In the Musical Exchange Songwriter Series, we explore the craft of songwriting through regular interviews and short videos with songwriters who share inspiration and advice and reflect diverse musical styles and approaches to the art of songwriting.
Michael Grubbs performed in bands and musical theater productions before launching Wakey!Wakey!, a pop/rock group that put his piano background and vocal skills to good use. Signing with Family Records, his group released several buzz-worthy recordings before piquing the curiosity of Mark Schawhn, creator of the long-running TV series One Tree Hill. Schawhn picked one of the band's songs, “War Sweater,” to appear during the season six finale, and Grubbs was also recruited to play a recurring role in the show's seventh season. Meanwhile, Wakey!Wakey! continued playing shows in their native New York City while putting the finishing touches on Almost Everything I Wish I'd Said the Last Time I Saw You, which marked the band's full-length debut in early 2010.
Carnegie Hall: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you get into music and songwriting?
Mike Grubbs: I think that one thing I’m really lucky about as a songwriter is that I was raised in a very musical family. My mom taught piano lessons out of our house, my dad was a singer, and my sister is a singer and played piano. Music was everywhere all the time. So as I learned to speak, I learned to sing; as I learned to read English, I learned to read music. Being in that kind of ultra-musical environment was really helpful for me, because it laid the foundation for my becoming a musician.
Carnegie Hall: What was your first instrument?
Mike Grubbs: I started piano when I was five, but we also had a music room at the house that just had all these instruments in it, so it had violins and clarinets. I think most families would have a playroom; we had a music room.
Carnegie Hall: And that’s where you do the majority of your songwriting, on piano?
Mike Grubbs: I do write on guitar a lot, as well. When I was 14, I had this rebellious moment. We had a baby grand in our little house. When no one was home, it was loud and awesome, but when people were home, it took over the house when someone was playing piano; imagine someone just blaring a stereo in the room of them running scales poorly. It’s not a very private instrument. So I decided I wanted to learn to play guitar. I wanted something that I could take outside of the house. So I started teaching myself guitar when I was 14, and that stuck with me to this day.
Carnegie Hall: Do you do a lot of your songwriting by yourself nowadays, or do you collaborate with other songwriters?
Mike Grubbs: It’s a mixture. I think it’s important that you should always write by yourself, but I think what I’ve really found is that different people have different strengths with writing. Different personalities make different things. For example, I tend to be kind of a blunt, coarse guy, so I’m the hammer in the songwriting session; I’m the guy that comes in and has a ton of big ideas. There are writers that I work with that can take those and help me form them a little bit better, help me clean them up a little bit and work them into things. If you listen to my last album, Almost Everything I Wish I’d Said the Last Time I Saw You, I wrote that entirely by myself.
Carnegie Hall: Where are you in the process of …
Mike Grubbs: … putting a new album out? I think that as a writer there are two things: There’s me as a writer, and then there’s me as a musician and as an artist. And they’re kind of very separate. For me as an artist, the path that I’m on right now is I’ve amassed a really great team of people that work with me, and I’m really lucky to have them all, and now we’re looking at who our next partner’s going to be as we release this next album—what label we’re going to do it with, basically. Now I think we have all the songs written, but then the other problem is me as the writer that just keeps writing. I can oftentimes write three to four songs a week that’ll be completed, finished songs. There are ones that I write and I’m like, “Ok, this one is for a pop artist,” or, “This one’s for this,” or, “This one’s for that.” But a lot of them I want for myself.
Carnegie Hall: That’s great that you write so much …
Mike Grubbs: Yeah, it’s cool.
Carnegie Hall: … and that you can write different styles of music for other people to perform. I feel that a lot of younger musicians aren’t really aware of what their world can be if they’re a full-time songwriter.
Mike Grubbs: There’s this really talented writer named Rosi Golan. She’s massively respected as a songwriter and as an artist amongst the world of songwriters. She’s really beloved and really well known. When I had finished almost everything and started writing the songs for this new album, she and I sat down and had coffee. We were talking about bigger life ideas like happiness and the way that you sustain yourself and what you do. I was saying that I just generally wrote better songs when I was sad, or I wrote better songs when I had turmoil in my life. And she was like, “That’s BS. That’s absolutely not true, and if you think that way you will sabotage yourself.” I think it was one of the wisest things I ever heard about songwriting, that you can’t try and write all autobiographical material, and if you do that you’re really limiting yourself. You should try and write about everything; write from other people’s perspectives. If you can only write in turmoil, you’re never going to have a happy life; you’re never going to be able to get married, you’re never going to be able to have kids, and you’re never going to be able to sustain a happy life, because it’s all going to get screwed up because you’re going to want to be able to write sad songs again.
Carnegie Hall: In thinking about that, where do you often find your ideas or inspiration?
Mike Grubbs: It really depends. It depends on what kind of thing I’m writing. In pop music, concept is king, the idea of the pop song. What is it about? What’s the payoff? What’s the story? What’s the turn in the story? It’s almost like those things. If you’re trying to write something where the idea is “teenage dream,” you’re like, “Alright, our concept is ‘teenage dream.’ How do we write around that? What is it? What’s the story?” Those kinds of things come into it. I don’t know if I’m writing about my personal life, but it could be movies, like if I’m watching a movie then I’ll make little notes. It’s really annoying; my girlfriend hates it. We’re in the theater and they’re like, “No texting,” and I’m like, “I’m not texting. I’m trying to write a song that will be important someday.” It’s really funny that I always write best when I don’t have anything to write on, like if I’m on the train and my phone is dead and I don’t have anything. I remember one day I actually got off the train at a stop and went to a bodega and got an envelope and a pen, because I was like, “I have to write this idea down; I’m going to lose it and it’s going to be gone forever.” That was really early on; I don’t think I would do that now. But yeah, it’s so funny.
Carnegie Hall: I know that a lot of people recommend that as a songwriter you should always write your ideas down and always keep pen and paper. But we are in that digital age now.
Mike Grubbs: I keep everything in my phone. It’s so funny, my phone. I’ve got like 50 passcodes on it, and it’s like a little treasure chest of everything I’ve ever done. I’m so scared it’s going to die one day or I’m going to drop it in the toilet and it’s going to be gone.
Carnegie Hall: Back it up.
Mike Grubbs: Totally. Anything that comes to mind, I try and write down.
Carnegie Hall: Have you ever written with somebody who’s not near you?
Mike Grubbs: From a completely different place? I’ve gotten to write with people in London and I’ve gotten to write with people in Los Angeles and New York and Nashville, but I think that I tend to write … Are you talking as to like Skype writing?
Carnegie Hall: Yes.
Mike Grubbs: I’ve never actually done that. And the reason is just that I’ve been lucky to have a plethora of writers wherever I am that I’m able to go in with. As far as having the big sea of people, I can see two sides to it. I think that writing in big groups can be really fun, can be really cool. Writing with people from all over the world can definitely give different flavors to the song and make it really exciting. I just think one thing with songwriting is, who is the song for? I watched this great documentary on Achtung Baby with U2, and Bono was saying that the importance of writing for your time, the importance of writing in the time that you exist in.
Carnegie Hall: What’s your regular schedule, as far as it relates to writing?
Mike Grubbs: There’s two things, like I said: There’s Mike the artist and there’s Mike the writer.
Carnegie Hall: Today is a “Mike the artist” day.
Mike Grubbs: Today is a “Mike the artist” day. But one thing that’s really weird is not having a job, not having a paper job, not having an office you go to every day. It’s an adjustment, and it’s not a way that the human body is really set up to work (or the human mind). Some human minds are really good at running companies; some are not. The artistic mind I think usually is not. So adjusting your mentality to a place where “I don’t have a job, but I’m still going to function, I’m still going to eat, and I’m still going to get up and get my coffee and start my day.” For me, there was kind of a three-year process of getting into that groove. Now that I’m in that groove, I love it, and I think I’m really good at it. But for me, my regular day is I get up, I look at my schedule. I try and get up at a good time every day, sometime between 10 and 11. It sounds crazy to people with normal jobs, but they don’t stay out and sing music until 2 AM. So I need eight hours of sleep, and that’s just where my eight hours happen to fall. Anyway, I get up, I look at everything, I get my coffee, I make myself breakfast, and usually I try and go to the gym, which is really ridiculous, but I think it really clears my head. So I go to the gym and then I go to the studio and I’ll just write. That’s it. It could be different people that I write with that day. Occasionally I feel like I’ve been writing too much, so I’ll give myself a couple of days off. In the days off, who knows what I’ll do? Something completely unrelated to music. I like going to sports; I like going to baseball games. I love watching football on Sundays. I try to be as normal as possible.
Carnegie Hall: Who’s your favorite baseball team?
Mike Grubbs: The Mets. I’ve always been a Mets/Jets guy as a New Yorker. I love the Mets and I love the Jets.
Carnegie Hall: There was an area of research that came out a while ago; they showed that there was this correlation between musicians and their practice and focus time in relation to how much they worked out and exercised and did physical activity. It was really interesting.
Mike Grubbs: It’s crazy how much it clears your head and lets the ideas flow. A lot of times (it’s so cheesy, but) I listen to audible.com. So I go to the gym for an hour and I listen to some book that’s about something really interesting. I just feed myself information all the time, and it all goes into the little, weird, dishwasher brain I have and comes out as clean dishes, hopefully.
Carnegie Hall: That’s kind of a way of keeping that channel open so that you can keep your creativity flowing. Final question: What advice or guiding principles or tips do you would want to give our Musical Exchange members?
Mike Grubbs: The thing about songwriting is … to go a little deeper into it, you think about the human brain and the way that it processes things. Your brain is like a computer, so you set up your hard drive to function however you want it to. So as you set up your brain as a hard drive, you basically say, “Alright, what are the things that are important to me?” If you have an instrument, spend as much time with it as you can, and get to know as much about the chord changes. Develop your ear specifically, as well. Learn what a fourth sounds like or what a fifth sounds like, and the difference between the two, and the difference in how they feel to you, so you know those things come out differently. Get the rudimentary stuff out of the way. When you’re young is when you learn best, so take advantage of it and you will thank me when you’re older. The other side of it is language, your language skills. If you want to be a songwriter, you’re going to be writing lyrics. Start doing the New York Times Monday crossword. In the way the crossword is set up, Monday is the easiest. Sunday is the hardest, and they get harder every day through to Sunday. So start doing the Monday one, get as much of it done as you can, and just do it every Monday. Make that just one of your things that you do. Start playing word games. Start doing things that expand those channels, that build those channels, that make the need for a word and the ability to find a word. Build those channels really well. And read poetry and read things. Then, once you get it all together, create a hero in your mind (a character that you want) and then write something down that he would say and make it into a song. Make sure that there’s nothing in the song that your hero wouldn’t say. Make sure who he’s talking to is a realistic conversation. And then you’ve got a song. That’s it.
Two other things are really important. I think you have to always write music that you like; I think that’s a really important thing. So for me, if I’m going to write a country song, or if I’m going to write a pop song, or if I’m going to write any song, I make sure it’s something that I myself would want to sing. That’s something that is really important, not only because of legacy issues. Someday, do I want my kids to hear that I wrote “Who Let the Dogs Out?” Yeah, if I’d written that, I sure as hell would. But at the same time … You never know what you’re going to write that’s going to be the thing that you’re going to end up having to sing onstage every day for the rest of your life, that people are going to (when they think of you) automatically assign to you. So make sure whatever you write, you like. And that’s also important sonically, like when you picture a texture. What kind of energy do you want it to have? It has to be you, because if you’re not connected to it and if you’re not excited about it, it won’t be good. The other thing is, I was worried when I started that if I wrote too much that there would be a finite number of ideas, and I would run out. That was a huge fear that I had. And it’s not like that; that’s not the way the brain works. That’s like saying you’re a computer and if you check your e-mail too much you won’t get any more emails. You have to think of it as if your brain is going to create these patterns, and it’s going to write these ideas; it’s going to make these ideas, so the more you learn to access the ideas the more they’ll come to you, and the better they’ll come to you, and the clearer they’ll come to you. So it’s like a muscle. It’s just like running. If you run every day for a week, at the end of the week you’ll run better; you won’t run worse. The ideas come better as you learn to access them better, so don’t be afraid they’ll run out. Just write and write and write and write. And don’t be afraid to write like s*** if you write something that’s really bad, or write bad songs. Don’t be afraid to write something and look at it the next day and say, “That’s not good,” because if you write something and the next day you look at it and go, “That’s not good,” that’s cool. Ball it up and throw it away. But before you throw it away, ask yourself why it’s not good, ask yourself why it was you wrote the lines that are not good in the song and what it was that led to those, and that way the more you do that, the more you analyze your bad work and your good work, the more you realize what it is that makes you create good and bad work, so when you’re in a session with someone and you’re writing, you can go, “Ok, I know that I want to say this, but I know that tomorrow I won’t like that I said it. Right now it might feel good, but when I look at this tomorrow it’s going to be bad.”
Carnegie Hall: That’s the editing process.
Mike Grubbs: You’re always going to make mistakes. If I write five songs a week, one of them probably I won’t like that much. But you just get better. You work and you work and you get better.