Music Row streets are filled with new and experienced songwriters hoping to climb that next career rung by finding the perfect home to nurture and support their creative efforts. But in an industry where success gets more elusive every day, only a fortunate few will find what they seek. Therefore the importance of these decisions—for both writer and publisher—cannot be underestimated.
This Music GM/Partner Rusty Gaston recently signed Jessi Alexander and both parties graciously agreed to discuss the dynamics of the new partnership and why they are so excited about a shared future.
According to Gaston, “This Music is a joint venture with Warner Chappell. The company was formed in 2006, with myself and songwriters Connie Harrington and Tim Nichols. We signed Ben Hayslip on our first day, who at that point had only charted one single. Since then he’s become a two-time ASCAP Songwriter of the Year. Today we’ve grown to five employees and 13 writers. As good as we put it on paper, knock on wood it has gone better. As we celebrate our 10-year anniversary we’ve won five Song of the Year awards, and had 40 ASCAP/BMI award winning songs. It’s been a super blessing.”
But despite This Music’s great track record, operating a boutique publishing company leaves little room for mistakes. So what goes into an important decision such as adding a songwriter to the team? “I always ask myself would I mortgage my house for this?” says Gaston. “If I can’t say ‘Yes,’ I don’t do the deal. I also don’t do pieces of business. Maybe a writer has a record deal or a cut bringing a certain amount of income and signing them could be a good business decision. But for me it’s about how much I believe in this person. I make my decision based upon people first and music second.”
Enter Jessi Alexander. “Jessi has been deeply involved with our company as a co-writer for years,” says Gaston. “For example, she co-wrote ‘I Drive Your Truck’ with Connie Harrington and Jimmy Yeary; and ‘Mine Would Be You’ with Deric Ruttan and Connie. So when Jessi approached us to say, ‘I’m thinking about looking around,’ we knew immediately we’d love to work with her. Jessi has tremendous respect for those 16th Ave. craftsmen like Bobby Braddock or Bob McDill who worked every day, chiseling people’s emotions onto a blank piece of paper. And she fits so well with our philosophy of a great work ethic and positive attitude.”
It’s easy to understand why Gaston would be excited to sign Alexander. Above he explained the “people first” side of the equation. But the new addition also ‘brings it’ musically. For example, her Grammy nominated co-write, “I Drive Your Truck,” won triple-crown Song of the Year honors from the CMA, ACM and NSAI. Her inspirational ballad “The Climb,” (inked with Jon Mabe) topped the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart for 15 weeks, garnered a Grammy nomination and won Best Song From A Movie from MTV.
I sat down with Jessi Alexander, (named after Jessi Colter) to get her side of the signing process and learn about her background. I wanted to know what career concerns mattered most, and what brought her to the conclusion that This Music was where she belonged. Unexpectedly, she also weighed in about gender on Music Row, offered some interesting advice for new writers and revealed some very personal feelings about why “The Climb” became a personal breakthrough moment.
NEKST: Did you interact with music growing up?
Jessi Alexander: I remember my grandfather sitting at a piano and playing a game with me. I’d say, “Hey Granddaddy play ‘Love Me Tender’” and he’d tap it out with one hand. But my Dad was probably most instrumental. He was a hippie child of the ’60s and during college collected all the great records—from Led Zeppelin to Jimi Hendrix. He also discovered Will The Circle be Unbroken which led him to Ralph Stanley, Willie Nelson and even Joan Baez. His music library offered Bluegrass infusing with rock n roll, gospel, delta blues and more. I was an only child with few friends, so while everyone else was out playing, my pastime became absorbing this music. Now that I have a 7-year old it gives me more perspective on how weird I was. My daughter might know what bluegrass is, but by her age I was encyclopedic in my approach to music. And everyday I still draw from those experiences…
NEKST: Sounds more like you were “gifted,” not weird.
Jessi Alexander: Well, I love how your weaknesses can become strengths. Being from a broken home in the country (Jackson, TN) without siblings, much TV or toys, music was an easy choice. At age nine my Dad asked me what instrument I wanted to learn. I chose electric bass. If he had gotten me that bass then maybe I wouldn’t have learned guitar, but he couldn’t afford a bass and an amp, so he got me a pawn shop acoustic guitar thinking I wouldn’t know the difference. Of course I did, but that started me playing guitar.
NEKST: Did you imagine yourself being an artist or a songwriter during those early years?
Jessi Alexander: I grew up around blue collar type factory workers. My first jobs were working at a dry cleaner, at Subway and the car auction. Even after moving to Nashville around 1999 I approached the music industry in a blue collar way thinking ‘work hard then you’ll get that raise or promotion.’ Pretty quickly I saw it wasn’t like that and it seemed frustrating to realize how elusive it can be as to why certain people have success and others don’t. A promotion can be a song hold or an award. But I also understand how fortunate I am just to get to do this.
NEKST: How do you balance all your career pathways?
Jessi Alexander: It may sound trivial, but my core intention when moving here was a humble and simple quest which keeps me grounded today—earn a living making music. Not to be a star or win song of the year. And now, with three kids, there’s an added necessity to provide more. Amazingly, after 14 years as a published songwriter I still genuinely love to write every day. Nashville and the music community create a balance that feels like a giant love affair from one song to the next. Sometimes, like all Moms, I go through the working woman blues, thinking if I work too much I’m neglecting my kids and/or if I’m with the kids too much I’m neglecting my career. But having a hands-on husband is key, too. He keeps me balanced and is able to pick up the slack when I’m really busy.
“Don’t fear other people’s success because that means it is in the neighborhood. Stick around long enough until it gets to be your turn.”
NEKST: What attracted you to This Music?
Jessi Alexander: I’ve actually felt a part of the This Music family for many years having written with Connie, Jimmy, Deric, Ben and worked with Rusty kind of like a third cousin. Family is so important to me right now and being able to throw the ball to other people so I can focus on writing the best song and keeping a happy home life is a great luxury. If Kurt Denny hadn’t signed me to Warner Chappell in ‘99 I wouldn’t be here today. And my time at Disney and Kobalt were amazing experiences. But this choice is very special. I feel blessed because this decision wasn’t about desperation or fear, but how I want to feel every day. Sometimes I feel the legacy of Nashville publishing slowly slipping away. You know the 16th Ave. craftsman that write every day. It’s unique to our community. But knowing you are part of a team with great writers like at This Music really raises the bar and makes you want to get to work. Talk about the best kind of pressure. And as you know Rusty is a fearless leader.
NEKST: What about the balance (or imbalance) between men and women country songwriters?
Jessi Alexander: I see females rocking. Connie Harrington, Natalie Hemby, Nicolle Galyon, Liz Rose, Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey, Brandy Clark and more. There’s actually an abundance of women having success and we have an incredible camaraderie. I remember Harlan saying, “Don’t fear other people’s success because that means it is in the neighborhood. Stick around long enough until it gets to be your turn.” I made the decision that the only way to play with boys is to write as hard and as smart as I can. Know my limitations and strengths and then work my ass off. That’s all I know. I don’t consider if it is girls or guys. To me there’s a job at hand and we have to do it. But I do wish there were more female artists on the radio because there are days that I have female titles, but don’t want to write them because there’s nowhere to place them.
NEKST: Advice for new writers?
Jessi Alexander: Three things. If you are moving here from another city or genre, educate yourself. It’s worth your time to explore the history of Nashville related to Music Row songwriting and artists. Secondly, you simply can’t write enough songs. Young writers stick out because they still talk about why that one song hasn’t been cut. Forget that, it is about a body of work. So chase your story and don’t stop after Chapter One. Thirdly, you might arrive with a dream, but know it might need to adjust and change. I came here thinking I’d be a backup singer, pursued demo singing and then artistry and was really bad at those things. But eventually I landed somewhere in the middle of all of it. So follow the road where it leads, don’t get stuck on a particular pathway and don’t get discouraged. Sometimes you just need to let God and time show you the way.
NEKST: Was writing “The Climb” a breakthrough moment?
Jessi Alexander: That song is what brought me to the party. I’ll probably cry, talking about it because it is so real for me, but it was a breakthrough because it taught me to write what you know. When I start writing about something that isn’t authentic for me it’s almost like God starts knocking on the table saying, “Hey, what are you doing? You know what you are supposed to be doing here, I gave you something to write about.” The second time that knowledge hit hard was writing about grief. For a long time I didn’t want to touch that emotion because my Mom passed away when I was very young. But then “I Drive Your Truck” came into my world and I thought, I’m supposed to write about this now. My most popular songs have been raw and real for me. People come up to me and say, “You wrote about my story,” or “Your song helped me get through chemo treatments.” I know this is all totally bigger than me, but I was a social work major in college so I guess helping to birth these songs is my kind of social work. I’m just so thankful and proud that I’ve not gotten scared when the moment came around to let those songs come through.
This Music staff writers: Tim Nichols, Ben Hayslip, Marv Green, Connie Harrington, Jessi Alexander, Jimmy Yeary, Deric Ruttan, JT Harding, Drew Baldridge, Molly Reed, Emily Weisband, Chris Yarber, Jeff Outlaw…