Nashville songwriter, producer, educator, and music industry insider Cliff Goldmacher has built a catalog of over 1000 songs. With songwriting collaborators including Keb’ Mo’, Ke$ha, Lisa Loeb, and Mickey Hart, Cliff’s has engineered and produced major label cuts and national advertising campaigns. Cliff’s love of collaboration makes him a natural born teacher, and he has taught through major industry workshops, Lynda.com, his own video courses for songwriters, and a TEDx talk.
We were thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with Cliff about his musical beginnings and how his songwriting process, and career have grown.
Q: Good morning Cliff! And welcome to Musical U. In preparing for this interview I read up on your history, past interviews, and listened to your music. You have such an amazing career. You’ve been active in so many aspects of our industry from education to composition and so many other things that you’ve done.
What started your journey? How did you get going?
First of all, thank you, Adam, for doing some homework.
You know, my beginning in all of this was sort of accidental. I began with a degree in political science, I took the law school entrance exam, and decided to take a year off. I thought it was going to be a time of applying to law schools, then going to law school and joining polite society.
I had been classically trained at piano for about ten years, from 8 to 18, then I quit when I went to college. Then I taught myself to play guitar and found that I loved it. Just found that I loved it and couldn’t get enough of it and just wanted to do it more and more. A lot of the stuff from the engineering side to the guitar side is just self-taught, but I did have a musical background, for which I’m very grateful but it’s not essential. I have some friends who are serious hit songwriters that don’t know a lick of theory, but I am grateful that I have it.
So in that “year off”, I lived in France and got a little gig in a French café and played six nights a week. I thought, “Huh, I like this. If I go to law school now, I will probably not go back to music. However, if I try music and it doesn’t pan out or doesn’t make me happy the way I think it will, law school will still be there.” That was 25 years ago.
Wow. From law school to music composer extraordinaire.
Or, as I like to call it, playing guitar for drunk people.
Q: Yes. That’s amazing. I watched a video where you talked about that first song that you wrote. That was a great story. Would you be able to tell that story for our readers? It was a song that you wrote for a girl that was on the east coast.
Oh, my. You really did do your homework! I didn’t know that I ever discussed that. Yes.
Adam, for most people – when you’re beginning as a songwriter – your creative process is completely haphazard and entirely inspiration based. I had gone to study on the east coast, I went to school in California, but I had an internship in Washington D.C. and I took the guitar with me.
I was missing my girlfriend, which is why we do anything. I was in love and I was moved to write her a song, so I wrote this song and it really came out of nowhere. It wasn’t something I had planned to do, it just kind of happened.
It was a gift… I’m a thousand plus songs in now and I still really do think of songs as gifts.
This one was just a gift to me that then I was able to give to someone else.
That’s how it started. If I’ve learned anything over the years it’s that you cannot count on making a living at this. You can’t count on falling in love every time you need to write a song. You actually have to learn how to make your inspiration and there are a lot of devices that you can use to become consistently creative – but back then it was just raw inspiration.
Q: So how do you get inspired? What are some of the ways that you find that motivation when you might not be having it on that day?
That’s a great question because the more that you write, the more that becomes an issue.
I started out writing songs by myself, for myself. After I moved to Nashville, I started writing with other songwriters. We were songwriters, not artists, so we were writing songs in the hopes we could find an artist to record the song that we had written.
At this stage in my evolution, I write with artists who are also songwriters – for their records.
Early on, inspiration was strictly based on what I was feeling. Then when I sat down with a co-writer our inspiration was either whatever was in the room that day – or was there an artist that we were hoping to write something for, and how we could craft it for that artist.
But the greatest part about writing with an artist and for an artist is that my inspiration comes from being a very good listener: my job when I sit down with an artist is to shut up. Just get a sense from them, “What is it that they’re interested in? What moves them?”
It’s amazing to me. It’s constantly humbling what someone I have never met will trust me with in terms of their life story. Anything from the loss of a loved one to the deepest love they’ve ever felt – you just never know what you’re going to get.
On the other hand, it could be something quite simple. I’ll give you an example. I had a collaborator once sit down, and she said to me, “Look. I’m a little bit tired of singing about love.” I looked at her and I said, “That is the first line of your song.” And it was.
An inspiration can be exactly that simple. It can be as simple as an offhand comment in the course of the first 20 minutes that you sit down and chat before you dig into writing. Or it can be sort of more of an evolved thought that they bring in. But one of the things that I very rarely do anymore, is come in with any preconceived notions of how the song is going to go because ultimately, since I’m a songwriter and not an artist, it’s really up to the person that I’m writing the song with and for to guide that conversation. Now, I will make suggestions, I will listen to what’s being said and help form those thoughts, but it’s very rare that I come in with a thought that, “This will be the song for today.”
That’s a very long answer to your short question. Inspiration has a lot to do with the process of collaborating.
That was an amazing answer. We spend so much of our life seeking that inspiration, and now you’re able to do that by working with these artists. That’s a great insight into how to be a professional songwriter.
Well, it’s a joyful process for me – I really do love the active collaboration. It’s something that I came to a little bit slowly. I was/am a little bit of a control freak, and so when I initially started writing songs I could not imagine including anyone else in that process. But one of the benefits of writing many, many songs is that you start to learn what you’re good at and what not so much.
One of the things I’ve learned is that I write melodies kind of like I sing: fine. My melodies are fine, and when I sit down with someone who has a real gift for melody not only does the melody sound better, but the lyrics sound better. That is the benefit of knowing what your strengths are and knowing where you should defer to your collaborator.
Q: Talking about working with these artists, I imagine you have some behind-the-scenes stories. What’s the most surprising thing that you ever experienced in the studio working with these artists?
Every artist is different. I’ll give you an example because, apparently, I want you to like me and I’m going to name drop now, but I had an opportunity to sit down with Mickey Hart, the drummer for the Grateful Dead and write some songs with him for his project.
Now, this is a guy who has been full time in music for 50 years, 5-0 years. The thing that was the most surprising to me – for people who don’t know what his creative process is like – is how actively engaged and how passionate he is about this 50 years down the road. It’s like it was his first experience sitting down to write. He was focused, he was interested, he was completely immersed in the process, and this is a guy who’s almost 70. That, for me, that was deeply inspiring, and something that most people might not expect.
I think there’s this image of the industry as a bunch of people who do a lot of drinking, a lot of drugs, and then trying to find inspiration in that. This guy was all business and really, really focused, and really joyful in his process. It was great.
Wow. Getting to work with Mickey Hart – I think that’s a story that all of us would love to be able to tell. Thank you for sharing it.
Totally my pleasure. Not something I ever expected. That’s the benefit of being in the industry long enough to have relationships with people who have relationships. I was brought in on this project because I happened to have a piece that they were missing, and so I got included. It was great. It was very flattering.
Q: I’ve heard you were playing some of the songs that you’ve written, and so I know this is difficult because our songs are like our children – but what is a favorite song that you’ve written?
It’s a reasonable question and it’s totally impossible. Instead, let me tell you my favorite story around one of my favorite songs.
I was put together with an artist who had just signed what they call a “development deal”. What that means is that the label likes what they’re hearing, but they’re not ready to commit to a fully funded album project. They’re willing to put this artist together with some other writers and maybe try a couple of recordings and see how it all works out. That’s what a development deal essentially is.
Through a mutual friend, I was put together with this artist, a guy named Spencer Day, and Spencer had signed a development deal with Universal Records and we sat down and we chatted for about 20 minutes, and we wrote a song. I’ve done this, by now, literally over a thousand times. We both felt good about this song, but you know, I feel good about a lot of songs.
Spencer brought it back to the label, the label liked it, he did it in his showcase for the label, everything looked like it was going great, and then Spencer called me and said, “Listen, I have some bad news. It turns out that the label is no longer interested and they dropped me.” And he said, “And I would fully understand if you didn’t want to write with me anymore now that I don’t have a record deal.”
To which I replied, “First of all, that’s not how this works. We’re going to write together because I think we’re doing good work. Period. End of discussion.”
Spencer has the quality that artists have to have if they’re going to have any success at all: he picked himself back up after receiving a devastating blow.
When you think you’re that far in and then the label says “no”, that’s devastating. He decided he would make the record himself, which is brave. He recorded our song, but here’s my favorite part: while he was making the record in the studio next door was a record exec from another record company, from Concord Jazz, and this particular exec, a good friend of mine now named Nick Philips, said to Spencer, “I love what you’re doing. Would you consider signing with our label?”
From “I lost my deal” to “I’m going to make the record myself” to “I signed a record deal with Concord, they released our song as a single, and it went to number one on the jazz charts.”
We wrote it for the right reason. We did this because we were moved to do it and karma decided to give us a little nod this time, but it’s totally unpredictable. The industry is completely unpredictable and given that that’s the case, you better be doing this because you love it.
Q: That’s a wonderful song, Cliff. So many of our followers want to become singer-songwriters, want to go down this path. If you had one piece of advice that you would give to the beginning songwriter, what would that be?
I think the hardest thing to remember when you’re starting out – because you’re so passionate about what you’re doing – is what a long road this is. If you’re lucky, you’re going to be doing this for a long time.
Now, that’s a blessing and a curse. Because what that means on one level is, “Hey, you get to do this and you’re passionate about it for a long time.” But the flip side of that and the thing they don’t talk to you all that much when you’re starting out is, “It’s going to be a long time before any of your stuff starts to land.”
The piece of advice that I would have given to myself is, “The success will come if you stick with it and you’re patient.” Because there are kind of milestones … This is something we’d talk about a lot when I lived in Nashville full time, but there are milestones in a songwriter’s career and about two years into living in a major music city, whether that’s Nashville or New York or Los Angeles, that’s when it hits the fan. That’s the moment where you realize, “Okay, I moved here because I was a hero in my town and everybody thought I should move to one of the big cities to do music.”
And then you realize what your place in line is. At about two years, you realize exactly how much more you have to learn and how much better your craft has to become before you can get anywhere. That’s devastating. That’s really hard because you’re excited about this thing and you’re beginning to realize just how long it’s going to take.
The next moment is in about five years when good things start to happen. Where you’ve gotten to the point where you’re actually writing consistently better songs, maybe all of a sudden a publisher gets interested in your writing, or any number of things will start to happen that are encouraging. That’s a long time to wait before things start to get good, so to speak. I only halfway joke when I say that the first 20 some odd years in the industry are the hardest.
The piece of advice that I would give is to be patient – and, really, it’s a lot easier to be patient when you love what you’re doing.
Thank you so much, Cliff. It’s so important to remember patience: since all we usually see is the end product without knowing or understanding the years of process that go into creating it. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your take on today’s and tomorrow’s music industry next time we talk.
Transform your own music career
These days, Cliff Goldmacher is reaching out beyond music industry circles to help anyone who’s ready to transform their songwriting. We especially love his free no-nonsense tip sheet “A Dozen Quick Fixes to Instantly Improve Your Songs“.
After more than 25 years in the music industry, Cliff knows a thing or two about what it takes to make a career out of what you love. Ok, so you haven’t put in quite a quarter century yet, but you know you have some good songs, and you know you love what you do. Head on over to CliffGoldmacher.com, where you can learn about Cliff, and about what he can do to help you move forward in your own music career.
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