Roy Elkins was our Grand Prize Judge for the DSA Song Contest. He is Founder/CEO of Broadjam.com. Roy was also our MC for the Song Contest Award Ceremony on Tuesday, December 8. What follows are his comments about the semi-finalist songs and the winning songs. Find the results of the contest here.
“In the past, I lived an hour from work so it was easy to listen to a couple of hours a music a day during my commute. Since I have moved closer, listening time isn’t quite as predictable. So on Sunday, I was working in the new house, put on the Dallas Songwriters Association finalists and listened to them all day. And with that said, the process hasn’t really changed much for me. I have heard this entire list at least 5 times over the past couple days.
Some real memorable hooks jumped out after the first time through – One Little Sign, Angels In The Snow, Oh My Soul, Portrait In The Sand, God You Are and Aina Hanu. Other very original songs I noticed out of the gate were Don’t React, When I Feel Like This, Jesse Brown, Waiting Out The Wanting and Dry Bones. I found the melody of In The Cross to be very strong and some real truth in God You Are and Less Lonely When You’re Gone. As I listen over and over, I start hearing other things that begin to influence my ears and decision.
Songwriting contests aren’t just about the hook, originality or the truth in a song. A judge has to think about many things including melody, structure and lyrics along with the aforementioned. When I am judging, I also look for things like the marriage between the lyric and the melody, do the lyrics in the verse set up the chorus and/or does the opening line set up the listener for something memorable. I think we could generate at least 50 attributes that could be considered when evaluating a song. One thing I try not to do, but it’s hard, is let “commercial viability” influence my judgement. Over the years, I have heard hundreds of great songs that today’s homogenized music business rejected. I am convinced that in a different era, these same rejected songs would be hits. So I try hard to ignore commercial viability. Also, I do reference production in some of the reviews, but it is not considered in my analysis of a song.
Grand Prize – Jesse Brown
I don’t know if I have ever picked a Folk/Americana song to win a competition. I am not sure why I haven’t as folk is one of my favorite genres. But this year in the Dallas Songwriters Contest, Jesse Brown wins. Once you hear it, you will know why as it is one of the most well-crafted lyrics in this collection. It may be one of the most well-crafted I have heard in a long time. The syllable matching between the phrases and verses is masterful. Opening line, “the Birmingham heat” and “no shoes on his feet” is a great example of this. “Brand new jag” and “zip loc bag” along with end of the phrase rhymes like “main” and “cocaine” are other examples. It is not easy to write this many words with so many rhymes within the verses, phrases and lines. The chorus is similar to the verses with brilliant lyrics and more wonderful rhyming schemes. I could spend another 2 or 3 paragraphs pointing out rhyming schemes in this song. But the main point is none of them seem forced. There is only one phrase “lay my body down” that doesn’t quite flow like the others. It still works, but it feels as if the writer may have struggled with this part of the song.
Like many of the great folk songwriters, excellent lyric writing is on display here. The closing line of the chorus, “Lord, please have mercy on Jesse Brown,” is the perfect marriage of a lyric and melody. This line resolves where it starts. Climb down a little then back up. When a song has a lyric this strong, it is imperative that the melody doesn’t interfere with it. In this case, the melody is about as perfect as it gets usually staying within an octave and always relatively close to the root note of the key. Like the melody, the chord progression is as simple as it gets – 1, 4 & 5. As many times as these 3 chords have been used in songs, it is hard to write a melody that hasn’t been done before. With this song, the melody is still fairly unique with a lyric that carries it. That’s why it’s the number one song in this competition. I would love to hear what else this writer has in his/her catalog.
Runner-up – Real Love Next Time
The reason I like this song is that the melody and lyric are about as flawlessly matched as I have heard. If you just read through the lyrics without the melody, it’s ok. If you listen to the melody without the lyrics, it’s ok. Together they are great. Much like the Beatles, individually they were all pretty good, together they made magic happen. Same with the lyrics and the melody of this song.
Almost every line of this song we all have felt at some point in our lives, making it extremely accessible for the listener. “He said he’d be there for you, but he’s nowhere to be found”, “Don’t let him get you down” are all great lines with this melody attached.
Another sign of a great song is the reach it has. I can hear just about any female artist in any genre on the planet cutting this song, Bonnie Raitt, Regina Spektor, Skylar Grey, etc. The song has legs.
I have two critiques of this song. 1.) The opening line is weak. If this was my song, lines three and four would start the song, “He’s a fool for leaving, get him off your mind” sets up the song much better. Lines 1 & 2 would be re-written. 2.) The structure of the song is probably the weakest point as it could lose the listener very easily. I would work on this as well.
3rd Place – Aina Hanu
My third place choice. It’s very hard for an instrumental to place in a songwriting competition, but this one deserves it as the melody is peaceful and elegant. It starts with one constant theme that is tweaked slightly throughout and then at 19 seconds, a second melodic theme comes in with a similar rhythm structure to the first. This is outstanding instrumental writing. At 1:05, we hear the first deviation from the two melodies and a key change at 1:28, then at 1:39 it resolves back to the original melody. There is a nice change in the song is at 3:03 and this is one many pleasant transitions throughout. It’s hard to evaluate the “truth” in an instrumental song. I am assuming by the way this is played it was inspired by something. Some event, some place or some person created this song and the writer channeled it. The melody has a “longing” feel to it. This is what I call a hammock song, meaning that it would be perfect to hear through headphones when I’m lying in my hammock on a sunny summer day. Although the song is a little long, structurally it is well written.
Oh My Soul – This was the song that I was humming after I quit listening and started watching football. I found myself singing the hook over and over again. I think it has the best combination of melody and hook in the competition. A nice modest melody that just about anyone can sing after hearing the hook once, it’s memorable. Many times melodic hooks just pop into our songwriting heads and we really don’t know where they came from. I would be surprise if this wasn’t the case here with the writer. The hook and melody feel real and authentic. The problem with these inspired moments is that now we have to write the rest of the song. There is a great line in the song, “And we answer all our questions, without saying any words.” This is a brilliant line and there are a few others as well. While I love the poetry of this song, I am not quite sure it connects lyrically to the hook. If it was my song, I would work on the verses and set-up the hook a little more. Right now, I don’t believe the lyrics in the verse are quite as strong as the hook. Overall, I love this tune and would definitely like to hear more from this writer.
Don’t React – This is one of the best lyrics in the collection. A strong story song about being on the 405, getting pulled over, kids and other LA challenges. A writing style and melody reminiscent of Steely Dan (production technique as well.) I was engaged all the way through the song and scored the lyrics quite high. I went back and forth on this song and I’m not real sure what I like and don’t like about it. Here are a few thoughts that were going through my head while listening: Maybe the lyrics and melody aren’t really connected, maybe the hook isn’t really jumping like one might expect, maybe it’s a manufactured lyric done very well, but not quite believable, maybe it’s just really good and I am trying to get a grip on why I like it so much, maybe the production is influencing me one way or the other? I thought the song was one of the best in the collection, but not real sure why. I would love to hear more from these writers as this was clearly a “crafted” song. I speculate it was probably not written in one session. I am assuming this was co-written as this type of lyric usually is. If not, the writer is brilliant.
When I Feel Like This – This song starts with the line, “When I Feel Like This”, immediately bringing the listener into the song. Then we find out he’s heading into the “abyss and wants to hide,” but there’s no place to go. Another great line, “Staring at the truth,” starts out the second verse, but I still don’t know why he feels like this. Although there are several great lines, the song is not extremely strong lyrically but it is very original with a unique structure. In the chorus, the singer is basically telling the listener, just be with me “When I Feel Like This.” I wish I knew why the singer was feeling like this. If it was my song, I would probably re-work the lyric in the bridge to explain the “feeling” to the listener. With that said, it does work the way it is. It’s the originality, structure and the mysterious nature of the lyric that make it shine.
Feel This Way – Very good song and similar to the runner-up song where the lyric and the melody work well together. Reading the lyric, it’s ok. Hearing the melody, it’s ok. Together they are better. (Production note – Very nice vocal on this. I hope this singer is pursuing a career because she is very good and her phrasing is extraordinary.) After the first couple of listens through the list, I didn’t remember this song. And the reason is that the title “Feel This Way” is not as memorable as it could be. While it is the opening and closing line of the chorus, I don’t believe a listener will be recalling this. If it was my song, I would include “Feel This Way” in the LA DE DA section. I would use the same melody and sing Feel This Way, One More Day, a rhyme, a rhyme, Feel This Way and maybe a couple of the LA DE DAs. I have a tendency to be a little more critical on the songs I love. This is one of them as I believe with a few tweaks, this could be a very successful and memorable song. Writing style is perfect for someone like Spektor, Ingrid Michaelson and/or Fiona Apple in today’s market.
One Little Sign – Good song with a great chorus. “One Little Sign that I need to carry on” is a great phrase and just reading it by itself, it could go in so many directions as a lyric. A phrase like this gives the writer great latitude when writing the verses. The arrangement drives the chorus home in a well-structured manner, so the listener will remember this hook. There is a nice melody in the chorus set-up under “How long can I wait for you to let me down or let me in?” This is a great line with a decent melody. If this was my song, I might tweak the lyrics in the verse to reflect the chorus a little more than what it already does. Maybe a sign reference, etc. This is a very good song with a good writer behind it.
No Greater Friend – A huge chorus that is very memorable. “You carried my cross to Calvary” is an exceptional and memorable line. It is definitely one of the most extraordinary in the competition. Like a few other songs in this collection, the verses are not on the same level with the chorus. Finding a different way to convey words that have been sung so many times in previous songs is hard. The chorus is powerful with a great hook, melody and lyric, and carries the entire song. While listening, one almost waits for the chorus at the expense of the verses. If this was my song, I would re-work the verses and point the lyric more directly to the chorus. I do believe that if the verses were re-strung, they would have a newness to them and the song would clearly go to another level. (Production note – the singer nails this chorus, kudos to him as this is a fantastic performance.)
Angels In The Snow – Lyric is about a young girl who used to make Angels In The Snow. Although it didn’t say it in the lyric, I believe the girl could be the daughter of the singer/lead. This is one of those songs where I need to tread lightly as it is clearly written from a painful heart and probably is very therapeutic for the authors. If this was my song and experience, I am not sure I could perform it without a tear in my eye. It’s very simple, powerful and filled with emotion. From a commercial perspective and if this was my song, I would re-write this to be a children’s song about making Angels In The Snow. I realize that it might pull from the sentiment and purpose of the song, but it may reach an unexpected audience and touch hearts in a different way. The chorus is already written and doesn’t need to be changed. A re-write of the verses and slight tweaking of the melody could make this a great song that would connect with kids immediately…..and it may provide additional healing to the writer. Great work.
God You Are – This was a song that stood out after the first listen as well. The hook of the song is magical. One could imagine a faith based audience extremely engaged with this tune as it has a very strong hook and chorus. While I loved the hook and chorus, I didn’t feel the lyrics in the verses were at the same level. If this were my song, I would work on the verses and figure out a new and unique way to convey the same thought. The opening line is, “You Gave Your Life.” While the sentiment and meaning is on point, it has been said in song a million times. If the writer could find unique words with the same powerful conviction, it will make the song more different and unforgettable. (Production note – One other thought I had while I was listening. I might experiment with this at about 6-10 BPMS faster. Right now, just about every word is stretched to capacity. If it was a little more up-tempo, it might give the singer a little more power and flexibility.) My guess is that fans already like this because of the chorus being so powerful so the writer may not need to change anything.
Tennessee Winds – Couldn’t decide if I liked this. The more I listened, the more I did like it. It grows on the listener with each pass. If this song got matched with the right country artist, it could do very well. I had a lot of thoughts on this one as well. Maybe it could be a little less about Philly and Tennessee and more general. But then that changes the hook and purpose of the song. Although I feel there is a lot of truth to the song, the performance makes it feel a little manufactured. With that said, I don’t consider the performance at all when judging a contest. I am not sure if the writer actually derived this from an experience or just wanted to write a song. Now to really contradict myself, I am not sure I would change anything and wish I could provide more feedback. Maybe at another point in the future I will hear it in a different way. One thing I do know, I will remember this song. I do love this writing style and would love to hear more from the writer(s).
Dancing With Danger – This was at the top of my list after the first listen. It didn’t fall down list, other songs just climbed up above it. I still like it a lot as it has a nice melody and is probably the most upbeat song in the collection. Like me, the writing style is dated and it’s probably why I like it so much. (Production note – sound selection is very dated as well.) If the intent was a dated 80s style song, the writer nailed it. I would be curious to hear more from this writer as this type of writing could be perfect for certain period pieces. Very nice work.
The Color of Groove – Another strong instrumental that could very easily be found in my collection. Nice simple melody. It’s hard for a song like this to win a contest as the melody needs to be a little more consistent throughout. It is songwriting challenge, so for a song like this to win, the melody needs to be clear throughout the piece. With that said, I would not hesitate to add this to my listening collection as the players are very tasteful. Definitely another hammock song.
I wish I could provide a review on all of the songs, it’s just not possible with the allotted time. I am honored to be part of this organization and songwriting competition. It is truly one of the best in the business.
All the best,
Keep writing the songs that are in your heart.