Galen Breen of The Gator Hole has gained a reputation for producing some of Nashville's finest demos. In Part 1 of my interview with Galen we talked about his studio and the process of recording a demo. Here in part two we focus on the songs themselves, and what it takes to make yours stand out.
You’ve seen a lot of songs come through your studio. What can a songwriter do to make their song stand out?
To be honest....I think the one thing many writers lack is a good groove to their song. You really can't rock too hard for Country music anymore these days....AC/DC style grooves are part of the terrain and I don't see that changing. Most of my writers know that if the groove in their worktape isn't there that they can tell me “I want a Jason Aldean / Montgomery Gentry rocker” and I can deliver on that request because of my background as a guitar player...even if their worktape doesn't sound remotely like that style. I'm not sure every studio would feel safe to do that but it's how I've always done business and I almost never have a dissatisfied customer when I've dramatically tweaked their song groove for them.
What are some common submission mistakes you see people make that slow down the demo process?
Probably the biggest one is just not having proper song-form. I really don't want to waste someone's money by recording a song that won't pass muster with an artist or publisher just because their verses are out of whack or there are dropped beats throughout the song making it unlistenable. Fortunately the vast majority of my clients belong to songwriter groups like NSAI or SongU and they already know the basics...it's actually rare that I come up against song-form problems in comparison to the first decade I spent in the recording business.
What are some common songwriting mistakes you see people make?
The most common mistake is lack of editing...some people just write too many verses or make their bridge too long....or even add a bridge where they don't need one. You really need to try to keep a song under 4 minutes...anything over that and you're really bucking the system. The other big mistake is over-complicating your melody. That includes writing a melody with an overly-exuberant vocal range. People have a basic need to sing along with songs...even people who are tone-deaf want to sing along with songs they like. The term I always tell songwriters is to make your melody “accessable”. By that I mean that the average “Joe” driving down the road in a pickup truck should be able to sing along by the time they hear the second chorus in your song. If you make the listener do vocal gymnastics you're gonna lose a lot of people in the process. You can build dynamics by adding harmonies to your song...there's really no need to overdo the vocal range with the lead vocal alone. I guess basically what I'm saying is use a musical K.I.S.S. approach. Simple is rarely bad in the music business. If you think about some of the biggest hits in music history you'll see how catchy and simple those songs really are...follow that pattern and you'll do well.
What things do you think a songwriter can do to improve their chances of getting a song cut?
Always write your songs with your target audience in mind....that means making the melody as "singable" as possible....especially your choruses. Like I said earlier, don't put too much melodic range into your songs...an octave and a third (15 notes etc) is a good barometer. Think about some of the biggest hits in music history and how easy they are to sing for non-musician listeners. People love to feel connected with songs so make that connection as easy as possible for them. Artists naturally gravitate to these type of songs also because they're really no different than the average listener in that regard.
What is the single most important part of a song?
I believe melody is king...after that the groove and THEN the lyric. A great lyric won't overcome a mediocre melody or groove. I could pull up dozens of examples of huge hits with nonsensical lyrics but catchy music or even just a great chorus that's so singable it propels the song to iconic status. In Country music the lyrics tend to be more important than pop of course but the rule still applies for the most part. A great signature guitar riff can go a long way in making a song because it's the first thing people hear...first impressions and all. There's a reason Sweet Home Alabama is still a hugely popular song 36 years later...people hear that riff and they feel like they're “home” again. So much of our collective memories are tied into moments and the music that went along with those moments.
What is the single most important part of a demo recording?
For me it's easily the vocal performance because if that isn't engaging then there are very few people who'll look past it to hear anything else involved with the song. Music is like food...no one wants good food served in poor fashion...it ruins the meal. If your singer isn't happening then you've pretty much lost the battle for attention from your listener. I'm very adamant about choosing vocal artists to sing on my demos. The last think you want is some vanilla singer performing a “safe” vocal because you're afraid to offend some artist's sensibilities. You should always allow leeway for the singer to impart their own style into the song...even to make some melodic changes if need be to suit their own bag of vocal tricks. The other thing you never want to do is hire a sound-alike singer for the artist you plan on pitching the song to...very bad form...and probably an instant turnoff for the artist to boot.
How does a songwriter know when a song is ready to demo?
Well....you can drive yourself crazy second-guessing every part of your song so there's a personal line there everyone has to find where than can finally rest their mind. If you send a song to be critiqued you will almost assuredly get changes suggested no matter how many times or how many people you send it to....that's human nature. I think it's uber-important that the lyric lines are very singable...nothing should sound awkward or rushed just to make it grammatically correct. If you hear a problem like that then you need to rewrite until you find something that sounds good...after all....none of your listeners are going to have a lyric sheet in front them (outside of maybe a publisher) so it's what they're hearing that counts...not what you'd score from the english teacher in high school. Some words just don't sing well....you need to avoid them and find an alternate way of getting your point across. Again...if your song is over four minutes long I'd take a long, hard look at it and try to figure out where you can trim to get it under four minutes.
Is there anything else you would like people to know about Galen Breen or Gator Hole?
Well....music is all I've ever done for nearly 35 years so I'll be around until I'm not around I suppose. I just try to make the music for my clients as full of life and energy as I can because that's how I believe music must be. I'm also very upfront with writers on my opinions if I think there's a way to improve their song and/or the subsequent demo. I'm not much for partonizing people just to get them out the door...I take music very seriously because I love it that much and I also realize how important these songs are to their respective writers. Most of them know their songs will be around long after they're gone...with their friends and children, etc. With that in mind I try to make the recording as vibrant as I can. That formula has worked for over 20 years now and I don't see any reason to change.
Galen Breen offers top notch demo recordings for a song. To contact him for more information, visit The Gator Hole Studios website.