Last week we profiled Ashley Gorley in Songwriting 201 – Profile of a Hit Songwriter. In the long and short of it, Ashley has penned 14 No. 1 songs for various country artists, was the 2013 ASCAP and Billboard Writer of the Year respectively, and has won the prestigious CMA Triple Play (having 3 No. 1 songs in one year) Award twice. He is still going strong and is one of the hottest, most in demand writers in Nashville period. Last weeks article detailed some of the ways Ashley got to this status as a writer and he offered some sage advice to the aspiring writer. This week we visit Ashley one more time to take a look at some hit writing technique.
Obviously, there is no tried and true generic formula for writing a hit. If this was the case, you could read a book, apply the logic and catapult yourself into a 7 figure income and summers in the Hamptons like me (if you count 7 figures with a loose decimal point placement and summers in the Hampton “Inn”). Yet, there are some great ideas to follow from Gorley in regards to his writing style and practices that will help you take your own craft to the next level. They ultimately illustrate what it means to be professional.
1. Always be a student of the craft – In last weeks interview excerpt, Ashley spoke of spending hours daily listening to songs in various conditions from demo to master. He was able to gauge good songs from bad songs as well as recognizing style variation and what artists are looking for. Even now as a hit writer with over 100 cuts to his credit, Ashley still listens to songs and styles in various genres and absorbs this into his own style and technique.
2. Immerse yourself in the craft – in any profession, practice and application improve your skill set and proficiency. Ashley writes daily several days a week. He often has two or three writing sessions per day. Most pro writers treat it like a job, putting in the hours both writing and performing their songs. Ashley even learned how to play guitar in order to enhance his ability to contribute accompaniment and arrangement ideas in a writing session. Put the time into developing your skills.
3. Collaboration and Critique – Ashley admits that he really prefers co-writing with other writers. One of his favorite co-writers is Chris Destefano with whom he’s co-written several number one songs. Writing solo is difficult because you really get no feedback on how lyrics and ideas are gelling. Someone else in the room can give you feedback on an idea, improve your idea or present a better idea. Co-write and you double the creativity. Another application of critique is participation in writers nights or performing your own material live. There is nothing like a live audience responding either positively or negatively to give you ideas on what will or won’t work.
4. Don’t set boundaries on your style or abilities – Ashley spoke of feeling humbled being in the room with hall of fame writers who have way more experience or knowledge than he does. But it pushes him to bring a better game and think outside his comfort zone. He also works hard at keeping a variety in how he writes. Sometimes he brings a melody, sometimes a lyric or just a line, and other times he might have a chord progression or even a track to work with. This way you don’t get stagnant and bring freshness to the writing environment you are working in at the time. As well, Ashley intentionally tries to insert variety into his style approach. Sometimes he and co-writers might try to write for a particular artist who is cutting. Other times they might try to write a song in a particular style or format. Focusing on one style exclusively can often lead to stagnation or being pigeon holed as just a “ditty” writer or a ballad writer.
5. Make your work environment and approach fun – this was one of the first things that Ashley mentioned as a priority in how he approaches writing. Sometimes it might be the physical environment that you need to manipulate for your comfort. If you can’t concentrate because you’re too hot or cold, can’t hear over the ambient noise or don’t have the right tools at your disposal (ie: instrument, paper or computer) your efficiency and your productivity will be effected. Pro-writers often have writing suites that are provided by their publishing companies (something we’ll discuss in the subsequent article). However, controlling your environment should be something intentional and not an after thought.
6. Documentation and record keeping – One thing that Ashley collects constantly like many hit writers is ideas. He is intentional in the way he keeps up with ideas, lyrics or melodic ideas. When he comes to a writing session, he brings these ideas to be able to present and work on with co writers. This is so easy to do now with smart phones and note keeping apps. They make entry easy and even allow you to collate by key words or date of creation. Most of these apps like Evernote even allow you to create audio recordings and attach pertinent annotation. Don’t lose or forget an idea that could be your next hit! As well, making a work recording or demo is imperative for keeping up with ideas even if it’s a rough with just a chorus. It’s not always easy to get something back if you don’t save it in some format.
7. Be self aware of your values and keep a balance – in the last article, one of the key pieces of advice to aspiring songwriters was find a balance in life. Ashley is a Christian yet often writes about activities that are perhaps on the fringe of his personal values. He works at hard at honoring his values yet still writing material that speaks to issues and the real life that country music usually laments. You might say that he tries to keep it real. This sincerity makes an Ashley Gorley song very relatable and accessible. It remains the reason why artists are drawn to his songs time after time. They hear the genuine humanity in his lyrics whether they are about a small town Saturday night, the pride that a parent feels for a child, or just the pain and pleasure of raw emotion.
As always, it’s difficult to provide THE comprehensive list of writing technique that will be the formula for your career success. But these suggestions and the previous article’s profile illustrate a craftsman who is diligent. Ashley has a great work ethic. While he might prefer a fun work environment, he and writers on his level are very serious in their drive and creativity to produce quality. It was a great pleasure to spend some time speaking with Ashley. I am proud to see how far Ashley has come from those early post Belmont days in a little publishing studio. Yet, it’s encouraging to see how he has acclimated his success into a thoughtful lifestyle that is fulfilling and will no doubt sustain through a robust career. As always and certainly in the example of Ashley Gorley, write and live wisely my friends.