The Producer’s Chair: Victoria Shaw

Victoria Shaw

Victoria Shaw

By James Rea

Don’t miss Victoria Shaw on The Producer’s Chair on Thursday, Oct. 30 at Douglas Corner at 6 p.m. (Doors open at 5:30 p.m.)

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Now that Victoria Shaw has done it all, she’s just getting started. With sixty-five million records to her name, Shaw’s highly developed, instinctive approach to music—and her warm sense of humor—make it all look easy.

She’s written and produced numerous hits, recorded her own albums, and runs her own publishing company in the heart of Music Row. Shaw won the ACM Award for Song of the Year award for co-writing John Michael Montgomery’s “I Love The Way You Love Me,” and the CMA Award for producing Single of the Year Lady Antebellum’s “I Run To You.”

Shaw’s first three No. 1s as a songwriter came in 1992, with the hit by Montgomery, as well as Doug Stone’s Too Busy Being In Love,” and Garth BrooksThe River.” In 1994, Shaw signed an artist deal with Warner/Reprise Records, releasing her debut album In Full View which yielded three singles. She was nominated for ACM Top New Female Vocalist in 1995. She also scored another No. 1 by Brooks, “She’s Every Woman.”

In 1998, Trisha Yearwood recorded Shaw’s Where Your Road Leads” as a duet with Brooks. It was the title track to Yearwood’s album and was released as a single.

Shaw’s diverse body of work has won more than 20 ASCAP and SESAC Awards, (including Publisher of the Year), two Emmy Awards, and resulted in cuts by artists as diverse as Ricky Martin & Christina Aguilera, Keb Mo, Olivia Newton-John, Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes, Reba, Billy Ray Cyrus, Michael McDonald and Eric Church.

In 2007-08 Shaw co-produced Lady Antebellum’s self-titled platinum debut album which earned them CMA Awards for Vocal Group of the Year and Single of The Year, “I Run To You.”

As an artist she has recorded five albums, five videos, and toured extensively in Europe, but it is likely that her most memorable gig is performing in Central Park with Brooks in front of 750,000 people.

Shaw was born in Manhattan, New York, but her family moved to Los Angeles when she was five. Before Victoria was born, her mother recorded for Capitol Records and Verve Records under the name Carole Bennett. Shaw’s father, Ray Shaw, was also a singer and performer working on Broadway and in touring companies.

Growing up in Southern California, Victoria was inspired by Country rock and pop songwriters such as The Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and James Taylor. She began writing songs at an early age and by the time she was 13, Shaw had started a band called SOLICE and was performing at L.A. weddings and high school dances. At 18, she moved back to New York by herself, playing in piano bars at night and managing the High Rise Sound studio during the day.

The Producer’s Chair: Did you learn to engineer while you were in New York?

Victoria Shaw: No but I learned how to splice tape and I was good at making tape copies from reel-to-reel to cassette. It was a better education than I thought. If they needed some background vocals, I’d run in and do that too and then go back to answering the phones. These days I run Pro Tools.

How did you start playing in piano bars?

The owner of the studio was the host of an open mic night in Times Square and when the piano player quit he said, “why don’t you come and do this?” I was so scared because I didn’t want to screw up anyone. But it turned out that I could do it because I’m a good reader. It turned into a regular gig and that set me off playing all over New York for years. I loved it.

How did you wind up in Nashville?

I was living in Long Island with an aunt and commuting back and forth between there and the studio in New York on the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) and I wrote this song one night on a little 12-inch Casio about playing in a piano bar and coming home late on the LIRR. It was called “Is That Any Way To Treat A Star.” On one of my trips to California my Dad and I decided to record it. He found out who the Country music people were in L.A. and he stumbled onto Jerry Fuller to produce it. I had no idea who Jerry was at the time nor did I know who John Hobbs was, who played piano on that session! So we cut a couple of sides and I had this 45 and I went back to New York and somebody told me to take it to this big station in New York to the program director. I was naïve and I called up Dene Hallam and said, “Hi, I have a record and I heard you were a nice man and you would listen to it.” I’m pretty sure the only reason he agreed to see me is because I told him that I heard he was nice. So he listened to it and… a couple of days later he called up and said, “We just tested your song on the air.” Eventually it became a huge hit in New York City. It was really odd and a bunch of label people in Nashville were like, “Who the hell is Victoria Shaw and why is she getting played on this big station?”

Those people wanted to meet me down here so I came down with a manager that my father found for me and she took me around meeting publishers and A&R people like Martha Sharp and Charlie Monk. The few times I went down to Nashville no one was interested in me as an artist. I also realized that even though my father loved me dearly, it was not a good thing to have your dad trying to get you a record deal. This is a tale that’s as old as time. But I was at least smart enough to realize that whenever I said, “My Dad,”… that the industry was pretty turned off by that. Soon after that I asked my dad to just be my dad and I pursued things by myself from there on out. My father ended up being extremely proud of the fact that I did it on my own.

So I started driving down to Nashville from New York every few months. The first person I called was Charlie Monk and he was incredibly kind, letting me use his office, and setting me up with songwriters like Marcus Hummon and Steven Curtis Chapman, who did my demos for $100 a song. I also became good friends with the guy in the tape copy room by the name of Gary Overton. One of the first times I was down here someone suggested I go to the Bluebird to a writer’s night, which obviously I had never heard of. I went there by myself and it was a round consisting of Paul Davis, Fred Knobloch, Thom Schuyler and Paul Overstreet and it was like a religious epiphany. It truly changed my life, the most inspiring thing I’d ever seen, and I remember thinking, “that’s how I’m going to get my record deal. I’m going to become a hit songwriter for other people and get noticed that way,” which was totally naïve because I didn’t know if I had the talent to do that. So I really concentrated on being a songwriter, but for eight years I couldn’t get arrested in this town. I eventually became friends with Steve Small who was managing Gary Morris at the time. One day I mentioned to Gary that I was looking for a publishing deal and he had me come in and play for him. What was great about Gary is that he was an artist and he “got me.” He gave me my first break and offered me a pub deal. Gary didn’t care that I wasn’t this hardcore country writer. He encouraged me to keep writing like “me,” but he made up my game. I don’t think I got paid much for that publishing deal but I didn’t care, I wanted in. About a year later I had three number ones thanks to Randy Hart who was running Gary Morris Music.

How many publishing deals have you had?

Gary Morris was my first publishing deal. Then Maverick Music, which was owned by Madonna and Warner Bros., made me a great offer, which had a lot of potential but they didn’t have a physical office here and it was kind of frustrating, so I left Maverick and published myself for a couple of years. In that time I won two Emmy awards and got cuts by Ty Herndon, Olivia Newton John and a few others. That was when I was busy raising babies so I was content.

Then Desmond Child, who’s a friend of mine, had a writer’s camp in Miami and we, along with Gary Burr, wrote a big hit for Christina Aguilera and Ricky Martin called “Nobody Wants To Be Lonely.” Soon after that Desmond offered me a pub deal with his Destin Songs. I thought it could give me an “in” into the pop world. Again they were a new company and they came here but they only lasted about a year and a half because even though Desmond had a great vision for the company, his partners didn’t want to make the full commitment to Nashville. Then I wound up with Warner/Chappell for about a year, and then BMG New York, (which eventually turned into UMPG) who signed me because of my ability to write both pop and Country. I left them in 2007 and until now I’ve been self-published. Funny enough, to quote The Godfather III, “Every time I think I’m out they pull me back in.” I’m actually considering an interesting offer right now for a publishing deal.

In ‘94 you got your first record deal. How did that unfold?

I was at a party at Daniel Hill’s house and there was a guitar pull going on in the backyard. I sang a song and Leanne Baron freaked out and took me to meet her boss, who was Jim Ed Norman, the president of Warner Bros. He was lovely and he offered me a development deal. He was extremely supportive and I enjoyed that time. I think I was there for four years, two albums, four videos, great reviews from the critics but for many reasons didn’t sync up with the stars. Because of my time as a recording artist, I’m probably a much more well-known songwriter than a lot of my songwriter friends who are more successful. And I learned a whole lot that benefitted me as a producer.

During that period, Shaw had another No. 1 with Brooks’ “She’s Every Woman,” she was nominated for CMA Female Vocalist of the Year, and the year before she won ACM Song of the Year for “I Love The Way You Love Me.”

You’ve spent quite a bit of time touring Europe. How did that come about?

I had this kooky great career in Europe more than America because I really pursued it. I was one of those artists that actually thought that Europe was important and I still have a pretty cool little following there.

Have you ever had an independent plugger?

I’ve always been my best plugger, other than Randy Hart. That’s the thing… if I go into business with somebody, they have to do something I can’t do, or do it as well. Good pluggers are really rare in this town. There are some, but it’s a really hard thing. Holds don’t mean what they used to and it’s a whole different game.

That’s what happened with my last deal. I wasn’t getting as many cuts as I used to have and I knew the quality of my writing wasn’t going down. Then I started looking at the credits on the albums and saw that the producers had their writers on these projects. I thought, “I’m just going to have to find my own artist and develop them.” I don’t think a lot of the time now, the best song necessarily wins. And that makes me sad because even on projects that I’ve produced, I’ve said, “No, my songs don’t work on this.” So I thought I’d find a male artist to develop because I’ve had all these hits with men. I wasn’t looking for a girl, and then I found Hillary [Scott].

How did you meet Hillary?

I knew her mom Linda Davis and I would see Hillary as a kid mostly at the hair salon where Linda and I got our hair done. Then Linda invited my family to her Christmas at Opryland show and all of a sudden Hillary came out to sing and I was like the RCA dog, where my head went to one side like “huh?” There was just something about her. She was so raw and kinda pitchy but she had “that thing” and she had this texture that you could hear through all of it. And something just hit my heart. It’s intangible, you really can’t explain the “it” factor. And I walked up to her afterwards and said, “I want to work with you.” She was really sweet and she said, “that would be a dream come true. I was planning on going to beautician school and I’ve always secretly dreamed about doing music.” Her parents were really protective, but I think they trusted me and they let her come and start working with me.

She was about 15 or 16 when she came to my office and I had her sing a capella and I said, “I really would like to develop you as an artist and teach you about songwriting and get you a record deal.” I had it in my head that this would take five years, and it was almost five years to the month when Lady A took off. I wanted her to have childhood experiences, to have after school activities. We took it nice and slow. By the time she was 17, I started to bring her into writing sessions. So in the beginning, I would ask my hit songwriter friends if they would write with us. A lot of those writers tell me now that they saw it in my eyes and believed in me believing in her.

She was a great, eager student and she listened. I wish someone had taught me some of the shortcuts that I showed her, or the songwriting etiquette and the reasons why. When something didn’t work, I’d tell her why and I think that is invaluable. Some people take it as the precious information that it is and some writers get indignant. The ones that thought they knew better than me… I’m not sure where they are these days. I take a lot of pride in Hillary being a hit songwriter.

When I interviewed Paul Worley he said, “Victoria worked with them on their live show, their songs and coached them. When I saw them, it was already figured out. They really kind of crystallized in me the prototype of artist development of today.” What was his reaction the day you brought Lady A to him?

Tracy Gershon was a big champion early on, so I took them to Warner Bros. because Tracy had arranged for Paul to hear them. We sat in the conference room and they sang and he looked at me and said, “You did A&R’s job” and nobody had ever put it that way. I was just doing naturally what my gut said and that was a real compliment. They were completely prepared and we knew exactly who they were.

When you first met Hillary, she was a solo artist. How did Lady A happen?

In the beginning before the boys came on board, I got Hillary a development deal with RCA. Leslie Roberts was our champion over there. And I said to Hillary, “I don’t know if by the end of this year we’re going to be ready for this deal, but by the end of this year, you will be known as an artist and I will be known as a producer because every week, they’re going to see our names on that pitch sheet.”

I sent Hillary to an event at 12th & Porter where she bumped into Charles Kelley and she recognized Charles from MySpace. She was a fan of his brother Josh Kelley and because of Josh found Charles. She approached him and said something about being a songwriter working with me and they got together to write. And she was telling me about these boys from Georgia and they were having fun and were probably going to do this kooky side band called Lady Antebellum. And they went and took some crazy pictures in period costumes and they came up with this funny name because they were standing in front of an antebellum house. Then she called and told me they were going to play at Exit In. I said to my husband before I walked out the door, “Why do I think I’m going to go to this and it’s going to make a lot of sense?” And I saw them and Hillary looked like she felt really safe between Charles and Dave. That’s the word I kept thinking. So my arms and my heart became bigger and I welcomed them into the fold. They came to town talented, no doubt. They were good songwriters, but I don’t think either of them will disagree that I helped turn them into great songwriters. They paid attention to how I wrote and would comment when I took the song somewhere they never thought of.

Did you develop your producing chops doing demos?

Absolutely, I was producing for years. I used to think the difference between a demo and a master was the lunch budget. The first thing I officially produced was Jim Brickman’s song of mine called “Never Alone” which he loved and cut with Sara Evans. RCA wouldn’t give him permission to have her on the single because she had a song coming out, so he gave Lady Antebellum a shot and let them sing on it. He cut the track and I produced their vocal and it became a Top 5, AC hit for Jim and was their first success.

Being a singer, were you tough on them in the studio?

I remember they were doing the demo of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” and Charles was singing and I kept telling him, “I just don’t feel it.” He’d do take after take. At one point I said, “I don’t believe that you’re angry.” And he’s like “Oh trust me, I’m angry.” And I laughed and said, “Now use that anger that you’re felling toward me and go back in and sing it properly.” And he sang it and came back out and listened to it and said, “You drive me nuts and then I listen to it and it’s the best vocal and you’re right!”

The thing about Charles is that he’s so good that his worst day is somebody else’s best day. I knew what he was capable of so I would push him and push him. It was a pleasure because all three of them are so talented. We had a lot of laughs.

Did you also do performance coaching with them?

When they started playing out, Charles would always call me and go over the set list because I was really good at pacing a show. They really paid their dues and did it weekly and gathered their audience the old fashioned way by word of mouth and I’d go there and I was videotaping their performances and they’d watch it back like a football play. I did that a lot with Hillary in the beginning too. We’d go down to the bars on Broadway and I’d have $5 in my hand and ask the band if my friends could sing a song. The nice thing about playing back a video of somebody’s performance is that they critiqued a lot of it themselves.

Who are you working with now?

I believe that every artist is different and I’m really good at finding out who they are and bringing it out of them. It’s about strengths and weaknesses and reading them and developing them the way they need to be developed.

The artist I’m developing now is Lacy Cavalier. She’s got that “thing” that you just know! Different from the way I developed Hillary and the boys. Ihave had this feeling from the beginning that Lacy is probably going to break in a different way than the norm….like YouTube. Right now she’s in L.A. shooting a TV show.

Does being a singer give you an advantage in the studio?

Yes, as a singer I won’t only say what you’re doing wrong but I will show you tricks for days on how to achieve those notes, how to achieve that sensibility and those little few nuances in a song that need to be interpreted. Can you laugh here? Can you give me something a little more wistful here? I’m interpreting the song as the songwriter and as the singer and I think that gives me an advantage.

Who’s your engineer of choice?

I work most often with Chad Carlson because not only is he a bad ass engineer, he’s also a great singer/musician and songwriter and I know it plays into the way he records. However, when it comes to recording vocals I like to run the board myself. It’s just me and the artist—very intimate, very relaxed. I’ve actually been hired lately just as a vocal producer on some things. They’ve been doing that in the pop world for years.

How did you wind up doing Central Park with Garth?

He called me up and said, “hey, I’m going to be playing Central Park, do you want to open for me?” I don’t know if he even got the sentence out before I said “Yeah.” It was amazing and it was a really lovely invitation that Garth extended to me. My apartment in New York is not that far from where we played. I think I walked home or something. It’s a little bit of a blur. It was just me at the keyboard and my friends Steven McClintock and Stuart Ziff and their two guitars backing me up.

I was supposed to play for 25 minutes but I did 20 because I was so freaked out that I didn’t even look at my watch. I had played my five songs and never thought to play more. I always joke that after the first 50,000 people you really can’t see anymore. It was a great experience and it was an amazing day and it’s fun to be a part of history.

What are the most important things that indie artists must do to get your attention?

I am 100 percent not interested in working with an artist who is not social media savvy or at least understands the importance of it and just needs my help to steer the the right direction. I am going to work my ass off on the music end, and if they are not holding up their part of the partnership, then why should I bust my gut? I should not have more Twitter followers than my artists. Lacy Cavalier has a million YouTube views. If an artist doesn’t want to engage their fans, why should I engage with them?

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