I am super excited that I recently got to ask some questions of a great songwriter that has written some of my favorite songs. As you may have guessed, I love songwriting and love learning about how other writers hone their craft and create songs. This past week, I got to interview Bonnie Baker. I was first consciously introduced to Bonnie’s work with the songs she co-wrote with Hunter Hayes and Katrina Elam…one song is ‘Play’ and it was recorded by Rascal Flatts. The other song is ‘Love Makes Me,’ Hunter cut it on his CD. After I did some research, I realized that Bonnie has written a lot of songs that I really dig. After a few emails back and forth, I started to really see that Bonnie is a true songwriter. As you will see in her answers to my questions, she loves what she does, and she has been successful….and she has worked her butt off. All for the love of it….And the best part is that she is giving us a look into her process, in hopes of helping us grow as writers.
Bonnie has been a staff writer and she recently branched off on her own and started her own publishing company called, DevaN Publishing. I am sure you recognize some of her work….Just a partial discography includes:
‘Play’ – cut by Rascal Flatts
‘Love Make Me’ – Hunter Hayes
‘Rainy Season’ – Hunter Hayes
‘I Will’ – Billy Ray Cyrus
‘Ordinary Life’ – Chad Brock
‘Before Me and You’ – SheDaisy
‘Love Is’ – Katrina Elam
‘My Sister’ – Reba McEntire
There are many more songs she has written and co-written for artists like Chely Wright, Sara Evans, Billy Gilman, Brantley Gilbert and more! It is such an honor to have a chance to get a look into her writing. I think you will enjoy it as much as I did……check out the interview below….
1. You are based in Nashville now, where did you grow up?
I grew up in Texas. Most of the years were in East Texas in the Nacogdoches area and then several years in the Austin area. LOVE Austin.
2. When did you start writing songs? Did you always want to be a writer?
I wrote my first song for church around 15. I was listening to a lot of Townes Van Zandt and Elton John so I wanted to do what they were doing.
3. What were some of your influences when you started to write songs?
Townes Van Zandt, Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Willie Nelson, Stevie Nicks
4. Many people who visit my blog are new writers…How do you think your writing has changed since you started?
I grew up very insecure and unsure of the person I was in this world. My journey as a writer has helped me create and define who I am on this planet.
5. Were there any moments in your career that you said, “A Ha!” that’s what I need to do, or any times you really started to ‘get it.’
There are definitely those kinds of moments. It may be a new co-writer who brings something to the table that I have been really longing for. It could be a new way to create sounds. It could be a new tool like a new instrument. I started out writing everything on piano and the moment I got my first guitar was one of those moments. That opened up a whole new world in writing.
6. You give some workshops in Nashville…Do you see any common things that new writers do, or mistakes they make? Any tips on how to avoid it?
The most common mistake I see in new writers is they try to write for the “market” or for radio. If you are hearing something on the radio now… it was created 3-5 years ago or even longer. If you have your sights on what is out right now you are behind. You have to lean forward in your thinking. You have to have a vision for what WILL be on the radio in the next 3-5 years to be current. It is like showing up for a game three hours after it is over and wondering why you are losing.
The way to avoid being dated is to write the future. Create your own sound and make it as great as possible.
7. What do you feel makes a great song?
The first thing about a great song is the concept. If you have a very ordinary hook then try to find a different point of view. Say the same thing that has been said a million times but you have to say it differently. The melody has to be stunning!! An ordinary melody will never work to make you stand you out.
8. I think I read online you are or were a staff writer….What do you think the biggest challenge is when you are a staff writer? What did it teach you?
Being a staff writer taught me discipline. I get up every single day and write. I am very into having a schedule and sticking to it. I am not one to cancel appointments or move things around. I look at my month and set my writing schedule and stick to it. Being on a staff also teaches teamwork. It is so important to be a team player with the other writers. Getting along is very important in those settings.
9. Can you share any creativity or writing exercises that you use to come up with song ideas and stay fresh?
When I am feeling dull or out of ideas I watch a lot of movies and read a lot of books and listen to a lot of new music. It feeds me on a creative level.
10. What does your typical writing process look like?
I usually hold a guitar or sit at a piano and just bang around letting myself mumble vowel sounds and feel how the phrasing sounds. Then I try to figure out what kind of mood I am in. Am I angry, hurt, sad… ? The texture of a song starts from somewhere inside of me that I can’t explain. I have to sing and write lyric at the same time. I think of these sessions as brainstorming sessions and when I have an idea ready I record it and usually save it for a co-writer. I also choose what co-writer to play each idea. Not every idea fits every co-writer. When I pull out an idea and then we write it we make a worktape. If we still love the song in a couple of weeks I then work on the track and get it recorded, sung and mixed. Then it goes out to the creative person who pitches my catalog. Hopefully the next step is getting good response from producers, managers, artists or whoever will listen.
11. Are you a finish one song at a time writer, or a writer who has many songs in the works?
I have as many as 20 songs going at any given time.
12. How long does it take to finish a song, on average?
I am a pretty slow writer and it usually takes me a couple of weeks to feel comfortable with all the lyric and melody and the structure of the song.
13. A song you wrote with Katrina Elam and Hunter Hayes is , “Love Makes Me.” This song is a great example of how writers should use prosody and contrast. Those two things keep listeners interested in the song. From the first line, “put the needle down”…..the way the melody drops is great prosody between the music and lyrics. †In the verses, there are lower, faster notes in an almost “verse refrain” format with the “Makes me feel good” line at the end of each section. Then the prechorus has slightly longer, less rhythmic notes that build in pitch…up to the chorus which has a melody that walks down then back up in an almost quarter note pattern. Lyrically in the first verses, you state things that the singer (Hunter) is doing….then in the prechorus you compare it to other less risky things….then in the Chorus you hit the big WHY of it all. Why does he do those things….”Love Makes Me.” Builds in a payoff and the chords change at the chorus and it “feels good” ….like it is coming home.
Each section contrasts with the other in rhyme scheme, †melody, harmony, and lyrical content. Are these conscious decisions that you make when you write? Do you think like that when you write?
Absolutely. The lyric phrasing and rhythm should change in each section. The melody has to change between verse and chorus or else the song is all the same. I try not to change TOO drastically or too much because the song has to fit together like a puzzle and make one picture.
14. How did ‘Love Makes Me’ come about? What was the process?
First of all the three of us, Hunter, Katrina and myself have been writing together for about 4-5 years. From the first writing session we just hit it off. I love what they both do and they haven’t kicked me out yet. We all do something different. On LOVE MAKES ME Hunter started playing a guitar riff and Katrina started singing a melody and I came in with some lyric ideas. When we started down the LOVE MAKES ME road I felt it was a little bit ordinary so I pushed us to have some awkward and unusual lyrics to off set it being too ordinary. Hunter and Katrina are BOTH amazing lyric people as well. The three of us just fit together. Every single song we have written are in my top favorite songs in my whole career.
15. How often do you write?
I am in a little bit of a down time right now but usually I write 3 days a week at least. Right now I am writing about 2 days a week because I am working on some other things that need my attention. The first 14 years of my career I wrote 4-5 days a week. I may go back to that some day but just not right now.
16. Let’s say a reader has an idea for a song. Maybe a title, or chorus. Can you share any tips on the process you would take to develop the song?
Decide if you have a good melody or lyric idea. If you feel you need a co-writer decide if you want someone who is stronger in melody or lyric. Finding a great co-writer is not easy. It is a very, very important part of this process of being a full-time commercial writer. Very few people can do all the parts necessary and do them to the level of excellence that they need to be successful.
17. What does rewriting usually look like for you?
I usually work on the lyric re-writes. I sit with the lyric and make sure all the syllables sit just right. Do all the lines makes sense and are all the lines absolutely necessary. There is no room in a 3:30 minute song for extra words. Each line has to be exact and perfect. If there are places in the melody that need help I usually ask my co-writer to “juice” a line or push some notes in a different place if they don’t seem to sit right.
18. When in the process do you start thinking about things like rhyme schemes, rhythms, number of lines, modulations, etc?
I think about those things as I am writing from the start. I don’t use modulations very often but sometimes that is just the right thing to kick a melody into a higher gear and make it work.
19. You have written hit songs, do you still find yourself growing…..or better yet, we would all like to know if you still write just, “OK” songs.
I still write “ok” songs and I still write songs that are not worth the piece of paper they are on… in other words I write really BAD songs. I am always trying to work harder and smarter and grow as a writer. I still feel like I have so far to go. I have people I look up to like Hillary Lindsley and Dr. Luke and I am NOWHERE near where they are… so I keep pushing hard to get there someday.
20. Any final thoughts on songwriting and ways readers can grow as writers?
The best thing to do is to write and write and write!!! I also feel like a great writer has to be a reader. Reading great writing is so important. I also think it is very important to study music and what is working and where we are progressing in our musical tastes. I love to find a new artist or band and study what it is about them I love. Set up a disciplined schedule and stick to it. We all have things we believe we can accomplish but it all starts with just doing it. I am a perfectionist and it has hurt me through the years because I find myself in a place where I can’t just DO something because I want to wait until it is perfect. It is NEVER going to be perfect. I try to make my writing as honest and down the bone as I possibly can. Surround yourself with amazing writers and grow together. Don’t be afraid to spend time alone. Don’t let the fear of being alone keep you from spending time with your thoughts and let them develop in a very organic and real way. I spend many, many hours a week alone with no music or tv or anything on. It is absolutely quiet and I love it that way. The last thing is to really figure out if being a songwriter is what you MUST do with your life. If you are in it for the money or the fame or just to hang with people you like then you will not be happy doing it. You have to want to be a writer. There are many creative jobs out there so don’t make yourself be a songwriter if you are not a writer.
I just want to thank Bonnie again for taking time out to answer my questions. THANK YOU, Bonnie.