Greg Wells is a Grammy-nominated songwriter, producer and musician whose songs have contributed to more than 85 million records for a dizzying variety of artists: from Katy Perry to Keith Urban, Aerosmith to Celine Dion, Deftones to the Count Basie Orchestra. He's also one of hundreds of pro music creators who will share their wisdom with you at the ASCAP "I Create Music" EXPO in LA, April 13-15. To celebrate 12 years of the ASCAP EXPO, we asked Greg these 12 questions.
What was the first significant break in your career?
There’s been a few different “big breaks” but the first most impactful one was applying at age 18 for a Canadian Arts Council grant to study in Los Angeles with the great Claire Fischer (composed all string arrangements for Prince, among many other incredible music achievements). To have the validation of a board of professional adjudicators saying “yes, you should go study in Los Angeles” was the first time I really thought that I might not be crazy.
What form of musical education best helped to prepare you for the opportunity to advance?
Without question, the education I received at the Humber College of Music in Toronto prepared me for a career in music.
What was the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome in your music career?
The biggest hurdle on my career path has been twofold - firstly it’s the fact that everything is on me. There’s no boss to tell me how to improve. I had to figure this out mostly on my own. Secondly, it’s the great lack of financial security. I had to get to the point where I never thought about money, otherwise I couldn’t do what I do now.
What sort of sacrifices have you had to make in your career? How do you deal with the compromises you’ve had to make?
Trying to achieve some kind of level of excellence in anything requires tons of practice, focus, and a monk-like dedication. I never partied in high school. I was either practicing instruments at home or playing in any band that would have me. I didn’t have a typical teenage experience and in many ways have not experienced many things in life that a lot of folks take for granted. That said, I wouldn’t change a thing!
Have you ever worked on something that you initially felt to be outside of your comfort zone but turned into a blessing?
My comfort zone is being outside my comfort zone. I hate being the best player on the team or the smartest person in the room. My biggest attraction to music is the mystery of it. I don’t want to know what’s coming around the corner. I constantly try to push myself creatively and never repeat things musically.
How do you sustain inspiration and fresh ideas well into your career?
I stay inspired and able to create music mainly because I recognize it’s not coming from me. I wait until I hear a musical idea in my head and then I run to an instrument to play it. I never bang away on a guitar or piano trying to make the stone bleed. Also, I’ve been humbled so many times by having a terrible mistake I made, like a wrong chord, be so much better than the idea I was working on. When that happens well into the double digits, it keeps me wide eyed and humble, trying to find inspiration in the weirdest places.
Much of your songwriting is collaborative. What are some of the benefits that can come out of collaborating?
I vastly prefer collaborating with a great talent rather than me alone coming up with a song. I think that the right combo of people can lead to a result we couldn’t have come up with individually. Again, having the luxury of someone else in the room hearing a mistake and saying “hey - what was that strange chord you just played? Play it again” comes with collaboration. I’d miss a lot of those helpful accidents if it was only me in the room.
Other than possessing a strong musical talent, what other qualities do you see in yourselves that have helped you succeed in your career?
The one quality or attribute that has led to any success in my career is that I didn’t and won’t quit. That’s it. If you really want to have a life in the creative arts, you can’t quit no matter what.
Emerging artists today are faced with a dizzying array of information. The challenge is sorting through all of your options to focus on what is most important. In your opinion, what is that?
I feel the thing to focus on is writing the absolute best songs you possibly can. If you write incredible amazing truthful songs, the world will beat a path to your door.
When you sit down to create, do you write for yourself, or do you write for an intended audience?
I hardly ever create music for an audience that isn’t already in the studio with me. I can’t second guess what someone not there would want to hear. I recommend you always try to please yourself and the people you’re directly working with, then the outside audience will find your music in their own way.
What does success change for you? What doesn’t change?
Success doesn’t change the nature of how an idea shows up, or if it’s any good or not. I start with a clean slate and don’t recreate something that’s already been successful. Some people like to copy songs that were already hits, including their own, but I’d feel ridiculous approaching music that way.
Who are the most important people you work with that help you conduct your career successfully?
I’m a believer in listening to mentors, and trying to be a mentor for younger people in music. I’ve always asked a lot of questions to people smarter and more experienced than me, and I remembered all the answers. So many younger people have no idea how to listen to other people talk. My advice is ask a good question and then zip it while the answer is being given. Absorb this knowledge into your bones.
Find Greg online at gregwells.net, then follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
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