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St. Vincent Explains Why Songwriting Is ‘a Crazy Job for Crazy People’ at ASCAP Expo

If there was any doubt that streaming has transformed the music-publishing business, it was laid to rest on the opening day of the ASCAP “I Create Music” Expo at the Loews Hotel in Hollywood.

More than 3,000 participants – from songwriters, music publishers, label executives, artist managers and more – gathered to network for a series of panels by day and showcase performances at night. Among the big names on hand Monday were St. Vincent and Jermaine Dupri, who took to the Dolby Ballroom stage for a session dubbed “Under the Hood,” where he weighed in on the making of Usher’s landmark “Confessions” album.

In welcoming participants to the 13th annual event, ASCAP President Paul Williams paid tribute to “the only conference of its kind — totally dedicated to the craft and business of creating music.”

Pointing out that Wednesday’s keynote speaker Meghan Trainor first attended the Expo in 2010 as an aspiring songwriter — she called it “a dream come true” — Williams added, “When I get in a room with other music creators, my soul vibrates with excitement and energy. It’s palpable. I’m sure you feel it too. That’s the feeling of creative hearts and minds connecting with each other on a very deep level.”

Highlights of the first day included the panel, “Writing Between the Lines: How to Thrive Across Genres,” featuring ASCAP Board Member/composer Michelle Lewis moderating a discussion with songwriter-turned-singer Leland (Troye Sivan, Selena Gomez), one-time Madonna collaborator Stephen Bray, currently working on a musical, and Letters to Cleo frontwoman Kay Hanley, now a songwriter.

St. Vincent (real name: Annie Clark) and new artist King Princess (Mikaela Straus) — the first signing to Mark Ronson’s new label Zelig at Columbia — sat with music journalist Evelyn McDonnell for a wide-ranging conversation that started with how they got their stage names and their respective musical educations at Berklee School of Music and USC. Clark downplayed her Berklee roots, claiming the school would “admit a dog that played mandolin” to much laughter. Brooklyn-born Straus studied with singer/songwriter Patrice Rushen while at USC. Her song “1950” has turned into an online viral hit, with the likes of Harry Styles tweeting his appreciation for a song based on Todd Haynes’ movie “Carol,” which in turn was adapted from the 1952 Patricia Highsmith novel “The Price of Salt,” dubbing it “an ode to queer history.”

St. Vincent explained why she chose not to perform under her real name. “As nice and All-American a name as that is, it doesn’t conjure anything intriguing or mysterious,” she said. “It sounds like you’re some stoner baby-sitter from 1985, which is not dissimilar. But you have to create a space for yourself to be. Calling myself something else gave me the psychic room.”

She then explained the name comes from Nick Cave’s song “There Goes My Beautiful World,” in which he sings, “And Dylan Thomas died drunk at St. Vincent’s Hospital.”

“There’s just a certain amount of grandeur and total squalor we exist in as songwriters because it’s a crazy job for crazy people,” she said.

“King Princess is like an attitude,” Mikaela explained. “I take comfort in it as kind of a shield to exist in, where I can make cohesive art.  And it’s androgynous, which is intentional. It’s important to me that my art exist in a kind of neutral space, genderless to some degree. And give the listener some imagery to hold on to.”

Straus learned to make music on the classic Neve board in her father’s recording studio, Mission Sound, while St. Vincent’s uncle and aunt are the singing duo Tuck & Patti, with whom she learned the business as their “tour manager” while still a teen, then coming full circle by having them open for her on the singer’s most recent tour.

St. Vincent described her latest album “Masseduction” as a musical “portmanteau,” in which she combines two or more words into a single compound “that can mean any number of things,” describing the album’s themes as “power, pedal steel and programmed beats.” King Princess then drew applause when she admitted to having the idea for “1950” while in the shower, then playing it on guitar for a friend while still naked. “It’s about being invisible in a public place,” Straus insists. “A metaphor for that time period of how everyone had to be cold and distant to hide their true feelings.”

The talk concluded with a discussion of L.A. vs. New York as a creative center (“L.A. is known for music and juice cleanses,” joked Clark), the #MeToo movement in the age of Trump and the conundrum of appreciating great art made by “terrible people.”  Added Annie: “Don’t take ‘Bitches Brew’ away from me just because Miles [Davis] was a d–k. You can be a successful artist without turning into a monster.”

In one of the day’s final panels, Variety’s executive music editor Shirley Halperin moderated “Here’s the Deal: The Publisher-Songwriter Relationship,” which included Warner/Chappell Music Co-Head A&R Ryan Press, Universal Music Publishing VP Creative Walter Jones, Kobalt Music GM, Creative & Acquisitions Sue Drew and Sony/ATV SVP/Co-Head West Coast A&R Amanda Berman-Hill.

The topics discussed included balancing the creative and signing aspects of the job, how to inspire writers (“Make them cry,” cracked Sony/ATV’s Berman-Hill to much laughter), how writing collaborations are put together, the effectiveness of writing camps (Warner/Chappell’s Press points out three of Rihanna’s hits came from just such a situation, while Universal Music Publishing’s Jones compared them to speed-dating), the rise of Broadway musicals and how to get one’s music heard by the right people (including one audience member who asked the panel to check out his portfolio after the session).

Sony/ATV’s Berman-Hill was left to offer advice to any prospective hit songwriters in the room, of which there were seemingly plenty: “Show up and show up frequently.  Stay in touch. Be present. You have to want it. And get our attention.”

Monday evening’s showcases included sets by Marc Cohn, Edwin McCain, Jason Mraz, Johnta Austin and Claudia Brant.

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