Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice, Oscar and GRAMMY nominee Sam Ashworth took the Zoom stage on April 29 to mentor and encourage several talented New York City Department of Education public high school students with their songwriting skills for the latest Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Session, hosted by Stuyvesant's Vocal Music & Music Technology professor / SHOF NY Education Committee vice chair, Harold Stephan.
Stephan introduced Ashworth as a Nashville-based musician who recently joined forces with Leslie Odom Jr. for the co-writing of “Speak Now”—the quietly powerful closing song to acclaimed feature film One Night in Miami, which propelled him to Oscar frontrunner status for Best Original Song. Having landed his first cut at the age of 17, Ashworth has spent his life building a kaleidoscopic and increasingly vibrant career: along with co-writing hits with H.E.R., which yielded nine of the songs gracing the tracklist to the R&B artist’s critically praised 2019 album I Used to Know Her. Those contributions garnered him an Album of the Year nomination at the 2020 GRAMMY Awards, in addition to the Song of the Year nod for “Hard Place” (a gold-certified hit that also won the BET Her Award in 2019). He’s produced records for an eclectic range of artists (including his wife, singer/songwriter Ruby Amanfu), released four solo projects, lent his background vocals to songs by superstars like Norah Jones, and served as a session player on countless tracks across all genres.
In talking about his early life, Ashworth said, “Music was everywhere when I was growing up. My dad (singer/songwriter Charlie Peacock) was always in the living room on piano and I was spending every possible moment in the studio with him. I did my first backing vocal session at 8 or 9 years old, and I was always jumping into a session, trying to find my way.”
He went on to say, “I learned so much through observation...that is a priceless education. I saw where the bar of excellence was at an early age, along with not only the inspiration, but the kick in the pants to see how much is hard work.”
Stephan asked what advice Ashworth would give to other young people coming up now, and he responded, “Most importantly, if you have a passion, whatever it is that sparks an other-worldly feeling, or if you feel connected to passion in any realm of music, you have to honor that. It is a gift that doesn’t come to everyone. Have the balance to your life, but honor the craft. Not giving up is an important part of the gift.”
Ashworth said, “It's been rocky and I walked away for a while but I had to come back to it. Be kind to people and be kind to yourself, and honor the gifts you've been given. Good work and perseverance and kindness are truth.”
Stephan began playing songs written by five preselected NYC public school students, and Ashworth was asked for songwriting advice for each.
In answer to the question, “When do you know a song is finished,” he said, “Only when you feel nothing needs to be improved. If there is something that needs to be improved or any inclination that all the pieces are not in place yet, then you need to pursue that.”
He advised students, “Don't take too much outside criticism...the way we find our own voice as songwriters is to do it over and over again, and the more volume you create, you'll be in a better position to judge your work for yourself. I still have to write 3 or 4 to get to the one I'm super proud of. Listen to your heart.”
Ashworth then brought up an important point, “Collaboration, especially at this stage in your lives is essential. When you're collaborating it's like a crash course and you're bouncing off of each other. Try to perform your songs live for people, and you’ll hear them in a different way. Don't ever feel like you have to narrow it down to a particular genre. It's all a part of the journey.”
He was then asked, “Where do you usually draw the line with what may be important to you but not everyone?” He responded, “At your stage in this journey, it is the most important to stay true to yourself. If you finish a song and say this feels like me, that's all you need to know. You’ll be bringing something no one else has, and that's your currency.”
Stephan said, “Do it for love first and find that thing that excites you.”
In answer to a student question, “What was your big break,” he said, “I recorded a song when I was very young and it was a successful moment, but it took another 10 years of working hard to get to the next place. Just say yes to the opportunities, even if it makes you feel nervous.”
Winding up the session, Ashworth said, “I’m blown away by you guys. You're all extremely talented and each song that has been played is so different from the previous one. I can't wait to see what you'll be doing in five years!”
Imparting a last bit of advice, he said, “The business part of music is hard, but the creating, and even the frustration should be joyful. There should be gratitude for having the talent, but you have to have perseverance inside of the passion.”
This Master Session was streamed live on the SHOF YouTube channel and is available for viewing here.
The Songwriters Hall of Fame and SHOF New York Education Committee chair April Anderson are grateful to David Gray, EVP/Head Of A&R, Universal Music Publishing Group and Simone Dixon, A&R / Creative, Universal Music Publishing Group for facilitating Sam Ashworth as our guest, and Elizabeth M. Guglielmo, Director of Music, New York City Department of Education for her continued support of these events and opportunities for public school students!
The SHOF Master Sessions at Stuyvesant have hosted events for NYC public school students highlighting both the business and creative sides of the music industry since 2018, with past sessions featuring Denzel Baptiste & David Biral p/k/a Take A Daytrip, Khari “Needlz” Cain, Steven Van Zandt, Steve Greenberg, Mark Hudson, Samantha Cox, Leyla Blue, Maude Latour, Laundry Day, Pom Pom, Mike Campbell, Billy Mann, Gregg Wattenberg and Rich Christina.