Monty Powell Talks the Peculiar Life of the Hit Songwriter

A sea of 20,000 hands wave in unison like tendrils in a kelp bed when the waves force them to dance. But it's music, not the Pacific Ocean, driving...

You Don’t Know Me, But I’m Your Brother

A sea of 20,000 hands wave in unison like tendrils in a kelp bed when the waves force them to dance. But it’s music, not the Pacific Ocean, driving this vast synchrony. From the front row to the nosebleed section, everyone at the concert is in rhythmic lockstep — except for one guy in the middle of the frenzied crowd. He stands nonplussed with his arms folded, not even looking at the stage where the superstar has every eye transfixed. No, he turns in a slow circle, taking in the circumference of the crowd as they sing the words at the top of their lungs to the uptempo song of hope and reflection that fills the arena. That guy is me and I wrote this song.

 The sun is shining
And this road keeps on winding…

To a professional songwriter, the song is a shield against the double-edged sword that cuts an undefined no-man’s land between celebrity and anonymity. Rest assured that you could count on the fingers and toes of Arcade Fire the number of people in that entire audience who know who you are. And rest assured, too, that all of them would like to meet you and ask you what it’s like to hear your own song on the radio. It’s the 20 Feet from Stardom effect meets Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon Separation. The first time Keith Urban pulled me up on stage and handed me his microphone to be a guest rock star in a sold-out arena, I was glad for that moment in the literal spotlight and the contact high that it induced. But even as I pointed my finger circa-1968-Tom-Jones-style down at a cute girl in the front row and played temporary henna-tattoo rock star, I was glad to know that in the morning I would become lost again among the t-shirted and blue-jeaned population of poets who frequent the Billboard charts as regularly as they do the artsy Nashville coffee houses.

Momma says
“Why you wanna play in a silly rock & roll band?”
“Well, if you stood here mom
I think you’d understand” 

As songwriters, our shining moments most often come in unlikely doses, like at a Wal-Mart check-out line as the canned music recycles one our efforts. Indistinct at first, it’s just part of the 80-decibel noise floor created by the din of commerce. Then there is a slow dawning: “Hey, there’s music playing out there in the ether, and not only that, it sounds vaguely familiar… Oh, yeah ‘Dancy’s Dream.’ I had forgotten about that one.”

Every night
The Devil comes
And walks through
Dancy’s dreams…

We usually just swipe our card and walk on, knowing that pennies from heaven have just been bestowed upon us. But, once in a blue moon, in June, we swoon, point skyward to the sound cloud gods and announce timidly to the cashier, “I wrote that song.”

 Talk is cheap, it ain’t worth a dime.
So, don’t talk to me
Just give me some time…

As a culture, we are often enamored with only the bright blue tip of the flame. When we look at a finished product that we know is the work and creation of many behind-the-scenes players, we still tend to see buildings, not architects; movie stars, not cinematographers; singers, not writers. If someone writes a song that makes it through the nearly impossible maze of rejection that is the music industry, we tend to forget the hundreds and even thousands of songs that were written along the way. In 2013 I was nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Original Song in a Motion Picture. That song (from the movie Act of Valor), which I wrote with Keith Urban, didn’t really stand a chance against the unstoppable year that Adele had just piledriven on the globe or the Skyfall theme we were up against, so I went to the awards relaxed, not expecting to walk up on stage. But, if our names had been called, I have no doubt that Keith would have stepped aside and offered me the microphone like he did that night in Boise —  he’s that kind of guy. Instead, we spoofed a Facebook picture with me holding the card they pull out of the secret envelope that said Skyfall. (Technically, Skyfall is a new arrangement and interpretation of the well-known “James Bond Theme” and not an original song at all, but hey, I digress.)

 If it came down to it
Would I take a bullet?
I would… for you

The red carpet is where the real action was. It was fascinating. The stars and their agents all making their way down the rope-line, flash bulbs going off at the sight of each new celebrity and then going dark as the unrecognizables filed past. I was supposed to have a press person from the movie company assigned to me. He called and announced he was stuck in traffic and that I should just go on inside and try the salad, since no one was really interested in my story and I would just clog up the runway. I deeply suspected that he was wrong about this — the nominee list for the Globes is tiny, and while I was literally the least well known person actually up for an award, I was a nominee, and isn’t that who the gala is for? As we all cattled forward I saw Billy Bush up to my right interviewing stars for the “E” Network. Billy is a friend and as I shuffled past I caught his eye.  He leaned over to say hello and congratulate me. I said, “You got bandwidth for a lowly troubadour?” He smiled and pulled me and my wife Anna under the ropes and up onto the stage with him. Suddenly, we were on national television talking about the Robert Graham bowtie that, with the help of YouTube, I had somehow managed to tie correctly and only slightly crooked. I took my moment to thank him for shining a light on the worker bees. Now brimming with confidence, I noticed a young anchorwoman from a reputable cable channel standing alone with her cameraman. She would never make it in the Big Apple, I thought to myself, if she hails taxis as poorly as she hails movie stars over to her booth to do an interview. Seeing her standing dejectedly after her calls repeatedly fell on deaf ears, I started to feel bad for her. Anna and I walked over and I introduced myself. “Hi, I’m Monty Powell and I’m up for Best Original Song. Would you be interested in talking to an actual nominee who isn’t a celebrity?” There was a pregnant pause and then she replied: “No.”

 Love only comes
Once in a while,
Knocks on your door
Throws you a smile

But the salad actually was good, still crisp, and the filet was a perfect medium-rare. We got a great look at the designer-decorated space as we ate in silence. Only 15 or so of us, spread out across the room, were actually eating the four-course gourmet meal — the real feeding frenzy was out on the carpet. No one even came into the venue until ushers started forcing the Hollywood elite through the doors and to their tables. They were like drovers. Mel Gibson isn’t gonna sit in his assigned seat until five seconds before the call that it’s live TV unless he is cut off, Australian sheepdog-style, and corralled forward with all the other luminaries. It was a sight to behold. By now, each of the four courses had been served, easily 500 of them politely set down at the empty tables. Each recipe had been created from scratch by an award-winning chef whose name I was unfamiliar with. I imagined how he labored over each ingredient. I noticed how the meal was meticulously plated and how each dollop of cream and every sprig of parsley was placed just so. I watched the waiters deliver these creations lovingly to each lonely silver charger — and then 10 minutes later politely buss them away, each course untouched, to be unceremoniously scraped off into the garbage and forgotten. Precious few of those plates got a chance to nourish anyone. It struck me as almost poetic, the waste.

I caught a glimpse of the chef just as we were leaving. He was standing alone, to the side of those big metal doors that always bang so loudly when the staff comes crashing through with a new offering and invariably give the seated customers a momentary glimpse behind the curtain into the bustling kitchen where the magic happens. I walked over to him and said, “Thanks for the meal, it was great.” He smiled and asked me who I was. I said, “A songwriter.”

These are the days we will remember
These are the times that won’t come again
The strongest of flames becomes an ember
And you gotta
Live ‘em
While you can






Monty Powell has written multiple Billboard #1 songs. He is a SESAC, BMI and ASCAP award-winner. He is a recipient of the CMA Triple Play Award for three chart-toppers in one calendar year, a Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice nominee for his music in film and has songs residing on over 65 million albums worldwide. You can follow him on Twitter here.