Shane McAnally likes to talk about the point in a writing session when songwriters hear a phrase or melody that makes them completely unable to think about anything else until the song is done. He calls it “the bubble.”
“[It’s] where you can no longer have a conversation about anything but that,” says McAnally, calling from Cabo San Lucas on a brief vacation with his husband. “Most songwriters have something like that.”
McAnally, a top-tier Nashville songwriter and producer who’s worked with Kacey Musgraves, Midland and Sam Hunt, will put his bubble on display in the new series Songland, which premieres Tuesday, May 28th, on NBC. Joining him on the show will be fellow writer-producers Ryan Tedder (frontman of OneRepublic and collaborator with Adele and Beyoncé) and Ester Dean (hitmaker for Rhianna and Nicki Minaj), who will help aspiring young songwriters shape their creations into potential hits for a group of artists that includes John Legend, Charlie Puth, Old Dominion and Kelsea Ballerini.
It’s a fairly straightforward setup, with echoes of past creative reality shows like Project Runway, that may even serve to demystify the process for people who don’t spend their time writing songs. Each episode features four songwriters pitching a song to the featured guest (the premiere episode’s is Legend), with the panel of writer-producers jumping in to critique and help refine those songs. The guest will choose three songs to move on, pairing each writer with McAnally, Dean or Tedder to work in a more focused manner. Songs are transformed — radically in some cases — and completed, then presented to the guest artist, who chooses one to record and release.
“There is an element of competition, but what sort of evolved as we were doing it — because we had collaborated so much — we realized that we really were there to just find the best song for the artist,” says McAnally. “And it wasn’t about who ‘won’ because there are so many different opportunities for these songs once they get rewritten and rerecorded, even if it’s not right for John Legend.” McAnally points out that, alongside the song chosen and recorded by Legend, writers will release versions of their songs for streaming and download after each episode. That aspect of the show helped foster more friendly interaction between its three central talents.
“We want to do the very best job and we all helped on so many things,” says McAnally. “There are so many times when I was in the studio and I would call Ester and say, ‘I’m stuck on this chorus. What would you do here?’ And then Ester might call me and say, ‘Hey, remember that thing you came up with? Can you remember what that was, because I want to use that.’ It was just this very free-flowing collaborative process.”
For McAnally, whose songwriting credits run the gamut from Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” to Luke Bryan’s “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” there’s no formula to writing a great song beyond making a connection with an audience. He says his job on Songland was to find that connection in any of the hopeful writers’ submissions, which left him pleasantly surprised about the level of talent selected to appear on the show.
“For me to get connected to it, I have to find myself in it,” he says. “I just wanted to go there. I didn’t really hear a song that I just was like, ‘I cannot find one piece of that song that I don’t relate to.'”
Though much of his work to date has taken place behind the scenes, McAnally will now find himself in the national spotlight on a weekly basis. But it’s his comfort level with crawling into “the bubble,” whether cameras are rolling or not, that made his transition to television feel seamless.
“I was missing the performance aspect of being in front of people and being able to share my experience and honestly make people laugh,” he says. “That’s something that really feeds me: so much of the time spent writing is laughing. We do cry some too, but we just get into these fast-forward friendships where you have all these inside jokes. That’s one of my gifts, is keeping that energy up and being able to just do what I already do on a soundstage in front of cameras. It didn’t feel like a stretch at all.”