Nashville-based singer-songwriter Marc Scibilia's big break was the kind of thing you can't quantify or plan for. Invited by a friend to an exclusive, black-tie Music Industry soiree, Scibilia showed up in the best set of duds he could rustle together at the time: a white button-down shirt and khaki pants. "I didn't even know what 'black tie' meant," he says with a laugh. "I was sitting at a table with all of these important people. Taylor Swift was at the table next to me. I guess I stood out."
Some folks thought he was a rakish interloper; others assumed he was a star. The wife of music exec Jody Williams at first thought Orlando Bloom was seated at her table, and that led to Williams taking a meeting with the under-dressed mystery man. A few weeks later, Scibilia was signed to Sony/ATV Music Publishing.
"Obviously, something like that isn't in anybody's playbook," Scibilia explains. "It wasn't even in mine – it just happened. But it just goes to show you that opportunity could knock at any minute. It wouldn't have mattered at all if I didn't have some good songs in my pocket."
These days, Sciblia is on everybody's short list of singer-songwriters on the verge of exploding. His just-released EP, The Shape I'm In, is a robust mini-collection of soul-tinged folk-rock, and next week he begins a tour with a guy who also knows his way around a tune or two, mega-producer, writer and artist Butch Walker.
Scibilia does have some tips for aspiring songwriters, and they're bound to improve your work no matter what kinds of clothes are in your closet, staring with...
“Don't just write – write a lot. Get those bad songs out of your system. It sounds simple, but you have to write a bunch of not-so-great songs before you come up with something that anyone will care about.
“It’s like anything – like sports. You have to get your muscles tuned up to play baseball, and songwriting is the same. A lot of people get caught up in the idea of inspiration, but I’ve found that inspiration comes on the back end of having your muscles ready.
“Don’t worry about the bad songs. Everybody writes bad songs. Very few people write their best stuff right out of the gate. If you have some good songs, that probably means you have a collection of really bad songs you don’t want anyone to hear. That’s OK, because those awful songs got you to where you are now. Just keep going – that’s the most important thing.”
Do what is natural
“Do what you’re made to do. There’s a lot of country music being made in Nashville, so a lot of people think ‘I can make a living writing that stuff.’ They see other people doing that, and they think it's easy, like following a formula.
“Maybe some people can do that, but most can’t, not if the music isn’t in them. Actually, I think you start to forfeit what is unique to you if you copy what other people are doing. Most successful country songwriters that I know only started having hits after they stopped trying to be like somebody else.
“If you’re a true country songwriter and you write what's natural to you, that’s when it’s going to work. I think people can tell when you’re trying to fit into a certain box, and they recognize what you’re doing as sounding forced.”
“I can be guilty of not heeding this advice. Sometimes the best songs sit unfinished in my phone. But what I’ve realized is that something doesn’t have to sound brilliant as long as I finish it.
“When I start a song, sometimes it might sound ordinary, but it could be great by the time I get to the end, so then I’ll just go back and rewrite the beginning. That’s when I can sit back and go, ‘Yes! I finished it, and it’s better than I thought it would be.’ That’s a great feeling. So always be a finisher."
Be selective about the opinions you take to heart
“If your friends like everything you write, they’re probably not the best critics. Don’t surround yourself with people who just tell you what they think you want to hear and that everything you do is great. It’s nice to hear compliments, but if they’re not being discerning and totally honest, they’re not doing you any favors.
“Find a group of people whose opinions you really respect, and I mean you respect the movies they like, the clothes they wear and, of course, the music they listen to. If you write smooth jazz and you play your stuff for somebody who likes death metal, you probably won’t get an opinion that’ll be of use.
“At a certain point, you might write something that is undeniable to all people, no matter which genres of music they might be into, but that usually isn’t the case. Seek out informed people who can really point you in clear directions.”
“I always hear people say, ‘Nobody cares about lyrics anymore. It’s all about the beat.’ But I don’t agree with that at all. Songs that matter and are timeless usually have great lyrics that resonate with people.
“It doesn’t have to be poetry, and it doesn't have to be wordy or even profound; it just has to be true and from the heart. If you really express your feelings, somebody is going to pick up on that. It’ll become part of their lives. They’ll write lyrics on messages to other people – your lyrics. A song can exist simply in the words that go with the music.
“I was listening to Lorde recently. Her song Royals is great on so many levels, but you can tell that lyrically she put a lot of thought into what she’s saying. Her words matter.”