Songwriting Tips: Mary Gauthier Talk About Writing in Nashville
[This transcript is excerpted from the Songwriters’ TeleSummit.]
Katie: Mary, did you say you live in Nashville now?
Mary: Yeah, I’ve been in Nashville for nine years.
Katie: Wonderful. I’ve never lived in Nashville but in the times that I’ve been there, I’ve gotten the sense for the commercial songwriting market and I guess I might have had the same impression of the writers and the commercial songwriting zone there. Not that they’re lesser songwriters, but maybe seeing it as something different than what I’m doing currently, so you’re able to do your thing in Nashville and feel pretty happy there among all the other song writers there too?
Mary: Yeah because there’s a community of people that are like me that I have found. But yeah, a lot of them crossover into commercial as well. But I see myself as a folk singer and so I’m kind of an enigma in Nashville. They don’t really know quite what to do with me. But yet, John Prine lives in Nashville. There’s an awful lot of folks like John Prine who come from the Prine School of seeing the truth who live in Nashville. Or who have lived in Nashville or pass through. So I’m not altogether an alien. And I’ve found that just being around creative types inspires me. Even if their songs aren’t really doing it for me, just being around the passion to create and to live a life of creativity has been a really good thing and a whole town full of people doing that, it’s been a good thing for me. I don’t try to write for the commercial country market but if I accidentally happen to I sure would be happy about that because there’s a lot of money in that. And yet I don’t sit around aiming for it. Whereas a lot of people they have to because they don’t tour. See, I make my living as a touring artist. Most all of the Nashville songwriters making a living simply as songwriters. They don’t make CDs. They don’t tour. They don’t play gigs. Their job is to write. They work for the music publishers and their job is to deliver songs to those publishers that the can get them recorded on a major label artist and make money. So it’s a different job and I’ve grown to respect that job because I don’t know if I could even do it if I was going broke. I don’t know if I could do that. To write that way under those conditions. And these guys pull it off. It’s actually kind of amazing.
Katie: Yeah it is. I’m attracted to that world but I’m here in Austin and I’m attracted to Nashville but while I’ve been in Austin I’ve been finding my own voice and my own writing and it seems quite different. I’m not sure if what I’d be writing would fit in with the commercial country music market but I’m kind of attracted to it as well and I wonder if I could do both.
Mary: Well, I have a lot of friends that do both. My friend Darrell Scott does both. My friend Beth Nielsen Chapman does both. My friend Gary Nicholson does both. The thing about Austin is I don’t know anybody who does both. Austin is pretty much the artist place.
Katie: Yeah that’s what I’ve been discovering. And it’s been great. It’s a wonderful place to be.
Mary: I love Austin. I’ve got a lot of good friends there. Eliza just got two cuts on the Joan Baez record but that has nothing to do with Nashville. So there are artists whose artists whose songs are being cut in Austin but it’s very small numbers compared to Nashville. But the Austin thing is not about publishing. See the Nashville thing is about publishing. People down on the row those are publishing houses and those people who are publishers they take songs and go make money from them. Their job is to make money off of songs. There’s nothing like that in Austin. There’s not the business model there to support songs as commerce in Austin so people make their money selling records and playing gigs.
Katie: I guess I’ve had a fear that if I went to Nashville maybe I would loose my voice but maybe not.
Mary: No, you won’t loose your voice. If you have your voice you won’t loose your voice because you can’t loose your voice. It’s your voice. Once you have it, it’s yours and it’s not something that you would loose. You may give it away freely, trying to be commercial, but I wouldn’t say you’ve lost your voice. You can give it away or try to sell out. And maybe that’s what you mean. That if you were to go to Nashville, you may find yourself trying to sell out. But it’s almost impossible to sell out. The people who write for radio tend to write that way naturally. I’ve thought of selling out many times and I don’t know how to sell out. I can’t make my voice do that. It just doesn’t fit. It doesn’t work for radio under the current conditions that country radio operates under which are very, very limiting conditions. But, ultimately, only you can give it away. You wouldn’t accidentally loose it. I don’t believe.
Katie: Ok. Thank you so much. This is so helpful.
Mary: Oh, good! I spent a lot of time before I moved to Nashville thinking I should just go to Austin because I made three records in Austin. And I have so many friends in Austin.
Katie: Yeah, that’s why I moved here. I considered Austin or Nashville and I felt like I wasn’t ready for the industry presence in Nashville and I hadn’t really written very many songs and I wanted to see, well what’s it like, what is this artist’s side of me. I don’t know that side so I came here and I’m learning that side which has been wonderful and now I want to make my writing more serious. Or just get better at the craft and so part of me thinks of moving to Nashville.
Mary: Well, there’s lots of different ways you can approach it. One of the things that you can do is come to Nashville and take songwriting workshops with teachers who are experience in the craft and who have several successes in getting songs placed with major artists and making a living that way. And see if that speaks to you. Certainly like Darrell Scott and Beth Nielsen Chapman and I we’re teaching a class in Costa Rica over the holiday and there’s lot of different teachers that you could work with. Nashville Songwriters Association, NSAI, offers song camps. I took all that they had to offer when I first started writing. There were three different camps and I took all of them. I found it to be very useful and helpful and there’s also coming to Nashville and just trying to co-write. Go to some writer’s nights, meet some writers, try to co-write and see how you do with that. You don’t have to move to Nashville to come have a presence there. You can get one of those rent-by-the-week hotel rooms that cost like $200 a week or something with a little kitchenette in it and give it a try and see if it feels uncomfortable or comfortable or if there’s something you could learn and do it slowly. See what the market is like and get a feel for the community there.