Sincerely Yours

Jewel explains the difference between a country and a pop song, and addresses which contestants need help with the distinction.


I can't believe we are already halfway through the season! I don't know about you guys, but the show is getting hard for me to watch because everyone is going home -- it sucks! I wish so badly that everyone could win, or at least stay to the end. It's brutal! The dynamics of the group are brutal, too! What a tough group to write in -- everyone talks behind everyone's back! I guess the silver lining of that is that everyone is competitive and in it to win it. . .

This week's winners were an easy pick for us. Johnny and Brian moved their song into reggae effortlessly and they had the best lyrics and best song structure. On a personal note, I found Johnny's tiny tantrum about the guitars not being tuned to his liking somewhat telling. It made me wonder if it was just stress talking or if winning some song challenges might go to his head in the near future. It's no one's job to tune your guitar but yours, unless you are selling out stadiums. Maybe he was just anxious about trying to get the song just right. Time will tell if a few wins turns him into a diva. . ..

Judging is getting harder and harder as we are starting to send good writers, all good people who have worked so hard at something they truly love, home. The only way I got through it was to focus on our objective: we want hit songs that can get played on today's top charts. If you listen to the radio and then compare our losing songs you can see why they fell short. Jackie, Sonyae, and Scotty's country song is plain and not extraordinary when compared to a great classic song like Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now."

As many of you know I am very passionate and have the utmost respect for country music. Some of the best songs ever written have been in this genre, like "I Will Always Love You," written by Dolly Parton and later recorded by Whitney Houston, classics like Patsy Cline singing "Crazy," written by Willie Nelson, or modern songs that are socially relevant and heartfelt like Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" to chart toppers like Taylor Swift's pitch-perfect narratives such as "The Story Of Us." This a modern and diverse genre that has nothing to do with what Jackie referred to as something like "you keyed my car drinking songs." Pop is about being cool; country is about being sincere. It has everything to do with telling a great story that's authentic, real, and believable. It also takes a lot of craft to write a country song, because you can't dress up a poor concept behind a cool track.

A great country song can be played solo acoustic and move you. . .which brings us to Scotty. On most songs, it is really important to have a good track to sell a song, and Scotty has been complimented on his tracks that help won challenges (like the rap challenge). But being a good songwriter means adapting to different challenges, and it may have behooved Scotty, Sonyae and Jes to all sit down with nothing but a guitar and make sure the structure and story were solid. Scotty did make great improvements in the chorus melody. Those small pop-influenced melodic changes are right in step with where some country radio chart toppers are today, but he neglected to make sure those changes set up the hook line of the song "Say It Back." As it was, that line just floated, plopped, and landed awkwardly, lending no heartbreak or poignancy to the song.

This song concept was all about the terrible feeling of those terrible seconds when someone waits to hear "I love you," back. Those seconds are a lifetime. This song should have melodically and lyrically made you feel the agony of a love that might not be returned, the self-reflection of doubt, the "should I have said it in the first place. . ." and ultimately, it should have helped us resolve and go somewhere in the story -- that love is worth the risk, or that no matter what comes out of your love's mouth you feel you did the right thing, or. . .it could have gone any number of ways. The point is they needed to choose a concept and write a short story to music complete with a beginning, middle, and end. Something that went somewhere and that conveyed the original potential heartbreak and baited breath of waiting to hear those words back. . .and it failed. It was a superficial treatment with an oddly happy melody that had some hooky parts, but failed to hit your heart... I hated to see Jackie go. I liked her scrapper attitude, and her obvious experience with touring and live crowds helped her get far on the show. But being a quirky live touring musician is a different skill set than delivering hits in a small writing room, and that was a tough lesson to watch her struggle with.

I know Nick and Jes were surprised to hear the judges did not consider their song a true pop song, but again -- listen to what's winning at pop radio: like Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream," that our guest judge Bonnie McKee wrote on -- starting with a strong concept and followed through with clear lyrics. When Bonnie said pop music should be clear to 5-year-olds, what she meant is it cannot be vague. It can't be a bunch of lines that talk without saying anything, and the structure has to hit you over the head with its clarity. Jes naturally has a cool Tori Amos vibe, kind of darker and moody, and Nick has a lot of melodic pop sense but they both lack in the lyric department. It doesn't mean you have to be deep lyrically, but you have to have a clear-cut goal and execute it. Ask "what do you want people to feel" and then make sure every lyric and melody and chord makes them feel it.

There was a lot that was right about the song. Jes has a naturally enjoyable sound, and it's a great base to build on. I see her making strides to figure out how to grow and grasp how to take an innate talent and put the work in it takes to develop that raw talent into a crafted career.

As for Nick. . .well, as Keith Naftaly said: we just are not sure yet. So far he is a lot of sizzle, and not much steak. He, too, has natural musical gifts and instincts, but his ego is making it hard for him to really listen and learn so that he can build on his strengths and become even more of a contender. Herein lies one of the great paradoxes of being a songwriter: you must have enough ego to be tenacious and indefatigable, but you also have to be humble enough to acknowledge you can always learn. If you do not continue to learn, you grow stagnant, and that can cripple even the most gifted and accomplished writer, because without listening you stop growing. And when you stop growing in an industry that is as constantly changing as popular music, you become outdated before you know it. What gives me faith in Nick still, is that he does seem to listen in his co-writes and is a surprisingly easy partner to work with. If he could put some depth and some personal experience in his lyrics, it would really help his cause. His distance and inherent anger cause his writing to be unemotional and it does not move people, as evidenced by his empty guitar case on the promenade. I like Nick. I know he has his issues and a hard luck story coming into the show. It's clear he has been hurt and is very guarded. I can relate to him because I was on my own at 15 with my own version of the same story. I was lucky that I learned that the more honest I was with an audience, and the more I shared with people, the more I was rewarded for it. Being honest in songs made me feel less alone, gave me a secure feeling, and also became a great living for me. I hope the same for Nick. We are all drawn to music because it heals us - if we let it.

As always, follow me on Twitter (@Jeweljk) , and send me your thoughts on the show, or ask any songwriting questions you might have. . .

xo 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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