Tina Shafer, like many aspiring artists, first came to New York City when she was in her early 20’s to take advantage of the opportunity that simply could not be found where she was born.
Through many years of dedication to her music and her dream, unlike many aspiring artists, Shafer found success.
Now with years of songwriting experience and a multi-platinum selling discography, her songs have seen success that she could never have imagined.
Recording artists like Celine Dion, Albert Hammond and Bette Midler have turned her work into hits and she has taught musicians like Avril Lavigne, Vanessa Carlton and Lana Del Rey among many others.
I met with Shafer last weekend to discuss her extensive career, her latest album, The Good Ones, as well as her work with the New York Songwriters Circle, which she has operated in the city since 1991.
How did you know New York was where you needed to be?
I knew it was the city I was going to do my music. I knew I could make a living because Cleveland, where I’m from, had the Cleveland Orchestra and no real music scene. It had a phenomenal radio station that played the first full-length album in the country – WMMS – but that was it. There was just no place to make a living in Cleveland, so I moved here when I was 22.
Was it what you expected?
At that age, I didn’t know anything. I knew that I wanted to be here, and I had a tremendous drive to do my music. I didn’t have expectations and I had never been in a place that had more people in a block than my entire town. It was a huge adjustment period, and it still is -- you wake up and you see miles and miles of concrete. What was great was immediately within the first six months of being here I was able to audition for tons of stuff in music. I was able to meet people and it just provided such a rich soil for musicians.
Did you come here with material already or did that come later?
Yeah, well my mom was a composer so when I moved here I had already been composing since I was a young girl. When I moved here I wasn’t necessarily doing the music that I’m doing now. I was just auditioning for commercials and stuff that paid. I didn’t know anything about the publishing world or the record business. That took many years of just getting to know people and find the different resources to perform and do music. When I first came here I was just surviving. I wasn’t really writing in my room every day. I was waiting on tables, being a hostess in restaurants and balancing your survival skills with what you love.
I was really lucky that I had an amazing voice teacher here – and now I teach voice as well -- and through him I just became really great at my craft. I continued to write and went to Juliard, finished some composition and singing courses there and I met a really cool guy that introduced me to my very first producer, Leon Pendarvis, who was the director of Saturday Night Live for 30 years.
Through him, he got my first publishing deal with Warner Chapel and started recording and through him I met a young singer-songwriter by the name of Peter Zizzo who was one of the first people who told me this is your sound and this is what you should be doing. Both of us went on, collaborated and became a real team. We got some really huge cuts together and became married, had two kids and he became a very famous producer. I started running the Songwriters Circle.
Was there ever a time that you didn’t think you would reach your goals?
I never gave up. The more noes I heard, the more ways I would try to find the yeses. To me, I knew I was good but I didn’t know exactly how I was going to get where I would get, but I knew I would.
My mom was a really amazing composer and I had been writing since I was really young. I was also fortunate to have performed a lot. I opened for some pretty big artists when they came to Cleveland. So what was local there, I kind of knew that I had a chance to at least make a living here in New York. I didn’t know exactly what that would look like, because you never know.
When did you realize that you “made it?” Or can you ever really know that?
I think you do have to sit and look back and say, wow, I came here with nothing and now I’m making a living doing what I love. But there is always another mountain to climb in the business. But, I guess the first time I felt validated was when I got my first publishing deal. It was hardly any money at all, I mean it was really laughable. But, someone was paying me to write some words and that was enough to keep me in NYC along with the other jobs I was working.
Whatever I poured into booking and posting it, really came back superfold, Most of the artists I started booking were friends. There was Jesse Harris, who went on to win the Grammy writing for Norah Jones; and Norah Jones – we were all unknown. We weren’t really making money and no one knew us, but we all started growing up together.
How did that all start?
I really owe it to Kenny Gorka, who runs The Bitter End (147 Bleeker St.), he had a host of the show for a couple of months and she moved to Nashville. There was an opening and he asked me to do it, and since then the Songwriter Circle has had Vanessa Carleton come out of there, Lana Del Rey has performed there, Norah (Jones), Gavin DeGraw, John Oats, Mark Klein – it has just been such a great place or talent. Everybody comes there because everybody knows there will be a high level of talent and a great place to be inspired by other people’s writing.
As a young musician, is it important to work with other artists in NYC?
It’s huge. Being a writer is primarily a very lonely life and a highly disciplined life, often filled with any reason in the book to procrastinate. So, I think one of the beautiful things about having community in the Songwriters Circle – for a true community of writers – is that you don’t feel alone, you get inspired by people, you get to meet people, you get to co-write with people and you get connected to a tapestry and that’s to me a huge piece of what keeps me going. Without it, it’s a lonely existence to write. That’s why there are a lot of cowriters.
What is the future for the Songwriters Circle?
As my son Ari has grown up – my kids are both artists – but what has happened is now that I started to teach voice, I started working with a lot of younger talent. So in the Songwriters Circle I would like to find a way to develop a scholarship fund or something for new talent in the circle. That way they can have a chance to get funding to start out because it is so freaking hard. You pay tons of money to go to college, supposedly to meet people to break you into the business; and I’m sorry to say this, but the music business: that is mostly a waste of money.
You just have to do your art and play and connect yourself. NYU and all that is just a fortune, so I am a real believer in the community. The Circle is now so vast – we have over 15,000 members – and maybe we can make a program that would provide scholarships for some of these young and upcoming writers.
What kind of advice can you lend a young artist moving to the city?
First, come to the New York Songwriters Circle, get to know people and get to know me. To me it’s just networking; find people that are doing what you love, the kind of music that resonates with you and I know that it is so hard to do, but you have got to get your content out there. Whatever social networks you have, so much of it is just eyeballs and getting those algorithms up – YouTube has really become the new label.
What got you to record your latest album?
Every time you write a record, you always think this is all I have left to give and then you live your life and more stuff comes. The last seven years of my life were really tough. I went through a divorce, I lost my home and I lost a lot of stuff. It was really tough to sit down and write about it. It’s such a raw feeling. Plus, I’m raising two kids, so finding the time to really sit with yourself is a real discipline, particularly when it’s not comfortable. So, this record really was a completion and closure for me in that chapter of my life.