Since contributing to Carrie Underwood’s 2007 “Last Name,” 2012 BMI Country Songwriter of the Year Luke Laird has netted almost a dozen chart-toppers, penning hits for everyone from Eric Church to Little Big Town and Miranda Lambert. This year, on top of work with Tim McGraw and Little Big Town, he’ll have a handful of tunes on Kacey Musgraves’s Nashville debut, Same Trailer Different Park. We talked to Laird about his songwriting process, his love of hip-hop, and what it’s like to work with Kacey.
First of all, where are you from and when did you first start writing songs?
Okay, I’m originally from a little town called Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania, and I honestly started writing songs probably when I was in like first grade. Just as soon as I learned how to play an instrument.
And how did you get to write songs professionally? When did that happen?
Well I came down to Nashville…I graduated high school in 1997 and I moved down here to go to Middle Tennessee State for college. And I was doing their music business program but I picked that school just ’cause it was close to Nashville. And just started playing like open mic writer nights and all that in Nashville until I started to get some interest from publishers and all that stuff.
Did you have a moment that you might call like a big break or did it more slowly, over time happen?
I think it just kind of happened slowly over time. When I signed my first publishing deal I guess that felt like a big break, and then I realized that really doesn’t guarantee anything. But I think there’s just different moments over time.
I know you’ve written a lot of songs for Carrie Underwood. How did that happen? How did you guys link up?
I had written a lot with a girl named Hillary Lindsey who had written some of Carrie’s, like, some of her biggest hits on her first album. Hillary and I were friends and we had written a lot together. So Carrie’s management put Hillary and I, you know, together with Carrie. They thought, ‘Okay, this’ll be a good combo.’ So that’s kind of how that came about. I had worked a lot with Hillary and Carrie obviously had known Hillary and recorded her songs, so they put the three of us together to write, and, uh, it worked out.
What is it like writing songs for someone like Eric Church who’s also a great songwriter in his own right? Do you approach it differently?
I mean every artist is different, but it’s fun working with Eric, or Kacey Musgraves. They’re both… I definitely feel like they know who they are for sure as artists, and they’re great songwriters. I mean they both started out as songwriters before they had record deals. And so it’s fun because when you get in a room with an artist like that, they already know what they want to say or what they’re not gonna say. It helps when you’re with an artist who has a vision, and then I just kind of try to help them do what they already do. Just try to make it as best I can. Or best that they can make it. So it’s a lot of fun.
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One song I’d like to hear a little about that I think is really fun and interesting is Jason Aldean’s “1994.”
[Laughs] That is interesting. You know that’s a fun story. I know we wrote that last May. I wrote it with one of my frequent co-writers, Barry Dean, who’s just a great writer, and a new artist, Thomas Rhett, who’s also a great songwriter. We had had the day booked for the three of us to write, and originally I thought we were gonna try to write something for Thomas Rhett, but he had informed us that he was done with his album. To be completely honest, I feel like if he hadn’t told us that, we probably wouldn’t have ended up writing the song that we did because, since we knew he was done with his album, we were just like ‘let’s just write something crazy and fun’ which, you know, is what we should be trying to do all the time [laughs]. You know, just no rules.
I had this beat that I made in like a Starbucks on my laptop, and I just pulled it out and was like. ‘What if we write something to this.’ Didn’t even know if it was going to be a country song, whatever. And then, we just… it was kind of like no rules. I know I was thinking of growing up, when I was in high school going to different country concerts, and that Joe Diffie, he was huge back then. He was a platinum-selling artist, and really just a great country singer and great bluegrass singer, and we all thought it was fun to kind of talk about him over obviously something musically that is so far away from Joe Diffie.
I honestly never in a million years thought Jason Aldean would like that song, but I had the opportunity to play some songs for him, and all of a sudden I was just like, ‘For some reason this song just keeps standing out. I’ll play it for people.’ And they’re like, ‘God that song’s crazy!’ I realize some people aren’t gonna like it, but we had so much fun writing it, and I was seeing the reaction I was getting from friends of mine when I’d play it. They’re like ‘Oh, I love that!’ And I was like, shoot, maybe there’s something there, you know? And playing it for Jason, I still can’t believe he recorded it, but I’ll take it.
What do you use to make beats on your laptop? What program?
So how much of your writing or your compositions come from Logic?
You know what, I used to just be like a normal Nashville songwriter, just sit there with my guitar and my notebook and all that. Probably over the last five years, I started incorporating more beats and stuff to it because I love hip-hop music, and I like the energy that just having a beat gives. It just brings out something different creatively. And even having a beat to write to, yrically my mind will think differently than if I’m just sitting there with a guitar. Especially if I’m trying to write something uptempo, it’s nice to have. I’m inspired by different sounds and stuff, too, which isn’t probably the norm in country music but now a lot of the artists that are popular, I mean we all grew up, like, a lot of us listen to like ’90’s hip-hop, and it’s like all of a sudden I found I can kind of incorporate some of that, and there’s artists now that aren’t really scared of it. So it’s, it’s pretty cool It’s a lot of fun. I use Logic pretty much every day.
What rap have you been into lately?
Of course I know everybody.This is probably cliché to say, but I really dig the new Kendrick Lamar record. Just ’cause it’s so, like, I don’t know. You can just tell it’s so authentic, or at least I feel like it is. I don’t know him or anything, but I’m just so intrigued by the stories. And I feel like he sang stuff that I actually want to listen to. I mean, I’m all about like the fun stuff, too, but i just feel like some of those songs–just like it can be country music too–it’s just regurgitated lyrics, you know? It’s like, ‘okay, let’s find another way to say whatever.’
I’m trying to think. I’m always up for hearing if you’ve got any suggestions. I just wanna know some new hip-hop. In Nashville it’s not like we have tons of great hip-hop music here. I love just like– of course I love Dr. Dre stuff. I love stuff that has that bounce that I don’t feel like probably a lot of current hip-hop has. Everything’s so super up, like four on the floor. I guess pop music, you know, real dance-oriented. There’s great stuff in that, too, but I like just more laid back, you know, feel-good stuff.
How did you get involved with the Kacey Musgraves album, or with Kacey?
My wife used to work at BMI, so she would hear new songwriters all the time. Like new writers in town, meet with ’em, and she came home one day and was like–rarely would she say, ‘Hey you need to check out this writer’ ’cause there’s just so many of them–‘I really think you’d like this girl Kacey.’ So I went and saw her at a small venue here called The Basement, just for a songwriters night kind of thing, and I was like ‘Dang, she’s really good. I was just like, ‘Hey if you can hook it up, I’d love to write with her sometime.’
Kacey and I met just over three years ago, and we just started writing together, and I knew she was probably going to try and get a record deal at some point, but I just liked writing with her. I just thought she was a great songwriter. So we were writing songs together and she was also writing songs with Shane McAnally, who I had only written one song with. It was really Kacey’s idea. She just approached me and said, ‘Would you help me make this album? I wanna make an album,’ and all that. I was like, ‘Absolutely I’d love to.’ We had really connected, musically. And just, the sounds that she liked I was in to. We were really on the same page creatively. She’s amazing, and I still feel blessed I get the opportunity to help produce this record because I think she’s just an amazing artist. But it just started with just writing songs together.
I’ve heard, I think, most of it, but I haven’t seen any credits. Do you know which songs are going to be on the album you were involved in?
Let’s see, I’m trying to think which ones… let me look up on my laptop here. Okay, there’s a song called “Blowing Smoke,” a song called “I Miss You,” one called “Step Off,” one called “Back on the Map,” and one… no, “Keep It To Yourself” and a song called “It Is What It Is.”
Do you have a production credit for “Merry Go ‘Round”? That’s the one I did see.
When did you move to producing?
My ultimate goal has never been to be like a big producer. Coming to Nashville I just always wanted to be a songwriter, but as time went on, I just started producing all my own demos and everything like that. But I’ve never pursued it as trying to work with a bunch of artists because a lot of the times I feel like it takes away from songwriting just ’cause of the time that it takes. But with someone like Kacey, it made sense and honestly, now that Nashville is starting to take a chance on some new producers, they liked the music we were doing and this is the first whole major record I’ve produced. I mean, I’ve had random things. I produced a song on Ne-Yo’s new album which I wasn’t even necessarily pursuing, but we had gotten together once and written. He’d asked if I’d come to Miami and work with him. But I haven’t necessarily been a producer on big major hits. I’ve written stuff like that, but for me, this is going to be the biggest record I’ve been a part of as a producer.
How did you get involved with that Ne-Yo song? Was it through Tim McGraw?
Yeah, you know what? It actually wasn’t. It was back, this has been about, I don’t know, three years ago or something, I wrote a song with Ne-Yo and Carrie Underwood, and that’s how we met. I guess he just liked what I did. His manager called me and was like, ‘Would you come to Miami and get in the studio with Ne-Yo for a few days?’ And I was like, absolutely, because I love r&b music, you know, and I’m all about trying all kinds of different things. So I just went down there and we did a couple songs, and that song [“She Is”] was finished probably two and a half years ago. I didn’t even know if it would ever come out. We finished it before his last record and then it just came out on this one. But yeah, that was pretty wild.