18 Sep September 18, 2020 – Grammy Winner Cliff Goldmacher and Hands Up Don’t Shoot Dr. Jennifer Cobbina
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Cliff Goldmacher – GRAMMY-Recognized Songwriter and Author of The Reason For The Rhymes – Read interview highlights here
There is a lot to be said for being just a little scared. It’s the thing
that puts people in a state of flow. It gets them to pay attention.
Cliff Goldmacher is a GRAMMY-recognized, #1 hit songwriter, music producer, audio engineer and author. Cliff’s collaborators include Keb’ Mo’, Ke$ha, Mickey Hart(The Grateful Dead), and Lisa Loeb. His music can be heard on NPR’s This American Life and in national advertising campaigns. Cliff is an established music educator and teaches workshops for dozens of organizations including BMI, The Recording Academy and LinkedIn Learning where his songwriting courses have been viewed over a half million times. Cliff has also given multiple TEDx presentations on songwriting. Cliff is an author and freelance journalist as well contributing articles to EQ, Recording and ProSound News magazines along with numerous music websites and blogs. His eBook, The Songwriter’s Guide to Recording Professional Demos, has sold over 6,000 copies. In his latest book The Reason For The Rhymes: Mastering the Seven Essential Skills of Innovation by Learning to Write Songs, Goldmacher explains the seven specific skills that songwriting develops and why learning to write songs is an ideal exercise for anyone in any business intent on improving their ability to innovate.
Jennifer E. Cobbina – Associate Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University
The key is to make sure that everyone feels welcome and included
and that they can also speak their voice if don’t feel included.
Jennifer E. Cobbina is an Associate Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. Her primary research focuses on the issue of corrections, prisoner reentry and the understanding of recidivism and desistance among recently released female offenders. Her second primary research area is centered on examining how race, gender, and neighborhood context impact victimization risks among minority youth. She is currently a co-principal investigator on a team of researchers that was awarded research grants from the National Science Foundation and the Michigan State University Foundation to examine how probation and parole officer interaction with female drug offenders affects recidivism, rule violations, and changes in crime-related needs. Dr. Cobbina’s work as a public intellectual is bringing awareness and historical context to contemporary issues regarding race and social justice; including policing, safety, and the correctional system. She is author of the new Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: Why the Protests in Ferguson and Baltimore Matter, and How They Changed America, where she draws on in-depth interviews with nearly two hundred residents of Ferguson and Baltimore, conducted within two months of the deaths of Brown and Gray.
Highlights from Cliff’s Interview
So one of the things that I started to realize after years and years of writing songs is that some of the same skills you need as a songwriter are the skills that you end up using to become a great innovator. Everything from your ability to communicate, your creativity, your collaboration skills, empathy, risk-taking, all sorts of skills that you build up learning to write songs are the same skills that if you build them up by doing that, you’re going to, by definition, become a more effective innovator. So this is really all about innovation, and the vehicle to improve your innovation is learning to write songs.
People that believe they have zero creativity or cannot sing are exactly the clients that I am used to working with. First of all, shame on anyone that tells you you’re not creative. I hear so often, from people in the business world, I don’t have a creative bone in my body. That is patently false, we are all by nature creative. One of the things that I love most about running this songwriting workshop for business teams is that you take smart people, you give them the tools that they need to create, and all of a sudden, creativity! It’s as simple as breaking it down into manageable steps. So that’s the first thing, this whole concept of people not being creative, I don’t buy it. I think that truly what it takes is instruction. I think of creativity as something that we all have that you just develop if you’re guided to do so.
Now, moving on to singing or songwriting, one of the things that that I think is essential about getting people in a business context to sing the song that they have written is that, not to put too fine a point on it, but it scares them. There is a lot to be said for being, not afraid for your life, but just a little bit scared. Because it’s the thing that for me, puts people in a state of flow, it gets them to pay attention. So all of a sudden, when you’re concerned something isn’t going well, you’re not distracted by 1,000 things, you immediately bring your focus to the thing in question. This idea of being able to be guided through something risky, in the long run, I think it enhances your ability to make yourself a little vulnerable, to make yourself a little less risk-averse when it comes to innovation, which by the way, requires a certain level of risk-taking. So I love the idea if you don’t think of yourself as creative and that you have been told you’re not a good singer.
By the way, a final note, when I get my corporate teams to sing, I am up there with them. I’m not going to leave them alone to do this, I would never hang someone out to dry. I mention this in my book, in the interest of full disclosure, when I first started to sing, and this is after I’ve been playing instruments for close to a decade, I was terrified of singing because it makes you feel so exposed and so vulnerable. So I get it, better than most. But at the same time, I still think it’s critical for the process to work.
Let me walk you through the process briefly. So what it comes down to really, in order to make this songwriting exercise work, the way that I have structured it is that I get my business teams to take a work issue, which is something like, let’s just pick an example, coordinating disparate teams. So they’ve got an issue where they’ve got teams in various locations, they need to coordinate and all be on the same page. That is quite possibly the least romantic and least interesting song topic I can possibly think of. So the first step is to get these folks to turn that concept into a metaphor. The whole idea behind a metaphor is that it is symbolic of something else. So by thinking about this dry topic of coordinating disparate teams and turning it into a metaphor, you start to use language that is more emotional, you start to think about it in a more human way. It’s no longer just one bullet point on a PowerPoint presentation. So for example, if you take coordinating disparate teams and you use the metaphor of birds flying south for the winter who all have to depend on each other to fly south together, all of a sudden, you’ve got a real-world example of dependency and working together for the greater good. So turning this concept into a metaphor is one of the first steps in writing a song around the business concept.
Then, without getting too much into it, I give the teams the rules for verse writing and chorus writing. So you’re going to take this metaphor about birds, you’ve got to tell a story, and verses are all about telling a story. So in the verse, you’re telling your story, then in the chorus, you have to make people care; that’s the summary of the song. The chorus, as I like to somewhat delicately put it, is where you take the message of your song, you tie it to the end of a baseball bat, and you beat people to death with it. That’s what a chorus is designed to do, and that’s the way that you refine your communication in your song.
That’s enough of that because I can tell what you’re scared of is so what happens then? You’ve got this written verse and this written chorus, how is it that that turns into music? Well, when I’m teaching the workshop in person, I take a look at the lyrics. Then I say to my business teams, so what kind of a song have we got here, what’s the genre? Is it a country song, is it blues, is it jazz? I then put it to music, and then everybody joins in with me and we all sing it together. I will tell you this, as scared as most people are, and I underestimated when I started doing this, how concerned business folks are about appearing foolish in front of their peers. I underestimated how serious a concern that was. Yet, I promise you, by the time we’re done, everybody is up there singing and having the time of their lives. It is truly inspiring and motivating to see people do it.
One of the things is that as you continue to teach this workshop, some of the stories are kind of remarkable. So one of the workshops that I was brought in to teach, I was informed right before I went up on stage that for one of the teams, the leader of the team, although he worked in a corporate setting now, was a former prison warden and had been a prison warden for close to 20 years. So I get up there and I’m looking at this guy, and I am getting nothing back; a total poker face. If anything, and I could have been imagining this, but maybe just a hint of a scowl. So I start to go through my whole workshop, I explained that I’m going to get everybody to write and sing a song. This guy, as far as I can tell, he is not having it, not for one second. So I get the team to write the song, they’ve written the verse and the chorus, no music yet.
So I walk over to that particular group, they’re about six of them in the group. I say, so what style of the song would you imagine this is going to be? The former prison warden looks at me and he says, well, I’m kind of imagining it as an 80s metal ballad, like the scorpions. First of all, I never saw coming. Second of all, when I put it to that kind of music, he was the one singing the loudest. I could not believe it! This guy who gave me nothing, truly no indication that he was into it at all, by the end of it, he was a total 80s rocker singing this song. It just goes to show that by taking people out of their comfort zone, if they’re willing to just suspend their disbelief for a brief instant, the results can be totally shocking and fabulous.
As far as dry periods, being a writer myself, one of the ways that I have learned to work around that over the years is that I am an inveterate songwriting collaborator. So for me, there are days when you collaborate, when you are on fire, everything is working, and days when you collaborate where it feels like you’ve never ever been able to make a word rhyme in your entire life. The good news is, by collaborating, it all tends to even out. So I don’t really experience a lot of writer’s block or dry periods, because I tend to use the energy of my collaborators on the days when I’m feeling a little less inspired. That’s my secret.
Now if you’re writing on your own, in that instance, and this is something that I teach a lot of beginning songwriters, as well as business teams, the more that you can do to get a routine together, something that you do that just wakes up a little bit of creativity every day, the greater the likelihood that when you are called on to create in a little bit more of an expansive form, you’ll be ready. I’ll give you an example. With beginning songwriters, I tell them to wake up every day and think of what could possibly be the title of a song, just write down a song title every day. Then on those days when you’re stuck, you have got a notebook full of potential song titles. I’m a big fan of eating the elephant one bite at a time. So any big job, anything that feels daunting, break it down into small pieces, especially when it comes to being creative because that can feel really overwhelming to people. So just seed the creative pot a little bit every day and you’ll be better off for it.
As a creative in any field, for honest feedback, my recommendation is to go to people who’ve been doing it for a long time. This is something that I’ve benefited from when I was coming up as a songwriter, and now it’s something that I offer to beginner songwriters. So look, art is art, it’s totally subjective. You can’t do anything ‘wrong.’ But at the same time, the way that I talk to my songwriting clients is there are only two things that will make me happy. One, I give you a suggestion based on my experience, you agree with it, and you think it’ll improve your song. Or two, you disagree with it and you can tell me why. Because if you can tell me why, that means you understand your own creative process, you’re choosing to break from convention, but you’re doing it for a reason.
My feeling is that as long as your creative process is intentional, you’re aware of what the norms are and you’re purposely either going with them or going against them, that’s someone who’s in command of their creative process. Early on, we aren’t in command of our creative process. We’re just starting out, and we’re learning. But over time, you start to understand what it is that you are designed to do as a creative, and then if you want a break from convention, you can do it. So rely on more experienced people, but then, in the end, you still have to rely on yourself. I think that anyone who says to anyone else that they are not creative, that is just fundamentally unkind and untrue. That is an artistic pet peeve of mine.
Take, for example, the Beatles. If the Beatles can be told that they’re not going to have any success, meaning almost every single record label that they reached out turned them down, then all of us are going to hear no. The trick as a creative is to be able to hear no and believe enough in what you’re doing to keep moving forward. I feel like part of my mission is to remind people that no matter what they’ve heard, assuming they are given the right information and guided in the process, they are creative.
If you have a song, just put it out there. These days, doing it by yourself and self-publishing, there are so many more options than there were. It’s just like the record industry. For the longest time, it was only the record company. If they didn’t get behind you, then you weren’t going to be able to release anything. It’s the same with publishing. Thanks to disintermediation, we now have the ability to get out there on our own. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to get noticed. Because if you can do it, everyone can do it. It will then rely on your ability to market what it is you’ve written, and also on some level, the cohesion of what it is you’ve written, and the hope that it will connect with people. But I would never discourage anyone from self-publishing. I think one of the things that it enables, and I’ve talked to a couple of authors about this relatively recently, is the speed to market. Because the traditional publishing machinery grinds pretty slowly. You can add another year or a year and a half onto your schedule if you’d like to go with a traditional publisher, as opposed to being able to put it out by yourself much more quickly. So I think there’s a lot of value in that.
First and foremost, TheReasonForTheRhymes.com, that’s where all the information is about the book and about my workshops for business teams. If you google Cliff Goldmacher, I can promise you you will find songs that I have written out in the world.
There are songs that I’ve written that people have heard that I’m, of course, extremely proud of, and songs that I’ve written that people haven’t heard that I’m also very proud of. In the end, and this is the thing, as a songwriter, you never know which songs of yours are going to connect with people and which aren’t. All you can do is get up every day and make music and hope that you are being true to yourself. The rest is out of your hands. I know that’s a little bit of a dodge, but it’s true. On some level, I’m proud of all of the work that I’ve done. I’m also very grateful and very humbled by the fact that some of that work has reached a significantly broader audience. But I get up every day and write songs because I can’t help it. If I have to pick something that’s my favorite recently, there’s a jazz artist named Stacy Kent and I wrote a song on her record. The record is called I Know I Dream and the song is called I Know I Dream. So if you look up Stacey Kent and the song I Know I Dream, that’s what I’m extremely proud of. Because her husband and I wrote the song for her, and she’s an exceptional jazz artist.