[Cover photo credit to Aaron Fairooz]
Darren DPaul Wise is a multi-faceted musician and songwriter who is a performing and recording guitarist with the Dallas, Texas-based Rock and Metal band Empiires (TLG/INgrooves label). His musical life also involves songwriting for various artists in multiple genres and creating many songs which have been placed in TV, film, and advertising. Wearing this many different hats sound logistically complicated, but for Wise, all his work stems from the same creative mindset and the same passion. For him, the key is to always be writing and always exploring new musical ideas.
Recently, Wise also released a new instrumental track that he composed called “Spirit Animals” along with a live-play video, highlighting the challenges that he also finds intriguing in creating purely instrumental work. As a songwriter and composer, Wise has a responsibility to the music he creates and to his own career to make sure he documents and keeps legal ownership over his work, which is a time-consuming but important aspect of working in music. I spoke with him about the ins and outs of song ownership, working with advertising, TV, and film, and the ever-developing mindset of making new music.
You can also catch up with Darren DPaul Wise at The Dallas Guitar Festival on Friday, May 5th, 2023.
Hannah Means-Shannon: You’ve done a lot of varied work and continue to do a lot of things as a musician. I think that’s becoming more typical of a modern life in music. You focus on keeping publishing rights on songs that you work on, for instance. That’s a big area that musicians are becoming more aware of to try to make a living.
Darren DPaul Wise: Definitely. I’ve made a couple of recordings that stipulated that I wanted to retain rights for TV or commercials. I’ve stipulated that the other party pays for production so that I can use the musicians who I think are great and qualified for the job, and also that we’d like to retain the rights so we can use it for music placements. They’ve been pretty amenable to that.
HMS: Have you always thought that way, making sure that you legal documented that you were a songwriter, or did that start at a particular point in your life?
DW: I got a record deal some years ago and the agreement was very stringent. They retained the rights to everything. That set me on the path to trying to understand what constitutes songwriting and what constitutes ownership. What is intellectual property? I have some friends who are attorneys in the music business and I learned from them. You learn some of this stuff the hard way. I had a record label that tried to take an entire record that I wrote and I had to sue them, unfortunately. I’m friends with them to this day, it was just a legal thing because there was a hit song involved.
In that process, you learn so much. But I’m glad that I did! There are a lot of little stops along my path as a musician that taught me about the music business. It’s not something you plan on doing when you start out playing guitar! You don’t say, “I want to meet some lawyers!” I went to work with a record label because I thought I was going to be a Rock star, as one does, and I ended up in a studio for three years working with a lot of well-known artists and Producers. It was kind of like going to graduate school for becoming a writer or studio musician. That wasn’t my plan at all!
HMS: Thank you so much for sharing that. I’ve heard things from different artists about their different experiences with ownership of songs. It can be a kind of scary or taboo subject but I think we’re entering an era where open conversation is really important. Murkiness leads to misunderstandings and problems for artists.
DW: I talk to a lot of up-and-coming writers who I’ve met through recording or working with them on their projects. One young lady asked me, “What do I do with all these songs that I wrote?” I told her, “Go get ID numbers and start submitting them to any placement agency that doesn’t have an exclusive deal.” She did what I suggested and her career really took off. I saw that she worked really hard and this was the kind of person who you want to help out. If you can create that level of content and you’re willing to go through the administrative part of shopping that music out, that’s the playbook to success. It’s just hard work!
HMS: I think part of why it’s such a key conversation lately is that there are many songwriters now who just focus on licensing their songs. Both the difficulties making money in the music industry and the rise of streaming shows make licensing songs a good idea and a possibility, I think.
DW: One of the biggest sources of revenue for a recording artist is the advertising business. It’s where so much money is. There are so many places that music is going now. There’s been a mega-increase in the need for intellectual property. You’ve got all these extra platforms that require some content, all these streaming services, and the all the advertising relating to it. I’ll put my stuff in placement and pursue various avenues while retaining the rights, and my stuff has ended up in NASCAR, Major League Baseball, the NBA, NFL, and things like Range Rover and Maybelline cosmetics.
HMS: When you’re writing music, do you create it not knowing where the music might end up, whether it’s something that you might release under your own name, or with Empiires, or through placements? Does it all come from the same pot of ideas?
DW: I’m always looking for ideas and I always have melodies in my brain all the time. I’m always thinking of a song idea. I’ll go to sleep and wake up hearing some idea. If I think it’s really good, I’ll pursue it and try to start producing some lyrical content. I always start with choruses and build the song around that. I write with a bunch of different vocalists or for a bunch of different vocalists. Sometimes I’ll start off a song and demo it with one vocalist, then realize that it’s for a different genre.
Sometimes I hold onto things until I know. But I write every single day. There are a million voice memos on my phone. I’ll even use Garage Band, whatever I have access to. I’ll work on those ideas and condense them. I listen back to stuff when I’m working out, or doing the laundry, and things stand out as something I should pursue. But for most advertising, film, or TV shows, I’ll write specifically towards that.
HMS: Most guitarists I know who write music don’t always write fully fleshed-out songs, so just to clarify, when you say that you have memos on your phone, do you mean that you’ll play guitar parts into your phone, or do you sing lyrics and add other parts, too?
DW: It’s both. It usually just starts as a voice memo where I’m singing the melody lines. I hear scaled melody lines in my head, and that’s really what songs are. That’s why you can take a Beatles song and play it on the piano or the guitar. Being a musician can help you hear a scale, then you know where the song needs to go. After that, I start looking for a lyrical idea. A lot of songwriter groups start with looking for a title. A lot of times you get asked to write a song based on a title, like for a TV show.
Somehow this all makes sense in my brain, and I have fun with it, and find it challenging. I enjoy this. I’m having a great time thinking of ideas of how to tell a story. It’s a condensed story that’s only about three minutes long. We have a contemplation verse that sets up the story, then we have our resolution for the chorus, the answer to how we’re going to resolve all this, whether it’s “burn it down” or “change the world”. Then you start thinking about the progression that makes sense to tell the story. Those things kind of help write each other.
HMS: I love what you’re saying about storytelling. Not everyone thinks that way. Do you feel that you are storytelling in all your pieces, even your instrumental ones, without lyrics?
DW: It’s funny that you say that because I’ve gotten it into my brain that one of the best things about instrumental tracks is that they are kind of using their guitar as a voice. I’m always thinking that there must be other ways to grab notes that would make you feel like you were hearing the notes in a vocal. I want to do that with a guitar. It’s coming up with surprises in there to keep the listener engaged. I’m wondering, “Where are the musical surprises in here?” We want to come up with things that sit over riffs, like a melody line that sits over riffs the way a vocal line would. There are some guys who are amazing at doing that, like Jeff Beck. If you play guitar and you want to do instrumental music, you listen to those guys.
HMS: You mentioned earlier that you write for different vocalists. How does that influence you and what do you try to keep in mind?
DW: Basically, I write toward the strengths of the vocalist. In doing some work for labels, I’ve learned that you look at an artist and you make up your mind about what their genre is. Some of that relates to a look with labels and audiences, and that’s unfortunate. People will decide whether they will listen to somebody based on their look. But my job was to look at an artist, try to decide what their story was, and make a song for them. I would evaluate their sound and their look, picturing them on stage. That’s the creative process for my imagination to write for someone. You hear so many nuances in someone’s voice and you have to listen to them for a while before you can determine what they sound like. As you work through that, you realize, “This is the story I hear. This is the song.”
HMS: That’s a lot of observation and a lot of intuition about people.
DW: If you’ve heard enough music and enough voices, you start to kind of discover things. You also want to do something that grabs peoples’ attention for the artist. The hardest thing, really, is to be unique. There are a lot of artists out there who no one would train you to sing like. No one would point to a picture of Ozzy [Osbourne] and say, “Here is the guy you want to sound like.” But he’s got such a unique voice. You could say that about so many vocalists out there. They may not be such amazing vocalists, but they are unique.
HMS: There’s something weird about their voice or style that makes them memorable, like Tom Waits.
DW: There is. That’s the thing that grabs your attention. It’s just them. It’s their personality, and the story is there. You totally believe what they are talking about. A lot of these guys out there never wrote any songs, but someone knows how to tell their story. You believe it.
HMS: Did you struggle with that at all? Were you pigeon-holed when you were younger and told that you had to be this or that to succeed?
DW: Not really. I think my whole thing was that I have a very vivid imagination and I love music. I think I thought, “If I write this for somebody, they are going to be impressed.” That’s kind of how it started. As shallow as it may sound, you want to be good at something, and you want to impress people. It’s also kind of an extension of your passion for music. That’s the truth. In those words, in those stories, and in those melody lines is your passion for music. There are a lot of people who truly love what they do and it comes together to create something amazing. If we have an opportunity to create moments like that, that’s why we do what we do.
HMS: Do you ever see artists perform music that you’ve written for them in concert and get to see that big audience reaction?
DW: I’ve seen some people perform something that I wrote, and it was profound. Those people didn’t see me at my dining room table at four o’clock in the morning with my gummy bears and my coke, or whatever. They don’t see that! [Laughs]
Most bands and artists are pretty much the same. They get up, they are thinking about ideas, they are doodling notes in their notepad or singing to themselves. Driving in the car is a great place for ideas or when you’re doing your everyday things. That’s usually when melody lines come to you, not when you’re focusing on literary content or being academic or intellectual.