I am thrilled to be posting the first installment in my interview series with deserving songwriters from Michigan and elsewhere. I plan for this to be a long, continuing series. There are lots of deserving artists that need greater exposure, and these stories give a glimpse of the human side of songwriting and artistry.
I was very fortunate to have Michigan’s own Jeff Scott as my first subject, and what an enlightening conversation it was. Jeff is a strong singer/songwriter and a wise and compassionate artist and human being. His songs cover a wide spectrum of human emotion and experience, as well as a lot of musical territory.
His albums, “On The Long Way Home” and “Nola To New York” can be found on iTunes and Spotify, and can be purchased on iTunes and Amazon. His website is: http://jeffscottmusic.com
There you can listen to his 2010 album, “Begin Again”.
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Photo credit: Patrick Mack
I’d like to start at the very beginning. When did you first take an interest in music?
I was in first grade. There was a music program at the elementary school and I was very interested…I didn’t know I could sing yet. I was very interested in drums, so a buddy and I took drums. The great thing about how they taught drums back in the day was you had to play a bell set first. You know–a xylophone. You’d learn the scales and music notation and everything else, then you’d switch to a drum pad, then you bought a snare drum. About two, three years into that, I decided I was getting bored with the fact that drums were a pretty monotone thing. I wanted to play guitar. So, my parents got me a cheap guitar for Christmas, when I was eight, and I just took to it like white on rice, you know?
There was a kid down the street who played well, so he’d teach me things. And I blew through the beginner’s guitar instruction books my parents got for me.
So this was pre-Beatles?
No. It was right during the heyday of the Beatles. I started playing guitar in ‘67.
That was a good time to pick it up!
Yeah! No kidding!
That’s where all the classic albums are, isn’t it?
Yeah. That’s right. So, the deal was, I never really learned to play a drum set, so this buddy of mine, who had started drums with me, he learned to play a set and we started a “band.” His parents were both musicians and his mom was a music teacher, so they loved music in their house. Around that time, my dad, uh, bought me-its hilarious-there was a studio in Royal Oak. This guy was closing down the studio….
A recording studio?
A recording studio, yeah. And my dad bought me an old Sears Silvertone electric guitar and this little amp. Anyway, we started this band in my friend’s basement. We got our first gig—a Cub Scout awards ceremony. At that point, I found out, I could sing.
It was all part of the process. Somebody had to sing, right? Or did any of the other guys sing?
Ah, they didn’t really sing. And I don’t know where my voice came from. I really don’t. Just imagine my voice, about an octave up, you know?
So you weren’t originally a baritone?
When I was twenty-one my voice shifted into baritone. It was pretty wild because I was recording at a recording studio in Warren and my voice just shifted. I had won this contest that WNIC had sponsored. They were looking for the best voice in Detroit—and I won it.
Thank you very much. And there were so many great singers to come out of Detroit, so it was like “I do not accept the title, but I’ll accept the award, you know? So, right after that, we had put a single out that WNIC was playing a lot, and I went into the studio to do another single to back up to that.
Were these singles songs you had written?
Yes. I’ve never recorded anything that I haven’t written, you know-which may be a huge mistake for me. Yes, I started writing late in high school. Even when we had the band in high school, it was primarily a cover band but there were always a couple of tunes I had written.
How did you come to wanting to write?
Well, there’s like three tracks going on concurrently here for me. One is the music thing, one is the writing thing, and one is the singing thing. I was starting to write a lot of fiction in high school while I was writing songs as well. I’ve always been a writer.
Prose. I was writing prose. I was writing short fiction. I had a lot of love for Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, then John Cheever, uh, John Updike, and Truman Capote and all those masters of that short form-which I guess translates into writing three and a half, four minute pop tunes.
Well, that answers one of my questions that I was going to ask you later. Your writing is concise and it doesn’t stray. It doesn’t go off topic. You seem to come to songwriting with a writer’s knowledge. It’s something I noticed with your lyrics. You pick your target and then hone in on it.
Thank you. I think it’s a reflection of all the writing I’ve done. You learn to edit yourself. I think it’s a desire to…I will tell you, the songs that I hold in the greatest esteem—popular songs—are-well, there are many-but I look at George and Ira Gershwin’s songs as the archetypal models of how a popular song should be written. You can’t separate those lyrics from that music. And the lyrics seem to be circular in nature. You know, where you end is really where you begin and to write a lyric like that-I don’t think I’ve ever achieved it, but that’s what I’m going for. It’s something that is inextricably tied to the melody and the chord changes and you just feel the lyric is of a whole, you know. It can’t be punched through. (laughs).
Right. You do it really well. I haven’t listened to everything you’ve done, but I have listened to “Nora to New York” and “The Long Way Home” and both have a lot of great songs.
So, when you write, do you start with lyrics? How does it come to you? Is it a title or just an idea?
Ah, some of them come wholly formed. I was talking about “The Breathing Room” at my most recent show. “The Breathing Room” took an evening. Although I did go back to it the next day. There was something about the third verse that bothered me and I changed some words around. In those instances, you are just a channel for something…
Those are the best ones.
Yeah. And you can just feel it, so you just gotta let it ride and make sure you don’t get in the way of it.
I wonder, why can’t they all be like that? (laughter)
Songs often start with me as a couplet. A lyrical couplet. And maybe 40% of the time, the lyrical couplet has some kind of melody attached to it. This is all happening in my brain, right? Then I sit there and say that’s interesting or that’s not interesting. I was in the shower Saturday morning and I had an entire first verse of a new song by the time I came out of the shower. So, I recorded it immediately on my phone because you don’t want to lose it. You are like, what’s the syllabic structure on these melodies, cause that’s important, right?
Absolutely. Getting your meter right.
Yeah, right? So, that’ll be a tune. And I know why the song in the shower happened, because I’d been thinking a lot about an upcoming birthday, which is a big one for me. Because of that, I’ve been thinking about mortality, you know, which is fundamentally what this new song idea is about. Other times, I’ll do it like Paul Simon says he does it. Which is, he gets a rhythm going and he’ll start improvising chord changes, and then he sings a lot of nonsense syllables to get the meter going. Then it’s a constant pastiche of, you know, the melodic construction and lyric construction against the…
Fill in the blanks
I read that Lionel Ritchie asked Stevie Wonder how he wrote songs. Stevie said he’d compose a melody and sing “la la’s.” He’d replace the “la la’s” with real lyrics.
There is something I pride myself on. I think, from a tonal perspective, the melodies I am writing are appropriate for the lyric against them. I think there is a synergy between those two things, which creates a bigger effect, which you sort of feel. You can’t really put your finger on it but-
Your music emotionally reflects what you are saying. To me.
There are guys that intentionally do the opposite, like Randy Newman, for example. He’ll write something almost despicable with a happy melody….
So, I will go long periods of time where I am not writing anything at all. Just like everybody else. I know the regimen you developed. They were trying to get me to develop that in Nashville, but I just didn’t have it. I will tell you this, there is one more way I write songs. I will purposely say I want to write a song “like” another. And that becomes a launch point for me.
I’ve done that too
Or I want to write a song in “this” genre or I want to write a song that has “this” feel to it. So that’s a good launch pad for me. A lot of the songs on this new album I did exactly that way. I want to write a song that does “this.” I want to write a song that does “that.” So, then it becomes an exercise, right?
If you fail, you fail and if you don’t well that’s wonderful.
I found some musical differences between your most recent work ( Nola To New York) and the one before it (The Long Way Home). Its like the Long Way Home is more straight major and minor chords and Nola to New York is more major seventh, minor sevenths- jazzier. And you ditched the violin and added the saxophone. Skip’s (Skip Pruitt) fantastic by the way.
Isn’t he incredible? I gotta tell you—I mean no disrespect—there was a lot of Americana kind of stuff on the first album I did called “Begin Again,” which I did when I came back to music. Clearly, “The Long Way Home” was all Americana. But,I got tired of it. When it came to the new album, I really just, it was like, this is not how I’m feeling right now. I was telling Dave Falk this because he was curious about it at some gig we did together. I purposely went out and bought a classical guitar because, A, it was what I had learned on. B, it was what a hero of mine played—Kenny Rankin. Huge hero of mine. Third, that kind of jazz chord-based sensibility and changes and soul feel inside the jazz changes was really what the Big Picture was all about, which was this band I had with Duane [Allen Harlick], Skip [Pruitt] and three other guys.
And what kind of material were you doing then?
It was all original, high energy jazz/pop, soul—you know, R&B. It was an integrated band, it was very different. We won a huge national contest, did huge festivals as a result. We got signed to management in LA. We did a lot of opening act work, we did an album with Andre Fischer, and Woody Woodruff. Andre Fischer was Natalie Cole’s husband and producer, and he’d been the drummer and producer for Chaka Kahn and Rufus. Woody Woodruff was David Foster’s engineer. We were in it, man!
And then we couldn’t get signed with the album that Andre had produced for us. It was all our stuff. In any case, I wanted to get back to that feeling because I felt the Americana was limiting to me. It didn’t allow me room to do sophisticated lyrical work. It didn’t allow me room to do sophisticated melodic work. It was just my opinion. It was how I was feeling at the time.
Well, I think you fly in either direction. I liked the Americana tone but I also like the openness of the new album. “Sanctified Man”—wow! What a great song that is.
Oh, thanks! It’s funny about that song because it was originally called “Invisible Man.” I had a whole set of lyrics written for it. We went into the studio to cut it and it went way beyond what I had written. It was one of the last songs we recorded for the album and I just had a bare bones chart for this thing. I’d sent them a little crappy demo. We got in there and they just killed it. As I listened to the session, I said to myself, oh man, these lyrics don’t work at all.
That’s the song that starts out talking about not being real religious but being spiritual
I thought that was a great way to start a song, by the way
Thank you. Anyway, Al, by the end of that session I had changed the title and I had the first verse written in my head. I went home that night and rewrote the next two verses and the bridge and everything. Because seriously, the brand brought it. In a way, they created that song because of how they played it. Cause it feels like that.
It’s just got that great groove underneath it. It sucks you right in. I think you should have gotten that record deal.
Let’s backtrack a little. So, you were in the Big Picture, had the whole thing going and you didn’t get signed. Was that when your feelings started to change about doing it for a living?
Yeah. We had made it out of the bar scene in Detroit, right? We had made it onto the big stages and festivals and we had made it into, you know, amphitheaters and big venues, opening for people and the next logical step would be somebody signs us, somebody cultivates us for a year or so, you know—either with our own material or material that would generate some kind of charting song, you know? And that just didn’t happen. I couldn’t see going back to the bars. I didn’t want to do four or five nights a week doing our tunes or cover tunes anymore. I was just done with it. I’d been doing it since I was twelve years old.
At that point I was thirty. I’d been doing it for eighteen years and reached this apex with one more step to go, and it just wasn’t happening. And that process-the not happening process–went on for another two years, and I went, I’m done. By that time, I had an out, because my advertising career was going really well. I’d started out as a writer, I’d gone to University of Michigan, I was in the creative writing program, writing short fiction, and I had a great mentor/instructor there. I knew how to write prose. I knew how to write short copy, as it turned out. So, I had turned into a respected copy writer and I had a point of view on things aesthetically, so suddenly I am a creative supervisor. The career just built.
So, in a way, you were still being a writer but in a different capacity…
Oh right! (laughs) By that time, I had a lot of responsibility at the advertising agency, so I gave up the music. I didn’t look back. I just thought, well, I did it (the music), and I did it in a really honorable way and I did it the best I could possibly do it and, to some degree, we couldn’t make it to the last thing, so I’m out, you know?
In those years that you weren’t playing, were you still writing or were you totally on hiatus?
Totally on hiatus. At a certain point, late in the seventeen years of that hiatus, I did buy a piano. I had taught myself to play piano when I was a teenager and I’d noodle around with it at home but I was more interested in having it for my kids. Amazingly enough, it became the source of three tunes on this album after I got back into doing it in 2009. I guess it foreshadowed what it was sitting there for. Look, man-I was all into the career and all into the money I was making, and I was into the family I finally had. Eventually, all of it–all of it–disappeared, you know, which is the reason I came back to music. I went through this existential crisis of losing my job, losing my home, losing my marriage, you know—losing the respect of the community in advertising that thought I was “something” for a long time. You know, I pretty much hit bottom. At that point, my soul turned back to the one thing that could save me in terms of making sense of the world, and that was music. That was my psychotherapist.
That was your therapy-to come back to music.
That’s kind of what it’s always been for me. If I was totally happy, I’d probably never write another song.
Right. You learn the value of things, you know. I’m very happy that that complete derailment happened because, for me, I found out what was important and what wasn’t important. I found out how important music was to me. I found out that, in a lot of ways, because it happened, I was forced into becoming a much better writer, a much better singer and a much better musician than I had been when we had the Big Picture. And that’s absolutely true because when I got back into it, I couldn’t sing. I hadn’t sung in ages. I’d sit in with people, occasionally.
So, how did you get your voice back? Did it come back naturally after a while?
It did, yeah. and I have to say, seventeen years of not singing in bars night after night after night will save a voice. So, my vocal cords didn’t…they were getting brutalized in the Big Picture because of the shows we were doing. But that long rest period was amazingly regenerative for my vocal cords.
When I started going down to Nashville in 2009-well, I started playing open mic around town, and my guitar playing skills, which had been perfunctory in the Big Picture, as I rarely played—I was mostly the lead singer-I went down to Nashville a few times and I was just horrible. So, I came back home, woodshedded, and taught myself a more intricate style of acoustic playing than I ever dreamed I would ever be capable of, you know? So, in a lot of ways it was great. Weirdly, I feel like I’m doing the work now that I was always supposed to be doing, right? But that first go around really wasn’t about that, if that makes any sense.
So, do you have a new record that you are thinking about yet?
I’m going to put out a collection of fifteen tunes that, for one reason or another, ended up on a hard drive in the studio, that I never finished. I just thought, well, why not? Some of them clearly fall back in this Americana camp of things. Some of them absolutely don’t and they are more keeping with the stuff I’m doing now. It will be just a potpourri-a mishmash of stuff-another genre buster. (laughs)
I will tell ya, man, I think a lot of people-somebody sent me an inquiry today about this—were thrown by the Nola to New York album. It was so radically different than the last album and people who liked my previous work did not know what to make of it. And I hadn’t prepared them for it and, you know, I didn’t get a lot of the attention that I had gotten with The Long Way Home because of that shift. You know, they didn’t know how to handle it because it wasn’t Jeff just doing more of the same. It’s just completely different in terms of genre and instrumentation and orchestration and production and everything else. Some people wondered, “What is this?” Frankly, I don’t think anyone in the area is writing and recording songs like this, but I’m pretty insulated, so who knows?
Don’t you think that’s good for an artist to do that? To change?
Totally. I’ve got nothing riding on this, so why wouldn’t I do that, you know?
Do what your heart tells you to do
Yeah! There is no contract I’m attempting to satisfy. We’d gone into the studio originally and cut ten tunes for what became Nola To New York. Five of them were this previous thing of “Americana” and five of them were tunes that ended up on Nola To New York. I asked Duane and Dave Hendrickson to meet me to discuss it. I said, here’s the situation and you guys know it. Here are five tunes that are all Americana and five are this new thing, this retro thing we are doing. I said, I know which direction I want to go. Which direction do you want to go? They didn’t even pause. They said, let’s go for the jazz pop thing. Seriously. And I thought great! And I had to broom the five Americana tunes, but then I had to write five more tunes.
Nothing wrong with that. Personally, I think if you’ve got a concept, now you’ve got a frame and you know what needs to go in it.
Where if you don’t have that concept, it could be anything.
Yeah, and the album definitely had a concept. I wanted to filter pop tunes through the classical and orchestral and jazz and the pop I heard growing up.
There were a couple of tunes that you played that had a James Taylor influence.
Ain’t That The Way?
I think that was the one. Who were your influences growing up?
Ah, James Taylor. Absolutely. Gotta be the top one. Joni Mitchell. Then Kenny Rankin and Paul Simon. I’d say those were the top four, but there’s a whole other part of me—those were singer songwriters, right?
Carole King to a lesser degree. I’d buy every Joni album and listen to it ‘till I couldn’t listen to it anymore. I’d buy every Pat Metheny album and listen to it ‘till I couldn’t listen to it anymore. There was another part of me that was heavily into Steven Sondheim’s Broadway work, heavily into the songs Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley wrote. There’s a whole traditional side, a Broadway side to me as well.
I picked up a little bit of that with Life Ain’t A Young Man’s Game.
It’s a theatrical song, for sure, because it’s a monologue, a character piece, as you know.
That one reminds me of a song Neil Diamond wishes he could have written.
(laughs) I was a huge Neil Diamond fan, too
There was a line: “See these lines upon my face, every one’s a road I walked down.” That’s killer…
“Take a look into my eyes, see the battles that I’ve lost and fought and lost and fought and won.”
Charlie (Springer) loves that tune. He says it gives him chills every time he hears it
People do seem to like that tune. I think because it’s not apologetic. It doesn’t beat around the bush. It’s clearly an older dude talking to a younger dude saying, sort of, prove yourself.
That song struck me like someone was grabbing me by the scruff of the neck and saying, LISTEN!
That was the intent, you know. What I had in my head was an older guy listening to a younger guy at the bar who bitching about his life. The older guy finally has enough of it and says, hey, let me read you the rules here. I saw it very theatrically in my head, you know? And there was always a little bit of Neil Diamond in there as well. The phrasing, the concise nature of the lyric lines.
I love that kind of thing. If you are a James Taylor fan, you know the song Millworker
Which he wrote for that Studs Terkel musical.
Yeah. “May I work the mill as long as I am able, and never know the man who’s name is on the label.”
One interesting thing about songwriting is that not every line has to be great. But there have to be great lines within the song. It’s like if every line were great, it would be too much.
Well there are some lines that serve the purpose of getting you to the next line.
Dylan is a master of that. He’ll write a bunch of pretty much nonsense and then, like the fourth line just knocks you cold.
So, you write on piano sometimes?
I find writing on piano very different from writing on guitar. Its more, ah, churchy. (laughs)
More soulful, isn’t it?
Guitars make you want to get a beat or a rhythm going, but piano is different.
Yeah, it’s funny. I wrote a lot of the songs—this was a secondary intention-a lot of the songs that are on Nola To New York are actually piano tunes. I didn’t write them on piano. I wrote them on classical guitar, but I was hearing them as piano in my head. Purposely, because I wanted Tony to have a kind of showcase on the album with his playing.
Tony’s your keyboard player?
Tony Jaworski, yeah. A truly fine player. He plays with many, many different people.
He really supported your music in a nice way.
He’s very sensitive to it. He feels that music. I am very appreciative of that. He really understands what I’m trying to get to, you know? But, you know, he was a jazz player and he went to Interlochen for jazz and all that stuff. Given that most of what he’s been doing the last few years is playing in a lot of blues and R&B bands, I thought this might be an opportunity to use his real chops, instead of playing Mustang Sally.
I mean, I don’t hate Mustang Sally, but it’s been played enough. (laughter)
There are songs that don’t ever need to be played again (more laughter)
Right. I’m one of those people that still thinks Brown Eyed Girl is a great song. It’s very well written because it has stood up for all these years. It speaks for millions and millions of people, but do we really need to hear it again?
We don’t ever need to hear it again. I committed heresy a few months ago. I suggested that we never need to hear Respect by Aretha Franklin ever again. And they were like, Oh, you’re kidding! I said I’d rather hear her sing Say A Little Prayer, frankly. I don’t need to hear her sing Respect, you know? I need to hear her sing the Bacharach/David tunes.
Do you like Jimmy Webb?
Ah. What an amazing writer. Jesus, what a run he had.
I got to see him at the Ark last summer. He talked a lot but played great.
Just shut up Jimmy and play the tunes! (laughter)
Now he’s a guy that, his tunes—I don’t know how to say this politely—demand a stronger voice than he has, but, when he sings them, he definitely gets them across.
Yes, he does. You see the passion there. You feel what he’s trying to convey.
You know, it’s funny, taking about the current day now, there are some really great songwriter singers-a lot of women-like Sara Bareilles, Carly Ray Jepsen, who are writing classic pop tunes and have the voices to support them and turn a few of them into hits now. So, I think there is this underlay of more classic songwriting and performing still happening.
I hope so, because these song forms have endured for a long time. You’ve got the basic AAA form, the refrain song that’s verse verse bridge verse, the verse chorus form and the verse chorus bridge form. That seems to be the most dominant thing these days. Depending how the story or the lyric is unfolding for you, it will almost dictate…
You find that?
Yes. I was thinking about some of the songs on Nola To New York, some of them don’t have choruses. They really have bridges. They sound like choruses, but they are really bridges. because the chorus is actually a verse. So, you are leading with the hook, man, and it just plays out from there. It becomes the topic sentence for the song.
I love songs that start with the chorus. It’s bold to start with the chorus.
Yeah. I’ll give it to ya—here it is! And now you’re going to have to wait for it to come around again.
The song Delta Dawn starts with a chorus, then employs one verse. Then, it’s just choruses.
That’s right! They knew what the strong part of that tune was! (laughter) And it works!
I just have a real appreciation for people that have the ability to write coherent songs. I’m sorry to see my heroes, and some of your heroes too probably, reaching the end of the road. Elton John is finishing, Paul Simon is on his farewell tour, Jackson (Browne) is still out there doing it, but how much longer?
I gotta tell you-this is funny—I went out to see Bacharach at Meadowbrook some years ago. So Bacharach is in front of me, he’s got a full orchestra, he’s doing all the songs, he’s got background singers on some of the tunes he’s singing, himself—by the way, he does an amazing version of Alfie…
What a great song!
And on other tunes he has background singers as lead singers. This woman in front of me says—clueless—says why is he playing all these songs? These aren’t his songs! It was like she didn’t know why she was there.
What did she come expecting to hear?
I don’t know! (laughter)
I don’t know how to articulate this, but there seemed to be a value set in the music I grew up with that isn’t being reflected now.
And it bothers me, and I know I have to accept that times change. I’m sure that if you go back to the big band era, those lyrics were great lyrics—I agree-but they approached things in much more cautious and playful way. There’s not that much playfulness anymore.
It may be a reflection of the culture, you know? You know, the little things that give me hope are, I think, Adelle and her producer. I think she’s a great pop songwriter. She writes them.
Not all of them.
Not all of them, but she writes a lot of them.
She does a very faithful version of Chris Stapleton’s “If It Hadn’t Been For Love”
When I hear songs like “When We Were Young” off her most recent album, I go like, that’s just a great song! Just an amazingly great tune.
Her sales figure show that people are into that
Yeah, yeah. So that does give me hope, in that it is a classically constructed tune. It has a lot of merit to it, it’s lyrically evocative, it’s musically interesting, the arrangement is great. So, there is still some standard being upheld.
I think it’s going to come back in some way. When we got into the sixties, music exploded lyrically, experimentally, went in all kinds of different directions, with offshoots of all that happening through the seventies and eighties. Now, it seems like almost every worthwhile crevice has been explored. What’s old becomes new again. Like Nora Jones.
She’s spreading her wings, too. She’s on Blue Note now. She’s done some really interesting jazz-based things…
Yeah, she’s got a new album out—a few months ago-really cool stuff. It felt to me like she was pushing the boundaries so that she can come back a little bit and get into a more…unless she plans to keep being experimental. I don’t know. But ah, this was clearly not a Nora Jones—sounded like her, but she’s pushing her own boundaries.
Well, she’d been through a certain amount of territory and she had to see a different part of the musical world.
Yeah, right. Exactly.
Let me ask one final question. What is next for you?
I don’t know. I mean, I have some shows booked for later in the year. I have this rough idea in my head that I’m going to pull these completed songs together into some clump and get them released later in the year. I think, I have had an idea that I’m going to start entering songwriting contests, which I haven’t done in a long long time. Just to see if I can move the needle a little bit. Other than that, Al, I don’t know. It just seems to be what it is right now. I’m really just trying to be the best songwriter I can be, based on my understanding of what that means.
Well, you are doing a fine job of it.
From one songwriter to another, I admire your work a great deal
Thank you, Al