A Conversation with Shelly Peiken

My conversation this month with multi-platinum, Grammy nominated songwriter Shelly Peiken sheds an inspiring light on what it means to create and be an artist in this digital age. Shelly is best known for writing the #1 hit songs “What a Girl Wants” for Christina Aguilera and 'I'm a Bitch' sung by Meredith Brooks. Her memoir Confessions of a Serial Songwriterrecently hit the shelves. Read the full interview below!

Shelly Peiken is a multi-platinum Grammy nominated songwriter who is best known for her #1 hits “What a Girl Wants” and “Come On Over Baby.” She earned a Grammy nomination for the song “Bitch” recorded by Meredith Brooks. She's had hundreds of songs placed on albums, and in TV and film. Shelly is a contributor to The Huffington Post and is well known in the music industry as a mentor, panelist, consultant and guest speaker.

Shelly's book Confessions of a Serial Songwriter chronicles her journey from a young girl falling under the spell of magical songs to writing hits of her own. It's about growing up, the creative process, the highs and the lows, the conflicts that arise between motherhood and career success, the divas, the egos and the back stabbers, but also the lovely people she's found along the way. It's about the challenge of getting older and staying relevant in a rapidly changing and youth-driven world.

She is a New Yorker at heart who enjoys her life in Los Angeles with her husband, composer Adam Gorgoni and their daughter, Layla.

Karin: How has the experience been for you to release your memoir into the world?

Shelly: This is a first for me, and I'm really enjoying it. It's a story I needed to tell and it's been very cathartic. Everyone asks me, “How's the book been doing? Is it selling?“ I have no idea. I'm not asking, because it wouldn't change how I'm putting one foot in front of the other. I'm getting enough reaction and enough response that it encourages me and makes me feel, even if it's just a small community -- and I think it's bigger than just the small community -- even if it's just them, I feel like I made a difference.

I don't think it's just about songwriting. It's certainly not about songwriting “how-to's,” although that's sprinkled within the pages. But I really think it's more about life and getting older, and fitting in, and finding what to do next. It feels good to focus the conversation on those kinds of things once in a while.

People will message me or I'll see the reviews on Amazon, and people will say, “This isn't just about songwriting, this is about life.” It's not like I sat down to write a book about life, but I guess what I was feeling had to do with that. I don't know if I could have planned it that way and perhaps if I did plan it that way, I wouldn't have been able to hit my target. I think a lot of my creativity is to not think too much. Even in my songwriting career, if somebody said, “Write a song for Whitney Houston,” there were a lot of writers who could listen to her record, know her high note, know her low note, what vowels she sounded best on, was she legato. I could never do that analysis. I sat down and tried to feel, you know, what might she be feeling. Or maybe I would just write a song because I wanted to write a song and then ask myself, who could do this?

So I just wanted to tell this story, but I'm so happy when somebody says to me, “This helped me with where I am in my life.” I think that those feelings came from more mature readers, let's say 40 and up. And then the younger readers would message me and say, “This was so helpful in knowing how to navigate the landscape.” So I feel like I did two things peripherally, without sitting down and planning to do it that way.

What are the similarities and/or differences between writing a three-minute song and a 288-page memoir? I imagine both are very personal.

The book was way more personal for me, because I wasn't trying to get somebody else to say that the book was theirs. When I started out as a songwriter -- I was much younger and thought, well, maybe I'll write my own record someday -- it was very personal then, because I was writing songs that were mini-memoir. And I thought, maybe I'll write my own record and these are the songs I'll sing. Carly Simon was my idol, and she still is my idol, because she was never writing a song that Bette Midler could sing. I mean, maybe she could, but she was writing songs that were reflections of her life. But as I got more into the business and I wanted to make a living in songwriting, I had to think about, well, who's going to record these? I mean, sometimes I could write something personal and somebody else would relate to it and record it, but it got to be a little bit more about craft.

The book was just a big spewing about how I was feeling over the course of my songwriting career and how there were certain things that changed in the music industry over the course of the last five years that sort of stopped me in my tracks. I started asking myself, am I having fun anymore? And if I'm not having fun, then what do I do next? I've been doing this, it feels like my whole life. I am not ready to retire - I mean, I'm coming up on the age that I could - but I don't want to. I want to keep being creative; I want to try new things. But technology had changed the process a lot, in that you didn't have to pick up an instrument in order to be a songwriter anymore. You could just turn on your computer and find some app that helped you put sound bites together that could qualify as a lyric. And you didn't have to play an instrument because you could program things on a computer. I was trying not to put a value judgment to these aspects but just saying, how does it make me feel?

This made it easy for tens of thousands of people to become songwriters. So I was competing with all these people and a lot of the competition didn't really have to do with how remarkable a song it was, but what your relationships were with the gatekeepers of projects of artists who were making songs. I was certainly getting older and so many of the songs have to do with partying and going out to the clubs, and did I care about this stuff anymore? So if I was feeling pushed to the side a little bit, it wasn't my imagination. I just didn't know how to continue. So writing the book helped me find my way through that. I didn't know that maybe I would find these answers as I was writing the book. I just thought, I need to tell this story!

Writing the book sounds like it was a transformative journey. Can you describe how the process changed you?

I was forgetting that I was special. Everybody's special, but when I look back Karin, at songs I was writing 20 years ago, I think to myself, wow, what a gem. When I look back to songs I've written over the past five years, I'm bored to death. And I think that's because I started trying to do what I thought people wanted to hear. I think I started following, instead of just saying, what do I really want to say? I think I started second-guessing myself and trying to be more fashionable. I don't want to write those songs anymore. I'm 50-something and I'm trying to think of what does a 20-year-old want to hear? I wasn't excited about it and it's not going to resonate. I think we have to be true to ourselves. I know that sounds really cliché, but we really have to be true to ourselves. I just don't think any of that stuff works.

There is a value to -- like if I'm given a brief for a movie and they say, 'It has to be this, it has to be that' and they give me boundaries and a storyline. I listen to it because if I'm going to write something for that, indeed it has to be about what they tell me it has to be about. But then you have to put it on the back burner and say, okay now forget about it, how do you feel? And I think I lost touch with who I was, and what I started doing this for.

So by writing your story, did you get back in touch with it?

I think I'm getting back in touch with it, because I'm following my instincts now. Rather than if somebody calls and says, “Get in the studio with so-and-so, she's got a record deal.” Two years ago that would have mattered - and it does make a difference, because if someone has a record deal they're half way there - your song has a better shot at making the record. But I want to listen to their demo and say, does this move me? I was not paying as much attention to, is my own material moving me? Because I was jealous of, or envious of, maybe a colleague who is able to just write this song that followed that algorithm and became a hit. I can't do that. And I had to respect who I was, and maybe I'm not my colleague. I can wish I wrote that song she wrote, but I have to be able to recognize that that's maybe a song I can't write.

When I go back and look at the few songs of mine that changed my life, I wasn't following any formula. And then I wrote 50 songs that I didn't like, and those are the ones I was chasing something. But the ones that really made a difference, when I think about it now, were the ones where I was being really, really personal and true to myself.

I wondered after I wrote the book if I would ever write another song again, and in fact, I am. I was in the studio last week with Idina Menzel. I'm going to this beautiful songwriting retreat in Bordeaux in two weeks hosted by Miles Copland in his beautiful castle. I'm indulging myself a lot more. I'm getting into rooms with people I'm interested in, I want to write with. I don't want to be one of 50 people who are called to get in with an artist who's coming into town that week and I'm allocated three hours to work with them on a Wednesday. We used to spend a whole week with an artist. We used to go for hikes and take walks. And songs would come out of conversations. So it's a story about how organic it used to be. And now it just seems very contrived and analyzed.

Did you go hiking with Idina Menzel?

No hikes. But we talked for a good two or three hours before we wrote. The song we wrote definitely came out of the conversation we were having.

You know, I get together with some young songwriters now and they get in the room at 12 and they're like, “Well, I gotta be somewhere at 3.” It's like having sex, really fast, without any foreplay.

So yes, at least we talked about our lives. And she said this “word” - and I said, “Well there's our song.”

Can you say what the word was?

I'm not gonna tell you.

The reason why people feel like there's no time to hike anymore... The last many years, Karin, I know you must feel this too, with social media and with so multi-tasking, there's just not as much time as we used to have to relax and indulge in a concept or an idea. So I just feel like I've been rushed. I mean I sit down in front of my computer and start doing one task and then I get a little 'ding!' and then I'm like, oh, what was that? And I forget the first task I sat down for. It's ridiculous. We're so extended. We just don't have as much time in general unless we make a choice, a decision to do that. I think every recording artist and everyone who's writing a book, we're so challenged by all of the spots we have to touch during the day. We gotta make sure we tweet; we gotta make sure we're on Instagram. I mean, who can fucking write a song? Who has time to go on a hike?

When I started writing this book, I had been put in touch with an agent who was not a young agent. She had been around. She read a couple chapters and she said, “Look, you have a voice, Shelly, but you are not a well-known name outside of your songwriting world. You're gonna have to brand yourself. How many Twitter followers do you have?”

I had none, I wasn't on Twitter.

“What do you got going on Instagram?”

I wanted to go, are you kidding me? And I knew she knew how absurd this was, but she's also in a business. And she knows if she was gonna represent me (and she wasn't my agent) she was gonna have to go around to publishers who were gonna ask her the same question. And that is because if you have 100,000 Twitter followers who adore you and you tweet about your book, half of them are gonna buy it regardless of what it's about. So this is business.

I found that absurd, but as I thought about it more and more, I accepted it. And I wound up doing the things she said I should do. I got my website together, I branded myself “a serial songwriter,” I made a Facebook page, I got people to 'like' it, I started an Instagram thing, I got my Twitter thing going. I did all those things.

Do you think it helped?

I don't think it helped get the publishing deal I got actually, ironically. What it did help me find are my people, who cared about the same things that I wrote about, for sure. Because I'd be up at night and I would do a blog, something that was trending or something I cared about in the songwriting community. And people would 'like' my page and they would have conversations with me about it. So it helped me find my audience. It helped me engage people who were interested in my subject, who would buy my book.

I wound up being published by a company called Hal Leonard, which does a lot of books on music, many “how-to” books. But they had recently started an imprint called Backbeat that was doing memoir for musicians. And I thought, well, bingo.

I know you traveled a long, winding road to get that publishing deal.

I sort of let go and said, “I surrender control.” I just know I want to put this out. I don't know how it's gonna happen. And if no one will help me, I'll do it myself.

And then...

The book The Alchemist, you know it? It's all about believing in something strongly enough that the universe conspires with you to make it happen, but you have to believe in it strongly enough or else the universe won't help you. That book to me said it all. Because there wasn't a doubt in my mind that I needed to do this, and that I wasn't going to.


To learn more about Shelly Peiken, visit www.shellypeiken.com

See all interviews