I started writing songs at a pretty early age. My first attempt was at age nine. I hadn’t gotten around to practicing my piano lesson for the week. So when it came time for my lesson on that particular week, I thought I’d “wow” my teacher with my remarkable songwriting skills.
Ogden Booker – my piano teacher – is old school. He was (and still is) the organist and choir director for a number of churches in Stamford, CT. He didn’t fool around. At $10 per hour for lessons, Ogden wasn’t doing this for the money. You either come prepared every week, or you’re asked to leave his studio. When I was in my teens, Ogden ultimately fired me as his student (but that’s a different story for a different day.)
Anyway, I remember playing my new song for Ogden. When I was done playing, I looked up at him, awaiting the applause that I was certain I deserved. Ogden simply said, “that’s very nice Alan; now let me hear your lesson.” Needless to say, that was an uncomfortable hour.
While in high school, I had a band that started out playing Police covers. But we got tired of that pretty quickly, and so I decided to start writing songs for the band. We eventually recorded an E.P with literally one of the top music producers in the world as our producer. Our producer eventually ended up running one of the largest record companies in the world, and already had produced multiple platinum albums by the time he started working with us. In hindsight, I didn’t realize how fortunate I was – as I didn’t get to work with someone of that caliber again until I recorded “The Redhead’s Allegations.”
Like many 15 year olds, I was pretty sure I knew exactly how the world worked. And I was absolutely sure that I didn’t need someone standing over me and telling me how to write and sing my songs. And I’d made this fact abundantly clear during our prep session the night before we went into the studio to record. (cue a scene from HBO’s Vinyl.) The producer just looked at me dumfounded; showing more than a slight sneer.
He had just told us that the day before, he’d been working with Sylvester Stallone on a movie. But on this particular evening, he had a 15 year old to deal with – so regarding his advice, “thanks, but no thanks.” I’m probably lucky he didn’t throttle me. (Keep in mind, we weren’t paying him – he was doing this as a favor.)
In hindsight, I absolutely should have listened to more of what he had to say. I really didn’t understand when and how to push back and when to embrace the advice of someone who clearly had more experience than me. But as I’ve learned in life, there’s something about the sentiment of doing it on my own – even if that meant failing.
Don’t get me wrong, he gave me a ton of great advice and was definitely more patient with me than I deserved. But on some level, I was right to push back.
Its great to work with talented people, and many of them are going to offer fantastic feedback. I try to listen to all of it – even if that hurts my ego sometimes. But at some point you’ve got to be careful about trying to achieve somebody else’s vision for what your record should be. And I think you’ll never get the sound that you want unless you are 100% trying to find your own vision.
And being called “a bigger jerk than Sly Stallone” is something I’ll always treasure. (: