An Interview with Harriet Schock
We chat to the multi-talented songwriter about her writing technique, her collaborations and the perspectives of success
Harriet Schock is a grammy-nominated songwriter from Dallas, Texas with seven studio albums to her name. Her track 'Ain't No Way to Treat a Lady' was a worldwide success for Helen Reddy in 1975 so she has a lot of experience to draw on. She is also a singer, teacher, author and actress.
How would you describe the music that you create?
People always ask me what genre I write in and the closest I can come to it is to tell them it's updated '70s pop. Remember when the singer songwriter era sort of began? With Carole King and Carly Simon and people who wrote melodies you could remember and lyrics that made sense? I'm not saying they don't still write that way but I think the '70s always seem to represent the type of music that was written from experience rather than from whole cloth. I wrote that way then. And I write that way now.
How do you go about writing music and what comes first, the music or the lyrics?
I've written both ways but usually I have something I want to say that inspires some part of a lyrical idea and then I'll sit down at the piano. Sometimes I have a whole verse or maybe more than that. But I never write an entire lyric without a melody. I have written melodies without lyrics if I'm around a piano that inspires me. Because I teach songwriting, I sometimes have a student write melody before most of the lyric but there's always a title and at least one line of lyric. But I find when melody drives it, often the lines are shorter and not as wordy as when the lyric drives it.
What do you enjoy most about songwriting?
That's an interesting question. When I first started as well as now, I write something because I have something I want to say to one person or a few people. That desire to say something is always behind it so I guess what I enjoy the most is saying what I want to say both lyrically and musically in hopes that a song will convey what I want them to hear in a way that simply talking to them may not.
When my song "Ain't No Way to Treat a Lady' was on the radio constantly, I would get calls from women who told me they went home after hearing my song and asked for a divorce. That was not the purpose of that song. I simply wanted to say one thing to one man but sometimes the more personal, the more universal.
You have worked with many different people over the years, can you tell us some of your favourite collaborations?
I write words and music so when I write with a composer, I write lyrics. When I write with a lyricist, I write music. So whoever asks me to write the other side of it always gives me his or her side of it first. For instance, I have written with the brilliant composer Misha Segal for 40 years. When I write with him, I write lyrics. When I write with the eloquent songwriter, Arthur Hamilton who writes both words and music, I write the melodies to the lyrics he gives me.
I considered that I also collaborated with the person who signed me to my first publishing deal, Roger Gordon. He influenced my writing by listening to my songs and suggesting possible bridges or whatever he felt the song needed. I also collaborated with the head of the first record label I was on. His name was Russ Regan and he had quite an influence on me. Later on I worked with Berry Gordy who founded Motown and influenced me greatly when he signed me along with Misha Segal to a publishing deal there. We wrote the song "First Time on a Ferris Wheel" for the film, "Berry Gordy's the Last Dragon." Over 40 people have sung it either live or recorded and we might not have written it had it not been for Mr Gordy.
In the early 90s I met Nik Venet who started producing albums with me and influenced my writing tremendously. He knew my writing in the '70s and didn't understand why I had gotten so far away from that once I started writing more for film. So with Nik, I got back to the more organic confessional writing that was a bit more authentic and was what I was known for. When you're writing for film you have to become a lot of other people which is fine. But he missed the writing he knew I could do and he brought me back to it.
Your songwriting classes round your dining room table sound very personal and specific to each student, do you find there’s lots of different ways people go about writing songs?
First of all, they're not around my dining room table right now. They're on Zoom because I have students from Austria, London and New York, etc. who would not be able to get to my dining room table. And yes there are many ways to go about writing a song but in my class they go through a step-by-step method that has become so successful for them that my students have frequently written entire albums with the steps of my course. If I told you what the steps are, I would have to kill you and since I don't know who's reading this right now in order to find them and kill them also, I will just say that the steps are confidential. But I will say that they exercise and isolate different muscles of songwriting and by the end of the 10 weeks, you have a song as well as strong muscles and a way of writing that can be used from then on.
Are you from a music loving family?
Yes, my father had an incredible ear and he played the cello and the marimba. When I was four, he would teach me songs at the piano and eventually I would say "I know, I know," meaning "I know the chord that comes next." So as I grew up, I would play the piano and he would play the marimba and we played all the songs of his era which were very melodic. Songs like "Up The Lazy River" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band." He also liked listening to classical music . And my mother's sister signed a contract with the Metropolitan Opera House. But oddly enough, it was my nanny, Earnestine Jefferson whose taste in radio stations influenced me the most, especially when they played Ray Charles.
What other artists inspire you?
I always mention Ray Charles first but I was also influenced, like everyone else, by the Beatles, the Eagles, Carole King, Elton John. Because I play piano, I'm more influenced by piano players than guitar players. I also love Pink, Hugh Prestwood, Pasek and Paul, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, Kacey Musgraves, Julia Michaels and many others.
Which of your albums are you most proud of, and why?
I love my very first album,"Hollywood Town," and my fourth album which was the first after a decade or so. That fourth album is called "American Romance." It and the next album, "Rosebud" were produced by Nik Venet. I've made seven solo albums and all as a singer-songwriter but if I had to choose two of my favorites they would be those.
What instrument(s) do you play and how did you learn to play it/them?
I play only piano. I've tried to play guitar. I've even tried to play ukulele. I'm just not cut out for that. But I've been playing piano since I was very young. I took piano lessons and I would have my teacher play the song so I could decide if I wanted to learn it. From then on I was pretty much playing it by ear as I watched the sheet music. I've never been a good reader but I've always had a good ear.
During your career, has there been a moment where you thought ‘I’ve made it now’ or has it been more complicated than that - more of an evolution?
There were times when, if I told you what happened, you would understand why I thought I had made it. But gradually I realized that "making it" is a relative term. To some people who have never had a song on the radio. I suppose I've made it. But fo the record executive who wanted to have a hit with me as an artist more than anything in the world, he felt he failed at that. I never thought of it that way because those records brought me fans all over the world who still write to me. Of course I have new fans who have no idea that I ever made albums in the '70s. But the complicated part of your question is that I'm totally happy with the success I've had. My life does not center around that in the first place and I get to do what I love and I get to do it for a living so what more could I really ask for? The downside of this is that I have fans and friends who actually are upset that I'm not better known. They are truly more upset than I am. So that's the part of the question that gets complicated. Hopefully when the movie comes out called "Hollywood Town - The Harriet Schock Story," they will feel vindicated for their belief in me and they won't worry that I'm not better known.
Which of the aspects of your career do you prefer the most - songwriting, recording, performing, teaching etc.? And why?
Whatever I'm doing at the moment is my absolute favorite thing. I would be crazy not to say songwriting but when I'm performing, I'm sure that performing is my favorite thing. And when I'm in the studio I would swear it's recording. But since the recording and performing would not be happening in my case if I weren't songwriting, I should really say songwriting. But when I'm on stage surrounded by Joe Lamanno on bass, Jennifer Richardson on cello, Eden Livingood on violin, and Kelly DeSarla on flute as well as my wonderful backup singer, Andrea Ross-Greene, I would be misleading you if I didn't say that was my very favorite thing.
Do you like other types of music?
I like pretty much all types of music. As Ray Charles said, all authentic music has soul. I like music that has soul. I don't like music that panders or insults my intelligence. I think I can learn from every type of music. The rhythm of the lyric in rap is very informative. The harmony of jazz-influenced pop can be instructive. Country has some of the best lyric writing there is and the melodies are very sophisticated these days.
What are your thoughts about modern songwriting and how it has changed over the years?
I think there's a lot of good songwriting these days. But radio has changed so very much. These days it just sort of depends upon what playlist you're on if you get heard. I can be at a restaurant and Shazam what is being played and I will never have heard some of it on the radio ever. So whereas the pool used to be small and radio was the way to make you a big fish, the pool is gigantic and everyone feels like a guppy. Touring is really important for getting known. But that's expensive and sometimes an artist needs a break. There used to be such a thing as record sales and airplay royalties. And for a few those still exist.
But in answer to the question how songwriting has changed, I think it's much more repetitive now. It's not unusual to hear the very same chords in the verse as you hear in the chorus. Granted, the melody will change. There are pre-choruses, post-choruses and outros but there isn't a lot of real variation. And the lyrics don't make me feel smart like Janis Ian's always did. It's as if they took Billy Joel to heart when they heard "I don't want clever conversation, I never want to work that hard." Well in many of the songs today, they don't have to work at all.
What is the most important advice you would give to young songwriters?
Do it because you love it. Learn to speak clearly when you're simply talking to someone. Read books. Listen to music and play along if you can. Play an instrument by ear and play it a lot. Read poetry... modern poetry like Charles Bukowski. Remember songs are small things. Even if you think you have a lot to say, don't try to say it all in one song.
Harriet's debut album Hollywood Town
Interview by Andy Jones from the Verse-Chorus team.