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.
Vocalist and songwriter Nikki Jean, an artist with links to the modern world of commercial pop music by appearing on records by Lupe Fiasco, recently unveiled her debut CD, Pennies in a Jar, which contains songs co-written with a staggering list of songwriting legends, including Burt Bacharach, Lamont Dozier, Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, Paul Williams, and more.
Carnegie Hall: Let’s start from the beginning—how did you get into songwriting?
Nikki Jean: Irving Berlin. Irving Berlin’s 100th birthday celebration on television when I was five years old. Even at five, I knew some of the songs like “There’s no Business like Show Business,” “God Bless America,” “Blue Skies,” and I said to myself, wait … the same guy wrote ALL these songs? The show went on, song after song and they were all so good. When you’re five, someone who is 100 is immortal! And I kept thinking he’s old, but these songs, they’re brand new. People are still celebrating these songs and they will live forever, and it was just the coolest thing. We taped it, and I watched it over and over, and fell in love.
Carnegie Hall: And you got the bug?
Nikki Jean: Yes, I fell in love with songs.
Carnegie Hall: When did you start writing songs when you were a child?
Nikki Jean: I think it was a bit of a perfect storm. My mom didn’t let me watch that much TV, so we had a player piano that had 200 rolls, and they were old rolls. There were no voices—they were just words and music. So I didn’t become a fan of singers, I became a fan of songs. And additionally, she didn’t let me watch a lot of crazy movies, so we watched a lot of musicals, which made me a fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and other musical icons. Since I was a big Rodgers and Hammerstein fan, one of my first books was the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein, and his foreword in that is one of the most seminal lyric writing texts that exists. Now when they reprint it, Stephen Sondheim writes a foreword to hisforeword. It’s very cool.
Carnegie Hall: Once you got the songwriting bug, did you go to music school?
Nikki Jean: I’ve been training musically since I was probably five or six. I started on piano, followed by semi-professional choirs and professional theater. The choruses were so important because it was really advanced theory training at a very young age. I had to be able to hold my own vocal part. I learned solfege, how to read music, sing in different languages—German and French. And I would attend serious summer music camps every year, so I was pretty immersed in the creative arts. I went to a creative arts middle school, participated in choruses all through high school, and I was a musical theater major for a short time in college.
Carnegie Hall: As a songwriter, what is your typical day like?
Nikki Jean: My whole life is my job. I wake up at 7 AM, I jog, I have breakfast, then get dressed from 8–9. From 9–10, I practice voice and guitar. From 10–11, I practice piano and meditate. Starting at 11, I can either write or to work on a project like a video treatment, or social media online stuff. For the rest of the afternoon, I’m at the studio. And that’s every day! It’s pretty regimented because when you’re self-employed and have a creative career, it’s easy to get distracted. Discipline is really important. The more you bring yourself to the page, the more you bring yourself to the piano, the more you show up, the more results you’ll have. You will only get better at writing songs if you keep writing songs, even when you don’t feel like it.
Carnegie Hall: When you go into a writing session, do you go in with ideas? How do you organize your ideas? When you’re writing a song, who do you have in mind?
Nikki Jean: I think one of the things we have now that is really helpful that previous generations didn’t is that we have so many ways to record ourselves on the go. We have smartphones … you can run to the computer and record an idea. It’s important to always have some way to just capture an idea because sometimes the ideas are really fleeting. I don’t care if I’m at the movies, or in my car. You hit the record button and sing those 10 seconds. There will be a phrase or you will see something that will hit you a certain way; write it down, and save it for later when you want to write by yourself.
But it’s great to save those ideas for when you’re going in to write with someone else because starting a writing session with someone else can be tricky. Once you have established a co-writing relationship, it gets easier. You pitch each other ideas until one catches, gets some traction, and you go from there. In new co-writing relationships, it’s great to have something that you think is some of your better work, and share it!
Tom Bell, one of my mentors, said that every song is about love and/or escape. I don’t think about those things when I’m writing—I’m just thinking, man, that was as painful as an elephant falling on me from 40 stories! I like visuals a lot. I like titles that aren’t common. I look for strong titles and one really compelling concept. A great verse with no hook can be fine depending on what you want to do. I like to write pop songs, so that’s not going to work for me. I need a hook, I need a chorus. I at least need a refrain. People want to sing along.
Carnegie Hall: How do you know when your song is good, or when you’re satisfied with your hook?
Nikki Jean: I’m more able to say when I know I’m dissatisfied. Something will just rub me the wrong way. I don’t want to sing it over and over. It’s really getting rid of all those little things that bother me about the song. I probably do three demos of a song before I record it down, and the process of making that initial demo and then listening to it, listening to it, practicing it, editing it—oh, this is a little wordy there, or this is slow here.
I got in trouble with Mr. Bacharach for not finishing a song. It took me eight months to finish my song with Mr. Bacharach, and he taught me the lesson that you have to finish songs. Even if you don’t feel like it’s your very best work, it’s important to finish it because until you finish it, it’s not a song. It’s just a little musical fragment.
Carnegie Hall: There are a lot of students on Musical Exchange from different countries, such as India, Indonesia, and Turkey, and they’re interested in …
Nikki Jean: Writing together!!!
Carnegie Hall: Yes! But they are halfway around the world from each other!
Nikki Jean: It can be done!
Carnegie Hall: How?
Nikki Jean: Well, I’ve done some long-distance collaboration. My collaboration with Bob Dylan was via computer. We didn’t sit down in a room together, so there are lots of ways that these things can happen. With him, I received fragments of a song with suggestions to write this part, or places where I would have an opportunity to write this part and that part, and we worked on it that way.
Co-writing is something where you have to be committed to having a shared goal. You have to have a shared goal, and you have to be explicit on what that shared goal is. It doesn’t have to be super-detailed. It can be like, oh, you want to write a song together—what’s this song going to be about? You need to at least have that much. There needs to be a lot of respect, and at the end of the day, all parties should walk away and say, “I like our song!” That’s success. But to get there, everyone has to feel like it’s ok for them to say what they really feel, and what they really think about the song. You don’t want your name on something that you hate, ever. And so everyone has to be able to feel like they can speak freely, and be respected.
Carnegie Hall: The last and final question, which I feel is the all-encompassing question, is what would be your advice to young aspiring songwriters?
Nikki Jean: Don’t write boring songs. I know it sounds really simple, but if your song doesn’t have anything in it that’s unique, different, or original, that’s a problem! You at least should be able to say, “this is pretty interesting!” And if you can’t say that, then you can’t expect anyone else to do it. So push yourself. Push yourself to write songs that you love.