If songs are like children to professional hit-makers, Canadian Gordie Sampson is one watchful dad.
The 40-year-old from Big Pond, N.S., has penned two chart-topping smash singles for Carrie Underwood while also dashing off songs for the likes of Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Martina McBride and LeAnn Rimes.
The Grammy winner estimates that he demos about 75 songs a year, so surely it’s difficult to keep tabs on all his musical offspring?
“God no, you’re glued to the (chart),” the personable Sampson said down the line from the East Coast this week. “First thing you do in the morning before you have your coffee is check the chart and see if it went up a point overnight.
“Not that I’d know, but I guess it’s a bit like watching your stocks. You’ve got an investment and one starts to take off, and it goes up a point one day, and down a point the next, and you’re like: ‘Oh shoot, is it done? Is it going to fall off the chart?’ And the next day it jumps up five places.
“So it’s just this manic depression that lasts 40 weeks or so.”
Of course, Sampson points out that for a professional songwriter, it’s more lucrative for a song to take its time gradually climbing the chart to No. 1 — “that’s the dream,” he says.
If that logic surprises you, welcome to the world of behind-the-scenes hit-crafting. This month, Sampson is sharing his insights with hopeful songwriters at his third annual Songcamp in Cape Breton, N.S., culminating in two live performances from his pupils on July 12 in Ingonish.
But for those other fans whose Stetsons are stuffed to the brim with good song ideas, Sampson shares the following tips for penning a chart-topping country tune:
Words are worth the world
To hear Sampson tell it, no factor is more critical to a country song’s success than its lyrics.
“The lyric is more important in a country song than most other kinds of music,” he said.
And what’s the key to a country turn of phrase that gleams as brightly as a cowboy’s belt buckle? Keep it simple, partner.
“Writing country lyrics is a very, very unique artform,” he said. “It’s really the art of being simple. And it takes so much work to make the lyrics simple — it’s very counter-intuitive.
“Being ambiguous and being a poet and writing what I would call more of an artful lyric — which is the kind you might find on my solo records — that’s relatively easy compared to trying to come up with an end result that is visceral and that people listening to the radio in their car can instantly feel part of.”
The key, he said, is making sure the words are general enough so that anyone listening can relate. So if a country crooner warbles a tune about a “her,” Sampson says the lyric should work whether the listener thinks the pronoun refers to his wife, his mother or his dog.
“No matter if you’re 10 or 85, it feels like the song is about you.”
Teamwork is important
Sampson says that most of the hopeful charges that come through his camp are already “amazing” songwriters. What they tend to struggle with is co-writing.
It’s an important skill, particularly for professional songwriters. Sampson guesses that he hasn’t written a song alone in roughly a decade.
“The thing that people struggle with the most when you co-write is the inherent shyness,” he said. “For every 10 ideas I might throw into the equation, nine of them are terrible. But you have to realize that is the process. You have to get over your fear of flying, as it were.”
Repetition is unavoidable
Did you just realize your newly penned masterpiece sounds exactly like another tune shuffling up the country charts? Don’t panic. It happens to, literally, the best of them.
“Country music is three chords and the truth,” Sampson said. “You have to figure that there’s, let’s say, a thousand signed writers in Nashville all writing a song a day — that’s 5,000 songs a week … all trying to use the same three chords.
“I run into a situation where I’ve written a song and the title and the chords and everything was already done by a band 10 years ago. You go: ‘Wow…. That one’s dead.’ You have to re-write it.”
Hit-makers are clairvoyant
Wayne Gretzky didn’t skate to where the puck was, he skated to where the puck was going to be. Sampson follows a similar adage when trying to pen hits for other artists.
Most acts want to evolve with each release. Sampson says record labels can sometimes pass along intel on where a musician is headed artistically, but they’re wrong 60 per cent of the time.
And you can’t just buy the last Keith Urban record to figure what the next Keith Urban record will sound like.
“Keith Urban’s probably really into some band from London now — or you just have no idea what he’s listening to now, what inspires him,” he said. “There’s a lot of lookahead involved … it’s a moving target.”
Know when to quit
Sampson says that in a Nashville songwriting session, it tends to take between three and four hours to finish writing a song.
It can also take days. But sometimes the best ideas germinate and bloom quickly. Sampson and his team wrote Underwood’s Grammy-winning, chart-topping smash “Jesus, Take the Wheel” in less than two hours. And knowing when it’s time to stop tinkering can be a crucial skill.
“Sometimes, a song being written very quickly can be an indication of how great it is because the song and the lyric ends up being uninhibited — the lyric has a freedom to it,” he said. “Whereas if you sit down and pine over a lyric for three days, you tend to overwrite it in the same way (a painter) can put too many colours on a picture…. Songs can be sort of overpainted.”
Don’t be selfish
Take Sampson’s advice — it pays to share the wealth.
“A question I get a lot is: do you ever write a song that you love so much you want to keep it for your own album, and you don’t want anybody to record it?” Sampson said.
“It just kind of makes me laugh, really. I would never want that. In a perfect world, I would record it on my album and they would record it. You just want your songs to flourish as much as they can.”