searchsearch
Todd Snider On Songs About Songs, Storytelling & His Dreamlike Return To Folk | Newport Folk 2019

Todd Snider At Newport Folk 2019

Photo: Nate Hertweck/Recording Academy

news

Todd Snider On Songs About Songs, Storytelling & His Dreamlike Return To Folk | Newport Folk 2019

We sat down with the man Aaron Lee Tasjan called "a Mark Twain of our time" to talk songwriting, storytelling and the spirits behind his triumphant folk return, 'Cash Cabin Sessions Vol. 3'

GRAMMYs/Jul 30, 2019 - 03:44 am

Todd Snider's latest album, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3, marks a return to his acoustic storytelling roots—but true to his track record, it's anything but unimaginative. After creatively experimental and successful stints with a garage band (on the raucous Eastside Bulldog) and an Americana jam band (the psychedelic supergroup Hard Working Americans), Snider began to dream up his new album, literally.

It all started with Snider's recurring dream of Johnny Cash standing over him after vising Cash's cabin studio for the first time. The ensuing aptly titled album was recorded there by Cash's son, John Carter Cash, after Loretta Lynn invited Snider to the cabin to record some songs they'd written together.

But these musical giants' influence on Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 are more cosmic than musical. Musically, Snider is in rare form with his stripped-down sound, poking and sauntering with irreverent candor and hilarious wit of Woody Guthrie, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and, of course, John Prine. In fact, Snider is an intriguing twist in the road paved by Guthrie, Elliott, and Prine. Part sharp left turn, part missing link, he occupies a musical gap between these storied folk heroes and a new generation of songwriters plagued by a new era of political, social and technological issues to sing about.

Perhaps Snider's special songwriting and storytelling abilities are best described by one such artist, his friend, mentee and fellow East Nashville counter-culture song rebel Aaron Lee Tasjan.

"I see Todd as being the full amalgam of an incredible, all-encompassing show as one guy with a guitar on stage," Tasjan said. "My other hero growing up was Mitch Hedberg. And for me, Todd kind of had this sort of way, it was almost like he would fall into punchlines on accident, and his lyrics felt that way to me too."

Tasjan, like many folk hopefuls, was under the influence of Prine from a young age. But he points out how disorienting it can be to find yourself born a generation (or more) after your idols.

"As an artist, when you love, when you have that kind of reverence for music like that, and you're a young person, sometimes it can make you feel a little out of touch with your own generation. Well, all of a sudden, along comes this guy named Todd Snider, with this album called East Nashville Skyline. And it was like, he took all of that tradition and all of that history that I loved about Prine's music and made it for right now, for right then. And it totally blew me away," Tasjan said, adding, "He's a Mark Twain of our time."

During his set at Newport Folk this weekend, Todd Snider didn't blow the audience away in the traditional sense with vocal acrobatics or maudlin folk ballads. Instead, he told his stories and played his songs with a kind of loveable truth that had the Newport audience chuckling with respect. We sat down with Snider before his set to talk about his unique craft and style, his triumphant return to folk on Cash Cabin…, what he remembers from marrying his friends Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires and more.

There's a dreamlike quality to Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3. What does the album mean to you, to have these songs touched by a sort of divine intervention?

I guess at my age ... when I was young I wanted to stay driven by the muse or artsy-fartsy stuff, and I felt like to me, that's what I'm always trying to do, is stay interested or follow a muse rather than try to figure out how to make a living. Just chasing the muse all the time. The older you get, the more attempt there is to make wiser decisions, but I like to just chase songs around and that. This record that you're asking about, it felt like at a certain point I went to the studio and I started having dreams about it, and I thought maybe there's something there. Maybe there's some songs there, and there was.

Yeah, I believe Keith Richards used to say, "incoming," like the idea is coming from somewhere else and passing through him, and he just tries to capture it before it gets away. Do you feel that way about songwriting?

I do. I feel like it happens a lot of ways, but that particular way is the one that is like an addiction to me. I think a lot of singers, that one, the song that feels like it wrote itself is the one you're driving around looking for constantly.

What's interesting about that is one thing you do, I think, as good or better than anybody, is the sort of songs about songs.

On this record too, yeah. Lots of that on this record.

This kind of meta-songwriting. Where were you first exposed to that kind of songwriting?

Maybe this guy named Ken Finlay who lives in Austin, Texas, and teaches people to write. Then I think on this particular record too going back to a feeling in my 50s, and for some reason I'm feeling ... my dad died at 54, so I did a lot of reflecting on my own job in this record. I didn't see that coming but, so it's a lot of, like you said, songs about songs.

"Working On A Song" specifically traces your time in Nashville. Obviously you've seen the city change in the course of time that song covers. How was it trying to finish a song that started that long ago?

When I first got to Nashville, I was working on a song called "Where Will I Go (Now That I'm Gone)." I still haven't technically finished it, but on this record, I have a song about that song, that you could call that song. It's a tribute really to my friends in Nashville. A lot of them are here, Aaron Lee, Jason, Amanda, a lot of singer/songwriters live in Nashville. We spend our life looking for a song, and eventually there's almost no reason. It's usually about a girl or something, and the next thing you know, it turns into an album. Then you have to figure out, are you going to still sing for real girls, or are you just going to sing for the crowd? That's been my experience anyway.

Jason joined you on "Just Like Overnight." You and he go way back.

Yeah, I married them, Jason and Amanda, and they both sing on there.

What do you remember about the wedding ceremony?

That it was hilarious, and I did a prayer written by John Hartford that was very funny. They both looked really beautiful, and it was the beginning of a sea change in our town and our genre. Those two are connecting our town in a way. There's an east side and a Music Row side, and those two have really ... and the guy that was just here [in the interview room], Lukas Nelson, there's a lot of young people right now that are connecting two sides of this Nashville thing that have been separate for a long time. It's fun to watch.

Yeah, it is. It seems like a new era for the city, more united…

Right. I've always wanted to see that happen. That's what it was like when Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson and Billy Joe [Shaver were active]... so I'm excited to see that happening, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, that lot.

Storytelling is such an integral part of your live show and your live albums. Where did the urge come to do more than just play songs?

It started right off the bat, mostly because I only had my own songs, and you had to cover a certain amount of time. So I would just talk to try to cover it, to bullsh*t my way through the gig. But then, really quickly, I learned through trailing back ... somebody pointed out Arlo Guthrie to me, and that led to Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Then pretty early in my life, I started studying that guy. He's played here. He played here the night they landed on the moon, and he's here today. But Ramblin' Jack Elliott, if you look into him, he is the first person that really did that. There's others that do it, but I probably copy him more than most people. Arlo did too. He did "912 Greens." "912 Greens" is the song that starts that stuff, I think.

"Talking Reality Television Blues," pulls from that same well, right?

For sure, and Woody Guthrie, I was listening to a lot of Woody Guthrie at the time.

How did Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 become a "Vol 3"?

It was a record I worked on for a long time. I found this studio I liked, and then I started making songs and recording them. I went through the process three times before I was certain I had this record I wanted, but made two others in the process. They're okay too, they might even be better, they just didn't feel finished, but I'm going to put them all out. So Vol. 2 comes out in January. It's got different songs, same session though. Then Vol. 1 is a bunch of spoken-word stuff. I just started hanging out at the studio for a long time until there was a record, but there was tons of stuff building up to it.

And is that what's going on next for Hard Working Americans?

Right, the Vol. 2 is them, is Hard Working Americans… We're sort of a jam Americana group.

You seem like you're an adept observer of the world, creating a compelling interpretation somehow without casting a lot of judgment or a lot of negativity on it. You have an incredible knowledge of the music history and what's going on in our culture. What's inspiring you now as you move towards the next phase of writing?

Thank you. Next year I'm going to do a tour with a band, and I'd like to try to ... I don't know if this is [possible]... before I die, I would like to do some music that's really original, which is really hard to do and not even necessarily... It'd be fun to come up with a sound like ... even Waylon Jennings did it or Bo Diddley did it. I can't imagine why I would do it, but why not try?

[Waylon Jennings] came up with his own groove, too. Like there is a mathematical way that you can show that he did something that hadn't been done. Bo Diddley did it, rap did it. If a 50, 52-year-old guy came up with a new music, I don't think it would matter, but I would have done it and I would be able to play it for my friends. When 20-year-olds, like when somebody young does something, that's when I think music is really powerful.

You're playing here at Newport later today, how you put a set together for something like this? Are you a set list guy or you just go with it?

I usually will pick a song and then start. I haven't thought of that yet. No, I stopped doing set lists a couple of years ago. Yeah, I haven't decided what to play yet, I don't know what I'll do.

John Prine On The Tree Of Forgivenesi, Protest Music & More At Newport Folk

Inside Goo Goo Dolls' Biggest Hits: John Rzeznik Details How "Iris," "Slide" & More Came To Be
Goo Goo Dolls (L-R: Robby Takac, John Rzeznik)

Photo: Claire Marie Vogel

video

Inside Goo Goo Dolls' Biggest Hits: John Rzeznik Details How "Iris," "Slide" & More Came To Be

As Goo Goo Dolls prepare for their 13th studio album, 'Chaos In Bloom,' frontman John Rzeznik shares the stories behind the band's most beloved songs.

GRAMMYs/Aug 11, 2022 - 05:59 pm

Since debuting 36 years ago, Goo Goo Dolls have built a steadfast legacy through adaptability and an unwillingness to compromise. That strategy led to many memorable moments as well as chart-topping hits such as "Iris," "Name" and "Better Days."

After humble beginnings as a cover band, the group transitioned to a punk-driven sound on their late '80s and early '90s albums. By the middle of the '90s, they shifted to a more adult-oriented, alternative rock sound, starting with their hit album A Boy Named Goo.

While that change may have alienated some early fans, it helped them gain even more fans with their new level of fame. Their journey hasn't always been smooth sailing, though, with member changes and legal issues surrounding royalties.

However, lead singer John Rzeznik and his fellow co-founder, bassist Robby Takac, have kept the band going strong thanks to their openness to grow their sound and keep true to their vision. In Rzeznik's eyes, Takar is the reason they're still around. "There was a lot of adversity personally and professionally, but I credit Robby with keeping this band together more than I have," the frontman tells GRAMMY.com.

Even so, Rzeznik has helped write the band's many hits, and found freedom in staying true to himself as a lyricist and writing relatable songs about vulnerable topics such as drug addiction.

That continues on the band's eleventh studio album, Chaos in Bloom (out August 12), where Rzeznik says he and the band try to "make sense of a very confusing world." And even nearly four decades in, they're still pushing creative boundaries, as it's the first Goo Goo Dolls album that Rzeznik has fully produced.

"I still feel like I have something to say. At this point in time, the most important thing is just being a little more fearless," Rzeznik says. "We've been doing this so long, it's sort of like, 'Hey man. We're allowed to drop some of our apprehensions and not worry about the outcome so much.' Which is a great thing. Kind of freeing."

Ahead of Goo Goo Dolls' latest release, Rzeznik reflected on the band's legacy with GRAMMY.com, sharing the backstories and favorite memories behind their biggest hits.

"Name" — A Boy Named Goo, 1995

It was the first song that got played on the radio. Kevin Weatherly started playing that song all the time on KROQ. That was back in the days when KROQ was the tastemaker for the rest of the country.

We were shooting a video for another song called "Flat Top," and someone from the record company came onto the set of the video we're shooting and were like, "they added 'Name' to KROQ and they're playing it all the time." And now we have to stop doing this video, and we have to make a video for that song. Which, I guess, goes to show you how much influence KROQ had on music at that point in time.

We stopped production on this one video and made the other video and then boom, that became our first hit. That song actually went to No. 1 [on two Billboard charts, Alternative Airplay and Mainstream Rock Airplay], which was pretty awesome.

"Long Way Down" — A Boy Named Goo, 1995

It was a very tough song, a banger. But that was one of the songs where I felt like Robby and I were really learning how to play our instruments and learning how to make records. We took a step up from our first few albums when we got into making that one. Going out and playing hundreds and hundreds of shows, every night, we just got better at our craft.

"Iris" — Dizzy Up the Girl, 1998

I was staying in a hotel in Los Angeles and my manager called me and said, "Hey, Danny Bramson, who's a music supervisor at Warner Brothers, wants you to come and take a look at this movie. Maybe you could write a song to put in the film." It was a movie called City of Angels. I saw it, and I was like, "Oh, I know exactly what I'm going to say."

It was pretty interesting, because that was the first time I had ever written a song for a film specifically. I had a guitar [that] had four strings on it because I broke two. I just wandered into this weird tuning, and I went back to my hotel room, and thought about it.

I was able to write the song from the perspective of the character in the film, which was really a lot of fun, and it was great. I played it for [Danny] on a four-string guitar, and then went in the studio with Rob Cavallo.Then it went boom.

I never expected that song to do so well. I just wanted to be on a soundtrack U2, Peter Gabriel and Alanis Morissette were on. I thought, "Wow, that'd be really cool. It would be something cool to show people 20 years from now."

"Slide" — Dizzy Up the Girl, 1998

We were doing the video for the song "Slide," and I was supposed to be in this shop with this girl. I'm kind of whispering in her ear, talking to her, and then they cut the shot and the girl slapped me across the face. I don't know why. I didn't say anything offensive, but she just gave me a smack. I was like, "Okay, I guess I was over-acting for something."

I just remember that. And it was kind of fun. It was an interesting kind of song. Subject matter is very serious lyrically, but the music is so light, lighthearted in a weird way, that it kind of fools you. I like songs that do that.

"Broadway" — Dizzy Up the Girl, 1998

It was a song that I had written and put it in a drawer and just left it there for a couple of years. I [later] revisited it, and reworked it, and it was the right time for that song to come out.

I wrote that song about the neighborhood I grew up in, which was a pretty hard neighborhood. Full of tough guys on the east side of Buffalo, [New York]. Once I was able to get away from that pretty oppressive environment, I felt like I had enough distance, and then I could speak my mind about it and sort of purge it out of me.

"Black Balloon" — Dizzy Up the Girl, 1998

It's a song about someone who's struggling with drug addiction, and what it's like to care about someone and love someone who has an addiction problem. I'm sure it's been used for stuff, but I thought the song kind of hit a pretty hard emotional chord.

"Sympathy" — Gutterflower, 2003

Once again, that song directly addresses addiction problems. That problem of trying to get sober and stay sober. Kind of interesting that you line all these songs up and put them in a row like this. I've touched on that subject a few times. I thought that that song just sort of encapsulated a dialogue I was having with myself in my head.

"Better Days" — Let Love In, 2006

It was originally supposed to be a song for a Christmas compilation that we were asked to contribute a song to. I wrote that and then took it into the studio. Glen Ballard [Michael Jackson, Alanis Morrissette] was the producer and co-writer on that. He turned it into something that became so much more than a Christmas song. CNN used the song as the music bed for their campaign to raise money for Hurricane Katrina relief, which I thought was really amazing and brilliant.

"Give A Little Bit" — Let Love In, 2006

It's a funny song, because we basically just took the parts that everybody knew and put them together. If you listen to our version and the original version [by Supertramp] back-to-back, they're so different. We just thought, "Well, let's take the parts that everyone knows and put them together in a song." We did this very condensed-down, concentrated version.

I thought that was kind of funny because I was like, "You're listening to the song and you're like, 'Wow, well, this song is seven minutes long. We've got to cut some stuff out of it." That's what we wound up with. And it worked, which was a surprise.

I think we got a note, or someone got a phone call from [Supertramp co-frontman] Roger Hodgson, and it was good. It was nice to be acknowledged by him for that.

Celebrating Olivia Newton-John, "A Beloved Artist And An Inspiration To Many"

Press Play At Home: Sophia Scott Tells The Tale Of Two Heartbreaks In A Poignant Performance Of "One Of These Days"
Sophia Scott

Photo: Courtesy of Sophia Scott

video

Press Play At Home: Sophia Scott Tells The Tale Of Two Heartbreaks In A Poignant Performance Of "One Of These Days"

Country-pop singer/songwriter Sophia Scott wears her heart on her sleeve in her performance of "One of These Days," an intimate story song that tries to find the greater plan behind heartache.

GRAMMYs/Aug 11, 2022 - 05:06 pm

On her debut EP, One of These Days, Sophia Scott pulls back emotional layers to tell an intimate and personal coming-of-age story. Topics such as addiction, friendship and first love all get a turn on the project, but one of the EP's most spellbinding songs — the title track — delves into early experiences with heartbreak, and how that trauma can reverberate throughout the rest of a person's life.

"Daddy came home with tears in his eyes/ Never seen that side of him before/ I was nine years old covering my brother's ears/ Hoping that he wouldn't hear/ Mama don't go..." Scott sings in the searing first verse of "One of These Days," going on to recount how two parents' divorce can affect their children's worldview. 

In this episode of Press Play at Home, Scott strips her song down to its essentials, sitting on a stool and strumming an acoustic guitar as she sings. The intimate performance draws the viewer's focus to the most important part of the song: Its poignant lyrical message.

As the song continues, we flash forward years later, to another chapter in the young girl's life: One where she experiences love — and then heartbreak — for the first time. After experiencing both her parents' divorce and her first breakup, Scott returns to the same big question: How does this pain fit into the grander scheme of life?

"Oh maybe one of these days/ I'll finally understand/ How every broken piece/ Fits in a bigger plan," she sings in the soaring chorus.

Scott's One of These Days EP arrived in June, and she told Celeb Secrets Country that the project marks a major step forward for her as a songwriter. "I think it was the first time I was able to get super vulnerable with my songwriting," she reflected. "You'll hear a lot of special moments lyrically that are very close to my heart."

Press play on the video above to watch the singer/songwriter's full performance of her powerful heartbreak ballad, and keep checking back to GRAMMY.com for more episodes of Press Play at Home.

Justin Tranter On Writing For Pop's Vanguard, Ruling The Myspace Era & Remaining Fearless

"13," The Musical That Kicked Off Ariana Grande’s Career, Is Now A Netflix Movie
"13" debuts on Netflix Aug. 12.

Photo: Courtesy of Alan Markfield for Netflix

interview

"13," The Musical That Kicked Off Ariana Grande’s Career, Is Now A Netflix Movie

Composer Jason Robert Brown discusses working with Ariana Grande on "13: The Musical" and the importance of writing a "bop" that reflects your characters.

GRAMMYs/Aug 11, 2022 - 03:45 pm

Before she was a pop sensation, Ariana Grande made her Broadway debut in "13: The Musical." She was one of thirteen kids in the Broadway show that ran for only a few short months in 2008. The show has since been turned into a movie musical made for Netflix – which begins streaming Aug. 12.

"She was as gifted a singer at 14 years old as she is now," the musical’s composer and three-time Tony Award winner, Jason Robert Brown tells GRAMMY.com. Brown believes Grande was always destined to be a star, but he does feel like he’s been part of the talent development for the many teenagers who’ve starred in the show over the years. "They learn something about how they want to perform from it and it directs them forward," he explains.

The Netflix adaptation stars Eli Golden, as Evan, a Jewish 12-year-old who moves to a small, non-Jewish town in Indiana right as he’s about to become a Bar Mitzvah. He tries to make new friends so they will all come to his party. Debra Messing plays his mother and the pair share a poignant duet called "It Would Be Funny," one of three new songs Brown wrote for the film.

It’s been a busy year for Brown whose new musical, "Mr. Saturday Night" (based on the 1992 Billy Crystal movie of the same name), opened on Broadway also starring Billy Crystal. He is preparing for the highly anticipated New York City production of his musical "Parade" (in which he won a 1999 Tony Award for Best Score) starring Ben Platt ("Dear Evan Hansen") and Micaela Diamond ("The Cher Show"). He’s also written the music for "The Last Five Years" and "Honeymoon in Vegas."

GRAMMY.com spoke with Jason Robert Brown all about bringing 13 to Netflix, writing a new song for the film inspired by Grease and one of his favorite memories of working with Ariana Grande that you can hear on the cast album.

What was it like revisiting the show? 

I haven't stopped revisiting the show since [book writer Robert Horn and I] wrote it. We did it originally at the Paper Mill [Playhouse in New Jersey] in 2006. Then we did it at Goodspeed [in Connecticut] in 2007. We did it on Broadway in 2008. I did a new version in London in which I directed. That has been the version that has been out in the world since.

In all of that time, Robert Horn and I were always working on what's a possible idea for how this could be a movie. We had written several versions of a screenplay before Netflix even came to us. 13 was always a show that we always knew we were gonna have to keep coming back to.

You always have to keep your eye on anything that's a contemporary story so it doesn't get dated. There was a lot in the original draft that was of its moment, but does not feel of its moment anymore. Teenagers are different than they were in 2008. It's always fun to come back to the show, because I love these characters and I love this material. But it's always a challenge to find out how to make it say what it has to say in slightly different ways.

Tell me about writing three new songs and why you wrote them. 

I wrote new songs for a bunch of different reasons. The story of the movie is different than the story of the [Broadway] show. There were some things that happened in the show that had all these great songs attached to them. When we got to [working on] the movie, those songs don't make any sense anymore.

So when we lost some of those songs, we had to come up with new ones. When Evan first gets to school, we had an opportunity to introduce the kids in the town in a much better way. I got to write this really great song for Brett (the head of the football team played by JD McCrary,) and for Kendra (the head cheerleader played by Lindsey Blackwell), called "I've Been Waiting" and it talks about their dilemma which is how they've been waiting all summer to get together.

It reminded me of "Summer Nights" from Grease. 

That was certainly a model in a lot of ways. "Summer Nights" is the two lead characters talking about what they've done all summer to their respective crowds. Without us doing it intentionally, that was exactly the same position that this song was going to be in. Why run away from it?

It was also an opportunity to say, alright, what is the music that these kids sing? The music I wrote for them to sing in 2008 sounded like 2008 music. I thought let's get closer to what they sing now. I got to write what my daughter calls a "bop." When I was working on the movie, [my daughters were] 15 and 11. I showed them everything that was new and got their reactions. I didn't always listen to them, but I did my best to watch their eyes and see how they responded to material.

How did you get Debra Messing, who plays Evan’s mother, to sing in the movie? 

The show on Broadway had no adults in it. For the movie, that wouldn't make any sense. So we put in the parents: Evan’s mother, his father and his grandmother. His mother is played by Debra Messing who, on top of being an extraordinary comedian, is a great singer. The whole point of having Debra Messing in the movie is she should have a moment. So I got to write a song for her and her son to sing. I don't think Debra would have been interested in doing the movie musical if she didn't get to sing.

Getting her to sing the song was the easy part. It was really this great give and take about her ideas about being a mother. [In real life] she is a divorced mom [like in the movie] with kids who are almost exactly Evan’s age. So she had a lot to say about what that experience was. Obviously all the other songs are just kids singing. It was just nice to have a second where the grown up had a little perspective to offer.

What stood out to you about Eli Golden, who plays Evan? 

For me, it was very important that the Jewish characters be played by Jewish actors. There’s an idea that anyone can play Jewish – it's not a race. I don't think that's true. I've seen a lot of Jewish characters played in ways that feel inauthentic. So much of the movie depends on the fact that there is one Jewish kid in the middle of a town of non-Jewish kids. It is important he feels like an outsider and like he doesn't entirely belong.

To have Debra, Rhea Perlman (Evan’s grandmother), Peter Hermann (Evan’s dad), Josh Peck (Evan’s Rabbi), and Eli all be Jewish centers their experience in a very specific way. I wanted to make sure that the Jewish experience was not being portrayed in a way where it was played for laughs. What was wonderful about Eli is he is a New York Jewish kid and he brings that energy to it. At the same time, there's something that is so charming and approachable about him.

What do you remember about Ariana Grande’s audition and casting her in the show? 

She sang Mariah Carey. She opened her mouth and we said "we have cast her." She was always an extraordinarily talented creature. So many of those kids in that original company were. Not only did Ariana bring it, but it happened so many times during the casting of this movie.

I don't take too much credit for Ariana because she was going to be famous no matter what happened. I do feel like we got to give her this little showcase where the world got to see her for the first time.

Any favorite memories from working on the music with her back then in 2008? 

If you listen to the opening number in the original cast album there are a series of four solo riffs that each of the kids do at the end of the song. The kids made those up themselves. And the way that it all worked was that I took all 13 kids in the company around the piano and I just kept playing those four measures of music over and over again. I would point to them and I would say sing your riff.

I got to Ariana and she sang this sort of perfect Whitney Houston riff right at the end of the song. It was amazing. What I remember specifically as she sang it was everybody just started laughing because we were all like well we can stop doing this now. We know what one of the riffs is going to be.

Do you stay in touch? I know you did a concert in 2020 with her on Zoom, which I watched. But does she consult with you at all?

She doesn't need to consult with me. We're friends. So every once in a while we text each other and we check in. We usually are talking about our experience doing 13. She's still very close with Liz Gillies, Aaron Simon Gross and Graham Phillips. There are times where, at midnight, suddenly I'll get a group text from all four of them because they're all hanging out together in Los Angeles singing all the songs from the show. That happens much more often than you would imagine.

Now you have a new generation of teens who could become the next Ariana Grande.

What I'm really excited about is that this has the opportunity to inspire this whole other generation of kids. The show was on Broadway 14 years ago; it certainly didn't change the world when it opened. I’m so honored and thrilled that all these years later, it's still making a mark on this generation. It's sort of so weird, but it's really exciting. And I think the movie is designed so well to talk to kids of this generation.

You have "Mr. Saturday Night" on Broadway right now and soon "Parade" at New York City Center.

The real thrill is that Ben Platt really wanted to do it. He has always loved the show and he really wanted to find a way to do the part. For several years now, he's been working with [director] Michael Arden trying to figure out a way to get it up on stage. It's this fantastic opportunity to revisit that piece which I love so much.

One of the tricks of "Parade" is that it's a big show and it was designed to be big. So, it's probably too expensive to do a traditional Broadway revival. The great thing about doing it at City Center is we can do it with the full cast and the full orchestra and really give it its due. It's a piece that means so much to me and to my family. It means so much to be able to remember [its director] Hal [Prince] and memorialize the work that we all did together.

Everyone on Twitter wants to see this back on Broadway so everyone is hoping it transfers like "Into The Woods" just did.

That would be totally fine by me.

"A Strange Loop" Musical Director Rona Siddiqui On Breaking Boundaries In Broadway

Get notified of exciting GRAMMY Award news and upcoming events!
Be the first to find out about GRAMMY nominees, winners, important news, and events
Justin Tranter On Writing For Pop's Vanguard, Ruling The Myspace Era & Remaining Fearless
Justin Tranter

Photo: Christopher Patey

interview

Justin Tranter On Writing For Pop's Vanguard, Ruling The Myspace Era & Remaining Fearless

Justin Tranter was taught to be courageous from childhood, which meant they were enabled in adulthood to pursue any creative pursuit they desired. Here's how Tranter balances writing for megastars with their array of other pursuits.

GRAMMYs/Aug 11, 2022 - 02:21 pm

Most songs can be placed somewhere on a spectrum between specificity and universality — between confessional detail and mass applicability. Justin Tranter has written for everyone from Ariana Grande to Måneskin to Janelle Monae; how does this GRAMMY-nominated songwriter strike that balance?

The answer partly lies, Tranter says, in the differential functions of the verse and chorus.

"The chorus should explain the whole song, and it should be universal enough that everybody would want to sing that chorus," Tranter, who uses they/them pronouns, tells GRAMMY.com. "Then, you can use the verses — and sometimes the pre-chorus — to make it a clear, specific story."

This axiom seems simple enough on paper — but when you truly absorb it, the entire songwriting canon opens up. It applies to tunes by everyone from those pop stars to singer/songwriters of yore, like John Prine or Tom Petty. Go as specific as you want in the verses; just connect them to a chorus that's emotionally available to all.

But the magic of Tranter isn't just that they have songwriting down to a science; it's that they've run headfirst into everything from publishing to activism to jewelry-making, often to smashing success. 

In this in-depth interview, learn not only about Tranter's songwriting chops, but how a sense of fearlessness made their entire multifarious life possible — from their old band, Semi Precious Weapons, onward into a possibility-stuffed future.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

You're not only a major songwriter; you're active in the label, publishing and activism spaces. Have you always wanted a career like this?

Yes, I did. I always wanted to do lots of things. Fortunately, I was born pretty fearless, and my parents let me continue to be fearless. So, when it comes to the activism side of things or when it comes to going big, I never had any fear in doing that. So, I always dreamed of this. I always imagined this.

How were you raised to be fearless? A lot of kids grow up in fear, and then they become fearful adults.

First of all, I'm very lucky that I'm the youngest of four kids. So, I think my parents had really figured out parenting by the time they got to me — and I was a really big personality from the get-go.

I was very obviously feminine and queer very early, and no one — well, not a lot of people — told me I shouldn't be that way. My parents never told me I shouldn't be that way. My oldest brother was very supportive of it. Some of my other brothers weren't as supportive of it, but between my parents and my oldest brother, [I was] really loved.

I think I was raised to be fearless because anytime I was fearless and truly myself, they really enjoyed it. At least three of the five other people in my household thought it was fabulous and commended me — when I told people they were being mean or turned the other cheek at the appropriate moments.

There was just a lot of reinforcement that: yep, you can date exactly who you want, and we're going to celebrate and applaud it. And when you're funny, we're going to laugh at it. I think all those things were there for me. Every day, I realize how lucky I am to have had that.

Getting a band off the ground is a Herculean effort for so many people — but you did it with Semi Precious Weapons. How did you make it work?

I had built a solo singer/songwriter, piano-based thing for myself in New York, and I was hosting a night — every Sunday night — at the SideWalk Cafe in the East Village. It was called Justin Tranter's Flaming Sunday, and it was a night of queer singer/songwriters.

Once a month, I would do a full set, but every week, I would do a couple of songs and then just host and introduce the other people I had booked for the night. So, I had built a little bit of a following on my own in New York. And then, when the band happened, it really blew up.

The amount of guerilla marketing that took place — everything from literally tagging things, like spray painting our gun-and-heart logo all over the city, to putting stickers and matchbooks all over the city with that logo that would have the website so people could connect the dots.

It was the Myspace era, and I was deep, deep into trying to find any way to find fans on [there] — [like] messaging kids who liked music that was similar or liked people who looked like me, because my look was so specific and so over the top.

We'd just spend hours and hours and hours on Myspace, which ended up really working for me. We got on some big people's Top 8s, which led to more exposure for the band.

Another thing that happened is that for our first show, I designed necklaces, which were the gun-and-heart logo, and the heart had a bullet hole through it. I think I made 10 of them, and people loved them so much that I was like, "Huh, maybe there's a thing here." And I worked at jewelry stores as my day job.

So, I knew how to make this happen, and I ended up selling the band jewelry at Urban Outfitters — all over the country and the world. 

This is so era-specific. Urban Outfitters and Myspace — what a time to be alive!

Every single display card the necklaces were on would talk about the band and have a link to the band's website. Then, the jewelry ended up at Barneys and had 14-carat gold and diamond versions. 

It was this whole, insane journey. We found ways from guerilla marketing to a f—ing jewelry line! And that's how people heard about the band, I guess.

None of it could have happened without that fearlessness, I'll bet.

I look back to it, and I'm like, "Starting a jewelry line is the hardest thing in the world!" And the fact it ended up at Urban Outfitters and Barneys — I was just like, "Well, why the f— shouldn't I have a jewelry line? Who's to tell me I shouldn't?" Yeah, the fearlessness really helps the whole way.

You've written for a laundry list of A-listers. Who was the first major artist you wrote for, and how did that come about?

The band's last album, we made with Tricky Stewart — an amazing producer who did "Umbrella" and "Single Ladies" and a bunch of other unbelievable songs. Including the new Beyoncé — "Break My Soul."

He said to me a couple of times, "You're a f—ing great songwriter, and yes, your band is alternative." The last [work] we made with him was in much more of an alternative side of things that it was on the glam rock thing with the early days. He was like, "You're writing pop songs, and you should look into this."

The band had a publishing deal. I asked the publisher to cut us some sessions, and I really enjoyed stepping out of myself and just focusing on the best song — not on the best song for me to perform. I was doing it for three months, and it was a whole bunch of no, no, no, nos. 

I was like: Maybe I shouldn't. Maybe this isn't for me. The band is really known for our live shows. And now that I know this side of the business, three months is nothing. That's a very short amount of time, but I finally stopped trying to chase trends that were happening. 

Because I thought that's what pop writers did: you chase the trend. And that's what some pop writers do, and they're very f—ing good at it. I just wasn't good at it.

So, I wrote a song with some people I'd met for the first time. One of them, I'm still really, really close with — a writer named Ryland Blackinton. We wrote a song I really loved ["Nostalgic"] and Kelly Clarkson recorded it, like, a week later. I'm such a huge fan of her voice that it was a very exciting thing to happen to me.

If you were to place all songs on a spectrum between ultra-specific and candid and vulnerable, and perhaps more general and one-size-fits-all, where does your work lie? Is it a balance to strike most of the time?

If the artist does write, so much of what I do is writing with them and having a conversation about where they're at. And it's casual — I'm not interviewing them, but having a conversation and finding the song in that conversation.

And then, if the artist doesn't write — or does write, but doesn't need to — sometimes they're just looking for other songs, outside songs. I still like to either talk to them or find out about their life through them, or through somebody else in their life, and find a song that's really about them.

And if they really want, I want the artists to feel like this song is theirs. And hopefully this song is going to be good and big enough that they're going to need to sing it for the next 40 years. I want them to really feel like they can own it.

So, I don't actually write about my life that much anymore. In terms of the specificity of their life — and also something the world can relate to — I always say that we should know what the whole song is about inside the chorus. The chorus should explain the whole song, and it should be universal enough that everybody would want to sing that chorus.

Then, you can use the verses — and sometimes the pre-chorus — to make it a clear, specific story, specific to the artist and what they're going through, or have been through.

So, that's kind of how I like to [do it] — the chorus is easy to understand, because it's pop music, but the verses can uncover details for listeners. After many, many listens, they finally realize what's actually underneath there.

We could talk for hours about your material for everyone from Leon Bridges to Dua Lipa to Måneskin. Could you single out a couple of songs that you feel are particularly special, or cornerstones of your artistry?

Let's see if I can pull that off. Well, because you mentioned it first, I'll talk about Leon Bridges' "Beyond." It's one of my favorite songs I've ever been a part of. We had a very short time to work. It was, like, an 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. session — very quick.

As I said to you before, I normally try to keep the conversations very casual to find where the song is, but there wasn't time. So, I just said, "Hey, I'm going to just start asking you really awkward questions right off the bat so we can find a song here quickly.

Maybe the second or third I asked him was, "Are you in love right now?" He said, "No, but I did meet someone, and I feel like there might be something there." Which then turned very quickly into the lyric: "She might just be my everything and beyond."

Julia Michaels' "Issues" — that was nominated for [a GRAMMY for] Song Of The Year. That was a really special one for me because Julia and I are so close — and what she was going through that day was very very real.

Especially when you're younger, those moments in your relationships feel like the end of the world. And as an older person, you never want to tell them it's not the end of the world, because they just think you sound old.

So, really embracing that moment with her in the studio — and being able to write that song, have that be the song that the world finally got to hear her sing, and be nominated for [a GRAMMY for] Song Of The Year is such a beautiful, beautiful thing to be part of.

Daya Talks The Magic Of Combining Words & Melodies, Her New EP The Difference & Working With The Chainsmokers

Get notified of exciting GRAMMY Award news and upcoming events!
Be the first to find out about GRAMMY nominees, winners, important news, and events
Remembering Lamont Dozier: 6 Essential Tracks By The Prolific Motown Songwriter
Lamont Dozier in 1969.

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives / Handout

list

Remembering Lamont Dozier: 6 Essential Tracks By The Prolific Motown Songwriter

Lamont Dozier helped define the sound of Motown, co-writing, arranging, and producing a string of classic hits with brothers Brian and Eddie Holland. He passed away on Aug. 8 at age 81. GRAMMY.com commemorates his legacy.

GRAMMYs/Aug 10, 2022 - 04:03 pm

Prolific singer-songwriter Lamont Dozier penned hits for the Marvelettes, the Supremes, <a href="Marvin Gaye">Marvin Gaye</a>, Martha and the Vandellas, the Four Tops, the Isley Brothers and many more over his decades-long career. Dozier helped define the signature sound of Motown Records — one which has been covered, sampled, interpolated and used in soundtracks for generations.

Through his musical collaboration with brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, Dozier co-wrote, arranged and produced a string of classic hits in the 1960s. Among his extensive canon are songs like "You Keep Me Hangin' On," "Heat Wave," "I Can't Help Myself," and "Nowhere to Run." Without Dozier's ability to craft catchy hooks and grooves, Motown may have never become the powerhouse label that changed the course of music history. 

Dozier's creative offerings inspired artists across many genres, so when his publicist announced news of his passing at the age of 81, social media was flooded with heartfelt tributes from notable collaborators and admirers of his work, including Brian Wilson, Mitch Hucknall of Simply Red, Paul Stanley of KISS, and singer-songwriter Carole King.


Diana Ross — who first met Dozier in the '60s when he co-wrote 10 No. 1 singles for the Supremes, including "Baby Love" and "Come See About Me" — paid tribute to the late songwriter on Twitter: "He will always be remembered through all the beautiful songs that he wrote for me and the Supremes, and so many other beautiful songs."

Motown Records founder Berry Gordy played a major role in getting Dozier's career off the ground. "Lamont was a brilliant arranger and producer who balanced the talents of the great Eddie and Brian Holland, helping to pull it all together," Gordy said in a statement. "H-D-H, as we called them, gave the Supremes not only their first No. 1 record, ‘Where Did Our Love Go,' but they followed that with multiple No. 1s over the next three years. Unheard of…In the 1960s, their sound became synonymous with the 'Motown Sound.'"

Remembering Lamon Dozier in studio

 (L-R) Diana Ross, Lamont Dozier (at piano), Mary Wilson, Eddie Holland, Florence Ballard (seated) and Brian Holland in the Motown studio circa 1965. | Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Dozier's journey to the top of the charts began in Detroit, where he was born and raised in the Black Bottom district. Raised by a single mother who worked hard to provide for him and his siblings, Dozier was a creative, ambitious kid and a bit of a romantic — he was known as "the love doctor" at his junior high where he sold love letters to classmates. He knew he wanted to make music, so he began writing songs as he figured out his next moves.

In high school, Dozier took a major step toward achieving his music dreams when his interracial doo-wop group, the Romeos, stumbled into a recording contract with a newly formed independent label. The group's single "Fine, Fine Baby" soon caught the attention of Atlantic Records, which bought the song from them. Dozier viewed the sale as a sign of good things to come and promptly dropped out of high school to devote all of his time to making music, much to the dismay of his mother. But the Romeos' success was short-lived — Dozier overplayed his hand during negotiations with Atlantic, abruptly ending the group's collaboration with the label. They disbanded shortly thereafter.  

 After the group split, Dozier set out to earn a living as a solo artist. In 1960, Dozier recorded his first solo project with Anna Records, a label co-founded by Gordy's sister Gwen. He recorded two tracks for the label, a midtempo ballad and a funky B-side called "Popeye." A young Marvin Gaye played drums on "Popeye," which became a regional hit before the label was forced to pull the record because of its references to the trademarked spinach-loving cartoon character.

When Gwen and her husband sold Anna Records to Motown and in 1962, Gordy came a-knockin.' After years of circling each other, Dozier agreed to join Motown as a songwriter/performer and partnered with songwriter Brian Holland to pen tracks for the Contours and the Marvelettes. They soon recruited Holland's brother Eddie, and each H-D-H member had a critical role: Eddie would be the lyricist; Dozier, the idea man who created the lyrical concepts, and Brian would write the music. 

According to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, H-D-H composed over 400 songs, 70 top 10 singles, and 40 No. 1 hits for Motown before leaving due to contract disputes in 1972. (The trio has since been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

Though the trio continued working together infrequently under a different moniker, Dozier's focus was on his burgeoning solo career, during which he released 12 albums. While he could not replicate H-D-H's success with his own pursuits, the hitmaker earned accolades for his solo efforts and other collaborations, including an Academy Award nomination and a GRAMMY win for his work on Phil Collins' 1988 song "Two Hearts." 

Alongside his creative pursuits, Dozier was heavily involved in music education throughout his career. The veteran songwriter helped develop the Pop Music Program at USC Thornton School of Music and worked closely with emerging young artists as the school's Artist-in-Residence. "I discovered that I draw a lot of energy and inspiration from working with students who love music and are hungry to learn the craft," he wrote in his 2019 memoir, How Sweet It Is

When he wasn't composing, teaching, or spending time with his family, Dozier held multiple leadership positions within the Recording Academy and left an indelible impression on those who crossed paths with him. "Lamont poured his heart and soul into his craft, shaping the sound of Motown and eternally influencing the art of songwriting," wrote Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr.  "We will remember his natural ability to pen legendary music that connected people across the world." 

"Lamont was a national treasure and wrote some of the most iconic songs of any generation. He was kind, humble and a leader in the Recording Academy family," adds Susan Stewart, Managing Director of the Songwriters & Composers Wing. "Most recently, he served as an Honorary Chair for the Songwriters & Composers Wing, a role that honored his love and respect for his fellow writers. He will be so deeply missed by all of us."

Over his six-decade career, Lamont Dozier helped craft a unique blend of R&B, gospel and pop music that not only defined the Motown Sound but took flight for artists beyond Motor City f. Here are some essential tracks produced, co-written and arranged by the prolific hitmaker.

"How Sweet It Is" - Marvin Gaye

Released in 1964, "How Sweet It Is (to be Loved by you)" was an instant hit for Marvin Gaye, who recorded the song in one take. The love song hit No. 6 on the singles charts and became Gaye's most successful song to date.

The single's success was bittersweet for Dozier, who had intended to record the song for his solo career. "Once Marvin had his hit with [‘How Sweet It Is'], I accepted that an artist career just wasn't in the cards for me," Dozier wrote. "I still wanted it, but I was constantly bombarded with demand for more songs, and more productions for [Motown's] growing roster of artists."

After penning countless tracks for other artists, Dozier was eventually able to make his dream come true — he released a dozen solo albums throughout his career.

"Where Did Our Love Go?" - The Supremes

The Supremes' first No. 1 hit charted for 14 weeks, but without Dozier's persistence, the group may have never recorded it. H-D-H had originally penned the track for the Marvelettes, who rejected it, which led Dozier to bring it to Diana Ross and The Supremes, who were also not fans of the sound.

The songwriter was caught between a rock and a hard place: if he couldn't sell the single, the label would make H-D-H absorb the production costs, so giving up was not an option. Luckily for H-D-H,  the Supremes had yet to score a hit single, so they were in no position to pass on the song. Thanks to Dozier's tenacity and Berry Gordy's stamp of approval, the trio gave in and agreed to release the star-making hit that would launch them into the mainstream.

"You Keep Me Hangin' On" - The Supremes

A sound effect from a radio news bulletin inspired the attention-grabbing foundation of this hit song. "I remembered that staccato effect that preceded the news," Dozier wrote. So he employed a guitarist to recreate the news alert on the track. "I thought that would be a cool way for us to sonically say, ‘Hey, pay attention.'" And the world did.

The song topped the charts and inspired new iterations from artists across various genres and generations including Vanilla Fudge, Kim Wilde, Rod Stewart and Reba McEntire.

"I think that's probably one of my favorite songs in our catalog because of the way it has continued to resonate with different people through different versions for different generations over all these years," Dozier wrote.

"Baby I Need Your Loving" - The Four Tops 

What came first: the music or the lyrics? In the case of "Baby, I Need Your Loving," the music came three years before the lyrics.

Dozier and Brian Holland arranged and composed the music for this hit song during a three-hour creative session, but Dozier wouldn't crack the lyrical concept until a year later when the muse deposited a couple of lines into his creative bank: "Baby, I need your love. Got to have all your love." The two iconic lines helped introduce the Four Tops to a wider audience, garnering them their first Top 20 hit. (The song peaked at No. 11.)

"Stop! In the Name of Love" - The Supremes

This classic track was inspired by an argument that Dozier had with a woman he was seeing. "I was trying to defuse the argument, and it came out, ‘Stop in the name of love,'" Dozier told Rolling Stone.

"I was trying to be facetious, but the girl didn't think it was that funny. But then I thought about it, and there was a cash register ringing. The next day I brought it into the guys, and Brian was playing this thing that seemed to fit it, and we had it right off the bat."

"Two Hearts" - Phil Collins

"Phil Collins and I became friends and admirers of one another from the first time we met," Dozier wrote. The songwriting vet partnered with the drummer-turned-solo superstar to produce this track for the 1988 motion picture "Buster," which earned the duo a GRAMMY Award, a Golden Globe, and an Academy Award nomination.

This wasn't the first collaboration between Collins and Dozier — the duo had worked on tracks for Eric Clapton's "August" — and it wouldn't be the last. Both Collins and Clapton made guest appearances on Dozier's "Inside Seduction" album. 

Celebrating Olivia Newton-John, "A Beloved Artist And An Inspiration To Many"

Get notified of exciting GRAMMY Award news and upcoming events!
Be the first to find out about GRAMMY nominees, winners, important news, and events