In early March 2010, Vadim Efanov of the Russian music and technology company Virartech conducted an e-mail interview with songwriter Rick Paul for the “Advice for Musicians” section of Virartech’s web site. While the interview was conducted in English, it was translated into Russian for Virartech’s readers. Here is the original English language interview.
When did you start your musical activities? Are your parents involved in music?
My mother started teaching me to play piano when I was four years old. (She also says I was singing nursery tunes from six months of age, but I’m not sure I believe that.) I took lessons from her until I was about seven, then taught myself from then on. I also took lessons on clarinet and saxophone at my school. One of my brothers and I had bands from around the sixth grade onwards to the end of high school.
My parents both played music in high school. My father played saxophone and had his own big band back then. My mother played piano and also the clarinet. My father didn’t really play any further when we were growing up, but my mother sometimes played piano to accompany groups at school functions, and she taught a small number of piano students privately. My father was still very involved in our music, though, as he drove my bands around and repaired our equipment. He also did sound for shows at our school.
When did you realize that musician is “what you want to be”?
I always loved music from when I was very little, but I think I started to think of it as a possible career sometime after I heard Elton John’s Goodbye Yellowbrick Road album. I think maybe around 1974 or so. At one point I wanted to be “the next Elton John”, so I figured I should start writing songs.
Do you remember your first performance on stage?
I’m not sure about stage, but I do remember performing Christmas carols on the piano for my kindergarten class. I was always singing or playing in school, such as doing solo parts in operettas in the third and fourth grades, then I had my own bands for a long time.
What element of live performance has the most effect on you?
While I perform solo piano/vocal shows, I most enjoy playing with other musicians, especially really good musicians. It is a lot more fun to play off each other, and of course you can play a lot louder when there are electric guitars and drums involved. I always like to have an audience, as I find I get energy from the audience’s reaction, and a bigger audience is much easier to play for than a small audience. When I’m singing, especially when it is just piano/vocal, I like to really get inside the character of the song, kind of like an actor might, rather than “just singing” the song.
Which do you prefer, writing songs or performing them in public?
I love performing. Songwriting can be hard work, especially lyrics, which don’t come easy for me. That’s one reason I prefer to collaborate with talented lyricists. But you have to write songs if you want good new songs to perform, and I do enjoy songwriting, too, especially when the result is a song I love to sing.
Do you collaborate with other composers or performers? Was there a person you worked with who amazed you the most?
I collaborate frequently in my songwriting, mostly with lyricists as the music comes easily to me, but writing lyrics can sometimes feel like pulling my own teeth. I’ve written with a number of excellent lyricists. Most recently I have written a number of songs with a highly prolific lyricist from up in Washington named Mike Parker. Not only is he very prolific, but most of the lyrics I’ve seen from him are very good. He is the co-writer on five of the twelve songs on my recent Love Holds On album.
It’s been a while since I’ve regularly worked with other performers, but I do play in a worship band at a small church called The Gate in Rancho Santa Margarita, California. There are a number of very good musicians and singers there, and the pastor used to play keyboards on the road with the Beach Boys.
You’re a good singer and can perform songs yourself. How often does one find a songwriter being a singer at the same time in United States?
Thank you. It seems like most songwriters I meet here are also singers. I think probably there are more good singers than good songwriters, though.
Where do you start from when writing songs: lyrics or melody? What takes the most out of you while working on the song?
I’ve done it both ways, and sometimes both at the same time. However, most of the time I start from the lyrics, whether I am writing them myself or whether a lyricist sends me some lyrics and I write the melody to the lyrics. I generally find it easy to write music to a good lyric, but much harder to write lyrics. When I do write lyrics, they usually take a lot longer than writing the melody. Sometimes they may take months of elapsed time to get the lyric to the point where I am happy with it.
Have you got “your theme” in your songs? Where do you get ideas for them?
Most of the time, if I am writing a song by myself, then it probably was inspired by something in my life. That doesn’t mean the song is autobiographical or anything. It might be something that inspires the idea for a song, but then I make up a story around that idea, though there are also songs that have a fair share of real life in them.
Even when I’m writing music to another writer’s lyrics, though, I generally choose songs that I can identify with in some way. I want to be able to get behind a song as a singer, so I want to be able to “feel” the song as an actor might. That is much easier to do if there is some truth in there, some situations and emotions I have experienced.
Do you compose songs for other artists to get some money or do you prefer performing them yourself?
I went through a number of years trying primarily to write songs with the idea that other artists would perform and record them. Once I hit thirty years old, I figured I was too old to make a significant success as a singer since most of the popular artists of that time were in their teens or young twenties. Only in country music did you find new artists that might be over thirty, though not even so many of them there – and I don’t have a twang, so couldn’t really be a country artist. However, even though my songs were recorded by a number of artists, and some did well for those artists on a very localized level – for example, I had a song in Mongolia that went top five for both radio and video airplay via a young pop singer over there who has since become one of the most popular singers in that country – I didn’t make a living from this. None of those artists sold enough recordings to pay very much.
Funnily enough, I started coming back to recording my own songs when I was in my mid-forties. The music industry had changed significantly in the interim, and now it was becoming possible for independent artists to get their music out into the world more directly, especially if they could get the songs placed in television shows and films. Thus, I started releasing my own recordings, mostly all recorded on my own, though I had a few collaborations in this area, including one release of duets with Beverly Bremers who had a big hit single back in the early 1970’s called “Don’t Say You Don’t Remember”. That release, which was called Make Me Feel, had its title track and a number of remixes produced in Russia by Alexei Ustinov, while Beverly and I did our vocals in my home studio in Southern California. Alexei also wrote the music, and the original Russian lyric, to the title song – I wrote the English lyric that Beverly and I recorded.
Who makes the arrangement of your songs? Do you take a part in this process?
Yes, I arrange and perform most of my songs myself. I have a home studio running Cakewalk’s SONAR Producer software and many software instruments. I am only a keyboard player, so most of my recordings are using keyboards to play other sounds like guitar, bass, and so on.
What are the main problems the songwriter can face, and how do you solve them?
On the creative side, there is always the question of what to write about. I can sit down and write a song if you force me to, and, though it may take me awhile, I can usually come up with a good idea. However, I am really looking to write songs that move people, not just songs that are “good”. So there has to be enough to go beyond just a clever title or some other kind of wordplay. I am looking for something that has some emotional resonance, where people can listen to a song and identify with it because of what they have gone through in their own lives. I try to look at any ideas based on real life, trying to figure out how this might have touched me or someone near to me, then dig as deeply as possible until I find something that resonates.
On the business side, there is the huge question of how to make a living, and I have to admit I haven’t succeeded in doing that yet. It is at least partly the old question of how you get some success when you don’t yet have success to make other successful people come looking for you.
Do you have any “tips and tricks”, for example, how to make up your mind to write a song, or how to get some inspiration?
Having a project with a deadline always helps me get started, even if it is an artificially-created situation. As for getting inspiration, I don’t know that you can force it, but I think the best way I’ve found is to do some introspection. What is there in your life right now that makes you feel strongly? It could be love, politics, anger, or most anything, but the key is that it makes you feel passionate in some way. Then try to figure out what it is that is meaningful to you in it and find some interesting way to write about it. If it is meaningful to you, odds are decent it could be meaningful to someone else.
Have you got a problem of getting your ideas across when you’re working together with other artists? Do you consider them?
In songwriting, it is always good to make things personal, but you have to be careful not to make them too personal, so that no one but you and a few close friends would understand them. If you get too esoteric, people might not be able to grab onto what you are meaning, so it’s good to paint them some pictures with your words. The pictures help them envision what you want to show them, then they react to the pictures with their own feelings. On the other hand, if you get too specific, you might not overlap with their experiences enough, and they might miss what you are saying and not know why it should be important to them. It’s always a good idea to try and put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t know anything about the situation in your song other than what your lyric tells them. Will they be able to understand it from that alone?
This can be an area where writing with a collaborator can help. Each of the individuals collaborating on a song will have a different set of experiences, and what is obvious to one may not be obvious to the other. That can help make a song more universal since it has to satisfy at least two people to get to a finished song.
What are the things you want to achieve in your creative work? Have you got a primary goal?
I’d like to write songs that move people, hopefully even long after I’m gone. I often try to write songs that have two levels of meaning. The first level is the surface story, which hopefully will be obvious enough from the words of the song. The second level is a deeper meaning, which is more universal. For example, in “Portadown Rain” – the lyric for that was written by Vic Michener, though I helped in the rewriting stage of it – the surface story is about a father who has lost a daughter to the violence in Northern Ireland, and his feelings toward the faceless donors who fund that violence. At the deeper level, though, the song is about how the actions we take in supporting something we don’t know enough about can have extremely harsh, and unintended, consequences that impact the real lives of other people, perhaps half a world away. It could equally be about any war or other type of violence done in the name of some “noble” cause.
Who is your idol, if any?
I wouldn’t say I have any idols, but I do have many musical influences, especially on the songwriting front. There are far too many to name, but one of my biggest influences growing up was Elton John. My piano playing was especially influenced by him as I learned to play most of his songs while I was growing up, and it was his Goodbye Yellowbrick Road album that first influenced me to start playing pop and rock music when I’d previously played mostly classical music, church music, and show tunes.
Who’s the person you’d like to work or perform with?
There are many talented singers and musician’s I’d love to work with. It would be hard picking just one or two. Just to try, though, I’d really love to work with Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks (and the Dixie Chicks in general). I love the emotion in her voice, and would love to hear her sing some of my songs, especially with Emily and Marti doing their harmonies and great instrumentation. I’d also love to sing a duet with Natalie. The kind of emotion she puts into a song is also the sort of thing I am striving toward when I sing. She’s a much better singer, though. And better looking!
How do you produce an album? Have you got an idea first and then you write songs, or do you compile an album from the songs that already exist?
I’ve only produced one album to date, alongside a few singles and a Christmas EP. In that case, I’d been wanting to do a full-length album for a long time, and had a number of ideas for themes. I like an album to have some kind of theme that is shared among the songs to make it more than just a collection of single songs. However, it also takes me a long time to produce recordings on my own, so there were tradeoffs between having enough songs recorded well enough, having enough songs that fit any one theme, and how long it would take me to actually get something finished and released. I had, and still have, a number of album ideas in mind where I have multiple songs on a particular theme, but not enough for an album, or not enough recorded well enough to put out. Thus, when I was trying to finalize my first album’s song list, I looked at what songs I had, what thematic ideas I had, and where I could find the most songs close enough to a theme that were also well-enough recorded. There were also a few specific songs I really wanted to have included on that first album, so it would be helpful if those would fit a theme I could make work. In this case, I chose Love Holds On as the name of my first album, partly because the title song was one of my “must have” songs for the release and partly because each song on the album has something to do with holding on to love for someone or something. For example, with “Portadown Rain” it is the love for the singer’s daughter. In “It Might Be Memphis” it is the love of playing music for an audience. Of course, romantic love plays into several of the songs on the album. Etc.
In the future I would like to make some albums where I have the idea for the theme first and write songs, or at least additional songs, to fit the theme. At this point, though, I have a lot of songs already written that I’d like to get out in some way, so I will at least start by trying to figure out vehicles to get them out there, rather than writing entirely new albums from some thematic idea.
What is your home studio equipment? Can you produce the master CD with it?
My studio is based around Cakewalk’s SONAR Producer digital audio workstation software – I’m currently using version 8.5.3, which is their latest. My audio interface is an E-MU 1820M. It was relatively inexpensive, but also quite good quality, especially for the price. I use E-MU PM-5 monitors, and a couple of MIDI keyboards for controllers – a Roland Rhodes MK-80 and an Alesis Quadrasynth Plus Piano. I don’t use the keyboards for their sounds, though. All the sounds come from software instruments or, occasionally, audio loops. I have a wide variety of software instruments. For example, my current favorite software piano is the Garritan Steinway, which is used on the majority of songs on the Love Holds On album. I also love Native Instruments’ B4II for organ, and I have a wide variety of synths from Native Instruments, Arturia, and others. Most of my drums have recently come from Toontrack’s EZ Drummer, with bass parts from Spectrasonics’ Trilogy, and guitars from Chris Hein Guitars, Steinberg’s Virtual Guitarist, and MusicLab’s RealGuitar 2. Other sampled instruments come from Garritan, Sample Modeling, East West, and Native Instruments. I also use many plug-ins, especially almost the complete product line from PSP Audioware and the various plug-ins that come with SONAR Producer.
I’m running all that on a custom system built with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor on an ASUS motherboard. It’s all sitting inside an Antec case designed to be quiet.
My releases to date have all been done in SONAR, including the mastering. The only thing that can’t be done in SONAR itself is the actual CD authoring. Their CD burning capabilities aren’t detailed enough for my needs there. I’ve used Sony’s CD Architect for that part.
What’s your DAW (digital audio workstation, host program)? What are your favorite plugins you cannot go without?
I’ve already mentioned most of that, but one other plug-in I’ll mention here is Antares AutoTune. I’m very comfortable singing live, playing the piano while I sing. It’s a lot harder, though, for me to get a good performance standing at a microphone in the studio. So I use AutoTune so I can focus more on the emotion of a performance I’ve captured and worry less about the technical considerations such as whether the notes were perfectly in tune.
In Russia musicians are clearly divided by genres as well as by their popularity rate (and their income, too). What’s the situation in the U.S., and what part of the whole musical community is made up of musicians of your type?
Musicians in Russia get income? Maybe I should move there?
Seriously, though, I think the situation is probably similar at the high level. It’s very hard to make a living as a musician over here, but there are some who manage to do it. It’s easiest to start out when you’re young and don’t have the kind of expenses that you have once you buy a house and start raising a family. Then, if you get lucky enough to get good work steadily, you may be okay after a while, or, if not, then you go get a “real” job if you want to afford things. Many of the singers I encountered back when I was focusing heavily on writing songs for others have given up and raised families, perhaps still singing as a hobby or perhaps not. There are only a few I encountered who truly made it big, the most recognizable of those being Carrie Underwood. I still have her demo tape from when she was probably 14 or 15 years old, and she was very good, even back then.
I’m not sure how I’d classify “musicians of my type”. I write many kinds of music and play even more kinds than I write. I have not been making a living at this to date, despite having tried for a number of years to break through as a songwriter and a few years trying to get my recordings out into the world. Most people who are making as much money as I’ve been making from songwriting to date have a regular job and do the songwriting as a hobby. I may have to say the same for myself in a month or two.
Can you expect the song you’re producing become a hit or not?
To be completely realistic, making a song a hit tends to take a lot of money for marketing. While there are times you hear of someone making a record on a small budget and getting it out there in a big way through something that almost seems accidental, the reality is that most of those stories are just that – stories. Someone is investing big money in making for an “accidental” success.
There are generally a number of things that need to come together for a hit song. One is a great song. Though we’ve all heard songs that were big hits that we might not like very much, the reality is that those songs are better than 99% of the songs that are being written, most of which no one ever hears other than at an open mic or some such thing. Another is a great performance, which can also cost a good deal of money to record, though some can produce those on their own. Once you’ve got that, though, it comes down to marketing. How do you get it out widely enough, at least within the audience that might relate to that song? Also, how do you get those who do hear it to hear it enough times that they remember it so they can request it on the radio or buy it? I’ve had some of my songs on the radio, both as an artist and as a songwriter whose songs are recorded by other artists, but most of the stations those songs have played on are the kind of stations that don’t have a very big audience and only play independent songs like mine once or twice.
So, to answer your question, no, at least at this point, I can’t expect a song I’m working on now to become a hit. The best I can do is try to make sure it is hit-worthy, so that, if it ever does get into the right circumstances at the right time, the song itself will be worthy. I think I’ve got a number of songs that could be hits for the right artists with the right productions and the right marketing.
Often the author loves one song himself, but the listeners prefer the other. So what about yours?
Some of my favorites of the songs I’ve written are also audience favorites, for example “Love Holds On” and “Portadown Rain”. I’ve written so many songs over the years, though – more than 300, and over 100 — maybe even 150 — that I’d actually play for people – that I have a lot of favorites. It’s always hard for me to pick just a few songs to perform. Even when I’m doing a 2-hour show I inevitably have to leave out a few of my favorites.
That said, though, there is one song, “Bubble Gum”, that has been one of my more popular ones that I almost never perform. It’s not that I don’t like it or anything, but it’s just a little too young for me – it’s meant to be a song for young teenagers to sing – and it also isn’t geared toward just being performed with a piano.
It’s not a secret that making a song popular takes much resource. What do you do to promote your songs?
Not enough apparently. Self-promotion is very uncomfortable for me. I do have a web site at www.rickpaulmusic.com, and many of my songs are on there with full lyrics and demo clips. My released recordings are also on iTunes, AmazonMP3, and various other popular digital download stores. Usually when I put out a recording I’ll write a blog with some of the history of it, and I do try to talk up the recordings when the proper context arises. I haven’t, however, invested any significant money in external promotion, nor have I gotten any high enough profile placements to be at a point where someone else is taking care of the promotion.
What has changed for the last 10 years in the world of music promotion in view of the Internet and digital content distribution systems development?
On the content distribution side, it is now easy for almost any artist to get his or her recording in some of the most popular stores, such as iTunes. It costs a little money, but the kind of money most anyone can afford. That doesn’t mean anyone will actually find it, no less buy it, but at least it’s out there where people can buy it if they find it and like it.
As for promotion, there are many ways to reach people now, but there is only so much time in a day, and you have to make decisions as to how you spend your time. Some people are very good at self-promotion and others can hire people to do promotion, and this does provide a way to get more visibility that it was easy to get in the past. I’ve certainly had many more people hear my songs over the last decade and a half than I could have expected to have heard them had I been in a similar position twenty or thirty years ago. But it’s also harder to get people’s attention now that there are so many artists out there releasing their own material, not to mention so many channels of exposure competing for people’s time and attention. It used to be that you needed a general product to capture as wide an audience you could on very general modes of exposure, such as commercial radio stations and network television. Now, though, it is almost better to have a highly niche-oriented product, where you can go to some specialist outlet that will at least get you some attention from a group of like-minded people, because there is too much that is competing for broadbased attention.
Have you been faced with pirated copies of your CDs or free download links to your compositions in the Internet? What do you think about those?
I think that is mostly a problem for people whose songs have been popular. Not enough people have even heard of me or my songs to make it a problem for me. At this point, it might actually be beneficial to have people stealing my songs, as maybe they’d get more exposure that way.
That said, it is a problem now for a songwriter or recording artist to try to earn a living when there is almost an expectation out there that music should be free. At least a recording artist may have touring and merchandise possibilities, but the outside songwriter, who is writing songs for other people to sing, only has royalties from recording sales, broadcasts, and a few other sources. If everything ends up being free, how does the songwriter get paid?
How to become a songwriter? What can you say to beginners?
The simple answer to the question of how to become a songwriter is to write a song. Then write another one and another one and another one. I wrote my first song when I was ten years old, then my next when I was thirteen or fourteen. I’ve written a lot more songs since then. Most of those early songs were not very good, and, like anything, it takes practice.
The other thing I’d say is to listen to many, many songs. Learn to play them and sing them. After a while, I think considerations related to song quality sink in through osmosis. If you’re singing a song, after singing many high quality songs over the years, you can just tell if the new song you’re singing feels like a great song, with a great lyric, or not. I remember that when I was growing up I’d spend much time on my summer vacations just listening to the radio and to albums, when other kids might be out playing sports or whatever. I also spent a lot of time down in my parents’ basement playing piano along with recordings or playing songs out of songbooks or playing drums along with recordings, and also singing the songs or singing harmonies to the songs. The rest of the family might be upstairs watching television, but I’d be down there making music, and starting to write songs myself occasionally. I played the songs because I loved making music and I loved great songs, but I think that having done that for so long also made an impact on the kinds of songs I write now. Perhaps someday some young people will be playing and singing my songs the same way I used to play and sing the songs of Elton John, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Eagles, and others.