ROW WRITERS: Alissa Moreno
Once upon a time, a place known as Music Row had a door wide open to those who had talent, desire and a respect for the craft of songwriting. Country music was more or less a cottage industry, and the stakes and money at play were nowhere near to what they are today. Unpolished songwriters knocked on doors, and the doors would open, and the people might laugh after the doors were closed, but these unknowns could walk in and jaw and pitch their songs to publishers.
In the late 1970s, Music Row went through a minor face-lift, with money and influence moving in from Los Angeles and New York. Films such as Urban Cowboy and the success of many crossover hits meant that the checks, which had been relatively small, now had the potential to be huge. As Nashville cashed in, the country music radio stations mushroomed to nearly the same number as the pop stations.
As song publishers began making big money, the conglomerates swallowed up the major record labels and bought out publishing houses, creating their own in-house labels to get in on the deal. When the sensational Garth Brooks set all kinds of record sales, publishers got woozy and began paying higher advances to more writers, resulting in a glut of talent and material. Then, the bubble burst.
Today, the bubble is growing again. More and more young singers are getting record deals. Just as in the halcyon days of the 1960s, veteran writers are working with young writers and artists, crafting and pitching tunes and getting the right management involved. In some ways, it is reminiscent of earlier established artists, publishers and producers getting behind someone they believed in and liked personally, such as singer/songwriters Mel Tillis, Roger Miller and Waylon Jennings. Just like the old days, their success varies, despite the support.
The Age of the Internet has spawned dozens of talented, technologically skilled newcomers making names for themselves while bypassing the major labels. Even the names conjure memories of the long-gone record companies such as Bullet, Hickory and Bluebird.
So things change and the pendulum swings back. But not everything changes on Music Row. Writers still get in a room with an idea, and that’s where it all begins. When you come down to it, there still remains the same nervous energy and the same excitement of near anarchy that has always defined the Nashville writer experience. Maybe, it really started with The Fugitive poets at Vanderbilt. Or the tavern singers on Dickerson Road. No matter. The old temptations, tragedies and heartaches are all still there . . . and all of those things are still going to make country songs.
Let’s listen in as four of today’s hot tunesmiths share a bit of their craft: Nashville’s own Wynn Varble, Lee Thomas Miller and Rodney Clawson, and pop-country stylist Alissa Moreno, who takes turns writing on the West Coast and in Music City.
Singer/songwriter Alissa Moreno commutes between Los Angeles and Nashville, keeping one foot in pop and one in country music.
Born on a Navajo Indian reservation in New Mexico, she later moved to Hawaii where her jazz musician grandfather encouraged her to develop her piano, guitar and vocal skills. She released her first album, In Your Wake, last year on her own Pi Records label. The first single, “Far From Here,” is the theme to Lifetime’s Army Wives. She also co-wrote and helped perform the theme to ABC’s sitcom Hope and Faith.
With Jeffrey Steele, Moreno co-wrote the Grammy-nominated Rascal Flatts hit “Every Day.” She has collaborated with tunesmiths Brett James, Big Al Anderson, Jamie Houston and Beau Dozier, and with artists Colbie Caillat, Vertical Horizon, Fastball and Javier.
Moreno served as vocal coach for Ben Affleck on the film Hollywoodland. An actress herself, she created and starred in the short film Super Chicks.
Do your roots in both Navajo and Hawaiian cultures come through in any of your mainstream songs?
I guess I would say yes. Not necessarily on a detectable level, but it certainly influences my writing and my views on life.
What brought you to Nashville to write?
I was working on a film at that time as an actor, and they wanted to record a song of mine, “Every Day.” I came out just to cut that record and a couple of other demos for the film that never happened. It was pure luck and coincidence. I’ve been coming here ever since.
Are the publishing deals for songwriters better or worse today than then?
I don’t know for sure. I had a big hit before I signed with a major publisher. I was very lucky. From what I hear, the deals are financially smaller than they used to be. People aren’t willing to take as big a risk anymore on new writers.
Can you tell the story behind writing “Every Day”?
We were at a songwriting expo in Colorado, and Jeffrey Steele wanted to get together before his sound check. They had a beautiful piano, and I had had that music for a long time, but was not clear where to go with it. When I played him the hook, he said, “I know exactly what to do with that. I’ve been thinking about this chorus for a long time.” From that point it was under an hour and we were off to the races with it.
Does being nominated for Grammys make it easier to sell your songs?
It makes it easier to have people take your phone call.
Where do you find co-writers?
I’ve met many great writers at the Durango Songwriter’s Expo. Between management and now my publisher, they help find a good match for me.
Is there any difference in songwriter sessions in L.A. compared to those in Nashville?
Yeah, way different. In Nashville, often we talk about the song and have a lyric and a title before we’re even thinking about the music. I rarely have that experience in L.A. There we are always going for a sound or a vibe or a track.
Where do you find the inspiration for song ideas?
Life. Always life.
You’ve had a number of songs on TV. How did you get theme for the TV series Hope and Faith?
The producers called my partner and told him they wanted something along the lines of “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” but they wanted it to be really cool and cutting-edge. So what we thought of at that time as cutting-edge and new was Avril Lavigne meets Green Day, and it worked. Then we threw in the word “sisters.”
You’ve given vocal lessons to Ben Affleck. Could he make it as a country artist?
You know, he’d be great. He’s so charming, so bright, and he absolutely cares about all the people he meets on a daily basis.