Photo by Sunny S Unal
By Alex Teitz
Jessica stone is a combination of folk, hip-hop and rock who is highly addictive. Her CD, Seven Letters has garnered her international acclaim. She has toured in Japan and continues to make a mark in the US. For more information visit www.jessicastone.com
FEMMUSIC: Can you describe your songwriting technique?
JS: I write in about 4 different ways:
1) Sometimes a new song comes to me as a lightning bolt of inspiration. I’ll just be in the shower or driving or something and suddenly the melody and the lyrics come into my head, already joined, and I’m singing it aloud, and it’s just like a mad rush to get it down onto paper. Those kind of songs I write in about 10 or 20 minutes and they’re done. That’s the most fun and effortless way, but very unpredictable. I enjoy this experience, and because there is so little left-brained work that goes into it, the melody tends to be really strong and simple. And I really don’t know where they come from. Sometimes I get worried that maybe its some tune I heard elsewhere being spit back out by my subconscious. But so far I haven’t found that to be true. At first I didn’t edit these songs at all afterward – some on the album (like Addison and Brand New Day) are just as I first heard them. But now that I am making my career as a singer-songwriter and have been studying up so much on songwriting techniques, I will tend to edit even the most inspired songs. The gifted Bergman songwriting team (Alan and Marilyn), who I recently heard speak together at an ASCAP event, said that the difference between professional and amateur songwriters is good editing!
2) Other times I’ll be thinking or talking about something, and it’ll occur to me that it’s a good topic for a song. Or I’ll hear or say a great one-liner, and think of it as a song theme. In this case, I’ll sit down and write out a lyric, usually in one sitting at first – free form thought, and then I go back and improve places where I think I have a cheap rhyme as a place holder. The challenge of writing meaningful lyrics, which I love, is the play on words within the rhyme scheme. How much meaning can you squeeze out of a choice of a few words, when your selection is limited to your own vocabulary of rhyming options? That is the fun of it for me. The lyric will sort of ask for a certain rhythm or flow, which dictates the groove of the song. And from there I’ll find a melody based on the mood of the song. I used to just play around with guitar chord changes, which leaves a lot of room for melodic composition. The melody sort of emerges out of the harmonic structure based, again, on where the lyric needs to go directionally. Lately, though, I’ve been using the piano to create a melody first, and then selecting chord harmonies after the fact. I was limiting myself by my guitar chord vocabulary, which is pretty weak. Now I work with much more accomplished guitarists, who often help me color the harmonies in more interesting ways.
3) Sometimes, I’ll just write a poem. And that’s all it’ll be for months – a poem. And then one day out of the blue I’ll hear that poem with a snippet of a melody in it, even though I couldn’t hear one at first. And so it’ll morph into a song, with a little sweat effort, trying to expand on the melodic line that first came to me.
4) And lately I’ve started co-writing, which is an altogether different experience from the others – sitting down with someone with nothing previously in mind, and finishing with a song. It is a fascinating process. But both methods of creating songs (those born of inspiration and those born of concepts and sweat effort ) can turn into really good songs.
FEMMUSIC: What was the biggest challenge making your last album?
JS: There were many challenges making the last album, because it was my first and I was figuring everything out as I went along (with the help of some really knowledgeable and talented musicians). It was a huge and enjoyable learning curve for me. Probably the two most notable challenges were my own perfectionism and impatience – not a good combination in the studio! The instrumentalists were fabulous – I was really fortunate in that regard. I had just finished a vocal program at a music school and I wanted to make every vocal line pitch perfect, find just the right tone and the ideal vocal texture for each phrase…I would have done well to just shut my eyes and sing from my heart more from the start, not so much from my head. But in the studio every little thing you do is amplified and under a microscope – studio singing is really different from singing live, and I was very green. So, striking a balance between the focus on vocal technique and the focus on stylistic interpretation in the studio was a big challenge for me. And, the album took us nine months to complete, since we did it part-time…it was like waiting for a baby to be born – so much anticipation! And patience is not my strong suit, so I had to manage my own expectations at how fast we could go through all the steps. But I loved every minute of the experience, and wouldn’t change a thing if I had it to do over now. It was a great “first time” for me. 🙂
FEMMUSIC: What was the best experience making your last album?
JS: It was the learning curve and the huge sense of accomplishment that comes from watching my songs grow from little ideas in my head to fully arranged, radio-ready tracks that I really enjoy listening to! And, working with great people to make it all come together. So many different musical talents and technical experts coming together to make my product come alive – it was a dream come true!
FEMMUSIC: Who are your biggest influences?
JS: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, Sarah Maclachlan, Indigo Girls, Neil Young, Billy Joel…and so many more…
FEMMUSIC: As a woman in the music industry, have you been discriminated against?
JS: Hmmm, well I think as a female artist in the music industry it is much harder to be taken seriously as both an artist and a business woman, unless you are an established indie female musician who has proved herself by sticking it out for years without major label assistance. I am in the early stages of my music career, and I still hope that I might find and contract with a record company that is a good fit for me in order to promote my music to a wider audience, as my own funds are limited and can only accomplish so much. Before leaving the corporate world to pursue my music full-time, I negotiated and closed business deals on behalf of other companies worth millions of dollars, and that required a strong attention to detail. I try to apply the same general best practices to the business of my music career, but the response from music biz people is quite different. It is as if people expect me to choose to be either an artist/creative type or a business person, but it is not acceptable to be both at the same time. And, the line between business and personal is definitely more blurred in the music industry than in my experience of other industries, given the relaxed atmosphere for music business networking. I have found myself more than once in a situation where I thought I was having a music business exploratory meeting, and my counterpart thought he was having an exploratory date (a very awkward situation to navigate out of!). Only once in my experience (and once too many) did someone – a record exec from another country – physically violate my personal space in this type of circumstance, and I was totally disgusted by his behavior. I’ve also had people give me unsolicited “professional music advice” like “gain weight” – very helpful, thank you! But I am not totally discouraged. I wrote the lecherous exec and the label he worked for off my list, but I’m not ready to give up on the industry as a whole. I’ve met as many good, respectable people as I have the “other kind” so far.
FEMMUSIC: What three things would you change about the music industry and why?
1) The ever-growing obsession by the industry with youth and physical beauty – neither of these things contribute directly to the quality of the music, and they didn’t always have so much impact on people’s ability to appreciate good music. The fact that so much flesh is required to sell music these days – I think this is sad. It really compromises the artist in the long run. It is great to be sexy, but shouldn’t some mystery remain? And the music is what should be remembered most.
2) The over-exposure phenomenon. The fact that radio stations will overplay a hit song to the point where people can’t stand to hear it anymore…this is not good for the artist in the end! It is as though the career life-cycle of a new artist is being accelerated to an unsustainable pace, and many fizzle out too quickly. That said, I wouldn’t mind a little more exposure than I’ve had to date. There must be a happy medium!
3) It would be nice if there was more artist development done by record labels – an institutionalized effort to guide artists with talent and promise and bring them to their fullest potential. This is done almost exclusively by artists themselves these days, over years of playing small venues and getting dirt under their nails and honing their act. This means that all the hardest work in breaking out as a new artist is done by the artists themselves, and the big money is brought to the table just as the artist is poised to generate lots of money on their own. Then, after all this struggle to get to that point, a first contract is usually so lop-sided in favor of the record label that the artist often does not reap the financial benefits of their hard work, even after “making it”. This is a regrettable reality of the industry today.
FEMMUSIC: What advice would you have for a new artist just starting out?
JS: Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Be true to the music that is inside of you, because this is what makes you unique and nothing connects you more to an audience than honesty. The more you give of yourself, the more you will receive from an audience. Also, put one foot in front of the other, and focus on what you can do today…keep your long-term goals in mind, but don’t let them paralyze you into inaction – celebrate the small successes along the way to the bigger ones. Do what you can today, and tomorrow’s tasks will become clear in the process. And most of all, trust your gut feelings – they are there as a trusted guide. And cherish the fact that you have the opportunity to do what you love everyday – this is such a privilege!