On Songwriting | Musings On How To Write a Song

James Lee Stanley On Songwriting

James Lee Stanley On Songwriting

James Lee Stanley has released 22 solo CDs—the most recent being Backstage At the Resurrection—as well as three duet CDs with Peter Tork. He wrote the Top Five hit Coming Out of Hiding, as well as the hits I Don’t Want To Talk About It, Plenty of Reason, All I Ever Wanted, and Make It Tonight. He scored the Emmy Award-winning CATHY specials for prime time CBS-TV, the Cable Ace Award-winning Tom Parks HBO Special, and the Tom Parks diabetes documentary.

James Lee has produced Mike Pinder/Moody Blues, Nicolette Larson, and Peter Tork, among many others. His blog, Datamusicata, has had over a million hits and offers tips and insights on every aspect of the creative process, performing, recording, composing, and booking.

James Lee has shared the stage with some major-league talent, including Bonnie Raitt, Bill Cosby, Dionne Warwick, Steven Wright, Art Garfunkel, and Robin Trower. During his career, James Lee has spent as many as 300 days on the road. He also spent 5 1/2 years on the TV show Star Trek Deep Space Nine as various aliens, including the singing Klingon.

And he’s still such a nice guy…


You have your own record label: Beachwood Recordings. What was your vision when you started the label, and how’s it going over there so far?

James Lee:

I started the label because folks at my live concerts kept asking for a recording of my music and my comedy. So I recorded a live show and then shopped it. All the labels said it was great, but I needed to choose one or the other; a comedy album or a music album. I had already chosen both. So I started my own boutique label.

Sold out of the original half-speed master vinyl pressing and went into a standard version. Sold out of that and then got a distribution deal with Chameleon Records which subsequently inked a deal with Capitol Records, so Beachwood was distributed by them for a while. Then I went completely independent and still am today some 28 years later.

We’ve released about 60 titles, some 23 solo CDs by me, Peter Tork’s only solo CD, Stranger Things Have Happened; Laurence Juber’s first two solo CDs and various singer/songwriter friends of mine, not to mention my duet collaborations with Peter Tork—Two Man Band, Once Again and Live @ the Coffee Gallery; my two duet collaborations with John Batdorf—All Wood and Stones and the newly released All Wood and Stones II; and my duet collaborations with Cliff Eberhardt—All Wood and Doors; and Michael Smith—Two Man Band Two.

James Lee Stanley On Songwriting


You’ve performed with quite an amazing range of acts, including Steven Wright, Bonnie Raitt, Robin Williams, Nicolette Larson and Bill Cosby. How have those experiences informed how you think about 1) live performance and 2) creating original material?

James Lee:

I was lucky enough to be the opening act for all those folks you mentioned and a host of others. They were all professional and prepared. So I learned to do that too. I learned that you have to be really good, really succinct and not to take encores when you’re the opening act. If they won’t settle down, come out without your instrument and take another bow.

I remember opening for Art Garfunkel and having his road manager shorten my set by 5 minutes with each subsequent date because of the incredible response I was getting from his audience. Artie wasn’t worried, but his road manager was a bit of a prat. My last show of the five city tour was only 15 minutes long. I had to use an oven timer which I wound up on stage to make certain I wouldn’t go over the fifteen minutes. Amazingly, as I plucked the last solo note of the last song, the oven timer went off, exactly in sync with my note. They had to turn the lights on to get the folks to calm down. Great fun and completely a coincidental accident.

Of all the folks I have worked with, they were generous to a fault, kind and gracious to me. And that’s the way I decided to be. Always time for your fans, patrons, friends—however you want to describe them.

As far as creating original material, if you go over my lyrics you’ll find that I’m always trying to say something that means a lot to me. I don’t write those simple love songs (I am certainly willing, it’s just not what I write). I tend to work a long time on the lyrics and the melodies and the guitar accompaniment. My plan is for the melody, lyrics and guitar to be able to stand on their own, so that combined there is the triple threat and hopefully something approaching art.

I stopped opening up for people quite a while back as my audience grew. I play small places but can usually fill them to capacity with a few exceptions. There are some places whose patrons defy my gifts. Whadyagonnado?


What inspires you to write original music?

James Lee:

Something happens that impacts me emotionally. It can be an election, Hurricane Katrina, George Bush, my wife, or even a phrase I overhear or come up with that triggers the creative flow. I do know that I keep trying to write something that you haven’t heard before. So my music tends to require a little time to get to you, usually more than one play. But the patrons I have acquired I have never lost.

I am also inspired by other artists and recordings and songs. You know, instead of singing a song I like, I will try to write one like that. That being said, I almost always have one song on my recordings that I didn’t compose. There is something very instructive and fulfilling about taking someone else’s song and making it your own. That’s what I tried to do with the All Wood and… series on Beachwood. Complete acoustic guitar and vocal reinventions of familiar rock and roll songs by iconic groups. The Stones have inspired two volumes (both collaborations with John Batdorf) and the All Wood and Doors that was inspired by John Densmore of the Doors, who loved All Wood and Stones and told me that he’d play on a CD if I did the Doors tunes. Who could refuse that offer? I collaborated with Cliff Eberhardt on that one. And I got a call from Robby Krieger of the Doors and an offer to play on it as well, so it’s a CD with the two remaining Doors playing on it. I was extremely delighted and honored by them and all the other fantastic players who came out to contribute: Laurence Juber, Paul Barrere, Peter Tork, Timothy B Schmit, Chad Watson, and Scott Breadman.

James Lee Stanley On Songwriting


Do you have a predictable/repeatable process for writing original songs, or does your songwriting process rely more on inspiration and things less predictable?

James Lee:

It always starts with something that I want to say. I also collect titles in my notebooks and phrases that turn me on. I might find them in a novel or an article or a conversation and I put them down. But I also play guitar several hours a day and stuff just falls out. And before any concert I always spend at least an hour by myself warming up and playing the guitar. Frequently something special comes out of that gearing-up time. All of it goes in notebooks and in my iPhone recording device and eventually shows up in some form in one of my compositions.

I do believe that writing a song is best without an instrument as you are limited by the way you play; your expertise and your style. If you write a song without an instrument then you are only limited by your imagination, which is supposed to be limitless. I have often written songs and then found that I had no idea how to play them on the guitar and had to struggle to figure out what I was hearing in my head and how to translate that to the guitar.


What’s typically the easiest part of writing a song for you? What’s the hardest part?

James Lee:

For me, there is no easy part and no hard part. It’s a process that requires you being there for its creation and it requires that you take the time when the muse shows up. I don’t know how many songs I have lost because I thought, “Oh, I’ll write it down or record it later, I will surely remember something as good as this.”

Amazingly I still do that and I still lose every one of those things. When will I ever learn? You stop what you’re doing and accept the gift and get it down… on paper, on tape, on the computer, in your phone, somewhere. One should never take that gift for granted.


Is that ever true. My experience exactly. I wrote a post on this topic called Write It Down, and try hard to never take the Muse for granted by assuming I’ll remember something too amazing to forget (only to lose it for lack of a pad and pencil). 

So, what have you learned so far about the process of marketing original music?

James Lee:

What I have mostly learned is that I know not so much about it. Otherwise I’d be selling a lot more CDs and playing for much larger audiences. The Internet has helped in one way, but now there are no filters. Anyone with a computer and an instrument can make up their own songs and record them and put them out as a CD or on the streaming services that exist.

How do you find the good stuff? How do you find my stuff? There are millions of folks doing it and there are not even six hundred making a comfortable living at it. I wish I had some marketing tips to offer. All I can say is to make the music that’s in your heart and then perform it everywhere you can. Make it available everywhere you can and make everyone you can aware of its existence. It seems to be a combination of who you know, luck, timing and sometimes talent.


I understand that you’ve been working on a musical for some time titled Straight From The Heart. Why tackle a project of this magnitude, what are some of the major challenges you’ve encountered on this journey, and how is the work progressing?

James Lee:

I originally started this musical as a project with a famous comic strip artist. We took her character and decided to do a musical around her. I would do the music and she would write the libretto. But she never did, so I wrote the libretto and got backers and recorded the music and meanwhile, she lost interest in the project, so I went back to the drawing board and rewrote the libretto, re-recorded some of the songs, wrote new ones and then tried for several years to get someone to write the actual dialog. Finally, I took it upon myself and am on my fifth draft of the dialog. Learning as I go.

As of right now, all the music is recorded and I have started mixing it. The libretto is ready to have a read-thru and I am looking for a small theater workshop group to work with to see where it works and where it doesn’t. You can write all you want, but when you see it on the stage, that’s when you can tell what’s happening and what’s not happening.
I can say that this is some of the best music I’ve ever written, and my goal was to make certain that every song was a winner. So many of the musicals that I’ve heard over the past decade will have one great song and that‘s it. This musical has got to have all great songs (he says modestly). I used My Fair Lady and The Music Man as my templates. Every song a gem. I’m striving for that.

James Lee Stanley On Songwriting


What are the top 2-3 tips you would have for aspiring songwriters?

James Lee:

One is to not use an instrument when you write as I stated before. Another is to learn all the songs that you think are great. Learn how to play them and sing them. Digest them. Then when you write, compare your song to those songs.

If you’re song isn’t as good, then you have work to do. Don’t be in a hurry to get a CD of your songs. Take your time and make certain that what you are doing is not only the best you can do, but is competitive.

Remember when you make a CD, you are now competing with Miles Davis, The Beatles, Nirvana, U2, Steely Dan, etc. You have put yourself in that arena. Be aware of it, be respectful of it and be the best you can be. Practice more than you watch television. That’s a great rule of thumb.

If I can be so bold, check out my blog, www.datamusicata.com. There are over five hundred articles and a search engine that allows you to find what you want to know about. Each of the articles is one-to-two pages long. I’ve had over a million hits, so I know it’s helping folks.


Tools of the Trade

What instruments do you use when developing a new song?

James Lee:I play a 2001 Taylor 810 CE with the expression system, a 1995 Collings Brasilian D2H with the LR Baggs system, a 1993 Martin D-28H, a 1973 David Russell Young Dreadnaught, a 1941 Gibson J-50, and a 1969 Fender Stratocaster

What devices do you use to record your songwriting ideas?

James Lee:I use a Dell Quad XPS 420, the Reaper Recording System, and the Universal Audio plug-ins.

Do you use any software in your songwriting process?

James Lee: Also the Sonic Foundry, Sony Vegas, Sound Forge, and CD Architect

Are there any other items you consider essential for your songwriting toolkit?

James Lee: I have a thesaurus, a synonym finder, a dictionary, a book of aphorisms, The Artist’s Way… and I rarely open any of them. Just if I really get stuck.


James Lee Stanley’s



All Wood & Doors
All Wood and Stones
All Wood & Stones II
Beachwood Christmas
Eternal Contradiction
Midnight Radio
Backstage at the Resurrection
Freelance Human Being
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
Traces of the Old Road
Domino Harvest
Two Man Band
Home Again
Once Again
Vol. 1-Live in Tehachapi
Vol. 2-Live in Tehachapi
Racing the Moon


James Lee Stanley’s Links:

Hear the new solo cd: www.jamesleestanley.com/backstage.html
All Wood and Doors: www.allwoodanddoors.com
All Wood and Stones: www.allwoodandstones.com
MySpace: www.myspace.com/jamesleestanley
NEW FREE ARTIST RESOURCE BLOG: www.datamusicata.com
Sponsored by Elixir Strings visit www.elixirstrings.com
Song downloads: http://www.jamesleestanley.com/store.html
National board member: http://www.folkalliance.org/


One Comment

  1. I have been fortunate enough to know James for the majority of my life and I can tell you that he really practices what he preaches. Moreover , his music is a beautiful expression of his mind. The other 800 + parts of music making also seem to come natural to him as well. I say all of this from a listeners standpoint having hung (hanged) on his melodies and hummed them for years. Let’s put it this way, if you like James Lee Stanley, you love James Lee Stanley. Go see him and then buy one of his discs, he is addictive, casually caustic, and incredibly funny…all for the price of admission ! After that you have his sense memory (in song) and melodies to hum for a lifetime!

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