If you fancy a career as a songwriter, take a read of what CJ Solar has to say. We spoke recently to the native Louisianan songwriter, and he doesn’t pull any punches as he explains the realities of balancing performing with trying to make a living selling songs….
SSC – How ya doing?
CJ – I’m good. Got up this morning and did some Ju-Jitsu. I started doing it at the tail end of last year. I needed to do something and I hate running and gyms. I needed something to convince myself to get some exercise. So, I started doing that and it’s been pretty fun.
SSC – We’re keen to introduce you and your music to the U.K. so, tell us about you. Tell us your story.
CJ – Well I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Started playing guitar when I was about seven or eight and my little brothers playing bass & drums. We had a little band together learning songs at our house and, y’know, obviously we were terrible. Then when I got into High School, I started playing with other people and I was taking guitar lessons from a guy named Stan Campbell and I played acoustic gigs with him.
I started wondering if I could do music when I got older, y’know, for a living? Started looking into it and stuff. When I was in 7th or 8th grade my parents took me on a trip to Nashville and we went to the Grand Ole Opry. Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley all played there on the night we went and I was just blown away by what they were doing. Before that I was into rock stuff like Lynyrd Skynyrd and AC/DC but I remember seeing these guys and being like, “Wow I really like this music.”
So, I started listening to more of it and then I started trying to figure out, “How do I get music like that? Do I just come up with it myself?” Some artists write their own songs n’ stuff so I thought it’d be pretty cool trying to write songs. I signed up for the Nashville Songwriters Association and came up [to Nashville] for a workshop. Belmont University actually had a songwriting program so when I graduated High School, I moved up here and enrolled there.
I did my internship at a company called Sea Gayle Music. I guess they listen to every intern’s music to be nice but I gave them my CD and about a week later they called me up saying they liked my songs and offered me a deal to write there.
I got really lucky when I got hooked up with Jerrod Niemann and he ended up liking a song of mine called Blue Bandana. We became friends and I started hanging out with him and Jameson Rodgers and Michael Hardy. Me and HARDY and another buddy called Brad Clawson ended up writing a song called Up, Down that was picked up by Morgan Wallen. That was my first number one and then Jameson recorded another song I wrote with HARDY and Jake Mitchell called Some Girls. That was a number one last year. I’ve had others recorded by Jason Aldean and Justin Moore plus more by Jameson and Jerrod.
SSC – You’ve been recording and releasing music yourself as well. Tell us more…
CJ – Yeah, not on a major label. I’m still independent, y’know? Out there swingin’ tryna do the thing.
SSC – Do you prefer writing or performing? Or is that too polar a question?
CJ – To me, they go hand in hand. I mean, I would be completely happy being a successful songwriter who still gets to play shows. But, obviously, playing shows, I wanna play the biggest shows possible, so… As a writer, I feel I’m coming at it from an artist’s perspective. I can kind of get in other people’s wheelhouses and help other people write stuff for their things, but I really feel like I wouldn’t want to go and play shows if I wasn’t singing my own songs and I wouldn’t really care to write if I couldn’t perform the songs. Even just me and a guitar would be fine. A lot of the excitement of writing a new song is playing the new song, even if it’s just by myself in a room.
For Nashville, I don’t wanna say there’s an exact path but getting hooked up with publishing companies, co-writing, having the town kinda know your name and your songs is a really big part of growing, at least professionally, as a writer. Wading through the business aspect of being a musician is usually the hardest part for a lot of people.
SSC – I imagine it must be quite exhausting? Dealing with the “No’s” and the rejections?
CJ – And there’s just an infinite amount of those. And, even once you’re really talented and people know your stuff, songs don’t always work out. They might love a song and say, “Oh, it’ll be the biggest song we’ve ever had” and it might be on the album but it doesn’t become a single and you don’t really make any money off of it. There’s definitely a lot of ups and downs, fingers crossed that certain things happen. It’s still a lot of fun, though. I don’t know any other business quite like it, other than professional gambling maybe. (Laughs)
If I could do anything else, I would. But I can’t. There’s nothing else. I love music so much. If anyone asks if they should ditch their day job to pursue music I’d have to say, “If you’re making good money at your day job and you’re not so driven to quit that job to do it… If you have to ask, if you’re ‘maybe’ about it, don’t do it.” I know that’s harder as you get older and you get responsibilities, like kids or whatever. All these things that kinda keep you from making close to no money for a very long amount of time and having to go out and network. It’s just a whole lifestyle. It’s a lot of fun but it’s not for everybody.
SSC – When you’ve written a song and somebody snags hold of it, how involved are you in the process to the end?
CJ – If you’re friends with the artist and they want you to be part of the process then you can be, but most of the songs I’ve ever had I didn’t know the artist too well, like Jason Aldean or the Justin Moore cut… You’re basically in the dark until the song hits iTunes. Until they start promoting it, saying this song’s coming out this day, you really don’t know. They don’t want to tell you anything just in case they change their mind at the last minute. They might put it out, test it on streaming but what you really wanna know is, “Is the song going to radio?” If you can make a song that does that then you can make a good bit of money. If the song’s just on the album, even if it’s a big artist, nowadays it’s just a couple hundred dollars. Just because streaming pays the songwriters so poorly. So, we still rely so heavily on the radio here for making a living as a songwriter.
You have a lot of people aiming for a narrow, kind of one thing. This is why it goes through waves, be it ‘Bro Country’ or ‘Boyfriend Country’ or whatever they’re at, at the time, it’s because that’s what radio is liking right now kinda thing. So, everybody in town starts writing those kinds of songs and then eventually one person comes along who shifts the mould and then everybody goes, “Oh, never mind, that’s not cool anymore, we’re going over here.”
SSC – You wrote Up, Down but it’s so different from your own stuff, like American Girls or Tall Boy.
CJ – I started playing Tall Boy live and I feel like it was one of the first songs that helped define what I wanted to sound like and I had a show and folks were like, “Dude that’s a fun one.” Like, it’s aggressive but it’s like a sad country song. It’s got the old school country melodies but the whole thing kinda rocks a little bit. That’s one of the things I really like. I love old school country stuff. That Watered Down Whiskey song’s a little bit like that, where it’s a 6/8 ballad, a whiskey song… I can hear on older country person singing that song totally different than the way I’m doing it. It would still make sense, but I love electric guitar and I love really rockin’ out.
Dierks Bentley, Gary Allan, Montgomery Gentry… those were among my favourite artists and I remember just how those guys rocked. Their tracks were great, their voices had some gravel, gritty and they have a passion. I’ve always loved stuff like that. I’ve cut some songs that aren’t… You can’t have the songs be at 11 all the time… I try to have some slightly lower songs but even they tend to rock a little bit.
SSC – I did stumble on one that you’re featured on – Any Less by Phillip White. It has a Tom Petty / Neil Young kind of vibe. How did that come about?
CJ – Man, I’ve written a lot of songs with Phillip over the years. He used to write at Sea Gayle and he’s such a great friend. He was working on a record and he sent me that song and said, “Hey, man, I’d love to have you come sing on one of my songs on my new album, what about this one?” I was like, “I’ll sing on whatever you want me to sing on.” We went down to Muscle Shoals and we had a lot of fun. It was a really great experience. He wrote some of my favourite songs – Nobody But Me by Blake Shelton and I’m Movin’ On by Rascal Flatts. That song just drips Phillip White; it’s him in a nutshell. He’s a great lyricist.
SSC – Have you had any of your stuff cut that you think, “Oh no, what have they done to that?”
CJ – I’m lucky that I’m a fan of everyone that’s recorded my stuff but when Morgan did Up, Down with Florida Georgia Line a lot of people posted on my page that didn’t really know who Morgan was and thought FGL had released it and they were like, “Oh you’re such a sellout loser” I was like, “One, it pays and two, who cares?” HARDY was wanting to record it himself. That was when he was first doing his artist stuff but they were like, “Do you mind if we let Morgan Wallen have the song?” HARDY, being as cool as he was, let them take it. I’m forever grateful that Morgan and FGL recorded that song. Never did I think they’d be part of something I was a part of.
SSC – They’re not everyone’s cup of tea but I like that they do something different.
CJ – Totally. I mean people said Garth Brooks wasn’t country when he first came out. Every time something new comes out people want to complain. Don’t get me wrong, I love stuff that has traditional elements. I don’t put pedal steel on my stuff ‘cos it’s more rockin’ but, you know what? Is there room for everything? Yeah, f’sure. I mean, if people are gonna buy it, then….
SSC – Thanks so much for taking the time to chat today. Is there anything you wanted to say to the U.K. readers at all?
CJ – Only that I hope when all the stuff that we’re going through is over that I can get over there, play some shows and hang out with you guys.
Check out this Spotify Playlist if you want to hear CJ Solar and the songs he’s written for other artists –