1. What publisher do you write for?
My current publisher is Universal Music Publishing Group. About nine years worth of songs in my back catalogue is with BMG Music Publishing.
2. What other jobs do you currently hold in addition to writing?
I travel as a concert artist and conference speaker, booked through my music company, See for Yourself Music. We make recordings and print music of my songs and we publish booklets and articles based upon my topical seminars, devotional resources, and prose. The website and the concert venues serve as the "store" for those things. The combination of songwriting, publishing, performing and product line supports me so that I can lend my support to various benevolence organizations that I believe in. That's not an official part of my job, but it's an indispensable part of my work.
3. Where are you originally from and how long have you been in Nashville?
I had childhood in Texas, adolescence and college years in Greenville, South Carolina, and have lived in Waco & Atlanta since then. We've lived in Nashville since 1991, though when you're traveling all the time, it seems half that long.
4. When did you first know you wanted to be a songwriter? How did you know?
I was influenced by the pop culture like everyone else. And since both of my parents were musicians, always playing music or recordings of music, I came by it right. Dad was a pastor of a church on the Baylor campus, so we had first-rate music all around us. Word was in Waco in those days and most of the writer/arrangers made up my church family. Kurt Kaiser played the offertories most Sunday nights and that was a pretty transcendent experience in 1975. The major event was experiencing Ken Medema, a blind singer-songwriter in his prime. He had a blend of grace and humor with a prophetic edge I haven't really seen since. It rocked my world and precipitated my decision to become a Christian.
5. Who were some early influences on your writing?
Ken obviously. Billy Joel, Elton John and Paul Simon were my secular Trinity. Scott Joplin and the Beatles were both staples. Tons of Broadway stuff and Classical music was played in our house. I loved what Michael McDonald was doing with the Doobie Brothers and I remember as a band kid how crazy we all were about Earth, Wind and Fire and Chicago. I was drawn to the pop music that seemed intelligent, that stretched me musically or had something to say. Bubble gum and heavy metal were never interesting to me.
6. What's the first song you remember writing? When was that?
I always toyed with pieces and parts throughout my childhood. As a teenager or college freshman I went to a foreign country on a church mission trip and wrote a song called "Bridges" for the hometown presentation. It was a typical first effort, but you wouldn't believe how--out of all the songs I've written since--I still consistently get requests for it. My publishers never liked it, though.
7. Briefly, how did you get started in this business?
A good friend from college, Troy Nilson, had taken the plunge and moved to town. He offered to help me make a record and so I began making trips. He pushed me to move, but that seemed like the most bohemian thing in the world at the time. I was wanting to get married and I couldn’t imagine trying to sell that to my in-laws. We took our little indie record to BMI, where we were lucky enough to get an audience with Jody Williams. Jody wasn't impressed with the first song, but was so moved by the second one that he stopped every meeting on the floor and made everyone come in to his office, sit on the floor or stand, and listen to my demo. It was kind of your dream reaction. He started taking me to labels that next week, but I was so clueless about all that that I wasn't prepared to tell them what they wanted to hear. I really owe all the introductions to Troy and everything since to my first publisher, Michael Puryear. They were cheerleaders when everyone else was on the fence. I've learned to "dance with who brung me," both here in town, and out on the road.
8. Is there a cut (or two or three) you've had that you're proudest of? Why?
I'm proud of "If You Want to Lead Me to Jesus" because it's the antithesis of everything the labels typically look for. The only way to get a song like that cut is to be the artist yourself and insist upon it. "God Forbid" is important to me, as is Ginny Owen's "If You Want Me To." I'm thrilled about the Cece/Take 6 duet "One and the Same" and the other long shot was "I Want to Go" by Larnelle Harris. I'm glad I got to cut "Been Through the Water."
9. Is there a song you've written that most expresses your heart? You could quote a line or two of the lyric, if you like.
I've tried to write formula stuff but I've found that a) it isn't fulfilling and b) those songs don’t stand any better chance of getting cut, which is the whole rationale in the first place. I've come to see that my job is to express my heart. I keep rediscovering a song called "Power" as I learn how much I struggle with control issues. And I have a song called "My Heart Knows" and one called "I'll Meet You There" which are my best attempts to express how my faith really intersects with my life.
10. Is there a theme or topic in your writing that you seem to return to again and again? If so, why do you think that is?
It's my nature and my background to want to address those topics most people aren't addressing. I'm not looking to say what people are saying, but to take exception and to come in the back door and even toy with satire. Even if the message isn't new, I'm really only interested in finding a new approach. I think "Been Through the Water" is a good example. "This is Not Normal" is too. My supporters on the road like "The Best Stuff Café" for that reason. I try not to duplicate.
11. What's the funniest/strangest/most interesting/most successful co-write you've ever had?
The absolute king of songwriting experiences was being flown out to Las Vegas for 24 hours to meet and write with a guy who's been...like the number one entertainer in Vegas for six years running. I don't have time to tell the story, but it was surreal. The record went nowhere, as you can imagine. I once had a big appointment with a guy from Europe who was a big shot. I was very excited and we worked hard to get to the same place and make it happen. We got all set up, found an idea, he sat down at the keyboard and said, "I can't do this. I'm fried. I've been writing three songs a day all week and I'm brain dead." So, we parted company. I've had a few writing sessions that turned into heavy counseling sessions, sometimes with total strangers who just flood the room with their marital troubles or some other private thing that I probably wasn't the best audience for. But I've been touched by it. I guess that's one of the ways songwriting becomes a ministry, except that the song doesn't get written, so then it's ONLY ministry. There are so many people just needing someone to talk to. The closed door session is sometimes all they need to open up.
12. Whose music or what kind of music do you love to listen to?
I have young children, so I don't get to choose the music anymore. The Dragon Tales CD is pretty good. When I do get the chance, I listen to anything written by Wayne Kirkpatrick, David Wilcox, Ben Folds, Sting, Jars of Clay, Shawn Colvin. I keep up with Nicole Nordeman and Chris Rice, and NPR is usually playing classical stuff in my office. But mostly, I just try to scan the dials and hear what's going on in the world.
13. What's the fastest you've ever written a song? What's the longest it's ever taken you to write a song?
The fastest is just a single writing session, which is rare, but it happens. Only once or twice has the entire song just appeared in my head without officially wood-shedding it. "I'll Meet You There" was one of those, and those tend to be pretty cathartic experiences. I don't want to spiritualize it by saying "God wrote the song"-- which ought to be an illegal sentiment, by the way-- but I can say that they can be very emotional "realizations" or spiritual connections and they are usually very private experiences for me. I tend to be a slow writer and I get harder to satisfy all the time. I took the better part of a year to write "We Fall Down" because I couldn't get the second verse not to preach. When I finally got it, Donnie McClurkin left the verses out. Thanks a lot! Seriously, though, the struggle to articulate it is the important thing and shouldn't be rushed, because usually coming to the conclusion is a form of spiritual development for the writer.
14. Are there books you'd recommend aspiring writers read, either on writing or just for inspiration?
I read Frederick Buechner a lot and have a good library of theological devotional books I go back to. I just finished "Let Your Life Speak" (Palmer) and "Everything Belongs" (Rohr). I love history. But lately, I've realized my need for fiction and poetry, for purely creative writing. I've been collecting novels and some classics.
15. Are there CDs you'd recommend they listen to?
I would only recommend that writers not subsist on a diet of styles or tastes unless it's a form of research for a particular project. I've been disappointed to learn that many young people have responded to the vast numbers of choices on TV, radio and the web by simply picking one thing they like and subsisting on it. All truth is paradoxical. Jesus is opening doors, expanding the kingdom. I can't imagine serious writers not seeking to broaden and deepen their views and expressions.
16. Are there writers whose work you really admire? What is it you admire about them?
You've already got a good list from me. I think the thing I admire is when some writer or artist, understanding that there's nothing new under the sun, creates something we experience as new. I heard an interview with the Police after their break up and they were asked where they got their sound. The answer was they'd listened to what people were doing on the radio and did the exact opposite. In a genre like pop music, which does not reward experimentation, I'm impressed when someone makes a fresh contribution--musically or lyrically-- and "gets over", that is, makes it appealing enough to still reach people. That's a huge accomplishment. In Christian music, I look for writers with something to say who aren’t simply mimicking someone in secular music or trying to please everybody. We should be least guilty of giving in to those temptations, but we are the most guilty. I look for Christian artists who read, who are acquainted with the real suffering in the world, with doubt, and who aren't trying to impress me with their spirituality. That's impressive.
17. Is there a life lesson that songwriting has taught you?
Live poetically. See the levels of meaning in everything you experience. That, to me, is the spiritual life.
18. What has been your highest “high” as it relates to your writing and your lowest “low?”
The highest highs are those private moments, those epiphanies, when it all comes together, perhaps better than I thought it would and it feels like a gift. The lowest low is when I give my creative energies to someone I don't respect to write something I don't respect at the end of the day just for the possibility of making money. I hate myself on those days. That was a very easy question.
19. What part of the writing process is most enjoyable for you? What part of the process is the most difficult?
They are the same thing: finding a new way to say it. The other thrill is a great melody, one that is so well constructed it could stand on its own and may actually be around when I'm gone. If I write just one "Ashoken Farewell" or "Here, There, and Everywhere" or "Desperado" or "A Man After God's Own Heart" or "Got to Get You Into My Life" I'll be happy.
20. How do you keep your creativity going? Where do you get ideas?
I take psychedelic drugs... Just seeing if you were still paying attention.
I'm so serious about the "live poetically" thing that I'll venture to say that inspiration has not been a problem for me in many years. I have to work on my motivations and my energy levels, and I have to work hard to discipline myself as a free-lancer. But the problem for me is the stacks of ideas, both lyrics and melodies I don't have time to develop, put together, and finish. And I think the key there is just doing this long enough to let yourself be inspired, to learn to recognize a song-worthy idea more quickly and easily and finally, to co-write so much that you benefit from synergy. Many new writers talk about inspiration, but I really feel that for most of us, discipline and craftsmanship are the problems between us and a great song. Inspiration is everywhere.