Tina Shafer

by Carl Wiser

Tina runs the New York Songwriters Circle, whose exemplar is Jesse Harris, the man who wrote the Norah Jones hit "Don't Know Why."

Also a vocal coach and songwriter ("Love Is On The Way" from The First Wives Club soundtrack), Tina has a unique understanding of what it takes to both create and perform a successful song. She shared some of her insights on the craft, and told us how she helped Lana Del Rey overcome her biggest roadblock to stardom.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Looking over some of the folks that you've coached vocally - Avril Lavigne, Vanessa Carlton, Lana Del Rey - I notice that they are also songwriters. Is there a connection there?

Tina Shafer: I'm a songwriter myself, so people know I've been on both sides of the table.

Songfacts: But you don't teach the songwriting and the vocals at the same time, that's a completely separate practice?

Shafer: Oh, absolutely. No, this is primarily for vocal coaching. I worked with Vanessa and I worked for a short time with Avril Lavigne when she was first starting out. And Lana I worked with vocally, but I also worked with her on stage fright. Definitely not the song thing.

Songfacts: So tell me about the stage fright thing.

Shafer: [Laughs] Well, I think that it's really hard when all of the sudden your career takes off and you are catapulted onto various stages with lots of eyeballs watching. It's just terrifying for people.

You can become so popular overnight now with the Internet, and with Lana, she really had an Internet explosion. She's this really insular artist; she's very deep and she wasn't prepared for the amount of attention and amount of performing at the level of which she all of a sudden was forced to do. The risks are higher and the stakes are higher, and I think it just was terrifying on stage.

She's certainly not alone in feeling that way. Many, many famous artists have suffered - Carly Simon, Linda Ronstadt - lots of people suffer from stage fright. Even I suffer from stage fright.

Songfacts: Were you working with her before she became famous?

Shafer: Actually, she played at my showcase the summer before she really catapulted into stardom. She had two managers at the time, and they called me in to work with her in the fall as "Video Games" was just taking off like crazy. So I was working with her as she was literally taking off. It was just so wild to watch.

Songfacts: I had a chance to speak with a guy that worked with Paula Abdul on her first album and was asking about how he could work with her voice. He explained that with the right processing, in a studio environment, you could make her sound really good. Now, Lana Del Rey does not have what you would consider a classic voice. Can you talk about what you did to work with her to make what she has work?

Shafer: The way I work with all my students is I work with one technique and they can do with it whatever style of music they want to. But I really teach how the voice functions, I show them what it looks like, how the vocal cords vibrate. Like how you would know your instrument if you were a guitarist or a violinist. I really teach them how the structure of the voice works.

I work based around the Bel Canto technique along with just a lot of other things I've learned over the years through various doctors I've worked with and through having taught for 22 years. You learn techniques to work with various students. I believe in having a really solid technique before going into any studio and certainly before touring, because touring can really rip your voice up if you don't know what you're doing.

So I'm not an engineer that goes in there and modifies sound. That's not who I am at all. I'm someone that really teaches you your instrument, and hopefully you have to do a lot less work in the studio. With someone that knows their voice there's very little to do, really, for an engineer.

Songfacts: Well, can you identify strengths and weaknesses with certain artists? Like Avril Lavigne, can you say what she does really well as opposed to what she doesn't do well?

Shafer: Sure. Every person that walks in that door is a unique person and they have a unique set of challenges. So my job is to diagnose what people bring to me and where their weaknesses are and where their strengths are and work with them from there. Avril was born with what I call a natural inclination to sing. Just a natural ability to sing. Her vocal technique was really like taking a camera lens and focusing it - she had so much there to work with. And other people you have to build brick by brick and they can get to great places, too. But it's just a longer, more studied road.

Songfacts: What about Lana Del Rey, what were the challenges with her?

Shafer: Well, with Lana I would say that she has a natural, beautiful sound. But she was just so terrified. I was trying to get her to not be so afraid to make a sound.

The great thing about Lana, she has this beautiful deep speaking voice. So she's written tailor-made a lot of her songs around a comfortable speaking voice area of her voice. If you notice "Video Games" or "Young and Beautiful" or "Blue Jeans," those songs are very, very low. They're like her natural speaking voice, so she doesn't have to be belting high Bs and Cs and Ds, like Christina Aguilera would do. But she's been very aware of working around what her natural ability is. And then my job was just to make sure that she's safe and strong in that.

Songfacts: That's very interesting. Tell me about writing the song "Love Is On The Way."

Shafer: Well, I wrote that with my ex-husband Peter Zizzo, who I'm still very close friends with. He's a writer/producer. And Denise Rich, who was actually in charge of a publishing company that we were signed to with Ric Wake at the time. We wrote that song originally for another student of mine, Billy Porter, who recently won the Tony Award for Kinky Boots. Billy was an unknown singer at the time, and I had introduced him to Ric Wake and Denise and got him a deal in A&M Records. This was going to be his first single - "Love Is On The Way" was his original single.

We had sung it at a party that Denise had for Bette Midler to raise money for the parks. Bette was standing in front of me and heard the song and wrote on her cocktail napkin, "Can you please submit this song to The First Wives Club," which was a $100 million grossing film, which was so amazing. Because I had tried for years to get songs to Bette Midler, banged on the door and nothing ever happened. And here we were at this party and we sung the song at the party thinking no one's ever going to listen to us, and she was listening. That is really how I got my first break, is through Bette Midler and Billy Porter singing that song.

My ex-husband Peter produced it along with Ric, and that later went on to also be a track for Celine Dion on her album Let's Talk About Love, the one that has the Titanic song on it.

Songfacts: When you write these songs, do they have any personal meaning for you, or are you strictly trying to get yourself a hit?

Shafer: Any song that I write comes from a really deep place of who I am.

I came into the studio with the introduction to that song. I had some thoughts and feelings about moving on in my life. I had recently gone through a breakup, and that was the seed of that song.

Peter, when we wrote together, I would come up a lot with the verses and he would come in with a killer chorus, which he certainly did with that song. But yes, to answer your question, they all come from a deeply personal place. A kind of place that's much further ahead of where I am, actually. My songs are smarter than I am, let me say that.

Songfacts: That's a good way to put it. Did Jesse Harris perform "Don't Know Why" at the Songwriters Circle before Norah Jones got to it?

Shafer: Yeah. Jesse used to perform it. I love Jesse Harris. He was a student of mine for a couple of years. He used to play that song and I used to look at him and say, "You are like the Woody Allen of songwriting." He would just write these beautiful vignettes. They were so unique and so poetic. He used to play that at the Circle; he used to play at the Circle all the time, he and Richard Julian before he met Norah. And then when they went out to the University of North Texas, Norah was kind of their tour guide when they went to the school out there to perform. He brought Norah back with him - she was totally unsigned at the time. Yeah, he played that song long before she sang it. But how lucky that she did.

Songfacts: In hindsight it's easy to say that is a wonderful song, and it just takes some promotion and the right voice to make it a hit. But when he was performing it in front of 20 people, did you have any sense for if that song had the hit potential?

Shafer: That's the golden question, isn't it? I feel like I do have a gift for hearing great songs and great artists. I don't know what that thing is in you that recognizes another soul's talent, but I do feel I have that. I've certainly been wrong, but I heard Jesse as a special talent. Whether it's a hit song, you and I both know there are so many variables that go into making that. But you certainly know if it's a great song. That's what I can say.

Songfacts: Do established artists ever show up at the Songwriting Circle?

Shafer: I will have what are called Profile Nights, and that's when a lot of them show up. But most artists who are high profile are too busy to just drop in. But when I do have unknown artists that are performing, a lot of their friends come to support them.

Songfacts: In terms of the Songwriting Circle, you always hear about how this kind of stuff goes on in Nashville all the time and it's very common, a great way for people to get together and swap songs. How is the vibe in the New York songwriting scene?

Shafer: That's a great question. Like The Bluebird in Nashville, it was really devised to be something in New York that gave a community for artists. That was in 1991, so it's my 23rd year running it, and I would say it's always had such a great vibe. It's a community, and with New York there's just so little of that - the arts are so lonely. Let's face it, it's a lonely life being a writer. So when people come together, I find that almost every artist is warm and embracing. They're not as up to singing on each other's songs as they are in Nashville, because everybody kind of knows each other's work down there, it's a smaller community. But these people embrace each other here. And a lot of stuff has come out of the Circle. Even marriages have come out of the Circle.

July 24, 2013.
Get more at tinashafer.net and songwriters-circle.com.

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Comments: 1

  • Jannie Mariie from Atlanta, TxWhat an interesting interview!

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