Hit Songwriter Bonnie Baker

Music — Hunter Hayes’ Co-Writer of “Invisible”

“If people are in their sweet spot, then they won’t have the energy or time to be hateful or mean spirited with each other. I believe everyone is creative, but it’s different to want to make a living at it.”

Occupation: Professional Songwriter, Instructor

Location: East Nashville

Place of Birth: Texas

East Nashville exudes a cool, creative vibe, so it’s no wonder that Bonnie Baker invites me to her writing house in the heart of this emerging community for a chat about her new video course, “Living a Creative Life.” She’s just back from LA and takes a break from mixing a demo (Logic Pro Tools). We chat plugins—well, I listen—about family and good books we’ve read on creativity. Every time I have a conversation with the hit songwriter, I’m struck by how open, upbeat, and curious she is. We settle in; she sighs and switches gears from songwriting to teaching philosophies—both passions in her life. She has what every natural teacher has: a nurturing nature, curiosity, an appreciation for emerging creatives, and what I call, “a hitch on the back of her wagon.”

Who are your favorite creatives or thought leaders, Bonnie?

Brené Brown, Liz Gilbert—Oprah, of course—are the creative individuals I keep in my life and how they handle information. I had a book list…my go-tos are Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and Big Magic. Those three books are must-haves. And, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

What do you draw from them?
If you look at that list, they’re all female writers, and they present an emotional intelligence—and EQ versus and IQ.

Why do you think that’s important?

It’s the language I understand as a human being. Any time anyone tries to give me instruction, I like to know the why as much as the what. It’s important to know what lies behind the person we’re following. It’s important that we’re following a hero. They’ve vetted themselves, and they know their worth to be in the position they’re in. They just have to be honest and sincere and transparent. With Brené Brown, I met her in the fall here on her book tour—she’s from Texas. She has a language I understand, of how she grew up and became the person she is. It resonated with me. Not that I have to have something in common with every teacher. I connected with her. And, I think she resonates with a lot of people. When I saw the work she was doing for vulnerability, we can do for the songwriting community what she has done for the therapy/healthy living community Get More Information.

What are your thoughts on creativity in this music climate?

We live in a time when creator and creation are not honored. There’s a core belief that songs are cheap to come by. Fortunately, for me, I found a business partner in my life who was very much a caretaker. She said, “Let me help pull the load so you don’t feel alone.” That’s the best thing you tell someone.

People have forgotten the garden itself, but they continue wanting fruit to come out of it. So, we’re getting fewer and fewer creators having to create more and more to stay in business. Less and less money, less and less help. The core beliefs of people, and business people, have to change. A publishing company wants to sign a writer, but perhaps, not nurture the writer—granted, the publishers aren’t getting the self-care they need either. It’s a systemic problem: not valuing people who want to be creative for a living. I believe everyone is creative, but it’s different to want to make a living at it.

Share your thoughts on teaching…

I look at teaching a little differently [than Clay and Marty]. I love that they are making room for the way I teach. They see the difference and feel the difference. You need both. “How do you feel about it?” “How do you feel when you’re creating?” I do think the world is in a unique position, especially our world. We’re more connected, and yet, feel more alone than before. I truly believe that if people didn’t feel so alone, and they feel completely passionate about what they’re creating, we would not have the problems we have. If people are in their sweet spot, then they won’t have the energy or time to be hateful or mean-spirited with each other. They don’t go after each other. I watch people who are fulfilled and passionate and positive—they aren’t the ones going after each other.

And when they’re not in that sweet spot?

They aren’t creating what makes them tick. They feel trapped in someone else’s creating. Working for the man, you know? If you want to work for a corporation, you’re gonna get some perks—and, you have to weigh that out. We all need jobs with insurance and healthcare, but you don’t have to sell your soul to get that.

What I see happening…I think we’re figuring out that we don’t have to have the best of everything: house, car, happiness. It’s a little bit of the gypsy mentality of having what you have and being okay with it. I tell songwriters all the time, “You don’t have to sink all of your money and ruin your family’s life to be a writer.”

You’ve recently filmed a series for SongTown, “Living a Creative Life.” What’s your drive behind this series?

I wanted to give people a place to not just learn about songwriting, but to get inside of how to live a creative life on a day-to-day basis. The reality of it. We broke it down from how to start very small and grow into it—as a baby songwriter. How to physically create a space in your house. How to take ten minutes a day. How to start at the beginning and grow it organically and healthy. It seems to be such a mystery. I just moved here in 1992 with what I had in my car. I’ve been here 24 years and tried to put that into the series. I literally started at the beginning. 

This 15-week class has more information than one whole semester at a university. They [academia] have a habit of using the wrong text book. They might have the academic behind them, but no real world experience.

What draws you to teaching, because you’re also a full-time professional songwriter?

Yes, my degree is in English. I was a teacher before I became a songwriter. Now, though, it’s two things:

  1. I love the young energy I feel from new people—that first energy when you’re learning a new skill.
  2. I’ve always believed…maybe it was Robert DeNiro on teaching acting who said, ”When the elevator has taken you all the way to the top, it’s your job to send it back down.” I still feel like I’m on my way up, but the point was well taken.

I love your passion for belonging and people. I’m curious about the writing story behind your song “Invisible”?

I wrote it with Hunter Hayes and Katrina Elam. We were having a typical writing day, and we couldn’t hit on anything. I said it feels like the room is very bored…we were phoning it in. Katrina mentioned that on the airplane that morning [she] was reading a story about bullying. As a mom of a boy, it struck a chord [with her]. Hunter shared his story about being a player of instruments at age five. He was homeschooled and went into public schools sometimes. He sat alone at lunch. So, it resonated with him. My son Asher was seven or eight at the time, and he was going to a type of school one day a week. He was in school with a lot of kids who were from families who hunted, wore camouflage, and talked about hunting. My kid is very against that. He’s a vegetarian. Won’t eat meat. So, the kids found out and threw their lunchmeat at him, and of course, it would weird him out. We shared our stories, but we didn’t start with a title. We started out with “crowded hallways are the loneliest places for outcasts and rebels or anyone who dares to be different.” From there, it had all kinds of meanings. For me, it was about my being gay and growing up in a household that didn’t accept it. For Hunter, he was a musician and homeschooled and felt pushed to the sidelines. For Katrina, it was being a mom and having sons who would probably deal with that. So, it was very interesting to have all three of us coming from different places. I think it was Katrina who came up with the word “invisible”—that you feel invisible. [She pauses for a long moment.] As you start to appear in your life, you come into focus and view…and colored and well-rounded. You become visible. There wasn’t a specific thing we named. If you feel invisible, then we’re talking to you. It was one of those days when you pull into an idea, and several hours later, by midnight that night, we had it pretty much finished.

My life as a writer, I try to allow myself the luxury to go where the real song is. The only difference between a full-time and part-time songwriter is you stay there until you finish it. If any of us would have had to leave for a second job, it would have taken a lot longer to write. It’s just the pace you’re able to work at.

We just got a request this last quarter, middle schools in Brazil are going to print the lyric of that song. That’s really, really cool.

What’s the current project you’re excited about?

The biggest thing is an artist Ellee Duke, signed to Big Machine Publishing, but she lives in LA. I just got back from LA, and I’ll go back in June. She’s a young artist I believe in very strongly. I’m about 8 or 9 songs in—she has an amazing team. She’s 21. Ellee has all the markers I look for someone to do well.

Do you like writing with someone who’s not yet out in the music world?
Yes, if they have a good team around them. If I find talented people who don’t have great people around, then I might help them find some people, but I don’t spend as much time with them. We only have so many units of creativity. When you meet them young, you can suss out their creativity. I met Hunter when he was fifteen. Now, he’s working on his third record. Just having the history I have with him, and wanting him to succeed, it gives me such a place of love and respect. Let’s dig in and keep working. I love that Nashville still values a good lyric.

Deep question…do you watch Nashville?

I don’t watch a lot of television, but I’m planning to get Nashville and watch itI I just finished Newsroom. I would have loved to have been a screenwriter in another life. I’ve gotten intrigued with that. The more time I spend in LA, the more I’m thinking about doing workshops. The whole thing started because I wanted to be a speech writer.

A speech writer? Really?

Oh, my god, really. My favorite book in all the world is [Bonnie jumps up and disappears into the next room. She returns and holds up a large “coffee table” book.] Words That Shook the World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events by Richard Greene. The two discs live in my car forever. I’ve listened to every speech from Margaret Thatcher, House of Representative Barbara Jordan from Texas. I listened to her as a kid. FDR… I love this book. I love speeches. Most are politically driven, of course. That’s something I don’t know that we value much anymore…Eleanor Roosevelt. [She leafs through the pages.] Margaret Thatcher—don’t know that I agreed with her politics, but there are some great, great speeches. So, that’s how I started this whole thing. I wanted to be a speech writer. Isn’t that funny? Where things come from in our lives. It’s crazy.

Songwriting Credits:

‘Lone Ranger’ – Rachel Platten

‘East Of Eden’ – Zella Day

‘Invisible’ – Hunter Hayes

‘Play’ – cut by Rascal Flatts

‘Love Make Me’ – Hunter Hayes

‘Rainy Season’ – Hunter Hayes

’I Will’ – Billy Ray Cyrus

‘Ordinary Life’ – Chad Brock

‘This Woman Needs’ – SheDaisy

‘Love Is’ – Katrina Elam

‘My Sister’ – Reba McEntire

Chely Wright

Sara Evans

Brantley Gilbert

You can find Bonnie Baker’s course at SongTown here: “Living A Creative Life.”

Originally published on SongTown Talk newsletter. SongTownUSA©2016.

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