December 13, 2011

Writer in a Writer's Town

Having penned two of the most popular Grammy-winning songs in the country in the past few years, "Need You Now" for Lady Antebellum and "Before He Cheats" for Carrie Underwood, Josh Kear has risen to the top echelon of Nashville songwriters.

By Jess Draper

Josh Kear and Lady Antebellum

Kear hoists his award at the 2010 ACM Awards, backed by
(l-r) Lady Antebellum's Dave Haywood, Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley.

Josh Kear must have received high marks for playing well with others in school. His exceptional ability to collaborate creatively with others has landed him at the top of the competitive apex of music's elite. Responsible for penning two of recent memory's most explosively popular songs across any genre —"Need You Now" (Lady Antebellum) and "Before He Cheats" (Carrie Underwood) — there's no room for doubt when it comes to lauding the Nashville-based songwriter for his immense talent. Initially finding their legs in the country music format, the two songs crossed over to pop radio quickly, "Need You Now" in 2010 and "Before He Cheats" in 2007, due to their universal appeal - both musically and lyrically.

In 2007, "Before He Cheats" was honored as the ASCAP Country Song of the Year, and Kear picked up the award again last year for "Need You Now." In addition, just this fall he was presented with the ASCAP Global Impact Award for the success of "Need You Now" across multiple formats and on an international scale. But that's certainly not where Kear's rampant success stops. Earlier this year, along with co-writers (and Lady Antebellum members) Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott, Josh was honored with the coveted Song of the Year award at the Grammys, and picked up the award for Best Country Song that night as well. But of course Kear is no stranger having "Grammy winner" precede his name. He won his first Grammy trophy three years prior, in 2008, for Best Country Song ("Before He Cheats"). And how does he measure and handle all of this success? With grace, humility and forward-thinking focus.

His success and clear vision, along with a remarkable work ethic, flexibility and a passion for learning and evolving, has propelled Kear to the forefront of the international songwriting scene. Having learned and perfected his craft in Nashville, a town where the song is still king and writers work and create in a close-knit community, Kear is sharing his instincts, know-how and skills in other creative hubs like London, Los Angeles and New York. He's also bringing the outside ideas, philosophies and approaches he picks up from those multi-genre experiences and is integrating them into his work while at home in Nashville.

On the heels of a whirlwind year with the incredible success of "Need You Now," Kear spoke to Playback about how he initially dismissed the song as a hit (and how thankful he is that he was wrong), the one-of-a-kind creative environment that is Nashville, soaking up the expertise of other writers on the international scene, balancing the challenges and rewards of his hot career and staying focused on what's most important.

How did you first become interested in being a songwriter, and what specifically was it that triggered that desire?

I was 13 years old, in high school, had a crush on a girl and was way too shy to actually tell her. So I started writing songs to express myself and never really stopped. By the time I was 15, I was taking it seriously enough to where I was getting books from the library about publishing, how songwriters make a living, song form, and biographies of songwriters. I wasn't focused on the artist side of it. Most people read Dylan biographies while I read about Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and the Brill Building. I actually wanted to be a songwriter, which I know is kind of bizarre, because at 15 everybody just wants to be a rock star. But that just wasn't where my head was. I knew Nashville existed in the songwriting world — that songwriters came here — but I didn't really know the extent of it until I started reading and discovering that people were coming here just to write songs, even in today's world, and that got me excited.

Nashville is known worldwide as a songwriter's town. How would you say the writing process and collaboration differ when you're working in LA, London or New York versus Nashville?

In the limited amount of time I've spent going to other places, I've gone to London more than anywhere else. There are still a lot of people there who are sitting in rooms together writing songs. That is true everywhere, it's just a different way of doing it, and they usually aren't as centralized as we are in Nashville. Nashville's unique in that within about three streets and five blocks, all of us songwriters pretty much come [to Music Row] to write and work. That's not to say that people don't write songs at their houses and that sort of thing, but there is a central spot, like the Brill Building or Tin Pan Alley used to be. You know that on the other side of the wall, or downstairs and in the next building over, somebody is writing a song. Even if you never see those people other than at functions and special events, there is a sense of community in knowing that we're all feeding off of that same energy. It's a cool, unique thing, and it's really the only place left like it in the world. You don't really find that elsewhere. At least, I haven't.

And how has that sense of community nurtured your craft?

I got my first publishing deal at 21, and I've been really lucky because, even from the earliest moments, I had a lot of really experienced songwriters take me under their wing, write songs with me and show me what I was supposed to be doing. They taught me not just how to write a song but also how to be a professional songwriter. I also learned how to pace myself for a long career and understand that this is not a "if nothing happens in the first 12 months, you're going to have to go get another job" sort of thing. Instead, these writers taught me that if I'm going to do this for 30, 40 or 50 years, don't stress whether this particular song is going to be the one that changes your life. Why? Because on Monday you're going to write a song, on Tuesday you're going to write a song, on Wednesday you're going to do it again, over and over and over, and you'll just get better with time. They were invaluable lessons.

There are a lot of people in the Nashville creative community who are very supportive of each other. Don't get me wrong, we all want to get on records, be on the charts and have success, but again, there is very much a spirit of songwriters pulling for other songwriters. It makes it a really good place to spend your time, and those are the type of people you want to be surrounded by.

You've talked about being a writer in a writer's town. What does that mean to you, and how does it challenge you? The old cliché in Nashville is "it all begins with a song," but there is a reason for the cliché'. Especially here, where lyric really matters and the melody has to be good enough to support the strong lyric. There are expectations of what a good song should be, and it has to be really special, because there are so many really good songs. It's hard to even fathom the number of songs in every office here that deserve to be hits — they have a great lyric, great melody, everything you'd ever want in a hit song — and they don't get recorded. And usually that's just because standards are so high. That's a lot to live up to on a daily basis, knowing that you have to try to out-write all these other amazingly talented people.

It's not something you necessarily think about when you're writing, because you have to forget all that and get lost in the particular song you're working on. However, when you're in a situation where you know all of these writers are working as hard as you are, writing as much and are as good or better than you, that's a creative energy where you're working against the best of the best. I'm not sure there's anything else like that anywhere. It's fun and an interesting way to spend your time and make a living. I love going other places like London and LA — I really have been enjoying it — but I like coming home and knowing that the song is still "king" around here.

Looking back on yourself as a young writer, what would you tell yourself if you had the chance?

What wisdom would you impart to that kid with his first publishing deal? First of all I would tell myself how good I was not, how many mistakes I still had to make and how that was OK, how much learning I had to do and not to worry about it. It took me a long time. I'm an overnight success story, even though I've had a publishing deal for 10 years. My expectations for myself back then were unrealistically high. I also would love to go back to that kid and say that it's OK to be successful. I had a very strange internal relationship with the idea of success and money and that sort of thing, the whole sell-out mentality. But it was a 10-year internal battle to figure out and come to terms with. It was worth it, but I wish I could sit down with that kid and say being successful doesn't mean you're selling out, it just means you wrote something people like, and that's not a bad thing.

Initially, you somewhat dismissed Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now" as a potential hit. How did that song come about, and what was it that caused you to write it off?

We all dismissed it, initially. I had a writing appointment with Lady Antebellum, which had been made months before. They hadn't even released the song that went on to become their first No. 1 hit yet ["I Run To You"]. They showed up that morning and I had an uptempo, light-hearted ditty thing going, and we knocked the rest of that out in about 30 minutes. I thought they'd leave, but instead Charles [Kelley] reached for his guitar, played a couple chords and had this really heavy opening line for "Need You Now" that sounded pretty cool. The four of us [Dave Haywood and Hillary Scott are also co-writers on the song] started talking and got a feel for what it was going to be about, and it wrote itself pretty quickly.

I walked downstairs after they left and my publisher, Carla Wallace, asked, "How'd it go?" I said, "Well, we wrote two songs, and the first one sounds really radio, up-tempo, very much what they're looking for. I wouldn't be shocked if that ended up on a record. Then we wrote this slower, dark song after that." Honestly, I didn't give that song much more thought until I found out they had cut it. Then I started hearing that everyone was really happy with it and were talking about it being the first single.

Later I heard it was the name of the record. I had never in my life been more wrong about a song than I was about "Need You Now." Not because I didn't like it, I just thought it wasn't very commercial or what people were looking for at the time. Thank God I was wrong. So again, find a good idea, write it as well as you can, and if you like it while you're writing it, there's always a chance that people will love it as much as you do.

Has the impact of your global success challenged you to keep evolving and growing as a writer with the world stage in mind? Do you find that taking your talents to London and LA are exercising the hope to always evolve in your craft?

I've always written a little bit of everything during those years when I didn't really have nearly as much going on in Nashville as I wanted to. I was just learning how to create, learning how to be creative. I get bored pretty quickly and I was constantly experimenting with different musical styles and various types of songs, because I wanted to be able to write everything. I just wanted to be a good songwriter, and I don't believe that means you do only one thing really well. I think being a good songwriter means that you try to do as many things—and as many genres and styles— as well as you possibly can.

I grew up listening to everything, like most people do, and most of us love a little bit of everything. When something within any genre is really good, it's just good music. When something within any genre is bad, it's bad music. It's not bad because of the genre it exists in. It was a pretty natural extension once I got to the point where a couple songs crossed over and had a lot of success on pop radio. That opened up a lot of doors in that world, which is really exciting to me because I was writing a lot of those kinds of songs anyway. There is pop and rock music being made in Nashville; some of it's immensely successful, but much of it doesn't really break through or get heard.

It's been a lot of fun over the last few years to get to go to London and occasionally to Los Angeles, to hang out with and learn from guys who are making different kinds of music in different ways. I try to bring that home and add the things I learn in different places to what I do here. I feel very fortunate to have gotten to spend time with a lot of great, talented people elsewhere and absorb what they do, how they approach, how they think, the forms that they use for songwriting, which are slightly different than what I was learning from the best of the country songwriters here. It's been interesting because there is no right or wrong way to write a song. Each genre just seems to have a slightly different tweak on what works. I get a kick out of trying to take those things to a different genre and make them work there.

What are some of those things you've learned from writers in London and LA that you try to apply?

How much hookier things need to be. In the pop world it's hook, after hook, after hook, after hook. There's not time for a storyline to unfold, whereas in Nashville, we don't always have pre-choruses in our songs. A lot of Nashville songs have verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, and that works. In pop music there tends to be: verse, pre-chorus, chorus, post-chorus, straight back into verse. It's just slightly different versions of the same formula. I've started doing some of that with my country songs, because it's an interesting, different way of bending your brain. What I'm hoping for is a new way to look at what I'm doing, to keep it interesting. Hopefully I'm able to take the best of what we do here with lyrical content and carry that over into what I'm doing in other places, as well. I'm learning from writers in other places, and hopefully they're getting the chance to maybe learn something from me about what I've learned here. I'm just trying to soak up as much of everybody else's expertise as possible.

"Before He Cheats" [recorded by Carrie Underwood] was your first No. 1 song and is responsible for the overnight success you mentioned. How did it come about?

[My co-writer] Chris Tompkins and I have been friends for a long time, and we've been writing together for years. Chris's publisher had specifically asked him to write something for the second Gretchen Wilson album, and he had written the first verse for "Before He Cheats." One day we sat on his back patio, and he played me what he had. Just hearing the first two lines I was thinking, "Yes, I want to write this; this is cool." It was very natural. We talked about the contrast between the chorus and the verse, perspective-wise. Once we had that figured out, the song was written really fast. We sat with each other and thought, "Wow, this is really good, and the publishers will love this." So within months of writing it, Carrie won American Idol, the label put it on hold for her, she cut it, then it was on the radio a while later as the third single. It changed our lives pretty fast.

Do you remember where you were when you heard it on the radio for the first time?

I was going to Europe to play and was on the way to the airport when I heard it on the radio. That was an awesome moment. It wasn't the first time I had heard one of my songs on the radio, but it was the first time for that particular song. It had already been charting for a while before it was a single, so everybody was telling me, "It's going be a big hit!" So I was already pretty excited. Then, it actually went to No. 1 the week of my wedding.

That's a nice wedding present...

It was a really nice wedding present. It spent a few weeks at No. 1 — four or five weeks, I think. It was really great timing. Then, "Need You Now," was going to No. 1 right at the time my daughter, Luna, was born. I've had really good things going on in my life each time something big has happened musically.

What an interesting parallel...

Yeah, there have been nice little markers along the way that have kept my head straight, and it's really great that the music stuff is going well, but the stuff that really matters to me the most is my wife, daughter and family at home. There's always been something at those moments that's going on that's bigger than what's happening musically, which really has made it easy to stay focused on the stuff that matters.

What do you see as the most challenging part of your career?

At this stage in my career, staying excited is the most challenging part. I've written so many songs now that it's about finding ideas that aren't just good, but ideas I'm really excited about. I don't pitch my own songs, so I don't spend my time with my songs after they are written or recorded. I don't have time left in my day to think about them, so all my time gets put into new songs at all times. That's great, but when you're writing 70 or 80 songs a year, that's a lot of ideas that have to keep you excited, especially when you intend to be songwriting for a long time and don't want to get burned out.

I want to love songwriting down the road as much as I do now. I've gotten better at taking long breaks, getting out of town and away from it, and telling myself and really believing that it will be here when I get back. You can walk away from it for a little while, and it will all still be here when you get back. Sure, you won't have written during that period and might have missed out on a couple records, but long-term, it just doesn't add up. It's a marathon, not a sprint. It's challenging for me, to treat each song like the last most important song that you're ever going to write, and still remember that it's just a song.

And what is the most rewarding?

There are so many rewarding things: still getting to call my parents and tell them about cuts and things, sharing that sort of success with the people that I care about, listening to Luna singing "Need You Now." It's weird, there are a lot of great things, but I don't know if there is anything more rewarding or has ever been anything more rewarding than when you first finish a song. You finally get to experience what that song feels like, and you are able to get lost in it. It sounds kind of silly, and yet I still love that moment. It's some kind of weird place you get to go when you're playing the first time through that you'll never experience again with that song, and there's nothing else in life that does it. That alone will probably keep me going.

Many, many years down the road, how do you hope to be remembered?

I would like for my songs to be remembered. I want to be remembered as a good dad, husband, son — all of those things. Yes, you hope people remember you as being a good songwriter, but if you're lucky, your songs will long outlive you and anybody even remembering you. Any of us who get to do this on a daily basis and make a living from it, are really lucky. Maybe I just hope to be remembered as somebody who is grateful for having that good fortune.