A GCN Exclusive
By Perry Hicks- Special to GCN
Sitting in a Nashville coffee shop chatting to Nashville songwriter, Josh Kear, I can’t help notice how much we two have in common. True, we work in two different genres, his being much more difficult because a song turns not just on the lyrics, but also the chords that express it. In comparison, a journalist’s job is done on a single plane and so I believe mine is vastly easier.
What is similar is the manner in which we do our work. Both of us toil in a combination of collaboration and solitude, often pausing to worry over the precision of our words: Do they really mean what we want to say? Does it flow well? Is it elegant in its construct? And, when we finally do let go, our composition passes on to publishers where it eventually takes on a life of its own. As Josh says smiling, “It goes on to live out there, somewhere, forever.”
Another similarity is how far removed we are from our audience. We can’t see what we hope will be delight in their faces. We hear no validating applause. For the most part, we really don’t know what they think at all. We write. We submit. We write again.
With music, however, there is one more important distinction. When a journalist’s work is done it will stand as their work alone. A song, however, is different. After it is initially recorded, a songwriter has no say as to who will perform the song or how it will be interpreted. And while Josh will be credited in fine print for having been the writer, most people will identify a hit song with the first artist to have recorded it.
Even after seven years working in a tough town like Nashville, Josh Kear beams his enthusiasm for music and his songwriting lifestyle saying, “For me, it's more that I started writing songs because I had words in my head that I wanted to get out. I'm still doing it because they are still there… every day.”
Until recently, songwriting had been enough for Josh Kear. Now, to borrow a phrase from one of his songs, he wants to “turn this thing around” and put his primary focus on performing. He wants to interpret his own music his way. He wants to see the delight in his audience’s eyes and see them move and groove to what will hopefully be their favorite song.
Cutting Demos At Sound Emporium
Josh afforded me the opportunity to observe three demos tracks being cut in one of Nashville’s major recording studios, Sound Emporium. Although this was not Josh’s session, he is a co-writer on all of the songs and he performed as the lead singer. I was there as his guest. As Josh’s girlfriend, quite amazed at my opportunity, told me, “You know this is a huge honor!”
I interpreted her exclamation as a caution to ensconce myself in a corner and stay out of the way. Writers are an amazing group of professionals. They know their craft and work very efficiently to avoid wasting a moment of expensive studio time. Questions and chatter from me would have only broken their concentration.
From the outside, Sound Emporium is a nondescript looking modern building conjoined during a renovation from two separate structures. Although this studio looks nothing like the original, it is interesting to know that the first session logs date back to the late 1960s. The studio we were in is geometrically paneled in oak wood giving warmth to what would otherwise have been a very cold industrial environment.
The center of the control room is dominated by a massive “sound board” covered with knobs, slider controls, and meters. Other racks of amplifiers and sound processors are on nearly every wall and in every corner. I noticed how the old multi-track tape drives had been pushed out of the way as a single purpose-built computer now does all of the recording.
Once written, a song must work its way through a long established process before it may be recorded by a performing artist. First, the song must be pitched to a publisher who hears the song on a very simply recorded tape or home-made CD. If the publisher thinks the song might be of interest to a record label, they will invest as much as $800 per track to make a more refined recording called a “demo.” The demo is then pitched to the record label executives who may make their judgment based on as little as 20 seconds of playing time.
In order to cut three demo tracks, the songwriting team must work efficiently because each cut will require three takes and perhaps a few individual “fixes.” The three demo tracks recorded our morning took no more than 2½ hours. A bit more time will later be spent adjusting levels and other processing, but a demo falls well short of the work put into a fully mastered (commercial CD quality) track. A total of five hours might be spent on a demo while a mastered cut will clock at least double that.
Before the first take, the writers gathered together in the control room to go over each of their individual parts. Copies written in Nashville Notation (not traditional musical notes, but instead keys and numbers,) were passed around. Comments were made, questions were asked, and then the guitarist strummed out the song while Josh ran through the lyrics. A few changes were agreed upon and then the writers broke up to their individual soundproof booths on the studio floor.
While the writers were getting ready, the recording engineer was busy preparing the computer, adjusting the audio board and various sound processors. After a few more level checks and tweaks he announces that they were “rolling” and then the music began. As each line of the song was played, the engineer marked it on a computer track. In this way, he can later recall any line of any verse should corrections be required.
A printed page is wholly inadequate for describing music, but I can assure you that each take was a song you would want to hear. The performance quality was excellent. Their enormous skill called into question why wouldn’t all writers want to perform? Isn’t that what music is all about?
As an interesting aside, I sort of got the answer to this question later in the week when I caught legendary songwriters, Chris Wallin and Anthony Smith, performing in-the-round at the Bluebird Café.
“I like going home to my wife each night,” said Wallin explaining why he is content with his role. He has written numerous songs performed by such greats as Charlie Daniels, Trace Adkins, Lorrie Morgan, and Confederate Railroad. Still, he is a riveting story teller and performer.
The same can be said for Anthony Smith who had a different angle saying, “Performing is why I first came to Nashville. And I am working on a new project that hopefully will allow me to do it again.” Anthony then added, “For everybody it’s different.”
Anthony Smith’s credits are also numerous with his songs having been performed by mega-stars such as George Strait (Cowboys Like Us), Trace Adkins, and the group, Lonestar.
Back at Sound Emporium, the lead guitarist called back to the engineer apologizing for a “mistake” he had made at one point in the song. This surprised me because I hadn’t heard anything sour or otherwise out of place. As it turned out, the note in question wasn’t actually a bad note; it just wasn’t the right note.
The engineer deftly identified the point, cued it up, and again announced into his microphone, “Rolling.” The guitarist then replayed his short part and the engineer inserted the fix into the completed track by what is essentially a cut-and-paste operation. We now had a raw demo cut.
The writers reconvened in the control room to hear the take played back through a pair of high definition monitors. Their comments were all in approval, with one saying to another, “I like the way you played off of him,” and perhaps the highest compliment of all, “We sound like a band.”
Still another jokingly opined, “Why don’t we just do half-songs? That’s all they are going to listen to, anyway.”
“They,” of course, meant the label executives.
I departed Sound Emporium impressed with the writer’s professionalism, skill, and camaraderie. They had an obvious joy in creating great music together and I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by a sense of admiration for them.
The first big step in a songwriter’s career is to get a deal with a publisher where they are able to take a “draw” (salary) that will hopefully be charged back to earnings from future songs. A draw allows a songwriter to pursue his or her craft full time.
Obviously, to get a deal you must have a number of quality songs up front and be able convince the publisher that you have more inside just waiting to come out. The second big step, of course, is to actually have one recorded.
Technically speaking, songs are not sold. Josh explains the system this way: “A publisher pays a writer for a share of every copyright while they are under contract. But the writer actually retains a share of the copyright at all times, even though they relinquish control of that copyright.”
While Kear does write solo, he also acknowledges his creative partnerships by saying, “I co-write as many writers do. In those instances, it's because I have found a shared view of the world with someone and try to create something accordingly. I love my co-writers and rarely add new ones. It's hard to really make true connections creatively and it's important to me to honor them when you find them.”
Josh Kear’s song credits are impressive: In Country, he has written the title track to Tim McGraw’s Set This Circus Down; the title track to Mark Wills’ Permanently, and the song, “Beautiful Way,” arguably one of the best tracks on Carly Goodwin’s debut album.
However, Nashville songwriter or not, Josh’s preferred style is actually Rock ‘n Roll. There, his credits include Lynard Skynard, “Dance With The Devil,” from the Cowboy Up soundtrack, and British rock band, UnAmerican, “Words In The Wire.”
Under the genre Americana, Josh has also written “Some Men Fly” with Walt Wilkins and “This River Runs Both Ways” for Trish O’Brien.
Hold Still keep going
I first heard Josh Kear play at the Appalachian Fair in Gray, Tennessee. While I knew that he was a successful songwriter, I had no clue that he had little experience performing before a large audience. What I heard and saw can only be described as absolutely explosive. His stage presence is powerful; delivering songs of such quality and skill that I will guarantee you will want to hear them again and again.
Josh’s intention is to make your want possible through an album project titled, Hold Still keep going. Thus far, he has recorded five songs and seven more are in the works.
Josh Kear explained his motivation for doing an album to me saying, “I am trying to capture what it feels like to be living in America right now: A simple, honest, unflinching look from one man's eyes at the world we live in. There's a lot pain and pleasure in what's out there. All of that should be captured on a full album. I need five to seven more songs to flesh that out into a full record, but these five are a start.”
I heartily agree. Judging from the 5 tracks I have heard, Hold Still will be a mature kind of Rock album. The theme is from the viewpoint of a young man who is becoming increasingly aware that he is coming into his own.
From Hold Still’s vantage, there is a bittersweet-ness of looking back and remembering the innocence of high school days; of the growing reality that moving through life can bring us up close with tragedy; the struggle all of us have with social issues, and that pain or not we must find a way to go on and appreciate what we have. Then there is the simple joy of just being young and alive. Hold Still moves and shows a depth that is unusual in today’s pop music.
Josh is taking the gamble of self-financing Hold Still. Each of the five tracks has been recorded to master quality. Of course, taste is subjective. Josh admits that should a label sign him, “It is possible that they could require any or all of the songs be re-recorded.” He then added, “But, that would be a good problem to have.”
That it would, Josh Kear. Thank you for affording me this fascinating view into your world. I’ll be keeping an eye and ear out for the rest of your fine album.
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About the Author: Perry Hicks is a former Mississippi Coast resident and was a correspondent for the old Gulfport Star Journal. He has appeared on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor.” Perry has also hosted his own radio talk show on the auto industry with a mix of politics and music.
Contact the Author: firstname.lastname@example.org