The new music competition Songland premieres tonight (May 28) on NBC. Songwriters will compete to have their tune recorded by that week’s mega-artist. Tonight, it’s The Voice coach and hit maker John Legend. Songwriter/producers Ryan Tedder, Shane McAnally and Ester Dean will help the contestants bring their ideas to life.
Everything you need to know about tonight’s premiere:
Max Embers – 25 – Back Home – He was born in a small town in Germany. He started listen to American pop albums at 10, but didn’t understand the lyrics at first. His song is called “Back Home.” He performs the song for John Legend, Ryan Tedder, Shane McAnally and Ester Dean. It’s a ballady song with a nice melody. The chorus is memorable. Tweaks would make the song even better, though. If John were writing a verse, he’d find words that were both personal and universal. Both Ryan and Shane agree that there’s too much going on with the melody, but it’s fixable. “It feels almost gospel,” says Shane. John sings the parts he likes. Ryan suggests saving all the best notes for the chorus. The group jams a little to illustrate.
Tebby Burrows – We Need Love – She’s from the Bahamas, but now lives in Miami. The song is about the universal need for people to love each other. She wrote poetry as a kid. She picked up a guitar at 12. She’s a marketing consultant by day. John reveals he worked as a management consultant early in his career. The song as a distinct island flavor but is also very poppy. This song is well put together, solid. Ryan likes the chorus, but cautions her not to be preachy. “Be careful not to be cheesy,” says John. It needs some edge. “Make it sound more mournful.” He’s correct. Ryan thought the production was too “Lion King.” Ha. Ryan talks about how Clive Davis critiqued “Already Gone” a song he wrote for Kelly Clarkson. There is a much bigger story about that song. Heh.
Sam James – 32 – Shine Down – He’s from Nashville and competed on The Voice season 3 as a member of Team Adam. He co-wrote Spensha Baker’s finalist song “Old Soul.” He doesn’t mention any of that in his intro, however. His song is a mixture between pop, country and folk, he says. The song he wrote, is very personal to him. It’s got a country vibe, but John could probably make it work with some re-writes. The song would fit perfectly well on adult radio. The producers all really love it. Sam explains that the music business is tough! John doesn’t like the ends of the lines. Shane switches the roles in the song–making it less personal to Sam, but he seems OK with it. John is dubious about the bridge. The group makes more changes to make it less country.
Ollie Gabriel– Something New – He grew up listening to a lot of gospel and blues. He joined the national guard, and got married. Not mentioned: He’s written a bunch of songs for other people and has had over 500 sync placements on popular TV shows. He wanted to create something like “When a Man Loves a Woman.” The song has a real retro feel. Ha. I’m calling it now. John will pick this song. It’s exactly the kind of thing he sings–soulful, with an old-school sound and a modern twist. Just the look on John’s face. He’s digging it. “I like it!” he says. He wants to pare it down a bit. They rework the lyrics a bit. John sings along with the melody. They work more on the lyrics. Watching the group work on these songs is compelling.
Time to pick the three songwriters who will move on! They bring the songwriters back in the room, one at a time: Max Embers, Ollie Gabrieland Teddy Burrows move on. Sam James wrote a great song, John says, but it’s too country for him. He also tells Sam not to be discouraged. That the song was not a fit was obvious during his session. Sam James is eliminated.
Shane and Ester both want Ollie Gabriel! Ester wins the battle. Ryan works with Max Embers and Shane works with Tebby Burrows. Ryan is a little worried. He wants to add some edge and cool to Max’s song. He knows Ollie’s song is good. Ester wants to stretch Ollie’s song out a little more. Ryan punches up all of the parts of Max’s song. He is really working off the idea that Ollie is their biggest competitor. Shane didn’t have a great first impression of Tebby’s song. His is the greatest challenge–working on a song he doesn’t like much. He wants to simplify the lyrics. For Ollie, Ester wants to chop off the beginning and start with the hook. Back to Shane, he pares down the song’s melody. He suggests that Tebby perform it with an acoustic guitar.
Now, it’s time for the songwriters to perform their reworked songs
Tebby Burrows – We Need Love – Gone is the island flavor. Shane helped transform the song into a tender acoustic ballad. It’s a better song, for sure. Less corny, more meaningful. “The change in mood really made a big difference,” says John. “The verses felt really nice…super conversational, real mournful.” Ryan thinks they nailed it. John sings a bit of the new arrangement and it works beautifully.
Ollie Gabriel– Something New – This song didn’t change as much. But it didn’t need to be changed, really. I would have modernized it a bit more, maybe. It sounds a tad old fashioned for the radio. John would change only one word. Ryan thinks the new arrangement flows better. They chopped out the first stanza.
Max Embers – Lookin’ Back – Name change! The new arrangement from Ryan is punchier, peppier. But I can’t really imagine John recording this. It’s more like a Charlie Puth jam (or a OneRepublic song!). John likes the new tempo and concept. He calls it “fresh.” John sings a bit of it. I still don’t think it fits him. Ryan thinks of it as John singing to his wife Chrissy Teigen.
NEXT. Time to pick the winning song.
All three songwriters assemble in the room. John feels all the teams took and incorporated the feedback well. “You all killed it,” he says. John picks the song that he thinks “made the biggest journey from where it was to where it is now.” Ooooh. My first impression was wrong. He picks Tebby’s “We Need Love.” The lesson is that a song with potential can be transformed by talented writers and producers. Initially, it was literally the worst of the three songs. That’s why Shane McAnally makes the big bucks.
John Legend chose Tebby Burrows and Shane McAnally’s “We Need Love.” It’s available now on iTunes. Listen to it here. The runner-up songs are also available for download and streaming.
Songland is worth watching. Of course it’s truncated for TV, but it still is an interesting look at how songwriters and producers work behind the scenes. In real life, there would be more people working on one song–especially the pop songs. But it was still fun to watch a song transformed over the course of an episode.
UPDATE: At 1:14 am, the song is charting at No 13 on iTunes.
Also, the song is credited to a TON of songwriters, not just Teddy and Shane. “We Need Love” is credited to: Tebby Burrows, John Stephens, Shane McAnally, Andrew DeRoberts, Imran Avaz, Thomas Kessler, Juan Jose Botero, Marcello Valenzano & Andre Lyon. There is obviously MUCH more going on behind the scenes than we see on television.