Richard Gottehrer on Writing the Perfect Song & Judging the International Songwriting Competition

RIchard-Gottehrer-ISCEvery year, we partner with the International Songwriting Competition, or ISC, to support them in their search for the best songwriters in the world. 71 winners in more than 20 categories reap over $150,000 in cash and prizes as well as valuable exposure to some of the top executives in the biz.

This year, however, is more special than previous years. Our very own Richard Gottehrer, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of The Orchard — not to mention a decorated songwriter and producer himself — is among the ISC judges.

Submissions are now open until September 9th. To get you ready, we sat down with Richard himself to get his take on the perfect song, learn about how he came up with timeless chart-topping classics, and bottle some of his precious advice for all the up-and-coming songwriters out there. Thank you, Richard!

You’re a decorated producer, songwriter, label owner and even a member of the 60s band The Strangeloves. With your impressive and diverse history, what would you say is the key element, the “special sauce” if you will, of a hit song?

The special sauce is a great melody linked to a lyric that means something to people, touches life or the imagination in some way, or represents a shared experience. But the melody is first, that’s the most important element. The lyric comes second. With a hit song, the title also plays a big role — it’s got to be something clever that sparks an emotion and tells a story.

You’re known for penning classics like “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “I Want Candy.” Can you tell us the story behind creating these timeless hits?

Bob Feldman — one of the writers of my Brill Building writing team consisting of myself, Bob and Jerry Goldstein — had the initial idea for “My Boyfriend’s Back.”

Bob was in a candy store and coffee shop in Brooklyn and he actually heard a girl yelling across the room, “You better watch out! You’ve been saying all these things about me, and he’s back!!” So Bob relayed the incident while we were sitting at the piano in our writing room and the rest is history. “My Boyfriend’s Back” was a great title, but how did we make it catchy? Every line had to mean something. It had to stand by itself as a hit pop song. So we told the story and turned it into a song with a good beat (very important) and recorded it with The Angels, a group we were producing. Within 4-5 weeks, it hit #1.

I Want Candy” was written based on a beat that I always loved from the first time I heard it when I was a kid. Sometimes called the Bo Diddley beat, it’s a traditional rhythm pattern. The title “I Want Candy” referred to a book that was banned in 1965 called “Candy” which was considered too suggestive in a conservative world. So we wrote the song “I Want Candy” and it referred to a girl, candy, and anything sweet and good.

Sorrow” was recorded originally with The McCoys as a folk song, then recorded by David Bowie for his PinUps album which became a huge hit in England. The song is still active today — I just recorded it with Jenny Lewis for the Paul Shaffer album I’m producing.

What is different when writing music and lyrics in 2016 vs. 1963?

When we started as songwriters, you didn’t write the songs for yourself to perform. What was very different is that the songs were based upon working with artists and writing specifically for those artists. You had teams of writers like today, but you sat around in one room, wrote a song, made a demo, and used that to present the song to the artist. As a result, you had to write the song in the most basic form — on a guitar, or in our case the piano — then go to the studio to record the demo, add instruments and hire musicians to do it.

Today, it’s simple; anybody can write and record a song because technology makes it possible to sit in your own home and create all the musical sounds together in one place. It was more challenging in the past because you had to do a lot more to get to that point. Most artists did not participate in the writing of their own songs in 1963.

As a judge for this year’s ISC, what is your criteria for the perfect song? What will you be looking for?

It’s hard to find a perfect song. I think it’s what I said in the previous question — the melody is important. If it’s not a ballad, it should have a good beat. But the song should come from a memorable melody and a lyric that corresponds to that melody. They should represent an emotion or tell a story that is easily relatable to people. It’s all about communication — the song is purely a form of communication, and if all the elements align, you have a chance for a hit.

What advice would you give to songwriters today?

When you work within the scope of what technology offers you, it’s easier to create a total package but sometimes you fool yourself. Try to work simply. Get the song first and let it stand alone in its most basic form — with an acoustic presentation or keyboard — without being overly enhanced. I think people today go for the bigger picture and then the song itself is not the center. Focus on melody and storyline. That’s what makes a lasting song.

Referencing my own songs, both “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “I Want Candy”are more widely used today than in the past because of syncs in advertising, films and TV. They tell stories that cross generations. That’s important — you can write for just that purpose. When I was writing, the only way a song had value was if it was recorded by a popular artist. In today’s world, a song can have worth in many other ways; it doesn’t necessarily have to be a hit song.

Keep an ear out for Richard Gottehrer’s upcoming projects via his label, Instant Records. Submissions for the ISC are open until September 9. The entry fee is $30/submission. Good luck! 

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