Jimmy Robbins is known as a songwriter/tracker in Nashville, but he’s also been an artist, written music for film and TV, toured in bands and more. Amazingly, after all those accomplishments the soft spoken musician is still in his mid-twenties.
Robbins started playing music very young after his Mom was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers when he was 6 years old. “Growing up, music became my outlet,” he recalls. “When I was 14 she passed away. Shortly after I dropped out of school and started touring full time in a rock band. My Dad just wanted me to do whatever was going to make me happy because we had been so sad for so long at that point.”
Robbins left the band a year later and began posting acoustic demos on a new music site called MySpace. He quickly became the site’s No. 1 unsigned artist which created more touring opportunities and the eventual sales of over 50,000 EPs. “It was cool at the time,” he laughs. “I’ve definitely not sold that many discs since!”
At 17 Robbins moved from his home in North Carolina to N.Y.C. after being signed to a record deal with Universal Motown records, but the deal didn’t pan out and, “I ended up losing most of the fans I’d managed to make.” Looking for a new start Robbins moved to L.A. and spent the next four years writing for film and TV.
Then came a change of heart. “For the first time in about 8 years I made a non-music based decision. I have a very young niece and nephew in Lebanon. I wanted to watch them grow up. So I moved to Nashville.”
Meetings with ASCAP’s LeAnn Phelan and EMI’s Josh Van Valkenburg became the writer’s first Nashville breaks. “LeAnn introduced me to publishers and Josh set me up to write with Jon Nite who has become one of my best friends, we write together like crazy.” Unfortunately, a lot of publishers passed on Robbins and his 8-song demo. One of his final meetings was with Universal’s Joe Fisher who had started a publishing company with Keith Urban. Urban put “Whatever She’s Got” on hold immediately and they offered Robbins a deal the next day. (Ultimately the song was released by David Nail and went No. 1.)
“Overnight everybody wanted to write with me,” says Robbins. “I knew it was because they thought I could help them get on Keith’s album being his only writer. But it turned out to be a blessing. The goal in Nashville is what they call ‘writing up.’ You want to write with that next level of people. Suddenly I was skipping levels meeting with people I had no business writing with. But I hit it off with almost everyone and was able to fake it well enough, I guess. Within the first six months of that deal the Blake Shelton single, ”Sure Be Cool If You Did,” went No. 1, and everything started exploding.
Robbins was No. 1 on the NEKST Top60 Country Songwriter Chart for two consecutive weeks Nov. 17 and 24, 2013. Since then he has been a regular. This week you’ll find him at No. 17 with co-writer credits on Jake Owen’s “Beachin” and “Love” from Jana Kramer.
The following interview took place July 17, at Robbin’s Music Row writer studio where we discussed tracking, producing, writer trends and more…
NEKST: What’s a track guy?
Jimmy Robbins: It’s funny to be known as a track guy because I was a writer for a decade and never touched a computer track until I came to Nashville. About six months before I signed my publishing deal was scraping by, eating Ramen noodles. I wanted to make an EP, but didn’t have enough money to hire a producer. I bought a ProTools starter kit for $600 and made the EP, trial by error. There are guys that build tracks and don’t write and guys that write a lot and just happen to build tracks. I consider myself more the latter and hope my co-writers do too [smiles].
NEKST: ProTools is like having a big SSL board on your screen, right? What other gear do you use?
Jimmy Robbins: Exactly. I’m a mac guy and I use an Apogee Quartet which is easy to run and sounds great for a low budget home rig. The Apogee converts your inputs and sends the signals to ProTools.
NEKST: What is a normal day like for you?
Jimmy Robbins: Most days I’ll get in at nine. I’ll try to build three or four different ideas or “feels,” basically about 8 bars perhaps with a chord progression, a beat and usually a riff that ends up being the intro and the turn around. Most of my songs have some sort of signature lick. It’s an opportunity for an extra hook. I also love big builds, things that say ‘Oh a chorus is coming.’ The writes usually start at eleven and if we feel like writing one of those feels we do. But some days that’s not what’s in the room, there’s a different idea.
NEKST: Who are your influences?
Jimmy Robbins: I grew up listening to country with my Dad, and broke away for a while as a teenager in rock bands. But I’ve probably listened to more Tom Petty than anything and Jeff Lynne, I love ELO.
NEKST: What’s the process like, writing to a track “feel?”
Jimmy Robbins: We still write mostly on guitar, but with a beat going sometimes you’ll get a different melody rhythmically and land in different pockets. I’ll begin building/arranging the track as we’re writing. It saves a ton of time. When we’re stuck on a line I’ll turn around for a minute and layout the next part. Every demo is usually finished within an hour or two after the writing ends. I’ll usually sing all the harmonies and backgrounds because it’s harder to get songs cut when I sing the lead. I don’t have a bad voice, but it’s young sounding. I’ll take a few hours off and then around 8 p.m. I like to listen to what we did that day.
NEKST: Tracking saves demo costs. Are there other benefits?
Jimmy Robbins: I’ve not paid for a single demo as part of my publishing deal which saves a lot of money. But a lot more of my songs are pitch-able, too. Other writers have to wait to do a band session and usually can’t demo everything they want because it is too expensive. If six songs are going to be pitched to an artist and three of them are mine because I’ve turned in more demoed songs, it can help.
NEKST: Do you want to produce records?
Jimmy Robbins: I recently co-produced about half of the new album for RaeLynn on Big Machine. Joey Moi did the other half. I also just co-produced the new Canaan Smith single on Mercury which goes to radio soon. In Nashville they used to pick one producer to do the whole record. That doesn’t really appeal to me because it would take me away from writing so much. But if you wrote a couple of songs with an artist and the label said, “Why don’t you produce those songs?” I would love that scenario. It happens in pop music all the time.
NEKST: Do you see Nashville moving towards LA or Atlanta in terms of large co-writes and uneven song splits?
Jimmy Robbin: I doubt Nashville will ever get to a place where we don’t do even splits just because we were founded on that. If you are in the room and I wrote a line there is no way for me to know that you didn’t inspire that line. Maybe you said something that made me write it. Uneven splits can harm the process too and make it less pure. Maybe someone is fighting for a line that’s not the better line, but it is his line so he’s fighting for it to earn a larger share. You don’t end up with the best song if you don’t feel secure.
The black and white is getting a lot grayer between genres.
NEKST: Is Country’s younger crowd a reflection of the iPod generation?
Jimmy Robbins: The black and white is getting a lot grayer between genres. But another thing influencing our genre is that pop music has turned into dance. Country today is not all that different from what pop sounded like ten years ago when it had a lot of organic stuff in it, guitars and drums. We’re getting a lot of those fans now because we are writing those songs, but about our lifestyles and using slang that we use.
NEKST: How would you describe Nashville?
Jimmy Robbins: Nashville is still a town that celebrates the craft of writing. To be part of this industry at any level is awesome, I just feel so lucky to be involved. The main advice I give people arriving from N.Y. or L.A., is don’t be pushy, don’t act entitled. Just show up and see what happens. You’ll usually be surprised if you approach it that way. People will help you to get where you’re going. Nashville is very welcoming.
NEKST: Any advice for aspiring songwriters?
Jimmy Robbins: Don’t quit. There’s been probably 50 times I should’ve quit, like when I got dropped from a record deal, or had to borrow money from my dad. If you really love it and feel you are meant to write then keep going. But practice your craft. Write every day—by yourself and/or with friends—but just write. If you write enough songs you’ll at least get to be decent. So do it, live it and don’t quit.
Special thanks to Missy Wilson, Senior Creative Director at Universal Music Publishing Group for arranging this interview.