advice: “Put it out there. Be your best in your own mind.”

Krys got his start in the music business as a recording intern. He remembers serving coffee to Gloria Estefan at her legendary Miami Crescent Moon Studios.

Jagged sharp and articulate, Krys grew up listening to punk. His intensity comes from a seeming encyclopedic knowledge of music’s roots.

“Popular music really came from Africa,” Krys said. “Contemporary music is now also fused with Latin and Jamaican elements.”

His advice to aspiring writers: “Just worry about the music, not the marketing.”

As the 2½-hour songwriters show came to a close, the emcee’s opening remarks rang true. The creative insights and musical secrets offered at the “How I Wrote That Song” event were invaluable.

Noozhawk contributor Mark Brickley is a freelance writer in Carpinteria.

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