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RSR044 – Jim Reilley – How To Write A Song For Music Row (Or Not)

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RSR044 – Jim Reilley - How To Write A Song For Music Row (Or Not)

My guest today is Jim Reilley, a songwriter, producer, and recording artist from Nashville TN. I’ve known Jim for years as an incredibly prolific songwriter, and have been Jim’s recording engineer when he was producing for the artist Stephanie Quayle.

Jim’s band The New Dylans with Reese Campbell started back to 1986 when they recorded with the rhythm section of 10,000 maniacs and landed critical acclaim for their “folk rock” sound. Michael Stipe of REM called them one of his top ten bands for 1986. The New Dylans continued through breakups and makeups over the decades that follow, and have more recently released a new album called Meta, with Robert Reynolds of The Mavericks, and Ken Coomer of Wilco.

The New Dylans - [Can't Go Home] Again

Jim moved to Nashville in 1998 and landed a publishing deal with Curb Publishing where he wrote songs for nearly a decade. Over 45 of Jim’s songs were recorded by artists including Vince Gill, Hal Ketchum, Jack Ingram, Tim O’Brien, Sam Bush, and many others.

I know Jim from the studio as a producer, where he is also very prolific, and is often producing sessions back to back. He has a no bullshit fast and fearless production style that demands great performances from the musicians, and might track more than 10 songs in a single day.

I split my personality in half where I’m partially writing songs, partially producing songs, and partially perform and make records on my own”

Jim Reilley


The words on some of the songs that really inspired me, it’s amazing that there’s only like two verses and a small chorus. Here in Nashville everyone’s like, “You got to have a bridge and the second chorus has to be different...” Not really. Some of the songs are so small and brevity is really important. I also feel like in the studio, knocking them out quick doesn’t always work. You don’t always have the luxury of having a great engineer or great players or great artist. I've always admired and studied the work of Brian Wilson (Beach Boys), George Martin and Geoff Emerick (Beatles). 

"Everyone that wants to get in this business should see this!" - Jim 

What Do You Do When You Produce A Record?

That’s a good question and a lot of artists want to know that too when it comes to money. It’s different for every artist and every production I do is different in one sense and that is that I kind of look at the artist I’m working with and decide how much influence or intervention there should be on my part. Typically an artist that I produce usually I’m a fan of, most always now. A lot of times I’ll just let things happen and then arrest something that isn’t working too well as opposed to getting too heavy handed and oppressive about it. I’ve seen where producers have been that way and it works sometimes, but I don’t like to be that guy. My whole philosophy when I produce somebody is I always say... What I’d like for you to do is have a record where you can meet a random stranger in an airport and after they ask, “Well what do you do, what are you all about?” You just hand them the cd and you don’t have to say anything else. This is the kind of music I do. I don’t have to say, ‘Eh it’s kind of folky poppy, but it’s blues and it’s cajun.. The music will speak for itself. If I did my job right, then they are proud enough to give that without having to say, “Well the producer wanted me to do this, but I didn’t want to.” I’ve had so many people give me projects that they’ve done where they’ve had to qualify virtually every song on the record. I just want to listen to it. It does me no good to produce something for someone that they aren’t happy with because ultimately I want them to be proud of it and give them what they ask me for in the first place.

What About Your Internal Process of Inspiration, How Do You Approach That?

I don’t like to script a lot of stuff so much because then I feel like I’m kind of tethered to that, but it does help when you’re trying to move fast. Sometimes you do need to hear it to know it’s wrong. I’ll be the first one to do an experiment and say, “this probably isn’t going to work, but for me can you just take two minutes and try this.” I’ll never be a guy who says, “No, absolutely not, we can’t do that.” After I hear it and it’s terrible well then I’ll say that, but until then I always like to try. 

“I’ll never be a guy who says, “No, absolutely not, we can’t do that” - Jim Reilley @BuddyCruel

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What are the Basics of Copyright?

That’s a tricky thing. So much music is so easy to get to now. That even trickles down here in Nashville to even playing the songs live. A publisher will tell a songwriter, “well don’t play that at the Bluebird because someone else will hear it and rip it off.” Half of me is like, well maybe. That does happen, it’s happened to me! But at the same time where are you going to play? What are you going to do? Just be careful. As a writer you have to have this sort of attitude that well if they want to take it and do it better, let them try. For Youtube, I would try it as long as it’s copyrighted. There’s form PA and form SR. From PA is the actual copyright of the song. So you write the words and the music, that is a copyright for that song. Form SR is the form of the sound recording. It copyrights the recording, not the song. You can do multiple songs so basically if you do a record you copyright the whole record on form SR for one price. Whereas form PA you send a recording of the words and music with a lyric sheet. Some people will mail it to themselves so they have the postmark on it, but it’s just safer to do through the copyright office (You can do all of this online) Then your song is copy written! If you have some crazy mojo on this vocal or crazy guitar sounds you came up with that's really exclusive to your song, use copyright form SR so the sound of the song is copy written. A lot of times there’s so much music going on that just getting noticed is a success story these days

What Makes a Great Song?

That really depends on a lot of factors. I don't really think anyone knows, maybe paul mccartney might know. I think everyone knows when they hear one. To me a great song can be the riff, it could be the hook, it could be the melody, it could be the drum part. When I produce artists I ask them to make me a list of songs either for spotify or on a CD of what songs they love and why. What about that song do you love? Is it the vibe, is it the mood, is it the drum pattern, is it the vocal? So it helps me do shorthand. So we go into the studio together and make a record without having to explore all those options (we do sometimes), but this way I know what you do and do not like going in.

“If I get writer's block, I’ll go back and look at the things that influenced me” - Jim Reilley @BuddyCruel

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Jam Session 

Q - What was holding you back at the start?
A - Probably my lack of knowledge or my insecurity. I was kinda like I don’t really know what’s going on. The only thing I learned was that no one knows what’s going on, so just go for it.

Q- What was some of the best advice you got early on?

A- Musically as a songwriter. Roger Sovereign who was at the time the head of BMI. When I first got here 20 years ago, I met with him and he loved what I was doing he said, “There’s two kinds of songwriters that come to Nashville. One that comes here and looks around and says, ‘Oh Shit!’ and goes back home. And the other looks around and says, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’” After that, there’s two decisions you have to make. You either become a songwriter that writes for the market and is a co-writer and writes specific songs for a specific type of role, or you just write songs. Chances are the writer that writes for that specific need is probably going to be a lot richer and a lot better off monetarily, but not necessarily as a fulfilled artist. So you kind of have to decide are you going to be the writer that writes for the market and notices all the trends and not necessarily writing a lot from the heart, or do you just write songs and hope they get home.

“I think getting cuts in Nashville is tough and it’s getting harder and harder” -Jim Reilley @BuddyCruel

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Q- Share with us a recording tip, hack, or secret sauce.
A -  Doubled vocals, old school. I love a doubled chorus. I love little ear tricks, ear candy, so it’s not so much about you must always use this converter or this microphone. That being said an SM7 goes a long way for a vocal mic. There’s also no replacement for a well tuned drum set. There’s a lot of great records that sound like hell because the drums aren’t tuned right. You know there’s some great drummers in town that know how to tune a kit and its magic when it’s tuned right.

Q - Share a favorite hardware tool for the studio
 The SM7 is one of my favorite mics. There’s so many people that do mic shoot outs. You know who didn’t do those? The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. I think its kind of silly in a way, just sing into the microphone that’s there and make it work. That being said, the SM7 is pretty rugged and a universal mic so is a U87, but you can’t really go wrong on that on vocals for almost everybody.

Q - Share a favorite software tool for the studio

A -I guess I would say Abbey Road Samples on Reason. Those are amazing and they sound great and fit into a track really well. Its funny a lot of times those fit better into a track than a real piano.

“Being a people person is really an important qualification to being a producer” - Jim Reilley @BuddyCruel

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Q - What are some tools that are part of the writing and creative process that are really useful to you?

A - It’s really hard to get away from the iphone. There’s a thing called music memos with drums and everything. It doesn’t lock in all the time, but I love it! I also use the guitar toolkit app, it’s like $10. I use a lot of open tunings and it allows me to list and catalog every open tuning I have. Basically you just write in the notes and you can hear the strum.

Q - Whats a process for you for capturing a song?

A - It’s difficult for me because I can’t read music, so I can’t write down notation and stuff like that and I don’t read number charts. I just memorize the songs. That requires a lot of mind work on my part, but it’s the only way I know how to do it.

“Sometimes that’s what makes the great song, the wrongness of it” - Jim Reilley @BuddyCruel

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Q - If you had to start over what gear would you need? How would you find people to record? And how would you make ends meet while you got started?

A - It wouldn’t probably be much different. I would have to find a studio that I could work with and camp at. I don’t really have the mind to find a rig. I guess I’m not a studio rockstar just more of a pretender. I admire it, I appreciate it, and I know enough. But I would have to find a good place that I would be comfortable in to create. If I did have to get something that I would have to have at home, I would get a good laptop and someone to show me how to use ProTools.

Q - What is the single most important thing a listener can do to become a rockstar of the recording studio?

A - Listen a lot. So much time is spent on creating and that’s really important too, but make your music. Make it so you like it. Please yourself. It’s not really about anything other than pleasing yourself at this point. But at the same time I think it’s really important to listen to what has come before. So you know what not to do, or what to violate, or what to emulate, because you’re not the first one doing this. It’ll inform you in a lot of ways.

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Big Thanks to Tyler Cuidon & Merissa Marx for this week's episode!!