How did songwriting get in your system?
I was born in Massachusetts. My mom and dad were both full time musicians for most of my young childhood. They were kind of like coffeehouse troubadours, they would play originals. My dad was a songwriter and my mom had a fantastic voice. They were in and out of different bands, for most of my young childhood we went around falling asleep at coffeehouses. It was a part of my childhood, and sort of a no-brainer that later in life I would want to do the same thing.
Was it a natural thing? I would think most kids don’t want to do what their parents do.
Right — it just kind of crept up on me. I don’t remember making the conscious decision to where I was like okay, this is what I want to do for a living. I started playing guitar right before we moved to Georgia, when I was 11. When my dad was at work, I would sneak into his room — he had this really nice Taylor guitar, when they were still handmade. One of my favorite artists has always been David Wilcox — kind of the guy that you copy before you get your own voice. My dad had this VHS tape of David and I would pull the guitar out from under the bed and learn that way. I started writing songs about the same time. I eventually started playing church coffeehouses and open mics. I got to playing around Atlanta a lot.
Atlanta has an underrated songwriter scene.
Oh yeah, there’s a lot of talent beyond the rap and R&B thing that Atlanta is known for. There are a lot of good songwriters and singers that have great venues that cater to it, like Eddie’s Attic, Smith’s Old Bar, and places like that. I used to go to Eddie’s all the time and play the open mic shootout there — it was my stomping grounds.
Who else did you latch onto early?
Growing up in New England, there was such a folk scene up there — my parents were doing all these 70′s and 60′s covers. Joni Mitchell and Harry Chapin — I have probably heard every Chapin song a million times. Bruce Springsteen, and Dylan as an adult. I don’t know that I really got into Dylan as a child.
I’m not sure that many children do…
I still don’t quite! I love it but don’t fully understand it as much as I would like to imagine I understand it. Shawn Colvin and Nanci Griffith were very big at our house growing up. All singer-songwriters. Then for me, I was obsessed with Michael Jackson. Every record, every song. I was reflecting recently on how much he has influenced my melody choices and my singing style more than I ever know. It just happened because I just listened to him so much.
Granted, he didn’t write all of his hits, but most people don’t latch onto the songs.
He was a freak of nature — quadruple threat. He had such a magnetic personality, and even as a kid, you couldn’t turn away. It almost didn’t matter what he was singing, but he sang great songs. I didn’t even realize until recently that Glen Ballard wrote “Man In the Mirror”, but he sang so many great songs. He really understood the relationship between the percussion and the vocal and the lyric pocket. It wasn’t always like “this is the best lyric”, but it was always the right feel for the song. Everyone’s still trying to copy him.
I hear a lot of his syncopated vocal cadence, even in modern country music.
Yeah — it’s something the pop world has had for a while and country is grabbing on to it now.
Was there a song that stood out from your childhood as the first “truly great song” that you recognized as such?
For me, it was totally Wilcox. “Language of the Heart“. That song has always been this example of top to bottom, an exceptionally perfect song. It has everything from the brilliant but honest lyric, the guitar playing is phenomenal. The melodies too — just a solid song that I have always put on a pedestal. He has another one called “Show the Way” that was just brilliant.
So you moved to Nashville from Atlanta…
For school. I went to Middle Tennessee State. I just needed to get a degree, and wanted to do something I was interested in. I took music business at MTSU, and played the NACA circuit — a showcase that books you at colleges. I was able to keep touring. That and playing some of the Southeast clubs were my bread and butter for a while. I met my wife my junior year, and so we stayed in town.
How did you get into writing for a living?
I never intentionally looked to write songs for a living. I wasn’t even really aware that writing was a viable option until I moved to Nashville and learning about publishing deals and how the business works. Getting a publishing deal was a random blessing — I wrote a song with my friend Dave Barnes and I sang on the demo. His rep, Alicia Pruitt, heard it and offered me a publishing deal with Warner-Chappell. It’s been a huge left turn, but a huge blessing.
When you signed a publishing deal, did that change the way you wrote?
I felt like I was being paid to do what I had always done. I tried to stay in that space. The fact that your songs are going to be pitched to certain people in certain genres, that is going to be in the back of your mind a little bit. I think being mindful of that is just doing your job. But anything past that, you can really write for the wrong reasons — though that;s not really fair. It depends on what your goal is. There are plenty of people to write a country hit, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I just try to write the best songs I can. You have to keep that healthy balance.
You’ve had cuts with Tim McGraw, Randy Rogers, and others. What was your awareness of country music before moving to Tennessee?
I didn’t know there was a thing as country music until i was about 12 years old and moved to Georgia. I remember seeing a Clint Black CD at a friend’s house and saw this guy in this shirt and hat and thought “I have never seen anything like that”. Now I talk country music every day, but I still have a poor knowledge of the history of the genre. My wife has been a country fan since she was born, so she teaches me when things pop up on the radio.
Having a limited background with country, how has that influenced your work so that you get country cuts? Are the country artists cutting songs you would have written anyways?
I think they are cutting songs that are my style. I think a good song is a good song — you can produce it in different ways, but it goes back to my goal of writing the best song that I can. I don’t think of writing a country song, a rock song, or a singer-songwriter song, I am just trying to get the thought out of my head.
What does that process look like for you?
It takes a lot of different forms. 80 percent of the time, its just me playing the guitar and that will spark a melody which will spark a lyric. Very rarely, I will have a concept or a title, and start from the ending like that, but that is not normal. Then sometimes, I enjoy writing from a track that I have built.
Dan Wilson said that if he gets a chord progression and melody with no words, that his window on the song is closed, and he can’t finish it.
I don’t know if I say I would prefer it that way, but that’s just how it happens naturally. A lot of times, I need to shock my brain a little bit and mix things up to get the song flowing.
Do you do a lot of cowriting?
Not a lot. A lot of people in Nashville cowrite every day of the week. I kind of learned early on that I don’t really want to do that. I cowrite maybe four times a month. Most of the time I write by myself. I have learned over the years who I really enjoy writing with.
Who are some of your favorite cowrites?
I have written with Lori McKenna — I truly believe she is one of the best in the world. I finished “Suppertime” on my new record and knew that she was the only one I wanted to sing on it. She’s such a maternal, wise woman — even though the song is about my family, I knew it fit her perfectly.
Do you have a favorite Lori McKenna song?
The whole Lorraine record. It’s mind-blowing. I can’t pick one, it is impossible.
You had a song on Nashville recently, right?
Yes — the song “Kiss” from Midland was on the show. It wasn’t me — one of the actors actually performed it.
How’d he do?
He did great! I thought it was really cool. I think they have done a great job on the show on the music. I know T-Bone Burnett heads it up, which adds that great production. They are doing a great job of picking songs that might not have been on the radar, or expected. They aren’t strictly Nashville country songs, they are just picking good songs.
Tell me about “Old Brown Shoes”.
That song is about my grandfather — he always wore these brown penny loafers. For some reason, that really sticks out in my memory about him. The first verse of that song, I had for five years, just kicking it around. There are some ideas I have that its just not the right time to finish it. I visited his grave when I was home in Massachusetts about four or five years ago. I wrote that first verse and just held onto it. That song just falls into the category — if I had to show people five songs that encapsulate what I do, it would be one of them. We cut it live from top to bottom on the record. We kept it that way intentionally. It was a sacred moment for a sacred song.
How about Randy Rogers’ “In My Arms Instead”?
Randy and I have written a lot of songs together. It’s just seamless and easy with the two of us. We don’t over think things. We have always written in the same hotel when he comes to town, and we are a bit superstitious about it now. That was one of our first songs — we wrote that and “Buy Myself a Chance” in the same day. That might have been our first cowrite, actually. It was just a rainy day outside, kind of depressing, and that melody and chord progression just came very naturally. Some songs happen so quickly that you don’t remember the process. That’s the only one that we have written that I actually play out live myself. It’s my favorite that we have written together.
You kind of have a high profile in Texas now. How did that happen?
It’s just another example of how God has directed these things that happen that we don’t expect. My publisher Alicia put me together with Wade Bowen when he came through Nashville. We have become really close friends — one of my best now. We got in the habit of writing regularly when he was in Nashville, and at some point he invited me on the bus to open shows, just me and my guitar. It just kind of caught on a bit, and eventually we put a band together. I signed on with Wade’s booking agent at the time and ended up playing 15 shows a month for about three or four years, just focusing on Texas. I think because of that focus and that time and the attention paid by guys like Mattson Rainer at KNBT, it just caught on. The fans down there take their music-spreading responsibilities seriously, which is awesome.
What’s the last great song you have heard?
I’m so behind with recent music. That Florence and the Machine record from last year struck me, I loved that first Mumford and Sons record. One guy that I didn’t really take seriously until I saw him on SNL was Bruno Mars. I got his CD recently and was just blown away — he’s the real deal. I saw him live on the Grammys last year — his voice, speaking of Michael Jackson, he’s a page right out of the book. I don’t think I have heard anyone sing that flawlessly on television in a long time. That whole record, Unorthodox Jukebox, is really creative. I feel like I have talked about Michael Jackson for half of this interview, but if you watch the Grammys, everyone in the pop/R&B realm is still reaching for that. He changed music.
Keep up with Sean on Twitter: @sean_mcconnell