You might not know their names, but you’ve certainly hummed along to songs they’ve made hits. Songwriters are often in the background, but they’re also the glue that holds the music industry together.
So when seven of the industry’s heavy hitters had an opportunity to gather at a beach house for a week to write, play and record, they jumped on it. The gathering in a three-story house on St. George Island, Florida, was called Write by the Sea. It brought together songwriters and musicians Michael Logen, Todd Wright, Steve Everett, Shannon LaBrie, J.R. Moore, Bradley Rhodes and Ben Jackson.
This troupe boasts composing credits on songs that appeared on shows like “Suits,” “Nashville,” “Parenthood,” “One Tree Hill” and “Heartland.” Their songs have been recorded by powerhouse musicians from Kelly Clarkson to Susan Tedeschi. They’ve played on tour with artists The Originals, Sister Hazel, Maroon 5, Zac Brown Band, and Jason Mraz. And that’s just the first few lines of these artists’ collective resumes.
“When you’re invited to join a group like that it makes you want to try new things and really do your best,” said Moore, formerly the lead singer of Ingram Hill who recently released his solo album. “It inspires you to think, well, I can’t go down there and suck.”
Gathering songwriters and musicians in a house for a week isn’t totally a new concept. Songwriting retreats are a sought-after creative space, known to inspire great work. But Write by the Sea offers its own take on the idea. It’s an invitation-only gathering, and the folks who handpick the songwriters are part of the Florida nonprofit Rock by the Sea.
For the last 14 years, Rock by the Sea has hosted music events that have raised thousands of dollars for deserving charities that provide direct services to those in need. The organization has evolved from live events to writing and recording its own music. Thus, the Write by the Sea concept was born.
And Write by the Sea, Vol. 2 — which dropped June 26 — is the second collection of songs fueled by Rock by the Sea. The 11-track album is the fruit of the week-long songwriting retreat in late 2019.
Moore said he knew he’d be open to the idea of a songwriting retreat when he got the invitation from Steve Everett. As Moore explains, Everett is the vice president of Rock by the Sea. “He’s a talented writer — and that guy knows everybody, so he gets good people together.”
Moore also boasts an impressive wrap sheet of artists he’s written songs for and performed with, including Maroon 5, Zac Brown Band, Gavin DeGraw, Jason Mraz, and Hanson.
He describes the Write by the Sea retreat as one of the most memorable weeks of his career. A few of the songwriters knew each other from previous projects, but most had never met.
“The music, the inspiration was constant,” Moore said. “Every spot in the house, you could hear different melodies and voices…Even if you’re taking a break and go to the kitchen to grab a drink or a snack, and on the deck you hear two or three other people writing a song and it sounds amazing.
“You’re just surrounded by talented people. And you’re in this amazing environment where everyone is totally on their A game.”
A space to be inspired
Inspiration came from all around for the songwriters—the ocean breeze whipping through the house, the brilliant stars above St. George Island. It was a bike ride that inspired the song “Bluebirds,” written and performed by Todd Wright and Ethan Mentzer. Wright said he and Mentzer wrote half the song on a bike ride around the island. “We must’ve sounded ridiculous singing ideas back and forth while huffing and puffing in the Florida heat. We put the track together on our laptops in the quietest room we could find, and Brian Fechino took it the rest of the way with a gorgeous mix.”
Throughout the week, Fechino — a musician, producer and engineer — stood by, ready to record and mix the songs as soon as they were written. Yes, in the same beach house.
“It was kind of neat that people were cutting the tracks at the same time other songs were being written,” Moore said. “It was almost like an assembly line.”
The result? Listen for yourself
The result of this mishmash of talented folks is a curated album that embraces a variety of genres, including folk, rock, pop, soul, and Americana. It’s a remarkably cohesive project for such a diverse group of musical talents, some who met at the beach house for the first time.
Wright, who’s been part of music camps and songwriting retreats, said the structure and the tight deadline is often a recipe for great work.
“I enjoy the challenge and I think it makes you write a different kind of music when you give yourself that kind of a deadline and that kind fo a challenge. You’ll definitely not overthink things because you don’t have time to,” Wright said. “I thought I’d catch stuff that I wish I had time to go back and fix, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how great this album came out.”
The timing of the album’s release brings much-needed encouragement, as so many artists have been hit hard by the pandemic. Proceeds from Write By the Sea, Vol. 2 will fund brain cancer research, and Moore expects sales will be better than if the album came out in a typical summer.
“In a weird way, I think this is the perfect time for this album to come out. In typical times, it might just get swallowed up — you know, somebody else putting out music. But I think it can get a little more light shined on it that wouldn’t happen otherwise,” he said. “And what’s great is it can help the careers of songwriters and musicians, and help the greater cause of raising money for charity.”
Listen to Write by the Sea, Vol. 2, and other collections curated on behalf of Rock by the Sea, at rockbythesea.bandcamp.com.
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Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She's worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales.