On Jon and Richie’s Writing process:
Richie said their songwriting process is the same as it always was: “a couple of guitars or a piano and a rickety old cassette tape recorder.” The audience laughed when he and Jon said almost at the same time, “Because we don’t know how to work anything else!”
(“Who Says You Can’t Go Home” was written at the kitchen table, with the above-mentioned rickety tape recorder.)
Richie went on: “I come from the adage that you can’t polish sh*t. If we sang ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ right here a capella, it still sounds like a good song.”
Jon and Richie’s process is to come up with the song title first, then come up with a chord progression that fits the mood of the title, then go back and do lyrics last. Said Jon: “It was never about jamming for hours and saying, ‘I like that chord’.”
Richie said when he writes, he keeps the artist who will sing it in mind, and suggests beginning songwriters do the same: “I write for Jon. Think about what artist you’re writing for, and the demographic. See where you’re gonna put it.”***
As an aside, Jon said he sometimes “regret[s] writing some of those high notes!”
Jon said sometimes they get lucky and a song “falls from the sky.” Other times, it doesn’t come so easily. Moderator Erik Philbrook asked how long they stick with writing a song when it's not happening. Jon said they're very stubborn about it because they “never want to be quitters, so even if the song will never make it to the band you try to finish it.” Then he said he'd always wondered if there's a notebook of unfinished Beatles songs, "because the Beatles were aliens from another planet." ...Jon related that he saw Paul McCartney at an event, and he told Sir Paul this--including calling the Beatles “aliens from another planet.” ("It was after a few glasses of wine," said Jon sheepishly.) Jon said to Sir Paul, "There's gotta be a notebook!" Nope, no notebook. OK, what about a song that you struggled with? Sir Paul thought and thought and finally said, "Oh! Yes, there was one! Finally I said, ‘Let's just say 'Beep beep beep beep yeah' and move on."
On Collaborating with other songwriters:
Jon said when he and Richie write together, the strength of their collaboration means “One plus one equals three.” And that adding another collaborator makes it grow even more.
Richie said one of the keys to successful collaborating is to “find the right people who are going to commit” and that it’s about always “working on relationships.”
On the collaborative process in Nashville, Jon said there’s very little ego involved there: “The process of songwriting there is like Chicken Soup for the Soul.”
Asked what producer-songwriter John Shanks brought to the table when they worked with him, Jon quipped: “A.D.D.! Shanks isn’t here because he’s running around the building.” (Richie added that John Shanks works very quickly, and that his studio set-up is complete and efficient, “like a factory. But a factory in a good way.” Jon said, “Maybe more like a mad scientist’s lab” and Richie agreed.)
Jon and Richie said “Bad Medicine,” which they wrote with Desmond Child, was written with Richie standing “in a nasty pool of water” while the band was shooting a Japanese television commercial.
On today’s music industry: Jon said Bon Jovi were fortunate in that with their first two albums they had the opportunity to grow a regional following and “form the voice of the band. The poor kids now, they come off Idol and if you don’t have a number one single out of the box? That’s it. That’s tough.”
Richie added, “Now you don’t get a second chance. The music business is cold…” (and got a huge laugh from the audience because of the face he made, and his timing when he said it).
Regarding Radio Formats and country crossovers in today’s industry, Jon said: “The big corporate entities that own the radio stations have this pigeonhole kind of mentality. And it affected the video era, and what’s happening on television, and then it ultimately takes away personality. What they’re missing there is that country people like rock and roll, and rock and roll people like country music. It’s just the people’s music, and people are affected by a lyric. Take the tag off of it and do the blindfold test and let people hear the music.” This probably got the biggest applause of the afternoon.
Asked what he thinks of downloading, Jon says, “That’s a very good question. But I couldn’t answer it without asking probably ten others that no one seems to have the answers to: How many records were actually downloaded? Did the records turn into hits because of it? If I write a song and it gets to the point where it’s on the record and I’m that proud of it, I want to share it with the world. I want you to hear it any which way you can. But do I know if ASCAP has collected royalties for every digital download? I don’t go crazy worrying about that. But I like to see people get the opportunity to get paid for the craft that they’ve worked so hard at, because it’s our job.”
Advice for songwriters: Jon: “Try to hold onto [your publishing]. Try not to take the short-term, first kind of deals that are given to struggling writers. And that’s not always easy to do. But it is called the music business for a reason.”
On whether a songwriter should move to Nashville (or another music industry center): Jon said it can be “helpful, but not a necessity. Bob Dylan was going to be Bob Dylan in Minnesota or New York.”
On the longevity of their careers: Jon said, “We’ve stayed true to who we were. We didn’t jump on fads or fashions. We’ve been around long enough to have seen the boy band cycle come and go twice…We’ve seen hip hop and grunge come and go. We never pretended to be something we weren’t. You can like it, you can dislike it. But it’s true.”
Jon also added, “The theme of our body of work has had a universal optimism. There’s faith in faith, and hope in hope.”
Asked for insight about how they stay current, Jon said, “It’s not about staying current. It’s about staying true.”
Insight into Jon’s aspirations, and what he wants to accomplish as a songwriter and artist: “I remember back in the 80’s having a conversation with a guy from a young band and saying ‘you don’t understand. Basically your aspirations are to be on the cover of Circus [a popular rock magazine at the time]. Mine are to be on the cover of Time.”
Founder / Editor in Chief, MusicBizAdvice.com
***7/24/14: Due to Richie Sambora's no-show /departure from the 2013 Bon Jovi tour and subsequent interviews in which he appeared to express anger for the resulting consequences, some Richie Sambora supporters have tried to turn a sentence from one paragraph of this ASCAP Report into Richie talking about being a hired gun songwriter for Jon.
I'll be blunt:
That's asinine. ASCAP's "I Create Music Expo" is a songwriter's event. Jon and Richie were there to discuss their writing process, in depth, and members of the media were there in the front row.
I was in the room, sitting in that front row, directly across from Richie when he said it. The people who are trying to create dirt out of my ASCAP report were not there. I know who was in the media row with me. The people who are making this stuff up never seem to remember the "I Create Music Expo" Jon and Richie were at was in Los Angeles (specifically, Hollywood), and that being local, I know who was there.I can assure you, that is not what Richie was saying. And they're doing Jon, Richie, and Desmond Child--who happened to be sitting behind me when Richie said it--a major disservice with that misinterpretation.
When Richie referred to writing for Jon's vocal range when he said "I write for Jon" they'd been talking about how, as writers, it's important for them to go away from each other and then come back to the writing table with fresh ideas and new material, and how sometimes they arrive with songs they'd started individually.
I'd need to get the recording out of a safety deposit box to quote the moderator's exact question, but I'm one of those people with an annoyingly photographic memory for details, so here's what I can tell you:
The moderator wanted to know how, as writers, Jon and Richie determine which will be solo material and which material will be brought together for further collaboration as a band. Richie replied that it's really easy for him, because as soon as he sits down to write, he thinks of who will be singing it. Richie was speaking specifically about writing for Jon's vocal range when he said, "i write for Jon" and then he turned toward the audience of songwriters and gave them the advice about thinking about the artist who will sing it and the demographic.
Jon nodded as if to say, "Yeah, me too" to what Richie said, and that's when Jon added the part about regretting "writing so many high notes" as a young songwriter. Jon got a laugh from the audience when he said it, and one of the times he and Richie said the same thing at the same time was when they both said, "'because you have to actually sing them!" Then they riffed on "Don't write what you can't sing" jokes.
That's it. I remember the "I write for Jon" quote clearly because I was sitting directly across from Richie, and when he turned toward the audience to say the second part, he had to turn toward me. It also happened right after a hilarious incident that was part of why my audio of the event was never posted. I didn't write about it then, but now that time has passed, I'll tell you about it in a minute.)
The meaning of that 'I write for Jon" quote was very clear and non-controversial in person, at the event. Jon was sitting right beside Richie and nodded in agreement, and Desmond Child was there and heard it, too. Desmond was sitting either directly behind me or one person over. He has a great laugh and I could hear him behind me, and I saw him as I was leaving afterward.
Desmond Child is a very outspoken guy who had his own songwriter's panel there, which I also attended. If Desmond thought Richie meant anything other than starting a song with Jon's vocal range in mind, Desmond would have said so at his own songwriting panel. He's not a guy who minces words.
Seriously, guys, you're looking for a smoking gun that isn't there. When I originally posted this piece, there was no discussion of the "I write for Jon" quote at all.
Now that time has passed and the person in question won't see this, I can tell you a funny thing that happened right before the guys said the thing about the "rickety old cassette tape recorder". It was one of the reasons why I never posted my audio for this event:
There was a guy sitting next to me in the media row, who clearly wasn't media or anyone who worked at the event, and he didn't seem to be a fan or a songwriter either. Remember, the media row is the front row, directly in Jon and Richie's sight-lines. Jon and Richie are on stage facing us, and I'm across from Richie, maybe ten to twelve feet away?
So Jon and Richie and the moderator are in the middle of the discussion, and I'm speedwriting my notes, and I've got my recorder positioned on the corner of my notepad on my lap, steadying it with my left hand as I write so the recorder will pick up what they're saying without their having to stare at it. (Media etiquette 101.)
So I'm scribbling away, and out of the corner of my eye I see the guy break out a bag of sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds or something that needs to be shelled. And he kicks back in his chair like he's in his livingroom. Then he pulls out a drink, which he cracks open noisily. My recorder is picking all this up, because it's right next to the guy.
Then, still kicked back, he pulls out his cell phone to call God knows who--but it becomes obvious he's trying to impress a girl when, just as Jon's in the middle of answering a really good question, the guy says in a smarmy voice, loud enough for them to hear, "Hey. Guess where I am. Yeah, I'm checking out Jon Bon Jovi..."
You can't make this stuff up. Jon paused for a microsecond to glance over (not a stinkeye) and kept going. If I had to draw a thought bubble above Jon's head it might have said something like, "WTF?" Meanwhile, I'm trying to stay focused, and I'm periodically glaring daggers at Cell Phone Guy to try to get him to shut up. And I cannot look at Jon or Richie, because I'm afraid I'll start laughing at the ridiculousness. So I got more interested in my notes.
The guy hangs up, so I think, cool, he's over it and he'll settle down with his snack now.
Um...no. He picks up my recorder from the notepad on my lap, holds it up, and says to me, in a stage whisper loud enough for Jon and Richie to hear:
"Junk!" and gestures to his own recorder, which is like a ministudio the size of a paperback book and has multiple sliders and all this crazy stuff on it.
Sidebar: There's a reason why a lot of reporters still use very simple mini recorders instead of an IPhone or whatever. Simple recorders are durable and and can take jostling around or being dropped. (Mine survived a fall onto the cement floor of an arena years ago.) More importantly, you need something with simple record buttons you can switch on without looking when you're juggling your notes or walking really fast.
And that's where we pick up with Jon and Richie, who've seen thousands of reporters' recorders.
This may be coincidence, because I'd heard them tell the story before, but there is no way they hadn't seen and heard that guy's antics... and I saw Richie get that look musicians get when they're either suddenly entertained or about to be, and I saw him glance over at Jon to get his attention.
And that is when Richie told the the story about "Who Says You Can't Go Home," their current single at the time, being written with "two guitars and a rickety old tape recorder" and Jon joined in.
7/25 ET fix a formatting error and a typo.