Sicker Than the Remix

Jewel discusses writing for the dance floor and what the songwriters can learn from Britney Spears.

Hello again!

Episode 2 had our contestants coming to terms with the fact that as professional writers they will have to be versatile and write in every genre. This week was a dance anthem, and the legendary dance queen herself -- Donna Summer -- came in to guest judge it with us.

I cannot stress how important versatility is to our job. Does that mean every successful writer can or does write in every genre? No. I can name many iconic writers, like my friend Dianne Warren, who have a sound and genre, and are so proficient at it they can afford to specialize. But again, my goal with this group of writers is to give them every edge we can, to go out there and succeed in this highly competitive field. The more tools you have in your tool belt to get a job done, the better. In any given genre you have a handful of artists looking for songs and the writers outnumber how many artists need material. Because of this, your chances of getting a song cut every time you write are very small. You can increase your odds if you can write in multiple formats for multiple artists. As the music business continues to shrink, it is vital that up and coming writers learn to be versatile, if it really is their intent to make a living as a song-smith.

On a personal level, I also find it the most rewarding. It is very difficult to succeed in multiple formats, and I consider it a big feather in your cap to be able to do so. One of my greatest points of pride is that I have been able to write chart-toppers in pop, rock, alternative, and country genres. That's what has kept me interested as a writer. Variety is the spice of life -- at least for this Gemini.

In the hook challenge you could definitely hear who consumed music of all sorts versus those who listened to only one category. It showed up in their writing. In Karen's case, she had no experience with dance music but was able to come up with a soaring chorus that had the potential to move people if she could get a better lyric on it.

Ultimately her song failed in this. Watching the episode, it's amusing to see her take on modern female empowerment. Her lyrics were not club-worthy, as Britney Spears and Rihanna would never speak of rubbing a man's feet or cooking a meal for them, as was suggested in her writing session. If you listen where club music is today, you can see the difference in what this group wrote, and what is working on radio, which takes a much more aggressive female stand. Consider the first verse of Britney's "Till the World Ends":

This kitten got your tongue tied in knots I see

Spit it out 'cause I'm dying for company

I notice that you got it

You notice that I want it

You know that I can take it to the next level baby!

If you want this good b---h

Sicker than the remix

Baby let me blow your mind tonight

Sadly no one else in her group was able to really lyrically embody the girl power, modern seductress we were looking for, and the song became generic and weak, landing them in the bottom.

Brian took a risk with his low chorus, but allowed it to be strayed from when they formed a team. Co-writing is awkward, as no one wants to be bossy, yet if you feel strongly you have a winning idea, you owe it a fight. The girls did not seem to grasp how hooky a male low vocal was like that. I could have heard Enrique Iglesias or Pitbull doing something like that. A low chorus was memorable, a girl singing it suddenly made the melody less hooky -- and suddenly the cool tag line "Be my ridiculous" blended in to the background. One of the most important things about co-writing is having the self-awareness to recognize a good idea, whether it is yours or someone else's. There can be no ego in the room -- only a tenacious determination to make that song the best at any cost -- be it ruffling feathers with someone who doesn't agree or seeing someone else has a better idea. Brian had obviously listened to the radio, and knew a low chorus would stand amongst the pack out for a dance song. The girls both admitted they had no experience with dance, but yet they didn't follow Brian's lead and had out of touch opinions about how to tackle the chorus -- and it showed.

Surprisingly the biggest egos in the show, Nick and Sonyae, were able to set their differences aside and do what was best for the song – and that is crucial. Scotty was secure enough to recognize Nick's counter melody was a stronger hook than his original hook, and to go with it. These adjustments are crucial for a successful co-writing session.

When it came time to send someone home, it was our job to find the weak link in the group -- never an easy task. Being privy now as to how the session worked validated our decision. While we are judging and filming the show, we of course don't see what actually goes on in the room, and must rely on what the contestants tell us. Karen came up with a great melody, but failed miserable lyrically.

She also lacked the self-awareness to say "I know very little about dance. Why don't I rely on Johnny who shined on the hook challenge with a great melody and lyric hook "Push on Me"? She should also have recognized some very strong phrasing that Amber was coming up with on verses. Oftentimes writers with heavy jazz and American standards backgrounds, like Amber, will come up with interesting phrasing, and phrasing can in and of itself be a strong hook. That's what had me scratching my head about Blessing. He said dance was not his wheel house, and yet he grew up listening to dance and popular music of the '40s, '50s, and '60s. It really should have helped him, even if he hadn't listened to modern dance music, because while the genre has changed in many ways regarding topic and beats, the mechanics are the same -– rhythm in phrasing, an interesting hook, and playfulness in the concept. He should have been able to be a great contributor instead of just opting out of the session.

In modern music, all the lines have blurred. There is hardly a straight up R&B radio channel or artist, or a pure country artist. All genres blend together, mixing urban and pop, or dance and R&B, or country with pop or rock. Being a specialist does not pay off right now as a writer trying to write hits, because you may be called on to write a dance song for Britney Spears one day or ballad for Martina McBride the next. You just never know. But like Blessing himself said at the end, "The dream lives forever." I'm sure he will go on to succeed.

Talk to you after the next episode,

xx Jewel

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Sonyae Elise: Platinum Hitmaker

Sonyae Elise nabbed the win for Platinum Hit. What's the songwriter up to now? How did you feel when they told you won Platinum Hit?
I felt one step closer to my ultimate goal in life. I felt like I was making good progress. I was happy and grateful and surprised but kind of. . .surprised/not surprised because I was confident in myself all along. But definitely. . .I can't even describe it. It was pretty awesome. The last challenge seemed like it was pretty tricky. You were given this open-ended idea: write the song of your life. What was it like going through that actual process?
I was actually excited because we were given everything I had hoped for in the finale -- because I don't play an instrument, a producer, time (more than four hours), so that was dope, and I was prepared to do or die. Go hard or go home. So I was just focused. Throughout the competition, you were a little different from everyone because you didn't play an instrument. Did you feel like you had to work harder? Did you feel like people maybe underestimated you?
I definitely felt people underestimated me initially, but I worked hard, period, to gain their respect. I wasn't too worried about that. I knew there would come a time if I was given the opportunity to stay, week by week, that my competitors would see my worth, and I was glad, (finally, I don't know what happened) but they started respecting what I do. Everybody plays an instrument, but I can work Pro Tools really well, so aside from having my voice as an instrument, that was also an asset in many of the challenges.

And also, I think that everybody has strengths and weakness, and I think that because I don't play an instrument, I build a strong foundation of lyric and concepts -- and melody as well, because I sing. My lyric and concepts are what I'm known for from this show. I think that were people like Scotty and Brian who were really good at melody because they play instruments, but they kind of lacked what I was strong at, and vice-versa. So, we made a really good team. I think that after a while, people saw that. So, it's cool, you know, you could doubt me in the beginning. See what happens. [Laughter] Over the course of the show, what were some of the challenges that surprised you, or that you thought were maybe the most difficult?
Well, everything was a surprise because we didn't know anything. It was all one big surprise for me. The amount of time we had, the fact that we had to work -- I didn't know what the hell I was getting myself into. Having to cowrite with people you don't know from a can of paint and then having to maintain a level of personal respect for each other just because you have to write with each other. When some people want to be rude, and some people get under your skin, and might be annoying, and you kind have to keep it cool because you have to work with these individuals. What surprised me the most was every challenge that they gave was one big f--king surprise. [Laughter] To tell you the truth. What was your favorite challenge?
The love challenge and the rap challenge were probably my favorites. The love challenge is second nature to me. Being a woman and being emotional, just to be able to express myself is so easy. Music is my therapy, so that was a piece of cake. The rap challenge [I liked] because I was just excited to be able to show the contestants and the judges my other gift -- that I can rap. And I like that song, "Miss Make The Boys Cry." What you would you say was your favorite song that you got a chance to work on during the show?
"Stranger to Love." So, on the other side of the coin, what was your least favorite challenge?
Well, my least favorite week would have to be the first week. I don't know if that would be my least favorite challenge, because I won the first hook challenge, but, it didn't turn out well. It was my least favorite week because I didn't know anybody, and I didn't know how to strategically pick my group so that I could come up with a better end result. That would have to be my least favorite week just because I was like a deer caught in headlights. I didn't have time to adjust first week, but after that I was a little bit more able to gauge what the hell I need to do to get to the next level of the competition. So, the first week was my least favorite week, by far. Hated it. What did you think of the judges over the course of the season? Do you feel like you learned a lot from Kara and Jewel?
Yes. Kara and Jewel are amazing. They helped all of us grow and learn -- I don't think one person would disagree. I love Kara. She's probably my favorite. Because I think we share that kind of. . . you know, she gives the tough love thing, and I think that works best for me. She's the kind of person I am. We definitely identified with each other, someway, somehow. Jewel is a sweetheart. She's a hottie. What did I learn [from her]? I learned a few fashion tips, and some really good stuff in songwriting, I guess. You said that Kara gave you some tough love. Was it ever too tough?
No. I'm not easily offended, and I have really tough skin. I knew that if I took in what they were giving us, took in the lessons without being super-sensitive and offended by them, I knew that I would go far.

You know, in any competition, in life, you have to take the lesson, and make sure you keep a sense of who you are and don't let everything be altered. But also, put stuff in your archive, and as you're building your building of life, take out the tools that you need as you go along. But you have to keep your sense of self. Keep whatever design you wanted for your building, but attack it accordingly with the tools you gained on the way. . .I know I'm being super-metaphorical, it's because I'm a songwriter. [Laughter] I can't help it! Basically, I just love Kara. She was my fave. She would come over when the cameras weren't rolling and say little smart s--t, I just love her. She's sarcastic and fun. It seems like you guys managed to get in a bit of fun amongst everything. Did you have fun with the other contestants?
I had fun with everybody, yes, because I really don't pay people any mind. The one person everyone didn't get along with was Nick, of course. But you know, I really don't give a f--k, because, at the end of the day, you have to be cordial and be able to make a good song. And I think Nick and I proved that no matter what the status of our friendship, or lack thereof, we were able to make a song, and a damn good one.

I do think chemistry is important if you want to continuously make hits though. With Scotty and Brian, our chemistry is we're good friends outside of the competition. Me and Nick went through a lot of stuff. He was really, really disrespectful so. . .I could be around him, and he's apologized and stuff, but it doesn't really matter to me. It is what it is. Nobody got along with him, and I don't not like him, but I don't particularly love him. We're good though. He definitely apologized and whatever. But he definitely apologized when he thought it was helpful to him. So, you know, that's another story. Not to dwell on it.

Who would be my least favorite though? I think my least favorite person -- even though me and Nick didn't get along -- I think Amber is my least favorite person, and my favorite person is Scotty. [Laughter] If you wanted some juice. We always want juice. What song that somebody else wrote was your favorite?
"Betting My Life," with Johnny and Brian is definitely my favorite that I didn't have anything to do with. So what have you been up to since the show ended? Well, I just released my second mixtape, "Lady Rebel Vol. 2." It's on my website, It's super-dope, and I'm getting a lot of great feedback from already established artists, huge DJs. It's getting played in clubs. I've been getting tweets about it, that my song's playing in clubs, and I think it got some radio spins. A lot of stuff is starting to trickle down. I think with a lot of help from the show. People started to pay attention to what I was doing and started to listen accordingly.

It taught me a lot, the show. If you go listen to my first mixtape, and you listen to this one, it's tremendous growth, so that's a good thing. What else have I been doing? Shows, recordings, definitely trying to get myself prepared for, you know, what happened, and, just recording, trying to come up with one of those classic, timeless albums and establish myself in the music industry, then go into movies. You know the story. I wanna do it all. Be filthy rich and happy and married and. . .happy, when it's all done. Awesome. Well, can I ask what you're listening to right now?
Hmm, what am I banging'? Linda Jones, always. I listen to that girl all the time. She never gets old. Kendrick Lamar, this new guy -- he's super-dope. Stacy Barthe, this girl who's been my friend for two years, and she's an amazing singer/songwriter. She has written for everybody from like, Rihanna to Beyonce, but now she's doing her own stuff, and she's hustling. A lot of jazz. Oh! Oh, and one more person! Rahman Apollo! I definitely listen to him all the time. How could I forget him? That's like my favorite! So what advice do you have for other songwriters coming up?
I advise them to be aware of their weaknesses, as well as their strength. It's really important to know your strengths -- not only your weaknesses, but your strengths. If you don't know what you're strong at, you don't know what you need to work on, it just all goes hand in hand.

And be real with yourself: from knowing whether or not a song is hot, or whether your hot, and you need to keep your day job. Definitely that. That would be my advice. Anything else you want to share? Any other big news?
Make sure you let everyone know how bad I want them to check out my new mixtape. Well Congratulations! This is going to be good for you!
No, I think it's going be excellent! Excellent.

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