Singer/songwriter Reed Thomas Lawrence is the kind of songwriter that typifies the pop(ular) music genre. He wants his songs to be like a global musical bear hug that appeals to all ears equally.
To do that, a musician must write with a mass audience in mind, Lawrence said.
"Instead of trying to prove so much how good you are or trying to be so different, just make music that anyone can put on in the background and groove to it or add into their collection," he said.
"That was my main goal: to write music for the people, for everyone."
When he first began writing his own music in his early 20s, he was interested in exploring complex jazz chord structures and riffs. The results were interesting, Lawrence said, but the audience was limited.
"I was getting a out there a little bit," he said. "It almost like I had to prove something with my songs to show that I could do this, that I was a good musician."
After his first album, Lawrence focused on writing music with wider appeal at the behest of his producer, Culver City Dub guitarist and producer Franchot Tone.
The resulting sound embraced the mainstream with digestible lyrics and catchy melodies combining reggae rhythms with vocals reminiscent of artists like John Mayer and Jack Johnson.
The new direction was unexpected, but now Lawrence said he feels like he's found his voice.
In the future, Lawrence said, he'll begin reintroducing complexity to his music by incorporating elements of blues and additional depth.
"I never thought you could combine so many styles and make it work," he said. "As I write more, I want more depth and soul because I can feel it.
"The blues got me into the guitar. Eventually, I would like to move more into that."
As tonight's headlining artist at NIghtfall, the Scenic City will have a chance to see if they can feel it, too.
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IF YOU GO
* What: Nightfall concert featuring Reed Thomas Lawrence.
* When: 8 tonight. Infinite Orange opens at 7 p.m.
* Where: Miller Plaza, corner of M. L. King Blvd. and Market and Cherry streets.
* Admission: Free.
* Phone: 265-0771.
* Venue Web site: www.downtownchattanooga.org.
* Related links at fyi.timesfreepress.com.
Online: Hear Reed Thomas Lawrence talk about preparing for the Rothbury Music Festival. Read a Q&A. Comment.
DID YOU KNOW
* Reed Thomas Lawrence's producer, Franchot Tone, is the grandson of the Academy Award-nominated film and TV actor of the same name.
* In July, Lawrence will take the stage at the Rothbury Festival, in Rothbury, Mich. He'll share the bill with the likes of Bob Dylan and The Dead.
Chattanooga Times Free Press music reporter Casey Phillips spoke with pop singer/songwriter Reed Thomas Lawrence about his writing process, why he aims for universal appeal and why he was intimidated by the guitar for almost 20 years.
CP: Next month, you're scheduled to play the Rothbury Festival along side some huge names like Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Is that the most high-profile event you've played?
RTL: Yeah, this is probably the biggest festival we've ever done. This last summer, we had a chance to play with some pretty big artists as well. I think that kind of prepared me for what's to come. (Laughs.) I've always played pretty small shows being a singer/songwriter. Being a singer/songwriter, you're playing a lot of acoustic venues and working your way up to playing the bigger venues. I'm pretty sure I'm prepared for it, but I don't think anyone really is prepared for a festival of that scale. Mentally, I'm prepared, and my chops are down to get respect from the artists playing there. Let's just hope everything goes smoothly. (Laughs.)
CP: When did you find out you'd be playing and what was your reaction to the news?
RTL: At the end of last summer, we were signed to Madison House, and they were discussing the festivals they do partnerships with, and they brought that up. I remember thinking it would be great to be part of a festival like that, just for the exposure. When they said they were going to try and get us on, I wasn't confident about it because of the names that were going to be there.
When we got a call about a week before that we would be on the roster, it was surreal. I don't think it sank in until I saw my name on the Web site. I still didn't think it was real. In my head, every artist goes through when they start touring with people they look up to and admire, it's fuzzy in the beginning. You don't realize it's actually happening until you're there. It was pretty surreal for me.
CP: After you play something so high profile, how do you make the shows at smaller venues after that meaningful?
RTL: I don't foresee it being a problem. I don't think you can get the intimacy of a smaller show from the bigger festivals. The bigger festivals are almost a way to refine you as an artist and polish you up a bit. You're so nervous to play the festival that you just spend the month before the show just going over your songs and your breaks and your licks nd everything you want to come as second nature so you feel the music.
Smaller venues are great to come back to. You're a better artist for doing the bigger festivals. You're more comfortable, so it allows you to connect with the audience a little bit more. It's cool to come back to.
The only thing that's hard is that I've done some shows with Jack Johnson and Johnny Lang and Sheryl Crow and then you come back to your small town and you don't have anything going on until the next one. It's this roller coaster effect where you're at the top of the roller coaster, and after that's over, you have to come down a bit to wait for the next ride up.
I don't forsee it being a problem. During the waiting period, you just have to be patient and write. You have to spend a lot of time writing and crafting your songs. That's the hardest part.
CP: What is your writing process?
RTL:I have a few different process I like to do. It's funny because I'm always looking for ways to come up with new melodies instead of getting stuck in a pattern.
The first thing I like to do is have the music available. It's cool to work with other musicians. I've had a lot of success with co-writing, working with people who are better than I am at instrumentation or laying down a solid track or a chord progression that sparks my ears and makes me think about lyrics or helps me develop a story in my head.
I've had really good experience sitting in with a guy who writes me a melody and I'll take it home with me and listen to it or learn to play it on my guitar. It's somebody else's vision of what they hear. For some reason, that sparks more of an interest to write lyrics over somebody else's melodic ideas. I find that to be pretty fruitful for my songwriting process.
The other thing I do is to sit down with a guitar and find a riff that's interesting to you and just go for it and have a recorder on while you adlib as you go. You just let it come from that place, that channel. That's another way to write.
The thing to be careful about is sitting down to write a song, like, "I'm going to sit down and write a song right now" or have that idea that you'll sit down and write a good, catchy tune.
As soon as you get in that mode, you lose the artistic element of it, and it becomes less real.
CP: More manufactured?
RTL Yeah, and that's dangerous, too, because if you find yourself writing a good tune that way, then you'll expect that more and lose the creative instinct of just sitting down and playing and letting it flow.
CP: Do you tend to start with melody, with lyrics or some combination of the two?
RTL: I always start with melody. It's funny, I've tried to write just from lyrics out of a journal and piece those together with melody, but it's so much harder for me. I feel like the melody is what really creates a story in my head. I've always been entranced by the music aspect of everything. You're listening to a melody, and it ives you those feelings, and those feelings take you to a place, and that creates a picture in your head. You start writing down what you see there. I've always had success that way.
CP: On your Web site, it says that you manage the precarious balancing act between writing original music and maintaining a pop sensibility. As a writer, how do you manage to stay catchy and appealing while writing deep, original music?
RTL: That's the other hard part. I think certain people are fans of catchy music, of pop music, music that has a hook, something you can remember in your head that repeats. It's not so complex that you can understand the lyrics and what the singer is talking about, and it all fits in with the melody.
I just think that certain songwriters are a fan of that. I don't want to mention too many names, but I'll mention a name you won't like and you won't like me anymore. Tom Petty and John Mayer are people who come up with hooks, but the music still has soul to it and the lyrics are meaningful. You can give John Mayer respect for writing insightful lyrics but making them pertain to everybody.
There are so many interesting bands out there, but the hard part with the stuff that's so underground is that, even though it pertains to a specific audience and they're getting some people to listen to their music, they're almost pushing away everyone else. They're almost saying, "This is for the people that think like us or that tap into where we're at."
That may be a reverse way of looking at it, but I think it's not necessarily a bad thing to try to write for the masses, to try to keep that in your head as you're writing. It's thinking "Who's going to be listening to my music?" instead of sticking to a certain stereotype or crowd. That's always been appealing to me. Instead of appealing to one audience, I've always wanted to appeal to everybody. I've always wanted to have that whole appeal. I don't know why, but you just want to make everybody happy. That may be a bad way to look at it.
CP: Clearly, if you've landed a slot at Rothbury, you've struck a chord with the right people.
RTL: You never know because the other hard part of being somebody who writes their own music is that everyone is going to be a critic. Not only that, you're your biggest cirtic. I'm never happy with something for long. I'll be happy with something when I write it, but it seems like it loses it's magic after I've played it a couple of times. Then, it's like, "That's not it. I've not hit what I'm looking for." I'm always looking to discover something, but you don't know what it is, and you're never completely satisfied with it until you play it for other people. You get up on stage and play it for people, and that brings the magic back. That's the balance. You write these songs, and you realize you're not writing them for yourself. You're writing them for other people. You can't just sit around playing them for yourself. When you play for an audience and you see them connecting, it's like, "Oh, OK, I get it. That brings the magic back."
CP: Can a song ever really be finished then? If you're never satisfied with a song, does it continue to grow over time as you tweak it? Or do you reach a point as a songwriter when it's like, "OK, that's it. The song is set in stone now"?
RTL: That's a really good point. That's the manufactured thing. I used to be like that. When I first started writing songs, I was never happy, so I kept trying to make it right and kept trying to make it right.
I eventually came to the realization that it's never going to be exactly what I want it to be. Maybe I won't like it, but that's just my opinion. There may be a ton of people out there who get it like, "It's my favorite track. I totally get this song."
I tend to write down the lyrics kind of like the music. I just let it come out naturally and play the guitar and adlib and see what comes out. That's what's interesting about lyrics. If you can do that with lyrics as well and keep it like a journal log, you're writing it down exactly as it comes into your head, and you're not manufacturing it or tweaking it. If it came out like that and felt good with the melody and with the rhythm of the instrumentation, then it just works.
As soon as you start to tweak that, you start getting in the way of that natural channel that you tune into. I think every songwriter knows that the songs are already out there floating around, and we've, somehow, been giving the gift to tune into them and grab them and pull them in. That may be a cheesy analogy, but it's cool to think that way. It's cool to think that these songs are already out there - you just have to tune in just right. Every once and a while, you get a special one where you're like, "Ah, I'm so lucky."
CP: How did you get into playing music?
RTL: I used to play drums. I did that for seven years. I played drums in church groups growing up and toured around doing that. By the time I was old enough to grab a guitar, which was 18, I was already intimidated by guitar growing up. I never thought I could play or sing. By 18, I finally grabbed one of my grandfather's guitars.
Everybody in my family is pretty musical. My mom plays piano and she writes. My uncle is a songwriter; he always played guitar and wrote music. I never thought I could grasp that side of it, so I was always intimidated by it.
At 18, I picked the guitar up and started learning a few riffs. The first song I learned how to play was Kurt Cobain's "Nevermind." (Laughs.) I learned that song and played it 100 or 200 times over. It was the only song I played at parties.
My dad bought me a guitar when I was 19, and it sat in the corner for about a year. At 20, that's when I got serious. I got bored with drums, and I grabbed the guitar and started learning new tunes. I didn't start writing tunes until I was 22 or 23. I played a lot of other people's music. I got into other people's music. I've always been a big fan of the blues. So I got really into Stevie Ray Vaughn. I think the blues got me into the guitar. Eventually, I would like to move more into that.
CP: Like John Mayer?
RTL: A little bit. The guy who produces my music, Franchot Tone, is a huge aspect of the way our sound is right now. He plays in Culver City Dub with a few other musicians like Jack Johnson's drummer. He's really into reggae and dub, and I'd never really been into that style of music, but I met Franchot, and it moved it's way into that.
It's funny, we're writing some tunes that are little bluesy, but they still have a little bit of a reggae touch and a little something else. I never thought you could combine so many styles and make it work.
I would like to move, not necessarily into street blues, but as I write more, I want more depth and soul because I can feel it. Every CD we write from now out will throw in a couple of songs that have a bit more blues. We'll keep adding those in and evolving.
CP: It's funny you say you're not really into reggae because when I look at your influences on Myspace, you list Bob Marley and The Wailers and other artists in that category. So you came to those artists later in your career?
RTL: When I look back on the people I listened to the most growing up, it was like Sublime and Bob Marley and Stevie Ray Vaughn. I remember learning a lot of Sublime songs on the guitar and thinking I really liked the style and thinking my voice really fits Bradley Nowell's and that kind of music.
I never thought I would sing that way because the stuff I was writing before was a little bit more along the lines of John Mayer. I was really into jazz chords and into mixing that jazz/blues element to songwriting. It was a good thing. I was getting very complex with my songwriting. It almost like I had to prove something with my songs to prove that could do this, that I was a good musician. I wrote a lot of complex songs and riffs. I met Franchot, and he was the first person who toned me down a little bit and made me focus a little bit more on my voice and the song. He said, "Let's simplify," which was good thing because I was getting a out there a little bit. That's something you should think about when you want to sing songs a lot of people can relate to. I never thought I'd ever write music with a reggae influence to it. I always loved those bands, but I never thought I'd go that route, but here I am.
CP: What are you working on now?
RTL: We're working on some pretty cool stuff. You hate to compare yourself to stuff. People always say, "Why are you comparing yourself?" but if I had to compare it, I'd say it was a little bit of G. Love, mixed with a little bit of The Meters mixed with a little bit of Derek Trucks mixed with a little bit of what reggae and pop. It's definitely got a little bit more soul. We just wrote a song called, "Dislights." We've got some horns in there. They're not very present, but it's almost like this funk track.
There's a track on Ben Harper's album called "Diamonds on the Inside," that's just super funky. I always wanted to write a track like that. Not James Brown funk, but it's got a nice solid funk beat and the lyrics are meaningful and it's got a really catchy hook.
We wrote a track like that. We wrote a more bluesy track. We're writing some really dirty stuff that's more like The Meters but still with a little reggae in it. We're still trying to mold my sound and evolve. That's the hardest thing for every artist, asking "Who am I? What's my sound?"
CP: Do you feel like you're closer to knowing what that sound is?
RTL: Yeah, I do. I had a few CDs before the one now. One was acoustic, and the other one was a little more of that jazzy pop I talked about before. It's funny, I thought the CD was good, but I was never confident to hand it out to anyone. I'd hand it out and go, "Yeah, it's pretty good." Now, the stuff I have now, I'm so proud of it and confident of it that I'm apt to just hand out CDs. That's the most important thing for me. Instead of trying to prove so much how good you are or trying to be so different, just make music that anyone can put on in the background and groove to it or add into their collection. I'm really close to that. That was my main goal: to write music for the people, for everyone.