Chris Kirby, interview: on co-writing, songwriting outside your comfort zone and building a solid songwriting reputation
Chris Kirby is a songwriter, musician and producer, based in St. John’s Newfoundland. He has a wicked sense of humour, both in person and in his writing. I edited our conversation slightly for easier reading, and included my own the 12 Takeaways at the end of the article.
- Kitchen Party Live – 2014
- Wonderer – 2012
- Sounds Like Wednesday – 2011
- Vampire Hotel – 2009
- Chris Kirby on Rum & Religion – 2006
- 2020 ECMA Producer of the Year nomination
- 2019 ECMA Producer of the Year nomination
- 2018 ECMA Country Recording of the Year – Makayla Lynn “On A Dare & A Prayer” (co-writer)
- 2018 ECMA Blues Recording of the Year – Mike Biggar “Go All In” (co-writer)
- 2018 ECMA Folk Recording of the Year nominee – The East Pointers “What We Leave Behind”
- 2018 JUNO Award Nominee – “Traditional Roots Album of the Year” – East Pointers (co-writer)
- 2017 JUNO Award winner for “Traditional Roots Album of the Year” – East Pointers (co-writer)
- 2017 International Folk Music Award “Song of the Year” nomination for “We Are Love” as performed by THE ONCE
- 2016 WINNER of Music Newfoundland’s SOCAN “Songwriter of the Year“ Award
- 2012 SOCAN Songwriter of the Year for “Waiting So Long”
- 2012 SOCAN Male Artist of the Year
- 2012 ECMA for producing Charlie A’Court’s “Triumph & Disaster”
- 5 MusicNL (Newfoundland and Labrador) Awards
Song – Artist – Album – Year
- Slow Down – Chris Ryan – 2019
- Think About You – BRDGS – 2019
- Last Forever – Chris Ryan – 2018
- Drinking Games – Quake Matthews – 2018
- We Can Dance – Ghost Caravan – 2018
- Golden Hour – Quote the Raven -2018
- Playdate – Mike Biggar – Go All In – 2017
- Honest Man – Matt Andersen – Honest Man – 2016
- We Are Love – The Once – We Win Some We Lose – 2016
- Tell Me Something I Don’t Know – The Once – We Win Some We Lose – 2016
- Alive – Keith Mullins – The Heart of Everything – 2016
- Back on the Love – Charlie A’Court – Come on Over – 2015
- Gotta Get Over It – Charlie A’Court – Come on Over – 2015
- Cold – The East Pointers – Secret Victory – 2015
- Salvadora – Keith Mullins – Island Sol – 2014
- Bad on Me – Tim Chaisson – Lost in Light – 2014
- Miss Saying Goodbye – Lost in Light – 2014
- Good Bye July – Tim Chaisson – Lost in Light – 2014
- No Getting Off Easy – Tim Chaisson – Lost in Light – 2014
- Cajun Moon – Tim Chaisson – Lost in Light – 2014
- Life After the War – Tim Chaisson – Lost in Light – 2014
- The Other Side – Tim Chaisson – The Other Side – 2012
- The Healing – Tim Chaisson – The Other Side – 2012
- Speak Easier – Tim Chaisson – The Other Side – 2012
- Triumph and Disaster – Charlie A’Court – Triumph and Disaster – 2012
- Sun is Gonna Shine – Charlie A’Court – Triumph and Disaster – 2012
- Chains of Gold – Charlie A’Court – Triumph and Disaster – 2012
- High Heeled Heartbreaker – Charlie A’Court – Triumph and Disaster – 2012
- In Your Heart Tonight – Charlie A’Court – Triumph and Disaster – 2012
- Don’t You Wish Your Bread Was Dough – Stephen Fearing – Between Hurricanes – 2012
Chris, how do you describe your music and your songwriting style for someone who hasn’t heard you?
My music is on the funkier side of soul… there is soul in all genres, but my roots are blues.
I write Folk, Pop, Soul, Funk, R&B. When I am co-writing, I write in any style depending on who I am working with. I have been writing with a wide range of artists, through my publishing company: Sound of Pop. Bouncing between many co-writers taught me to write in many styles and shift quickly.
Chris, what is your musical training and background?
I began classical piano and later guitar through the Royal Conservatory. I learned how to play but it sucked the soul out of the music. One of my early guitar teachers opened my ears and taught me how to listen to what I was playing… he helped me hear the big picture, listening ahead, understanding chord patterns and how a melody pushes to the next chord. He helped me hear the connection between performance and music theory. He taught me to move beyond reproducing music into understanding it.
Then I started exploring other genres on my own. I played in blues bands while I was studying to become a software engineer. We released a CD while I was still in University. I released my first solo album the day after my University convocation… the graduation party and the CD release party kind of blended together over two days.
How did you start learning to write songs?
I started writing songs because like any writer, I had a hunger to create. For me it was a natural progression from blues improvising to songwriting.
I went where there were songwriters… I went to conferences and masterclasses, songwriting bootcamps. I joined S.A.C. (Songwriters of Canada) and SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers, Canada’s Performing Rights Organization) and went to songwriting events and workshops. I consciously tried to get to know the songwriting mentors as friends and then as coworkers. I met and worked with songwriters that had more experience than I did.
You can learn from whoever you’re working with. Regardless of who is a stronger, better or more experienced writer, everyone has something you can learn from them.
I began co-writing about 8 years ago. I’m not even sure who it was with… it might have been Charlie A’Court… but I was bit by the bug.
Co-writing has been the most important way I learned my craft. It’s a cliche because it’s true” two heads are worth more than one. Now it’s rare that I finish a song on my own.
What advice would you give yourself 10+ years ago?
Don’t be too precious with your ideas.
When we are younger and still developing, it’s easy to become overly proud of our creations. We think we are already the best that we can be, that others don’t have anything to teach us, or we don’t believe that other people might know better than we do.
In my case, I passed up some opportunities with more experienced musicians and producers because I thought my songs were already great on their own and that I didn’t need any help. These opportunities would have helped me realize that I had still some stepping up to do.
I resisted writing for other artists and writing with other artists… I should have started co-writing sooner.
What advice would you give a developing songwriter?
Co-write… work and cooperate with others, with anyone who is a writer. Every writer has experience and knowledge to share. Take advice and direction from more advanced writers and producers. You always have something to learn, there is a lesson in every piece of advice.
Practice as much as you can. Write every day, especially when you are first learning your craft and discovering your voice.
Practice writing in other genres, you might surprise yourself with what you write. It’s important to get outside your comfort zone, that’s when you learn the most. Staying in your comfort zone is usually a result of fear, either of the unknown of or losing control. But the magic happens outside your comfort zone.
I was never really a Country fan, but the more I write in that style, the more I like it. I have been listening to Country Pop… a few years ago I would have been making fun of it. But after writing in the style, I’ve realized that it’s harder to write than it appears. Just because a product sounds “simple” doesn’t mean that the process is easy. The act of writing can be just as sophisticated and difficult as writing any other music.
Here’s another way to think about it. You can unleash your creativity if you take the narrow parameters of “Pop Music” and adapt them to what you want to say and who you are. Usually people think about writing Pop music as trying to confine confine yourself to a small box. Shifting your thinking (and prejudices) will unlock your creativity.
How do you promote your music and yourself?
Create a lot of music. They won’t hear a hundred bad songs, but they will hear that one great song.
I spent a great deal of time writing. I wrote and co-wrote some great songs, some of them were cut and received a lot of airplay. Because of awards and spins, people often come to me. Word gets around, and a reputation as a solid writer with technical skills has helped my career.
But the hustle never really stops. You have to make the effort to get yourself to people who haven’t heard of you yet. You market yourself by networking, introducing yourself until it becomes comfortable.
Social Media, whatever your favourite channels are, decrease the degree of separation between you and people that you want to work with. Put yourself out there and introduce yourself… offer your help, don’t just ask for it.
As songwriters, we get a backstage pass because we provide a valuable service for artists. We aren’t in direct competition with them for public attention but we can ultimately provide them with something, either songs or help co-writing songs, that will help them get the attention that drives the music industry.
Chris, what’s your next project?
Besides producing several projects, I am writing new songs for my next CD. I haven’t picked a title yet, but recording is scheduled for this fall and it should be mastered by the end of the year. It’s been almost 7 years since I was last in the studio recording my own material. The longer you go without doing it, the harder it is to get back at it… it’s a negative feedback loop. I can’t wait to get back in the studio with my own songs!
Connect with Chris Kirby
Join his email list on his website
Chris Kirby on YouTube
Chris Kirby’s Publisher: Sound of Pop
My 12 Takeaways from the Interview
Mostly in the order they appear in the interview
1. Co-writing taught Chris more about songwriting than anything else.
2. Go where there are songwriters, put yourself where the action is and learn from others
3. He cultivated relationships with songwriting mentors, became their friends and then their coworkers.
4. Everyone has something to teach you… are you listening for the lessons?
5. There is a natural connection between improvisation and songwriting… they are similar but different processes. I live this one because I came to songwriting through jazz improvisation.
6. Don’t be too precious with your ideas… share them and learn from the feedback.
7. Don’t let your ego get in your way or tempt you to ignore opportunities.
8. Write every day and practice as much as possible.
9. Get outside your comfort zone, that’s when you learn the most.
10. Don’t let your prejudices get in the way of learning from other artists or musical genres… the process of writing is as challenging for “simple” music as anything else.
11. Introduce yourself… offer your help, don’t just ask for it.
12. Songwriters provide a valuable service for artists, it’s a backstage pass. Use this power for the good of everyone!
13. Even established artists need to hustle and make the effort… there’s no free rides, but the ride gets easier as you build momentum.
14. Build a solid reputation as a great writer / artist / performer / producer… the word, good or bad, gets around!
15. Make a positive effort to get yourself and your music to people who haven’t heard of you yet. Don’t expect the world to come to you, go on an adventure.
16. Adapt the parameters of a style to your songwriter’s voice, write your message, instead of trying to fit into the “rules” of a genre.