It’s not every day that you get nominated for a Grammy. Even more rare is finding yourself competing against your hero in the same category. But songwriter Shelly Peiken is living that dream as her audio book, “Confessions of a Serial Songwriter,” is up against Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” for Best Spoken Word Album.
Who is Shelly Peiken? In the ’90s, She wrote two No. 1 hits for Christina Aguilera (“What a Girl Wants” and “Come on Over Baby”) and co-wrote the 1997 song “Bitch,” performed by Meredith Brooks. Her string of successes included her own Grammy nominations and plenty of access to top stars looking for the next undeniable hook. But the hits dried up and more than 20 years later, Peiken came to a realization.
“When I started out, I was 20 and so was everyone else,” she says. Once she found herself passing 50, adds Peiken: “Everybody writing was much younger, so I started thinking, ‘Do I really have things in common or things that people want hear?’ That got me thinking, ‘There’s a book to write.'”
Indeed, Peiken had plenty to say, and “Confessions of a Serial Songwriter” tells the story of the Freeport, Long Island native who saw her first taste of success penning tracks for Brandy, Natalie Cole, The Pretenders, Celine Dion, Britney Spears, INXS and the Backstreet Boys, among others. The book is rife with stories of hits and misses, like when her hubris cost her a track on Wilson Phillips’ smash debut album.
“When I started out, you didn’t have to have a hit or two or three to be able to make a living,” says Peiken. “There were album sales at the time. You could write a couple of songs a year that were album cuts. Let’s say you wrote a whole song and published it yourself, which was unusual, and that song went on an album that sold more than a million copies, which wasn’t unusual at the time, you could make $90,000 from that pie. You had two of those a year, songs that nobody necessarily heard on the radio, and you could pay your rent and take a vacation and maybe even have a car in New York City. … Even if you co-wrote, you could still make a living getting album cuts.” The rise of digital delivery, she adds, is a “death for songwriters.”
At the same time, and regardless of the delivery system, Peiken’s career was waning as songs failed to find homes. “I don’t like to call them failures, I think of them as my rehearsals — the stepping stones to get to the thing that worked,” she says. “There are so many people out there trying to figure out how to do it, that if you write a book about, ‘And then I had this hit, and then I had that hit,’ people don’t want to hear that. But if you talk about how hard it was and the rejection you faced, then people are inspired.”
Backbeat Books agreed, and in March 2016, Peiken’s “Confessions” was released. A year later, she recorded the audio book version and, on the suggestion of a friend, decided to enter it for a Grammy.
The night before the Grammy nominations were revealed, Peiken recalls that she couldn’t sleep and took and Ambien. “I slept right through the announcement,” she says. “And my phone started buzzing at about 6:30 a.m. and woke me up.”
Also nominated in the Spoken Word category are Carrie Fisher, Bernie Sanders and Neil Degrasse Tyson. But it’s Springsteen’s presence, one of the most successful and revered songwriters in music history, that feels ironic in light of Peiken’s self-deprecating manner.
“Bruce is my hero,” she says. “How do you lobby yourself when you feel like you are not against, but alongside, four people who you revere? Bruce Springsteen, whose music was a soundtrack to so much of my life, and still is. Bernie Sanders, who changed the face of politics. Carrie Fisher and Neil Degrasse Tyson, who is so inspiring in his passion for the universe and the solar system. How do I lobby for myself?”
Peiken says win or lose, she hopes “Confessions” will be helpful to aspiring songwriters and inspiring to all. “It’s not so much a book on how to write a song, or how to be successful,” says Peiken. “It’s really the journey of a dream and being true to yourself.”