Photo: Juan Patino
Where Songwriting Meets Innovation: Cliff Goldmacher Puts His Work & Wisdom Into Words
Music may be the universal language, but songwriting certainly has its American dialects. Just ask acclaimed champion of the craft, Cliff Goldmacher. Over the past three decades, he's lived and written songs in Nashville, New York, Los Angles, San Francisco and more, each locale with a homespun songwriting culture all its own. He's also collaborated across genres with a wide array of artists including Keb’ Mo’, Kesha, Lisa Loeb, Spin Doctors singer Chris Barron and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. So what can be learned from a lifetime of songwriting? More than one might think, according to Goldmacher's new book, The Reason For The Rhymes, due out Sept. 15.
"The whole idea was just to show you that rhymes, songs, have a larger utility than just for themselves, not that there's anything wrong with writing a song just to write a song. But there's a bigger picture out there, and a whole world," Goldmacher tells us via Zoom. "Know that every skill you develop when you're writing a song can become something even greater when you open up to it."
Today, you can find him opening up new minds to the skills songwriting can teach, whether through leading workshops with businesses across the country (and now via Zoom), giving Ted Talks on songwriting, contributing articles to various outlets, running a recording studio or any of his other many ventures. But Goldmacher's winding journey to discovering the larger context of songwriting started when he moved to Music City in the early '90s, where he cut his teeth, learned to co-write, landed a publishing deal and penned tunes full time for 12 years.
"If Nashville teaches you anything, it's to think about songwriting as the craft that it is." He says. "People think of songwriting as this kind of mystical thing that only… But what I've discovered over time, especially living in Nashville when I did, is that it's a skill. Yes, you need to be inspired, and yes, there has to be a little bit of self-awareness that you want to express yourself. But beyond that, you can break it down into as small a piece as you want and just kind of learn what the songwriting process is about."
Goldmacher had the opportunity to move to New York, where he opened a small studio and discovered a songwriting community that was a "very different animal," with the focus more on bands. After a handful of years learning the city's music culture, he moved to where he really wanted to live, the wine country Sonoma, Calif. From there, he's been ahead of the curve in collaborating from afar, well before the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
"When I'm home in Sonoma, I've also developed a system where I can run my Nashville studio entirely remotely," he says. "So my session musicians and session singers will come into the Nashville studio. My songwriting clients, who are getting their demos done, will log in from wherever they are, and we'll run the session that way, so it's sort of GoToMeeting for recording studios."
With his new book, the multi-talented songwriter/producer/educator continues exploring and expanding the creative crossover between songwriting and business innovation, and he's having a ton of fun doing it. We linked up with always witty and upbeat Goldmacher from his studio in Nashville to talk about The Reason For The Rhymes, hear some of his secrets for co-writing online, find out what makes the Motown classic "My Girl" such a great song and more.
Pursuing songwriting, running a recording studio, working and making a living in the music business is a behemoth of a task for anybody. And there's sort of this the musicians' world and then there's the business world. How were you able to create an intersection of the two?
One of the things that I learned in trying to make a living as a songwriter and a producer was that it's extremely rare that everything is going great at the same time. There are times when songwriting's going great. Then when that tends to drop off, then maybe the studio will pick up. So what I decided to do was keep enough plates spinning so that... It's very rare that everything's going great at the same time. It's also very rare that everything is going badly at the same time.
So for me, it was the songwriting, the studio work, and then I started to do this sort of educational component, teaching workshops to songwriters, things like that... The way I like to put it, in all simplicity, is I just want to get up every day and do something that has to do with music. How do I get to do that? So my solution was break it into different parts that are very rarely tethered to each other. When one thing goes badly, it won't drag the others down.
One thing that struck me immediately was that the linchpin for the concept is around innovation. I'm curious what innovation means to you, and how you came to focus on that as something you could offer businesses.
I might flip that around, because I think both of those are great questions. For me, I started with this idea that songwriting develops a certain set of skills that are good for business teams. That's kind of all I had, because I'd been doing these workshops for business teams, getting them to write songs, and I knew it was working. So I started to think to myself, "Well, what are the benefits of teaching yourself to write songs in a larger context?" I was thinking about creativity, and communication, and collaboration, and even empathy.
But I realized, you can't tell a story and just kind of pick out random skills without a unifying concept, and that was what I like to refer to as my dark night of the soul as I was trying to write this book [, was like, "I know this is important. I know it works. But what's the big picture?" Then innovation came to mind, because innovation is the umbrella under which all of these skills work. Because in order to innovate, you need to be creative. You need to be a communicator. There are seven skills [outlined in the book, which bears the subtitle: Mastering the Seven Essential Skills of Innovation by Learning To Write Songs].
Then I had to go a step backwards, and this is the other part of your question, which is, "Well, what do I know about innovation?" So there was another dark night of the soul. Then I thought, "Well, actually, wait a minute. Every single song is a mini-innovation." One of the things that people don't think about when it comes to songwriting is, when you try and pitch a song in the world, you're not just competing against other people writing songs at the time. You're essentially competing against, oh, every song that's ever been written ever. Because any song can get recorded at any time. So for me it was, "Okay, well, on a mini level, every song I write, I'm trying to do something slightly different and slightly new to compete against every song in the world."
Yeah, no pressure.
Right. I mean, and if you think about that too long, your head will explode. So I don't. [laughs] But then in a larger picture, it was, "Well, in order to have a career in music, you also need to innovate. You need to think about ways to keep the lights on." Because in my experience, and I'm sure you've seen this, there are very few thoroughbreds in our game. Very few people who do one thing and do it so well that that is all they need to do.
So for me, innovation meant, "How do I take my career in music, and even when things seem to be going okay, how do I look for the next thing? How do I change just a little so that if the thing that's currently going okay starts to maybe not go okay, there's something else in the pipeline?" Once I thought about it for a minute, I thought, "Well, innovation is kind of what I do anyway."
Once you uncovered that connection, what was the creative process for writing The Reason For The Rhymes?
What's interesting about being a professional songwriter for as long as I have is I know what it feels like to get up every day and write. Now, usually at the end of the day, I've finished something. That was a little different. Because at the end of every day, I had maybe written a couple more pages or done a little... I made a rule for myself, and this is a rule that I apply across pretty much everything I do, which is just break it down into tiny pieces, and you won't feel overwhelmed.
So it started with an outline. I kind of had an arc of how I thought the book should go. Then I kind of woke up every day and wrote into that outline. The outline was just broad strokes, and then I started to kind of fill it in and flesh it out a little bit. Then when I reached that first crisis point... Because when you write a book, you can go a pretty long way down the road before you realize you don't have a point. So when I got to that, I had to step back a little bit, and that's when I kind of figured out the bigger picture of innovation. Then once I did that, I rewrote the outline and then started to, again, just a little bit every day.
I wrote the book over a period of about 10 months. For me, that part of it was actually really joyful. Just like writing songs, that's kind of the sweetest tip of the iceberg of all the effort that you then have to expend to get the book out there, to make people aware of it, to get advance blurbs about the book, all of that. It feels like I wrote the book for three minutes, and for the rest of the year, I was just doing the other stuff.
Sure, I think a lot of songwriters can identify with that. The best song of their career comes to them in 10 minutes, and they have to close with it every night they play for the rest of their life, you know?
Yup. If you're lucky.
You cover several concepts in the book, and storytelling is an obvious one for songwriters. Can you talk about how storytelling plays a role in innovation in the business world?
Happy to. For me, when I think of storytelling and when I think of creativity, just like songwriting, I think a lot of business people think to themselves, "Well, I'm productive. I'm good at my job. But I'm definitely not creative." So for me, verses [of songs], learning to write a good verse in a song is all about storytelling, and storytelling is creativity. What I do with this concept is I break down verse writing into some of the rules. Use visual imagery. Show them, don't tell them. All of the little kind of tricks that we've learned over the years to make a good verse ultimately applies in the larger picture to storytelling.
One of the things that I talk to business teams about is how important it is to balance the emotion with the story. A dry narrative, which is kind of just a bunch of details without any reason why we should care, is kind of the end that businesses tend to stick on. And songwriters, heaven help us, we're all emotion. Right? "I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you." That's nice if you feel it or if you're the person who is being loved. But for anybody else, that's not really all that compelling.
For business, and the example I use in the book is, I was brought in to work with a business team on coordinating disparate teams. Not so romantic. Not so interesting. The trick is, all right, you've got this concept and you've got all these emotions. How do you bring them together? For songwriters, we have to integrate more story in our verses. But for business people, it's "How do we integrate more emotion? How do we get people to care?"
The example that I use in the book is, instead of saying, "We're going to integrate disparate teams," we wrote a song about geese flying south for the winter. Because if the geese don't work together, they're going to die. They're going to freeze to death. So all of a sudden, there's this baked-in emotion and there's a story about what it means to try and fly south together, and the song we wrote was called "If You've Got My Front, I've Got Your Back." It made this kind of semi-dry concept of coordinating disparate teams into something people care about. Storytelling makes people care if it's done well, and so that's kind of how I coordinate storytelling and creativity and verses all in one area.
For the songwriters reading this, the concept that the verse is where you hone in on storytelling makes sense. Maybe you could do a quick flyby of the structure of a song and some of the elements in each part.
I like to think of songs as being three parts, sometimes just two parts, and in the book I keep it dead simple and just make it kind of two critical parts. Verses are designed to tell the story. It's where you put all your details. It's where you kind of build a world. Choruses, as I like to somewhat indelicately describe it, is where you tie the message of your song, the summary of what you've been leading up to... You tie it to the end of a baseball bat, and you beat the hell out of people with it. That's what a chorus does. You've got just a couple of lines. Usually there's some repetition in the chorus. But the whole idea is, a well-done chorus ultimately becomes unforgettable. It becomes super memorable, because not only are you giving listeners that "Aha, so that's what this song is about," but you're doing it in a way that is catchy and memorable.
When you balance the two, when you've got a well-told verse... I'll give you one of my favorite examples, and I use it in the book, is the song "My Girl" [written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White]. It is dead simple, but the details are great. "I've got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it's cold outside, I've got the month of May." So already you've got these kind of really interesting, visceral, sensory details. But nobody knows what you're talking about yet, right? Then you've got this dead simple, beautiful chorus. "I guess you'll say, what can make me feel this way? My girl, my girl, my girl. Talking 'bout my girl, my girl." And now you care. You understand why this person feels this way, and you're not going to forget the chorus. There's nothing to it. And it's genius.
I always use that example, because I want people to understand songs don't have to be long, and they don't have to be complicated, for them to do exactly what they need to do. So verses, choruses. That's kind of how they work.
That’s a great example. So, I have to say, your Zoom setup looks and sounds great. You sound great. How have you adapted to everything being remote?
In all honesty, the reason I hated to collaborate online before I had to was because you miss the body language, you miss the resonance of the instrument in the room. So some of the ways that I've been coping is I've made it so that I'm in a nice, well-lit space. You can see my face. You can read my body language. I have, thanks to the wonderful folks at Shure, a beautiful mic that I use for my voice so that I'm not just relying on the little mic in a laptop. I'm doing the things that make this already somewhat compromised medium work a little better, and not just because it looks a little better or sounds a little better, but because the tangible benefits for a collaboration, where somebody can read my body language or maybe hear a little bit more of what I'm doing on an instrument, actually creates a virtuous cycle of everything kind of sounding better, so you write better, you communicate better.
Your new book, The Reason For The Rhymes, is out Sept. 15 – what does the rollout for this look like for you, and then what's next for you this year and going into 2021?
For the rollout, I'm working with a publicist, and we're doing a series of interviews and podcasts, and I'm writing some articles for some various online outlets, which has been fun. This whole thing has been a little kind of version of celebrity for a day, where it's really fun to focus on this thing. This is like any creative art. You work in obscurity for 18 months on something, and then you've got this really intense couple of months where you're just spreading the word everywhere. So that's a little bit about what these days look like.
In a larger sense, I'm finishing up a record project with a wonderful artist based in New York. We did a lot of recording sort of pre-pandemic, and we're now talking about getting the album out in the world, so that's keeping me busy. And I'm doing some writing with a wonderful songwriter who is married to an artist, a jazz artist named Stacey Kent. So I've been writing with her husband for her. Now we're collaborating on Zoom. Actually, after you and I hop off the line, he and I'll do a little online collaboration to push our songs a little farther down the road.
As far as what next year holds, man, I wish I knew. There was something that somebody said that I thought was genius. Five years ago, anybody who was in a job interview who was asked, "Where do you picture yourself five years from now?" was wrong. So on some level, who knows what's coming?