Ben Cooper grew up in the magnificent city that is Fort Wayne, IN. When the songwriting bug bit him he moved to Nashville, TN, where he earned a degree in audio engineering from Belmont University. With both his natural and aquired skill, and a bit of deserved luck, Ben signed a songwriting deal with Bobby Rymer at Writers Den Music Group.
Ben Cooper is one of the most promising young songwriters today. Teaming with Gordon Kennedy, Cooper’s stardom has been rising in the music industry after his collaboration with songwriter Kennedy led to a Grammy nomination for Ricky Skaggs’ CD Mosaic. Eight of the fourteen songs on Mosaic were co-written by Cooper and Kennedy. He also gives popular workshops, sharing his knowledge and insights. As a one-man show, Ben is a full time producer, performer, musician and songwriter.
Ben’s latest album, the Beatlesque “The Way I See Her“, is produced by Godon Kennedy, and includes guest musician Ricky Skaggs.
Ben, we were introduced by a mutual friend, Cliff Goldmacher, he suggested strongly that we would enjoy a chat with you – he was right. Your story would be inspiring for any new, or for that matter veteran songwriters. Tell us a little of your journey and where you come from.
After growing up in Fort Wayne, IN, I followed my love for songwriting down to Nashville, TN. I got a degree in audio engineering from Belmont University. This education allowed me to produce my own demos for practically no cost. After graduating, I worked some odd jobs that still allowed me to pursue songwriting as a career. A year and a half later, I signed a publishing deal with Bobby Rymer at Writers Den Music Group (which was called Montage Music Group at the time). I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to be mentored by veteran songwriter Gordon Kennedy, who co-wrote Eric Clapton’s Grammy-winning song “Change the World.”
When did you decide to be a songwriter?
I took piano lessons from when I was six years old until I was 17. For the most part, practicing scales and sonatas felt like homework every week. I didn’t hate it, but I also didn’t love it. When I was 14 my parents bought a piano that had MIDI capabilities, allowing me to experiment with some recording and sequencing in an early version of the computer program Cakewalk. I decided that if I could record something, I might as well come up with something worth recording. It was then that I realized the aspect of music that I fell in love with: songwriting.
Your story is not the usual one – tell us about your first stint on the road?
Well, I’ve never officially really toured as a musician. However, I did go out on the road for a few months with Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn as Alan’s mascot. You can find a picture of me with Alan at thesongbirdproject.com (believe me, it’s worth seeing the picture). I attended Belmont University in 2003 with the aspirations of becoming a touring artist. However, by the time I graduated, the only doors that had opened in the music world were in the realm of songwriting (thankfully), and not touring. Riding the bus with Alan’s crew was the experience I needed to confirm that my passion lies in creating music more than performing. I could have easily pursued performing for years before this realization, but thankfully God orchestrated things the way he did.
You’re living in Nashville now – I think folks have the wrong idea about the music and songwriting scene there – tell us about the songwriter and the business of songwriting in Nashville.
I’ve heard legendary stories that a couple decades ago just about anyone who could sign their name on a dotted line could get a publishing deal. I’ve also heard through NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association International) that the number of people writing professionally is about 1/3 of what it was in its heyday. You could make the assumption, then, that there now are at least three times as many people fighting for the full-time songwriting gigs. Nashville can feel totally saturated with talent, which is either inspiring or intimidating. How does a writer stand apart from the crowd? Even more important than showing the basic ability to write a good song, a writer must focus on working well with others. Whether it’s in a co-write or sitting in front of a publisher, humility always prevails over ego. On the business side, the industry as a whole is in an awkward shrinking stage right now, and will continue to be until effective legislation is passed to ensure that creators get paid fairly for their work (thankfully, NSAI is hard at work in Washington). I believe it’s the songwriter who is able to stay focused on creating timeless art that will be able to continue writing as their full-time endeavor.
How did you come to be a pro-songwriter in Nashville?
Diligence and discipline. I believe that showing up is 90% of the battle. I strategically found jobs after graduation that allowed me to continue my pursuit of songwriting. Along with the mascot gig, I took a temp position in the basement of Universal Music Publishing Group to be near songwriters, and after that I worked at Starbucks for a year. Waking up at 3:45 almost every morning to make coffee opened up my afternoons to write. Also, I happened to wait on Ricky Skaggs one day when I was working the cash register, which was a hint of things to come. Through my relationship with BMI (if you aren’t affiliated with a Performing Rights Organization, I would encourage you to do so), I had the opportunity to meet with a few different publishers. Ultimately, I connected with industry veteran Bobby Rymer, who frequently met with me to listen through my most recent songs. After about a year of what basically looked like an internship, he offered me a position as a full-time staff writer. I’ve been with him for the last 2 1/2 years.
Tell us about your work with Gordon Kennedy?
Gordon and I initially met at a songwriting showcase when I was a student at Belmont University. He was the judge and I was a participant. After the event, we exchanged a few emails, but it was another year before we actually got together to write for the first time. We share the same faith along with an appreciation for The Beatles. Our working relationship has grown beyond just songwriting, to the point that Gordon and his wife helped my wife and me move into our home last year. Co-writers don’t do that, but true friends and mentors do.
Is collaborating your preferred way of writing – as opposed to sitting and composing by yourself?
The beautiful thing about co-writing is that you get to walk down a creative path with someone else. Generally, you both find yourselves at a different end than you would have if you had each written alone that day. Where you usually turn left, they want to go straight. Where they would admire the sky, you see the detail of a flower on the ground. Each person brings a unique perspective and set of gifts to a collaboration. Like any close relationship, it can be challenging. But as the Proverb says, iron sharpens iron. We grow from being stretched by other people’s creativity. I still write by myself about once a week, but I prefer working with others. I do think it’s valuable to at least be able to write an entire solid song individually. The best co-writes I’ve been in are between two people who could have each written alone that day but are choosing to work together. Every time I come back to write a song by myself, I clearly see ways that I’ve been stretched by the craft and by other writers.
You play piano – how in your opinion does that differ from a person writing with a guitar?
In my experience, most songwriters play guitar. It’s easier to learn and by far more mobile. But it’s also easier to be content with only strumming chords. On piano you are forced to choose each note you play. I’ve noticed a difference when a musician has a firm grasp of music theory that comes from taking piano or guitar lessons. Instead of just playing mostly chords, individual notes can take center stage. I think the best songs have identifiable intros and musical themes that don’t come through when only the basic chord structure is played. Even though I may not use it in every song, the fundamental understanding of music theory always comes in handy.
You and Gordon co-wrote 8 songs on Ricky Skaggs album ‘Mosaic’, it had you sitting in a seat at the Grammys. How was that for you?
It was an incredible experience and very humbling to be in the presence of so many successful individuals. One of my favorite moments was when Mavis Staples heard the words, “And the Grammy goes to Mavis Staples!” She was only about six seats away from me, and it was inspiring to see a long-time dream finally come true. I’ve realized that my tendency as a human being is to always have some goal (i.e., winning a Grammy) that, unless achieved, will leave me feeling unsuccessful. Don’t get me wrong, I want to win a Grammy, but I think the greater achievement will be having a sustained, enjoyed career writing songs. I don’t care one bit how much money I make, or how well one of my songs does on the charts—I just want to write songs every day.
Your own work is wonderful – where do you put most of your attention – songwriting or performing?
First of all, thank you for the kind compliment! I’ve found that my true passion lies in the creative side rather than performing. Every step I’ve taken toward performing (setting up shows, self promotion, etc.) feels like one step I could have taken toward writing another song. A concert lasts two hours, but a song lives forever. However, in the right situation, I’ve found that being an artist is actually something I enjoy very much. Last year Gordon and I recorded a six-song EP at his home studio, and I am very proud of how that turned out. I joke with people sometimes that I’m only an “iTunes artist,” but I think that could change if a few more doors open—I’d be willing to perform more if the opportunities seem right.
Our readers would also want to know what a fine lit. writer you are – in one of your articles you were discussing writing ‘for an artist’ – as different from ‘writing the best song you can’ when you sit down to write – could you expand on that?
I think there are a few applications here. First, it took me quite some time to grow from only writing songs that I felt comfortable singing, to writing songs that other people could sing. As an artist, I only have to take into account my own style and message, whereas, if I’m hoping someone else will sing my song, I need to take into account how they would sing the melody and say the lyric. I think that most indie artists prioritize how they want to say their message as being more important than how the listener wants to hear it. Writing for someone else means separating myself as the creator and listening to the song as the artist or listener would hear it. Secondly, I know a lot of publishers who ask their writers to target their songs for a specific artist who may be recording in the near future. Problem is, if that artist doesn’t record your tailored song, who else will? I believe we create most naturally and sustainably when there are no external pressures acting on the creative process. I have enough internal pressures as it is! Finally, about a week ago I was sitting down with my publisher discussing a co-write from earlier that day. The situation was that there was an artist from out of town who had come to Nashville to write. Unfortunately, we had an undefined target for the day: I thought we were writing for her as an artist, and she thought we were writing for the Nashville market. What I heard as working with her indie style, she heard crossing over as pop-country. The reality is that it probably won’t work for either.
The material from “Mosaic’ is contemporary Christian music, is that a genre you prefer to work in – or do you write in other genres?
When I was young, my parents told me I could only listen to the local Christian radio station or the oldies station. Pretty quickly (at six or seven years old), I realized there was a band from Liverpool that kept catching my ear. For the next 10 years I collected every Beatles album I could get my hands on. Then, I got into Led Zeppelin, U2, Pink Floyd, Randy Newman, Bruce Hornsby, Crowded House, Coldplay, Jeff Buckley, etc. I would say that only 1 out of every 10 songs I write would have the potential to fall into the Christian market. Surprisingly, even Mosaic, which garnered Grammy nominations for Gospel Album of the Year and Gospel Song of the Year (“Return to Sender” by Gordon Kennedy), apparently didn’t even fit the Christian radio mold. My EP on iTunes, The Way I See Her, is a good representation of what I naturally enjoy writing.
Is your faith important to your artistic expression?
My faith is extremely important when it comes to writing songs. Because I am human, by default, I am messed up and do messed up things. I’m broken. But there is hope when we recognize that we need help. For all the wrong I’ve done, there is One who did it right and His name is Jesus. The chorus of “Instead” from Skaggs’ Mosaic album sums it up best for me: “I am the chief of sinners/Should have been left for dead/My penalty, death on a tree/Jesus paid instead.” This brings me great joy! And because I have this joy I no longer have to look for joy anywhere else. I am naturally bent toward finding my identity in what I do for a living, or how many good things I do each week. But with Jesus, I am free to create art without the pressure of having to prove anything. My life was in the pits and He saved me. Even though I don’t have to prove anything, I serve a God who desires to bring life where there was once death, light out of darkness, wholeness out of brokenness. He did this in my life, and my desire is, through art, to point people to something better than what this world has to offer. There is an infinite number of dead ends in the world, but only one path that leads to life. And there is room for everyone!
How about taking us from first sitting down to write a song – to having it be recorded?
Here’s a basic unfolding of events (with estimated length of time in parentheses):
1. Song is written and turned into publisher
2. Song is demoed (three months after it is written)
3. Publisher pitches song to artists/labels/managers around town (six months)
4. Artist decides to record song (three months)
5. Album gets mixed and label promotes upcoming release (six months)
6. Album is released, and publisher and songwriter look forward to royalties (six-nine months)
Here are some basic general levels of approval that a song has to go through before it could be heard on the radio consistently:
1. The songwriter(s)
2. The publisher(s)
3. The artist’s manager(s)
4. The record label
5. The artist(s)
6. The promotion team
7. The radio DJ(s)
8. The listener(s)
I believe the most important step is the first one. If we don’t write something that we believe in, then why should we expect someone else to believe in it?
What are the essentials a songwriter should learn?
How to humbly serve others in a co-write, how to let the music speak for itself and be your reputation, how to be comfortable performing and making mistakes, how to pour your heart into each and every song without taking criticism personally, how to network effectively by connecting important relationships appropriately, how to keep an ever-growing circle of collaborators organized, how to record a basic work tape, how to be inspired daily, how to rest well, how to find things beautiful and translate those emotions into lyrics and music that make the listener feel the same thing, how to sing things like you would say it, how to not get caught up in quantity over quality, how to be influenced without just regurgitating, how to be your own boss, and how to enjoy the process without waiting for a #1 hit to make you happy. It’s simple, really.
What is the best advice you can give a serious songwriter?
I finish every post on my blog with the sign-off, “Keep writing.” I firmly believe that the best education we can get when it comes to writing songs comes by writing more songs. We learn from taking chances and failing. We learn from trying all over again. Songs are stepping-stones. A publisher told me once that there was a writer who showed potential, but just didn’t quite yet have the right caliber of songs to get any cut. The advice given to that writer was, not to go listen to a certain song or to specifically work on his rhyming or music, but to come back after they had written 200 more songs. 200! As crazy as it sounds, I think the publisher’s advice holds water. Over the past few years (after writing 200 more songs myself) I’ve realized that I’ve grown more from just writing more and more songs than I have from anything else. Only by writing more songs will I grow out of my mistakes.
Dave and I were very excited about your ‘Songbird Project’ – please tell us about it.
The Songbird Project (thesongbirdproject.com) is a blog that exists to promote the craft of songwriting through shared experiences from the creative journey and by pointing to timeless art in culture. Being mentored by Gordon gives me the desire to continue passing on truths that I learn writing everyday. I know how important it is to a craft like songwriting to be passed down through relationships. The blog is a way that I can communicate with people all over the world who may benefit from something I’ve learned and shared. If I can help one person enjoy music and continue growing in the craft of songwriting, my joy is complete.
After reading your bio and finding coffee so very important myself – is there a connection between good coffee with hazelnut creamer and successful songwriting?
Very much so! I think it’s important for each person to find rhythm in everyday life. For me, I enjoy waking up and having a cup of coffee while I read and pray. That seems to set me up well for a day of creating. Also, I think there’s something to be said about experiencing life through the senses. For me, the smell of coffee can have the same effect as hearing warm-up music before a big game.
Thank you Ben for doing this interview – I hope we can do it again when next you are sitting in your seat at the Grammys.
Thanks so much for having me, and please feel free to get in touch with me through The Songbird Project (thesongbirdproject.com). I also want to invite each and every person reading this to join us on a songwriting retreat in October. Gordon Kennedy and other industry professionals will be joining us just outside of Nashville to discuss the realities of the creative pursuit of writing songs. Please visit SongbirdCamp.com for more details.
Enjoy a Couple of Ben’s Songs:
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