This is a continuation of the Q&A from the online story …
Patrick Jason Matthews: A Day in the Life of a Nashville Songwriter
Did you start out working as a full-time songwriter when you arrived here?
No, I have a college degree to teach English, but I didn’t want anything that had any responsibility attached to it when I moved here. From 1995 to 1997 I was working in a plumbing supply warehouse trying to get somebody to listen to me. I kept writing and playing writers’ nights in the hopes that somebody would hear me. I would cold call publishers during the day time on my lunch break, and sometimes go have a lunch meeting with them, in hopes that they would hear something on these little guitar vocal work tapes that would make them want to sign me to a publishing deal. The goal was just to get out of the warehouse.
Eventually, a publisher heard me through another songwriter and wanted to sign me to a beginner songwriting deal. It didn’t pay a lot of money, but that didn’t matter, I was in the music business now. My first publishing deal was terrible. They treated me horribly and they didn’t really exploit anything I wrote. Thankfully, it didn’t last very long. And then I was out on my own and that was actually good for my head. I dealt with about two years of this publisher just destroying my self worth, crapping all over every song I wrote, and making me feel terrible about my talent.
What kept you going? You must have thick skin not to let it destroy you?
I didn’t at that time, but I had to grow it. Writers shouldn’t have very thick skin to be honest about it. People in general shouldn’t have to have thick skin. Life does things to you that makes it a necessity and that’s one of the terrible things about life. A writer should have a certain amount of innocence to them. There’s certain naiveté. If you didn’t have that quality, you would never even try to write anything.
So I escaped that place and got back to nurturing my creative self and listening to my own internal voice. Within a year I had a new publishing deal. And it was wonderful and things were starting to happen. “That’s Just Jesse” got recorded and became a big hit and then other songs started getting cut.
Are you stronger on writing lyrics or music?
I do both. Sometimes I write with somebody else who does it all, or sometimes I’m writing with somebody whose strong point is lyrics or somebody whose strong point is melody. I prefer guys whose strong point is lyrics because it’s more helpful. On melody, I’m less willing to share that role. If I hear something in my head the way it ought to sound I have a hard time thinking that the other guy’s way is going to be better than mine, but having a lyric guy in the room is very helpful to me.
Are you usually like the “lead” songwriter or is it more of a democratic process?
It’s more of a democratic thing, but I will say that a lot of times I am the guy pulling the wagon just because that’s the type of person I am. I kind of see myself as project manager when I’m writing a song. It’s kind of a natural role that I fall into just because I’m built that way.
Do you often have a particular artist in mind when you are writing a song?
Sometimes you’ll sit down with a particular artist in mind, like if so-and-so is cutting in a week and they want this type of song. Most of the time they’ll tell you they need an up tempo because everybody wants an up tempo. Sometimes you’ll sit down and try to custom craft one and hope that someone in that camp hears it and wants to do it.
Really the best way to approach the beast is to just do it your way, whatever is in the room that day. I’m of the belief that, when I wake up and go into my writing room in the morning, the day has something it wants to give. It might be completely opposite from what I thought I should be doing. My job is to figure out what that day has in store for me. I just have to stumble on it, as opposed to stupidly going “nope, we are writing an up tempo today.” Maybe I was meant to write ballads that day, maybe that’s where the magic was, and I missed it because I had to write an up tempo.
What are some of the challenges faced by songwriters in the digital age?
Probably the number one reason it’s hard today is illegal downloading. But it’s not only illegal downloading, but quite simply the technology switchover that’s happened in regards to Pandora or Spotify. We get paid next to nothing for a stream. So Spotify gets to put almost the whole entire musical catalog of the universe up on its website for the whole world to access. They are paying less than probably 15% of a penny per each stream to the people who made the music and that’s just not right. As much as the consumer side of me loves the concept of Spotify, they just haven’t gotten the payment structure right.
Also, we don’t get paid for YouTube either. I’ve got a Luke Bryan song that they are running a Chevy truck commercial in front of every second of the day. It’s been looked at millions of times and I haven’t made one dime off of it. In what universe is that right?
On top of that, people steal our product everyday. In 2000-2001, when the whole Napster thing blew up, the music industry didn’t handle that situation properly and here we are now. The simplest way I know how to say it is: illegal downloading equals less money coming through the door and fewer opportunities for songwriters.
It’s made record sales less important and artists rely on their live shows. Performing live music has never made as much money as it is making right now. But songwriters make little money off the song being performed live. That’s not how publishers really make their money. They make their money off record sales and radio airplay. We still have radio airplay, but now we’ve lost a whole other income stream.
Currently in Nashville, for whatever reason, a writer will go on a hot streak and everybody is cutting this one guy’s songs. You turn on the radio and all you are hearing is that writer’s point of view. There’re a lot of writers in Nashville writing quality music that deserves to be heard. It’s sad that it’s not more varied than that. In the ’90s there were a lot of songwriters being successful at the same time, lots of different writers reaching the world and being heard and it was beautiful.
Publishers are signing fewer writers and those writer deals are getting smaller. They give those writers less time to develop and have a hit. It’s not an easy process getting a song cut. Not that long ago there were 2,500 professional songwriters making a living in Nashville, now there’s about 200. My question is: where is that going to be in five years?
What’s your personal favorite song that you’ve written? Why does it speak to you?
It’s a toss up between two songs. Neither one of them have been recorded by anyone but me. One is a song called “For Pete’s Sake.” The inspiration was one of my favorite co-writers Kerry Kurt Phillips’ old Bulldog named Pete, who was in the room for just about every song we ever wrote together. I went over to his [Kerry’s] house one day and Pete wasn’t there. Kerry had had to put Pete down because he was old and in pain all the time and I was upset about it. When we went to lunch that day I had the idea that we ought to write a song for Pete. He was such a good dog. That title “For Pete’s Sake” popped into my head. I could see it all the way to the end of the song, the setup for it anyway. I shared it with Kerry and he loved it and when we got back from lunch we started working on it. It took us about six months to write that song.
Does it often take that long to write a song?
No, just certain special songs take that long. Kerry Kurt and I had a hit song on Tammy Cochran called “Life Happened” it took us a year to write. We wrote the ending of that song about five times. And that song is right up there too, another of my favorites.
Another favorite song that no one has recorded yet is a song called “That’s What Mamma’s Do.” My wife’s mother got cancer and we’d go over there every afternoon and just kind of spend time with her and there was nothing we could do. I would just leave there feeling helpless. The only thing I could do was write a song. A buddy of mine threw that title out. As soon as he said it, I knew that was the title I wanted to kind of wrap all the stuff I wanted to say around. It took us a little while to write that song. It was for Debbie’s mamma. It wound up being a song for all the mothers in the world, kind of an anthem for them, a great big thank you.
Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you overcome it?
Doing this as much as I do, during a year there might be three days that I walk out of the room with nothing. I don’t know why that is. Maybe I didn’t get enough sleep the night before. It doesn’t happen very often.
Was it always like that?
Inspiration can be harder to find if you are writing by yourself. When you are co-writing though it’s kind of hard to not find something to write. There’s more stuff stirring around in the room. When you are alone in the room, you are the only person stirring it up.
So for readers who want to write songs, you would suggest they find someone to do it with?
Not necessarily, there are some great songwriters who write by themselves, Leonard Cohen being one of them. He’s an absolute genius. I would say if there is someone you are friends with and you know they write songs, then you might try writing songs together and see how it works. If you don’t know anybody that shares this strange little hobby, don’t feel bad. Do it by yourself. Write down your ideas.
Sometimes listening to other peoples’ music is inspiring. I can throw on some Jackson Browne and it will make me want to go write a song. He’s one of the geniuses. If that doesn’t inspire you nothing will. Or read a great poem: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, that will make you want to write a song.
Do you think you have to be in Nashville to really succeed as a songwriter today or can you do it from anywhere?
I still think that you need to be in a music center. The game is changed a little bit. I’m hearing that New York is not as good as place to be as it used to be. And all the people that I’ve written with who are in L.A. want to get the hell out of there because they hate L.A. I think that’s part of the reason why Nashville has taken off so much as a place for all kinds of music. People come here and they love this place. It’s a nice place to live. The roads aren’t torn all to hell and the people aren’t all crazy.