The USC Thornton School of Music was thrilled to welcome Billy Steinberg on September 20 for the second installment of the Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Sessions.
For the first part of the session, Billy sat down with Chris Sampson, Vice Dean for USC Thornton, to talk a little about his start as a songwriter, his creative process and his approach to collaboration.
Billy’s first creative pursuit was writing poetry - eventually learning some guitar so that he could set his poems to music. On making the switch from writing poetry to songs, Billy mused, “reciting a poem to a girl wasn’t as interesting for them as playing a song was – I thought, hey, this is working!”
Billy paused when asked to articulate the difference between a poem and lyric - perhaps indicating that he considered the two such a closely related art form. But, after a bit of thought, he said, “A song lyric needs to have a certain meter and the title and chorus play a very specific role.”
Living in Palm Springs in the late 1970’s, Billy was leading a band called Billy Thermal. Unbeknownst to him, some friends showed one of his songs, “How Do I Make You,” to Linda Ronstadt. Linda cut the song and this was Billy’s first hit.
This first hit provided Billy the incentive to move to Los Angeles. Upon meeting Tom Kelly, Billy transitioned from being a solo songwriter to a collaborative writer. Through their initial work together, it was clear that Tom was a very strong musician and that Billy’s strength was lyric writing. Drawing from his experience, he told the students to find a collaborator who has complimentary skills.
The subject turned to song titles since a number of his hits such as “Like A Virgin” and “I Touch Myself” have very unique and attention grabbing titles. He explained, however, that he never started the writing process with a title. Rather, the title would emerge out of what preceded. To demonstrate this, he recited a bit of “Like A Virgin.”
I made it through the wilderness
Somehow I made it through
Didn’t know how lost I was until I found you
I was beat incomplete
I’d been had, I was sad and blue
But, you made me feel
Yeah, you made me feel
Shiny and new…..like a virgin…
When the lyric was recited in this manner, the students immediately could see how the title emerged. He says that after writing thousands of songs that he’s developed the instincts to know when the title should appear. “I would just start writing what came off the top of my head,” said Billy, “But it does get to the point when it’s about time to find a good title.” When describing where he gets his ideas from, he says it’s like bringing up the water from the reservoir. “I tend to have things occurring in my life that’s happening on more of an unconscious level…and then when I go to write, it’s like there’s a reservoir of water underground and you dig a well and tap into what’s under there.”
While Billy says that he’s written thousands of songs, he says that ultimately quality exceeds quantity. “If you write an evergreen song, a song that’s maybe recorded by 20 different artists…besides being a great song, it pays very well.” When asked what his evergreen song was, he immediately replied: “True Colors…I think Like A Virgin is probably the most famous one, but I think True Colors is probably the most cut. I’ll Stand By You is another one.” He elaborated that you get to this quality through writing, writing and more writing. “If you’re meant to be a songwriter, you’re sort of compelled to write a lot,” says Billy. “I’m very dubious about re-writing,” explaining that you take what you learn from writing one song and go on to write the next one. “I’m not trying to tell you that the way I do it is the best way to do it,” he said, but this is the way that works for him.
After the conversation, Billy offered to listen to songwriting students in the audience. USC Popular Music songwriting majors Paulina Wroblewska, Alec Benjamin, Jay Washington, Katie Stump, Malia Civetz and Emily Kocontes stepped forward one-by-one and performed a song for Billy. Billy gave them feedback on character development in a lyric, how to tighten up a verse and as well as commented on their performance. “I’m really impressed by the songs I’ve heard so far. There’s such a sense of song structure. They’re so…evolved,” said Billy.
In wrapping up the Master Session, Billy offered a final thought: “If I had any advice it would be not to let technology get in the way of creativity. Technology is sort of boxy and geometric, and sometimes creativity is just like a splash of color.”
There will be news of more Master Sessions and other events to come…stay tuned to the songhall.org site!