Daniel Leatherisch: The Philosophy of Songwriting

written by Autumn Marie Buysse

For the third installment of OMG! I’m A Songwriter’s pure writer series, I interviewed The Bluebird Cafe’s April Bluebird Golden Pick contest winner, who doubles as the most well spoken songwriter I’ve met in Nashville.

Daniel Leathersich has a way with words, not only when he’s writing lyrics, but when he’s talking about it. It’s rare to find a creative with an equally strong right and left brain; a writer who understands music on an intellectual level just as much as they do on an emotional level. That’s Daniel though, and if you’ve written with him, you know his brain is essentially an encyclopedia of eccentric ideas and craft. He proves that songwriting is a muscle— he can spit out five different options for a line in a minute, and then explain the merits and detriments of each option as it relates to the song as a whole. Daniel’s every bit as analytical as he is free spirited, which is why I’m pretty sure he was born to be a pure writer.

Daniel and I grabbed a late breakfast at Fenwick’s 300 on 8th so I could pick his brain on songwriting. For an idea of how serious of a songwriter Daniel is, he’s written about 700 songs, but he refused to even claim to be a songwriter until he’d reached 400. Instead of writing paragraphs about Daniel’s journey, I’ve transcribed some of his most intriguing opinions so you can soak them in, unadulterated. I thought it would be a disservice to not share all of his thoughts, verbatim.

Daniel started out drawing, painting, attending undergraduate and graduate school for printmaking, writing poetry, crafting short stories, and sculpting novels, and then finally began penning songs. He found that the visual art world was overly competitive, and not nearly as collaborative as the music world. “I get excited about other people’s creative projects, I like helping people, and I think that that’s part of my desire to be a behind the scenes pure writer. I don’t wanna be the dude who goes on tour and travels nine months out of the year and doesn’t see his family, but I love that people do that. I think it’s awesome. It’s not me, but if I can help them get content that’s gonna help them achieve their goals, that’s essentially my goal.” In all ways but one, Daniel Leathersich is an artist.

During our breakfast, Daniel told me a story that perfectly encapsulates the goal of a true pure writer: “I wrote a song with a guy a little while ago that was something I’ve said a bunch of times already, so it was hard for me to get invested in the lyric, but it was something that he hadn’t said yet, so he was really excited about the song. Because he was excited, I got excited, and I was like ‘oh this isa good song,’ even though I’ve used these words and these rhymes and executed this craft before, this final product is still awesome. It might not be my favorite song that becomes a #1, but it’s the other person’s favorite song that might. They’re going to want to get behind it, they’re going to want to play it for everybody, they’re going to want to stand in front of a stadium full of people and say ‘I wrote this song.’ So it doesn’t really matter what I think in the end— you know, my job is to assist, to encourage, to inform. To help write somebody’s favorite song.”

It’s often misunderstood that pure writers have nothing they want to say for themselves. When Daniel first started songwriting, he was writing songs about himself and about his life. “I got to a point where I’d kind of said everything I wanted to say for myself, but I still liked writing songs. So then what do you write about? Well, you start writing for other people. You start trying to write universally, you start trying to write things people wanna hear, and people wanna say . . . After I started songwriting by myself for a while, I bought a digital 8-track to record these songs. I ended up making five or six albums of songs that I’d made, that I’d give out to friends. That’s where it got in my head— I’m writing these songs that I want to hear somebody play, but I don’t want to play them.”

“If your influences are varied, you’re more likely to just want to play with music, which makes you a composer or a writer . . . I think part of the writer’s mind is that you’re attracted to everything. I like grooves, I like turns of phrase, I like romantic lyric, I like melody. I mean, if you ask me what my favorite melody is, it’s probably from a Tchaikovsky piece. If you ask me what my favorite lyric is, it’s probably from an Eric B. & Rakim song from 1988. I don’t know, it’s just everything. The music that I emote to most in my personal life is probably Bruce Springsteen. The music I appreciate the most, get most nostalgic about, is Frank Sinatra. I think if you’re the kind of person who grew up listening to one thing— your dad listened to it, your grandpa listened to it, your mom listened to it, family road trips, whatever, I think those people become artists because they want to sing like their heroes.”

Daniel’s first introduction to songwriting was in his home state of Pennsylvania. “Songwriting started as a goofy thing I did with friends around a campfire, making stuff up, it was all improvisational.” It was just a few college kids drinking beer and writing politically incorrect songs, calling themselves the “Creatures in the Woods.” “My first 250 songs were written with two or three or four or sometimes seven people, just completely improvisational. Some of them were nine minutes long, some of them were 38 seconds long.” Most of the time they were all just joking around and singing whatever came to mind, but once in a while, somebody would sing something magic. It was at these campfires that Daniel fell in love with collaborative songwriting and serendipitous moments of musical genius.

Daniel didn’t even pick up a guitar until a few years later when he moved to Indiana for graduate school. He was 24 years old when he won $100 betting on a football game. He went and bought a hundred dollar guitar— even though the guy he bet with never paid him. His Creatures in the Woods friends came to visit him in Indiana and they recorded some songs together, but besides those visits, he was on his own now. He missed his songwriting community, and began solo writing songs in his journal instead.

After Daniel’s wife Sarah finished graduate school in Indiana, they moved back to Pennsylvania. For the next thirteen years, Daniel helped create production layouts for a menswear company, and his wife taught art and farming at universities. That is, until they sold almost everything they owned, shoved whatever remained in a storage container, and moved into “a crappy little apartment on the second floor of an 18th century farmhouse.” Daniel quit his job and started solo writing every day.

A year and half into living in their farmhouse apartment, Daniel and his wife decided to either move to Nashville or New York so Daniel could start pursuing songwriting as a career. He was slightly familiar with Nashville’s scene via some NSAI workshops he attended, and with New York’s from attending some events and shows. While he enjoyed New York, it’s so big that he was afraid he wasn’t going to meet the right people in order to do what he wanted to do. While Nashville had open arms, he found that people he met in New York were more closed-off and the doors were harder to open. He felt that New Yorkers were trying to join a scene that was already there, or trying to be different to intentionally stand out from a scene. “The people in Nashville were not only working on their craft, but working on the scene they wanted to create, and that’s what we were doing in the coal region of Pennsylvania.”

In Nashville, it’s said that the song is king, and for Daniel, it’s no different. Daniel believes that all songs have individual needs, and in order to serve the song, you have to be receptive to it. “The music happens how the music happens. Whether you’re in control of it, or someone else in the room is in control of it, you don’t get to choose what happens if it’s a true collaboration, because you do what’s best for the song. If the song has moon/June/spoon rhymes and feels good, it’s gonna get written in an hour. If the song’s about the state of people’s heads when they encounter a homeless person in the rain, that’s probably going to take a little bit longer. It doesn’t mean one is better than the other. You do what the song wants.”

Daniel didn’t move here specifically because of the country music scene, but his strengths certainly cater to the genre. “I’ve been writing story songs, in one form or another, for as long as I could remember.” His attention to detail and proclivity to collaboration makes the lyric-centric, collaborative nature of Music Row songwriting a perfect fit. “I like the collaborative process, that’s how I started creating music . . . I still enjoy writing songs by myself, but make no bones about it, I came to Nashville to collaborate and write songs that millions of people want to hear.”

Daniel’s not solely a lyricist by any means, but because he is known for paying so much attention to how things are said, I thought that when I asked him what makes a song great, he’d start talking about the lyric. I was wrong though. “I think the thing that all the songs I like the most have in common is that they feel good.” When Daniel uses the word “feel,” he’s referencing how the lyric relates to the melody, how the words and the music work together. “I mean, look at ‘Wagon Wheel’— what does that lyric mean? There’s a dude trying to get home, and maybe he meets a trucker, like it’s a cool song, but it’s a great song because of the feel. What’s the melody? We’re not breaking any new ground with this melody. It’s not a story that everybody has in common. This isn’t like ‘oh, that guy’s telling my tale.’ It’s a hobo trying to get home to North Carolina. And yet, everybody loves the song. Why? Because of the feel.”

Daniel’s plan in Nashville is to find as many artists as possible who are passionate about what they do and help them write songs they don’t already have in their catalog. When it comes to writing with artists, Daniel Leathersich’s number one rule is the same as Paige Blue’s, the second pure writer featured in this series. “The number one rule is to make an artist feel comfortable so that they’ll tell you what they want, rather than just asking what they want, because a lot of times, they don’t know . . . through conversation though, they’re creative people too, so they might go somewhere that they love, and then I feed that.” It’s Daniel’s second rule that makes him stand out. “The second most important thing is to encourage the artist to not do something they’ve done a hundred times before, because then you start competing with yourself. If there’s only gonna be ten songs on that record, you want them to pick yours because it’s different, it’s unique. You want to know what they do, and know what they don’t do, and find somewhere in the middle that is new and fun and unique.”

Daniel’s goal is “to partner with a publishing company that has fingers in R&B, rock, country, and folk, and who will get me in rooms with people who would like a guy who likes to twist words around. I want to find someone who believes in my talent as much as I believe in their mission, and partner in that way . . I don’t need to collect a bunch of trophies and tell everybody who I am. I just want to do something that I think I’m good at for a living, that may also help people.”

For Daniel, the biggest challenge of succeeding as a pure writer is the numbers. Even though Nashville is a much smaller city than New York or Los Angeles, there’s still a lot of people here who have the same dream. The catch-22 of the Nashville scene is standing out and getting attention without drawing attention to yourself, being humble while still getting noticed so that someone will want to exploit one of your songs financially.

A few decades ago, Daniel might have paired up with an artist and written all their biggest hits, and then entered infinite stardom by himself. It’s not the ‘80s anymore though, the town has grown and those days are over. A few decades ago, having track six on an album was enough, because with physical sales, all songs on the record earned the same, even if everybody skipped track six. Now though the bar has been raised— hardly anyone’s buying CDs or digital albums, so you have to write the song that everybody wants to stream if you want to make money.

When it comes to today’s market, “what people are listening to today is a little more fun, a little more uptempo, a little more vibey.” However, when it comes to song topics, Daniel’s found that “popular music sings about the same stuff because it’s popular, it applies to a mass audience.” While styles vary through the years, and number one hits from ten years ago might not even chart if they were released today, he argues that artists have always been singing about the same things. “For a while, people wanted to get bro country out of the way. It was feel good, it was fun, it was friends having fun. Who can’t relate to friends having fun? If you hate friends having fun, then don’t come to my house [laughs]. So I don’t think that is ever gonna go away, there’s always going to be songs about friends having fun. There’s always going to be songs about boys trying to kiss girls, I mean Sinatra sang it, Bobby Darin sang it, Bing Crosby sang it, why would we stop saying that? Does music really even ever change?”

While two songs might have the same idea, true artists interpret songs based on their personal experience. To give an example, Daniel juxtaposed Carrie Underwood’s fun drinking song “Southbound” with Bruce Springsteen’s night out songs, and how they both communicate the same message through different lenses. “In ‘Southbound,’ who in that song is really experiencing the hard times of life? They’re at a party, they’re having fun, it’s a sunny day, it’s great. With Bruce Springsteen, it can be that same feeling, ‘we’re going out dancing tonight, me and my baby, we’re gonna have a great time.’ But there’s that voice that’s also like ‘I’ve just worked 14 hours today and I don’t have clean pants, but I’m stillgoing out dancing with my baby. And to me, that rawness is really cool.” Artists from Hank Williams to Florida Georgia Line carry on country’s tradition of writing songs about one’s relationship to family, faith, and Saturday nights in the context of hardship.

I hope Daniel’s perspective on songwriting has shifted yours as it did mine. To hear some of his brilliant originals and get to know him yourself, you can follow Daniel on Instagram at @danielleathersichmusic.