Secret To Songwriting Revealed

Tim Brennan

The other night at the College of Charleston, I was treated to a songwriter’s dream. I got to be in the room with Grammy award winners, incredible singers, famous personalities, and those who make the songs that launch careers of famous personalities, right here in Charleston, for free, because of the CofC support and sponsorship of Borboleta Audio Mastering.


What these individuals gave to those in attendance was the one, true, elusive secret about successful songwriting. When it was revealed, heck, it was so simple. If you are a songwriter and want to know what will propel you from your living room writing into a career as a songwriter, or performer, the secret is with you every day. These guys uncovered it. And I’ll let you know what it is.

This seminar came about as an offshoot of Mark Bryan’s role as music industry teacher at the College of Charleston. He has been building the program there for a few years, with plans for it to expand. Often, he has had music industry professionals give talks to his Monday night class. This semester, Mark has decided to invite the greater Charleston community to witness and participate in four of these talks. The other night’s was the first in the series.


The plan was to have Mark Bryan serve as late night talk host to Darius Rucker and Cary Ann Hearst. I assume you know who those folks are, Mark and Darius were in Hootie and The Blowfish while Cary Ann is one half of the band Shovels and Rope.


The venue was changed on the day of the event to accommodate the greater than expected interest. Congrats to Mark and the College of Charleston for that. The theatre at the CofC School of the Arts was filled to near capacity while members of Mark’s class sat in chairs on the dais with Mark, Darius, Cary Ann, and a gorgeous Taylor guitar.


As the evening started, Darius had yet to arrive. Something about receiving a Grammy the night before, getting off his jet that evening, and making his way to the venue. Yes kids, writing songs can get you trips to the Grammys in your jet.

Before Mark began the interview session, he introduced five Nashville songwriters in the audience.  Patrick Davis, James Otto, Corey Crowder, JT Hodges, and James Slater each took the mic for a short talk on what they do and how they got to where they were in their careers. Each of these songwriters has had success, but talked about the struggle and length of time it took to achieve it.


Patrick talked about the typical path, “Get in your van, move to Nashville, and just find a way to get by. You’ll be writing for 3-5 years without anything to show for it, but don’t give up.”


However, you need your network of friends there. JT Hodges grew up in a Texas music industry family, but told the crowd the advice his father gave him, “You need to go where the music is, and be with people who are better than you.” However, while struggling in those early years, it was the relationships he formed with other struggling songwriter that helped him get through the tough times and improve his craft. Each songwriter agreed that the bonds formed in those early years kept them going through rough times.


With those bits of advice from each, the theme of the evening was formed: how the Nashville songwriting scene works. For each of these songwriters, it was clear that Nashville was the mecca of songwriting, and if you think you want to make songwriting your career, then go there and find out.

Cary Ann, the contrarian soul of the group, talked about growing up in Nashville. “I went backwards. I left Nashville to make it in the music biz,” she said, eliciting laughter throughout the room.


Once introductions were made Darius entered and joined in the conversation about the Nashville writing industry. “It is such a job to them,” he pointed out. Later he described the 3-a-day songwriting mill. “You go to these publishing houses where the songwriters are. And they have everything you need like instruments, nice rooms, couches and fresh coffee, and you write from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM. You take a break for lunch and then back at it from 2 to 5 and later from 6 to 8.”


That’s what these songwriters do. They write for hours at a time. For some of them, that is not enough. Like those five songwriters in attendance who had rented a house on the Isle of Palms so they can write 24 hours a day.


But how do they write? How can you write about personal experiences all day long?

Actually, they admitted that a relatively small amount of songs are written about personal experiences. Many are topical. Many are about experiences they see others going through. Darius even admitted that the words mean less than him, at times, than the melody.


Everyone has a different process of writing, which may evolve over time. Darius revealed that when he and Mark were writing for Hootie and the Blowfish, often Mark would present Darius with a piece of music and Darius would write the words. Darius went as far as to tell a story about how he hated the music to one song Mark presented him. In fact, he hated the music so much, that he wanted to write the cheesiest lyrics possible so the band would kill the song. Instead, he ended up liking what he was writing, improved upon it, and the song became one of their many huge hits.

Upon going solo, Darius had to learn how to work with many other songwriters and has become quite successful at focusing on what he enjoys most, the melody, while leaving the craft of words and arrangements to his songwriting partners.


In similar fashion, Cary Ann admitted to focusing on the melody and having to learn to write with others. Currently, the only person she co-writes with is her husband, but even in that, she needs a higher level of trust. “We had to learn to write together. We developed a system of leaving a piece of a song with each other, and then letting it go. We had to learn to stop being "precious" with everything we write and just let it go. See what happens.”

Talking about writer’s block, all three seemed to discount the existence of writer’s block, suggesting you can always write a song. It might be bad, but it is writing and you never know when those nuggets will come back and help another song. Each advised that a songwriter should write prose instead of lyrics for a while. To get a lot of ideas down on paper before writing the melody or lyrics, might help you break through an impasse.


However a highlight was when Cary Ann took the guitar to play her new song, “Stono River Blues,” followed by Darius performing his first solo country hit, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It.” Each songwriter talked about how the song came about. Cary was inspired to write hers while driving over the Stono, while Darius, and his songwriting partner Clay Mills, were inspired by Mill’s recent breakup with his girlfriend.


The talk continued on topics of maturity, the mythology of hard drinking bands, arrangements, most memorable experiences in each songwriter’s music career so far, how technology has changed songwriting, the lack of small clubs in Charleston, and more. I took notes and as I look them over, there are many great quotes and stories. Great little pieces of advice. I wish you were there to hear it all.


However, the one secret to songwriting was somewhere in all of this. The one piece of advice that will help someone become a professional songwriter. That secret is simple.


Do it.




With your spouse. In Nashville. With a house full of better songwriters. Just do it and do it often. This talk focused mostly on the Nashville model of songwriting, which has evolved a little since the Tin Can Alley days. There are other succesful ways to write. However, you gotta write. Often. 


And get out to these events. I saw a few aspiring songwriters in the audience, but not nearly the amount I’d expect.


The In The Mix series will continue with other topics and I hope many people attend, ask questions, interact, and grow as individuals.

Charleston musicians, you are very fortunate to have these opportunities. Don’t let them pass you by.