Sounds Local: Emotional hits
Singer-songwriter Jamie Kent performs about 200 shows a year, has released two CDs and has a solid fan base called “the collective,” a grass-roots group whose members give input into his career choices.
But Kent realized that it was great songs that put musicians on the national map and if he was to take his career to the next level, he needed to focus on crafting the best songs he possibly could. To help reach this goal, Kent attended some ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) sponsored songwriting workshops, where he studied among top songwriters in the business. Now, Kent has released an EP called “Embers & Ashes” in which he has shifted his sound away from the groove-heavy funky pop sound featured on his last album, “Navigation,” in favor of what he describes as an Americana sound with undertones of folk and rock that is reminiscent of early Tom Petty and Steve Earle.
Kent, a native of Northampton, said of the EP: “I want every tune to hit people hard — melodically, lyrically and emotionally.” Kent and his band, The Options, will celebrate the release of “Embers & Ashes” and launch a national tour with a show at the Parlor Room at Signature Sounds, at 32 Masonic St. in Northampton on Friday, Oct. 25, at 8 p.m.
I recently sat down with Kent to talk about the new EP and the elusive art of songwriting.
SH: Tell me about the ASCAP songwriting workshops.
JK: ASCAP puts on three a year, one in Los Angeles, one in New York and one in Nashville. You have to apply to get in. I was accepted last fall and attended the L.A. workshop, which was over three weeks, and I just got back from doing a weeklong workshop in Nashville. The workshops are run by songwriters who have written top 10 hits.
One of the things they do is pair you up with other another songwriter and give you an assignment of writing a song within a time limit of usually three hours. I had never co-written before and this really opened my mind to it. It can elevate you as a songwriter, because you might have a good idea but once someone questions it, it can turn into a great idea. The amount of songs I wrote in a week at the workshop was what I would normally do in two months.
SH: So did they try and teach you what makes a good song?
JK: Absolutely. Every day in the Nashville workshop, we took a hit song and dissected it, which was really interesting to do, from the lyrics, down to the hook. We would play a few different tunes and examine what it was about a song that made you get up and go “Yeah, that’s it.” It is a subtle thing, but after you do it awhile you can figure that out. That’s not to say that there is a formula that everyone in Nashville is writing to, because each hit song has something different about it.
SH: Was the material on “Embers & Ashes” written during the workshop?
JK: I wrote two of the songs, “Bonfire” and “Broke, Not Broken,” in the workshops. I was mentored by a songwriter who had produced Neil Young’s last record and had written songs for people like Keith Urban and Kenny Chesney. He was a huge wealth of knowledge. The other two songs on the disc I wrote after and there’s also a re-cut stripped down version of “Changes” that I submitted to get into the workshop.
SH: Was it the result of attending the workshops that caused you to go with the Americana sound?
JK: Somewhat, but it also came from my producer Joshua Meltzer. Josh said to me, “You could do an Americana Springsteen kind of album, because half of your songs are that, or a funky-jazzy pop record because the other half of your songs are that. I think your best songs and those that will hold truth longest are the Americana songs.” So, that got my head spinning on that. Those other tunes are great live songs and get people dancing, but they don’t necessarily effect people in an emotional way and that is what I wanted.
SH: How do you approach songwriting?
JK: It changes, but I tend to think in terms of melody. So I will do a melody and then match the lyrics to melody. Sometimes when I have a melody I just start singing gibberish and then something comes out of there. It’s like you are channeling. But the hook is really the key — if you can start with a good hook, the rest comes easier. And it’s a lot easier to write a sad song than it is to write a happy song because the happy songs often come off as cheesy.
SH: So, it’s easier to sink your teeth into misery?
JK: Yeah and when you are a touring musician, you have a lot more things to be miserable about (laughs).
SH: What song on Embers & Ashes are you most proud of?
JK: “Broke, Not Broken” resonates a lot with me. (Ain’t it funny how the good ones always come from nothin’?/I may be broke but I am not broken/Knock me down and I will be back again/I may be broke but I am not broken). I am at the point in my life where I don’t have a ton of money but have the most opportunities that I have ever had. You have got to keep working at it and the break will come and things will change.
I also like “Bonfire” because that’s not my typical thing. It’s a co-write and is a cool mix of myself and the other writer and my producer. It’s a fusion of crazy ’80s electronic with roots, which isn’t usually me.
SH: Who are your favorite songwriters?
JK: There is a songwriter out now called Brandy Clark who is amazing. She can write great songs that are also hits songs. Her songs are lyrically amazing and hooky and intelligent. On a bigger scale, I would say Steve Earle, Tom Petty and Paul McCartney.
SH: What one song do you wish you had written?
JK: Probably “I’m on Fire,” by Springsteen or “I Can’t Make You Love Me” sung by Bonnie Raitt, but written by an ex-NFL player. That one stops me every time I hear it. More recently, a tune called “Even if it Breaks Your Heart” by a Nashville songwriter named Will Hoge. That is one of those songs that every time I hear it I go ‘Man, I wish I wrote that!”
Tickets are $15 and will be sold in advance at www.parlorroommusic.com and at the door.
The show is all ages. Doors will open at 7 p.m. The Parlor Room has a BYOB policy. Boston based singer-songwriter Danielle Miragelle will open.
Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org