How to become an artist songwriter
Nashville musician and songwriting coach Mark Cawley talks from first-hand experience about being both a solo artist and a writer-for-hire
If you’re an aspiring artist, your goal is a record deal in whatever form, major label, indy or self-release and you might not be as concerned with writing a song that another artist could record. You might be thinking “I’m writing this for myself, not thinking hit singles, more of a statement for who I am as an artist.”
If this is the case, you might be writing more introspective, highly personal songs or even songs that are more “your heart than their charts”. This is great. If anything, you have more freedom because you know who’s going to record your songs…you.
But consider this. Lots of artists started as songwriters. They were always on the artist path but got their career jump-started by other artists recording their songs. Lady Gaga, Julia Michaels, Bruno Mars, Chris Stapleton, Natalie Hemby, Lori McKenna even as far back as Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow. I think it’s a win-win for a songwriter pursuing an artist career if another artist takes your song places you haven’t been yet. This can get
you noticed in a hurry in LA, NY, London and Nashville and not just by the powers that be but by fans. A tribe takes pride knowing an artist they follow had their songs cut first by another artist.
MAKE IT PERSONAL
I started as an artist and in my case, after a few major artists started hearing my songs or giving me the chance to write one for them was a career changer. For me, it led to the decision to leave the artist world and write full time for other artists. Doesn’t mean it should be your path. Even though writing for the artists that didn’t normally write their own songs was the way forward for me, I still tend to lean toward artists who write their own songs. It feels more personal. Sounds like I’m kicking the very people who had given me a living but I think there’s a distinction. The artists in my case like Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Diana Ross, and Chaka Khan are artists but in my mind the driving factor for them is they’re performers first and foremost. I have to say the other big deciding factor to me for songwriting for others vs the artist path has always been the complete freedom. I don’t have an identity or image as a songwriter. I can be a chameleon. I’ve had songs recorded in Pop, Rock, Contemporary Jazz, Country and Christian genres and that has been a source of personal pride for me.
A STAR IS BORN
In a town like Nashville, you’ll also find some amazing writers who came to be that way by having a failed artist career. Usually, that’s what brought them here, but the album went nowhere. Hard to imagine when you hear songwriters do their songs better than the record you know. But it just might not have been their time. Seems like a can’t miss but again, so many factors go into an artists success. One star doesn’t want to align with the rest and it just doesn’t happen.
PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
Once in a while, you can read an interview with a successful songwriter where they admit they’re much happier writing songs than they would have been as an artist. They’re also a few, and I might fall into this category, who feel they might not have survived the star trip. Lots of the ones I know personally have sacrificed families and loved ones in search of stardom. I’m glad I didn’t have to but I love the gifts true artists give us and appreciate the sacrifice involved.
BEST OF BOTH
If you’re an artist and a songwriter and you live and breathe it, by all means, go for it. Write great songs and if, along the way, other people want to record them my advice would be let ‘em. If your artist path takes off to the point of keeping your best songs for yourself again, great but until then, let somebody love them, record them and shine a light back to you.