Date: Monday, November 4
Location: JJ’s Cafe in Nashville, Tennessee
During a trip to Nashville to visit family, I reached out to childhood friend, and former Miss Tennessee, Brenna Mader, who graciously introduced me to Grammy-winning songwriter, James T Slater. We met at a popular coffee shop near Vanderbilt University to talk about music, art and beautiful accidents.
Grammy-nominated songwriter James T. Slater grew up believing you couldn’t make a career out of music.
James spent his formative years in Panama. It was there that he, unwillingly, learned to play piano. Despite his best efforts to get out of lessons, his music-loving mother insisted, “You’re going to thank me someday for not letting you quit.”
It wasn’t until he went to his first concert, Santana in a large soccer stadium, that James, captured by the magic of the moment, realized: I’m going to do music.
But not without hesitation.
"I liked piano, but I didn’t think you could make a career out of it, but once I got into a band at 15 we started playing some Santana song’s. You know that song Oye Como Va? [He pauses to sing a few lyrics using the table as a drum.] I learned that and we started playing in my basement and all the sudden girls start coming around and we’re like, whoa, this is really cool!”
He started making money playing gigs on the weekends. His mom would drive him in the family station wagon and drop him off to play, then come back after the show and pick him up. He was hooked. Music was all he wanted.
But the voice in his head remained, you can’t make a career out of music.
After high school graduation, James left Panama for East Carolina State where he planned to put music to the side to focus on a business degree. A week into the semester he saw a sign on campus: Weekend Band Needs Keyboard Player.
His internal voice said, Do not do this. You need to study. The other side of him said, Well just call and see what’s going on. The next thing James knew, he was in a band spending his weekends driving around the state playing show after show.
His grade suffered but he didn’t care. He’d finally surrendered to the message his heart had been sending all along: I have to do music in order to be happy.
20 MINUTES CHANGES EVERYTHING
James left college to focus on sharpening his piano and songwriting skills with a new band that was playing a lot of shows. When the band was offered a two-week gig in Atlanta before Christmas, James immediately decided, I need to write a Christmas Song for Atlanta. So he sits down and 20 minutes later, he’s written a catchy song called All I Want from Santa is a Girl from Atlanta.
Every night they played that song and people flipped out. After one show, a guy approached him and said, “You guys gotta record that.” Young guys with no money, they found the cheapest recording studio in Atlanta, recorded the song in a day, and stopped by the local radio station to convince the DJs to give it a listen.
"We’re literally driving home, a moment I’ll never forget, after a Zeppelin song the DJ says, ‘We just had a bunch of kids drop this song off, we’re going to play it, tell us if you like it.’ They played the song and afterward, the phones were going off the hook."
The song was a hit and James was caught in his first wave of success: limos, music videos, big events. Everything you expect when you ‘make it big’.
THE START OF SOMETHING BIG
The Christmas season passed but the momentum for James’ newfound spotlight continued. Publishers convinced him to move to LA where he found a gig as a house piano player at Carroll O’Conner’s star-studded Beverly Hills bar at night while he wrote songs during the day. On a whim, he took a piano gig in Manhattan Beach, where a guy sent his tape to Europe and a few weeks later James finds himself looking at an opportunity to play in Europe.
In Europe he joined a band called Vaya Con Dios and suddenly his nights in small venues were replaced with huge arena shows, tours around Europe, and his songs becoming hits on the radio. He’d become a big deal in the European music scene and he loved it.
ANOTHER UNEXPECTED TURN OF EVENTS
James was living in Switzerland when 9/11 happened and he realized he wanted to be closer to his family so he shifted focus on how to write for Nashville. In the process of moving, he started working on a country song as a gift to his brother who had just become a father. He called it In My Daughter’s Eyes.
He didn’t realize the song would change his life. Within a month of being in Nashville, country singer Martina McBride picked up the song and a year later James was nominated for a Grammy.
"It’s weird, life never turns out quite like you’d think. If you’d told me I’d write a song about having a daughter (when I don’t have a daughter) and that would become a big song and get me to the Grammy’s, I wouldn’t have believed you."
Although Gretchen Wilson’s power ballad Redneck Woman ended up winning the Grammy, the song solidified James as a bonafide country music songwriter, which led him to pen songs for country superstars like Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts and more.
His mom was right, he would thank her someday. The piano lessons uncovered a passion for music that turned into a wildly exciting a fulfilling career.
During our conversation, I told James that, like him, I pushed my creative passions to the side and convinced myself I needed to go into business: I was convinced I couldn’t make a career out of writing.
Like James, I also reached a point where I realized: I won’t be happy without writing. The story and insight James shared was comforting. When I asked him what advice he gives young aspiring songwriters he said:
"You don’t get into this business to make money. You get into it because writing music occupies your every molecule."
For me, the advice expanded beyond songwriting. If you’re lucky enough to uncover a passion that excites you deep in your soul, don’t fight it. It’s not easy, but as James said:
"You have to be brave enough to just put this stuff down and put it out there. Then beautiful accidents happen."
Here’s to hard work and beautiful accidents.
Thanks to @jeannineyeah (officially my unofficial editor)!