Jason Matthews moved to Nashville in 1995 to follow his dream of becoming a songwriter. His first big hit was “That’s Just Jesse” recorded by Kevin Denney in 2000. Today, Matthews is a full-time songwriter for Warner/Chappell and has written hit songs for many big name artists, including Billy Currington’s recording of “Must Be Doin’ Somethin’ Right,” Luke Bryan’s “Muckalee Creek Water,” and Trace Adkins’ “Tough People Do.”
How and when did you get started writing songs?
I’d been carrying a notebook around my whole life, writing stuff down all the time—poetry, and short stories. I was already writing a lot. And I grew up singing in the church. When I was 15, I saw a documentary about Eric Clapton and it inspired me to want to play guitar. My dad had a couple guitars and I picked them up and never put them down. As soon as I learned three chords, the first thing I wanted to do was write a song. After I wrote that first song, it was kind of like all the planets lined up for me, everything started making sense. I had no idea how to turn it into a profession; I just knew I loved doing it and I was going to follow it wherever it went.
How do you get started on a new song?
The quickest way to write professionally, on a day-to-day basis, is to have an idea. A great idea inspires me. When I first started out writing songs, it was: “I just met this girl and I fell in love and I’m going to write a song about it” or “This girl just broke my heart and I’m going to write a song about it.” But a professional has to be a little more steady than that. A real writer is not necessarily writing about their own life, or otherwise they wouldn’t write very much. A writer has to have the capability for empathy—the ability to step into someone else’s shoes and know what it’s like for them, to internalize a character. To write a heartbreaker I don’t have to be heartbroken, I just have to tap into what it felt like to be heartbroken.
Where do these ideas come from?
Something will happen in your life and a thought or phrase will pop into your head about it. Sometimes you will hear something that inspires you in a movie or in a book you are reading or a poem that you heard somewhere, or sometimes a truly original idea just comes into your head that you didn’t get from any outside source. Those are rarer. They come along to you by the simple fact that you are a writer and meditating on that frequency all the time.
What is your songwriting process like?
I’ve got a hook book that I carry around. I also record musical ideas that come to me from time to time. I save all these bits and pieces in the hopes that I can use them later on.
But, ultimately, the way I like to work is to start with an idea because it gives you direction. If I like the idea and it’s inspiring, the next step is to ask what the idea sounds like. What type of song is it going to be? Is it going to be an up tempo, a mid, a ballad? What’s the best way to communicate this idea? The ultimate job of a great song is emotional communication. A great song either moves your legs to dance … moves your heart to want to fall in love, or moves your mind to be thinking about the world.
I have written songs all kinds of different ways. Sometimes the first line of the song comes to you with a little melody and you try to write from there. But at the end of the day, you are still going to be asking the question: “what’s the hook? What’s the idea that this whole song is hinged on?”
When you start out with your idea, which is typically the hook of the song, the repeatable thing that the whole song revolves around, it is just an easier approach. The other way is just too chaotic.
Do you find it’s easier to work with a co-writer or independently?
My schedule is kind of set up like a lawyer. I have co-write schedules every day. Professionally, it makes everything easier. It’s a longer, more arduous process writing by yourself because you don’t have a sounding board. With a co-writer you’ve got another creative person in the room who also has great ideas. It’s not all on you.
How do you pitch (sell) your songs to artists?
I write the song and we do a live tape of it and send it to my publisher. Typically he or I will say: “Hey, we ought to demo this thing.” We demo the song at a studio with professional musicians to show it off in its most professional, fully-realized state. And once we have a copy of the demo in hand, song pluggers at the publishing company and song pluggers who work for me at my office hit the streets playing these songs for managers, producers, record labels—A&R people, and when its possible, the artists themselves, trying to get the songs cut. It’s a hard process, even when you are established.
There’re a lot of things that are discouraging. Anytime you take a word as beautiful as the word “music” and pair it with a word as ugly as the word “business,” things are going to become perverted to some extent. But the fact remains that I am afforded economically the ability to do something that I love to do, every day. Not a lot of people in the world who can say that.
What advice do you have for aspiring songwriters?
If it’s something you love, keep doing it. Do it all the time, as much as you possibly can. We only get one trip around. This is all ending in a dirt nap. You better do what you love. However, if you are aspiring to be a professional, I would say, if you have a way with words and a penchant for music, and you can’t see yourself doing anything else, come and pursue this professionally.
I love for people to write songs. Whether they pursue it professionally or not. I think the process of sitting down with your own thoughts, writing them down, and putting it into a form that illustrates how you feel or your point of view of the world is important for people to do. I think art is important. You never know where the next Bob Dylan or Jackson Browne or Merle Haggard is going to come from. You never know unless you try to do it.
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