I met Victoria Banks shortly after I moved here to Nashville. Right off the bat, she was warm, inviting, informative, and very willing to help a newbie in town.
Victoria is getting ready to release a new record this Fall (October 7th), with pre order sales starting today. You can go here to pre order: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/album/indigo/id911603123
and here to check out her new single: http://www.reverbnation.com/victoriabanks/song/21654835-ruined?1336410755
You can find out more about Victoria Banks by going to her brand spanking new web site too: http://www.victoriabanks.net
As always, Victoria gave really thoughtful answers to my questions. I hope you enjoy!
Q: Do you write differently when you write for you the artist, versus when you write with the purpose of getting an album cut?
A: I can't say that I ever specifically try to write for myself as an artist. As a staff songwriter, I'm in the office with co-writers 5 days a week writing for other people. Sometimes I write with artists, in which case I listen to their material ahead of time to understand their style, vocal range, and the perspectives they like to sing from lyrically, so I can try and throw a pitch they can hit, to put it in baseball terms! Sometimes, I'm writing for an artist who is listed on the "pitch sheet" my publisher provides; they have imminent recording dates scheduled with a producer and are often looking for a certain kind of song (for example, uptempo positive story song, or rangy midtempo life song not about love). But on most days, my cowriters and I are just trying to write the best song we can write on that day regardless of who might sing it. Some of those songs will stand out, feel right with my vocal range, and resonate with me emotionally, and those are the ones I end up recording on my own records.
On those days when my cowriters and I are not writing for a specific assignment, we often start off by going through our stockpiled lists of potential titles and "throwing out hooks" into the room to see if anything inspires us to write a song around it. Or we listen through our collected melody snippets we have saved in our phone voice recorders to see if anything catches our fancy. It's funny, but sometimes a title or a melodic/lyric phrase that previously didn't seem like anything special suddenly comes to life and takes on a new and inspiring energy when it's shared with the right collaborators on the right day. The trick is to find that seed that wants to grow - and that grows easily - into a song. You know you're really onto something when a song just falls out of you.
For me, the song that wants to be written today also often appears to me in the car on the way to a co-write. Maybe I'm thinking about who my collaborators are…maybe I'm somehow plugged into their wavelength spiritually already…I don't know what it is! But many times, I've had an entire first verse, entire chorus, or some significant chunk of a song pop into my head en route to the appointment. I sing it to my cowriters when I arrive, and that's almost always what we end up writing for the day.
Q: Do you always try to write a hit song? Is there a difference between a great song and a hit song?
A: There is not always a difference between a great song and a hit song, but sometimes there is. There can be a moment in the writing room when you find yourself at a crossroads. Nashville writers have a running joke that one path leads to the radio, and the other path leads to the Bluebird Cafe. You basically have to decide what your priority is. If I think I can make a song commercial enough to cut, and still do the hook/melody justice, then that's always where I want to go with it! After all, I'm being paid to write for the radio, and the long term future of my career as a songwriter depends on my ability to have hits.
Sometimes, it's the choice of making a hook positive or negative. I recently wrote a song called "Ruined", and with a title like that, you'd think it would be a sad ballad about being destroyed by love. But we turned the hook positive, and made it into a fun, groovy uptempo: "you're like a bottle of the best champagne and nothing's quite the same once you've tasted that/if I ever lose you, what am I supposed to do/I'm so ruined by you!" That's going to be the first radio single off my new CD, and it's really getting a great response…maybe because of the positive twist on what you'd think would be a negative lyrical hook. Radio likes positivity, so to raise your chances of a cut, you should make it positive. However…there's also nothing better than a really well-written sad song…a "House that Built Me". When those become hits, they become "song of the year" kind of hits. But if you're gonna make it sad, it should only be a) because you're gonna record it yourself, or b) because it's going to be GREAT enough to get cut despite being sad. Otherwise, it will collect dust on the shelf and never get recorded.
The choice of tempo is also a crossroads that you face in the writing process. For radio, fast tempos are in demand. When you think about it, artists might have one or two ballads on an entire record. Most radio singles are uptempo or at least fast midtempos. So if a title will work as a more uptempo song, I usually lean that way. However, when a lyric falls out of my brain attached to a slower tempo with a great melody or a smart lyrical twist, I'm not afraid to pursue that direction too.
I just did a writing retreat with Lori McKenna, who is a consummate ballad writer. She can just slay you with a negative ballad. But, those songs aren't getting cut much, so she likes to collaborate with co-writers who pull her into a more commercial vein. There were times in the room with her when I could see both directions laid out at the crossroads, and as much as I would have LOVED to have gone down the negative ballad road to see where it led, we went the other way. And then the combination of her lyrical bluntness with a commercial tempo/melody/positivity has made the songs we wrote really stand out in pitch meetings!
Q: How has Nashville songwriting changed over the last 5-10 years?
A: I've been a professional staff songwriter in Nashville for (gulp!) 17 years now, and a LOT has changed. In the mid 90s, there was a lot of pressure to steer away from writing alone, so I learned to collaborate so that I could widen the number of people pitching the songs to include my cowriters' publishers too. In the late 90s, record sales were falling off because of Napster and other illegal downloading websites, so "writing with the artist" became the thing to do. (Record labels and publishers were realizing that by having the artist co-write the songs, they could tap into the publishing income stream and recover some of the revenues they were losing to downloading.) When that happened, I had to learn how to a) write a song very quickly - usually within about 2 hours - to fill a specific need for a specific slot on a specific record, b) dare to suck and not be freaked out by the fact that I was in the room with someone famous…or egocentric…or ADHD, and c) pull an idea from the artist's own experience in order to tap into an emotion that they're currently feeling so they will relate to the song and feel invested in it. In addition, I have often written with artists who are NOT songwriters, who don't play instruments, who may have never written before and who may not even contribute at all to the song. The trick is to try and pull something out of them, and sometimes to write the song DESPITE their presence and somehow still make them feel like they're contributing to what's going on. You're half songwriter and half psychologist in those situations! But your chances of getting a cut on records these days is way higher if the artist's name is on the song. In the best case, that means having the opportunity to work with a talented visionary who knows what they want to say and you just tap into that. In the worst case, you're sticking someone's name on the song you wrote…but that's the way the game is played.
Since 2001, radio has gone the direction of the testosterone-driven "bro country" thing. Even more so, lately, with artists like Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan. So that has changed the writing process too. Now, I collaborate with "track builders" who often don't write the song, but sit in the room and build a kickass sounding demo while the song is being written. By capturing the magic of the energy that's in the room, and by putting their own touch on it to bring it into a somewhat programmed sounding, somewhat pop-emulating production, they're often putting the song over the edge sonically so that it will grab the attention of artists and A&R people to get it cut. Therefore, Nashville is starting to go the direction that L.A. went a long time ago in including the track builder as a writer. Also, it's rare for me to write with just female collaborators anymore. With so many males dominating the airwaves, it helps my odds to write songs that are pitchable to men…and that's a little easier to do when there's a guy in the room with me, even if it's just to say "nah, a man wouldn't say that" or "nah, that melody is too girly".
Q: What are some ways that you push yourself to be a better songwriter?
A: You know, I wish I could say that I have targeted specific exercises for myself to push myself to be a better writer, but I don't do anything like that. I think to me, writing is just a way of life. It's not a career. It's an eat, sleep, breathe thing. So I can't help but always be striving to be better. I'm in it wholeheartedly, 5 days a week, in the chair at the office, writing a new song every day (sometimes two). Listening to other people's music helps…going to other people's shows helps…doing your prep work to bring ideas into the cowriting room helps...going for long drives with my voice recorder helps…and keeping those antennae tuned for the next idea to be inspired by an overheard conversation or a TV show plot line is part of it too. But ultimately, when you've written a couple thousand songs and you've still scheduled yourself yet again to show up and write another song today, you can't help but push yourself to make it better than all the others. Otherwise, what are you still doing it for? And the dopamine rush when you write a truly great song…that's an amazing feeling. There's nothing better than that feeling. Because you are going to live and die, but that song is going to live forever. You've created something that can't be un-created. You've created art! That's what it's all about.
Q: What are you looking forward to most about your latest release? What was the most exciting part during the recording process? What else would you like to mention about the release?
A: My new record, “Indigo”, is coming out this fall. I made this record differently than my last two, which I also love like my own children, but for different reasons! My previous records were collections of my favorite songs I had written, but they were entirely geared towards country radio. There’s a very specific sound, and a very specific kind of song, that fits into that box. For this project, I just had a burning desire to make the record I wanted to make…not just a record of singles, but a record I wanted to listen to over and over again in my living room or in my car. So there are ballads on it…there are sad songs on it…there are imperfections on it…and it’s produced in a way that doesn’t make you feel like each track is punching you across the face with compressed sound. I worked with co-producer Park Chisolm to build each track from scratch, and many of them are based on my basic guitar and/or piano skeleton tracks I recorded in my home studio. I’ve always aimed to combine emotional impact with an intellectual side in my lyrics; in the metaphors and turns of phrase. I feel like this record is right up that alley. And a few industry folks who previewed the record told me they think it will attract intelligent listeners who are fans of The Civil Wars, so hopefully listeners will feel the same when it hits iTunes!
What Nashville artist, band or songwriter should I interview next?