The Art of Co-Writing

The Art of Co-Writing

This is a re-post of an interview first published in May 2012.

 

Jason Reeves is an ASCAP award-winning singer/songwriter who, aside from successfully building a career as a DIY artist has also proven that collaboration can be incredibly powerful for artists that want to find new ways to reach fans and get their music heard. Reeves has co-written many songs, including the Billboard chart-topping “Bubbly” and “I Never Told You,” with the Grammy-award-winning  Colbie Caillat. He also wrote “The Show” with Australian pop artist Lenka and most recently worked with A Rocket To The Moon and Hot Chelle Rae. Like many other artists, Reeves threw himself into music early, picking up piano at five, then drums and guitar in his teens. He cites his major influences as Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and James Taylor. In late 2004/early 2005, Jason was contacted by producer Mikal Blue who had heard his self-created work on CD Baby and invited Reeves to record in his L.A. studio. It was there that Blue connected him to Caillat, and a career-altering partnership was born. Reeves self-released four albums and an EP before signing to Warner Bros. Records in 2008 and returned to the DIY world in 2011 with his album The Lovesick. His next album, Songs are Silent Films will be released next month.

 

 

I recently got to talk to Jason about co-writing, the process of building up a national touring base and the importance of staying focused on your vision as an artist if you want to have a successful, long-lasting career in music.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, Jason. Tell me how you got started as a musician/singer/songwriter.

 

JR:

 

When I was living in Iowa, I had just graduated from high school. I had started writing songs and putting out records on my own at the end of high school. And when I went to college right away, as most people do, I had no idea why I was going or what I was doing. All I was doing was writing music and not going to class. So, I dropped out in order to not waste my time or my parents’ money.

 

I decided I was just going to go for it, which led me to California, which turned a lot of things on for me and opened a lot of doors. For example, I met Mikal Blue and Colbie Caillat. They were my first two friends when I first came out here. And everything has come from that. But the whole time, I’ve just been trying to write as much music as I can and see where it takes me.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Correct me if I’m wrong: At the time, you were 19 or 20 and moving out to California on your own. How did you go about networking to even find artists of that caliber? How did that come about?

 

JR:

 

Honestly, Mikal Blue, the producer, is the reason I came out there. He invited me to come record with him. At the time, I’d only ever recorded in little basement studios in the country in Iowa – nothing that resembled a real studio. And I’d never really been to the West Coast. So, I was really excited. And Colbie had just had her first guitar lesson and had just written her first song when I met her. Neither of us had ever co-written a song before. All of a sudden, we met, started writing songs, and it turned into what it did. We didn’t expect that, and it wasn’t our goal. That’s really how crazy it’s been.

 

Ever since that happened, I’ve just been able to write with other people. And it’s been amazing. I know I’ve been very lucky.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

You said you were putting out your own records. How did Blue come across you? Iowa is not exactly a music business hot spot, unless it’s changed since the last time I’ve been there.

 

JR:

 

Not at all. He found it on CD Baby. I still actually use them. But this was before I knew what MySpace, Facebook and all those things were. CD Baby was really the only place I knew to put my music, and that was where he found it. It’s crazy how the Internet has been changing everything.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

For sure. Tell me about what the process of co-writing has been like for you. I know most artists I work with are initially a bit hesitant. They find it a bit awkward and feel like songwriting is a fairly personal thing to share with someone they don’t know that well. I’m assuming you and Colbie weren’t that tight when you initially started writing songs together. Was it an easy process for you, or was it something you had to work to get comfortable with?

 

JR:

 

It’s something you have to learn, for sure. But the more you do it and figure out how it works, the better you get at it. I think being comfortable is one of the most important things, because what you said about people not liking to do it because it feels strange initially or too intimate is true. If you’re not comfortable enough to share exactly how you feel or what you think with someone, you’re not going to get the best song. That’s why I, for the most part, write with people I’m already really good friends with and work well with. That makes the process fun and easy.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

It sounds like your career was something that you built initially based on your success as a co-writer.

 

JR:

 

That’s definitely what has brought a lot of attention to my own music. I’ve been touring a lot for the past three or four years. I did do a lot of promotion with my songs, so it’s a balance between the two. It’s about half co-writing and half putting out my own music.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

You were signed to a major label and have also put out records on your own. Tell me a little bit about that process.

 

JR:

 

I was on Warner Bros. Records until last year. Before I was on the label, I put out about an album a year. But the important part for me was that, when I was doing it myself, I could put out music whenever I wanted to. Warner was good to me, and I liked being on the label. But in all honesty, I didn’t get very much done. In fact, it kind of slowed me down. So, the fact that I’m not on the label anymore just means I can actually put out the music I have that’s just sitting around. Because, I write so many songs, it’s hard to even keep up with myself. That’s why I’ve been really excited to be able to have people who are willing to help me do this. It’s amazing. I have a feeling a lot of work is going to get done just in these next couple months by a few people than it did the whole time I was on that label.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I first came up in the Atlantic Records system. And I would watch what I called “The Shiny Shirt” phenomenon happen over and over again. What would happen was, after Hootie & the Blowfish, Atlantic seemed to be mining the Southeast region for the next Hootie. They signed all these bands from the Carolinas and Tennessee and Florida.  These bands would be doing all this local promotional, getting on local radio, then putting together regional touring.

 

Then, the label would come in and say, “This is all great. Quit your jobs. We’re just getting this release together.” And these musicians tended to all stop, say, “Cool, we’re rock stars now” and wait. They would be waiting on the photographer for the photo shoot, for the mastering engineer who was going to spend $20,000 of the band’s money to make the record sound marginally better, or for the publicist to show up and say, “Singer? We’re going to get you into the gym, have you lose a little weight. Bass player? Cut your hair, because you’ll really be cute when we have this whole makeover/reveal thing together.” The guitarist would wear leather pants instead of jeans, and everyone would get shiny shirts as opposed to flannel. That was almost all I saw really change. Then, they would throw it at radio, and it would mostly miss.

 

JR:

 

That’s an amazing description.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

That was just my experience. But, you’re in the vast majority of people I know that have had a major label experience where they saw their name with a major label imprint next to it, and it just didn’t quite deliver the way they expected it to.

 

JR:

 

Yes. It was frustrating.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Let’s get down to some nuts and bolts. I think a lot of people have the tendency to say, “Okay, I’m going to leave my hometown, and then what?” How did you go about building a national touring base?

 

JR:

 

It started around the time I put out my album The Magnificent Adventures of Heartache, which was in 2007. It was in about 2008 that I decided I needed to tour. I got two guys I met in L.A. – a bass player and a drummer – and we just rehearsed and did a residency at Hotel Café for a month. After that, we just started touring as much as we could. Eventually, they got really long. One of the tours we had was 37 shows in a row. It was more than circling the U.S. once. It was totally amazing, but crazy. It goes up and down, depending on the day and is really hard to predict how things will go. But the more you play cities, the more people come back to see you. And you just hope you can keep their attention.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Obviously you regularly get feedback on which songs work and which don’t. Other than just playing well, is there anything else you’ve learned about how to keep people’s attention?

 

JR:

 

I think for somebody that’s touring the way I do, it really comes down to the songs and if they connect to people. At my level, it’s not necessarily mainstream media that’s promoting my music, so people aren’t finding out about me that way. They’re hearing about me through word of mouth and Internet. I’m sure that’s how most music is. But at the end of the day, it’s about a song connecting to the person that’s listening to it enough that they want to tell their friends and come to the shows. Other than that, I think it’s a mystery. My main goal is to write the best songs I can.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

It’s something that a lot of musicians lose, for sure. I notice you’re active with Instagram and Facebook. What online marketing strategies have worked the best for you?

 

JR:

 

It’s so crazy how much is happening with all that and how it just keeps changing and getting more intricate. I can’t even keep up with it, honestly. There are too many for me. So, I try to just utilize a few the best I can. I just got Instagram, because until recently, I didn’t have an iPhone. I just kept holding out and telling myself I didn’t need one. I didn’t realize how amazing they actually are, even though it scares me terribly to own one. But with Twitter, Facebook and everything else, there are so many different tools now.

 

The fact that you can connect immediately to people anywhere in the world is very wild and futuristic. And it’s happening right now. Obviously, the whole music industry and everything about music today has been changed by it. So, I’m still learning just like everyone else is what all these things mean.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

If you had to give yourself advice as you were releasing records in high school, based on what you have now experienced, what would you tell yourself about what to expect, what to avoid, or what to prioritize?

 

JR:

 

I would say, you have to be more patient than you can even imagine. Also, it needs to be about the music the whole time. That’s still one of my main goals, and I think it’s what being a songwriter should be about. I think it’s about trying to keep everything you do as real and as honest as you can make it.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Do you feel like you ever lost sight of that along the way?

 

JR:

 

I don’t think I did. It’s just something that I have to keep working on. There are so many things pulling people away from the music and being honest, at all times. And if you are somebody that wants to stay true to the vision of what you want to represent, you have to stand strong on certain things and not give in.

 

To learn more about Jason Reeves and his music, you can visit him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter. His album Songs Are Silent Films will release in June 2012.