The Beauty of Collaborative SongwritingMonday, April 29th, 2013
CM’s Kristian Partington explores the ideas of breaking down genre barriers with Three Days Grace’s Neil Sanderson and rising country star Tim Hicks.
A pretty wide variety of music can ring through the speakers in the grocery store in my one-stoplight town. Rural communities, I suppose, can be like that. On any given day you’re as likely to hear Emerson Drive while perusing the five aisles as you are AC/DC or a Top 40 boy band from another era.
I went there the other day to get a sandwich from the deli, just ahead of a wave of high school kids on their lunch break, and I smiled when Tim Hicks’ “Get By” came on. I’d just spoken with Hicks on the phone about his rise up the Canadian country charts with his debut single, and as the song played, I noticed the kids in front of the deli counter singing along. I pictured them cruising the back roads on a Friday night in a beat-up truck headed for a raging bonfire in the middle of nowhere.
He must be onto something, Tim Hicks. You know a song’s got the ear of the public when you catch teens singing along in a grocery store. It’s no surprise that “Get By” has broken the Top 10 on the country charts, spent week after week as the most downloaded country song on iTunes, and Hicks is preparing for a busy summer playing the country festival circuit.
What might surprise people is how the St. Catharines, ON native went from playing cover tunes in Toronto bars to becoming one of the fastest rising artists on the Canadian country scene.
Almost three years ago after a typical set finished on one of his regular bar nights, Hicks was approached by Three Days Grace drummer Neil Sanderson and Casey Marshall, a fellow songwriter and business partner with Sanderson through their project, Public Artist Development.
They wanted to get together with Hicks and see what might emerge if they started to collaborate through songwriting. They soon had a few demos and, unbeknownst to Hicks, Marshall and Sanderson visited RGK Entertainment Group President and CEO Ron Kitchener in his Nashville office. They later worked on the demos with Florida-Georgia Line and, from there, things started rolling for Hicks.
Sanderson says he couldn’t be more inspired through his connection to a fellow Canadian musician and songwriter who’s finding a place in a tough business where the spirit of collaboration is proving to be an important asset as markets continue to change.
Sanderson writes all the time and is breaking down any semblance of barrier between genres. As one of the key songwriters for Three Days Grace, a group that has dominated active rock for the past decade and just landed its 10th No. 1 single on Active Rock charts in the U.S. with “The High Road,” Sanderson continues to write in Nashville whenever he can with Marshall and the likes of Craig Wiseman, who he describes as “arguably one of the best songwriters out there.”
“Collaborative songwriting has always been a big part of Three Days Grace,” Sanderson notes. “We all bring lyrics, melody, and music to the table and then, as a team, build the song until everyone high-fives in the studio. The process of being able to openly share and bounce ideas off of each other is what turns a good song into a great song.”
He has also recently collaborated with rock groups Art of Dying and My Darkest Days, Chad Kroeger of Nickelback, and Aerosmith producer Marti Frederiksen, all while pursuing a long-held passion for the life of an electronic producer/DJ through his latest project, PublicWurks; lately he can be seen been going from behind the drum kit at sold-out Three Days Grace concerts to packed clubs as a guest DJ.
“It’s exciting today how a lot of artists are crossing genres with the belief that good music is good music,” Sanderson says. “It’s all about emotion and people feeling something through song and relating their own lives back to it. When it is real to you, it becomes real to others . . . and that’s the greatest thing about songwriting, I think.”
He’s been playing and writing music and lyrics since he was a kid, and today he’s at a place where he’s free to pursue his passions and use his experience to help launch new ideas and push the envelope.
Discovering talent like Hicks and exploring the songwriting process with him in a different genre has been and continues to be a welcome challenge. Sanderson has always placed strong songwriting upon a pedestal, “because with great songs, everything is possible and without great songs, nothing is possible,” he says.
“It’s about the listener hearing a song and feeling something; songwriting is a craft and becoming more experienced at that is something that can only come through writing every day and being creative.”
He says sharing space with a range of songwriters between Nashville, his home outside of Toronto, and the tour bus with his Three Days Grace band mates sparks a continual evolution of the craft.
For his part, Hicks says finding his voice as a country singer has been a beautiful ride. After a lifetime spent looking for a break in the business, one came when he chose to stop looking.
“It took me 30 years to figure out who I was as an artist and get comfortable in my own skin,” Hicks says with a laugh.
He’s loving the fact that people are responding to his music in new and exciting ways, and he’s certain to never take for granted that anything is possible if you remain open to collaboration in songwriting.
“You feed off one another,” Hicks says of the shared writing process. Each writer brings sparks of concepts and possibility for others to build from, “and at the end of the day, a good song is a good song,” Hicks says.
I think the kids at the grocery store would agree.