It All Begins With A Song is a feature length documentary that offers a fascinating look into the world of professional songwriters and their successes, failures, processes, and inspirations. I got the chance to review the documentary on Nashville songwriters for Flip Screen before sitting down with Brett James, a four time Grammy Award winner and one of the songwriters featured in It All Begins With A Song.
MS: Can you tell me a little bit about what you do? I know you’ve recorded your own albums and singles in the past, as well as writing songs for other artists, but do you consider yourself to primarily be a songwriter, a singer, a musician just in general?
BJ: Well, until this year, I haven’t recorded my own music in about 20 years. I actually just put out my first track from my new solo album which I just released last week, but that’s the first time in over 20 years that I’ve recorded my own music. So really,I’ve just been a full time songwriter primarily. I also produce, publish, some things like that, but my main gig has been as a working, full time songwriter.
MS: You recently released the single ‘True Believer’ earlier this February, what inspired you to write this song?
BJ: My daughter. I turned 50 and I’ve had somewhere around 500 songs recorded by different people – 26 of them winning awards – and it kind of hit a point where I had kind of an epiphany; how can I reinvent a little bit and just what do I want to do? And it came down to that I want to make music that I love, so I took a couple of weeks off and just sat by myself and wrote an album. Most of that album turned out to be what I’m calling Nashville soul record – it’s all kind of warmth and soul sisters, all about love and it’s kind of Old Memphis, a lot of Old Memphis kind of influences it and things like that. But ‘True Believer’ kind of was a tag along. When I sat down and started to write it, I immediately knew I was writing a song for my daughter. I didn’t set out to write a song for her, but I knew that it was about her. I didn’t think ‘True Believer’ would be for my album honestly, it didn’t fit with what the rest of the project was like, but I liked it so much, and so did some other people, that it ended up becoming the first focus track from my EP.
MS: How does your process change then when you write songs from personal experience?
BJ: Well, it changes pretty drastically. As a professional songwriter, it’s kind of a weird thing because we’re really trying to create something that another artist is going to want to sing. And sometimes when we’re writing for specific artists, we try to get into their head and think about what they might say. So to write for me and to write from personal experience, that was a big challenge. What do I have to say? What do I want to sing about? And what it came down to, for me, was kind of all about love. I’m in a very in love place in my life and you know, I’m a little bit older so I’m not going to sing about some of the things that 18 year olds might sing about necessarily. I had to think about what are the things I can say and say in a whole new fresh way. So that process is very different, and you kind of have to dig a little deeper and look into your heart to figure out what your heart wants to say over what your mind says when you’re trying to create something for another artist.
MS: How do you feel when you write music? Is that any different to how you feel when you sing?
BJ: It’s a very different process. Writing usually happens in a small room or a small studio and you’re not really even thinking about what’s coming next. You really don’t think of it outside that room; you don’t think about the performance of it or how it’s going to be sung live because most of the songs that I write I don’t really sing. I love to go to concerts and see famous artists sing them in front of arenas, in front of stadiums sometimes, and that’s like one of the coolest times ever to be standing in the background and watching someone sing your song- like Kenny Chesney sometimes 80,000 people at a time is pretty nice. But for [‘True Believer’], a big part of the writing process is knowing that I’ll be performing this song. It’s honestly a lot more nerve wracking because you know that this is not something that someone else is representing, this is coming from my heart and my voice. The few shows that I’ve done so far are very different. I think because it’s more personal it becomes a little bit more of a deeper thing and that makes me a little more nervous.
MS: There’s not still that level of distance.
BJ: Exactly. But then again, the reward is bigger in some ways too because then I’m communicating with an audience and they’re singing the words back to me, and when they’re emotionally moved at times then that reward is just that much more special. So it’s a risk and reward thing.
MS: How have you found Nashville to be different as a source of inspiration compared to other places where you’ve written music or places that have inspired you to write music?
BJ: There just isn’t any place like Nashville. This is the songwriting capital of the universe, as we like to say, and what I love the most about writing in Nashville is the community that we’re a part of. We really have an artistic colony that still lives and thrives in Nashville, and that is really one of a kind on the planet. One where we all kind of live parallel lives and we all kind of work together. I’m probably one person away from almost every songwriter in Nashville, just based on the people that I’ve written with, and because they write with those other people. That’s really my favorite part of working in Nashville. When you’re writing a song with someone, it’s not like you’re working at a desk job. You’re kind of in each other’s heads, asking “What’s going on with you really?” You have deep conversations and that leads to a lot of incredible relationships, and I’ve been very blessed to have had a bunch of those over my period of time here and I think that’s really what makes Nashville that much more special. We’re all kind of like minded, just trying to create the best art that we can and create the best songs that we can. There’s a saying in Nashville that it’s all about the song and we think that’s true. We like to think that without the song, all of the stars that we see on the TV or radio are not a thing because they’ve got to have something to sing about that people care about, and I think that’s what the documentary does such a great job of showing. I don’t even think that I knew that there was such a thing as a professional songwriter before I moved to Nashville. I certainly didn’t move to Nashville to be a songwriter, I thought I was going to be a country star when I came to town many, many years ago. I think that it will surprise a lot of people that there is this group, a group of pro-songwriters that are just first of all trying to eke out a living and second of all, just waking up every day and going to write something and hoping that somebody cares.
MS: You’ve been writing songs now for over 20 years, what motivates you to keep writing even when things get tough?
BJ: That’s a great question. I think there’s always something to say, I think there’s always a new way to say it. You think you’re at the end of the creative universe, but once in a while, a writer stumbles upon an idea for a song that just blows your mind, and those are the moments that we’re all trying to find or get to. There’s always that next mountain to climb and we’re always just digging, and digging, and digging, and trying to find that little nugget of gold to turn into something special. I think that’s kind of the beauty of it.
MS: Some people do their best work under pressure while others like to have the freedom to work more at their own pace. What conditions do you find you tend to write best under or is there a variety?
BJ: I think there’s a variety for me. I’ve written songs by myself in my truck, I’ve written on beaches and in mountains and in a lot of little dumpy studios; kind of anywhere you have a guitar, we sit and write. So, I don’t know if there’s a perfect spot. I think for me, I write my best when I’m sitting down with my 16 year old kid, who has never written a song before, and is excited about it. That’s when I feel most creative, because it takes you back to what made you fall in love with music in the first place. And as long as you can tap into that joy that you felt when you wrote your first song or when you had your first song recorded or whatever that was, that’s pretty magical. I think if you tap into that early kind of stuff and continue to then I think it stays fresh and is always exciting.
MS: And finally, what was it like to be interviewed for this documentary? Was that a new sort of experience?
BJ: There were a lot of cool things about it. They did a great job with their interviews, because they asked a lot of questions that maybe we hadn’t thought about. And they did an amazing job putting it together and then kind of challenging us to think outside of the normal songwriter way that we think. That was sort of what the magic of the documentary turned out to be. I love how it turned out and I love how it kind of shows off Nashville. It’s definitely a cool peek behind the curtain at a hidden slice of music that a lot of people have never seen before. I’m excited that it’s finally getting out into the world and it’s going to be interesting to see where it leads for songwriters and the profession. I think the ultimate goal of the documentary will be to inspire the next generation of songwriters. There’s a lot of songwriters that don’t perform and don’t sing. Some of the best songwriters ever are not great singers or great musicians for that matter. That’s what’s so cool about songwriting is that it is inclusive, you don’t have to look like Brad Pitt and sing like Sia to be a songwriter. As long as you’ve got something to say that no one’s ever heard before and you’re creative, you can be a songwriter for a living and hopefully that will inspire people.
To learn more about Nashville songwriters, make sure to check out It All Begins With A Song– now available for purchase on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, FlixFling, Vimeo on Demand, and Vudu.
Featured Image Courtesy of TriCoast Entertainment