Alumni Interview with Andrea Stolpe
|Photo by Beth Gwinn|
What are the major accomplishments of your career to date?
While attending Berklee, I received a scholarship from ASCAP and a songwriting award from SESAC, two performing rights organizations. In my career after Berklee I've had two publishing deals. The first publishing deal was at EMI Music Publishing and now I am at Almo Irving Music Publishing Company. I have written with incredible writers such as Craig Weisman and Annie Roboff, as well as some major writers in the London pop circuit. I feel very lucky to be a writer at Almo Irving, whose roster includes Annie Roboff (Faith Hill's "This Kiss"), Anthony Smith (George Strait's hit single "Run"), Nancy Griffith, Lari White, Gillian Welch, Emmy Lou Harris, and Peter Frampton, among others. I've managed to gain considerable interest as an artist, as well, building a great foundation for a versatile career in the industry. With a publisher who believes strongly in what I do, I have holds with such artists as Tim McGraw and the Wilkinsons, and caught the attention of A & R at major labels, allowing me to play my songs personally for various producers and artists.
What made you decide to pursue songwriting as a career?
In the beginning it was simply a love of songwriting. And thank God for that because I really stunk. I listened mostly to the Police and Sting, and pretty much tried to mimic his writing without a lot of success. During my first year at Berklee, I learned some great songwriting tools from Jimmy Kachulis. Then later I took all the lyric writing classes taught by Pat Pattison. I attribute much of my current success to these two incredible teachers. Then I went on the March trip to Nashville led by Pat Pattison and decided with one year left at Berklee, I'd better start thinking about how to make a living writing. Nashville is such a great place to be with that goal in mind. It's fairly simple to get in to see publishers and meet other writers who already have deals and would gladly give you direction. In my opinion, Nashville is the perfect place to start a career in music regardless of what style of music you create. I don't consider myself a country writer. I do, however, desire a career in a business that can seem insurmountable at times. Therefore, I am willing to learn how to form my pop lyrics into something that will work in the country industry.
It is a constant challenge, and I strongly believe that without that challenge my own ‘artist' inspired songs wouldn't be what they are today. Oh, and did I mention how nice it is to get a paycheck every month?
What are some of the skills that you are called upon to use daily in your work?
Some of the more usual skills include proficiency on guitar or piano and the ability to sing. But as long as you've got a great sense of melody and harmony, it doesn't matter if you can't shred on your instrument. The Nashville songwriting community is overflowing with great writers. In order to break into that circle you need to figure out what skills you have to offer that set you apart from everyone else. Whether it's your ability to write great lyrics, compose amazing melodies, or inspire others with your winning personality, these things will make you indispensable to publishers looking for new writers, and old writers looking for new co-writing opportunities. For me it was my lyric writing abilities. I'm a piano player, but I'm no Matt Rollins. I'm also a guitar player, but just enough to be versatile in the way I write. I'm also a Nashville writer with pop influences. That enables my publisher to pair me up with writers from London and LA who are interested in writing more lyric-driven pop songs. I enjoy co-writing, but also like to write on my own. That means a greater percentage of money for my publisher when songs get cut. It's not a necessity, but combined with other skills, gives me a competitive edge among all the other publishing companies fighting for the same Faith Hill or Martina McBride cut.
How did your education at Berklee prepare you for what you are doing today?
Berklee has given me a ten-year head start in the industry. I have ear-training and arranging skills that are not typical among writers here in Nashville. The tools I learned in the songwriting department saved me years of self-teaching. My basic jazz piano knowledge enables me to incorporate "new" chords into country music, and talk effectively and efficiently with players during a session. It sounds crazy, but I have gotten surprised looks from producers and other educated writers when they find I can "talk music." Most writers know when they hear a wrong chord or a bad note, but being able to explain why it is wrong during a costly or rushed session gains you a lot of respect.
What is a normal day like in your line of work (assuming there is such a thing as a normal day)?
Did I mention songwriting is the best job in the world? On a normal day I get up when it's convenient, I write either at home or at work in my own writing office, then go to lunch with other writers or staff members. Several times a month I have co-writing appointments. These usually start at 10 or 11 and run as long as my co-writer and I desire to write. We usually sit around and talk for a while until we get an idea, then gradually form the song singing and playing and exchanging ideas. A lot of the job involves networking and establishing good relationships with as many writers and publishers and record label staff members as I can. I used to feel a pressure to write as many songs as possible, and would hole myself up in the back of the building trying to force out ideas. After a lot of frustration, I realized that the great writers here never seem to get stressed out about quantity. In fact, they seem to spend a lot more time hanging out in the lobby of the building and taking two (2) hour lunches than writing. So, I decided to give it a try. Now I'm proud to say I spend a lot of time just sitting around with other writers playing the latest songs I've written, listening to other people's great demos, and chatting with my (song) pluggers. As a result, I'm much more relaxed, and I'm turning out better tunes than I ever have before. Once every three (3) months, or so, I have a demo session. I usually track four (4) or five (5) songs in a six (6) hour session. I have the distinct advantage of being married to a highly talented engineer/producer whom I trust to produce great demos, saving me a lot of time and energy. I try to write as much as possible, realizing that is where my true talent lies. Then I seek out other people with production, engineering, and playing talents to complete the product.
What is your favorite part of the job?
I have a kind of love-hate relationship with my job. I love the challenge of writing the greatest song I can possibly write, but I hate the challenge of writing the greatest song I can possibly write. Feeling the spark of a great idea or even a great line and being paired with a writer who feels that same spark is an incredible experience. I can't imagine my life doing anything else.
What are some of the personal rewards that have come with your job or career?
I am surrounded every day with people who have really honed in on their unique ability to convey incredible sentiment with music and lyric. I also have the opportunity to create something lasting and of great value to people whom will hear and hopefully love my songs all around the world. Working at home, the freedom to travel whenever I want, and simply being paid to be creative is a dream come true.
What do you think are the requisites for someone entering this field?
The most important requisite is persistence. To build a career in songwriting, you've got to love it so much that you'll give years of sweating it out at a day job before seeing some real success. Be confident in your abilities, but always be willing to learn. Respect those higher up on the business ladder, but never take anyone's opinion as complete fact. Try to focus on the positive aspects of the business, and convey that attitude to others. That alone will get you far.
What are the current trends in songwriting that will most likely shape your future and the future of this industry?
I think Nashville offers more opportunity now for writers of all styles than ever before. My own future will probably be shaped by how well I can combine what I like with the country music style of writing. That creates a whole new perspective that no one but me can offer. Also, country writers are beginning to utilize more programming techniques than ever before with the use of home studios. Writing to drum tracks can stretch country a little more towards pop or alternative styles. Home systems allow me to record clearer work tapes and get a better idea of the demo, saving time and money during the session.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job and/or career?
The most challenging aspect of being a full time songwriter is playing both the creative role and the business role. To be a musician is to be self-employed. That requires organization, a rare quality among many songwriters. Learning how to present yourself to labels, having a clear idea of who you are and what your music has to say, and convincing a publishing company that they can sell the music you create can only benefit a long career. All these coupled with an unwavering belief in your own music is a winning combination.
What advice would you give to women who are starting their own careers in the field of songwriting or entering other career fields in the music industry?
My advice to women entering the field of songwriting encompasses the following:
Don't let humility be mistaken for lack of confidence. Don't doubt your abilities. Take a few hours to make a list of your personal skills. They may be anything from the ability to budget or organize well, the ease of making new acquaintances feel comfortable in your presence, or more obvious skills like proficiency on your instrument. Working in the music industry requires a lot of patience and persistence.
Whether you desire a career as an artist, a session player, or a writer, the same rules apply. Consider yourself the manager of your own business. You are the marketing coordinator, the bookkeeper and the creative director all in one. Know what it is you're trying to sell - your abilities - then brainstorm on how best to market yourself. Seek out others with skills that differ from your own. Above all, enjoy the process. Accept mistakes and learn from them.
Realize that you as a woman have a unique perspective to offer. Women and men often write from different places. Consider it an asset when shopping for a publishing deal. In some cases, you may have to work harder. A studio session driven by testosterone may make it difficult for some women to fit in. I still hold to the belief, however, that if you've got a pleasant personality and know and display your strengths you'll succeed. It simply takes time. Many session players have a group they're comfortable playing with. It's hard to break into that circle. Rather, network with people in your age group or stage of progress and move up the ladder with them. Know enough about yourself not to compromise your own values. Carry yourself with confidence. Strive to represent strong women in the music industry.