Shelly Meg Peiken had just received her second Grammy nomination when we talked last week. This nomination was not for a song, but for the audio version of her book, Confessions of a Serial Songwriter, which she voiced. Most people know her for co-writing the number one hits, “What A Girl Wants” and “Come On Over Baby (All I Want Is You)” by Christina Aguilera, the hit, “Bitch” by Meredith Brooks, and the hit, “Almost Doesn’t Count” by Brandy. She has also written for or with Britney Spears, Keith Urban, Celine Dion, Reba McEntire, NSYNC, Miley Cyrus, Ed Sheeran, Aaliyah, Selena Gomez, Idina Menzel and Demi Lovato among many others. We had previously scheduled the interview before she knew she would be nominated, so when we talked she was still glowing from the news. (note: this is edited from a longer interview which will be posted later as a podcast)
Patrick. Shelly, in Confessions of a Serial Songwriter you say in the chapter about what makes a hit song that if there is any secret sauce, it is a “universal sentiment set in a unique frame”. I think you have done exactly this in the book. The unique frame is all the wonderful – and not so wonderful – personal experiences you write about. But how would you describe the book’s universal experience?
Shelly. Well you know that there are so many wonderful books on songwriting that tell you how to do it, and I would encourage aspiring songwriters to read them, but this isn’t that kind of a book. I set out to take readers on my adventures and the ups and downs I have experienced over the years. Most of the book talks about the songs I wrote that didn’t make it or come to fruition in the way I planned when I wrote them, and how those “rehearsals” as I call them – I don’t like to call them “failures” – really taught me about the music business and about life as much as the few songs that made it to the airwaves did.
Patrick. There is a line in the book where you referred to songwriting as “It wasn’t about the answer. It was about trying to find it”. The context was your relationship to Jake, but the words hit home for me. Has that changed – is it still about finding the answer?
Shelly. I hope it’s always about finding the answer. I can’t imagine what life would be like and what songwriting would be like if we knew what the answer was. I think that each three-minute song is a short little snapshot of someone’s life. For me, songwriting is always about sitting down and not having the answer and exploring my way to it. It doesn’t mean that when I am done with the song I have the answer, but the wondering is a beautiful state to be in and a creative way to search.
Patrick. You also tell people “don’t be afraid to suck”. Can you recall an incident of working with a star in which your lack of failure-fear overcame theirs and a successful song emerged?
Shelly. Gosh! I think maybe that happened with Bitch and Meredith Brooks. That idea came to me in my car one night – not that I thought it was a sucky idea, but I thought it was a risky idea and I was almost a little afraid to put it out there. But the fact that I did and Meredith could relate to the idea worked. Julia Michaels, now with a really successful album and song and a nomination for Best New Artist, did some songs with me before she ever dreamed of being an artist. She now quotes me in interviews on that, saying that she learned from Shelly that this (take risks) is a really important thing to do.
Patrick. You wrote “Bitch” in the context of your 15-year old self throwing a hairbrush at your dad and not speaking for months – something I can relate to, which is one reason why I love that song.
Shelly. That was a good year and that song was nominated for a Grammy. Twenty years later, the book is up for a Grammy, so I don’t know, but maybe 20 years is a magic thing; it feels significant in some way.
Patrick. How did you respond to the news of the Grammy?
Shelly. At my first nomination I had a new baby and it was in the newspaper. Meredith called me and I went jumping down to the driveway to get the newspaper. This time I started to talk about it online and then I forgot about it. The night before, I took an Ambien and slept through the announcement. People had to call and text me.
Patrick. The power in the chorus of “Bitch” is remarkable after the vulnerability in the first verse. How did you and Meredith do that?
Shelly. You know we did it organically. We were sitting in a tiny room with a guitar and there was no beatbox and no track behind us. Meredith had an acoustic guitar and it was really a stream-of-consciousness. She did a line which made me think of the next line which made her think of the next line and I would do the next line. Which is an ideal and very satisfying way to have songsex, as I put it.
Patrick. Which is the title of one of the chapters in your book. Songsex can be ecstatically joyful, but there is also a dark side to music that you write about, especially in your chapter on “toplining”. What is toplining and how does it impact songwriters in the business.
Shelly. “Toplining” is a term that a little demeaning but I use it because I am straddling the old school with the new. A song used to be melody and lyrics But now, a topline is considered décor for a pre-written piece of music or a piece of music that is being written with you and you are coming up with the décor – melody and lyrics – for a pre-written piece of music. The pre-written backing track becomes just as much part of the copyright as the lyrics and melody – which in many situations I do understand, but in many I don’t. The idea of a “topliner” is accepted by a lot of programmers who want to be considered as having written half of the song.
Patrick. This is not a good situation. But some body is making money on music.
Shelly. The streaming services are making money. Now, I am not a streaming hater – it is a fantastic way to have all the music you want when you want it for $9.99 a month — or free if you willing to listen to ads. The problem for creators is that for every dollar the streaming services pays out, 95 cents goes to the master and copyright owner, – usually the label –and only 5 cents goes to the people who actually wrote the song. These companies would not be in business if it were not for the creators, but the laws and consent decrees that went into effect over 70 years ago keep it this way. The tech lobby fights to keep license fees low – and to even lower them — because the less we get, the more they keep.
Patrick. How do you change that?
Shelly. You talk to your Congressperson. I started an organization called SONA – Songwriters of North America – with about 300 of my friends in this country and I am sure there are similar organizations in other countries. We lobby and we have the ears of the MMPA and we tell our subscribers when there is a bill about this situation and what they need to know to tell their Congressperson. I go around to a lot of colleges and talk to music students about this reality.
Patrick. Has the disappearance of albums made a big difference?
Shelly. Yes. When I was coming up there were physical album sales so if you wrote a song that became an album cut that sold a million copies, you could get $90,000. If you had enough of those co-writes and co-pubs you could make a living. Now you have to have hit singles. We are all trying to get those few hit singles. It is not the companies’ fault, but this is why a lot of the middle class songwriters who used to write those album cuts have disappeared.
Patrick. What about radio?
Shelly. If you could write one of the singles that gets played on terrestrial radio it could change your life. But the problem is that even terrestrial radio is going away. And when that happens even the 1% at the top that is making a living on the radio is going to see a big change in their royalty statements.
Patrick. Given all of that, it seem strange to ask the question I know everyone wants me to ask: “what do I do if I write a great song and want to get it published and played?”
Shelly. I touch on that in my book, but the bigger answer is that the best thing you can do is to insert yourself into the culture and the music community and not MP3 your song to somebody. It will just go into an email que and probably get overlooked. Go to the clubs and talk to people, get an internship at a recording studio, start relationships. And then if somebody has a good feeling about you, play them your song. Get out of your house and from behind your computer screen and get into the heads and hearts of people in the business.
Patrick. I love your song “George and John”, but I have a question: is it a breakup-song with all those lyrics about amputation?
Shelly. It was really a high concept song that I have always wanted to write because losing half the Beatles felt like breaking up with somebody – like an amputation. For years and years I wanted to write a breakup song that was analogous to losing half the Beatles and I didn’t know how to approach it. My friend and producer Phil Thornalley in London wrote me a song that inspired me — it just channeled that feeling for me. That is me singing and I am proud to say that the Beatles Fab Four on satellite radio had me on and played it. It is now on CD Baby.
Patrick. One last question. Your book is nominated for a Grammy in the Spoken Word category- you were the person who recorded it. What was that like? Did you have to learn a new skill?
Shelly. It was so much fun, but I did have to learn a new skill. You really need to have a big breakfast, because talking makes you hungry. You can’t really talk for more than two hours because you lose energy. You can’t party the night before because if you wake up hoarse, Chapter 16 won’t sound like Chapter 2. My book editor had was there and coached me. And I had a great engineer, Les Cooper, who was very patient. I just had to get the cats out of the vocal booth and shut the door and enjoy reading.
Patrick. Sounds like you had a great time. What does the future hold for you now?
Shelly. I did! I would never let anyone else read it for me. I don’t get that. No one can read it like me. The future: well I am still writing — I am always writing. I am not always in the studio writing a song, although yesterday I was in the studio with Eric Bazilian of the Hooters. I will go to the Grammys in January and see if I have a shot in a category with Bruce Springsteen, Carrie Fisher, Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bernie Sanders. I feel like I have already won. I may make a record. I tell my students make your records and hold onto your rights. I’ll follow my advice.