Keith Thomas Comes Full Circle
- Article by: Daryl Sanders
- Posted: 02/22/2012
In 2011, celebrated Nashville pop and R&B hit maker Keith Thomas decided to go back to the future.
After a decade developing artists for his production company Levosia Entertainment, including a teenage Katy Perry and Kings of Leon’s Caleb and Nathan Followill, Thomas returned his focus to what launched his career in music — his songwriting.
Thomas, who got his start as a staff songwriter at Ronnie Milsap’s publishing company after sending them a cassette tape with some original songs, recently inked a new publishing deal with Warner/Chappell Music and is in the midst of a prolific period of writing.
“I’m back around to writing and producing full time,” he explains. “Developing artists, I was writing maybe a dozen songs a year. But in the last six months, I probably have 60 songs now — new ones that I have written.”
Because his strength is musical composition, Thomas usually collaborates with other writers who are good with lyrics. Of late, he’s been cowriting with a pair of fellow Grammy-winners, Liz Rose and Steve Diamond. He also has been writing with the JaneDear Girls, Atlanta-based independent recording artist Nathan Angelo, and singer-songwriter Amy Foster, who is the daughter of legendary pop writer-producer David Foster.
Thomas says “nine times out of 10,” people he writes with come to his Willowbrooke studio near Franklin, Tenn. “I’m not opposed to going to L.A. or wherever, but I have my rig set up here and it’s a pretty comfortable environment.”
By the end of a writing session, he usually tries to at least have a “working” demo. “That’s where things tend to fall through the cracks a lot of time,” he explains. “After you write the song, it gets put on the shelf for a minute and you don’t get it out. You spend the time and energy writing the song and if it doesn’t get out, it really doesn’t do anything for anyone.
“If there’s time after writing the song, it’s always best to just jump in and get the demo done because it’s fresh and you’re inspired.”
Thomas first burst onto the national scene in the early ’90s when he cowrote, produced and arranged Amy Grant’s breakout pop hit, “Baby, Baby,” which went all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Not a bad way to introduce oneself.
He hit the Top 40 again the following year as the producer-arranger on a pair of Vanessa Williams’ singles. “Save the Best For Last” went to No. 1 on the Hot 100 and “Just For Tonight,” which he cowrote with legendary songwriter Cynthia Weil, went to No. 26.
Thomas clearly had a platinum touch and his success with Grant and Williams brought him work as a writer-producer-arranger for a slew of R&B and pop stars, including Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, James Ingram, Selena, Peabo Bryson, Gladys Knight, 98 Degrees, Michael Bolton, Charlotte Church and Jessica Simpson. It also brought him multiple Grammy awards and even more nominations, as well as an Academy Award for his work with Williams on the song “Colors of the Wind” for the Disney film, Pocahontas.
He had come a long way for a small-town kid from Georgia, the son of a preacher whose keyboard chops earned him work in Atlanta studios as a teenager. “Once you have that first hit, then you're a genius, everybody wants you to write a song for them,” Thomas says and laughs.
Now that he’s back in the songwriting game, he’s found the musical landscape is different. “When I go into a situation, like an A&R meeting, these days, it’s not about the song as much as it is about the record,” he explains. “They say, ‘Whose got the record?’
But that’s not how it used to be when Thomas first found success. “Back in the day, we would look for songs, we would make sure the song was great,” he says. “And at that point, either I would produce it or we’d look for someone to produce the record who was qualified.
“Now, if you write the song, or you program the song, you are automatically considered the producer, and that’s the record. And a lot of times, I feel like songs don’t get cut because guys can’t hear past the production. They can’t hear the song in there.
“I used to prefer to have a guitar-vocal, a piano-vocal demo,” he continues. “That would allow me to take the song and make it what I felt like it needed to be. But now it’s more about what happens at the initial programming or the writing of the song, and that’s what you get. And to me, in many ways, that is why the life of the song is so short these days. It’s so disposable.”
In addition to his new publishing deal, Thomas has once again signed with music impresario Irving Azoff for representation as a producer. Azoff previously represented Thomas prior to his move into artist development. Susan Markheim is his day-to-day rep.
“I’m really excited about the Warner/Chappell deal and about being back at [Azoff Music Management] with Susan and Irving,” he says. “I’m looking to not relocate completely, but to have a place in L.A., where I can have more time out there and be more visible there, because so much of what I do comes from L.A.”