The famed music writer, artist and producer talks about making everyday people pitching original songs to top music producers and recording artists into tomorrow’s hits.
Eurythmics co-founder Dave Stewart is working with The Voice executive producer Audrey Morrissey, Voice judge and Maroon Five frontman Adam Levine and OneRepublic‘s Ryan Tedder on NBC’s upcoming music competition show, Songland, which will pull the curtain back on how young songwriters work with industry producers and top artists to knock global smash songs into shape.
Stewart is at MIPCOM this week and sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss how he conceived the idea to get five songwriters performing original songs for music producers and top recording artists before a winner has his or her song recorded and released as the artist’s next single.
“Songwriting isn’t about singing a telephone directory and hitting all those high notes,” Stewart explained, as Songland captures hitmaking from original inspiration and clever TV editing to identifying the next Bob Dylan or Tom Petty, both of whom he has worked and performed with.
As executive producer of Songland, what’s your role, presumably among the creators?
In 2012, I came up with the concept and name Songland and sent it to my lawyer, ICM and my manager. Then I was working with another reality TV producer, but he was busy, and so I wasted two years until being introduced to Audrey Morrissey (The Voice), who is a gift from heaven. And we developed the concept further and, after four years, we refined the look and feel with Ivan Dudynsky, then we got the green light two weeks ago. “
Songwriting, we assume, is a lonely craft, where inspiration comes out of the blue. Are you certain you have a concept that makes songwriting exciting and gripping TV?
I had been asked to be in a couple reality series about songwriting, and I always thought they’d got it wrong, because watching people write songs is probably one of the most boring things in the world. You might be watching for six days and they don’t do anything, and in five minutes, they do everything. Or they might have an idea in the middle of the night and you don’t capture it.
So you came up the idea that the song is already written, it means something to the writer, and you have successful music producers and writers bring the song to the next level.
When the songwriter comes out to play their song, the experienced panelists will have ideas about how to add to the song, and collaborate. Five people come out at first, and it’s whittled down to three. And every week, there’s a fourth chair filled by a new legend or star who will record the song chosen as a single. And all three of the songwriters who have their songs worked on have equal amount of time on TV. So there isn’t a loser so much, as it’s hard to choose which artist, as they’re all great at that stage.
And through editing, you will presumably boil the songwriting process down to memorable TV moments?
Like all TV, you’re not going to film all 10 hours of something happening. You’ll see glimpses, enough to capture the magic that goes on when a really great producer and songwriter and arranger goes into a studio and helps bring that song to the next level. And the audience sees the essence of what’s being changed, in a very clever way, so they say, “Gee, an upbeat song is now sounding like a ballad,” and all the music has been taken out and now it’s just piano.
So much of the work in the studio on Songland sounds like one song crossing over into another genre.
What’s interesting is someone may come along and play a country song and the audience will go, “That will never work,” and then they see someone take hold of it, a producer, and it becomes anything you want. Take our [Eurythmics‘] song, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” Marilyn Manson‘s version didn’t sound anything like our own and in his world it was massively successful.
What will distinguish Songland from The Voice and America’s Got Talent, which are already on the NBC schedule and have had long runs, as the network looks for something fresh?
Songwriting isn’t about singing a telephone directory and hitting all those high notes. There’s someone like Randy Newman, a massively successful songwriter, and a songwriter like Leonard Cohen, who had this really deep voice, and still at 80 years old was selling out huge shows. There’s some people who never show their face, like Bernie Taupin, who wrote all the lyrics for Elton John.
What will Songland mean to young songwriters, knowing you were once one of them?
We will be giving a massive leg up to young songwriters, from Wyoming, Ohio or Marseilles, people in a bedroom somewhere, playing the guitar or on a laptop, trying to make music and having no idea how to do this. And that’s no different from Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, when they were hanging around Nashville, trying to get a song cut by Patsy Cline. And none of them thought they were the artist. And on this show, that will happen. Someone will come on and the audience will say, “I really like them.” Unlike other music shows, we will have artists discovered as themselves, as well as the songs they’ve put their lives into to write.