Erica Gibson, Behind the Song Machine

Interview, Media, Music Business, Press

Who are the writers behind pop songs?

“Bad Romance”, Khayat/Germanotta. “Halo”, Knowles, Tedder, Bogart. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, Swift, Martin, Shellback. You may recognize the song titles and the majority of the names (Knowles, Swift, Germanotta). The other names? Tedder? Martin? Notable songwriters in the music industry.

A lot of hits, pop music especially, are produced by a team of songwriters. This can be for many reasons. For one, artists who are newer to the scene need to really make a hit. It’s more of a safety net before they can convince record executives, etc, that they can go it alone. In addition, pop hits are constructed carefully for what pop fans want. I know I’ve referenced this article many, many times…but The Song Machine says it all.

How many of your favorite pop songs are actually written by the performer? I challenge you!

There are so many songwriters out there behind the scenes, writing the hooks, modulations, and bridges to your favorites. Even Lady Gaga started out this way.

Want to peer behind the curtain of the songwriting factory?

Meet Erica Gibson. Music educator, performer, songwriter, singer. Theory extraordinaire. She knows her stuff.

She stood out to me, at first, because of her musical knowledge displayed on Twitter.  Once I started paying attention more, I learned of her story and what she was up to.

Pop music tends to be seen as watered down, yet the majority of those who write and produce it are very much trained. Don’t believe me? Read on.

I can’t remember how I first connected with you via Twitter, but what stuck out to me was that you REALLY know your music theory. I appreciate a good music pun, too, despite my theory being only basic (my excuse is that I play the drums). Did you parents encourage you to pick up an instrument at a young age, or did you pursue it yourself?

Well I started piano when I was really young… maybe three or four? I honestly don’t really remember.  We had one of those little toys around with the plastic color-coded keys and a book telling you what colors to play.  Apparently I was really fascinated by it and played with it a lot, so my mom got me into lessons.  Both of my parents have musical backgrounds and there already happened to be a piano in the house.  As I grew up, I took piano lessons on and off and also took up flute/piccolo in fourth grade, which actually ended up being my primary performance medium in college (I don’t really play much anymore though).

Erica Gibson, hittin' the keys at a young age.

Erica Gibson, hittin’ the keys at a young age.

And were you involved with music groups at school? Chorus, band?

I was involved in band in elementary/middle/high school… playing flute [and piccolo], that is.  I was really into classical music; I was the girl who’d be listening to Saint-Saëns on her discman in study hall or looking through the ‘Flute Music by French Composers’ sheet music book.  In 8th grade I joined a local youth orchestra since my school unfortunately didn’t have a string program.  My last two years of high school, I played keyboard in jazz band (if I remember correctly, I was the only girl). Ironically, I was never into the whole chorus scene.  For some reason I’d convinced myself in high school that I couldn’t sing/wasn’t good, etc.

Since you also teach, how do you think music education impacted your career, and how do you see it impacting your students, developmentally?

I always liked taking private lessons and had some great teachers (at one point I took flute lessons from Kazuo Tokito who’s the piccolo player in the Philadelphia Orchestra).  My high school never really offered any theory classes or anything, so I just did my own thing and learned what I could on my own.  I was really into learning about composers- one night I was out to dinner with my family and for some reason decided to see if I could write down 100 composers on the paper place mat (my mom still has it).  Developmentally speaking, I feel like learning and performing music in general is great for kids–helps build confidence and also instills the fact that if something doesn’t go right on stage, it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world… life goes on and you can try to improve next time around.

What is a major misconception regarding music teachers? My sister is also a music teacher and I’m constantly floored at how much work and education goes into it for such a competitive, and rarely funded, line of work.

Hmm, I’m not really sure actually.  I’ve known so many different types of teachers over the years that it’s hard to remove myself from the picture enough to legitimately draw any perceptions or [misconceptions] if that makes sense…

Have you had any ‘oh wow!’ moments as a teacher?

Well, if teaching general music to classes of 30 kids, grades K-4, for two years and thinking “this doesn’t seem to be the best job for me” counts… then yes!  I managed, but based on my experience I seem to work better one-on-one than with large groups of kiddos that, sometimes,  just wanna goof off.  Also, just in general, seeing how different students learn in so many different ways is really intriguing.

You were mostly into classical music when you were younger. Do you find any of your students to be into classical?

A few, yeah. Usually kids whose parents seem to be into different genres and play the kids lots of different stuff at home to expand their musical palette.  Most kids who don’t really give classical music a fair shake generally just decide for some reason that’s it all Mozart and Vivaldi and hoity-toity stuff where everyone has a stick up their ass…which is far from the truth!  Just like there are multitudinous genres in today’s music scene, the classical music that was being written in the 1700s is radically different in so many ways from what was written a hundred or two years later.

What composers really captured your imagination as a child?

I was involved in ballet growing up and performed in the Nutcracker for maybe seven or eight years…I was serious about it, pointe shoes and all.  I always liked the piano music that was played in class and recall at one point, in middle school maybe, where it seemed like a new world opened up and I was suddenly able to hear all the different parts going on in Tchaikovsky’s score.  Aside from that, I loved anything with a great melody or that had interesting tonal colors going on. I went through a Mahler phase after hearing his first symphony performed live and thinking it was the most amazing thing ever.

I think that’s great that you also pursued music recording technology! It’s such a useful tool now for musicians to have those skills. You mentioned before that you were the only girl. I remember a similar experience. While I thought there were a good amount of females in my program (I didn’t focus on music and audio at first and then slowly drifted from video to audio), I found myself in a sound design class one day with a substitute professor, and she declared that she’d “never seen so many girls in this class”. There were two of us. Then, I decided to check out how many women were actually in my MP&E class. I counted two other girls in the lecture hall. Why do you think this is?

Good question… I’m not entirely sure!  I spent my first two years in college/university as a music recording technology major- in retrospect I don’t even know why I pursued that route at the time!  A friend said something like “what do you even want to record after you graduate? You can’t just record orchestras”. It was said haphazardly but it was a bit of an eye-opener for me at the time.  I spent the first two years as a recording major feeling out of my element since most of the other guys in the program had come from backgrounds like being in bands, running live sound at events, DJing, etc.  I had to take physics and electronics courses as well as actually learning how to record in a studio, and I felt like I was constantly trying to catch up to learn things that everyone else seemingly already knew.  Ironically, when I switched my concentration to performance/composition was right around when my own musical taste started to shift.

Did you migrate to guitar to branch out your performance opportunities?

Not necessarily for that reason. In my sophomore year of college, Michelle Branch blew up when her major label debut record The Spirit Room came out.  I was into that and subsequently got hold of her indie/acoustic album, Broken Bracelet.  I was really into that aesthetic at the time – acoustic guitar paired with programmed beats and lots backing vocals.  I also had what was probably a romanticized idea about playing the guitar (how you can just pack it up, take it anywhere and write/play) so I convinced myself to give it a go.  I signed up for a group guitar class and then took individual lessons the next year.

What was your coffee house experience like? 

It was interesting…where I went to school there was a small movie theater/adjoining coffee house that was a popular spot to study/hang, etc.  I played piano and guitar various times at the front of the theater as people made their way in to take their seats before movie showings, and I also performed out in the coffee house a few times singing/playing guitar.  It was a cross between doing a solo show where everyone’s there just to see/hear you, and playing background music (another gig I had…playing background dinner music on the piano at an upscale Italian restaurant).

When I started to work with music licensing and publishing I sort of re-realized how many pop songs out there are not at all written by the performers. The New Yorker article, ‘The Song Machine’, was a great piece about that. Do you think it’s disappointing that so many artists show up for the recording sessions and have nothing to do with the songwriting experience? I believe the New Yorker piece refers to Rihanna as a ‘manufactured’ pop star because of this. How do you feel about that label?

It’s definitely a bit of a slippery slope.  Of course that could be said about Rihanna, but she has a way of really selling what she sings and making it seem genuine and personal.  Certainly there are many artists out there who I wouldn’t say the same about. But yeah, the average uninformed music listener nowadays seems to assume that whoever is singing a song wrote it when in fact, a good amount of what’s out there in the pop world is co-written by a small handful of people that doesn’t include the artist.  Personally I prefer when an artist writes their own material &/or plays an instrument.

At the same time, Elvis and Frank Sinatra didn’t sing their own songs. Even the Beatles sang other people’s songs at first. Do you think the cynicism toward this is because of how these artists are portrayed these days? We wouldn’t say that ‘Hound Dog’ was the Beatles’ song, but ‘Umbrella’ is portrayed as Rihanna’s song, even though she just performs it.

It does seem to be a bit of a double standard, doesn’t it?  Maybe it has to do with the way things are marketed these days with so much emphasis on image, videos, etc. which perhaps takes focus away from a song & its meaning and adds focus to the individual doing the conveying.

How hard is it to get your music noticed by a producer? Is it all who you know?

Ha! That depends on what you consider ‘noticed’.  I see people on Twitter constantly tweeting producers/writers asking them to check out their material.  Of course that’s one way to go, but it’s more or less the same as junk/spam mail.  If the person you’re trying to get to notice you doesn’t know anything about you, why would they feel compelled to listen to you? If you get a solicitation under your windshield wiper telling you to come to a restaurant you’ve never heard of and they don’t advertise a compelling reason, why would you go? However if you can build even a little bit of buzz and your name comes to them via someone else whose opinion they value, they’re more likely to check you out.

And, when you collaborate with someone, what is your songwriting process like?

I’ve done collabs previously where a producer worked up a track with me in the room and then I took it home and wrote the melody/lyrics myself, then came back and recorded.  As is probably the case with most creative types though, I tend to second-guess myself when I’m working on my own.  The last 2 or years though I’ve been working with Scott Stallone… he’s an amazing writer/producer/mixer and he and I work really well together.  It’s great to work with someone who you feel like can be yourself around!!

Can you take us through the process of writing, producing a song, and getting it placed?

Well, things are never exactly the same but from my experience the last year or two, Scott works on the track stuff (sometimes with my input) and then we both work on melodies and lyrics together.  Coming up with melodies is usually the easiest element for both of us– we’ll sing snippets back and forth and hone in on what works best and lay it down with amusing/made up syllables. Then it’s a matter of concept.  I like co-writing lyrics ’cause it’s nice to have someone to bounce ideas off.  It’s great to be able to have someone to throw crazy ideas at, laugh with, and have someone honestly tell you if an idea works or not.  Getting a song placed, well, that could be a whole other article/subject, ha!

And is this totally focused on pop music? From what I’ve seen, it seems to be a totally different approach for indie and folk, etc. Yes? No?

Getting things placed definitely seems to be more of a thing that goes on in the pop/R&B-ish world.  Usually folk artists are writing their own stuff, at least from what I’ve observed.  Funny, my taste is very wide-ranging (I love pop, soul, trip-hop, r&b, electro-anything, film scores, classical, jazz, downtempo/lounge, etc) which frequently makes me feel like I have musical multiple personality disorder.  It makes for an interesting perspective in lots of ways though!

I do find it frustrating when people see pop performers, or the songwriters they may not even ‘see’, and discard any musical training these individuals have. True, not everyone has training. I think people tend to dumb down pop music, without realizing that most of these people had some sort of musical training before. Again, not all. But even Carly Rae Jepsen did very different music before “Call Me Maybe” was everywhere.

True, there does seem to be a vacuous perception.  Pretty much anyone can make pop music- all you really need is a set of chords that work together and a great producer who can fix your singing with Melodyne.  Ok, so that’s a bit of a stretch but just about anyone with minimal musical skills can make pop music working with the right people.  However, someone who really knows their theory and has something interesting to say about life… well… that’s where it’s at, for me.

Is location really important? New York, LA…

Eh, guess that depends on what you want to do.  Obviously being near a major city is favorable for seeing shows, meeting other musicians/potential collaborators, playing gigs, etc.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a pop performer? A songwriter for pop performers?

Performer? Ermm…attend lots of shows and observe how performers connect with their audience (banter, etc.)  I’ve seen many artists whose music I love in a live setting, but my favorite experiences are the ones where the performer really finds a way to draw the audience in and relate so they (audience) feel like they’re part of the experience.  Anyone can get up on a stage and deliver a solid performance but if you can draw people into your world, that’s even better.

Writer…listen to as much pop music as you can!  Study some music theory so you can understand how chord progressions work and how melodies can be most effective.  Take up learning piano and/or guitar.  Write as much as you can, even if you think it sucks at the time (sometimes it’s fun to look back over old ideas years later and see how your writing mentality has changed).

You say that you should build your own reputation first, before reaching out to producers…how do you go about networking from there, or introducing yourself? I’m doing a radio segment on networking next week and love to hear other people’s stories. Especially with social media…it becomes a small(er) world!

Well, in my experience there’s certainly no perfect way to go about things, but I have learned what does and doesn’t seem to work for me.  Having a SoundCloud page is a good start- and putting things up that accurately represent what you’re all about, not just rough demos.  From there you can link to your SoundCloud page via Twitter and/or Facebook and let people happen upon it on their own.

Tweeting producers “I am the next _______, please check out my music!!” is not the way to go… again with the whole unsolicited thing, like I mentioned before.  To me that’s kinda like someone in the mall in one of the kiosks trying to get your attention to come try their product just by getting in your face about it.  For someone using Twitter, maybe try just building some type of relationship with a person you’re trying to reach without seeming desperate or sycophantic.  Reply to a few things they say.. ask a question or two, convey to them that you’re a genuine person, not just trying to use them as a means to an end.  If you manage to build a rapport with someone then maybe mention that you’d be curious what they think of your music if they’d like to listen, not “go check out my music here”- that sounds like a command.  If you were that great, you wouldn’t have to tell them to listen to you, they’d probably already know.

Also if you can get your name to someone via somebody else they already know, that’s a great way to go.  I feel like the key is just being humble and human and not “OMG I am the next big thing, listen to my music!!” because that’s just annoying and off-putting.

Is it frustrating to think that someone else might, in the eyes of the audience, get recognition for your song?

Sure, though it depends on the situation — if it’s something you don’t feel much attachment to, well, okay.  If it’s something you feel a bit more personally connected to, then of course it’s likely to be more difficult.  In my mind the ideal situation is being in a position like Skylar Grey or Bonnie McKee- being known for being a great writer first, then getting to do your own thing after you’ve already made a name for yourself.  I had Bonnie’s Trouble album when it came out in 2004 and also listened to Skylar when she went by her given name Holly Brook and did more folky-type stuff.

Stereotypical question, but I have to ask…where do you see yourself in five years?

As much as I do enjoy teaching piano to kids, it’s not really what I want to do forever.  Ideally in five years I’ll be making a living writing/recording/performing/etc.  I’ll see where the road takes me though!

You can follow Erica for more musical thoughts and creativity here, here, and here.

After this, I need to post this song by M in here. ‘Pop Muzik’.

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