Posted on September 19, 2016 at 12:01 am
UPDATE! Tonight, September 19, Ariana and I will be performing “Jason’s Song (Gave It Away)” with the Roots on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon! To celebrate, you can now purchase the track on iTunes AND you can purchase the SHEET MUSIC on SheetMusicDirect!
Once upon a time, I signed a contract with a music publisher to write pop songs. I had just gotten to Los Angeles, they offered me a nice advance, and I thought it would be a great way to see the music business from the inside. What I had assumed up until that point – and I really did believe this – was that the way pop songs were written was that a songwriter would sit down and write a song, and then the publisher would take that song and give it to a recording artist who might choose to put that song on his or her album. Even in 2005, this was naïve bordering on delusional. The way pop songs get made these days is that a producer comes up with a beat, a groove, maybe a harmonic progression to go along with it, then that beat is sent to several different people who write “top lines” (this is what they call melodies; I don’t know why they aren’t called “melodies”) and then the recording artist chooses one of those top lines and might also write a couple of phrases of the lyric or adjust the melody in some way, and then some rapper gets called in to do what would otherwise be a bridge if the song had any harmonic structure to it at all, which it generally does not. If I had known that that was how pop songs got made, I would have told the publisher that I probably wasn’t going to be great at that particular kind of record-making, since I didn’t really know which part of that I would be comfortable doing. But the publisher set up a couple of meetings with producer-types, none of which were especially productive (it also turns out that “keeping a normal schedule of working during the day because you have children instead of writing from 11pm-4am” is not how pop songs get made). Anyway, I did actually just sit down and write songs, none of them got picked up by any major recording artists because the publisher never sent any of them out (because that’s not how pop songs are made), I kept my advance and fulfilled my contract and that was the end of my hilarious career in pop music.
Ariana called me in December and told me that since I was going to be in LA for a couple of weeks, she wanted to get together for a writing session. (I’ll pause to point out how weird it is when the kid you cast as a 14-year-old is calling you as a peer, but you only need to spend about two minutes in Ari’s company to recognize what an amazing musician and what a total pro she is.) I may or may not have protested about my total ignorance of current pop music and gone into detail with all the nonsense I just wrote in the first paragraph, but Ari shushed me and said it would mean so much if I would just come over and try to do something, and I love Ari and I thought that the worst thing that could happen is that I’d listen to her sing for a couple of hours and hang out with her dogs, both of which seemed like exceedingly pleasant ways to pass the time, so off I went.
Ari said she wanted to have a song like her favorite song from my Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes CD, “Getting Out” (which she performed spectacularly at my LA concert in January): something really tough about the music business and how hard it was to be a woman trying to maintain her own voice, trying to push her boundaries, trying to stand up against the astonishing wall of corporate resistance she faced on a regular basis, not to mention the crazy demands and frustrations of celebrity culture. She wanted it to sound “totally JRB” and so she walked me over to the out-of-tune piano in the living room and said “Just do JRB things!” Whereupon she climbed on top of the piano and started singing along while I played. She had a melodic idea for the chorus, I filled it out; I had a melodic idea for the verse, she stretched it and made it swing. I told her she should write the lyrics, since I didn’t feel like I could put words in her mouth. Then, as though some unheard bell rang somewhere in the palace, she disappeared and I gathered up my stuff and headed off.
A month later, Ari called and said, “Will you record a big crazy piano solo?” And it was then that I realized that she really did intend to put this song on her new CD. I asked her how the lyric was coming along and she sort of pouted like I asked her if she had finished her homework, so I said I would write a draft of the lyric just to get her started and then she could change it to whatever she wanted. (Ultimately, she changed about seven words, and her fixes really did sound better coming out of her than my originals would have. She has a perfect sense of what fits her.)
Her producer in LA recorded her fantastic vocals, some background vocals and a bass player (his name is Joe Cleveland, and he’s out of this world), and then Jeffrey Lesser and I went into the studio with Brian Dunne and Michael Aarons and filled out the rhythm track. Later on, back in LA, I added a string quartet (Julie Gigante, Helen Nightengale, Pam Jacobson and Dane Little), and I’m proud to say that, outside of the handclaps, there aren’t any synthesizers or samples on the whole track.
The song didn’t have an obvious title, and Ari prevailed on me to let her call it “Jason’s Song.” So I did. (The other title that came to me was “Gave It Away,” so we decided to put that title in parentheses, though it now looks like the hook of the song might be “Jason’s song gave it away.” Oh well.)
And now, long after the expiration of my Big Pop Songwriter publishing agreement, I’m finally on a major label pop album by one of the most important recording artists in the country. It’s a wonderful and fascinating development, and so unexpected. But the best part about it is that little Ari Grande is all growed up and got me to write a Brand New Song and she’s singing it and kicking ass all over it. I can’t stop myself from loving ev’ry itty-bitty thing she do.
There’s an asterisk: If you go to iTunes and look up Ari’s new CD, you won’t find my song there. “Jason’s Song (Gave It Away)” is available exclusively on the CD copies of “Dangerous Woman” that are sold at Target. You can get those deluxe versions either at your local Target or online through Target.com. Other than that, the song won’t be available online for purchase or streaming for at least the next eight weeks. But if you happen to be at Target or seek it out, I’m very proud of it. The whole album is pretty friggin’ hot, I’ll tell you that – my personal favorites are “Greedy,” “Into You,” and “Leave Me Lonely.” And of course the title track, which I had so much fun deconstructing for the MTV Movie Awards.
Since I can’t post Ari’s version of the song just yet, I’ll leave you with my piano track, featuring the insane Steve Reich-meets-Cecil Taylor solo (starting at 2:50) that Ari asked for. And honestly, Ari, thank you for everything – the day you showed up for auditions was the beginning of eight years of unimagined blessings, and I’d like to think there’s a lot more to come.
“Jason’s Song (Gave It Away)” solo piano track
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and Ariana Grande
Piano: Jason Robert Brown
Recorded and mixed by Jeffrey Lesser at John Kilgore Sound & Recording, NY NY, 29 January 2016