John Barlow Jarvis

Posted Sep 21, 2006 by Paul
Filed under: Exclusive Interview

Every writer and artist, at some point in their career (and usually early on) makes the proclimation that they “want to win a Grammy!”. To say the least, the odds are not in your favor. So imagine the odds of not only winning two, but winning them in back to back years.

John Barlow Jarvis is a songwriter’s songwriter. If you don’t know the name, let me mention a couple of minor songs for which he won back to back Grammy Song of the Year Awards: “I Still Believe in You” and “Love Can Build a Bridge”.

Not that you’d even know it if you met him. John isn’t bragadocious in that way. There’s no ego involved when he talks about it. It just is what it is. That’s usually how the great writers are.

John is also a studio and touring musician and the list of songs and albums he’s played on, as well as the artists he’s played for, is astounding. (He’s currently on the road with Reba McEntire)

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I hear artists all the time talk about how Garth or Reba helped shaped their desire to have a career. From that standpoint, I relate. When I first approached John about doing an interview with NashvilleHype!, I’ll admit to being a little nervous. I even told him so. I’ve written with several of Nashville’s ‘Top’ songwriters and I’ve known many more – but few songwriters have had the kind of personal impact John has had. Simply, John is my Garth in that way and it’s a honor to have him on NashvilleHype!.

PKI did some research going back to the early 60′s. There have
been only three people to have back to back Grammy Awards for
Country Song of the Year. And two, Mutt Lange and Shania Twain, both
shared theirs for songs they did together. So in a way, you’re in a
league of your own in that you’ve got two back to back. Has that
been brought to your attention and what do you think about it when
you look back?

JBJActually, somebody DID point that out to me. Of course, the songs were written with two great artists, Vince Gill and Naomi Judd, the kind of artists who seemed to win a lot of Grammies. I guess it helps to hang out with the right people.

PK - Give a little behind the song history on “I Still Believe in You”.

JBJ – Vince and I talked about writing backstage at one of the CMA shows. We finally booked an appointment on a Sunday at my house. He forgot to tell his wife, and they had a bit of a spat about it, apparently. So he was in the mood to write a make-up song. I pretty much had the music idea fleshed out before he got there. I would say he wrote 90% of the lyrics while I wrote about 90% of the music. Oh, one more thing. It wasn’t a ballad at first! It was a midtempo almost Fleetwood Mac kind of thing. Vince and his producer Tony Brown wisely slowed it down. It made a big difference!

PK - What about “Love Can Build a Bridge”

JBJ - Naomi Judd handed me a set of lyrics she had written which was inspired by a conversation she had with Paul Overstreet. I immediately heard a melody and wrote it in literally 15 minutes. What took the most time was finding the right feel for the final recording. I believe we recorded it 2 or 3 different times before they were happy. It was released as part of the first 3D country video or something. I believe it was shot in the Grand Canyon.

PKYou started your professional career at 14 years old, though long before
that you were playing piano and writing. At the time, were you considered by
others as a child prodigy? Did you consider yourself a child prodigy?

JBJ - I was too busy running from the tough guys at my school to think about being a child prodigy! Now when people ask who taught me to play piano I tell them I studied with the great piano teacher Baron Von Heineken!

PK - Your bio of working with other artist reads like a literal ‘who’s who’ -
from your early work with Ringo Starr and Rod Stewart to the latter work with
Shania Twain and Reba McEntire. Is there an artist, or it could be several,
that you haven’t worked with that you would like to?

JBJ - Oh sure, I would love to be in the Rolling Stones. It’s the only band I would still look young in. Of course, Chuck Leavell is doing pretty good as their piano player I think that chair is pretty sewed up for now. Mostly, I would like to really grow as an artist myself. In Nashville there is a subculture of great artists who have bridged the gap between classical, jazz, and bluegrass. I’m speaking of Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor, people like that. These are the people I respect the most, and I am privileged to know them and work with them sometimes. I hope I get to do it more. They are great role models.

PKI’ve often wanted to capture moments, live in the ‘now’. When you are ‘in
the moment’, whether it’s accepting a Grammy or playing a session, do you
realize it or is it something that’s remembered after it’s over?

JBJ – I would not say I was in the moment accepting my Grammies. Too much sensory input. Later it felt great though. As for recording sessions, that would be the ultimate goal, to be in the now, really being present and feeling the flow. It DOES happen, though not as often as I would like. There is a lot of pressure, and a bit of an assembly line mentality, so sometimes I have to get that great feeling from the other musicians rather than the artist or song. However, NOTHING beats the feeling of backing a great singer! This year I would say studio highlights would include working with Bob Seger, Mindy Smith, and a wonderful singer from New Orleans, Theresa Anderssen. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that I played some live dates in Las Vegas with Reba McEntire. It is easy to take her for granted with her success and all, and her icon status, but actually, she is an excellent performer, an excellent singer, a character singer, and a wonderful person and friend.

PK - Why leave Los Angeles for Nashville? Especially at the time when your
career out there seemed to be on fire?

JBJ - My career was good, but certainly not on fire. There was a huge musicians strike that primarily was affecting film work, which I was just getting into. I had a brand new family, my wife was from Louisville, and so I visited Nashville to check it out. It seemed wide open, so I took a chance. A lot of my friends thought I was crazy, but it turned out to be a great move. Just as the studio business in LA really downsized, the Nashville music scene really took off. All the people I had met and become friends with in the mid 80′s in Nashville suddenly had record deals and became big stars in the early 90′s. I couldn’t have timed it better.

PKThere’s a very tight knit of players in town that seem to play on
everyone’s records. Do you think overall that has helped or hurt the sound of
records coming out of Nashville?

JBJ - This is a touchy subject. The short answer is, records coming out of Nashville tend to sound the same, and that’s not good. It is a complex problem, and the source of it all is, of course, chasing the money. Writers are writing what they think people want to hear, record companies are signing artists who they think people want to hear, musicians and engineers are playing and recording what they think the record companies want, and radio is making the final decisions, based on what THEY think people want. It is backwards from the way it should be. People want to hear something different. That’s what makes entertainment interesting. But everyone in the music business is so afraid of not making money, and the stakes are so high, that they are afraid to take chances, and so they are afraid to lead. One slip up, and they lose their job. Frankly, I think the studio musicians are the least of the problem. Most of them have an incredibly wide range of ability, and are extremely creative. Give us something to play that we can sink our teeth into!

PKHow often do you get to write songs? Who do you write with, who do you
write for and how often do you pitch your material?

JBJ - If I write 10 songs a year, that’s pretty good for me. As a result, at least a couple of them better be pretty good or the law of averages won’t work for me. Obviously, writing with an artist increases the odds considerably. This comment opens another can of worms, as a lot of people maintain that cowriting with artists has really lowered the quality of songs. They say that just because artists can sing doesn’t mean they can write. They say let the singers sing and the writers write. I have written with artists who can’t write at all, and I have written with artists who have wrote just about all their hits, like Vince Gill. I don’t have the answer to that one. Just write a great song.As for pitching songs, let me say this to other writers, especially writers who are just starting out. Literally thousands of songs pass through the halls of record companies every week. Most of them aren’t very good, and even some of the best are pretty mediocre. In other words, there are way too many songs, and yet not enough good songs.  So, first thing, before you pitch a song, you must be absolutely certain it is great, no just good. You will always hear criticisms no matter how great it is. But if the criticism rings true at all, or even if it makes you feel defensive, take another look at your song.  Sending a flawed song out is a terrible mistake. By flaws I don’t mean “originality”. I mean flaws. Poor, amateurish writing.  Professional listeners can spot amateur flaws instantly. It will hurt your credibility in the long run. Second, you MUST present the song properly. You can’t expect the A and R person to hear through a poor performance, or a distorted or murky recording. You’d be surprised how many sound like that. I promise you, they turn those off within seconds. They have to GET it. Also, don’t count on your 8 by 10, no matter how handsome or beautiful you are, to make the difference.  It’s an audio business. Your CD (you must send a CD) should be aurally clean enough to hear everything. And don’t count on them reading the lyric sheets to understand your vocal. Lastly, you must remember, just because people tell you your songs are as good as anything on the radio, don’t get fooled into thinking that that is good enough. You have to be BETTER than what is on the radio. Somewhere along the way, all successful writers came up with something BETTER than what else was around.Now, after saying all that, let me once again say, THERE ARE NOT ENOUGH GOOD SONGS. Somebody has to write them. Cream rises. Write, write, and rewrite! Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

PK - You’re on your 6th solo cd with the release of “View From a Southern Porch”. With all the accolades from Time Magazine, People and others for previous releases, what is your expectation for this new record?

JBJ – View From A Southern Porch actually was released, if you can call it that, in 2004. It is the first record I put out myself, the others being on Capitol and MCA. I actually got it to chart on the Americana charts. It’s gotten great reviews, but has never reached any kind of critical mass that would make it a national hit. I actually made a little press kit to send out with it, and one day on ebay I noticed someone was selling an “extremely rare John Barlow Jarvis press kit” for $25! Maybe I should sell the press kit and give the record away!

PK - The most important question of all. Are you still having fun?

JBJ - Of course! I am almost 53. I never dreamed this would be a career that would last this long. I wouldn’t change a thing, except I wish I had better practice habits.

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