• Anna Leigh

The Coyote Ugly Conundrum


The Coyote Ugly Conundrum

Three months ago, I decided to take singing lessons to deal with The Coyote Ugly Conundrum.

For those of you unfamiliar with the cinematic masterpiece from 2000, Coyote Ugly follows Violet Sanford, an aspiring, stage-fright-stricken songwriter, on her journey to New York City. Over the course of an hour and forty minutes, we see Violet struggling with the fact that to get her music recorded, she needs to perform the songs herself at an important open-mic night and in front of some industry big-wigs.

I relate to Violet in a lot of ways (minus the go-go dancing and the fact that my hunky boyfriend isn’t Australian): I’m a country music songwriter who (reluctantly) needs to perform at writers’ nights to get my songs into the right hands.

I’ve wanted to be a professional songwriter since my teens. Whenever I bought an album, I would flick through the CD sleeve and look at the writing credits for each track. I would see names like Brett James, Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsay scattered across dozens of records by different artists, and I longed to be a part of that club – to have people like Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw, Miranda Lambert and George Strait recording my work.

What I didn’t realise as a teenager however is that the creative process of writing music is only half of what it takes to be a professional songwriter. The other half is music business: namely, acquiring a publishing deal. So although I’ve been writing for ten years, my career as a songwriter is arguably only eighteen months old.

Since completing my post-grad studies at the age of 25, I’ve been able to focus all of my attention on chasing a major publishing deal.

As a pure songwriter, you need a publishing deal. Publishers pitch your songs to A&R guys, who in turn pass your songs onto the recording artists they represent. So the bigger the publisher, the better. Major publishers have more contacts and clout, and when you write for both men and women in a variety of sub-styles (country-pop, neo-traditional, honky-tonk), you want a publisher that can cast a wide net.

But how does one get into bed with a major publisher? Well, unfortunately, unless you happen to be best mates with Clive Davis, there’s no set way. It takes a butt-ton of networking, business acumen, networking, research… and… did I mention networking? The music business tends to operate on a ‘who you know, not what you know’ policy.

In country music, we’re fortunate enough to have the Nashville Songwriters Association International – NSAI. Formed in 1967, the association is an advocate of the songwriter, fighting for their legal and monetary rights, but most importantly providing writers with the support and networking opportunities that could lead to a publishing deal.

Through NSAI, I’ve been able to pitch my songs to major publishing houses such as Curb, Spirit, Warner/Chappelle, Capitol, SNG…; I’ve been able to receive feedback on my songs from major songwriters (including Troy Verges – one of those songwriters I saw in the writing credits of dozens of albums), and through their song evaluation service I was named ‘One to Watch’ in 2016 – an accolade that was broadcast to my fellow 5,000 members.

Considering I live in the UK and not in Nashville (the hub of country music), NSAI has provided me with some stellar opportunities. Coupled with a membership at Songtown (a vast online community of songwriters that allows us to network with each other and those already in the industry, and allowed me the opportunity to receive feedback from the likes of Suzan Koc, who has placed songs for Kelly Clarkson, P!nk and Avril Lavigne, to name a few), it feels as if I’ve been taking some really positive steps towards securing a major publishing deal.

But as my mentor at NSAI, hit songwriter Craig Monday, pointed out, the best networking opportunities lie in Nashville itself, the greatest of all being to perform at writers’ nights. It’s the best way to find co-writers with a similar style or outlook as you, to plug yourself into the country music community, and to perform your songs for industry folks in the crowd. It just has to be done. The more you put yourself out there, the more likely you are to be signed by a major publisher who will place your songs with major artists!

And therein lies the Coyote Ugly conundrum…

Although I have some stage experience (racking up almost 100 shows on the stand-up comedy circuit in 2014 & 2015, and getting the chance to perform alongside personal heroes like Frankie Boyle, Danny Bhoy and Tom Stade), I’ve never wanted to sing on stage. I sing for my demos, and that’s it. My voice has only ever been a songwriting tool that conveys melody.

But, like networking, improving my confidence as a vocalist will serve the greater goal. So originally, the only motivation I had for taking lessons was to boost my confidence. To bridge the gap between singing on a demo and singing in public. To be able to do it. That was it.

I got in contact with Anna Leigh because she teaches the IVA technique – a close cousin of the Brett Manning Speech-Level singing course which I’d been taking at a leisurely, self-taught pace. I figured that as they were similar methods, I wouldn’t have to push myself too hard when it came to technique…

Ha.

Every other week, I go into Anna Leigh’s classroom and get my ass handed to me for 45 minutes. And I freakin’ love it. Although I’m only a couple of months in, my voice has changed a lot. By making me do exercises that the perfectionist in me is not comfortable with doing, my chest voice is much more balanced, I’m bridging with a stronger mixed voice, finding my head voice with greater ease and now pushing into extension.

And although I didn’t set out to improve my technique, I’ve found that it’s part of the cycle: technique improves confidence, improves technique, and so on. Lessons with Anna Leigh have made me realise that I enjoy singing, and that I actually want to improve as a vocalist: if I’m going to be judged not only on my songs, but also on my voice at writers’ nights, then I want to be the shit. There’s an abundance of competition in Nashville, so I want to sound great. Not ‘nice,’ or ‘okay.’

Anna Leigh knows this and pushes me for that reason.

She doesn’t massage my ego by telling me something sounds good when it doesn’t. If I’m flat on a single note in the second verse of a song, she pulls me on it. She tells me to stop shaking my head and hit the god-damn A-flat when we’re doing challenging scales. She gives honest and constructive feedback and explains the technique to me thoroughly, and every lesson feels like a huge step forward.

And thanks to her, I’m getting closer to conquering the Coyote Ugly conundrum. Only three months ago, I didn’t sing in front of anyone, and it seemed impossible that I would ever perform at writers’ nights.

It doesn’t seem impossible anymore.

I sing in front of my partner, in front of that photographer who took the totally natural-looking photo that heads this blog post, and during my most recent pitch to Curb Music Publishing, I was praised as a good singer with a distinctive voice.

Perhaps I’ll need my partner to set up an audience of cardboard cut-outs to rehearse in front of before my first show. And perhaps he’ll be naked, though that will be for purely selfish reasons on my part. But the next step feels closer, and who knows what will come of my trip to Nashville and the writers’ nights. Hopefully it won’t be long until I get my Can’t Fight The Moonlight moment: one of my songs recorded by a major artist.

Much love,

Tommy


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