Rhyming “moon” and “June” in song lyrics may not be that different from coupling “yeladim” (children) and “ketanim” (little ones). The key to penning a successful song, whether in English or Hebrew, is to be emotionally invested, according to storied American songsmith Bonnie Hayes.
And she should know. The veteran Californian has struck gold with songs for artists ranging from Bette Midler and Cher to David Crosby and Bonnie Raitt (she penned two songs for Raitt’s Grammy-winning album Nick of Time – “Have a Heart” and “Love Letter.”) Hayes was in Israel earlier this month auditioning Israeli music students at the Rimon School of Music in Ramat Hasharon in her position as chair of the Songwriting Department at the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Rimon and Berklee have a longstanding partnership that has expanded into the songwriting sphere for the first time.
Rimon students who have finished two years of studies can complete their degree at the Berklee campus in Boston, and Hayes was in town to scout for the next Aviv Geffen and Keren Peleses, two luminary Rimon graduates.
“There’s no objective criterion that always insures a good song,” Hayes said in a phone interview during a break from meeting with the Rimon students and holding master classes. “I’ve had very vivid disagreements with people over whether a song is good or not. Good is not a good word. For me, a song has to work emotionally and yet also impart an idea. I like being engaged on both planes.”
Hayes, who joined the Berklee faculty in 2013, comes from a musical family (one brother, Chris, was lead guitarist for Huey Lewis and the News and another, Kevin, was Robert Cray’s drummer for decades).
“I attended one of the first community music schools in the US – Blue Bear – and that’s how I found my life,” said Hayes. “I had taken piano lessons my whole childhood but my dad, who was also a piano player, wanted me to be a doctor.”
Hayes made her first splash in the music business as a performer back in the spiky new-wave days of the early 1980s, when two of her songs that she performed with her Bay Area band The Wild Combo were featured in the 1983 Nicolas Cage cult classic film Valley Girl.
“When you first find a groove and start to write songs that people respond to, it’s one of the most thrilling and powerful things that can happen to a human being,” said Hayes. “I remember that period with a great deal of fondness, and I still like the music, but maybe not the production. I think those songs stand the test of time.”
Hayes concentrated on her musicianship, eventually joining the touring bands of artists like Belinda Carlisle and Billy Idol.
However, with her success with Raitt and her rising name as a hit songwriter, the performing side of the music business gradually took a back seat to the behind-thescenes songwriting side – a development that Hayes embraced.
“I was tired of being the center of attention, I think it’s for young people,” she said.
“It just doesn’t feel appropriate at a certain point. And it enabled me to have my daughter and not be on the road running around so much.”
Hayes released a couple of solo albums last decade, but began to move into academia with stints at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, the REO Songwriting Retreat outside of Vancouver, B.C., and the ASCAP workshops in Los Angeles before she joined Berklee.
This month’s trip to Israel – her first – didn’t involve touring Jerusalem and swimming in the Dead Sea, but was spent primarily in the recital halls and studios of Rimon.
Founded in 1985 by Berklee Israeli graduates Yehuda Eder, Gil Dor and Amikam Kimelman, Rimon is Israel’s largest independent professional music school for the advanced study of contemporary music, featuring more than 500 students and 100 faculty members.
“Berklee has had a collaborative relationship with Rimon since 1993, but this is the first time the songwriting track has been involved,” said Eder, Rimon’s president.
“Some of Israel’s best songwriters have come out of Rimon, and even today we’re producing great ones like Rona Kenan and Jane Bordeaux's Doron Talmon, so it was important for me to bring in someone like Bonnie to provide the songwriting element.”
According to Hayes, the challenges that non-native English speakers face writing lyrics in English is not insurmountable for the Israeli students or Berklee’s other diverse international students.
“It’s part of an ongoing conversation we have at Berklee in addressing the needs of our international students. Yehuda and I were just talking last night about the cultural subtexts, the rhymes and the lyrical pattern in English and in Hebrew,” said Hayes.
Even though she prefers that her students write exclusively in English, she acknowledged that it puts the foreign students at a disadvantage.
“It’s difficult for non-native English speakers to write good song lyrics in English, and translating is probably one of the hardest things to do. It’s always an issue for anybody coming to study at Berklee from abroad. But we just haven’t had the capacity to address all the different languages spoken at Berklee.”
Fortunately, most of the Rimon student applicants are well versed in English, and Hayes was duly impressed by the audition process.
“The songwriters impressed me, particularly in light of the fact that these students are writing in their second language,” she said. “The young artists I met take their music and expression very seriously, and the auditions revealed a culture of musical rigor that has created some of the best young players I’ve seen.
“I feel that Berklee’s association with Rimon brings us many great students who are able to succeed in this competitive industry.”
Hayes’ final advice to the students who aspire to be professional songwriters or performers is to focus more on the artistry and less on the career building.
“You have to deliver the goods on your songs to make yourself 100 percent sure that you’ve written the best song you can.
Sometimes, that involves writing 100 bad songs for every good verse you write,” she said, adding a cautionary insight of irony to a universal art that brings people together in shared emotion.
“There’s a lot of obsessive-compulsive, isolated work involved in writing a song that is going to eventually want to make strangers who hear it want to be closer to you.”