Expert Talk

Life in the shoes of a professional songwriter! Expert Talk with Gerald O´Brien

Not all too often do you get to meet the songwriter who wrote some of your favorite artists greatest hits.  This has happened to me when I met Gerald O´Brien, a Canadian born Award winning songwriter/composer and producer whose track record includes song cuts by Amanda Marshall (who I adored in my younger years!), Patty Smyth, Kelsea Ballerini (what!?), Martina McBride, Daryl Hall & John Oates and so many more major and indie artists. Aside from these major accomplishments, Gerald has written and produced for countless media and television projects and still continues to do so. He has been nominated twice for the Juno Awards, has one “Song of the Year” by CMPA Award as well as countless gold and platinum album Awards. The list goes on and on!

We sat down with this inspiring full time songwriter and multi instrumentalist to talk about his path to success, his inspirations, the industry and so much more! Grab a cup of coffee or tea, sit back and learn from someone who´s walked the walk and is still ascending!

Gerald, thank you so much for your time. You are a songwriter/composer and producer with a very busy schedule, working on multiple projects at once. Tell us, what are some projects you are currently involved in?

Hi Katie, thanks for inviting me to your blog. Happy to be here.

So yes, I am usually working on several things at once. On a weekly basis, the main thing that I do is write cues for a number of TV shows like Dr. Phil, Entertainment Tonight, Rachael Ray, the Drew Barrymore show, etc. And I always seem to have a song or two in the works. And I also produce tracks for the Kidz Bop records, which is a fun project to do. I am also getting prepared to write some new instrumental songs for my project called Exchange. We have done about seven records over the years and recently decided to start on a new one. Aside from that, I have a 4 person Composer group called R.A.M.P and we work on various shows and media projects as well. And there are about 4 new artists that I am working with, too.

Wow! That´s a lot to handle! A lot of our readers dream of being a full time songwriter and making a living out of their art just like you. Tell us a bit about your journey and the 4 decades you´ve spent in the industry so far. What have been some hurdles and milestones?

Well, my journey has been all over the map. I come from a very musical family, so music was always in the air at our house.

In my early teens, I started to study classical piano. At that time a lot of prominent Prog rock bands from the UK and Europe were becoming quite successful and in Canada, we seemed to hear a lot about it. The likes of Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Yes, Pink Floyd, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull and so many more great bands. So at 18 years old, I formed a Prog Rock band with my older brother Terry, called Nightwinds. We did very well in Canada, mainly in Ontario, and Quebec, etc. We finally did a record and were close to signing a deal, and our manager messed everything up and the whole project came to an end. That was quite disappointing. After that, I began touring with several bands all over North America and a few gigs in South America. One band I was in called Wrabbit (on MCA Records), a pop band, and we toured a lot, opening for Rush, Black Sabbath and many others. When I was not touring,  I was writing songs  and playing on many records. I also started writing TV and Radio commercials in Toronto. That was fun work. After 10 years of touring, I decided that I wanted to spend my time in a studio and not on the road, so my younger brother Wayne (who is an engineer/writer/producer) & I built a studio. We had a good go with it and after a few years, we had an opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take over a studio there. So without much thought, we made the move in 1990. I started working with some great writers and artists and people started recording my songs. Then I landed a TV show as a composer, and then several others followed. So most of the 90’s was TV work and recording songs for artists, and producing as well.

In 2003, I had an opportunity to move to Nashville and I got signed to a Publishing deal there. I thought I would be there for a year or so, but ended up being 12 years. I had some great cuts there and worked with so many awesome writers and artists. In 2015, I decided to move back to LA and get back into TV work.

The hurdles were more with business relationships & contracts that didn’t work out. Mainly out of ignorance and trusting the wrong people at times. But we live and learn and hopefully gain enough wisdom to avoid bad deals and relationships, whether it be management, record companies, etc.

The milestones have been when something actually works, and you have a successful project or you land a song with a great artist. Those moments propel you forward and make you feel like you can actually do this.

That sounds like an exiting life! Being a creative, having a bit of structure is probably super important. Creative minds like to drift off and get carried away easily. Would you share your morning and daily rountines with us? I´m sure we can learn from the way you structure your days…

This is a great question Katie, because it can be so different for everyone, depending on how you schedule your day, or if you even do.  I am an early riser which also means that I go to bed rather early. Years ago when I was a touring musician, my schedule was total opposite…lol

So, my day starts, (without question) feeding  my cats, No getting around that :). Then meditation, vitamins and coffee. After that I go into my studio, and as I am getting set up and checking my emails, I usually have the news on to see if there is anything alarming that I need to be aware of. But I cut out after a half hour or so, otherwise it puts me in dim mood…So once I am set up and know what I am doing for the day, I go and do excercise. For me, it’s mainly tennis, or hiking or lite workouts at home.

Then when I get back, I dive into work. A lot of times, it’s just me on my own, but there are times I have people over, so it changes up on a weekly basis. Of course, with Covid, not doing the in person sessions.

I try and break up my day with a 30 minute walk in the neighborhood . But again, no matter how you set up your day, there are often some things that come up that you have to address. So we have to be flexible and be able to shift gears at any given moment!

Oh, and I do eat too;). I love to cook and make several cuisines but there are days where I just don’t have time to cook, so I order in food.

I love how you incorporate physical excercise in the morning and a walk midday. I think a lot of people (myself included) tend to neglect their physical health and that´s no good. But, let´s talk music, shall we? There´s only so and so many chords and notes and bars…so, tell us, are you ever “worried” to run out of ideas?

That is probably every writers worse fear. But eventually, I realized that it’s not about the notes or the chords that we have, it is more about the inspiration of where an idea comes from! Just recently, I sat at the piano, thinking that I would do some warm up and scales, and this whole thing happened. A really cool Idea just poured out and I have no idea where it came from. But it was pure inspiration. So in that regard, it had nothing to do with notes or chords. Magic does happen, if we allow it! Sometimes, we just don’t recognize it.

Makes sense. And yet, there certainly is some pressure to stay relevant. Music trends are constantly changing. How do you keep up with the requirements of the industry? How do you manage to stay relevant and modern? I personally struggle with adapting to different genres and feel like my songwriting skills are very limited in that regard. Any tips for people that want to expand their skills?

It’s tough to keep up on everything. Personally I don’t like following trends, it boxes you in. Be yourself and be you, the artist! However when I am doing most of my TV show music, the Producers always ask for a specific sound and that is usually what is top chart and happening at the moment. That is the only way that I know what is going on with the current trends. I don’t listen to the radio very much. One good thing about being asked to catch a certain feel of a song or vibe, is that you do get good with working in several genres. One day it’s Hip Hop, the next day it is a full Orchestral film score sound.

One tiny bit of advice that I could offer, is to start doing covers of songs in various genres, and you will start to learn how that genre works. Or if you are a composer, try mocking a score that you like.

Oh, love that! Doing covers is a great way to explore new music and mix in your own style, like doing research and being productive at once. Definitely great advice! Gerald, what is one accomplishment that you are particularly proud of in your career so far?

That I am still doing what I really love. I am just so grateful to have worked and played with some of  the best people in the world. It never gets old.

Do you prefer writing songs by yourself or cowriting with other writers/artists?

Mainly, I prefer co-writing. If it is instrumental, then I generally write by myself. Although my musical duo that I mentioned earlier, Exchange, is primarily all instrumental and the other person in the duo is a long time friend in Toronto, Steve Sexton. He is amazing and we are both keyboard players and decided to start Exchange in 1989, so that we could get into TV/Film music. But with songs in general, I love co-writing because I think it brings out the best in you, and sometimes we have to be challenged to grow. I get that from co-writing. I don’t write a ton of  lyrics but certainly contribute, so my perfect songwriting partner would be a great lyricist who can sing. If they play an instrument, all the better. And of course, I always love writing with an artist. Most of my song placements have been written with the artist, like Kelsea Ballerini, Patty Smyth, etc.

Any tips for people that have trouble opening up when writing with other people?

Yes I do, because I always get quite nervous when I am writing with a new person who I don’t  know. The best thing that works for me is to talk for a while when you first meet. Get to know them a bit and find out who they are, what their story is, and it really helps make you feel comforthable. Sometimes, I will meet a writer or artist for breakfast or coffee first and just chat for an hour. It really helps a lot. Then you can open up your heart, and the other very imporatnt thing, is that usually, through having a nice conversation with each other, you usually come up with a concept to write about. So you feel very connected before you write a single word or note. Lastly, don’t be afraid to spit out any idea, even if your think it’s dumb. That’s part of the process and it is always worth it.

Gerald wrote “I will get there” with Patty Smyth.

As a songwriter, has the pandemic had a tremendous impact on the way you work? 

It has changed things a lot for sure. But I mostly work on my own each week so that part hasn’t been affected too much, although a lot of TV shows  and projects I was working on, came to a hault for a while. But production is starting to pick up again. On the songwriting side, there is more of an impact due to the Pandemic. About 6 months ago, I started co-writing with people again and have been doing quite a bit lately. But it is all on Zoom. It takes getting used to that format, mainly because of the delay between each other. I have found a work around which isn’t perfect, but helps a lot. And there are a few apps now for any DAW (Logic, Protools, etc), where you can actually record into each others computer in real time. I haven’t tried it yet but am going to soon. Even when the Pandemic hopefully goes away, it will be a great way to work with people, especially if you are in different parts oft he world. But the biggest impact for me, is not being able to record vocals live. A lot of writers now are learning how to record their own vocals at home and then send them to the co-writer of producer. This is a great thing but not as good as being in the same room together. And of course, it’s always nice to hang out with real people…

When writing for a major label artist, how do these projects usually come about? Are you a staff writer who gets hired regularly or do you cold pitch songs?

I have never been a staff writer for a record label, but I have had numerous publishing deals and in a way, that’s like being a staff writer. Aside from pitching your songs and doing your administration, a good Publisher will hook you up with people. I have been fortunate to have some real good publishers over the years, and they connected me with a lot of artists. And like I mentioned earlier, if you can write with the artist, your chances of getting a cut increases significantly. In Nashville, my Publisher, Ole (now Anthem) pitched a new song of mine to Martina McBride. Well, the song never got past the producers assistant, so Martina never heard it (that’s very common, sadly). Then, a few months later when Martina started recording her record, one of the people in the A&R department at RCA Records was cleaning up her desk and there was a stack of CD’s. My demo was one of them and for some reason, she decided to listen to it. She immediately called Martina directly and said, ’You have to hear this song’. Martina loved it and it was recorded 2 days later. So there is no real formula. Sometimes you just have to take a chance or a friend may have a connection with an artist, etc. I would say that all of my situations were different when it came to working with a major label artists.

You´re the creator behind the song “XO” by Kelsea Ballerini. This song is on my “morning comute playlist” and I often listen to it on my way to work, so forgive my being extra curious: Was this song a cowrite and how did the idea for the song come about?  you must be super proud of this!

Thank you Katie, I’m so glad that you like this song. I am definitely proud of this one for sure. XO is a co-write with Kelsea and my longtime writing partner in Nashville, Catt Gravitt. Catt and I were working with an artist from Colorado developing a sound for her and then one night ASCAP held a ‘New Faces Of Nashville‘ songwriters round at the Bluebird Café. And the artist that we were working with was one of them. There were four young female artists on the show and Kelsea was also one of them, and I really liked her songs and voice a lot, so after the show I introduced myself and asked her if she wanted to write with Catt and I, and she said yes. So when we got together we started talking, and relationships came up, so the whole concept for the XO thing came out of that conversation. We wanted to take it in more of a pop country direction so that it would be a little bit more sassy and fun. I started playing around with some music ideas on the banjo and a basic beat. Catt and Kelsea worked on the lyrics and in about three hours we put it all together. It was a real fun song to do.

Let´s dive a bit deeper into the songwriting process. What inspires you? Or is inspiration overrated? Do you have a way to bring up ideas even when uninspired?

I touched a bit on inspiration earlier and personally, inspiration is everything. Not overrated at all. I get inspired from so many things and if you pay attention to all that goes on around you, there is inspiration everywhere. Could be a conversation with a friend, feeling moved by a book you read or a movie that you saw. Or meeting a real nice person and hearing their life story. I wote and co-produced a song in the 90’s for Manhattan Transfer, and one of the singers in the group was my co-writer, along with Marc Jordan. Cheryl, the artist, saw a homeless man standing on a street corner and he was holding up a sign that said, ’Gentleman with a family, will work for food’. That was the inspiration and we wrote the song about that gentleman and the homeless community. So again, inspiration comes from everywhere.

If I feel uninspired or hit a wall, I will usually step away from it for a while. Could be an hour or a few days. Or sometimes I will just take a left turn and spend a half hour doing improv on the piano, or a short walk…..sort of a distraction. Having to create something when you are uninspired can be real tough and unfortunately, when I am working on a TV show or a deadline, you have to plow through and get it done, there can be no excuses. And it’s tough but doable.

Probably my best tool for that uninspired dilemna, is to stop everything and do a short meditation and clear my head. Doesn’t always work, but sure helps, for me anyway.

Do you usually start working on melodic concepts or lyrics first? Or do both come at once?

For me it is almost always the music. I will hear a melody or a beat when I am driving or hiking (thank God for the audio recorder in our cell phones…lol) Or, when I sit down and just do improv, or play around with some cool sound or instrument. I always record everything because you never know where a great idea can come from. Sometimes I will get a lyric concept or a title and then I try to figure out what type of vibe would be best for this concept.

Who are some of your alltime favorite artists/influences?

Wow, there are so so many I absolutely love classical music, probably my fav. I was very influenced by that genre as I studied it, but also Film music, Instrumental, Pop, Rock, Electronic and nowadays what is considered, ’Indie’. I hear so many amazing artists on You Tube or in a TV show and I don’t know who they are, so I look them up and usually become a big fan. But a few of my alltime fav’s would be Peter Gabriel, Sting, Pink Floyd, Talk Talk, Toto, Foreigner, Hall & Oates, Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, Kate Bush. As you can see, mainly UK artists.

What has been one things you wish you´d have known about the business of songwriting early on, that might have made things easier?

It would be the actual Business of songwriting. In other words, knowing all about the business of music and I wish that I became an entertaiment attorny as well, could have avoided a lot of train wrecks I always tell young artists or writers…… ’Learn the business, educate yourself and do your homework’. It’s equally as important as the song itself, sometimes moreso. There is no excuse these days to not know your business. There are limitless resources online and you can find out anything you want to know. When I started out, we had none of that and we had to go on word of mouth and trusting somone to give us the honest and correct info.

If you were to coach a beginning songwriter, what is one thing you would tell them to always keep in mind?

To listen to all kinds of music and have an open mind. You never know what may hit you and help define your personal direction. If you are certain about your path, then stay on it and follow your heart! Always be open to learn as much as you can.

Are there any industry events or websites you would recommend to visit as a songwriter that´s trying to level things up?

Well there are many things really. One big thing, that we haven’t really touched on here is Networking. This is a major tool for everyone. So if there is an Industry event , like in LA, we have the NAMM show each year that goes on for 4 days. Although it is all about new musical equipment from all over the world, it is a fantastic event to attend. It’s thousands and thousands of Artists, writers, producers, all in one place. You meet so many people and I have made some fantastic connections there. So any trade show events are always good. And depending on what your personal path is, there are numerous and fantastic online Webinars and classes that you can attend via Zoom. In Austin Texas, they have‚ South th By Southwest each year, a major event. In Nashville, there is Tin Pan South that goes on for a whole week  every year. So many resources out there. And of course…… Live Music. Go out, you will always meet people and see shows and concerets

Last not least, what is one song you wish you´d have written?

Oooh, that’s a tough one. So many songs really. But #1, would probably be Boys Of Summer by Don Henley, or Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd, In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins or Bridge Over Troubled Waters by Simon and Garfunkel. I could go on and on!

Thank you so much for this interview, Gerald!  It was an honour! Best of success to you and stay safe!

Thank you Katie, it was indeed a treat to talk with you about the wonderful world of music. All the best to you too and let’s talk again.

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