Interview with Georgia Stitt: Composer, Lyricist, Performer
In this edition of our Musicnotes.com Songwriter Spotlight, we turn our attention to the multi-talented Georgia Stitt who has worked as a composer, lyricist, arranger, music director, performer, vocal coach and more! Whether she’s on Broadway or working in television, Georgia is a consummate professional with a passion for all things music.
Musicnotes.com is proud to highlight Georgia in this edition of our Songwriter Spotlight. We’d also like to mention we offer a great selection of sheet music for songs by Georgia Stitt or the Alphabet City Song Cycle sheet music for piano and vocals, too!
Is there a difference between writing songs for a stage production versus a movie or a TV show?
- Well, yes and no. In both cases you’re writing on assignment, as opposed to writing a song just because you feel like it. When writing for a project, either a stage musical or a TV/film project, you’re trying to capture the essential mood of the scene, the needs and voices of the characters, and you’re trying to take the listener from point A to point B in the storytelling. This is songwriting with a purpose.
Between the musical theater and the film world, there’s a real difference in the expected style of the music, but the essential task of why you’re writing the song feels more or less the same. The real difference is not between writing stage vs. TV/film, it’s between writing theatrically and writing pop music. There are rules in theater music that just go out the window when you’re writing pop songs, and vice versa. For example, in theater music, lyrics have to rhyme perfectly; anything else is considered a cop-out. In theater music, the singer makes a discovery over the course of a song and winds up knowing something at the end of it that he or she didn’t know at the beginning of it. In pop music, songs aren’t structured that way. It’s perfectly acceptable — even desirable — for you to sing about an emotion for three minutes without ever questioning that emotion. Pop songs say “I feel good.” Theater songs say “I feel good but it’s not going to last because you’re married but even so I’m just going to enjoy this moment while it’s here.” They are both unbelievably difficult to get right.
What are some things that you think about when composing choral pieces?
- Like writing in any vocal style, I try to find the music within the words. Sometimes the rhythm of the words presents an idea, sometimes there is imagery in the words or I’m just responding to the fact that there are a lot of vowel sounds in these particular words. (Unlike other songs, I have always started choral music with the text first.) And then I have to think about what kind of ensemble I’m writing for. Is this piece for high school voices? Professional voices? Women’s choir only? What are the vocal ranges that limit me? (They’re bigger in professional groups than in high school or youth choirs.) How difficult do I want this piece to be? And because I come from a musical theater background, I’m always looking for ways to make sure the lyrics can be understood even when sung by a choir.
Some choral composers seem to enjoy just writing for the sounds of vowels or repeating words over and over again just because they’re there. (Of course, I love a piece of “Alleluia” music as much as anything else, but so far I haven’t written anything like that.) I want to make sure that at the end of a performance of a piece of my music, the listener has experienced something both musical and verbal.
Can you describe your role as vocal coach for AMERICA’S GOT TALENT in 2008?
- “America’s Got Talent” was the third reality show for which I worked on the music staff. The first one was “Grease: You’re The One That I Want” in 2006 and the second was “Clash Of The Choirs” in 2007. On all three shows my job was to be a liaison between the singers and the producers. On the “Grease” show, most of the contestants were trained musical theater singers. They were amateurs, to be sure, but they had been in musicals before and many of them had studied voice in school. They were the musical theater kids. Then on “Clash,” the contestants were choirs. And again, though they were amateurs, these folks, both kids and adults, had experience singing in choirs. They knew if they were tenors or baritones, most of them could hold harmony and read music. They were the choir kids. And then, finally, on “America’s Got Talent,” the show’s contestants weren’t all singers, because it was a variety show. We had dancers, magicians, comedians, gigantic dancing balloons and an Elvis impersonator.
Of the 40 semi-finalists that year, however, 19 of them were singers, and several of those people had never had any kind of music training at all. So I was coaching them (one-on-one, several times a week) about vocal warm-ups, introducing them to concepts like singing harmony, using natural instead of forced vibrato, and musical phrasing. In one case I was desperately trying to get a contestant to quit smoking. (He didn’t.) One of our singers won the whole contest, though, and that was thrilling.
How has your educational background affected your ability to write and arrange music?
- I can’t imagine being able to do what I do without having had the education I got. I started piano lessons at seven and played classical piano (competitions, juries, Guild) until I went to college. By the time I got to college I had a deep understanding of musical theory (thanks to my fabulous and diligent piano teachers) and breezed through a subject that was tough for a lot of my classmates.
In college at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music (Nashville) I majored in music theory and composition and had exposure to so many different subjects — orchestration, conducting, accompanying, arranging. And because of the wonderful liberal arts requirements at that school, I had to take classes that had nothing to do with music — philosophy, languages, history, English, computer science, and so on. I remember one of my professors telling me that you couldn’t be a composer unless you had something to write about, and that’s what the rest of your education was for. I will admit that a huge amount of my education since college has come just from doing it — getting hired to do a job and then figuring out what it is I needed to pull off. But I’m eternally grateful for the basic education I got at the beginning.
Have you ever directed performances of your own music? What was that like?
- I have played the piano for many performances of my music, and I’ve conducted others. Honestly I have more experience being involved in performances of my own music than I have of seeing other people do it. I do a lot of concerts where I play and sing my own material, and I often invite other singers and musicians to join me on stage. I love pulling those things together, and I love it when a singer teaches me something about my song that I didn’t already know. What’s hard for me is sitting in the audience (or worse yet… watching on YouTube!) when someone sings one of my songs badly. I know that once the songs are out of my hands they’re out of my hands, but in that case perhaps it’s better if I just never know about it.
Which comes first for you – writing music or writing lyrics?
- I usually start with an idea for a song. I try to find a point of view or an expression of an idea that I’ve never heard anyone else say quite the same way. Sometimes it’s the title, or the hook of the song, sometimes it’s a musical idea, a rhythmic or melodic theme. Either way, once that original gesture is in place it’s completely back and forth between the music and the lyric.
In my world, it’s absolutely important that the rhymes are perfect rhymes, so I spend a lot of time trying to find just the right words to express the idea without forcing the rhyme. And lately, I’ve been trying to make sure I don’t just regurgitate the same musical ideas over and over again. I find my fingers on the piano want to go to the same chords over and over again, so I challenge myself to write away from the piano, or to try something different just to see where it leads me. The best thing about writing both the music and the lyrics is that if you find yourself veering off in a different direction than you originally intended, you just let yourself go there. That’s where I always discover the best work.
Can you talk about the songwriting process for ALPHABET CITY CYCLE?
- Sure. Marcy Heisler is a musical theater lyricist I have long admired, and I approached her about the possibility of finding something for us to write together. She gave me a file-folder of poems she had written that weren’t exactly theater songs but weren’t exactly art songs, either, and told me I was welcome to take a crack at anything in there that seemed appealing. It was like a treasure trove of possibility. There were so many fantastic words. Some of the songs lifted right off of the page; others required a bit of re-structuring to turn them into the pieces they became. But the twenty-minute, five song cycle (for soprano, violin and piano) that resulted is a special little gem that’s unlike anything either of us has written with anyone else.
Kate Baldwin recorded the songs so beautifully (for PS Classics and available on iTunes), and I’m thrilled that other singers are discovering them and responding to them so positively.
Is there a difference working in Broadway or stage productions now versus five or ten years ago?
- Probably, but I’m just here in my studio plugging away. The economic state of America (and of Americans) has been a huge problem for Broadway. If people view theater as a luxury item then it’s one of the first sacrifices they make when their budgets tighten. In some ways it feels like Broadway has become so much more commercial than it used to be. A show won’t sell tickets unless it has a TV star in it, a title won’t appeal to the masses unless it’s recognizable because it was first a famous movie, a show that strings together a bunch of hits from a faded rock band sells more tickets than an original musical drama. It’s enough to make writers really discouraged, and then every season there’s at least one truly original, fabulously dramatic and beautifully-crafted new musical, and it keeps us all inspired and writing.
Do you have any advice for aspiring vocalists? Songwriters?
- Find the thing that makes you unique and make sure you know how to showcase that to the best of your abilities. I grew up thinking it was so important to be well-rounded, and in my life, that has proven to be true. But in my work, the more sure I am of my own voice the better my songs tend to be. A singer/actor who can do everything well often winds up being the understudy. The star is the person who is so original you can’t imagine the show without her.
What to you is the most important element of a song and why?
- Honesty. When a person tells me my songs are honest I feel like I’ve gotten it right. We all steal from musicians in the past, we all are the products of the music we’ve listened to all our lives, and we all are trying to write something that will appeal to a wide-spectrum of listeners. But if the choices you make are watering down your material, making it more generic or more derivative, then you’re not being honest. Sometimes the most honest and original voice winds up being the most universal.
What’s Next for You?
- On the professional front, I’m finishing up a musical revue that I’ve been writing with songwriter David Kirshenbaum, and we’re hoping to start development on that in 2010. Cheri Steinkellner and I have a 30-minute musical piece that will be presented in NYC around the end of the year, and I have two book musicals that I’m shopping around: THE WATER (written with Jeff Hylton and Tim Werenko) and BIG RED SUN (written with John Jiler). Finally, I’ve started recording a new album that I’m really hoping to release in 2010 on PS Classics, the same label that released “This Ordinary Thursday” in 2007. On the personal front, however, I’m having a baby in October and that’s pretty all-consuming right now!
Musicnotes.com would like to thank Georgia Stitt for taking the time out of her busy schedule to answer our questions. We would also like to extend our thanks for the photos she supplied to us and would like to mention that Maia Rosenfeld took the photo featured in this post. The photographers for the main image are (from left to right) Maia Rosenfeld, Mike Rozman and April Mills.