Interview: Tina Shafer
Celine Dion’s songwriter, Avril Lavigne’s vocal coach, organiser of NYC Songwriters’ Circle for 23 years… Tina Shafer’s a busy woman!
quarter of a century is a long time, but in the fast-paced, ever-changing music world, it could feel like an eternity. The past 25 years, in particular, has seen the industry completely turn on its head: the MiniDisc came and went, and the internet arrived, changing the way we consume music forever. Throughout this time, American songtress Tina Shafer has busily earned a reputation as a professional vocal coach, songwriter and performer at the highest level.
Signed to music publishing company Warner/Chappell in 1989, Shafer established an illustrious songwriting career that would go on to include writing Love Is On The Way, that featured in the $100 million grossing movie The First Wives Club, and found its way onto Celine Dion’s multi-platinum selling album Let’s Talk About Love. Additionally, Shafer has lent her songwriting skills to Flower In The Rain by Sheena Easton, The Way That You Love Me (written with Albert Hammond for the popular US soap opera Days Of Our Lives) and many more besides.
Since 1991, Tina Shafer has also served behind the scenes as artistic director of The New York Songwriter’s Circle, which was described by Billboard as “one of the best showcases in New York for discovering talent.” Held at the legendary Bitter End in New York City’s West Village, the NYSC has showcased and nurtured many successful singer-songwriters, such as Grammy winners Norah Jones and Jesse Harris. Meanwhile, working as a highly regarded singing tutor, Shafer’s vocal students have included Avril Lavigne, Vanessa Carlton and Lana Del Rey.
In 2013, we see Shafer switching focus back to writing and recording music for herself, with a new album titled The Good Ones, reflecting on her eventful 25-year journey. It’s this period we’re also keen to reflect on, discover the turning points and driving forces behind her prolific songwriting career, and see what keeps her going in this unforgiving industry. But first things first…
Can you remember the first song you wrote?
“Well, my mom was a composer, so there was always music at home. As far back as I can remember, I was writing songs. I was a super-shy person, so when I was little, if I got in trouble for anything, I’d sing my apologies to people!”
[cc_blockquote_right] I ONLY PLAY IN OPEN TUNINGS — I LEARNT TO PLAY THE GUITAR BY DROPPING THE NEEDLE AT THE END OF A JONI MITCHELL CHORD [/cc_blockquote_right] What instruments did you play when you were young? Did you start on the guitar?
“There was a big grand piano in the house, so the guitar didn’t come into my life until I listened to my first Joni Mitchell album, when I was around 14 years old. For those of us growing up in the 70s, songwriters like Joni, Dylan and Neil Young were the troubadours of our time. If you wanted to know something about life, you went and bought one of their albums, you listened to the words and they were the people who spoke about who we were. I really wanted to emulate that.”
Do you think there are any artists around now who match up to those songwriters?
“I’m going to sound really old if I say that the great music only came from that time, but that’s not true at all — I’ve always enjoyed new music. Just two years ago we had Lana Del Rey at the Songwriter’s Circle and I thought she was an amazing artist. I think Ed Sheeran’s an amazing writer, he’s incredible. And there are a lot of new songwriters in Nashville now that I think are real song-crafters.”
Can you remember the first song you fell in love with and changed your life? Was it a Joni Mitchell song?
“Yeah, we all have those kinda ‘book-markers’ in our life. For me it was Little Green off her Blue album. I heard that and must’ve played it over 50 times, because it was just so beautiful. I’d never heard an open tuning used before and it really resonated with me.”
Do you still like to write on the piano like you did when you were young, or do you tend to stick with the guitar now?
“I switch between them. The guitar is easier to carry around and better for different types of writing. The piano lends itself to a different vibe and feel, often more ballad-oriented, whereas the guitar is better for mid- or uptempo because you can strum it. I’m probably a much finer pianist since I’m classically trained so, if I’m getting blocked on the guitar, I’ll go to the piano to see if I can find some more chords. I only play in open tunings — I learnt to play the guitar by dropping the needle at the end of a Joni Mitchell chord and I’d tune that way.”
Do you suffer from writers’ block?
“Yeah it’s always an uphill battle. You chisel away and it finally comes into vision… then you feel like ‘I’m done!’ But it’s like some sort of mountainous rock that you’ve got to climb and it’s never quite over. So after each album I think ‘This is it, all the questions have been answered,’ but that’s not the case at all. I’m at that mid-way point right now, where I’m trying to find new definitions of where I am in my life to write about.”
Do you find it harder writing now, having spent many years being creative, or does it get easier now you have more experience?
“That’s a great question. At the beginning, as a writer, the inspiration was flowing very easily. For me, as I’ve got older, I’ve raised the bar as to what a great song is, and life becomes so much deeper. When you’re older you have the vantage point of being able to look back at the tapestry of your life, and piece things together in a way that you couldn’t when you were sixteen.”
Do you mean emotionally, as well as in terms of knowledge and songwriting ability?
“Absolutely. More for me, as I’m such a lyric-oriented writer. So looking back, with the wisdom and awareness that you (hopefully) have later in life, makes it more difficult in some ways. When you’re younger you don’t have the same perspective. So there’s something to be said about each stage. I miss the time when I’d just write a tune and the simplicity of that.”
You mentioned being lyric-oriented, is that where you start when you write a song?
“For me the lyrics come through hearing the sound of the chords, their vibration, and whatever colours that brings up emotionally. That’s why I love Celtic and rootsy open tunings — that’s something which pulls out emotion in me. That is unless I’m in a co-writing session, where I’ll think of titles, what the project’s about, marketing and what’s going to be good for the artist. Then it’s ‘from your mind to your heart’, rather than ‘from your heart to your mind’.”
Do you collaborate a lot?
“When I was signed to Warner/Chappell I’d be constantly co-writing, because they want to make their money back, so you’re put on tons of projects. When I wrote for Celine Dion, Sheena Easton, Billy Porter and Donna Summer, those were all assigned projects. It’s different now I’m pretty much writing for myself.”
How did you get the job with Warner/Chappell?
“I’d just finished an opera masterclass workshop at Julliard, but I realised there was no money in being an opera singer, so I went back to performing my songs at little clubs downtown in New York. I was playing at The Bitter End, which is where we still run the Songwriter’s Circle now, and there was a talent scout from Warner/Chappell there that night. He came up to me and said ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do it, because I’m a brand new talent scout, but I’m going to sign you and find a way’ and he got me my first publishing deal.”[cc_blockquote_right] I THOUGHT ‘LOVE IS ON THE WAY’ WAS OK, BUT… YOU NEVER KNOW WHEN YOUR SONG IS GOING TO TAKE OFF [/cc_blockquote_right]Love Is On The Way was a very famous song you wrote for Celine Dion. How did that come about?
“I was at a party at the publisher Denise Rich’s house and Billy Porter, who I was writing for at the time, got up and sang the song. Luckily, Bette Midler, who was someone I’d tried to get my songs to for years, was standing in front of me. She wrote on a cocktail napkin ‘Please submit this song to my publisher’ and ended up putting it in her movie The First Wives Club.”
Were you playing the numbers game and writing a lot of songs, or were you trying to write guaranteed hits?
“I guess I try to make an amazing song, but sometimes you’ll write something that you think isn’t that great, but it becomes a hit. I thought Love Is On The Way was okay, but never in a million years did I think it would go on to where it did. You never know when your song is going to take off.”
Would you say that’s the key to writing a successful song? To not try too hard to write a hit.
“Absolutely. That’s the balance you’re looking for when you write a song as a signed writer for projects. You’ve got to get out of the way of doing it for the artist, and go back to that place where it still comes from you.”
Tell us about how The New York Songwriter’s Circle started and when you got involved.
“It was the brainchild of Kenny Gorka who manages the venue The Bitter End. I was just performing there and the person who was running it at the time, said ‘I’m going to Nashville for a couple of weeks, do you want to host it while I’m gone?’ So I did that and she never came back! Being a songwriter in New York then was really lonely, so the Songwriter’s Circle was just a cool place to hang out. I booked all types of music — country, R&B, spoken word — and I had all sorts of people come from all over the world. We were all songwriters and you’d find it a friendly place to test your tunes out. The audience loved listening to new songs and it hasn’t changed.”
What are you up to now?
“I’m always working on new material, but I’m also writing for a new country artist called Katie Lyn Pascoe, who I’ve signed to my own company. I’m a vocal coach here in New York and that takes up a lot of my time, and I’m working on finishing a book about getting your voice back and finding your true sound.”
What advice would you give an emerging songwriter who wants a career like yours?
“The best thing to do is to find a talent that you believe in — write with an artist you’re crazy about, or find a producer. You can’t just pitch your songs to an artist in the same way that you used to, so go out and find your own. Find someone who’s like a diamond in the rough and go out there like a partnership.”
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Tina Shafer’s album The Good Ones is available now from iTunes and CD Baby, or you can find out more about her songwriting and vocal coaching at www.tinashafer.net The New York Songwriters Circle is held on the first Monday of every month at 8 o’clock at The Bitter End in the West Village in New York City, and Tina says she’s “always there!” For more information check out www.songwriters-circle.com