Perfecting art of songwriting, one ditty at a time

Nate Proctor and Rebecca Garcia sat listening to the song, “At the Piano,” which they had co-written and recorded, as fellow classmates busily scribbled notes to offer critiques after they, too, heard it.

“It’s a nice little song there,” one classmate said, “The instrumentalism. The melody was simple, but the harmony added so much.”

“Great rhymes; nice flow,” said another.

A week at a time, these students share songwriting tips and learn about the music business in “The Craft and Business of Songwriting” class at Loyola University New Orleans, taught by songwriter Jim McCormick.

“The down chorus is your style,” McCormick directed to Nate after his song. “I like that it’s a duet. It’s a really nice song.” He suggested the duo write a post chorus that would connect the lyrics, to dig deep into a space where the things that make a happy and better life are: “Generosity, courage, love, honesty, curiosity.”

McCormick offers his students more than 20 years’ experience in the music industry and his collaboration on approximately 2,000 songs, working with Harry Connick Jr., Tim McGraw, Jason Aldean, Brantley Gilbert, Keith Urban, Trace Adkins, Luke Bryan, Trisha Yearwood, Randy Travis, Ronnie Milsap, Rodney Atkins, Jamey Johnson, Anders Osborne and Amanda Shaw.

“It’s an enormous honor – not to mention a thrill – to have a song cut by one of the nation’s leading country artists and be credited among so much talent,” McCormick said.

Fly on wall

A nurturing environment gives students courage to air new songs, get feedback from peers and McCormick, and improve their skills.

“I think in the beginning you are trying to learn the little things, the details of the craft,” McCormick said.

Aspiring musician Caitlyn Harris wouldn’t say she’s a songwriter yet.

“I am trying to get better, and this class is pushing me in the right direction,” she said.

Aspiring singer Tiffany Jade, who has performed in a club, seeks to strengthen her collaboration skills. She cites rhythm and blues with a pop influence as her musical influence.

“I think what I take home (from this class) most importantly is even if you don’t agree with the critiques you get, it is still good to get the opinion of others,” she said. “While everyone’s opinions are important, ultimately it’s your call.”

Still writing 100 to 150 songs a year as a staff writer at BMG Chrysalis Music Group in Nashville, McCormick tells his students that discipline trumps inspiration any day. He embraces a “chameleon approach” to songwriting – collaborating with musicians performing different genres.

“Inspiration is for amateurs,” he said. “The rest of us just show up and get to work. I am a believer in 99-percent perspiration and 1-percent inspiration. We’re all going in there trying to fly. … The days that are special are not frequent but come often enough to keep you coming back.”

He said he can teach someone to write a song but can’t teach them how to write a great song.

“I can help them make their mistakes quicker and save them a little time by pointing out some of my mistakes,” McCormick said. “I try to teach them to be unafraid of ridicule and embarrassment. I show myself as imperfect as I can, to demonstrate that the industry is not just available to perfect people. I try to give them nudging, not too soon or too late. You want their spirit to move in them toward the love for something – a love for a kind of work in life. My hope is that you find a kind of work you love so much that you commit yourself to it. … That’s the real gift I have been given in life.”

McCormick gives weekly theme guidelines and ask students to write solo or in collaboration. And, each week, the songwriters surprise him.

”I have heard some extraordinary songs being written,” he said.

Lover of words

McCormick’s musical path began at Jesuit High School where a love of literature, poetry-esque rock lyrics and a prematurely deep voice as a 15-year-old singer/songwriter landed him a spot in the band “Resonance” with a regular Tuesday night gig at the club Jed’s.

“That’s where I learned to stand on stage and keep and lose an audience,” he said. “I got to grow up trying out new songs on people and learned how to be a band – show up on time, have a set list. The furthest thing in my mind was that I would pursue it in any way. I was just a kid fooling around. But I never stopped fooling around.”

At Georgetown, where he earned an English degree in 1990, McCormick had a punk rock band called “Johnny Zhivago.” He returned home, playing in a working rock band called the Bingemen that toured with and learned from bands like Dash Riprock, the Continental Drifters, the Subdudes and Cowboy Mouth. Along the way, McCormick wrote for a trade magazine, earned an MFA in poetry at UNO and began teaching freshman composition.

But, music “chose me in a way that wasn’t going to be shaken off,” McCormick said. “I knew if I could get my chance at bat, I would have a shot at it.”

An invitation from Nashville friends sparked an interest in country music songwriting. Nashville was a “continuation of a vocation I fell in love with. I saw a way of making a living in something I loved so much.”

McCormick considers himself a lyricist and melody writer – a “top liner” who works with musicians of all genres. As an associate professor at Loyola, he’s just sharing advice he received from a mentor, Nashville’s Kris Bergsnes, who told him, “We’re not trying to learn how to write better songs; we’re trying to be better people.”

“What we are doing is an artistic pursuit – it has to appeal to people on a heart, gut level,” McCormick said. “It’s something people have to feel.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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