A Muse's Muse Interview with Dove nominee,
conducted by: Jodi Krangle
Chuck Leonard has been writing songs for a good long while. He's had a great deal of success with it too - if 11 #1 hits is any indication. With 66 cuts at this point, he's still going strong. Having toured with the likes of Ricky Skaggs, Ronnie Milsap, George Jones, Greg Crowe, Mark Gray, The Judds, Tammy Wynette, The Oak Ridge Boys, John Wesley Ryles, Bruce Carroll and Ron David Moore and having had cuts with such notables as John and Audrey Wiggins, Butch Baker, Greg Crowe, Bruce Carrol, Ron David Moore, Lisa Daggs, Gary Chapman, Regi Stone, Karen Peck and New River, N'Harmony, Wilcox and Pardoe and The Lyons, he has a lot of wisdom and know-how behind him when it comes to writing songs. I don't know about you, but *I* definitely wanted to hear what he had to say. ;)
Question: What made you start writing songs in the first place? Did you have a musical family? Was there something in particular in your life that inspired you to begin?
I began writing songs at a very young age...9 to be exact...they weren't very good but you gotta start somewhere...
I was inspired by Bob Dylan's "Hey, Mister Tambourine Man", Willie Nelson's "I Never Cared For You" and Paul McCartney's "Yesterday". It seems that those songs connected with the writer that was in me. I understood the lyrics and the form of the song. It seemed quite natural. I guess something just clicked and the "light" came on. I am the product of a family with a musical heritage of sorts. All the way back to my grandfather on my mother's side of the family. We had a family band growing up and I played drums at first and then took up guitar. I sang with my two sisters Charlene and Connie (who also played drums) and my oldest brother occasionally joined us on some dates. My mother played the bass and my stepfather played the guitar. We hired a few additional sidemen to play steel guitar and rhythm guitar. We played mostly in Texas and then because my stepfather was military we were transferred to Europe where we played the installations (NCO and EM clubs) across Germany, Italy and England. For about two years we also worked for Wrangler Western Wear in Germany. It was a great experience growing up there. I lived outside of this country for about 14 years. I was influenced by the culture and music of those countries and it probably molded certain aspects of what I write and the styles I experiment with at times. I write a lot of different types of music. Country, classical, jazz, pop, blues, gospel, contemporary Christian, rock'n'roll and some hybrids of all of those styles. Lyrically, I enjoy songs that tell stories and songs that connect with people emotionally, spiritually and cerebrally.
Question: Do you remember the songs you wrote when you first started writing? What improvements do you think you've made over the years and how have you managed to do that? Experience? Research and reading? Anything else in particular that has helped you?
The songs I wrote when I first started weren't incredibly memorable. Only one really comes to mind. It was called "Billy Rio"... Sort of went like this: Billy Rio was born down in Texas, the leader of an outlaw band, had a horse named Thunder and a dog named Blue, and two six guns in his hands... So, as you can see, a story song right from the start. Kind of a ballad like "Streets Of Laredo" and it really went downhill from there.
I hope I've improved or the 66 cuts I've had were all a fluke!!!
Seriously, I've studied my craft and learned to rewrite which is difficult for some writers. We often have a tendency to think our first thoughts are our best because they've come from that initial inspiration or emotion. The truth is, it is subjective in one way and like most things in life, when you get to looking back, you see things you would've done differently. Fortunately, with songwriting, you can go back and change things. Unless, that is, you wait until it's demoed or cut and then you have to live with what you created. It's always a challenge to top your best line or best hook or best idea. More often than not, we settle for less than our best because it sometimes is enough to get by. I've tried to be more disciplined in my approach to writing and rewriting. I think it has made me a better writer and has made my writing a little less prolific but much more productive as far as getting cuts and people wanting to hear more songs from my catalogs. I like hearing "What else you got, boy?" when they mean "we like your writing" as opposed to "What else you got, boy?" and they meant "You got any good songs?"
Co-writing is a beneficial way to improve one's writing ability, as well. It's like playing tennis with someone who is better than you. It will ultimately raise your game. CO-writing with better writers will ultimately raise your quality. The downside of CO-writing is when you have an idea that you could or should write by yourself and you dilute the essence of it by filtering it through another mindset. If they are on the same page as you, you're good to go. But if they have a different perspective, you run the risk of your idea becoming something totally different than what you had in mind. It's a 50/50 prospect, either way. That's just the nature of CO-writing There are, of course, instances where you actually find that you've contributed more than 50% (sometimes 100%) and someone has their name on the song because they were "in the room at the time" or they "got the coffee", etc... I never squabble about percentages. I just try and be very conscious of the people I'm writing with and try to write with talented, competent and productive writers. In the end, it's just one song at a time and nothing to really lose sleep over. If you bring out the idea and you start writing a song around it, the deal is essentially done 50/50 and that's the way I think it should be. There have surely been days when I didn't pull my weight and was given credit for a song that I didn't equally contribute to and it evens out in the long run.
Experience...hmmm...well, I've been doing this for 14 years professionally. Meaning, I've gotten paid to be a songwriter. Before that time, I just wrote because I loved writing and I didn't have to worry about whether or not what I was writing was commercial or whatever. The rules change a bit once someone is paying you to write for their company. You have to work at it and show up for appointments and do your demos and pitch your material along with your publisher. You have a stake in what happens and a lot of writers sit around waiting for the gravy train to show up at their front door. It really doesn't happen that way very often. All along that road is where you gain your experience. You learn what works and what doesn't. You learn who you can and can't work or write with and who to trust as far as judging a song. In this business there are very competent people and very incompetent people. You just have to figure out those things as you build your reputation. It is a two-way street - writer/publisher - but I have long stopped totally depending on a publisher to determine my success or lack of success. I now have three companies of my own and co-publish some of my material. I have to say it takes many years to gain that ability and status. New writers generally will have to go through the trials and tribulations of starting at square one and moving forward. You rarely see a writer start off at the top of his profession.
Regarding research... I read quite a bit and I observe the world around me. I draw from my own life and experience and I draw on inspiration from my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The word of God -ala- the Bible, is an incredible resource that holds insight pertaining to every aspect of being human and living in a world that continuously challenges the heart, mind, soul and spirit. Love is probably the most covered subject in the world and I draw from the loves in my life, as well.
Question: What song of yours are you most proud of? Why? What makes it special to you or makes it stick out in your mind? (I'm not just talking financial success here, by any means.)
That's like asking a father with four kids...which one do you like more. I can't say that there is one song in particular that I favor or am more proud of than any other. There are several that are very special to me because of why or who I wrote them for and there are still a few songs in me. I may, in fact, write that "favorite" or "most proud of" song before it's all said and done but so far, that hasn't happened. I have written one song that I have seen consistently move the listener to tears and have a profound effect on them in some way. It's called "The Way You've Shown Me How":
As I stand before you, Father
There's one question that I have
How can you love such a sinner
For you surely know my past
As I kneel before you, Father
Your forgiveness fills my heart
And I see you waiting for me
Where the light defeats the dark
And I'm humbled by
The mere thought that I
Might be worth something
To someone like You
As I pray before you, Father
I can only hope that now
I might one day truly learn to
Love the way You've shown me how
Help me one day truly learn to
Love the way You've shown me how....
It's set to a lovely Wesleyan, hymn-like (but contemporary) melody and chord structure and was recently recorded by Gary Chapman on his "Outside" CD. It is a special song, indeed, but one of several...
I have a song that I wrote for my first born child called "Baby You" that I like a lot and a very powerful song about the spirit of murder that seems to have raised it's ugly specter in these past years. It's entitled "Citizen Cain". The lyrics go like this....
Is it the heat of the moment or the cold, instant chill
That overcomes the conscience and allows the heart to kill
We don't have all the answers, perhaps we never will
Unless you're able to explain, Citizen Cain
And this talk about believing in a higher order
And this business about blood being thicker than water
Well, it all goes down the drain
Doesn't it, Citizen Cain?
We found your brothers body in a wheat field on his farm
And it's anybody's guess who would want to cause him harm
There was no sign of a struggle, Lord, the poor soul was unarmed
And it just goes against the grain, Citizen Cain
And this talk about people forgiving each other
And this business about neighbors loving one another
Well, it sometimes seems in vain
Doesn't it, Citizen Cain
Maybe somewhere in the future, in a better state of mind
When there is heaven on earth and peace for all mankind
In that simple, hopeful prayer...everlasting life I find
Wasn't that why the Lamb was slain....Citizen Cain?
The music and melody are dark and minor with the chorus releasing into a major key then back to the dark and minor key to cause a continual sense of urgency and disharmony. I like it a great deal... mainly because it was a song that fell on me like rain and wrote itself in about a half hour without a single change to the music, melody or lyrics. I feel that it was inspired by the Holy Spirit and I was simply the pencil and God was the lead and it was written through me as if I were a conduit. It has a very profound effect on people, too. I suppose I tend to favor those kinds of songs and they stick out in my mind because of the response they garner and the effect they have on those who have heard them.
All in all, I believe that songwriting is a gift and I am very fortunate to have the ability to be used by a Divine and Holy God that would find me even remotely worth using. Financially, I've done well with several songs. The song that I've had the most covers on and the most licenses issued for is called "There's Somebody Out There". It has been a blessing in many ways, including financially. I think I'm at around 30 covers on that one particular song.
Question: When you're writing a song, do you write lyrics or music first? Does it matter to you? Does one way work better for you than another way?
The songwriting process varies from song to song...at least for me. I have written a complete set of lyrics first and either given it to a co-writer who put music to it or I, myself, came back and found the appropriate marriage for it musically. I've tried to stay away from a routine process. I do believe in the discipline of writing something every day, if possible, but I don't like to be so locked into a set procedure. In the case of the song "Baby You" that I wrote for my first born, Janna, that I mentioned in the last question/answer segment, I had written the whole music structure, more like an instrumental. But 6 months later, shortly after she was born, the lyrics just seemed to fall out and again, I didn't have to edit or rewrite. You might conclude that the music was brewing in my mind all that time and by some inner process the lyrics were being birthed while she was on her way into this world via the 9 month pregnancy. Kind of crazy to think of it like that, but sometimes music and/or lyrics do having a birthing process. I rarely try to rush a lyric idea or a musical idea but sometimes they just happen on their own and I do have to rush to find some paper or a tape recorder to get them into a tangible form that I can look at or listen to and then finish.
Overall, I think that the beauty of songwriting is in the nature of how it happens. Sometimes inspiration, sometimes perspiration. CO-writing has it's variables, as well. I like that process because it's unpredictable and there is no set standard as to how it ultimately happens. The fun thing about writing by oneself is that there isn't any time constraint or pressure to produce a song in two or three hours, so you can really let it brew or stew or whatever. You just have to be sure that you are keeping some kind of tangible copy of it, either lyric or music, so that you don't wake up the next day and say, "What did I write? What did I play? What was I thinking?" It is always smart to put down any idea, be it music or lyric, on paper or tape. There are probably thousands of great ideas or songs that were a fleeting thought in someone's mind that never came to fruition because of that lack of discipline. At the end of the day, you are either professional or it's a hobby. There are certain aspects that separate the two. I've learned from experience and mistakes. I have become more professional because I want to leave a legacy of sorts to my children and if that legacy is not in a tangible form, I leave nothing but a memory and my dust and ashes.
Question: You've mentioned that you don't rush songs, but what do you do when they're just not coming? Do you experience writer's block? And if so, what do you do to overcome it?
"Writer's Block And The Ambitious Writer": an essay on working through it not working...(the brain, that is!)
I've had a few encounters with ye olde writer's block. Usually, it's not a big problem or a big deal. I've found the best way to combat it is to actually circumvent it - and the way you do that is by actually planning "writer's block". It simply means taking a break, taking a vacation, going to a movie, initiating the "block". It's really amazing how, when you do that very thing, the creative juices seem to flow once you are back in the saddle. It's kind of like starving yourself. Ever notice how hungry you seem to be when you haven't eaten in a while? I guess it's like dieting in a creative way. You just put yourself in control of your situation by inducing the "writer's block" willingly and then reaping the benefits of "doing without" once you get through the self-induced "block". At least it works for me. There are times when I have a "block" that wasn't self-induced...but it fades pretty quick. Some people are just more prone to them than others, by nature, I suppose. I find that the basic discipline of making yourself engage in the writing process helps that not be a problem, as well. You kind of let it become a "good" habit and it will rarely fail you. I encourage all writers to book a CO-writing appointment if they find the "writer's block" is hanging around. They may find that another writer or a great idea can jump-start their creativity and help them get back in the flow.
Question: You've had a fair bit of success with your songwriting - and congratulations on the nomination for the Dove award! How did you get started as a professional songwriter? By that, I mean, how did you get your music heard by the right people? What steps did you take to catch their attention?
Previously, I had answered question number 1 or 2 with some of this information. Pardon me if I digress. At an early age, after being inspired by several songwriters, I began my pilgrimage to the Mecca of music....
From there I continued to attempt to write consistently and I actually got my first publishing deal with Warner Brothers Music (pre Warner-Chappell) here in Nashville. It ultimately came about via a relationship that I developed with an artist that was on Columbia Records and had been vacationing in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida (where I was living and performing as a solo act at the Carousel Hotel) in 1986. He came into the venue and stayed for several hours, listening and watching. At the time I was performing a lot of original material (which is a luxury for any writer/artist) and he liked the songs he heard and we became friends and he invited me to Nashville. I eventually began touring with him as a sideman and one thing led to another. Initially, he worked out a co-publishing deal between his publishing company and Warner Brothers Music. I wrote for those companies for two years (I have had four writing deals in the 14 years I've been here.) They actually signed me on the basis of songs that I had written by myself. I brought ten songs into the deal that got me a substantial advance and at the time, as a staff writer, they paid me very well (00.00 per month). I was encouraged to learn the "Nashville" way of doing things and started CO-writing with established writers on staff at many of the top publishing companies in town. It could be said that "timing is everything" and being in the "right place at the right time" is a very important thing. I have to agree to some degree but I also had quality songs that were helpful in getting their interest in the first place - (the artist and the publisher mentioned above). It takes a lot of ingredients to cook up a songwriting deal. I also was teachable, humble and available.
I moved to Nashville and gave myself the chance to "face the music". It's very hard to do that long distance. I have always encouraged any and every songwriter that aspires to doing this professionally, to go where the "business" is - to get in the thick of things and forget about mailing tapes and lyrics and making hundreds of phone calls that often are in vain. If they can see you and meet you and know you are within a relative vicinity, your chances are so much better that your songs and you as a writer/artist will be heard. You have to do your part. You can't wait for the gravy train to roll up to your front door! (said that before, I think!) It just doesn't happen that way. All in all, my success has been because of many things that happened that you could call luck, fate or good fortune but many things that happened were things that I initiated and caused to happen. You have to participate in building the road that leads to success. I can't emphasize that enough. Many writers sit on their hands and rest on their laurels. It's been said that you're only as good as your last "hit"! I don't totally agree with that but that's the mindset that you are dealing with when you become a professional. Take heart, though. Great songs and great writers will find a way to be heard and this business is always looking for great songs and great writers. We are the "bread and butter" of this industry. It truly does "all start with the song". Sometimes the 'powers that be' forget that and make writers feel less important. I believe that's only because of their desire to control the writing community. We need them and they need us. Learn and know your own worth. Negotiate from a position of strength and then do everything you can to maintain that advantage. It is a business and you must be willing to stand tall and stand strong. You need to be flexible and you have to bend, but not "break". Don't settle for less than you need and/or deserve. Research the business and know your competition. I suppose I could go on and on. I've tried to adhere to this overall philosophy and have found that I have earned respect because of my work ethic and the quality of the songs that I have learned to write. Some of it has been a natural process and some has been a process of trial and error. There is no "magic" potion or trick. It's really determination and perseverance!
Question: Inevitably, even with the reputation you have, Chuck, rejection does happen. How do you deal with it? What do you do to overcome it?
Rejection. Yes, this business is probably 90% rejection, so, I decided before I came to town that I would have my feelings "surgically removed"!
There is no 'one' answer regarding how you deal with it. Rejection comes in many different forms and for many different reasons. I've found that you can't take it too personally. You just have to take it with a grain of salt. Sometimes it's a matter of considering the source. Depending on who rejects you (or your songs) and why they reject you (or your songs). Producers and artists are often looking for something specific but they don't know what "it" is until they hear it. You might be lucky enough to get two or three shots at what they're shooting for and sometimes you just get one. It's a spin of the wheel, a throw of the dice, a matter of luck and etc. You have to accept that everything you write will not get "cut" let alone "demoed". You just have to go with your gut instinct and pitch or demo or offer up your best song(s) at the time and hope that you connect with whomever you are hoping to connect with, be it, a publisher, artist, A&R person and so on and so forth.
I've learned to believe in myself and my songs and when I have an audience or someone's ear, I do my very best to convince them that what they are hearing is a "great" song and if it works for them (publisher, artist, A&R and etc...) then we can negotiate the details. You simply have to project confidence, know that what you have is a "top" drawer, class A song and past that point, you can do little more. It's gonna happen if it's gonna happen. You could "pay" someone to cut your song or give them your publishing to make the deal sweeter for them but I shy away from any of those practices. It's been a rare occasion that I was willing to relinquish anything for nothing or the "chance" that they might do something with my song(s). There have been occasions where I structured a CO-publishing agreement. It was mutually beneficial and they had to do what they said they would do contractually in order to gain from the usage of my material. There are a million ways to negotiate and a million more ways how not to negotiate. Rejection can make you contemplate doing the "wrong" thing for the "right" reason. If a writer is unsure of what to do, I always encourage them to talk to someone who works for the performance rights associations, such as ASCAP, BMI or SESAC. Get a second opinion, talk to another writer who has had some success. Get a lawyer if you need to but don't let "rejection" be your guide. It's part of the process of becoming a professional and something you just have to live with and handle in whatever way is advantageous.
I try to take "negative" situations and turn them into "positive" motivation. Work harder, write better, rewrite, and many other suggestions I've offered during this interview. Stand tall and stand strong. My question is this: wouldn't it be better to know that you've done everything possible to make your song(s) less subject to rejection before you present them to someone? Do your part and understand that even then, it doesn't always work out the way you might hope but if you've done your part then you've effectively reduced the "rejection" factor to a minimal problem. I've had 66 cuts but I've written over 1000 songs. Some people have been more fortunate than I and some have been less fortunate. I have just been determined to be the best "Chuck Leonard" I can be and so far, I'm pretty satisfied that I've succeeded because I haven't tried to be someone that I'm not and I've accepted the fact that some people are going to accept or reject me and my song(s).
Question: What's in store for you in the future? What projects are you currently working on and where can people hear your music?
The future for me is wide open. I plan on continuing to write songs and hopefully, get them cut on someone's CD project. (Used to be called an album project). I am working with numerous artists now and have the ability to focus on more specific song ideas due to the fact that I know what I'm shooting for because I'm closer to the project, via the artist.
I have been in negotiations with SongScope to head up their Gospel/Contemporary Christian area and that is really exciting to me. The website offers published and independent writers the option of placing their music and lyrics on the site and giving them the ability to "virtually" pitch their material. The SongScope site has a search engine that categorizes songs in different ways and anyone in the Music Industry that is searching for material has another avenue in which to find songs. There is a basic subscription rate for writers, publishers, producers, A&R people and artists that allows them access to the many, cool, aspects of SongScope. It's a pretty "aggressive" approach to getting songs listened too, without having to go through a lot of "industry" hoops and ladders. It bypasses the gatekeepers and allows anyone access to great material that they might not otherwise find or hear. I think it will keep me pretty busy at first but then, once everything is in place, we will be able to focus more on the big picture and all the creative possibilities to enhance the experience and the opportunity that SongScope can afford anyone in the music business.
I am looking into putting a website together with the help of the folks at VMG and SongScope that will give whomever might be interested, the ability to check out my songs and music and other web-oriented information. I guess it's called a "homepage" because you are inviting people into your "virtual" home and letting them see beyond the average perspective people usually have regarding someone's life and career.
I still tour occasionally and do session work and of course, all that sort of info will be posted on the site along with, perhaps, some REAL AUDIO or MP3 files of various songs and cuts. I'm not sure how elaborate I want it to get. I'm mostly a low profile and private person. Some of this is a challenge for me personally because I never think that anyone really wants to "know" about me. I tend to be more overt about my songwriting and etc...So, I'll be hanging out and rocking on.
Chuck Leonard has had 66 cuts over the years: 11 number 1's, 9 top 10 & 23 top 20. Those cuts have been with such notables as John and Audrey Wiggins, Butch Baker, Greg Crowe, Bruce Carrol, Ron David Moore, Lisa Daggs, Gary Chapman, Regi Stone, Karen Peck and New River, N'Harmony, Wilcox and Pardoe, The Lyons and others. He has also been a staff writer at Warner Bros. Music, Gehl Force Music, Balmur Entertainment (Anne Murray's company) and Music Alley/Gospel Alley. His songwriting earned him a nomination for a Dove award earlier this year.Currently, he is writing for Chux-Deluxe Music/Power Of Three Music, touring and taking session work when he's available, and acting as the Associate Music Director at one of the most amazing and "rockin' " churches in Nashville, TN.- Bellevue Community Church. He has called the Nashville area his home for 14 years and lives there with his wife and two of his four children.