Questions With Rivers Rutherford
By Todd Sterling
had the pleasure of meeting Rivers Rutherford at a party late last
year celebrating his number one hit "These
Are My People," co-written with Dave Berg and recorded by
Our exchange was brief, but what struck me about Mr. Rutherford was
his genuine personality; there was nothing fake or contrived about
the way he presented himself.
Each songwriter has his or her own
thing, that special something that separates them from the rest of
the pack. What sets Rutherford apart from most songwriters is the
soulfulness with which he writes. Hit’s like "When I get Where I’m
Going" and "Smoke Rings In The Dark" drip with a realness that just
can’t be fabricated.
Recently, Rutherford took time out
of his busy schedule to answer... "10 Questions".
TS: How would you describe
your writing style?
RR: I always tell people
songwriting is nothing more than amusing yourself. They don't call
it working a guitar, it's playing. So I try to keep it fun. That
doesn't mean it's not hard or frustrating, it certainly can be, but
even when I’m writing a sad song or a heavy song, I’m having a good
TS: Where do you draw inspiration from?
RR: I write a lot of songs for my wife, Ali. I try to write what I'm
feeling at that particular moment, and a lot of times I'm not even
sure what that is, so it's kind of like fishing . . . throwing out a
line and see what comes up.
TS: What is a typical writing session like for Rivers Rutherford?
RR: Wow. I don't know, I've never had a typical writing session.
Sometimes I start with an idea, sometimes it's a melody, sometimes
it's a hook, and sometimes it's nothing. Sometimes I start at the
beginning, sometimes in the middle. There’s really no formula to it.
The only common denominators I can think of are that I go in
everyday, I almost exclusively co-write anymore, I like to start
from an idea or a hook if I can, and I aim for the song that's going
to cure cancer. If I can't get there, then I aim for song of the
year. If that doesn't work, then I try to write a great hit song.
And if that doesn't happen, then I write a piece of crap and call it
TS: When you write a song, do you ever write with a particular
artist in mind?
RR: Very rarely. If I'm producing an act I'll keep them in mind, but
I'm usually trying to write a song that I would cut if I had a
record deal. Then I cross my fingers and hope that somebody else
would cut it too.
TS: What is your take on the art vs. commerce debate; how can a
songwriter feed both sides?
RR: A person can only be who he or she is, and so I try to write
songs that I like whether somebody else does or not. Fortunately, my
favorite songs are hits so I tend to write songs that are hooky and
short. If my favorite music was opera or jazz, I probably wouldn't
write very many hits. That being said, there are times when I have
written songs I was pretty sure wouldn't be hits (just) because I
had to get them out of my system. That's very important because, in
my opinion, every creative heart has two personalities, a child and
a critic. The child likes to throw paint around the room and have
fun, and the critic wants it all to be organized. When the kid in me
gets his way all the time, I don't write too many hits, but when the
critic dominates the kid, he shuts down and doesn't want to play.
Getting those two to play well together is a lot like walking the
edge of a razor.
TS: Who is your all-time favorite songwriter, and how has his or
her writing influenced your own writing?
RR: I have several. Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen come to mind. So
does Jimmy Webb. I've tried to write big thoughts like Dylan, while
keeping the imagery and language earthy like Springsteen. Jimmy
Webb’s melodies and harmonies are so surprising; I've tried to be
unique like that.
TS: Out of all the songs you’ve had cut, what is the one song
that best sums up who you are as a songwriter?
RR: "When I Get Where I'm Going."
TS: What advice would you give someone who wants to make
songwriting a career?
RR: If you can make it an avocation rather than a vocation, you're a
lot better off. But if you can't sleep at night for fearing you're
not getting all the songs out of your system and into the world, and
you've tried every other way you know to make a living and it didn't
work, then welcome to the profession.
TS: What are some of the biggest mistakes new writers make?
RR: Trying to write someone else's song. If I'm trying to write a
Jeffrey Steele song, he's going to beat me every time. If you try to
write my song, I'm going to beat you. Write your OWN song, because
that's the one the world hasn't heard yet. Also, I hear a lot of
writers talk about how their song is better than some piece of junk
they heard on the radio. The trouble is that song is not your
competition. That song was probably written by the artist or
published by the producer. A songwriter's job is not to beat an
inside song, it's to beat all the best outside songs, which means
you have to have something that's not just good enough, but special.
TS: How do you define success?
RR: It has something to do with relationships. My relationship with
God, my family, my friends, my industry. That's about as fine a
point as I can put on it right now. I'll get back to you if I figure
( Todd Sterling is a freelance writer and
songwriter from Canada.