Chances are, at some point in your life, you’ve heard a song written by today’s guest. He is Mark Cawley, songwriter extraordinaire and the author of Song Journey.
A well written song gives you the power to touch, teach and reach deep into a person’s soul. Mark has worked with legendary artists and coached thousands of songwriters in person online, over the phone and in workshops all over the world. Today, he’s giving us a firsthand look inside the songwriting industry.
Mark Cawley: Songwriting for me, it started, the funny part about it, I was talking to another songwriter of my kind of community here, same age sort of. We were talking about the fact that the music in the 60s especially, the Beatles and the Stones and Motown and all that era, sometimes those songs were kind of hard to play, sophisticated. Chord changes maybe or lyrically and a lot of us just as an alternative began to make up our own songs. I know I did.
I thought, “Well you know, if I can’t quite nail this, I’m just going to make something up.” So, I really started making something up. And then one thing would lead to another, I was in bands, literally garage bands when I was a kid, you know, working out of your garage.
You kind of hone the craft. In that era, there were no songwriting coaches, I didn’t know any song writers, certainly I grew up in upstate New York. Whatever I could gleam was coming from records.
Rae Williams: Why did you decide to write this book?
Mark Cawley: Yeah, that’s great. I mean, have a heart for it that I didn’t know I had to be honest. Because when you’re younger, you’re just trying to survive in this business and get breaks and get leads and get songs recorded by artists. Then there really wasn’t any time to look back or to reach down and help somebody. But I got to a certain age where I thought, well, I’ve kind of done an awful lot of what I want to do and I got more and more questions from younger writers, especially.
Older ones too, but younger ones asking about how you did something.
And it became important to me to kind of give them the best information I could because I made a lot of mistakes, you know, as far as signing contracts and things like that or even the etiquette of handling meetings in this world or co-writing or working with other songwriters.
There was a lot to impart I thought and I didn’t, I still really don’t feel there is a book out there that’s written by someone in the trenches basically, that’s been doing this and doing it in all different genres. I realized pretty early on, I had something to give here. It felt like a natural progression from what I’d always done.
Tools of the Trade
Rae Williams: What do you feel is the biggest takeaway from your book that a young songwriter for example can learn?
Mark Cawley: I think it’s a method, you know? I don’t believe in songwriting there are rules, but I think there are a lot of tools and tools are what I had to really earn the hard way. Many of the tools I got were from working with really good writers, co-writing.
Once you moved into that circle, it was a tremendous amount to learn and that became tools, not tricks really but tools, things I’d pull out, that’s what I really wanted to impart in the book. There’s an awful lot of anecdotal teaching stories about how I came to do something or came to do something I shouldn’t have done or whatever it was, but what I really wanted as the take away was just that priceless experience lessons that are hard to find in music in a songwriting path.
It’s not a rules thing. I mean, there has to be some inherent talent, but there’s so many tools that can help you in this and I realized, certainly in my age with writing and experience, how many of those I could compile and pass on, and how it might make this journey easier for someone else?
Rae Williams: What would you say is either your favorite or most used tool in your back pocket?
Mark Cawley: That’s a good question. Well, I would probably say titles. I’m a title writer. I know a lot of writers would call themselves title writers and all that means is, rather than sit down and go okay, I’m just going to play guitar, play keyboards or try to write a lyric. I do really a lot on sort of field work I’ve done to find things to write about. That could be going to a book store and walking up and down aisles and writing down titles, watching TV and movies, really intentionally, looking for things that might become something interesting to write about.
One of the differences between a writer who is getting heard, especially a new writer because there’s so many, especially in Nashville where I am, is what you’re writing about.
I don’t mean gimmicky, but I mean if you write about something with a different slant or a different title, different words, maybe even a second concept, which is a popular term here, which means you think beyond the initial concept when you look at a title.
But the one big thing to me would be title writing. I really preach that when I coach people.
Who Do I Want to Be?
Rae Williams: You talked about some of the anecdotes that you have in your book, is there one in particular that you could share with us that kind of gives us an essence of the songwriting business and some of the things that you’ve gone through?
Mark Cawley: Yeah, there is a lot of them in there. My favorite one are the ones kind of dearest to me is when I started the book with, which was I started as an artist. I was in a band, in all different bands. But I was in a band called Faith Band at one point, who had a hit out called Dancing Shoes.
I’m from upstate New York, but this band was based in Indiana. I joined the band to write songs for them, ended up staying a long time. Band got a couple of record deals and in one of them, we began to get some popularity, especially in the midwest where they were located. We began opening up for acts like Hall & Oats and the Doobie Brothers and all these fantastic bands, which is a great learning experience.
But I was probably on the hub of going, “Is this my thing—do I want to be a star? Or do I want to be a songwriter?”
I didn’t know I had to be one or the other, but in this particular instance, it was around 1979. My band opens up for Peter Frampton, who is at the height of absolute height of Frampton Mania. He had an album out that was the biggest live album of all time.
Pretty amazing crowd. Probably 18–20,000 that night. He was traveling as he would travel; you know? In these Silver Eagle Buses, I don’t know how many…There were a lot of them. My little band pulled up in the equivalent of a Winnebago, and we pulled up to this particular place in Fort Wayne. The Fort Wayne Colosseum in Indiana.
We had to go around the back and there was a big hill, the colosseum sat on a hill.
We pulled up at the bottom of the hill, parked behind all of the Frampton Silver Eagles and made our way out of the bus. I was the last one, I don’t know why, but the other guys had kind of gone around and you had to walk up this hill to get into the back of the arena to do your sound check.
I’m the last guy out and I’m carrying my bass guitar in a case and I closed the door behind me and I start to amble up after everybody. Preface it by saying that this time I looked a lot like Frampton. Not on purpose, but it was a small, thin, a lot of blond hair, all that kind of thing. Probably a lot of comparison, I never really think about that.
So, I start my route out of the Winnebago and I hear this roar coming from the top of the hill. I look up at the hill and it is all these, mainly girls, waiting to see Peter Frampton of course. But they’re outside and they’re at the top of the hill, looking straight down at me and I start to hear just a rumble that gets bigger and bigger.
Finally I heard somebody go, “That’s him.”
I froze. I couldn’t get through them. I couldn’t get around them. Just looked at this mob and it dawned on me, they were going to come down the hill. And they did. They start down the hill, hundreds of them. Just a pile of young girls, Frampton lovers. They’re flying down the hill, I look back at the door, it’s locked, I can’t get back in; I can’t beat them to the arena. I put my guitar down and just held on for dear life and watched this mob come at me.
Right before they reached the bottom of the hill, I swear, they all put the brakes on because somebody said, “That’s not him, that’s nobody.”
I just stopped and I thought, “Wow, okay, I guess nobody is alright.” And I’m going to live, I’m not going to get torn apart. But they were grumbling, they ambled back up the hill and everybody was complaining.
I felt terrible, and I had to pick my guitar back up and walk the walk of shame up around to the back of this place. But what it started in me that continued through a lot of this touring time for me was thinking, “Do I want that?”
Am I prepared for that kind of thing because that’s what you’re shooting for as an artist? What do I love? That was the beginning in me separating songwriting from an artist. You don’t have to. But in my case, I thought, I really like writing a lot of diverse things, which is hard to do when you’re an artist, because you get an identity and you kind of stick to your thing.
I started weighing what I really loved to do, what did I love the most? And it was becoming apparent in that story that era and that time to me, that songwriting was what really moved me. I would have been happy in the back of the Winnebago, with the door shut writing a song.
Way happier than being chased by a mob or you know, playing those kinds of gigs. That was the beginning.
If You Have to Choose
Rae Williams: Do you have any specific advice in terms of someone who is trying to choose? Or do you think doing both is possible?
Mark Cawley: Yeah, certainly you can do both. I think what’s a little harder is, what was harder for me is, again I liked writing over my career. I ended up writing R&B and country and pop and that’s kind of hard to do from the artist standpoint because usually you’re doing an album of your material and your style.
To be a chameleon is kind of tough as an artist, but also, I think beyond that, the advice I would give is decide what you really enjoy. I mean, a lot of artists are fantastic writers as well, someone like Ed Sheeran right now is a great songwriter and a great artist, and I think it’s all working together for him just fine.
But if you find yourself not loving part of it, especially the artist part—I think from opening up for Fleetwood Mac and all these kind of acts, I would look at them and think, these guys really want it.
They live it, breathe it, want it, they do it to exist.
If you don’t feel that way as an artist, you’re probably in trouble, I think. Maybe the same for songwriting in a way, I mean, you really got to have to want to do it. The phrase is you have to not want to not write I think is how it goes. You have to live to write. But they are different.
I would say the advice would be if you’re one or the other, make sure that’s how driven you are to do what you do. If they go hand in hand, great. But a lot of times they don’t. For me they didn’t.
Rae Williams: Do you think that there are distinct changes coming in the industry that people are going to have to deal with?
Mark Cawley: That’s a great question because there are a couple of answers to me, but there are a lot of changes, sure. This era of iTunes and Spotify and streaming especially, has created quite a difference in the way I grew up as a songwriter and got started as a songwriter.
In the days when I started, if you had a lot of promise, the golden thing was to get to a publisher—which still is great, it still is the main thing for a songwriter. But they were more open to giving you a living wage or just to do an advance for you that could allow you to write.
Because you could make a lot of money from even being on an album cut as a songwriter. That one has really changed, that’s called mechanical royalties, and that’s from the sale of product.
Now, unless you’re Beyoncéor Ed Sheeran or just Adele or somebody, you’re probably not selling a lot of physical product. You’re hoping to get hits on the radio. That’s how you make your money.
The business effectively shrunk quite a bit when these changes happened, ranging from iTunes where you could cherry pick songs rather than buy a whole album. That changed the world for an awful lot of songwriters and awful lot of writers had to quit being writers. It’s the people writing the hit singles that had the better shot at making a really good living, anyway.
I coach a lot of writers, and I coach them, I really hope they don’t only focus on this. They’re writing from the heart and again, writing because they just can’t not do what they have to do.
They love to write. Great things happen that way.
Part of the reason I wrote the book too is to talk about these expectations as a writer. A lot of times, I’ll coach somebody and I’ll say, “Tell me how your opinion of the business. How do you understand it, what are you shooting for, what’s your expectation?”
A lot of times they’re not very educated about it, which is not a knock. I mean, I wasn’t either. But you need to be, if this is your choice for a living. We’re talking about two different things when we’re talking about songwriting and pro songwriting.
There’s songwriting and there’s the songwriting business, there’s a music business. They’re different, and they’re very different than when I started to do things. Innovations like iTunes and streaming and how you’re paid, right down to how you can expect someone to help you on this route.
Publishers would in the beginning, probably pay you a beginning wage and see how it goes. They might sign you to a four year contract with one year options and see if you start to get songs cut. You can get one cut on an album and you might make $80,000 or something on a platinum album, and that’s a wage, that attracts publishers, but that is pretty much gone. You’re looking at singles.
That has changed.
The things that are probably the same, I do think talent will win out. I do think there’s a lot of etiquette involved. Your kind of have to be a good hang and a good person I think still. That is the same. The people who are sort of jerks or have a weird motive, they fall by the wayside quickly.
Do the Work
Rae Williams: What are one or two of your kind of biggest rules of etiquette in this business?
Mark Cawley: There’s one that came to mind, I mean, don’t be a dick. It’s a great piece of advice however you word it, but yeah, I mean, be a decent person. Part of what I try to impart is it is a marathon career, it’s not a sprint, it’s not a run up the charts and it’s all great. It’s like a living, it’s a job.
It’s a wonderful job when it’s working. But it is a marathon.
To do that, you make contacts, you make friends. You network however you choose to network. I wrote a chapter about that because there are many ways to choose to network right now.
All that stuff plays a huge part. I think that has always been that way. Especially networking, who you know and who you can connect to and how you work when you do connect with them. To me, the etiquette is a really big part of coaching because that is one that I’ve done wrong and I’ve done right and I’ve seen so much of it go on and see how it works when it works well and how it can sabotage something.
Those are things that are fun to teach, because if you didn’t teach them, someone’s going to learn them the hard way probably. Which is what I did and most writers I know—they did something wrong and then went, I wish I had known better, you know?
Rae Williams: What would you say especially in your industry is the most effective and efficient way of networking?
Mark Cawley: I would say, networking in a place where music is made is pretty big. If you live in a little town in Kansas for instance, you may be doing your best through social media, through Facebook, to connect with writers and Instagram and however you can find people. That works to a point, but there is no substitute for coming to a place like Nashville and starting to meet people.
It may be a slow grind, but there’s no substitute for it.
You start to build a network of friends, you go out and play or you go meet other writers or whatever you do, those are the people that are doing what you want to do and you can’t beat being in the same environment with them.
If nothing else, to kind of judge yourself, how are you doing? How do you measure up? Let’s do it that way. I’d call it old school networking really to get out in front of your peers and in front of the people doing what you want to do.
I would preach social media, as well. I mean, there are lots of things you can do without a publisher and without a record label to get your music heard. And all those things are fantastic.
But I would still say at the end of the day, you probably need to end up in New York or LA or Atlanta or London wherever this industry’s being done, the kind of music you want to do.
Look before You Sign
Rae Williams: What do you think is the worst advice that you actually received throughout your career?
Mark Cawley: I have a really practical side which a lot of my writer friends will admit they don’t have. Within that, it would fall in the same, well, I don’t want to learn the business end. The business end is yuck. I don’t want to be a businessman, I want to be an artist. I want to be a creative and someone else can do that. I’ll get somebody to do that.
Well, yeah, you do eventually get somebody great to do those things, but you need to know about those things even if it’s just basics.
How money is made, how money is split up, who should be doing what in their job description, those are things that are important to me to teach, especially because I didn’t do it as a kid. You know, this still goes on too. Somebody is so excited to get offered something that they just will sign it, and it can really derail you. It derailed me as an artist and a writer a couple of different times, and by derail, I mean, three or four years of trying to get out of a bad deal.
So those things are so big. Learn this business you’re in, to some degree.
It is so wonderful when you are doing this and somebody that you know their names says, “hey, I love you and here sign this and we’ll all be stars,” you know?
I did two huge deals like that one back in the late 70s with Terry Knight, who at the time managed Grand Funk Railroad, probably was the biggest manager on earth. He took a band that I was in and changed the name of the band, changed the name of the songs, decided at the last minute that the band should be faceless.
I tell the story in the book, but he got Richard Avedon, a fantastic photographer to do a cover where it was just our backs without shirts and the whole idea was let the music stand on its own.
This will be revolutionary.
We signed and we did one of the real no-no’s of signing to him as a manager and a publisher, which is a whole other story. But the short version was this came out with Billboards on the Sunset strip, double page ads and Rolling Stone, all over the world.
Soon, somebody looked at this and said, “This must be a band made up of superstars as who else could do this?” And it was not. It was made up of a band of newbies and this kid from New York State now moved to Indiana. It got found out, which we didn’t think was a problem. But the way it was presented was almost as if he was trying to fool somebody.
So, the next series of articles came out everywhere like this is Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood. These are all these superstars who are going to let the music stand on their own…and then probably two weeks later come the articles of this is who this is, these are these guys in Indiana, here is who they are, and I feel like I have been fooled.
That just fell apart so awful, and we could not get out of the contract. We went from these huge dreams to right back to playing clubs and starting over, but this time stuck in a bad contract.
Any songwriter I talk to with the talks of contract and please, get an entertainment lawyer.
Songwriters and musicians are really famous for, and me included, for not thinking enough of themselves. Not betting on themselves enough, because it is such an uncertain business. There are some great examples of people who did bet, like Tom Petty always comes to mind.
Tom got in a lot of legal problems, but he believed in himself and he took a beating for a few years before he came up on top.
But believing in yourself and believing that you have something worth somebody working with is big. A lot of artists, a lot of songwriters don’t feel that way at least in the beginning. They are just glad to get someone to like them and want to help them, but they are not always great folks. Sometimes they are, sometimes they’re wonderful.
Mark’s Favorite Stories
Rae Williams: So, who would you say is your favorite artist that you’ve worked with throughout your career?
Mark Cawley: That I have written songs for would be the easiest one, probably some of the people that I grew with like Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Chaka Khan, Diana Ross. I have written songs for those people, and to me that was always the biggest thrill.
Rae Williams: You just named quite a few of my favorites.
Mark Cawley: I think I have hits with younger artists and stuff which is also is huge. But when you hear somebody that you grew up listening to and you hear your words come out of their mouth, you are in tears. And I would honestly say I’ve been in tears a time or two. You hear that and say, wow, you know? There it is, there is something that I made up coming out of that person.
If I had to pick one it would certainly be Tina Turner.
Because a lot of songwriters when they write they hear a voice in their head. I would hear that voice in my head when I am writing and it would help direct what I am writing and then when you actually hear it come back at you it’s just beyond relief.
Rae Williams: What song would you say you’re most proud of?
Mark Cawley: Can I pick two? Because they are so good. I will start with Tina again because it is a song called Dancing in my Dreams off an album called The Widest Dreams. It sold about six million, and it was written with two of my favorite co-writers, Kye Fleming and Brenda Russell.
And the whole experience was out of this world. I mean we had success, all of us, especially Kye whois huge, she’s a hall of fame writer and Brenda’s written Color Purple music and she is something else too.
But this time we’d been shooting four different artists including Tina, and we all wrote to briefs like you do, sometimes publisher will talk to a labeler or someone involved and go this is what they’re looking for.
We had been trying to do that and it never quite got there and there’s a story in the book of mine about a song called Dance with a Stranger that illustrated this. But anyway, we have been trying to get there, and this particular time, we all met in Nashville.
I wasn’t living here at the time, Kye was, Brenda lived in LA. We met up for two days and said, “You know what? Let us not try to please anybody. Let’s forget the business, let us forget who’s looking for whatever, let us just try to knock each other out. We’ll spend two days, whatever you want to write.” And we wrote this song, which has a Celtic beat, a pretty deep lyric, very unusual. The whole thing is unusual.
So after two days we are hugging, crying and laughing.
We thought, if it never gets picked up by an artist, we’re okay, which is also a feeling that I would recommend if you can get there. We loved it, we kept playing and playing, and Brenda and I ran to the nearest studio that we knew in Nashville and recorded it, just to have it almost. Then we were all calling each other going, “We can’t quit playing it at the car. Isn’t this the best thing ever?”
Then reality set in, and it was like, “Uh-oh who is going to do this?” Because it doesn’t sound like any brief we’ve heard, especially didn’t even think Tina Turner at all.
It didn’t resemble her to me or any of us, and lo and behold, Brenda’s publisher in LA decided Tina would like this song. So, against the brief they were asking for she sent the song to everyone in the powers at be who came back and said, “you people are out of your minds. What are you doing? This is not what we asked for. You are wasting our time here.” So, we thought that was that. We thought, of course, well it is an odd song.
I mean I don’t know who is going to love it, but we love it, the writers.
The same person at the publishing company actually got it to Tina herself, which doesn’t always happen. A lot of times the label picks it and the artists hears it later, but she’s a strong artist. She heard it, and the next thing we know, she is on Oprah and I said, “I found this song that I am building my record around. This is exactly where I want to go. This is how I feel at the moment. This is me.” And was thankful for the song.
And the song ends up on a record that sells six million.
The lesson there for us was write something that you absolutely love and someone else will love it. That was a biggie.
The other song for me that was very different was our number one in England called Day and Night by artist called Billie Piper, who is in America probably the equivalent of Britney Spears at the time. She was very big, a young pop star, and I was working with Eliot Kennedy in Sheffield, England. Elliot’s a force of nature. He is amazing, a great writer, and signed his company and working in England quite a bit.
But I was back in Franklin, Tennessee, and they needed one more song for her album knowing it would probably be pretty big when it came out, especially in Europe and the UK, in particular.
So long, long story short, I worked on something just to come up with an idea and got it to them, them meaning Elliot. So, the same day, they start working on the song. The following day they finished it.
It becomes the single and a debut at number one in England, which was just beyond belief, because number one, I love England. I go there a lot to work, and The Beatles meant so much to me. Just to have a number one and have it happen like that was spectacular. It was just fun all the way around, and then bam, just entered the charts at one. So those two songs, pretty diverse, but probably my favorites.
Not All Sunshine
Rae Williams: And just awesome stories to have and an awesome feeling to relive.
Mark Cawley: Yes, thanks. They are, and there’s a lot of other ones. We haven’t gotten into the other kinds of ones. I have some incredible disappointment ones too. As big as you can get in the stories that we told or as high as you fly, I got the other equivalent too.
I can give you the one that really broke my heart was Roy Orbison was making a comeback with an album called Mystery Girl. It ended up being his last record, and I loved him as a kid and as a songwriter, very unique. I mean that voice was something else.
So, I had an opportunity to write for that Mystery Girl album. I was in LA, I had some songs signed to the same publisher and label as Roy was doing the record with and I did it with Jeff Lynn, ended up being a great record.
Anyway, I wrote a song that I thought was perfect for him and they got it to him and I got word that he loved it and that he was carrying it around in a briefcase, and I am beside myself. I am thinking this is again, one of the songwriter things you should never think is that this is easy. This is the way it should go; this is perfect you know? But I thought that, and there is always the songwriter saying it’s not final until it’s final.
That was certainly counting my chickens big time.
I woke up one morning and turned the Today Show on I think, and there was this picture with the dates underneath it, and I thought, “Oh lord he’s passed away,” which he did. After a certain amount of time, I remember talking to the publisher and going, “Where does the song lie, did they do it?”
And the publisher said, “Let me check for you” and held my breath for probably days, and they came back and said they did cut a track—no vocal.
So, you know, nothing you can do. I never got the Roy song that was right there. I had the same exact experience with Luther Vandross. I wrote a song with Eliot Kennedy again and Burt Bacharach, same experience. Luther had it, was going to cut it, and passed away. So those are heart breaking for writers.
A Challenge from Mark Cawley
Rae Williams: What is a challenge from your book and from your experience that you would give our readers and listeners that can change their life?
Mark Cawley: If I had to look at my own, I think I would have answered that question by making big moves. I mean jumping off the cliff, going somewhere else. Remember David Bowie quote that I can’t do verbatim, but he talked about walking out into the water until he was almost submerged and that is where he felt he needed to be as an artist? Just a little scared.
I think for any artist, you’ve got to be brave.
You’ve got to be fearless to some point, sooner than later. If you grew up in a little town in Idaho and you need to move to LA then you need to do it—or Nashville or London or whatever.
I have made those moves, and a lot of times it had been scary. But I think they are necessary for your creative spirit and probably your business as well, back to the networking idea we talked about, but I would say if I had to impart one thing it would be to jump when you need to jump.
Just trust that you have done what you are doing the best you can do it, and there is going to be a time when you got to step out and it’s not easy to do. There’s a lot of fear that can go along with creativity sometimes.
Will somebody love it? Will it get me the result I want? Am I good? Those are all real questions and occasionally insecurities we get, you know? I am sure everybody does, but as an artist, you love it, you love it, you love it, and then you put it in front of somebody and hold your breath, but that’s what you have to do.
Rae Williams: And you are actually doing that with this book too.
Mark Cawley: That just came to mind. It is also wonderful right now; I mean it is exciting. I have never done one and I put my heart in it, and I am really happy with everything involved including everybody that helped. It is such a rush.
But what the scary part is, the other night, I think last night even I was talking to my wife and said, “You know what? It’s starting to set in a little bit as what if it doesn’t translate? What if somebody buys this book and goes ‘What a bunch of BS,’ you know? From a guy I don’t want to read.” Again, that is your nightmare.
Rae Williams: Yeah. I think that’s the fear that most people have but that fear stops them from just beginning in general.
Mark Cawley: It will stop you and you can’t let it stop you. You’ve got to try you know?
Getting it out there is what you’ve got to do. I do know a lot of artists and a lot of writers who freeze at a point and go, “I don’t think I can put up with the pressure or the possible rejection.”
And boy, if I had to impart something else, if you do this long enough, you are going to deal with more rejection than you are accepted. That’s just part of the job.
If you write 100 songs, you are going to get geez, I don’t know 80 or 90 of them that someone is going to go, “eh,” and you’ve got to write another one.
You’ve got to write more.