Judy Stakee Interview: Mind, Body & Soul Takes Over Songwriting

Judy Stakee is a world-renowned artist development specialist whose methodology entails growing the mind, body and soul to manifest the life and career of one’s dreams. With 40+ years of exposure to the music industry, Judy has maintained many diverse positions, including 20 years at Warner Chappell Music as Senior VP of Creative, where she oversaw signing, developing and managing their ongoing list of artists. Some well-known artists she worked with included Grammy-award winner Sheryl Crow, Jewel, Gavin Degraw and more. In 2009, she deviated from corporate and started an independent artist development company, to further develop recognized songwriters. This career path has since helped aspiring artists to navigate their careers, ensuring that sure they have the proper tools to develop themselves and their business. Judy has also developed a songwriting interview series, teaches workshops and retreats around the world and has written a book.

What led you to have a desire to be involved in the music industry, especially mentoring, developing and nurturing songwriters?

From the very beginning, I wanted to be a performing artist. Unfortunately, when I graduated from college, I realized this was not attainable, so I ended up in the music business instead of performing myself. My first job was in publishing, which was all about developing the songwriter and the song. The publisher administers the song, markets it and makes sure the copywriting is done. This position manages and develops songwriters, so I was in charge of anything related to the business side of it. I was lucky enough to figure out my passion at 21 years old and that is all I have ever done.

You mentioned that once the industry got a little too corporate, you decided to found your own company. I know that in your TED Talk you mentioned the industry began hiring leaders who were micromanaging and putting too many structures in place. Can you give me a few examples of these scenarios?

It’s a whole different animal. For 15 years I had the same boss and the same infrastructure. If I proposed an idea, he trusted me to go out and do it, that was our arrangement. When it became corporate, I had five different bosses in five years. One specific scenario entailed receiving approval to lead one of my writing camps. These were intended to help writers learn, network, write, etc. Two days after I had gotten this approved, I had a new boss take over and completely shut down my idea. My voice no longer existed without this.

I left the corporate world because there was no room for me. It used to be this place where you would make the records and write the songs and marketing would come in and everybody would help the artist to produce what the artist had envisioned. Now, we live in an age of Star Trek and the Star Trek Enterprise is the business. You have the product and then the product goes into the Star Trek Enterprise and it markets, it distributes, it collects royalties and it brands. You are handing the song over to the Enterprise and they are collecting everything for you right then. I loved my job, I just couldn’t breathe. I needed to keep doing what I was doing, without the confinement.

What are the main pointers you teach songwriters? You mentioned that you started workshops out of your home for eight weeks at a time, exposing your clients to yoga, vocal toning, co-writing assignments and songwriting exercises. You also mentioned that if you change something in your body first then your mind and soul will follow. Was this the motive behind practicing yoga or why do you find moving physically important?

The way I mentor is that I make sure my clients understand how essential it is to take care of our bodies, mind and soul. I emphasize that our voices do not exist without our bodies. At my retreats, I bring in a yoga teacher. I do this to give them an example of a great teacher: someone who is fun, informative and engaged. The body is the foundation of it all. Your soul and your mind aren’t concrete, but your body is something that you have control over. You have control over how much sleep you get, what you feed it with and how you exercise it. If you treat your body well, it will get up for you, give you a clear mind and help you perform when it comes to songwriting. It gives you the energy, the vitality and the attitude to get things done. I tell my clients to look through a filter of “what are you doing for your body, what are you doing for your mind and what are you doing for your soul?” If you’re not tapping into these three areas, your songs are going to be average.

Were these retreats that you were conducting wellness retreats? Can you elaborate on the intentions behind these retreats?

They were songwriting retreats, but we take care of the body, the mind and the soul underlying. It’s all about prioritizing yourself. If you need to tell your employer you’re going to be 15 minutes late because you need a banana before you go, do it. Or if you tell a coworker that you need 30 minutes of silence to get things done, then do it. No matter what you want to do in this life, whether you want to bake cakes or go to the Olympics, you still have to take care of yourself. You need your body, mind and soul to function, and you’re still gonna have to use your voice and your melodies to get your point across. You may not be the one singing but you’re still using your voice, telling a story and using the melody of your voice to tell it. It’s all about putting taking care of yourself first, so you can maximize your highest potential.

Do you believe that anyone can song-write?

I think anyone can write a song and I am sure everyone has. Think of being a kid and making up songs unintentionally. Music has always been apart of all of our lives and unfortunately, I think if children aren’t exposed to music it leaves them with nowhere to go with their feelings. This is because music is the outlet. So yes, I believe that everyone can song-write because everyone can tell stories. It’s just a matter of singing the melody or getting with a guitar player and writing a story. The songwriting skill portion of it all is writing a story in 4 minutes and 200 words.

You do not have to be instrumentally talented, but you do have to know what your strengths are. I realized that even though I played the piano, I am not a musician. When I cowrite, I want to work with someone who knows 162 chords, so when I want to write something a little Sheryl Crow, a little Bonnie Raitt, a little Miranda Lambert, that they will be capable of giving me that attitude, allowing me to write the song. I can write about storytelling and melody.

How did you decide the sign Sheryl Crow?

Somebody asked me the other day who my favorite artist to work with was. I loved working with them all but Sheryl was the first songwriter that I ever signed with the intention of developing her and getting her a record deal. When she was 30 and I was 35, she had just gotten off the Michael Jackson Tour as a backup singer. She wanted to be an artist and she knew some people but not enough people. I met her and fell in love. She was funny, communicative and smart. It was apparent that we had the same musical taste and that we were very synchronized. We shortly after began working together. She really trusted me as her guide and she was an A-plus student. She worked her butt off. It was fun to say “You see what I see and work on top of that.” It was that type of commodity. It’s hard when you’re in this business to pull someone along who thinks differently from you and to maneuver a well-done song when the artist doesn’t want the help.

Have you seen that it is more common for people to be a songwriter and be the artist?

It depends, both positions are huge careers. For example, Sheryl Crow is a songwriter, artist and producer. She does it all. Britney Spears sings and dances, but needs somebody to write and produce her songs to accomplish all of that. My department is developing singer-songwriters. Developing the Sheryl Crows but also developing all the songwriters that you don’t know their names. Julian Bunetta for example, was one of the primary songwriters for the band One Direction. It’s a great living.

What advice do you have relative to being involved in this industry during the unexpected pandemic?

My advice to all my clients and all of my writers is to be an A+ student. If there’s homework to be done, do the homework. If there’s bonus work to be done, do the bonus. It is essential to do the research and to be aware of what’s going on no matter what industry you decide to pursue. One of my favorite quotes states “Consciousness is our most precious commodity.” Being aware of what is going on around you, makes it automatically easier to come in and navigate. The more research, networking and asking questions that you do, the more conscious and productive you will be. The second thing you can do is constantly work towards bettering and developing yourself. Have a schedule. Schedules make you feel safer. Get into a routine and stick to it. I have had people come back from my retreats saying that they now have a schedule now or that they have since lost 50 pounds. You have to put these things into practice or things don’t go forward. Plant seeds right now and one of them is going to sprout.

Judy Stakee at Songwriting Retreat

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