A few years ago songwriter Kevin Griffin was at his base in the Hollywood Hills setting up writing appointments with fellow pop/rock hitmakers when he kept running into a problem—they were all out of town, writing in Nashville.
Griffin, who got his start in music as frontman for Better Than Ezra, parlayed the success as principal songwriter and producer for his own band into a strong career doing the same for others. He co-wrote Howie Day’s monster hit “Collide,” and racked up cuts and/or production credits with Train, James Blunt, David Cook, Augustana and more.
Living in Los Angeles while many of his co-writers were based elsewhere made the collaborative process difficult. From L.A., Griffin and Shy Carter worked via Skype with Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush on one writing session. That afternoon resulted in the Sugarland hit “Stuck Like Glue,” nonetheless, songwriting via video chat didn’t cut it.
Originally from New Orleans, Griffin had moved to California post-Hurricane Katrina. But after realizing he could write with the same people in L.A. or Nashville, Griffin and his wife, both native Southerners, decided to move with their three sons to Franklin, Tenn. at the beginning of 2011.
He recalls his thought process: “So I can live in Nashville, be near SEC football, have a better standard of living, save money, and work with the same artists. It was a no-brainer. I continue to do the work I did in L.A.
“The past couple of years I’ve really seen a shift where pop and rock songwriters and managers have moved to Nashville,” he continues. “Not necessarily to carpetbag on the country world, but because it is a great place to live and do what they do. There’s a great support system with the labels, studios, press and media. Plus, everywhere you go there’s a stage for music. It’s really refreshing.”
Upon arrival, Kevin Spellman, a friend working at Vector Management, helped Griffin find a studio to base his operations. He took over the Franklin recording space from TobyMac, and eventually plans to build a home studio on his property in historic downtown.
Blair Daly, Craig Wiseman, Andrew Dorff, and Jeffrey Steele are just a few of the local tunesmiths Griffin has been writing with. “It’s surprising how many of the traditionally country writers want to do pop,” he notes. “And not only want to do it, but are really great at it. Some of them are almost closet hip-hop artists like Luke Laird. They also like to stretch the traditional boundaries and do something that is a little more lyrically poetic.”
Griffin appreciates Nashville’s reverence for songwriters and has taken some of Music Row’s traditions out west. “I love that the height of the songwriting craft is in Nashville. My friend Monty Powell says, ‘songwriters are at the top of the food chain’ here.
“There is a real discipline and craft to writing that bulletproof Nashville lyric—you know exactly what it’s about and all the loose ends are tied up. In rock it’s the opposite, you get away with a lot more non sequiturs and open ended themes—lines that don’t mean anything but sound good. Now when I go back to L.A., I’m the song police, saying ‘I’m not quite sure about that line, or let’s go back to the first verse.’ Everyone else has moved on, but I’m worried about the lyric that isn’t clear.
“I always said that where I live wouldn’t affect my songwriting, nonetheless, it always has,” he muses. Increasingly he says those Music City influences include world-class musicians like pedal steel and mandolin master Russ Pahl, recurring song themes, and collaborating with other writers for the first time on the upcoming Better Than Ezra album.
In the midst of shifting influences, Griffin remains focused on the song. “Ultimately I think that if the melody and the feel of the song don’t pull you in, then the lyric is irrelevant. My success has been with the simple songs, and the hardest thing to do as a writer is to remember that when you keep it simple, it’s a song everybody loves—whether it is ‘Collide,’ which is four chords, or [BTE breakout hit] ‘Good’ which is the same four chords.”
Griffin and Collective Soul’s Ed Roland are showcasing their songwriting chops and love of the South this fall on the aptly named Southern Gentleman tour, though Griffin laughs, “the irony of the name wasn’t lost on either one of us.” The run launches Sunday (10/23) in New York, and hits the Franklin Theatre Nov. 5.