Songwriting: Why I Think The Music Matters More Than The Money
When I was 8 years old I wrote my first song. It was called ‘Sweet Rain’. I knew it must be the best song ever written and I couldn’t wait to share it with everyone. I practiced everyday on the piano and did my best with singing and then played it over and over again for anyone who would listen. I didn’t get a standing ovation. I didn’t get enrolled into Julliard. I didn’t get a record deal. I did get a nice gesture or two from my parents and some friends that had the privilege of listening to my masterpiece. I was elated. I wrote a song. That was my joy. My happiness. Instantly I was a creator of music. I was someone who could dream out loud with my mind, my hands and my old upright piano. It was my magic and no one could ever take that away from me.
For years I lived my life, growing up, graduating high school, going to college, then working full time in any job I could stand long enough to keep, all with my Roland JX8P keyboard in tow, that I had received as a Christmas gift when I was 11 years old. Often I was not seen or heard because I could spend hours if not days just playing my synthesizer with my headphones and creating more masterpieces.
As I grew up, music became more than just a hobby. It became a part of me and I knew that I didn’t want to live without it. Growing up, no one ever asked me why I loved music. People just understood. No one ever asked me why I continued to write and play. I never needed a reason. No one ever expected one. Most people just get it. To me meeting someone who doesn’t like or appreciate music is like meeting someone who doesn’t appreciate air. When you wake up in the morning and breathe in air, you have an opportunity to share and connect with people. Music is the same for me and I think for most if not all people of all cultures across the globe and beyond. It gets you.
When I was 21 my father and my biggest fan decided that I should take my songwriting to the next level. Out of the blue one day he said, “Come on. Let’s go. Get in the car.” I said, “Where are we going?” He said, “Nashville.” I said, “Right now?” He said, “Right now.” So we went. I had a book of lyrics two inches thick that I had neatly typed and printed along with a tape recording of just the piano for a song I wrote called ‘Every’ that I had proudly recorded on my Tascam 424 PortaStudio. I had no clue what was going to happen next.
When we arrived in Nashville we stopped for gas. I stayed in the car. When my dad came back in the car he had a couple CDs in his hands. One was the black and white CD from Garth Brooks, The Chase. I wasn’t sure why he bought it, but I think mostly because that was the only popular country artist that he knew. He hurriedly opened the CD and found out that it was recorded in Jack’s Tracks studio on music row. He then went to a phone booth, opened a yellow pages and got the address. He said, “This is right down the road. Come on. Let’s go.” I said “Pop. You can’t just walk into Garth Brooks studio.” He said, “Yes I can. Watch me.” I said, “Pop! Seriously. What are you going to say?? They aren’t going to let you in.” He said, “We will see about that.” The studio was only a couple of blocks from the gas station. He pulled up right in front and said, “I’ll be right back.” I gladly waited in the car nervous for him. A few minutes later he came back and said, “Come on! They want to talk to you!” I looked over my right shoulder in complete surprise and said, “What?!” He said, “Yeah! I introduced myself as Dr. Nussbaumer and told him I played the bones! I said I wanted him to hear your music and he said ok!” I slowly got out of the car like I was in some sort of dream or maybe a little nightmare. Not only was I about to walk into Garth’s studio, but I was going to talk to people about my music. What would I say? I was so happy that my dad was there.
“Hi Karen. I’m Richard.” Richard Aspinwall was an assistant producer for Garth’s album. I said hello and then we went into the studio and sat down. “Hi. I’m Karen,” barely came out of my mouth. Walking in the studio was like walking into a hall of fame for musicians and artists. There were gold and platinum records hanging on the walls everywhere. It felt like I was in a music heaven. “So your dad here says that you write music,” Richard said in a normal and kind voice. “Yes. I have been writing since I was 8,” I said in a shy nervous ‘I can’t believe I am in here’ voice. As Richard was perusing through my giant lyrics book, Pop said, “Tell him about your song Every!” I managed to mumble, “I wrote this song and recorded it in my apartment.” Richard listened and said, “It’s nice. I like it. Here’s what I can do for you. Let’s record your piano track now and then go from there.” I really don’t remember much of what happened next, but there is a piano track of ‘Every’ that I apparently managed to record with Richard at Jack’s Tracks. I was so overwhelmed and you can tell in the recording. But it didn’t matter. I did something I never planned to do and never thought of doing and managed to survive. Richard said, “Let’s get you and your vocalist in the studio here. Come back up in a week or two and we will get you a great track for this song.” In shock, in my mind, ‘NO WAY! AWESOME! WOOHOO! Calmly out of my mouth, “Really? Thank you so much. That would be great.” “You do have a singer in mind for this, don’t you?” I said, “Yes. Of course.” Not knowing anyone who sang. “Great! Then let me figure out when would be best and I can also have you meet a friend of mine, Troy Nielsen. He records music out of his home studio in his basement.” When we left I felt like a million bucks. Someone besides a friend or a relative actually took a moment to hear music that I wrote and now they are going to help me make it better? This was so awesome.
My dad contacted Troy right away. He invited us over the same day and for a few hours, worked with me on the production, which was very relaxed and memorable making the song even better in Troy’s basement than at Jack’s Tracks. Troy was kind and helped me get used to the metronome while I played, added acoustic guitar and turned my Tascam recording of ‘Every’ into one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard, and possibly the best song of all time. My dad was overjoyed seeing me work with Troy and gave him double what he asked for the studio time because it made him so happy. He was a very special, generous and kind man. I still have this recording, even though it’s faded and has been dubbed a hundred times over, I cherish it.
On the way home from Nashville, which was just a few hours after we arrived, we played the new ‘Every’ over and over again for 8 hours straight on Pop’s tape recorder built into his 88 Lincoln Towncar. We never got tired of listening to it. What an incredible day and wonderful memory with my dad.
When I got home I immediately ran an ad in the paper for a vocalist. Female vocalist wanted. $12.50 per hour. In my mind I was thinking it was take about 2 hours so I could afford that. Moments after the ad broke, I received literally hundreds of calls. I managed to skim through my voice messages on my voice recorder and then invited over 70 people to my apartment on a Friday, all neatly scheduled, for auditions. My mom and dad came for the auditions to spend time with me and also make sure I was safe and sound while strangers came in and out with their dreams of singing on their sleeves. It was quite a long day. I think it was probably very similar to what American Idol auditions are like, just instead of a televised arena, it was me and my apartment in Pensacola, Florida. There was some amazing talent that arrived that day. A woman from Foley Alabama came for the auditions and she was one of the most beautiful and talented opera singers I have ever heard. But opera was not right for this song unfortunately. A young man from Hawaii showed up who couldn’t sing a tune on key if he had to, but he sure was confident. 70 people. Then it came down to two. After interviewing both of them, and finding out one of them was a phone sex operator, we moved on from her and finally declared a winner. Teresa Lilly, who went by Lilly. Lilly’s voice was so powerful, well controlled, a little raspy at times and just fit the song perfectly. I asked her when she could start and she said right away! We were an instant team and became good friends. She agreed to go to Nashville at my expense and record in Garth’s studio.
When we got to the studio, Richard, who I was now able to be around without feeling nervous, got Lilly set up with a microphone, music stand, headphones and a stool in a sound proof area. Lilly picked up a pencil and it ended up in her mouth. “What are you doing?” I said. “This is probably Garth’s pencil. I have Garth’s pencil.” “Lilly. It’s a pencil. Try to relax and just have fun with it.” Now I am a producer, right? After 3 or 4 takes it was clear that Lilly was nervous at Jack’s and it just wasn’t going to be the right setting. So we called Troy. After a few hours of recording the main and harmony tracks and then mixing it a bit in Troy’s basement, it was done. ‘Every’ was complete. The song had evolved from lyrics on a single page to what I believed was now the new best song ever written. We were so proud. I am still so proud of that song and what we accomplished.
Now what? I didn’t really know. I met with a few people that tried to guide me with next steps, and even though the song was powerful, I was clueless as to what to do and it was only one song, so I did the only thing that I could. I moved to Nashville.
Believing that I could immerse myself into the thick of it all and be wrapped up in the industry and then I would know. It would just happen. I secured employment at Papa John’s Pizza. Thanks Papa John for the pizza and for the ability to work 20 hours per week, from 4pm to 9pm, allowing me to continue to create my masterpieces and still be able to pay my bills every month as a delivery driver.
I learned the next steps were harder. You had to know people and if you didn’t know people you had to hunt them down and maneuver your way in the front door. At least that’s what I thought. I was wrong. I wasn’t an artist that could go play clubs or go on auditions. I was a songwriter. So I did what I thought would open all the doors for me. I pitched my songs to every label I knew after buying every 1990’s version of the Songwriter’s Handbook that gave the addresses and phone numbers of the labels. I gave each record label a special gift of a pen with my pitch. The pen was engraved and it said, “The Freman Company”. An homage to my parents, Fridtjof and Mary. I made beautiful tapes with nice covers, brochures and business cards. It was official. I was now a publisher. I sent out dozens of packages and then waited. Trying to follow in my dad’s brave and crazy footsteps, I hand delivered packages to Sony and Columbia. When I walked into Columbia, a man asked me who I was there to see. I had done my homework, was very prepared to answer and I said, “Tracy”. The man said, “Do you have an appointment?” I confidently lied (how terrible of me!) and said, “Yes. I scheduled it with her last week.” He then said, “Tracy is a man.” And then opened the door to encourage my exit. I left. I didn’t deserve to be there clearly. But I tried. I really wanted to be a songwriter and wanted someone to validate that for me. What I didn’t realize is that I didn’t need that validation. But that didn’t come until later.
After I moved back to Florida, at a bar in Mobile, Alabama, the President of Columbia Records walks in with his entourage. I was drinking a beer playing Galaga. Two guys walked up to me and said, “Hey. Do you know who that is?” I said no. “That’s the president of Columbia Records.” “This must be fate,” I said. I am a writer and I have a CD in my car.” It wasn’t really in my car. It was at my house about 20 minutes away in Daphne. I told my girlfriends to rush and go get it and they did. I had been continually writing music for years and began writing with a phenomenal singer/songwriter named Holley McCreary. This CD was called “There For You” and it was phenomenal for the time. He said, “Tell you what. You beat my friend here in Galaga and I’ll let you talk to him.” To clarify I said, “You want me to beat your friend in Galaga for the chance to talk to the president of Columbia Records?” “Yes.” I never got his name, but I remember his face and his wallet. He opened his wallet and said, “I’m gonna go big on this one. I feel like this is gonna be a winner.” He pulled out at least 20 one hundred dollar bills. Maybe 30. There was literally thousands of dollars in play. Then his friends opened their wallets and put it down on the table next to the Galaga machine. “Do you want me to go first?” I said wondering what was going on. “Ladies first. Go ahead.” I lost. He was very upset that he had lost his fortune, or maybe his pocket change, but then he must have seen the disappointment on my face, looked at me and said, “Tell you what. You can still meet with him.” “That’s great!” I was relieved and happy. I knew he’d like it. As we were walking over to the table, he says, “So is it good?” He was referring to the album. I said, “I’ll let you be the judge of that.” He stopped me in my tracks, sat me in a chair and said, “If you don’t think it’s good, there’s no point in meeting him. Better luck next time.” And he, his friends and the President of Columbia walked out the door. It all happened so fast. I didn’t really believe what had occurred. I felt sad. I felt like I missed an opportunity. But I also felt like I would never doubt myself again. If I could do it again, like in the movie Groundhog Day when he relives the same day over and over again until it’s just perfect, I would have said, “It’s great. He’s going to love it.” But from that day forward, I never questioned my talent. I am great songwriter.
Not too long after, one of my pitches to Mercury Records led to an invite into the company in Nashville. Holley, my writing partner, and I anxiously packed our bags and went right away. I dressed up in my best black business suit and put on my high heels, surrounded myself with confidence and went to work shouting out ‘we are awesome’. No lack of confidence whatsoever. When we got there we were greeted by Gary Harrison, the writer of the famous ‘Strawberry Wine’ song and numerous other number one hits, who was the head of A and R at the time. We were so excited. He was wearing holy jeans and a dirty white tshirt with his hair pulled back in a ponytail. With my heels I was about a foot taller than he was. I overdressed. I oversold. I overdid the whole thing trying to impress him. It backfired. He was kind enough to say, “You guys are good. Very good. But I want you to be great. Send me more when you get great.” I look back and wonder how the meeting would have went had I lazily rolled in with my pajama bottoms, tshirt and slippers. We looked at the adventure into Mercury Records as an open door. We were allowed to send songs to Mercury without having to sneak in the side door. Cool. Even though we didn’t get a deal, we had the incredibly opportunity to see the wood lined walls in a great record company, meet one of the world’s most successful songwriters and were told we were good!
Throughout every moment in my music journey, there’s never truly been a bad moment. I learned along the way that is doesn’t matter what people think as much as it matters what I think. I care about what I do because I love what I do and can’t imagine not doing it.
One of the most interesting people I met in Nashville was a man named Michael Allen. I knew he was open to connecting with people and seemed to breathe in every bit of creativity around him. He talked bitterly about when he worked with Sylvia, who he claims was halted because of Reba’s launch. Still, he was a very nice man. One day we had lunch and I played him a musical arrangement that I completed with my Freestyle software on my Mac 550 computer, which was very cool at the time. The song was a symphony called ‘Sunrise’. He said, “That’s incredible! I know people who have to write symphonies like this to be able to graduate from Julliard and none of them compare to this! Sony might have 95 writers but they really only need 10 and you!” It was one of the nicest compliments I ever received in regards to music.
Even with Michael and lots of support from family and friends, I realized that even though I tried very hard and gave it a very solid effort, I was probably not going to be a songwriter for a living. I looked at those people who were working for Sony and the other great labels as writers in awe feeling that they are literally the luckiest people in the world. They got paid to write music. Nothing could be better. I still feel that way, but the money is not why I write and I am thankful for that. I still get to write. I still get to play. I still get to be heard. I still get to share. I believe that is what music is truly all about.
Unlike so many others, it was and is not about the money for me. I look at it like playing the lottery. You never really know if you’re going to win, but if you want to continue to live the dream, you keep playing. If you get a hit song, you’ve won. If you don’t, you can either keep playing in the hopes that you will win or don’t buy the ticket. I’m sure Universal and Warner Brothers differ in their opinions and focus on how much money they can line their pockets with, and I know that successful writers today are relishing in their lottery wins, but I personally never write and have never pursued music because I hoped to make money. I would probably be a terrible writer if someone told me I had to do it because they were paying me. I might not be able to handle that. Especially considering, there are so many disgruntled writers today that are unhappy with what is happening with their rights and their royalties and the dollars that they feel entitled to. They want to feed their kids and pay their mortgages by writing music and when they can’t, they blame the companies they work for and yell out loud. Often. I’m sure there are valid reasons for their anger and hopefully they will get that all worked out. I am personally thankful that I haven’t met that side of the music yet where I forget why I write and focus on money and quotas, not music. Looking back at all my years enjoying the time I was writing and creating, traveling with my dad, meeting new friends, having exciting experiences with people who also shared my love for music…that filled me up with so much energy and passion, money is the accessory, not the outfit.
Most of the time, I still feel like that little kid who is psyched to accomplish the unbelievable task of writing a song and being able to share it with people. iTunes and other digital music sales sites have created such an opportunity for anyone who want to put their music out there. I love the independence of being able to write music with talented artists and share my story and theirs with a few clicks of a button on the computer. Even though I can't line my house in gold with the money I make from songwriting, I wouldn't change a thing. Of course there’s a part of me that hopes one day I will still write the best song of all time that will be heard all across the globe. I think of how amazing that would be to be able to connect with the world with music that I contributed to. What a dream that would be, but if that day never comes, I will never have any regrets in music.
How could I? Today I get to share a beautiful oasis that I created for my family and friends to write and enjoy and dream together at Sorella. I feel very lucky and very blessed to be able to continue to write music with old friends and new, in a serene country setting, with a properly geared up recording studio, delectable food, wonderful amenities and comfortable accomodations. This is home.
For me it will always be about connecting with people and enjoying the ride and there’s nothing better in life than that to me. Someone recently asked me to try to describe how I felt about music. I said, “I am in love with music. If I never reach the world with my songs, if I only listen to them by the fire, each day writing music will still mean everything to me because I get to share the music with people that I love and still hold on to the dream that one day I will write another best song of all time.”