If you're looking for two Charlestonians to teach you about songwriting, you'd be hard pressed to find better mentors than Cary Ann Hearst and Darius Rucker. Monday night in a packed auditorium at the College of Charleston, the pair shared some advice on their craft.
Hearst, one half of the folk power duo Shovels & Rope, shared a little wisdom about making a go of it as a scrappy indie band. Rucker, who received a Grammy award for Best Country Solo Performance the night before (for his cover of Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel"), talked about his success with Hootie & the Blowfish and the business of co-writing songs with Nashville professionals.
The free songwriters' forum was sponsored by Borboleta Audio Mastering and moderated by Hootie & the Blowfish guitarist and CofC adjunct professor Mark Bryan. It was the first installment in a monthly series called In the Mix: Music Industry Exchanges.
Here are a few pointers we took away from the talk:
1. Don't diss country music. "Growing up in Nashville, I think there were times when I said I liked everything but country music," Hearst said. "That doesn't even make sense, because if you like music, and especially if you're American, at some point you like blues, you like rock 'n' roll ... It's everybody's music. It's the people's music."
2. Find a good co-writer. Hearst works with her husband, Michael Trent, as a co-writer, and Rucker mentioned a bevy of country songwriters he's worked with through the years. "I get them to sing the demos," Rucker said. "They might sing a line differently than I would, and then when I hear it back, I might use it."
3. Never put a song on your record that you don't love. Rucker told the story of a guitar part that Bryan wrote for Hootie back in the early '90s. "I listened to it, and I didn't dig it, so I told him I was gonna write the cheesiest lyrics I could so we'd never play it," Rucker said. The title of the song? "Only Wanna Be With You."
4. Write until you strike gold. "Free-write, free-write, books full of free-writing, because half of writing is an exercise," Hearst said. "Not every song you write will be a great masterpiece, just like every recipe you cook isn't necessarily the greatest recipe, but someday it's gonna taste good to somebody. If you make a really big pile of work, you'll find some good stuff in there."
5. Take notes from life. Rucker said that a songwriter recently wanted him to work on a song with a hook comparing a woman's companionship to cocaine, but Rucker turned him down. "I'm almost 50 years old. I've got three kids," Rucker said. "It seems like the best songs are always about what's going on in my life, and my family is 90 percent of my life."
6. But not always. Rucker wrote a song about divorce when his relationship with his wife was going fine, and Hearst mentioned that some songwriters are especially talented at topical songwriting that doesn't draw from personal experience. "My husband is one of those guys," Hearst said. "If any of you follow Michael's writing, he's a master murder balladeer, but my husband has never killed anybody that I know of."
7. Lay off the booze. "We don't drink like we used to, and we try not to write songs about drinking anymore," Hearst said. "I feel like there's a mythology about singers and songwriters and troubadours, how we kind of have to have our heads down on the bar drinking all of our troubles away ... If you use that as a coping mechanism, you won't be able to play the 250 shows a year you need to get started."
8. Play lots of live shows. Rucker lamented the loss of some prominent small music venues from the '90s and said "we need more clubs," but he said touring is still essential. "We would never have gotten a record deal if we couldn't get a following," Rucker said. "We didn't get a record deal because somebody heard our music and said, 'We need to record them.' We got a record deal because we sold 50,000 CDs out of the back of a car."
9. Cherish your personal victories. Asked for her proudest moment as a musician, Hearst talked about playing Nashville's legendary Ryman Auditorium for the first time while touring with Dawes. She and Trent shared the Johnny and June dressing room, which was decked out with Cash Family memorabilia. "Even if money rains down from the sky like manna from heaven, it'll never be better than this," she said.