Happy New Year, Everyone! In the last issue of Bill’s Newsletter, I announced that Shelly Peiken, a songwriter and author in our music community, had been nominated for a Grammy in the field of Spoken Word for her book, “Confessions of a Serial Songwriter.” She’s in with some pretty heady company—Carrie Fisher, Bernie Sanders and Mark Ruffalo, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bruce Springsteen. But Shelly has been in heady company for a while, writing songs for hit makers Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Keith Urban, Cher, Reba McEntire, Miley Cyrus, and Idina Menzel to name a few. Since it’s Grammy month, I thought it would be the perfect time to take a deeper dive with Shelly about this amazing experience.
Diana – This is actually your second Grammy nomination. (Shelly’s first Grammy nom was for “Bitch” co-written with Meredith Brooks in 1997.) Does this recent Grammy nomination feel different?
Shelly – For “Bitch,” my daughter was just a few months old, and I didn’t have much time to think about it. This Grammy nomination is different. It isn’t just one song. It’s an embodiment of the story of my whole career. It’s the story of a lot of ups and downs. A lot of songwriters are in this book. They have similar stories. A few years ago I wasn’t sure if I should stay or leave the music business, so this nomination is so much more validation for me at this point in my life.
Diana – Tell me about your first gold record.
Shelly – In 1986, my song, “Carry Your Heart,” was recorded by Taylor Dayne on her first album, “Tell it to My Heart.” That album went triple platinum. So I had a big white wall – with a gold record on it.
Diana – How did you actually learn to write songs? Or did you go the Nike route and ‘Just Do It?’
Shelly – I went the Nike route. Nobody ever taught me. In the 80s, I went to my first workshop in the 80s. It wasn’t a ‘here’s how to do it’ group. It was more of a round table. We were all amateurs at the time. No one was a professional. It was more about – Did this move me? Did this do to me what you set out to do for the listener? It wasn’t competitive. We were just into it. We weren’t thinking about who was going to cut it. We did it for the joy of it. For me, even today, the most interesting thing is to write from a real thought, rather than conger from an idea.
Diana – Who was your biggest musical influence?
Shelly – The Beatles. I was a just a toddler, but their music wasn’t just an audio thing. It changed my bodily chemistry. As I got older, it was Carly Simon. On Sundays, my parents made pancakes and played musicals, so that was a big influence. I loved Billy Joel, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell.
Diana – And who was your biggest personal influence?
Shelly – I had two parents who never pooh-poohed anything I did. They never told me I couldn’t do something I believed I could do. They never asked, “What are you falling back on?”
Diana – Did you know you wanted to be a songwriter? Did you have a plan?
Shelly – Not then. I just wanted to play. At first, I thought about making my own record, so I just kept my ears open and tried to get my band signed. But then I found out that other people wanted to record my songs.
Diana – Not to be cliché, but how do you roll? How do you get down with your muse?
Shelly – I have one foot in front of me following my muse. I wake up every day not knowing. Not knowing exactly what I’m doing has been my best asset and biggest obstacle. A business manager might say, “You should think about this and that.” I don’t. I wake up every day and say, ‘What makes me happy?’
Diana – How do you overcome tough times in your creative life?
Shelly – It’s a hard business. An occasional tough time is expected. But if you’re having an extended tough time and can’t get over it, it might be time to make some changes in your life. I still have tough times. But things are always better after I have a good night’s sleep, or take a hot bath or go for a run. It get’s the juices flowing, releases endorphins. I recently embraced yoga, which grounds me. But it’s probably not a beneficial thing never to have a tough time. We write from our discontent. And we write in search of something.
Diana – Do you have any advice for songwriters today?
Shelly – If you’re starting out, write everyday. Know your business. Know how to get around it. There are 100 times more songwriters and 1/10th the opportunities. So there aren’t as many publishers pitching your song any more. You might have to do that yourself. You need to know how to read your royalty statement, how to be an advocate in business. Maybe even take a little time and call your Congressperson about songwriter rights and royalties. Or join SONA, Songwriters of North America, who are working in behalf of songwriters to raise streaming rates.
Over time, my life has gotten bigger, more events, more things to do. So I work on songwriting twice a week. I sit down and noodle and wait for something to fall.
Diana – You said, “A lot of songwriters are in this book.” Even though I haven’t had the songwriting success you had, I related to so many of your stories and the songwriting process itself. So thank you for baring your soul and sharing your journey with us. And best of luck at the Grammys!
The televised Grammy Awards airs live Sunday, January 28th, 4:30pm PST on CBS.