Perhaps more so than any other facet of the music business, songwriting allows for an endless array of potential entry points, and this year’s class of inductees into the Songwriters Hall of Fame offers some typically diverse examples.
Petula Clark collaborator Tony Hatch, for one, charted a classical course to clefferdom, toiling in London’s West End equivalent to Tin Pan Alley, while Aerosmith songsmiths Steven Tyler and Joe Perry wrought classic tunes from bleary jam sessions. But then there’s J.D. Souther, a solid singer-songwriter in his own right, whose biggest hits came from chance friendships with such fellow musicians as Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles’ Glenn Frey. Or 25-year-old pop phenom Benny Blanco, set to receive the Hal David award for young writers, who was mentored into Top 40 songwriting only after his bedroom hip-hop projects happened to catch the ear of uber-hitmaker Dr. Luke.
Guitarist and songwriter Mick Jones, set to be inducted with Foreigner co-founder Lou Gramm, spent the better part of a decade as a hired gun, penning Francophone pop hits in Paris for a spell, then recording for Peter Frampton and George Harrison. Only after years as a studio whiz did he finally step onto center stage as a songwriter and performer, forming Foreigner in 1976.
“All I can say is it worked out for me, honing my craft in obscurity in France,” says Jones. “It gave me the experience to produce albums, the knowledge of sound and recording. … When people are just cast from nowhere to success without doing any of that stuff, I think it’s definitely more difficult.”
Inductee Holly Knight’s path from rocker to tunesmith was the result of seizing upon a stray bit of luck. After playing in a few nonstarter Gotham bands, she was offered an opportunity to move out to Los Angeles to work with Aussie producer Mike Chapman. Within two weeks of arrival, the two had written their first song, a signature track for Pat Benatar titled “Love Is a Battlefield.” A volley of hits followed, including Tina Turner’s “Better Be Good to Me” and “The Best.”
“It’s one of those songs where if you’re lucky you get one in a career, where it just sort of taps into the collective psyche and everyone wants to license it,” Knight says of the latter tune. “You can’t plan for that stuff. I usually am pretty surprised that it’s lasted as long as it has.”
But like any below-the-line brotherhood, songwriting has its insidious side.
Knight notes that contempo cleffing has become a multifaceted gig — “you’re not just a songwriter and a producer, you’re also kind of a designer” — and bemoans the pitfalls that still lie in wait for those without marquee names. (Within the current decade, she incredulously recalls writing songs for an unidentified artist’s album, only to have its “very famous producer” refuse to release the recordings unless Knight gave him co-writing credit for her compositions.)
And despite the current ferocity of female artists on the charts, Knight says the glass ceiling for behind-the-scenesters remains very much intact.
“You know that scene in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ where Marilyn is wearing that gorgeous dress surrounded by all those men? That’s sort of how I feel with this induction,” she says. “I think it’s kind of weird, too, because songwriting isn’t weightlifting — it doesn’t involve any sort of high physical prowess. But for some reason it’s still a male-dominated profession.”
And of course, working in a profession so dependent on licensing, songwriters are often forced to be the most vigilant in protecting copyrights, especially since the dawn of the filesharing era. Yet whatever its incipient financial worries, the diffuse nature of digital dissemination can allow decades-old songs to live on in unusual, encouraging ways.
“Someone showed me video of Kanye West on tour a while back, and the show started off with a sample of my guitar in ‘Cold as Ice.’ I was like, ‘what?!’” Jones recalls. “But it’s wonderful when that sort of thing happens. I once drove by a Gospel church in the Caribbean on a Sunday morning, stopped to peek in and have a listen, and they started singing ‘I Want to Know What Love Is.’ It’s always surprising when you stop to think, ‘I wonder what’s happening to one of my songs right now? What is it being the backdrop for?’ It’s gratifying.”