Interview: Shelly Peiken-"Serial Songwriter" Interview by Cynthia Brando

     Shelly Peiken still has a literal wall of cd’s in her home. “It’s almost like art-I don’t pull them and listen to them, because you can find anything online for a reference…but it’s almost nostalgia-you just can’t give them up.”

     Shelly Peiken, the “Serial Songwriter”, showcases her immense love for music in a whole new way these days-as a blog writer, and now as an author of the book, “Confessions of a Serial Songwriter,” which is nominated for the 2018 GRAMMY Award for Best Spoken Word Album. As a songwriter who is behind such hits as “What a Girl Wants”, and the Grammy nominated “Bitch”, Shelly finds memoir writing cathartic-“it did open up doors for me emotionally and made me realize I really like to talk about what my opinions are, and that there are a lot of people out that that share my point of view.”

M.E. “Tell us a bit about your book tour and returning to New York to the Bitter End.”


S.P. “Well, I’m doing a lot of readings-the New York event at the Bitter End felt very full circle for me because it’s the first place I ever played as a fledgling songwriter 25 or 30 years ago; so there I am, back on the stage, but what I did was that I would read from the book and then play the song the chapter was about; now in L.A., I will read at a songwriter school and I basically did that same hour and 15 minute talk; almost like a Ted Talk with music. I’ve done Songnet (Los Angeles music education organization), the E-Spot Lounge, Vitellos-where Extra covered it, Book Soup and Il Morro. I adjust based on who the audience is; if they’re a songwriter centric group, or whether they have nothing to do with songwriting. I’m doing a talk at a women’s group and they have nothing to do with songwriting, and they want to know “how does one get a book out?,” because honestly, when I started doing this, I didn’t know what I was doing.”

M.E. “I read in your blog that you had trouble finding representation for your book, and was surprised because you are so established. Were you surprised?”

S.P. “Well, you put out a book proposal and there were people that wrote back and said, “this sounds fascinating, send me 25 pages…and then I wouldn’t hear from them. Or they would say, “How many twitter followers do you have?” “Is there sex and drugs in there?” And they lost interest because there wasn’t; but this wasn’t a book…I mean, I don’t think it’s just for songwriters, but it is sort of songwriter centric.

M.E. “But that’s a huge market.”

S.P. “It is a huge market, but unless you’re Carole King or Carly Simon, you’re not going to wind up at Simon and Schuster or Penguin, or really big publishing houses; so I think where my book landed is really perfect because Hal Leonard-that’s the publisher-all of their books are about music, and that they started an imprint for memoir was just like, “Hello!”-that seemed like a place to be; and they’ve been very involved in showing me a lot of love and I’m glad that I’m not getting lost in a crowd of New York Best Times selling authors at Simon and Schuster. I probably would have not gotten attention there, because I would be competing with really big fish.”

M.E. “What’s been the most difficult part about putting out a book?”

S.P. “Well, I did most of the work on the book before I found them-before they picked me up, so I had to find someone who edited it, and it was just she and I-we must have gone through that manuscript 50 times.”

M.E. “So choosing what to put into the book was difficult?”

S.P. “No, that wasn’t difficult-it was…finding the typos, the missing periods-“Do we want this to go out this way?” Before I had a publisher, it was just she and I, and we called it “finding Whaldo’s” and deciding what to take out, because when I went to sleep at night, I had to say “That thing I said about so and so”-it’s easy to write it, but when the book comes out-will I be able to sleep at night; that I published this-do I want to change a name, do I want to divulge anything that was said at a private songwriting session; that the artist did not expect me to go public with. I decided “No”-I want to be trusted in a songwriting session; that if I’m writing with you, and you’re telling me something private, I’m not going to go out there and say what it was, because I don’t think that’s cool, and if 50 less people buy the book, so be it. So the difficult part was “Do I want to say these things”-it wasn’t so much a question of being sued, but a question of being comfortable.”

M.E. “Having integrity in your work”…

S.P. “There were some tell all stories-a couple of people I felt did not treat me right, and I wrote about it, and I changed their names”…

M.E. “Is there anything in the book related to your being a woman in the industry and experiencing roadblocks?”

S.P. “I have to tell you…there’s not a lot of that. I never felt that. Now, maybe if I wanted to be a producer; it might have. I think since I was a young kid, I’ve been like a bull in a china shop”-

M.E. “Well, you are from New York.”

S.P. “Not in a way that was rude-I think I’ve just always had blinders on to the obstacles. I felt like if I had something that I thought was special-I just went for it, and maybe for as many things that might have made it difficult for a woman, there were just as many things that made it easier for a woman.”

M.E. “Such as?”

S.P. “Charm…having a vagina-I never let anyone think that they could get inside me, but just that fact that there was this dynamic there-it made things easier in certain ways-with male dominated A & R, I don’t know…I never thought about it. If I thought my song was good for someone, or something-I went for it.”

M.E. “Do you think a lot of artists that want to be in the music industry get in their own way?”

S.P. “I think a lot of it is in our own heads. The strongest thing that we can do for ourselves-is believe in ourselves; and it’s not like you can wake up one day and say, “Oh-I’m gonna start believing in myself”-you either have it or you don’t. I don’t really think it’s something that you can develop if you don’t have it. If you are a person who always sees obstacles…well, it’s pretty hard not to.”

M.E. “I believe you can change your thinking and your body will catch up.”

S.P. “You can-not easy. I think that there’s a certain mentality that suits us well; immunity to rejection-I mean, if it’s gonna get you down all the time…it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you, but maybe you’re in the wrong profession, because I still have it. I get rejected every fucking day still-it’s just the way it is.”

M.E. “You wrote a Taylor Dayne tune back in the day, and then there was a long period before your next song that you had success with-were you actively pitching songs in that period and getting rejected-or something else?”

S.P. “Here’s what I think you are thinking about-I had a song on a Taylor Dayne album, and that was my first recording, and it was written up in Billboard. They said, “Here’s a special song on the record”, and I thought, “Oh my god! I’m gonna have a single!” My friend who was an intern at Joe Bet Music at the time, went out to coffee with me and said, “Listen, there’s a writer at Joe Bet that waited eleven years for their first single after their first album cut,” and I said, “Oh my god, that’s crazy-I can’t wait that long, not this one, but it will happen next year-look, they wrote me up in Billboard; this is going to be a single.” It was eleven years”…

M.E. “So you had other cuts on albums, just not a single?”

S.P. “I had lots of other cuts, but never a single, and this was a time when you didn’t have to have a single in order to make a living. Albums were selling, and if you got a song on a platinum record that you wrote yourself and published yourself; which was unusual because people co-write a lot…but you were making money. If you had one of those per year, you were making $80,000 without your song ever being heard by anyone or on the radio. Now you can’t do that-you have to have a single. You have to write a single in order to stay afloat, and I don’t think “I’m a singles writer” in my head-I don’t think about what sound is out there, what algorithm do I have to follow-I usually come into a room and say, “What matters to me today?” And back then, if you didn’t get the single and you got on an album, it wasn’t even a consolation; it was great if you got on an album. Now if you get on an album-it’s just a name only-because nobody is buying albums; they’re only buying the single; so your song exists on this virtual album somewhere, but you’re not earning income from it-unless it is on an Adele record, and Adele takes her songs off of Spotify-and if you want to hear her album, you have to download it-which qualifies as a purchase. You will make some money on that; or Taylor Swift, where you are writing for a high caliber artist… but in general, it was an album sales culture back then, and we made a living-so the eleven year period was no big deal; now if I waited eleven years now-I would have to find another job-it would be impossible to survive. Kids coming into the business now-I don’t know what they are going to do in 20 years unless they have loads and loads of singles, and it’s now common to have a lot of songwriters on one song, so you have to cut more singles.”

M.E. “Now you have a whole new career with your blog and book.”


S.P. “The book….well, the literary world is no gold mine either. I spent a lot of money doing what I had to do to get the book out. Before I had a publisher, I had to hire a formatter and I had to clear my songs, and I had to have art work done, and pictures taken and a website put up; Facebook advertising… It’s a small fortune. Then the publisher came, and they reimbursed me some, but it’s not like they handed me a $50,000 dollar advance-that doesn’t exist anymore either in the literary world, but I’m lucky, because I had those handful of hits, and I feel that it’s about more than income. For me, it was very cathartic-I felt like I had a story that I really wanted to tell, and perhaps this will be a stepping stone to something else.”

M.E. “Has expanding your writing from songs to memoir/blog style writing open up any doors for you emotionally?”

S.P. “Absolutely. Blog pieces come to me now like songs. I’ll be driving and I’ll hear somebody say something and I’ll go, “I have an opinion about that, and I just have to express it!”…in 600-1,000 words with some humor and some irony. I love it. I had written this piece called “Songwriters Pie”-how everyone’s income had shrunk and I had submitted it to Huffington Post-and they ran it, and they said, “Would you like to blog for us?,” and I thought, “Oh my God-that would be fantastic,” but then I thought, “I have maybe five pieces ready to develop-how will I ever have the content?” But you know what? I have so much content now-too much content; like how am I going to put it all out there and manage it and juggle it-and I did a radio show for awhile. I did about 13 shows and I thought, “I can’t do it all-the book is coming out and I have to serve it,” and that is my focus and my baby right now. But yes, it did open up doors emotionally and made me realize I really like to talk about what my opinion is, and it made me realize there are a lot of people out there who share my point of view and are afraid to talk about stuff. When I started to talk about the change in music culture; a lot of people would comment on a thread, or chat with me privately and say, “Thank you for saying that-I felt the same way”…

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