songwriting advice

Songwriting advice: Cry when you write, dance when you produce

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Johnny Dwinell and Brent Baxter lean on some sage advice Brent got from veteran songwriter Ralph Murphy. This post is excerpted from The CLIMB — a podcast produced by Dwinell and Baxter dedicated to helping singers, songwriters, and artists create leverage in the music business. This content is sourced from Episode 199: “Advice That Changed My Songwriting Career.”

Brent Baxter: So it was probably 2003, and I was meeting with Ralph Murphy, God rest his soul, over at ASCAP. He was a hit songwriter, worked with ASCAP for years, great champion of songwriters. So he was nice enough to listen to some of my songs, and I either played a slow song or a sad song — most likely it was kinda slow and sad — and Ralph looked at me and said, “Who wants to hear this on Monday morning on the radio?” I was like… “That’s a good point, Ralph.” So he started schooling me on what he called “Murphy’s Laws.” Basically, on Monday mornings, people are heading off to school or a job they don’t particularly like… coffee hasn’t kicked in yet, droopy-eyed behind the wheel, kinda dreading the next 10 hours. So he says, “Now is not a good time to hit them with a funeral march, because odds are they kinda feel like they’re on one already.” So he was basically saying, “Write something happy that’s uplifting that people will want to hear.” And years later it hit me — of course, that’s true and radio is always looking for positive tempo, you hear that mantra… “What do we want? Positive tempo!”

But it’s funny, as a young songwriter, we need to have that pounded in our heads because so much of what moves us deeply is that sad ballad, that heart-wrenching thing, so that’s what we want to write, that’s what comes out, because so much of that is what got us into music in the first place or got us through a tough time. But, knock knock.

Johnny Dwinell: Who’s there?

Brent Baxter: The masses. Most of the time, that ain’t what’s on the radio. Right? So, to take that next step is to learn to write that positive, up-tempo stuff. So that was an important lesson. But the thing that hit me one day as proof of this, because maybe you’re out there thinking, “Some of my songs are sad and there are songs that get played on the radio that are sad ballads.” OK, sure, but think about drive-time radio. Think about those DJs. How would you describe drive-time DJs, in general?”

Johnny Dwinell: In the mornings? It’s like a three-ring circus.

Brent Baxter: Right? It’s fun and it’s funny. It’s like, “Tell me something good!” Not, “Give me some bad news, brother. Make me cry.” You know? And a lot of afternoon DJs are like that too. Especially going into the weekend. So that was a piece of advice from the great Ralph Murphy.

Johnny Dwinell: Can I add a couple of things to that? So… every single publisher we’ve talked to in the last five years is saying the same thing — back to math — when it comes to slow songs. 90 percent of the songs they get are slow songs. So, when you put in a song with tempo, just intentionally by doing that, you’re eliminating a majority of the herd that you’re competing against.

Brent Baxter: And 90 percent of the songs that get recorded are mid-tempo or up-tempo. But the majority of songs that are written are slower. So you can turn the odds more in your favor by writing what gets cut the most but written the least.

Johnny Dwinell: One more thing I’ll add to that, and here’s my song challenge to everyone out there. Go to YouTube and look up Anne Preven and listen to “Torn.” She’s the original for that huge pop hit called “Torn.” She played it on the “Howard Stern Show” and the interview is really fascinating and she plays it acoustically. And this is a slow, tear-your-flesh-from-bone ballad that is just so deep and dark and brilliant and beautiful all at the same time. And then Natalie Imbruglia and her producer took that song and put a beat to it and turned it into a massive pop hit. So what’s your coined phrase about that, Brent?

Brent Baxter: Cry when you write, dance when you produce.

Johnny Dwinell: So what if you took your top five ballads, because that’s the way they seem to come out, and just for giggles — because you’re an artist and you can do whatever you want to do — put a beat to them, re-record them, and see what happens. You can have both versions of it. It’s not blasphemous. If the original version is better, you still have it. I’d be fascinated to hear what you think after you’ve lived with it for a couple of weeks.

— — —

There’s plenty more to hear… listen to the entire podcast.


The CLIMB is a podcast produced by Brent Baxter (award-winning hit songwriter with cuts by Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Lady Antebellum, Joe Nichols, and more) and Johnny Dwinell (owner of Daredevil Production) that’s dedicated to helping singers, songwriters, and artists like you create leverage in the music business because that’s what you’re gonna need. You’re gonna need some leverage, you’re gonna need an audience, and you’re gonna need a reason for people to stand up and salute you. It’s not just about your talent – you’ve got to bring the business, and that’s why we call it The CLIMB, it’s an acronym that stands for “creating leverage in the music business.” Hear this entire podcast and more at on the Disc Makers website.

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3 thoughts on “Songwriting advice: Cry when you write, dance when you produce

  1. The story of “Torn” sounds like the story of “Help!”

    Lennon wrote it as slow ballad but then George Martin had him speed it up and became more impactful.

  2. I know this is an old song, but Bobby Darin’s “Artificial Flowers” totally comes to mind here. You want to talk about a sad song? Just listen to the lyrics. But if you listen to the music without regard for the lyrics, you’d never, ever guess it was a sad song. It’s one of the “swingin’est” songs from that era, in my opinion anyway, and was a pretty big hit for Darin.

    Great article!

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