busbee is scrolling Zappos for sunglasses while his 13-month-old daughter squawks in the background of his Los Angeles home. The laidback mastermind behind songs for artists as assorted as Lady Antebellum and Pink, Racal Flatts and Katy Perry, busbee has a take on his profession, and his life, that’s refreshing in its simplicity and its humility, in spite of his accomplishments as a songwriter and producer at age 36: “It’s important to remember that my work as a behind-the-scenes person is very much a customer service job, whether my customers are co-collaborators or artists,” says busbee. “I feel so lucky. I mean, people pay me to write songs. C’mon. In the grand scheme of things, it’s amazing.” The one-time trombone prodigy—now a fixture in both the Nashville and L.A. music scenes—most recently began a joint venture with BMG to sign promising new songwriters who he hopes he can afford the same opportunities once given him. He wants, too, to build career longevity in a famously fickle industry. This no doubt has something to do with that almost-toddler tugging at his knees, but even more so with his almost inexhaustible drive to make music worth remembering.
1. Yours is such a success story. How in the world did you go from being a high school trombone player to a big shot music producer?
Well, I don’t know if I’m a big shot music producer, but I was definitely not only a high school trombone player, but in college I was a professional trombone player. It was my path; that was what I was going to do. [But then] a buddy of mine introduced me to the music of Sting and Stevie Wonder and really opened me up to mainstream music. It was an amazing sort of time … Through that same guy I got an internship at a little studio in the Bay Area and really discovered how to write songs. All of these independent artists would come through, and they were self-producing. So even though I had just been hired as an engineer I had to learn how to produce … Then, 12 years ago, I moved to L.A. and worked with a producer for about a year, worked with another producer for about six months, and then just started freelancing and making independent records. In 2006 I did a bunch of soul searching, and I decided that I wanted to write more than anything. At the time I had a friend who was living in Nashville, and he invited me to come there. That’s where my career as a writer really began, even though I’ve never lived in Nashville ... I’m not the guy who writes about pickup trucks. When I started focusing a bit more on pop, [my career] really blossomed. Now I’ve found my place in pop and country music, which has been pretty awesome.
2. To what degree do you have to switch gears when working with different genres?
Quite a bit. Sometimes it’s really challenging, sometimes less challenging. There are a lot of analogies I could make—one of them being if you’re a house builder you can build a bunch of different types of houses. You just have to know what tools to bring to the party. That’s how I see it, but the other side of it is that I can’t say enough for how helpful collaboration is. I’m able to write songs that I may not write on my own just by collaborating with another writer.
3. You’ve even worked with different languages. For instance, you wrote a song called “Run Devil Run” for Japanese girl group Girl Generation that went No. 1 there. How do you go about writing a pop song in Japanese?
Well, I learned Japanese. [Laughs.] No. A couple of buddies of mine and I had a writing session set up, and I had just gone to the gym and was running late so I just went straight over to the session. I was feeling really gross so I took a shower real quick, and while I was in the shower the idea popped into my head for “Run Devil Run.” I literally ran out of the shower, had my towel on, and was singing it to them and trying to play it on the piano, and they were like, “Dude, put your clothes on.” At the time we weren’t thinking Japanese pop. We were just trying to write a great song. Then my publisher pitched it to the Japanese market and to Girls Generation, which is a huge group over there, and they had someone loosely translate the lyrics into Japanese.
4. Even though your process has to change so much for each song, are there are any common ingredients for you when it comes to process?
The only thing that I can point to for what a hit song is is memorability. Every hit song is memorable, and by and large those are the songs I’m trying to write.
5. You also have a band of your own. Do you feel more at home as an artist or a producer?
If I had to choose, I would probably be a full-time writer/producer, but I do enjoy both—making music as an artist and making music for other people. For me, it’s all pretty equal. Whether I’m writing a song for my band project or writing a song to pitch to whomever, I still pour myself into it and try to write something that I’m feeling. I just love making music. If the situation is great and the song turns out great, then I’m happy.
6. Do you still break out the old trombone now and again?
On occasion. Unfortunately playing trombone is a very physical, muscular thing on a micro level. In your mouth there are hundreds of muscles, and the average person hasn’t developed those muscles beyond talking. It’s like being an Olympic runner, and since I haven’t done it regularly in such a long time my muscles are shot. It’s also not the funnest instrument to play. It’s very tiring. I realized years ago that I loved making music, but I didn’t necessarily love playing trombone. I just happened to be good at it.
7. Is there a topic you haven’t covered in a song but want to?
There’s nothing specifically that I’m holding in my back pocket. I forgot what the list is exactly, but someone very wisely broke down what all songs are about: love lost, love found, something hoped for, something … I forget the list, but all songs kind of go into those categories. I write from a real place, though not necessarily what I’m feeling in the moment because that doesn’t always work. I’ve been married for three years, and we have a great relationship so if I’m writing about love lost, I’m not feeling that right now, but I sure as hell know what love lost feels like. I wrote a song about my daughter, which was something I personally had never experienced until I was a dad. If I experience something new it can bring a new topic, but the great thing about writing is you’re always just putting a unique experience on one of those four or five themes.
8. What advice would you give to songwriters just starting out?
Build good relationships, and try to write great songs. Looking back on my situation, early on I was feeling overlooked. But when I look back at those early songs the majority of them weren’t as good as I thought they were. If you really have a great song, it will open doors for you. Most people on the other side are looking for great content. If you are making great content, you will find your way. And you have to build those relationships. You’ve got to be very proactive about networking and meeting people. I’ve seen people who aren’t necessarily the strongest writers succeed because they put themselves out there and network. Connecting with people is huge.
9. Why did you choose BMI?
For me, it was very relational. I was at ASCAP for a long time but over time the relationships just weren’t there. I was approached by someone in Nashville who said, ‘Hey, you should come to BMI,’ and I told her, ‘I’m very relational. Truth be told, I like you, but I don’t know you, let’s build a relationship. If I can build some very strong relationships with BMI, then I’ll come over next year.’ And that’s what I did. She was incredibly helpful professionally, connected me with the L.A. office, and through her I met my manager. I still have great relationships with the BMI family. Across the board, BMI has been great. I tell everybody, ‘Go meet with both and see where the relationships are.’ That’s truly the best approach.
10. What’s your favorite live music venue?
Anybody’s living room. Being at someone’s house and they pick up a guitar or sit down at a piano—that’s my favorite way to hear music. Music used to be strictly folk, and there’s something really primal and soul-feeding about having a meal with some people and then someone grabs a guitar and starts playing a song. It’s just like, ahhh. It’s just wherever the sound is good, and the vibe is great.