January 29, 2009
Songwriter Solomon Finds Depth, Soul in Jewish Roots
Songwriter Sheppard Solomon won’t be watching the eighth season of “American Idol” now in full swing, even though the singing contest has gotten him a lot of work. His latest single, “Feels Like Tonight,” performed by “Idol’s” fifth-season finalist, Chris Daughtry, reached the top of the charts last year, helping the show’s most successful rockster clinch the best band award at the American Music Awards. Sheppard has also written album tracks for “Idol” winners and finalists Kelly Clarkson, David Cook and David Archuleta, not to mention artists who made it the old-fashioned way: Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Enrique Iglesias and Paris Hilton.
Solomon, a 39-year-old Jewish bachelor, nevertheless said the singing contest bores him, and it reflects the aspects of the mainstream music business he finds disillusioning.
“It’s become more about the wrong things,” he said in an interview at his home in the Hollywood Hills. “That’s why people don’t buy records. They don’t feel attached. It’s not real. It’s more plastic. People like Elton John, Bob Dylan, Sting, Jim Morrison — they were real artists with points of view.”
With the rise of the Internet and the dissolution of record labels, a songwriter has to produce a real radio hit to make good money. “The scope, the range of opportunity is closing in,” Solomon said. “You have a lot of people chasing a minimum amount of opportunity. It creates a feeding-frenzy kind of environment. You have 10 records being made that are important, and you have 1,000 songwriters writing songs for them.”
The New York-native began to write songs as a teenager fronting a rock band. He got his first real songwriting break in 1994 with UK Singles Chart hit “Just a Step From Heaven,” performed by the girl group Eternal. Since then he’s been hustling to stay on top of a business he describes as “political and weird,” and often that means lending his melodies and lyrics to manufactured pop stars. “And you don’t know where that smash will come either.”
Case in point: “Feels Like Tonight” was first developed in a jamming session with Lukasz Gottwald (aka Dr. Luke, producer of Spears’ latest hit, “Circus”) after working on Paris Hilton’s album together. The song lay fallow for several months until they played it to another hit-maker, Max Martin (also a producer of Spears classics, including “Baby One More Time”). Martin further shaped the melody and brought it to the attention of legendary BMG music executive Clive Davis.
“Basically, Clive Davis loved the song and wanted Taylor Hicks to sing it as the winning song for American Idol,” Solomon said. “They recorded a version of it, but it didn’t have the right sound to it. It wasn’t convincing. They scrapped that. So six months later they were making the Daughtry record. Clive Davis said we should have him cut it.”
Even though Solomon has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, he said he doesn’t feel like his career is established.
“Nobody is ever established. It’s yes or no. It’s a trendy business, like fashion. You always have to be in with the times. Unless you’re writing country music, then it doesn’t matter,” he said.
Seeking fulfillment, depth and a sense of rootedness after working decades in a competitive business that has left him feeling tired and empty, Solomon took his first trip to Israel about five years ago and immediately felt a connection.
“When you go out in Israel you don’t have to pretend to be something else. You are who you are.”
Although Sheppard went to Sunday school as a child, he never practiced Judaism seriously. “I’m definitely Jewish and aware of my Jewishness, but I like all religions.” But he felt a sense of belonging in Israel, particularly Tel Aviv, and the simplicity and grittiness of life there charmed him. Now he counts many Israeli ex-pats living in Los Angeles as good friends. “I need that. I need something removed from my work,” he said.
He doesn’t have any plans to move to Israel, though. “Last time I went it was kind of boring. A part of me really loves it. It has a soul to it that’s very interesting.”
For now, Sheppard has tempered his ambition. “As you get older, you get less infatuated with the rat race. You want the simpler things in life. Being with someone you love. Having a good life. Not running around like a mad person trying to conquer the world.”