‘Songland’ Stars’ Listening Party Comes With a Message: ‘Creativity Wins’ During Coronavirus

Songland” hitmakers Ester Dean, Shane McAnally and Ryan Tedder took a moment out of quarantining at home and Zoom songwriting sessions to host a listening party prior to the April 27 episode with guest H.E.R.

The NBC series is only three episodes into its new season and has already charted two No. 1s on iTunes — “Champagne Night” by Lady Antebellum reached the top of the iTunes country chart and No. 1 on the overall chart, and “Sway” by Luis Fonsi hit No. 1  on the Latin chart as well as the overall chart as well.  Monday night’s winning “Wrong Places,” from former “Voice” contestant (and star of the Kevin Smith film “Jersey Girl”) Raquel Castro’s winning collaboration (with Darhyl Camper, Jr., Castro, Ester Dean, H.E.R., McAnally Zachary Powell and Tedder) and recorded by H.E.R, is already at No. 2 on the R&B Soul chart and No. 3 overall.

The mission of the show is to highlight the process of songwriting and offer mentorship offered by the likes of Dean (who penned hits for Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry), McAnally (Kacey Musgraves, Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani) and Tedder (Adele, Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson).

“People saw the hit records coming up off of season one and realized first and foremost it’s about collaboration and giving exposure to unsigned songwriters,” said Tedder during a Zoom call with reporters. “My goal is that is that the highest amount of people possible come off the show with a publishing deal or they become professional songwriters full-time. That’s the point of what we’re doing, and showing the beauty of songwriting and the magic behind it.”

The season two results, so far, have been encouraging. The first episode bolstered the profile of songwriter Madeline Merlo’s when her “Champagne Night” was selected by Lady Antebellum as a single. The group was so wowed by the song — which they finished in a session on the show with Merlo and McAnally (sharing credits are Patricia Conroy,  Dean, Andrew DeRoberts, Tina Annette Gemza, Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley, McAnally, Merlo, Hillary Scott, Tedder, and Dave Thomson) — that they dropped their planned lead-off track single, “What I’m Leaving For.”

On April 27, said McAnally: “It’s the most added song in country radio.” He credited Tedder for bringing the metrics to the attention of Big Machine Records founder Scott Borchetta. “I just love that Madeline Merlo has this sort of opportunity,” Tedder added. “These are the kind of things we are so excited to let these songwriters win-when their songs get chosen. For them to not only get to pitch a song to Lady A, to have their song recorded and then be chosen as the single? This is like dream on dream on dreams, so we keep raising the bar on what is possible on ‘Songland.’”

On the Latin charts, winner Pipo Beats (22-year old Filippo Gabella) charmed “Despacito” hitmaker Luis Fonsi with his song “Sway” (written with Dean, Andrew DeRoberts, Fonsi, Mauricio Rengifo, Tedder and Andres Torres), realizing a dream after having pitched the artist several times in the past.

All three songwriters shared stories behind their biggest hits. McAnally explained how how he approached Blake Shelton with “Nobody Like You” during live episodes at “The Voice.” Tedder spoke of the Jonas Brothers’ smash “Sucker,” another unanticipated single switch. And Dean revealed that “Hey Mama” started out of a Hamptons writing session intended for Beyonce.

In Dean’s view, “Songland” is “Shark Tank” for songwriters. “A lot of writers are in love with being a writer, in love with singing and in love with hearing themselves sing … and that is 10% of this business,” she said. “The [other] 90% is A&R management, song management. … It’s about going out and being a salesman — knocking on record labels’ and artists’ doors and telling them that you have a product that you want them to try out. So it’s not as romantic and writers are very emotional. We’re talking about our life — about our feelings.”

Navigating the business in the current environment of the coronavirus pandemic is even more challenging, but could be good for artists.

“It’s a difficult time for the music industry,” said Tedder whose tour with One Republic “went away this summer. The world needs music right now. It’s just a bit of a quagmire as to how to promote new songs. You know, people listen to old music a lot. How do you promote a new record and get excitement and promotion and let people know that it exists? Because every day we’re competing with the news cycle of current events.”

Dean said she is “used to struggle” as a writer but offered that new writers have an opportunity to hone their craft by trying to write for other genres as an exercise. “This is the time to go inward and create things and if things block you, every time something feels scary or uncomfortable, that’s going to come after this pandemic,” she said. “Creativity wins and opens up your heart and makes you healthy. You should be you singing and writing songs just to keep yourself in a higher vibration of health.”

Tedder agreed that this is the “best time” to be creative and learn new things and used Mike Posner taking guitar lessons as an example. Said Tedder: “When else are we going to be in a situation where you don’t have to fight traffic, you don’t have to drive around and waste hours of your life dropping kids off and from school and all that other stuff. You can actually focus on your craft right now. And that is your sole escape from one of the biggest things.”