GSC Interview with Bruce Miller
provided by reporter Dan Reifsnyder
Dan Reifsnyder: Hey, Bruce! Thanks for talking today. So how long have you been evaluating songs?
Bruce Miller: That’s a good question! I have to go back and look…I think It’s been about 7 or 8 years. I started at NSAI working with Sheree when she was there. I think they had like a 6 month backlog of songs to evaluate, and I got them caught up in like a month or something ridiculous like that. I had never done evaluations before, but I had taught songwriting and studied songwriting. And I had been writing for 25 or 30 years…more than that, really. I had studied songwriting a lot and I discovered that I was really good at song evaluations and I really liked doing it. I think I figured out that when I was at NSAI, I evaluated something like 14,000 songs – including contests – and I was their most requested evaluator. So I mentored writers on about 14,000 songs and I really enjoyed doing it. So that’s kind of the history of it.
DR: What would you say is the #1 thing that you constantly come across?
BM: Writers at different levels make different mistakes. I’d say the #1 thing that developing writers make is that they assume the listener knows what the story is about. They don’t give enough detail. They don’t give enough who, what, when, why, and where and the listener is lost. It’s a very common thing. Even professional writers I work with can sometimes forget that, and we have to go “Wait a minute…why does nobody understand this?” I think Jason Blume said something great one time. Someone asked him to explain the song to them, and he said “Unfortunately, songs just don’t come with instruction sheets.” So that’s probably one of the main things. And learning how to find a great hook is another thing, and making it pay off emotionally.
DR: Tell me a bit about your evaluation process.
BM: I evaluate very organically. When I listen, it’s almost like I’m outside of myself, observing what I’m listening to. So if I’m not really engaged in the song, if I’m not feeling it, I need to find out why I’m not emotionally engaged by the song. And to me, that’s one of the most important things. Even if the song isn’t crafted well, if it doesn’t have the emotional content to it, it’s not doing its job. And each song has a job. I try to work with people to figure out what the job of each song is, and how to make sure that song is actually fulfilling what it’s supposed to do. As writers, we decide what that job is. There’s a few techniques I used to help people, like a checklist they can look at to see if the song is doing what they want it to do. In a vacuum it’s hard to know whether it’s doing its job, and if you know the right questions to ask, you can have a little more of a sense of what you’re writing. I tell people a song should move you in one of four ways: It should move your body, or your heart, or spiritually, or intellectually. If you get all four of those going at once, you’ve got a song that will live on forever.
DR: Good answer.
BM: (laughs) Long answer. And you know, people don’t realize how much of songwriting has to do with the human brain, and patterns. That’s how the brain really works, and how it’s really comfortable. When our brains can recognize a pattern quickly, it makes us feel good – the brain is really comfortable with that. That’s why we get anxious when things change. If you’ve ever moved, the first several months, you feel like you’re not in your body as much. You don’t know where the bathroom lightswitch is. And then finally you get acclimated to that and you become comfortable again. Part of being a commercial writer is about making people feel comfortable in a certain way. Like an old sweater. But we also crave variety, which is a paradox – we want variety in our patterns. We want the patterns, but we also want something new. I like to say we need something shiny. Songs that are memorable have something shiny in them that you haven’t seen before.
DR: Great thoughts. What are some songs you wish you’d written?
BM: I wish I had written “Ghost in this House”. I think it’s one of the most perfectly crafted songs that I’ve ever heard. I mean, I haven’t heard every song written, you know. But Alison Krauss does the best version of it – her voice captures so much of the emotion of that song. That’s one of my top ten. “The Song Remembers When” is another one. Both written by Hugh Prestwood. I’m a huge fan of almost all the Beatles’ catalogue, melodically. I think their melodies are just unsurpassed in the 50 years since they’ve been around. It’s hard to find melodies that touch their stuff. I’m a big fan of the Eagles, and that whole cadre of songwriters from the 70’s – country rock writers. JD Souther, Glenn Frye, Don Henley, Don Felder. Linda Ronstadt wasn’t a writer, but she picked great material to record. Crosby, Stills, and Nash. And my all-time favorite writer/artist is Joni Mitchell. I’ve followed her music and her career pretty much since the beginning. I’ve just watched how she progressed and developed as a lyricist. It’s kind of like “learn everything you need to know about songwriting, and then throw it out the window”. She really knew the importance of a hook, and returning musical themes that are memorable.
DR: Let’s talk for a minute about your background. What got you into songwriting?
BM: Well, I’d been playing guitar since I was 13 and joined my first band when I was 14. I was always in bands, up until the time I was 40. When I went to college, I actually moved down to Los Angeles to be in an original project – we were being produced by Andy Johns who was Glyn John’s brother – he engineered Zeppelin and the Who. He was a big time British engineer. I moved to L.A. and I started doing club work as a professional guitarist and singer. I had written maybe 4 or 5 songs in high school. I later worked with Paul McCartney and Kenny Loggins. I was Laura Brannigan’s lead guitar player for several years – that was probably my longest gig. After being in several original bands, none of which I did the writing in, I got tired of just being the guitar player. I felt like I had something to say, and I wanted to say it. I had a friend in Nashville who was a publisher, and he agreed to listen to my songs – I thought I knew how to write, and I thought I was writing country. You remember the sound tapes made when they were fast forwarded? (imitates the sound) That was the sound of my meeting. After that, I started taking songwriting lessons. I got involved with a songwriting organization out in L.A. called NAS. I went to every meeting. I saw what the business was about, and just really got an education. I started writing and figuring it out – my songs were getting better. I started commuting to Nashville and went to Song Camp – that was a religious experience. Rick Beresford, Jon Ims, Don Henry, James Dean Hicks, Hugh Prestwood and Angela Kaset were teaching.
DR: They’re great.
BM: Yeah. I learned a lot. So that’s kind of my progression from wanting to do it, to learning how to do it, to doing it and eventually moving to Nashville. I love what I do. I love this part of it – being a teacher and mentoring people. Because I know how hard it is. I also love songs and songwriting, and being a songwriting mentor is really, really exciting for me. I get to witness this process with someone and get to help them find their legs as songwriters and get good at it.
DR: Awesome. Well, do you have any parting thoughts?
BM: Yeah. I think what’s really important for people to understand is that they need to have an order of business they need to take care of in order to be successful. And the first thing they need to do is get their songwriting together. I don’t care how much networking you do, how much social media you do, I don’t care about any of that stuff. If your song is not competitive with what is happening within the market you’re in, there’s no way you’re gonna go anywhere. The most important thing you should be focusing on is getting your songs competitive. That is job one. Being able to have immediate feedback and have it from someone who isn’t going to make you feel bad, or make you feel like quitting is really, really important. That’s why the evaluation service with Global Songwriters is so crucial. It’s a great deal, and not to toot my own horn, but it’s with someone who can really help them. People complain all the time “Well, I can’t get anyone to help me.” You’ve got it right in front of you – this opportunity to increase your marketability by becoming a better songwriter. And you need good feedback so you can improve. It’s almost exponential how much better you get when you have someone who can nurture you along the way, and you’re working with them consistently. You’re gonna get a great feeling of progression that way.
DR: Thanks for the interview, man!
BM: You’re welcome! Have a good one!