Jesse Harris in a white shirt in a bamboo forrest

How to Write a Grammy Award-Winning Song

Words: Cedar Pasori
Photos: Justin Tyler Close

Ahead of the 2016 Grammy Awards, we caught up with singer–songwriter Jesse Harris, the man who put Norah Jones on the musical map with “Don’t Know Why,” to learn the ins and outs of making it.

Getting into the music industry as a songwriter is challenging, but to write a Grammy Award-winning song is an ambition that requires years of hard work and dedication. Just ask Jesse Harris, the multi-talented musician and songwriter, who many know from his work with Norah Jones. After being friends for many years, Harris offered Jones a song he’d written called “Don’t Know Why,” which made it to her debut album and won the Grammy Award for “Song of the Year” in 2003.

Before that, Harris got an English degree from Cornell University and was in a band called Once Blue, where he began learning how to write songs for other people. Since winning the Grammy, he’s continued to release his own music and tour the world. Here are his tips for making it big.

Video: Norah Jones  
Title: Don’t Know Why

© 2002 Blue Note Records

1. Learn all that you can musically

“The more you can arm yourself with to write songs, the better. Practically speaking, it’s very helpful to know an instrument well. At least play guitar or piano well enough to know your way around harmony, rhythm, and melody. Some people are able to write songs without knowing any of that stuff, as long as they have a good enough ear. They can come up with a good beat and bassline, and they’re able to write songs that way. Generally speaking, whatever skill set you have, and the more you can develop that skill, the better off you’ll be.”

2. Know how to be a co-writer

“In the past 10-15 years, everything in the pop world, at least, is about “co-writing.” People don’t really want finished songs. Most artists want to co-write with someone. Probably the most important skill you can learn today is how to also be a producer. Most artists want to work with writers/producers.”

jesse harris grammys

Harris up close.

© Justin Tyler Close

3. Be flexible

“It’s good to come in with a lot of ideas, but also be flexible in different situations. Each co-writing scenario requires a different contribution. Some people are gonna need you to write the lyrics, some people are gonna need you to write the groove, the beat, or the chords. You have to figure out what your role is and assess that as quickly as possible. Some people always have the same role, but if you don’t, it will depend on the needs of the person you’re working with.”

4. Work efficiently.

Beyond being flexible, be decisive and get the song finished. You can’t expect to collaborate with people if you need a lot of time to finish songs. It’s best to get a song done in one meeting or two meetings, at the most. Try to get the song done in a day.

5. Don’t hold anything back

“My advice would be to hold nothing back. If someone needs a song, show them your best songs. You can always record it yourself. There’s no law saying you can’t. I’d say just do it all.”

“People don’t really want finished songs. Most artists want to co-write with someone.”

6. Introduce other elements into your songwriting

“A year and a half ago I started using a drum machine for the first time. Up until then, I had always written on the guitar. I found the drum machine very liberating. Things just move along much quicker. The same principles apply, it’s just about what the person wants and what they’re looking for. If you want to write songs in the pop realm, it’s good to stay in touch and listen to the radio to hear what’s on.”

7. Be realistic

“Be daunted. It’s very challenging. You have to be realistic. It’s always been difficult, but it may be more difficult now. It seems like more people are trying to be songwriters than ever before. If you want to go into music, it’s important to be flexible and not be too dead-set on one thing. The thing that may end up working best may not be what you intended. If you’re too stuck on one idea, you might miss something else. It’s good to try lots of things and stay open-minded.”

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02 2016 The Red Bulletin

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