Working for a song

Sheppard Solomon has a bone to pick with the American music industry, though penning popular lyrics pays his bills.

Sheppard Solomon bad 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sheppard Solomon bad 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Songwriter Sheppard Solomon won't be watching the eighth season of American Idol, which is now in full swing - even though the singing contest has gotten him a lot of work. His latest single, "Feels Like Tonight," performed by American Idol's fifth season finalist Chris Daughtry, reached the top of the charts last year, helping American Idol's most successful rockster clinch the best band award at the American Music Awards. Solomon has written album tracks for other American Idol winners and finalists: Kelly Clarkson, David Cook and David Archuleta, not to mention artists who made it the "old-fashioned" way, like Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Enrique Iglesias and Paris Hilton. The singing contest bores the Jewish 39-year-old bachelor, and it reflects his growing disillusionment with the mainstream music business. "It's become more about the wrong things," he says during an interview at his home in the Hollywood Hills. "That's why people don't buy records. They don't feel attached. It's not real. It's more plastic. People like Elton John, Bob Dylan, Sting, Jim Morrison - they were real artists with points of view." There's another reason people don't buy records: the rise of the Internet. Artists no longer rely on record labels to get their music heard or distributed. Music fans now download their favorite songs or watch videos on YouTube. A songwriter has to produce a genuine radio hit to make a small fortune. "The scope, the range of opportunity is closing in," Solomon says. "You have a lot of people chasing a minimum amount of opportunity. It creates a feeding-frenzy kind of environment. You have 10 records being made that are important and you have 1,000 songwriters writing songs for them." The New York City native has been writing songs since he was a teenager fronting a rock band. He got his first real songwriting break in 1994 with UK hit single entitled "Just A Step From Heaven," performed by the girl group Eternal. Since then, he's been hustling to stay on top of a business he describes as "political and weird," and often that means lending his melodies and lyrics to manufactured pop stars. "And you don't know where that smash will come, either." Case in point: "Feels Like Tonight" was first developed in a jam session with Lukasz Gottwald (a.k.a. Dr. Luke, producer of Spears's latest hit, Circus) after working on Paris Hilton's album together. The song lay fallow for several months until they played it to another Swedish hitmaker, Max Martin (also producer for Spears classics, including "Baby One More Time"). Martin further shaped the melody and brought it to the attention of legendary BMG music exec Clive Davis. "Basically, Clive Davis loved the song and wanted Taylor Hicks to sing it as the winning song for American Idol. They recorded a version of it, but it didn't have the right sound to it. It wasn't convincing. They scrapped that. So six months later they were making the Daughtry record. Clive Davis said we should have him cut it." EVEN THOUGH he's worked with the biggest names in the industry, Solomon doesn't feel like his career is established. "Nobody is ever established. It's yes or no. It's a trendy business, like fashion. You always have to be in with the times. Unless you're writing country music - then it doesn't matter," Solomon said. For now, he has tempered his ambition. "As you get older, you get less infatuated with the rat race. You want the simpler things in life. Being with someone you love. Having a good life. Not running around like a mad person trying to conquer the world." Seeking fulfillment, depth and a sense of rootedness after working decades in a competitive business that left him feeling tired and empty, Solomon took his first trip to Israel about five years ago and immediately felt a connection. "When you go out in Israel, you don't have to pretend to be something else. You are who you are." Having gone to Sunday school as a child, he never practiced Judaism seriously. "I'm definitely Jewish and aware of my Jewishness, but I like all religions." But he felt a sense of belonging in Israel, particularly Tel Aviv, and the simplicity and grittiness of life there charmed him. Now he counts many Israeli ex-pats living in Los Angeles as his good friends. "I need that. I need something removed from my work," he said. He doesn't have any plans to move to Israel, though. "Last time I went, it was kind of boring. A part of me really loves it. It has a soul to it that's very interesting."