February, 2010


By Emile Menasché

Over her 19 years with the New York Songwriter's Circle, Director and President Tina Shafer has seen a lot of talent develop. Such songwriters as Norah Jones, Jesse Harris, Gavin DeGraw, Richard Julian, Vanessa Carlton, and Company of Thieves have emergred from the Circle's regular performances and annual songwriting contests. Now at work on her third solo album, Shafer has written for Celine Dion, Bette Midler, Phoebe Snow, Donna Summer, Sheena Easton, and various film and television projects. We caught up with her not long after the conclusion of the 2009 New Work Songwriter's contest, an event that featured everything from guitar-toting singer/songwriters to a performance accompanied by onthe-fly audio loop construction.

Has the craft of songwriting changed much over the time you've been doing the Circle?

What I've seen that never changes is great content—and people's reaction to it. That never goes away no matter what time it is. What have changed are the styles [that emerge] as different people make their mark. When Vanessa Carlton had her big hit "A Thousand Miles," there was this onslaught of dark-haired angry singer-songwriter-pianists. The same thing when Norah Jones and John Mayer emerged. You're always counting on the odd man or woman who sounds like nobody else: They're the ones who come along and jump out of the contest.

How much does a songwriter's performance ability influence success?

That's a good question. In earlier generations, we accepted Bob Dylan's and Neil Young's voices. When there's such craftsmanship, uniqueness, and beauty in a song, you can be a Jimmy Webb or a Dylan and do well. Looks and presentation are a little more important today. It seems that what sells more is a person like Sara Bareilles, who has a beautiful sound, plays great, and looks beautiful.

Can instrumental ability make a difference?

The Songwriting Contest's judging card has a piece for presentation, a piece on lyrical content, and a piece for song structure—how well the song has been written on a structural basis. All those factors are judged into what makes a song work. Some of the contestants are more seasoned performers than others. [2009 winner] Reed Waddell was just so "easy" onstage. Many of the judges commented on what a clean and good guitar player he was [in addition to his singing and writing]. It's like John Mayer: People admire his musicianship as well as his songwriting. You don&3039;t find the whole combination all that often.

How has being around all these writers influenced your own work?

I'm always being inspired by original stuff that comes from a unique place. My game has always improved when I've written with someone whom I consider better at a skill, or worked with a 'left-of-center' musician who can do something I can't. I&3039;m a classically trained musician: I'm not going to get 'out of the box' with beats and things like that. Sometimes the best collaborations are with people who can fill in your weak points with their strengths. You're going to end up with a really cool song.

Does your role in the songwriter's circle put you in a mentoring position?

I'm co-writing with the winner of our [2009] Young Songwriter's Award, Ali Brustofski, and a woman named Charlotte Sometimes. We're going to be presenting Ali to a label. With young songwriters, you've got to be careful not to step on their toes. I try to provide an atmosphere of comfort so they can be honest, even if they have a poem about some guy who broke up with them that week. It's about making them comfortable to express some kind of truth—then also helping them to structure the song, because most kids have no idea about song structure. With young people, it's about remembering how we were at that age; at 14 or 15 they have no perspective, so it's about trying to write from a viewpoint of someone when they had no perspective. To get into that head is hard for someone who's been through a lot more in life!

How can writers be considered for the Circle?

Writers can submit music and lyrics through our web site (songwriters-circle.com). All submissions are evaluated by our listening team, spearheaded by me. Demos can be simple, but good audio and great songs are always a plus.