Seth has since stopped writing for other artists and records his own material, which leaves him time for projects like the three baseball books he's published and a fascinating Beatles documentary. If you've ever wondered if you're too old, consider that Seth was 44 when he launched his recording career, and Goldmine magazine called his album Watercolor Day "The first truly great record of 2010."
Talking to Seth is like peeling back the layers of an onion, revealing remarkable stories and riveting revelations where his various interests intersect. Find out what it's like being a staff songwriter, why you should always stand up for your work (even to Clive Davis), and what happened to Taylor Dayne.
Seth Swirsky: It's a great question. In a perfect world, I'd be Lennon or McCartney. Because they got to be artists and got to write exactly what was on their minds – what pleased them. And it was also very commercial, so every other artist wanted to record their songs, as well. But when I started as a staff songwriter with Chappell Music back in the mid-'80s, it was very thrilling to write for different kinds of artists. The fun of being a staff songwriter is that you can write many different styles, whereas if you're an artist and you have some success, they want you to replicate that success. It's hard enough to write that one song that's going to get you some recognition, and then you have to write similar kinds of stuff, unless you're someone like Bob Dylan. But when you're a staff songwriter, you can dip into: Smokey Robinson's looking for material, or Air Supply is looking for songs, or Celine Dion – whatever.
SF: So you have to try to get inside the heads of some artists that are very unlike you.
Seth: I know, it's kind of a funny thing, but it really is a fun process. And it's a very interesting one. It's very difficult. Everybody in the world is writing for these artists, to try to be one of the 7 or 8 tracks on the album that they don't write themselves, or 5 tracks – it depends on the artist. Let's say Celine Dion accepts 10 or 12 songs from outside writers. It's almost like doing the New York Times crossword puzzle; You really try to cut the odds down. You're trying to think, 'What hasn't she done, what does she want to do?' And for me what was so satisfying is that it still remained under the category of pop. I don't shy away from pop. I love it. It means popular to me. It means lots of people are singing it. So melody to me is melody. It doesn't really matter. I've had people say, "Celine Dion? I never liked her." But I never cared who did my songs. I was thrilled whoever did them. It's a great feeling. But to me it was about the song, and that about does it – can people sing it? That to me is what pop means. There's a chorus, you sing it, and it feels good.
SF: Have you ever had a song recorded by another artist that you felt was so personal that they wouldn't be able to capture the emotions you felt when you wrote it?
A demo is a rough version of a song that a songwriter submits to demonstrate how it could sound. Often, these demos are recorded in a style similar to the artist they're pitching it to. Says Seth: "I would say a good 80 to 85 percent of the time my demos felt better than the finished records. I wish I could have gone back to certain records that I thought were real big hit songs, and just didn't turn out that way."
Seth: Yeah, I was in the mode of writing for other people, and I dug it. I definitely dug it. My God, it's a great thrill when you hear a song on the radio and you're watching people across the restaurant kind of mouth the words. But I wasn't yet ready to be an artist. It's a different discipline.
SF: And you said that was in your mid 40s?
Seth: Yes, 44. My first record Instant Pleasure came out.
SF: My goodness. That's a late start.
Seth: Yeah. But it's never too late. And I don't write for recording artists anymore. It's almost like another lifetime. I remember it very well, but it's just a very different thing than writing your own records.
SF: Did you make a clean break?
Seth: I found that I was less interested in it, was having less fun, in about '89, '90, '91. It was around that time that the production values went up in importance; a lot more machines going. And I think the public became a little bit less discriminating, so a lot of artists started writing songs, because they could make money from that. They took fewer songs. It became less of what the Brill Building was, or what Tin Pan Alley was back in the teens and '20s. I feel like I got the very end, in a way, the last 10 or 15 years of what Tin Pan Alley/the Brill Building was, where you know an artist is looking, you get in that room, you write and you demo it, and you run as fast as you can across town. And if they like it a little bit, you stay on top of 'em for a week, two weeks, just try to get the song recorded. I was very lucky to have that experience, but I fell out of love with writing for other artists about '93, '94. And then the baseball players went on strike in August of '94, and my son had just been born, and I thought, you know, I'm gonna write letters to these old ball players. And before I knew it, 100 letters had come back to me from Carl Yastrzemski, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, and all these players, and they were all answering my questions on the letter I wrote, beneath it. So those letters, I faxed them around to friends saying, "Can you believe this guy said that about this?" Just from my sports friends, it got in the hands of an agent, and I had my first book deal in '95, and then I did three books, and I did the book tour and Today shows and all that kind of stuff.
SF: Let's go back to the Taylor Dayne days. Do you remember writing "Tell It to My Heart" and if there was an experience that prompted that song?
SF: Really? So it almost didn't get to Taylor Dayne.
Seth: Oh, it almost wasn't born in the world. I didn't know if it was good enough. Because it was the first time I really started to do a dance thing. I didn't set out to do a dance thing, and it wasn't demoed particularly dance. It's a pop song. It's a pure pop song that just happens to be good to dance to.
SF: Did it sound different on your demo than it did on the recording?
Seth: Yes. I remember hearing the very first demo by this girl named Leslie (Dayne's real name is Leslie Wunderman) – she wasn't Taylor Dayne at the time. Ric Wake (producer for Sony) had set up a meeting with me to see whether he could have the song. And I still had my heart set on other artists, because I didn't want to give it to an artist that hadn't sold any records. And he played me the track – he had a piano and a drum machine going to it, and it sounded hot. It really, really sounded hot. And it was the first time that I'd heard something that really was so much better than the demo was. The demo was good, but it was demoed like a rock song, not with that kind of driving thing that Ric gave it, and then certainly Taylor gave it. It was very satisfying to hear it.
It taught me another lesson, too. I gave them the song immediately. Didn't even think, 'Okay, people won't dig the song, maybe we should give it to another artist.' I absolutely believed then, and I believe now, that if somebody is desperate to do something, if they have a passion to do it, it comes out in the recording and there's no reason to say no to it. You've gotta go with a good flow, a good energy. And when I heard what Ric Wake had done, I thought, This sounds like a smash to me. This really sounds like a total smash. I said to Ric, 'Go for it. You're on the right track and it really sounds good.' And Taylor ended up getting a deal on Arista (a subsidiary of Sony), and they didn't have any product on her when it started climbing the charts. I think it hit San Francisco and Miami first. It really started to take off, and they had no album. They recorded the rest of the album in like 6 weeks, because they needed to put something out. Meanwhile, the 12 inch that was out with the 4 cuts of "Tell It To My Heart" on it sold almost a million copies. It was really crazy.
And one other very funny little story about it, when it was mastered, Clive Davis called me and said, "I have the song. Here it is, it sounds great, we're gonna put it out." He played it for me over the phone, and I said, "You know, the bridge should be 8 bars. And where it is right now, it's 4 bars." Which would have been, like, half the bridge of what you hear now. And I said, "You know, Clive, I can't approve this master." And I had no rights of approving or not. He just asked my opinion, and I have a strong opinion about things. Because when it's your song, why not? You gotta fight for it, you know?
SF: Right. It's your baby.
Seth: It really is. And I said to him, "You know what? It's not right. The mastering sounds amazing, but we need 4 more bars in that bridge." The bridge really needed to set the body of the song from the last third of the song. You really needed 8 bars to catch your breath a little bit, and then kick into those last choruses. And he agreed. He scrapped the master, and they went for another one.
SF: My goodness. You stood up to Clive Davis and he backed down.
Seth: I wouldn't say "stood up" to him.
SF: Well, that's like scaring Mike Tyson in the ring, you know?
Seth: (laughs) I'll tell you, it was a very, very wonderful moment, the fact that he really listened. It's a testament to him that he really listens to songwriters. He thinks that they have a real opinion, even after they've written the song. So it was a really fun moment, and I was just glad that he called me. Because that song really needed the extra 4 bars. I was impassioned. When we were having a hit with the song, I saw Clive, and he was like, 'You were right about that.'
SF: And you wrote Taylor's next song as well.
"Tell It to My Heart" (#7)
"Prove Your Love" (#7)
"I'll Always Love You" (#3)
"Don't Rush Me" (#3)
"With Every Beat of My Heart" (#5)
"Love Will Lead You Back" (#1)
"I'll Be Your Shelter" (#4)
Dayne's third album wasn't released until 1993, and its only hit was the #20 cover of "Can't Get Enough of Your Love." In the '00s, she had success on the Dance charts with "Planet Love" and "Beautiful."
SF: If Madonna had recorded this song and it made $20 million, would you have gone back to staff songwriting?
Seth: Yeah. It was never about the money for me. I like making money and I like making money writing songs. But it wasn't about that. It was about the passion of the artist, if they really wanted the song. It's very similar to when you're applying to a college and they want to know, do you really want to go to our school? It's like sending out 10 applications. I always wanted to know that they wanted to do the song, and when I heard Taylor's first demo, it couldn't have been better. There's also some caché to launching a new artist's career with a song.
SF: That's a pretty special thing. Because you were a part of what made her such a star. What happened with her career?
Seth: I think she had maybe 6 Top Ten songs in a row. She really had a substantial base to have built from. That's a lot of Top Ten songs. I think she is a very talented person, and the material I heard later on – I don't know that they picked the best songs. It seems to always come down to that, because she certainly had her name out there, and she had a very good record company, and a lot of people that wanted to play her next record. Coming off of all those Top Ten songs, you're going to be playing the next records. But you never really heard that many songs after that. And maybe the reason was that they weren't the best.
SF: And yet he had quite a bit of success with "Instant Pleasure." Did that surprise you?
Seth: Well, it did surprise me. I was very happy about that, because he's someone who's known as a songwriter. That's a good thing for the writer of the song - it's like you got through to the songwriters. So I very much appreciated it, and we spoke on the phone about it. It was very, very nice. I remember speaking to Lenny Waronker at Warner Brothers Records, who was really overseeing Rufus' career, and I said to him, You know, his version of "Instant Pleasure" is a smash. It's gotta be out there. I mean, we're living in an age of instant pleasure." That song – I wrote it very, very spontaneously. I remember thinking, Should I click on the TV or should I go to the computer or should I go to the microwave to get my coffee? And I'm thinking, Wow, I really need it to happen instantly… and then it all came. The whole song wrote itself that moment.
SF: How often does that happen, that songs come that easily?
Seth: It does happen. I don't slave over songs, generally. But I don't really write them all in one session. There seem to be those songs that write themselves; you really hear the B section. I think part of what makes you a songwriter is the ability to hear forward. You can hear things occurring, and that's important. That takes a lot of listening to music and listening to many styles. A lot of songwriters that I know have that kind of anticipation where they can hear that.
But to get back to Rufus, they decided not to put it out as a single, and that's when I decided to record it. I thought, 'Well, if I'm recording this, there's a bunch of other songs I'd like to record.' And then I started writing more in that vein. That's what led to Instant Pleasure coming out in 2004.
SF: Was that the turning point from being the songwriter-for-hire to being an artist?
Seth: Yes, very much. I stopped going for other artists around the mid-'90s, and that's when those books occurred. That lasted till about 2003. Rufus did that song around that time, and then I thought, 'Well, he's not coming out with it as a single, the song needs a life.' It needs to have at least a second chance. And I recorded that song, and it led to a whole bunch of writing. I think I was ready to write a bunch of different kinds of songs at that point. Not for other artists – I'd been away from that for a bit. So yes, it was very organic how the artist emerged in me.
Seth: (laughs) That's really funny. That's why I guess I can call myself a manic expressive. Because it's all about passion for me, whatever's taken me at the moment: finishing an album, finishing a collection, things like that. But I do like getting into the things that always interested me.
SF: Well, you're a blessed person, because most of us don't get to do what we love all the time.
Seth: Aw, that's so nice. Thank you, I appreciate that. And I actually do appreciate that about my life.
SF: Has your love of baseball, and your love of music, ever met at any kind of artistic crossroads?
Seth: Yes, there's been one song I've written about baseball, and it's called "There's Nothing Like The Game of Baseball."
SF: That's pretty direct.
Seth: Yes. I have to say it's a good song. I did a real sketchy demo that gets across what the song is. It's on my site, seth.com, but I'm going to do a real rendition of the song. I have to change a few of the baseball players' names, because I put in a bunch of names about 10 years ago when I wrote it. I have to make it a little bit more generic so that I don't always have to change their names.
SF: Has pop music done a disservice to baseball?
Seth: "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" was written in 1908, and since that time there's been just a handful of baseball songs that people really know. Maybe five songs. So I don't know that there really is a great marriage. I think baseball and books go well together, because they're a similar speed.
SF: Yeah, books are definitely a pastime thing. Sit back, take it in…
Seth: I think that's kind of what happens. When I wrote the letters to baseball players and I got them back, and I thought that maybe this could be a book, to me that was a good marriage, because you could see the handwriting. I wouldn't have done it if they wrote me letters and I transcribed the letters. That's just type. But it was that you saw the handwriting. When these books came out, most people were on a computer. So handwriting was very old, it was receding in our world. And many of the baby-boomers in the '90s and the 2000's, they always talk about baseball like, "Back in my day, players really played." So you see how the handwriting really worked with the national pastime. I think that baseball works with film better than it works with music. It seems a little corny with music.
Seth: It's a great question. There are different schools of this, and I've written over the years with many fantastic, very famous, very amazing songwriters that work real hard at it; they go over many, many lines, and I admire them. But I'm not in that camp. If you see a picture of John Lennon cross-legged with an acoustic guitar on his couch, that's how he wrote 90% of his songs. It's the same with mine. I have acoustic guitars, I don't have any recording equipment except for a 4-track cassette. I underline cassette, because I now have to buy cassettes on eBay to get them. Simple for me, because if I have an idea, I throw it down on this cassette, then I hit rewind. It doesn't get simpler than that. Because if I've already laid something down on tape - an idea, a melody - I'm in a very creative mode. I don't want to think, "Well, this is going to the left channel, and it's gotta bust through track 23 to get to track 2, and I've gotta bounce this" – I've lost the inspiration at that point. I'm an old-fashioned songwriter. I just want to come up with the idea, and I want to write it, and then feel through it. So I'm just a guy with a tape recorder and an acoustic guitar.
SF: Who are your favorite songwriters?
Seth: My favorite of all time is Paul McCartney. He could do so many things, and he could do things that are hard to quantify. Some people might say, 'Well, I like Hall and Oates as songwriters,' let's just say. But they do that 8th note thing where they're just banging on the piano, like "Kiss On My List," so you could kind of copy their sound a little bit, or copy their style of writing. Very hard to copy McCartney, because you just don't come out with "Martha My Dear," where it changes keys in the middle of it. Or "Penny Lane," where it just changes keys. It's out of a different kind of brain.
SF: What do you think of McCartney as a musician?
Seth: I think he was a trailblazer as a bass player. Every bass player will tell you that everything began with Paul McCartney. And there were great bass players during the '60s, but Paul really, in terms of rock and pop music, he just did so many things. I also think he was one of the greatest guitar players of the '60s. Nobody really recognized him as an electric guitar player, or an acoustic guitar player, but his leads on "Taxman" and on different songs that you think George played, they ripped. I think George is great, but when Paul played lead on some songs, they tore. They were just very unique. There's no one like Paul McCartney in the history of the world.
SF: You probably went into this Beatles documentary project thinking you were pretty much an expert. Were there things that surprised you that you didn't know beforehand?
Seth: Well, yeah, many, many things. First of all, it was an incredible thrill to interview some of these people. Like Norman "Hurricane" Smith. He engineered every Beatles song up through and including Rubber Soul, and I'm sitting at his house in Sussex, England. He picked me up at the train station, 83 years old, and all day we're talking and I said, "Norman, I'm still shaking here, so I'm just gonna keep the camera on and I'm gonna throw out song names to you, and anything you can remember." And I said, "She Loves You" and "Please Please Me." He had a story behind every one of them. But I learned that they were very close. They really did love each other very much, all of them, and they were very close as a unit of just four guys. And they really loved music. They really loved making music. And they were hard-working guys.
SF: Will there ever be a band that's unifying like the Beatles again, or is that history now?
Seth: You know, I knew what I was going to answer a second ago, but I've re-thought it. I was going to say, "There will be another Beatles, when you least expect it. When you're not looking for it." But you can't really be looking. You've just got to be a lover of music in your head and in buying your records, and then maybe you stumble on one of those things. But I think we're entering a period that's going to be darker.
SF: Do you think it's reflective of the economy and the state of the music business?
Seth: I think it is reflective of, there's not great rewards for it as much as there once were.
SF: Right, that's a good point.
Seth: MySpace may not be as popular as it once was, but that doesn't matter. Anybody in their home can have a guitar and a microphone, record and be heard on the Internet, and get an audience base. So that's an amazing thing that's opened up the gates for so many people. That's been a great incentive for many people to come in and make music, which is just great. But there are fewer staff songwriters. And the more competition there was with writing songs, the better the songs. Competition makes for great things. So I'm feeling that there's too much production out there and there's not enough talent. We really learned how to write a song, we were in there every day trying to write for the biggest artists in the world, and you had to make that bridge work, make that lyric make sense, make all that stuff happen.
SF: People I talk to in the music business say that the people doing A&R are more concerned about losing their jobs than developing artists, so you don't have an atmosphere where greatness can be developed.
Seth: Think about this, on that point that you just made: could Carole King ever have gotten up to the album Tapestry? She never would have. She would have been too old, she would have been, "Oh she's just a songwriter, Oh, if she didn't make it 10 years ago as a singer then she wouldn't have made it now." No, she needed to get her own thing going. And it turned out to be an album that hit everybody, what they were thinking and feeling, right at that moment. America in the '60s, everybody was moving away to San Francisco, and flowers in their hair, and it was tumultuous. But here it was a Tapestry of home again. It was really at that moment, April of '71, I think that came out. Anyway, yes, I agree with you. I think that the people in the music business are playing defense for their jobs. And music is chance-taking. That's what makes it exciting.
SF: Well, it still sounds like you're excited about making music, which is good.
Seth: Oh, very much.
We spoke with Seth on July 29, 2010. Find him at seth.com.
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