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Young creative director shapes country music’s sound

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) - From the ninth floor of a swanky condo on Music Row, sounds of guitar licks filter through the hall.

For music publishing company WinSongs, a comfortable condo converted into a recording studio becomes the site of country music’s newest sounds.

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WinSongs Creative Director Kirby Smith

WinSongs Creative Director Kirby Smith listens to songwriters through headphones

“Eric Van Houten and Seth Alley are both songwriters and they’re writing a song today,” said Kirby Smith, Creative Director for WinSongs. “Who knows if they’ll finish it today, and hopefully if we’re lucky, you’ll hear it someday on the radio.”

Smith, 25, partnered with Grammy-winning songwriter and producer Chris DeStefano, a well-known name in country music with 16 No. 1 songs to his credit, to start WinSongs in February 2018.

Eric Van Houten and Seth Alley

Eric Van Houten, left, and Seth Alley collaborate on a song “We Live It Like That” in a WinSongs studio.

“When I first started working for Chris, [the publishing company] was just an idea,” said Smith. “We didn’t have an office we didn’t have writers, we didn’t have anything.”

Smith said they signed their first writer, Chase Fouraker, five months later. They now have three songwriters, including DeStefano and country newcomer Van Houten and are on the verge of signing two more.

Smith, one of the youngest Creative Directors in Nashville’s 75 music publishing companies, is a part-owner in WinSongs, an impressive professional accomplishment for someone so young.

“It is structured that I do have a little bit of stake in the company, which is phenomenal,” said Smith. “I’m so lucky, I pinch myself every single day when I wake up that I get to go to a studio and I get to listen to songs being made and I get to have some creative control over the music that everyone hears.”

Texas - Georgia - Tennessee

Kirby Smith & sister

Kirby Smith, right, poses for a picture with her twin sister. (Photo submitted)

Smith grew up in Houston, TX, to parents who she said are not musically inclined.

She always loved music, which turned into her learning to play the violin, guitar and piano.

When it came time to choose where she would go for college, Smith knew she wanted music to be involved.

“I really wanted to have the opportunity to study something having to do with music,” said Smith. “I found the University of Georgia and they have a music business program there which was perfect.”

Georgia offers a certificate in Music Business. On its website, the program is described as “geared towards those aspiring to be leaders in the music industry.” Students learn from key industry experts, artists and managers.

Only 100 applicants are admitted each year and part of the requirement is to hold at least one internship to complete the program. Smith held three.

“One [internship] was in a studio, one was for a concert promoter and one was for Warner Music Group up here in their radio department here in Nashville,” said Smith.

Kirby Smith graduation

Kirby Smith smiles for a photo at her graduation from University of Georgia. (Photo submitted)

Her internship at WMG influenced her decision to move to Nashville after graduating in 2016. She scored her first job in the Nashville music industry at the age of 22.

Smith downplays the importance of her role, saying she got her big break when the woman who was formerly the creative director at the company moved to Los Angeles for another job. It was her opportunity to hop into the position and learn what a creative director does.

“I definitely am not blind to the fact that so many people have helped me get to where I am and I’m so thankful to every single one of them,” said Smith.

The Role of Creative Director

Kirby Smith

WinSongs Creative Director Kirby Smith talks with News4's Lauren Lowrey.

While Nashville is known as “Music City,” not much about the songwriting process is known to people outside of the music industry.

“I am the creative director for a publishing company which means I work with songwriters signed to that specific company,” explained Smith. “My job is to book all of their co-writes and get them in the best rooms possible so they can write the best songs possible.”

Aside from calendars and scheduling, Smith spends time pitching songs written by WinSongs’ songwriters to people who might record them.

“When we get a song and I think ‘oh, this sounds like Luke Bryan’ for example, it’s my job to take meetings with Luke Bryan’s people, his A&R, his label, his management, his producer, anyone that will really have me,” said Smith.

Smith is only 25-years old and is already having high-level meetings in the music industry.

She emphasizes the importance of a writer’s work ethic as a major component to their success, describing songwriting as a puzzle of song concepts and calendar entries, not just chords.

“You want a writer that is going to work really hard as well and not count on you to do everything for them,” said Smith. “At the end of the day, writing a song is up to them, it’s not up to me.”

Birth of a song

Writing a song in Nashville is a team effort and Smith said the process is most often done with several people involved.

“It’s pretty rare if a songwriter ever writes a song by themselves these days,” explained Smith. “Normally the formula for Nashville is to have a ‘track’ guy in the room, which is somebody who does all the music behind the lyrics, a lyricist, and someone who’s really good with melodies.”

Smith emphasized the importance of having a person involved who can sing.

“It’s Nashville and most everybody can sing.”

Once a song is complete, songwriters send their so-called “worktape” to the creative director.

In today’s electronic world, a worktape is a voice memo recorded from a smartphone.

The publishing company then decides if a song is good enough to spend the time and money to demo a song, which entails full instrumental and voice tracks.

We Live It Like That

Once the demo is cut, the song is then shopped around to labels, management teams, producers and artists in an attempt to have an artist record the song.

“With any luck, enough people think [the song] is good enough to convince an artist to cut it,” said Smith. “[That process] could take a week or up to 3 years.”

While News4 cameras were in the studio, songwriters Van Houten and Alley were writing an upbeat anthem called “We Live It Like That” meant for live concerts.

 “They’re trying to make it real fun and a big crowd pleaser, a live show jam which is obviously super important,” said Smith.

WinSongs has decided to cut a demo of “We Live it Like That.”

“It’s a lot of hard work and it’s a lot of fun and I’m so lucky. I pinch myself every single day when I wake up that I get to go to a studio and I get to listen to songs being made and I get to have some creative control over the music that everyone hears,” she said.

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Copyright 2019 WSMV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

Anchor/Reporter

Lauren Lowrey joined News4 as an anchor in December 2018.

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