"I had to really get to a certain point before I would really feel like I deserved to say I'm a songwriter. I still kind of pinch myself sometimes. You know, the first Grammy was with Taylor Swift" In conversation with Liz Rose
'Girl Crush', 'All Too Well', Tumble & Fall', 'God Made Girls', 'Tim McGraw', 'Fearless', 'Cry Pretty'. Got the connection? All these songs were co-written by Liz Rose. The Texan Grammy-winner has written a bunch more, but these are some of her more famous songs, best known originally for co-writing much of Taylor Swift's first two albums, that was blown out of the water by 'Girl Crush', one of the most influential songs in country music over the last decade. We caught up with Liz by phone when she was sunning it on a beach in Florida and we were in a dingy meeting room in the UK.
Hey Liz, so, my first question is how did you get into songwriting, because it came quite late on for you.
Yes it did. We moved to Nashville and my kids got into school and I wanted to work. Since we were in Nashville and knew so many people I got into the music business and I got in as a song publisher. And just started writing with one of my writers and kind of just fell into it. Then a guy named Jody Williams, who's head of BMI in Nashville, heard some of my songs and literally talked me into being a songwriter. So that's kind of how it happened, I had never written or thought about writing. I just was a champion of songwriters.
So you literally had no exposure to any writing for yourself, even just for fun, before that?
Never never never. Nothing.
Wow. And so to go from not writing to winning Grammys, do you ever look back and think how did that happen?
Yes. Every day! It took me years to say I'm a songwriter because you know so many writers have been doing it since they were little and it's in their blood. So I had to really get to a certain point before I would really feel like I deserved to say I'm a songwriter. I still kind of pinch myself sometimes. Like really?!?!!? What?!??!!? So yeah, it's really unbelievable. You know the first Grammy was with Taylor Swift, and of course, that happened because she was so huge, so kind of a gimme, and a great song.
Then I won ACM (Academy of Country Music) song of the year for 'Crazy Girl', which was an Eli Young Band song, so that was like "okay maybe I know what I'm doing". And then, of course, the 'Girl Crush' stuff that happened was amazing! So now I'm like OK you know... but yeah, it's still pretty unbelievable.
You mentioned 'Girl Crush', it's an absolutely fantastic song. Did the reaction that that got, the kind of impact that had, did that surprise you?
Absolutely. You know that was truly "let's just write a cool song". That's truly let's just try and write this idea and see where it goes, and wow this is fun. Literally we were just having fun writing this song and we thought we wrote a cool song, we wrote it pretty fast. But never in a million years did we have any idea it was going to do anything like that.
And do you find that sometimes the impact of a song depends on who it is the records and what they bring.
Oh absolutely. Little Big Town, they heard it first. In fact they heard it a couple hours after we wrote it, Karen and Kimberly, fell in love with the song and reacted to it when they first heard it. They were like "Oh, this is a big song!"So you know, all of our songwriting peers just really loved the song, and we loved it too, but we were just really kind of shocked at the reactions.
At the time it was quite controversial, wasn't it? It's a bit different for country music act to sing something like that...
Yeah... I think musically it was controversial, more than lyrically. I mean lyrically we knew what it was saying. We didn't really think about it. The song was what it was, we didn't try and craft it to trick anybody or put a message out there. The song was what it was, it wrote itself.
So the fact that it was controversial at all, we kind of laughed about it because we didn't really have time to think about it when we wrote it. But I thought that the tempo and melodically, for country radio, that was more controversial than the lyric
I suppose now people forgotten any of the controversy around it. It's just a great song. I've seen Little Big Town play it three or four times now and every time the reaction in the room is unbelievable. It's just become one of those classic songs pretty quickly.
Yeah, but so much of it is what Little Big Town did to it. That's the other thing, you would never thought that that would be a band song, you know. But what they did to it, the way they cut it, and what Jay Joyce [the producer] did to it, and what Karen's vocals and those beautiful harmonies. That's what made the song. It was a cool song, but they had such a huge part in making that a huge song.
Have any of your other songs turned out completely different from how you envisioned them when you were writing?
You know, turning 'Cry Pretty' into that being so beautiful. When you're just writing it to a guitar in a room... the Love Junkies - Lori, Hillary and myself - we don't really write to tracks, we just write to a guitar. So many people are writing to the track now so they can know what it's going to sound like. So when we wrote 'Cry Pretty' with Carrie, we wrote that just on guitar, and to see it come to life, and to see how Carrie and David Garcia produced it so amazingly, that was pretty awesome.
I've got a song with the Runaway June girls which was a male song, and they made it a female song. I mean I just love seeing how artists and producers interpret songs.
I suppose you can't be too precious over what you've written because people will make it their own. But I guess that's also part of the fun for you to see what people might do with it?
Right. And these days, man, we can't afford it, time-wise or money wise to be precious. [laughs] You know, if you get a song cut it's a miracle, if you make any money off of it it's a double miracle. I mean I have songs that I absolutely love love love and it's always great to hear someone's interpretation. Listen, for someone to you love your song and want to do something with it, it's such an honor.
Talking about the pressure of time and money, have you found that's got more difficult the longer you've been in Nashville? Because there's a lot more competition around?
Not necessarily competition, I just think it's less pieces of the pie. It's harder to make a living as a songwriter now because of technology and streaming services. Physical record sales have gone away, you know, so it's harder to make a living. So there's probably less competition as far as bodies and more competition as far as making a living doing it.
I wanted to ask you about the Love Junkies. [Ed - the Love Junkies are what Liz, Lori McKenna, and Hilary Lindsay are known collectively as a songwriting group] How do you guys organise writing? Do you plan it? Is it spontaneous?
We plan it out months in advance, and we plan three days at a time every couple of months, sometimes every month, depending on everyone's schedule. If Lori has a new record out she's touring, and you know we just make sure that every couple of months we have three days together. They show up usually at my house and we just start throwing out ideas and see how we feel. We just have fun.
Do you generally write organically like that all the time or do you get involved or do you get involved in things like pitch lists...
Never, never, never. No, no, no, we never do that. We write what we feel. We just write whatever is in the room that day, whoever, whatever, if Lori has a little piece of music... we just never know what we're going to write. And we sure don't look at the pitch thing. We just write for ourselves and hope that it speaks to someone.
Pitch lists feel a bit weird to me. They feel a bit mechanical, so your reaction to that is interesting, they're not really what songwriting is about are they?
No, especially not... I mean there are a lot of great songwriters in Nashville that are a lot more successful than I am, that know how to do that. I don't know how to do that. As soon as you mention an artist in a room with me and the artist is not there I'm done, I'm ruined, because the song suddenly doesn't have a chance to be what the song is supposed to be because you're trying to read the mind of someone that's not there.
So I can't write like that but I do applaud people that can. I just kind of have to make a journey through the song and see what it's gonna end up being, and how did it resonate with someone. I hope that they feel that way too. Or just love how it feels or what it says.
You mentioned writing with artists then, have you written with anybody that's really surprised you as a songwriter? Or do you know everybody before you write with them, so there are no surprises.
You pretty much know everybody. What surprises me is co-writing with people... well Taylor shocked me, that at barely 14 she didn't really need a co-writer, she surprised me at how lyrically strong she was. I was really like "whoa OK", this was not somebody you're going to write a song for, you're going to write a song with.
Some people surprised me that they do co-write, when you see how good they are. Miranda Lambert for instance. Miranda is an incredible songwriter. I think she co-writes for the friendship, the camaraderie and the experience. I mean, man, she's she's such a strong songwriter. Unbelievable. Carrie Underwood has so much to say. She's such a great songwriter.
There are a lot of young songwriters coming up that you kind of roll your eyes go, yeah, and they walk in and just blow your mind. And so what I do is I have to learn how to get them talking and be quiet, and let them be songwriters, so that they don't come in the room and think "oh I'm intimidated, I'm with this big writer, they're going to tell me what to say", I have to sit back and go "hey what do you want to say and how do you want to say it". I really work hard to make sure that I don't step all over these young writer-artists, that I sit back and have patience and make sure that they're figuring out who they are as a songwriter and artist, and get their voice out there.
That's really interesting because I never thought of it before but you kind of have to use some of the techniques of a psychologist or something, Because you want to extract ideas and thoughts, and not just write a song to get out of the room.
I constantly try to not do that. It's not fair to them, it's not fair to me and it's not fair to their future. It's why I like working with new songwriter-artists, that's why we started our publishing company, because we want to watch them grow as songwriters and artists.
How do you sign people? Is it people that you've worked with or you've heard about or have seen play?
Well the first thing is a good hang; somebody I want to be around all the time. It's really personality and talent together, that's so important because in our company we're all so close and there could be the most talented biggest artist person in the whole wide world but if they're not fun to work with and kind and great to be around why would you want to do that. We get to know people first.
I met Alyssa Micaela when she was 16. I'd been working with her for years before we signed her because she also needed to learn how to be a songwriter; you don't want to sign them too early. I absolutely adore Seth Ennis; I saw him play before I got to know him, but he blew me away. And then he was such a great kid, he just fit into our family so perfectly. It's so important because we have people that we spend holidays with. And that toughness, in that I'm going to work as hard or harder than you are, I love that in a songwriter and an artist.
I was going to ask you about your own album quickly, it kind of went a bit under the radar. The stories on it seem to be more personal, more about you, than some of the other songs that you've written.
I started writing and I would come across these ideas, these titles, like 'Swimming Alone' and 'Yellow Room' and 'Grocery Money', and I would try and write them I just couldn't write them for a cut because they were so personal to me. Luckily I had some unbelievable friends and co-writers and my daughter Caitlin [Rose, a country singer-songwriter in her own right] that said "Hey why don't you just write for yourself and see what happens". So I started writing them, and talking to my brother, and they were just so personal that I got to really write them to fit me. I was actually going to have other people sing them, but then when we got into Stephanie Smith, Mac Macinally and Jody Williams you know and all my friends were like "wait these are your songs, you got to sing them". So I had a lot of good friends help me be brave. And I really I'm really proud of that record.
This is a question that nobody ever really wants to answer. Is there a song on there that you're more proud of than anything else, that you would choose if people could only hear one song on the record?
Oh that is tough... I guess 'My Apology'. That kind of sums everything up.
Are there any songs that you've got a good story for that people don't ever really ask you about?
That's tough too. I think if they talk about it it's 'All Too Well' with Taylor, off of Taylor's Red album, people talk about it all the time and I love that song.
Off my record, nobody ever talks about 'Woodstock'. There are so many people my generation that identify with that song, we were all too young for Woodstock. I really liked that song and maybe it's because I don't play it out, nd maybe that's why they talk about 'Grocery Money' and 'Yellow Room' more, but I always loved 'Woodstock', it may have been my vocal! [laughs]