Shelly Peiken

by Carl Wiser

We get into the nuts and bolts of hit songwriting (toplining, algorithms, scheduling) in this talk with Peiken, who also tells the stories behind some of her most memorable sessions, including the one with Meredith Brooks for "Bitch."



Serial songwriter Shelly Peiken is best known for co-writing Christina Aguilera's #1 hits "What A Girl Wants" and "Come On Over Baby," but one of her biggest cultural contributions is helping re-claim the word "bitch" via the song of that title she wrote with Meredith Brooks. "It's a term of endearment now," she says. "If I had anything to do with that, I am grateful."

Peiken has written for two generations of pop stars: Celine Dion, Mandy Moore, Backstreet Boys and Brandy in the '90s and early '00s, then the next wave that includes Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato. Her latest project is more personal, an album called 2.0 etc... comprised of her own recordings of her songs that were either hits for others or worthy tunes that never got recorded. It's expected this summer, but she's already released her rendition of "What A Girl Wants" and the never-before-heard "Just Wanna Be Your Girl."

We hit her up for some song stories (lots of song stories), and asked her about the distinction between writing for hit potential and writing for artistry. Shelly also had some keen insights on why many of us have a certain nostalgia for '90s music.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Can you please tell me about "Just Wanna Be Your Girl"?

Shelly Peiken: Yes, I can. "Just Wanna Be Your Girl" is a song I wrote with Wally Gagel years ago. I didn't record that specifically for this album, but that was a song I always loved. Wally and I had gotten together the day that we wrote it because we were supposed to be collaborating with an artist who shall remain nameless. She was making the record and when she came in to work with us that day she was very distracted, she didn't feel well, she didn't park her car in a legal spot, she had to make some phone calls, and she went off into the hallway with her phone and got on it to talk to her manager and did what she had to do. It was taking so long that Wally and I started this idea, and by the time she came back in the room, we were basically finished with the concept. She was saying how badly she felt and maybe it wasn't worth her time to write that day and we just said, "Perhaps you're right, maybe you should go home." Because we had this song that we loved and it wasn't just the seed of the song, it was basically the whole thing sussed out. To invite somebody else into it would change the whole DNA, and we were in love with what we had.

So, we recorded it that day. We made a demo, and when it came to making this record, we couldn't beat that demo. We got together and we thought, "Let's re-record it, let's bring it more into 2020," and we just couldn't beat it. Well, there's no law that says you can't use a demo for your record.

This record for me, Carl, is a celebration of songwriting. I'm not going to be introducing a new sound like Billie Eilish. It's a different kind of concept and I felt the need to just include songs from my career that either have catapulted me in a commercial way and have been recognized outside of my own little head, and then also the songs that I wrote that I feel very connected to that were never recorded at all, and if I don't put them out there, nobody is ever going to hear them. So that's why I wanted to use that song.

Songfacts: What's a song that you connect with that has been recorded?

Peiken: One of the songs that is most close to my heart is a song called "Human On The Inside," which I wrote with Mark McEntee of the Australian band the Divinyls.

My biggest songs, Carl, my most successful songs, were written about things that had happened. Real-life feelings, things that I didn't make up in order to get on a record. Somebody had hurt my feelings the day before and I scribbled these feelings, these hurt feelings, on a napkin. The next day when I was with Mark it went really well with the major 7s he was playing on the guitar. We wrote this song called "Human On The Inside," and the Divinyls recorded it. It wasn't a hit with them so we sort of steered it into the hands - or into the ears - of Chrissie Hynde, and she took to it as well. She recorded it, and it became the theme song for a TV show called Cupid [the Pretenders version is titled "Human"]. She had a minor hit with it, but a lot of people who are fans of the Pretenders know this song.

It was such an honor for me to write a song that somebody so iconic like Chrissie Hynde recorded. Somebody who writes her own songs and doesn't really need anybody to write songs for her - she usually records her own songs.

So, Eve Nelson, who produced a lot of my records, and I, we re-approached this song and tried our best to bring it from 1999 when Chrissie recorded it into 2020, which meant extracting a lot of the chord changes because there were so many.

About a month ago, I got my nerve to email Chrissie Hynde. I had her email address because I used her image in my book Confessions Of A Serial Songwriter and I had to get her approval for that - that was a few years ago. I was sitting there one day just staring at it thinking, "I'm just going to ask her. I know this is crazy but I'm going to ask her if she would consider singing some background vocals on my recording of the song I wrote for her that she made famous." I sent that email and went into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee. When I got back to my computer there was already a response saying, "Sure, I'd love to. I'm in London, send over the tracks. I'll sing to it and send it back." So, she is singing background vocals with me on my version of "Human On The Inside."

Needless to say, that means a lot.

Songfacts: You said that many of your songs have a piece of your real life in them. Is that true of the Brandy song "Almost Doesn't Count"?

Peiken: That was 100 percent my life. There was a relationship I had - or didn't have - in college. It was a relationship that was more in my head than in his, and I always felt like we almost got there, he almost said I love you, he almost broke up with the girlfriend he had the whole time. He almost faced his feelings but he never quite got there - maybe that was all in my head too. Maybe he never had any of those feelings, maybe it was all my imagination.

That relationship was so powerful, and I feel that when you have one of those kinds of relationships, there's no end to the amount of songs you can write about it. You just look at it from a certain perspective and it can last you a lifetime. So, this was 20-25 years after that relationship when I got together with a go-to collaborator, Guy Roche, who I wrote with often, and I dug up that laundry list of all the "almosts" I felt we had, and we put it into the song called "Almost Doesn't Count." We put that song on the back burner for a long time because it was in an A-A-B-A structure, which is very sort of country, so we weren't sure if it was country or if it felt kind of urban... we weren't sure what to do with it.

Then a few months later we came back to it and it was a lot clearer - not so much the genre, but that it was good enough that we couldn't leave it on the back burner - it was really good and we had to finish it. So we did, and then we sent it around.

I think it's really important that sometimes you let go - that you don't have a plan. That you don't know exactly the fate of a song, but if it resonates with you so strongly that you see it through to fruition, at least finish it in a way that moves you. When you put it out into the world, if it moves you, it's probably going to move other people.

Brandy recorded it, and she was sort of pop-urban, and after she recorded it, Mark Wills recorded it as a country genre in Nashville. It couldn't have been a better result and I'm so glad we finished it.

Songfacts: Why do so many of us have this affinity for late '90s pop and R&B?

Peiken: Meaning what? Like in "Almost Doesn't Count"?

Songfacts: No, I'm referring to that genre in general. Maybe it's just me, but there seems to be something about those few years that brings a certain joy, and I'm trying to get your thoughts as a songwriter and as somebody who knows how music has progressed, if there are any hallmarks to that sound or some reason why it resonates with us so much.

Peiken: Well, that's a good question. In the late '90s, what was considered urban music was more pop, or would be considered pop now. Urban music has gotten so swaggery and the vernacular is not the same as it used to be. It's buzzwords and not as understandable in plain English. And, because it was plain English in the late '90s, I think it spoke to a lot more people.

I listen to some urban music now - and by urban I don't just mean artists that are of color, there are a lot of artists that are not of color who are writing and singing in this deep swaggery language - and I can't understand a lot of it. It might make me feel the groove, but if I can't understand what they're trying to say, then how is that supposed to move me? So, I think it was just more understandable then. We had Toni Braxton and Sade... the Diane Warren songs that she wrote for Toni, looking back, they were just pop. I don't think they would be in an urban bag now.

I listen to urban music now because I enjoy the vibe and I also want to be aware, but there's a lot of language that goes right over my head. I feel like it means something, but I'm not sure what it means.

Songfacts: What do you see as the difference between let's say, Christina Aguilera in 2000 with "What A Girl Wants" and Ariana Grande, 20 years later, and a song like "Seven Rings"?

Peiken: I think they're not so much different stylistically, but what I've noticed in pop music recently is there's just so much expression about material possessions and beauty and hotness. "What A Girl Wants" was written about thanking somebody for giving you space and time to love them back, and I don't know if that's just a difference between Christina in 2000 and Ariana now, as it is between the culture of then and now. Online access has just made culture in general so much more material-oriented and beauty-oriented, self-absorbed. I love Ariana's song "Thank You, Next." I love what that's about. I don't think any one artist writes all about possessions and beauty, but I think culture as a whole has embraced those things, and personally I am definitely more drawn into music that is more spiritual.

Songfacts: As a commercial songwriter, you will very often have to write a song in a day. Can you draw the distinction between doing what you do and being an artist who is writing for personal expression?

Peiken: Well, I feel like I am an artist that writes from personal expression. I'm a songwriter professionally, but I always felt like an artist. I am an artist in a different way - I might not have been a recording artist all these years, but I've always been an artist.

I've always thought of me as something more than a "craft" person. When I get with an artist who is making a record and I'm in the room with them, I really try to find something that we have in common that we can write about so I feel as involved. It's really hard for me to conjure stuff up. If they want to write about something I have no idea about, I might just say, "Look, I'm not connected to that but I will close my eyes and try to imagine I am. Try to find something that has happened in my past that I can relate to, try to help you rhyme." But generally speaking, I try to find something that we both have in common because that song will be more authentic.

That's what happened between Meredith Brooks and I with "Bitch." We had gone on enough hikes together to know we had a lot in common personality-wise, and that song was really easy for us to write because every word she came up with I agreed with, and every word I came up with she felt as well.

So, I don't really separate the two things. I try to bring that artistic nature into every room I go into, even if my goal is to write something that is commercial, puts me on a record and earns me income, which is so difficult these days, by the way, unless you have a single that goes on terrestrial radio. If you have a single that's digitally released, unless you own that master, it's insignificant financially. But that's a whole other topic.

Songfacts: I guess what triggered that last question, I was speaking with a country songwriter last week who tells me she writes maybe five songs a year, and at one point she wrote something with Ryan Tedder and she said the guy can just bang out a song, but that's his job.

Peiken: Well, here's the thing. You say she's a songwriter or she's a recording artist?

Songfacts: She is both, she is a singer who writes her own songs, by herself for the most part.

Peiken: Okay. So, first of all, everybody is at their own pace. I've written with Ryan too. He does, he just bangs shit out. I wrote with him before there was a OneRepublic, before I think he had a hit. He's amazing - he's fast! Not everybody is.

Just because somebody is faster doesn't mean they're a better songwriter, they just have a different process. Maybe they're more stream-of-consciousness and other people need to go slower and be deeper and have longer thoughts about it. I think we're just different human beings with different processes.

Songfacts: The evolution of the word "bitch" as it has been used in songs is rather interesting, and you fit into a very intriguing place in the timeline. Because Elton John, as far as I know, was the first big artist to call himself a bitch, and then you had the word used in the sense of where life is a bitch in terms of the Rolling Stones song, and then Stevie Nicks did it. But then until we got to Meredith Brooks, I don't think there was a female artist that had a hit song where she declared herself a bitch.

Peiken: I would agree. That's right.

Songfacts: And now Lizzo is doing it, and it's almost like the word has been reclaimed.

Peiken: In the vernacular. Right.

Songfacts: Before your song, rappers started putting it in as a derogatory term and gangsta rap was filled with it.

Peiken: And now it's a compliment. "My bitches, my girlfriends." It's a term of endearment now. If I had anything to do with that, I am grateful.

Meredith and I, I don't think we had a plan. We didn't say, "Let's use the word 'bitch' and see if we can make it into a term of endearment in 20 years." We just used it as a way to describe a complicated woman - a woman with many different sides of her personality. That was it. We didn't have this big calculus.

The label at the time was trying to figure out a way to get radio to play it and they were thinking they were going to have to bleep out the word, but K-Rock put it on and then it caught fire. I think at the time it was pretty shocking, but when you think about it now, that word is sort of beige. It's just as common as the word "love" and it goes by without a hitch. It's been disarmed.

The language in pop music right now is so much more risky than it ever was, and every word we use that wasn't accepted the year before makes it all the more so.

Songfacts: Sometimes when you're writing with an artist, that artist is drawing from their inner self, and one of those examples is "Who You Are," at least that's what Jessie J said about that song. Can you talk about that session and what it was like working with her in such a vulnerable place?

Peiken: Jessie knows what she wants, and she knew how she felt that day. Something really peculiar happened: When I opened up my journal to write that day, the first title that was listed of the things I might throw out for that session, was the title "Who You Are," but she threw it out first like she read my mind or my journal, so she ran with it.

When you're writing with someone like Jessie and you have someone like Toby Gad on an acoustic guitar - and he is an incredible, emotional player who comes up with extremely tasty progressions and inversions and voicings - and you have someone like Jessie who knows what she wants to say and she's got ingredients and she's got words, you have to give them space. I threw a word in, a phrase in here and there, and I was certainly in the room and part of that energy, but I wasn't going to be as assertive with myself as I would be for an artist that wasn't really a writer but was in the room because they wanted their name on the song. So, she just put it out there and we helped decorate it - she's pretty amazing.

After we finished that song I thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to call it 'Blur Of The Stars.'" I thought that that was a more indie, kind of edgy title, but I was outvoted.

Songfacts: That does sound like a better title.

Peiken: "Blur Of The Stars," just a little more left of center.

Songfacts: Yeah, and it kind of pops, but not every title is going to be distinctive. Mandy Moore's "I Wanna Be With You" comes to mind. Can you talk about writing that song?

Peiken: Yes. Debbie Patton, who was working with Sony Pictures at the time, wanted to use a song for the movie Center Stage that Keith Thomas wrote with Tiffany Arbuckle. They didn't love all the words, but felt that the mood of the song fit the scene. So, I was not in the room when the song was born. I sort of "foster-mommed" it. They didn't feel it was quite right, so I "song-doctored" it - that's another term for it.

I took it and I loved the feel of it - it was just delicious. As soon as I heard it I wanted to write to it. My daughter Layla was a baby at the time, and she was napping, so I put my headphones on and I just paced and paced around in my backyard while she slept and I had the monitor close by. I wrote most of the words - Tiffany wrote some - and they loved it. And Mandy just sounded so beautiful and sweet singing it.

Five of the songs on my album I call "reinterpretations of my hits," and the other half are songs no one has ever heard before. But I did not include "I Wanna Be With You" because it's so sweet and I didn't know what to do with it. But just last week, I thought, with all the creepy shows on TV and the stalking movies, what if we did something really eerie with the hook, like [singing eerily and slowly] I wanna be with you. Just really haunting. I went over to Eve's and we did this little interlude of a phone message of somebody singing that hook in a really creepy way, like they're headed over to your house to kill you. I think we're going to put it on there. That song means a lot to me and I don't want it forgotten - I don't want it to think I don't love it or it didn't matter, because it did.



Songfacts: What do you need in your toolkit to be a song doctor?

Peiken: Years and heart. You listen to something and you go, "Why don't they like this lyric? What don't I like about it? Do I even agree with whoever sent it to me that doesn't like it?"

There's part of me that says, "I might not agree with it but if I don't make this lyric more what they want, they're going to call somebody else." Half of this business, Carl, is your heart and soul, and half is because you want to survive to make a living. When I was sent "Come On Over Baby," I actually thought that the lyric on the verses was fine. Could I better it? Maybe. Could I write something that they liked better? Yes, because I did. I also didn't say, "OK, now I want 90% of the song because I made it work." I've always been very fair when I song doctor, and I would hope that if I send a song out because I just need a new perspective or a fresh look, that they would do the same for me. So, I just think you need to hear something and have perspective and then use your heart and say what feels better here.

Songfacts: Do you need any particular musical gifts?

Peiken: Not if you're toplining. I don't think you need to be able to play an instrument if you're toplining, which is writing a melody and a lyric. If you're good at that, you just vibe with the track or the music you're given.

I've only song doctored lyrics. I've never been asked to take something back into the studio and rearrange the music, or re-chord-configure the music. It's always been lyrics, and that's more of a feel. I don't want to say that if you're a topliner you're not a musician, but you're not playing an instrument. So, there's a bit of a difference there.

Songfacts: What is a song by another artist that had a huge influence on you as a songwriter?

Peiken: "I Touch Myself" - Billy Steinberg's song with Divinyls. I thought it was hooky, it was clever, and her vocals were amazing. Women wanted to stand in front of the mirror with their hairbrush and their underwear like Risky Business and sing it. And it was edgy. It was risky because you were talking about something that nobody ever said before.

My favorite songs are universal concepts written with a unique point of view. That was a song that any of us could relate to, but nobody ever said it that way, and that's what I strive for when I write.

Songfacts: Is there one of your songs that you can point to that has one of these universal concepts with a unique point of view in particular?

Peiken: I'd say "Bitch" does. "Almost Doesn't Count" does. There's a song called "Stumble" that Natasha Bedingfield recorded that I always loved. I wrote it with Greg Wells, and it's a song about just being so into somebody, knowing they're into you, and they're just stumbling over their own feelings. I never heard that written with the girl calling out the guy for stumbling on the words all the time.

If I'm writing generically or with a lot of cliché, I'm going to be so bored that I would just rather give it a rest. I have to admit, and you can call me an "OK Boomer," that algorithms have made so much material sound the same, taking it out of that unique point-of-view. Musically, so many songs sound the same to me. I wish people would pay less attention to them. I think that's why we have so many people suing each other: because they're listening to algorithms instead of something we've never heard before.

Songfacts: But don't you have to follow the trends when you are a professional songwriter?

Peiken: Have to? No. But it is smart in many ways because you're not going to get added to playlists in many cases unless you do fit in with an algorithm. But that said, the artists who really shine and break out with a huge force are the ones that don't. Billie Eilish, I feel her sound is extremely reminiscent of Julia Michaels and Lorde, but those songs she's writing with her brother Finneas are pretty unique. Adele was really unique. Lorde was really unique when she was the first one out with that sound, and they really made a splash and had more lasting power.

It's hard to say whether we're ever going to have artists again that we're going to be talking about 40 years down the line like our Elton Johns and our Bruce Springsteens. Do those artists even have a chance because they don't fit in with algorithms? But, if they get past that test, they do make a bigger mark, and I think they get a lot more respect.

Songfacts: What is the most important book in your life?

Peiken: The Alchemist. It's a beautiful book. It was translated I believe from Portuguese, Paulo Coelho. It's a simple story about a young boy who has a dream and he ventures out to make that dream come true. And because he believes in it so strongly, the universe conspires and jumps into a channel, and conspires with him to make it come true. But every few days or so when he has doubt about it, the universe pulls back. And then when he wakes up the next day all refreshed and believes in it again, the universe conspires with him. I think that's a wonderful lesson for life, for love, for dreams. It's about believing so strongly and yet letting go at the same time.

Songfacts: Where do these songwriting sessions you speak of take place?

Peiken: My house. Your house. A hiking trail. A car. A cul-de-sac. A beach. Anywhere two songwriters are doing what they do.

Songfacts: Is it like Nashville where there is this web of publishers and musicians and writers that all interconnect and arrange meetings?

Peiken: It didn't used to be that way in LA. We never had our publishers schedule our co-writes. Once in a while they arranged a co-write, but generally our everyday calendar was done by us. When technology made it possible for there to be so many other people that called themselves songwriters - it wasn't like you needed to write a whole lyric to be included in the game, you could just write phrases along with a bunch of other people in the room - it became necessary for us to be managed, and that's when a lot of the scheduling was taking place with managers more so than publishers.

Publishers probably more so in Nashville. Nashville has always been more highly scheduled - writers for years had two or three sessions a day. In LA it didn't used to be that way. Now I'd say if you're a hot writer and you're with a major publisher and you have a manager looking after you, you are going to have a session, if not two, every day. That's not my life anymore, by choice as well as just a natural course of events, but I observe it and I see it.

Songfacts: Who is your biggest influence as a songwriter?

Peiken: Laura Nyro. Burt Bacharach. Karla Bonoff. Daryl Hall. Billy Joel. Carly Simon. There's a lot of artists and songwriters I love who are more current, but my influences are writers that I was listening to when I was coming up - people whose music spurred me on to do the same. Carole King.

Songfacts: Last thing I have for you, Shelly. Could you tell me about one of your most memorable songwriting sessions, whether or not it produced a song?

Peiken: Well, it was probably my session with Meredith because that song went to #2. "What A Girl Wants" a couple of years later went #1, but "Bitch" was my first hit, and we had no idea what we had done that day. We loved it, but there were other songs I loved too that just went unnoticed.

It was just the two of us in a room, without any backing track, without a beat going on. She had an acoustic guitar in her lap, and it was just like ping pong. It was line, line, line, line, line. It was like we chaneled this song from the sky, and it was just like song sex. I say that because it's funny, but it's also the exact truth - when you are writing a song with somebody that you're just feeling is working, when you're moving together, you're accommodating each other, it's like an orgasm, it's like an eargasm.

She ran off to a session, got the song demoed by a friend of hers who lived a couple of miles up the hill in the canyon, and she was signed the next day and they released it a few months later. But when I remember that day, it was just so innocent and pure. We were doing it for all the right reasons, without a big plan, and that's when the best things happen. So, that would be the one.

Songfacts: It spent four weeks at #2. Held off by Puff Daddy, who was up there for 11 weeks [with "I'll Be Missing You"]. That song just kept going.

Peiken: It kept going. You know, I was pregnant when "Bitch" was a huge hit and my rationalization, and I still believe it, was that the universe was trying to tell me, "Girl, you're having a baby. That's going to be your #1, your music is going to be your #2, so get used to it." And then my baby came, I accepted that message from the universe, and then I had a #1 song with "What A Girl Wants." So, I feel like it was the belief and then it was the letting go.

April 8, 2020

Shelly goes into detail on "What A Girl Wants" in our They're Playing My Song series. Her website is shellypeiken.com.

Other interviews you might like:

Ellen Shipley ("Heaven Is A Place On Earth")
Charlotte Caffey of The Go-Go's
Billy Steinberg

photos: Aerin Moreno (1), Dia Morgan (2), Bill Delvin (3)

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