Melissa Etheridge and Patrica Renea compare notes on songwriting

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HIDDEN HILLS, CALIF. >> Melissa Etheridge and songwriter Priscilla Renea had never met before sitting down to discuss their craft, and within an hour, they were spontaneously harmonizing together.

Etheridge plucked a guitar from the wall of electrics and acoustics hanging in the front room of her suburban home. As she strummed a bluesy rhythm, Renea sat beside her and began to sing.

"Just want to write a song," they suddenly sang together, laughing underneath. "All of my problems will be solved when I write a hit song."

Though Etheridge released her first album the year that Renea was born (1988), each has penned her share of hits. They're set to perform and share stories about their experiences in the music industry at the ASCAP "I Create Music" songwriting expo today in Los Angeles. Renea plans to sing "Purple Rain" in tribute to Prince. The three-day conference also promises appearances by Timbaland, Pat Benatar, singer Andra Day and Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas.

But on this sunny afternoon at Etheridge's home in a quiet, gated community in the San Fernando Valley, she and Renea are casually chatting about their creative approaches when it becomes clear that despite their differences in age, experience and use of technology, they speak the same language of songwriting.

The secret, they said, is being open to inspiration and fearless in its expression.

"I think our job as songwriters is to catch the inspiration when it comes," Etheridge said. "If you exercise your right brain, you can find that and you can bring it back into this reality and create a rhythm and a tone that makes the whole tribe dance. There's just nothing like it. It's magic."

Etheridge has won two Grammys and an Academy Award for her music. Renea recently wrote a song that earned a Grammy nod: Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert's 2014 hit duet, "Somethin' Bad." Renea's other credits include the Pitbull and Kesha hit "Timber," Rihanna's "California King Bed" and tracks for Madonna, Demi Lovato and Mariah Carey.

She sheepishly confessed to singing Etheridge's "Come to My Window" over and over again since learning about her meeting with Etheridge for this interview. Etheridge said she researched Renea's work and admired her "beautiful songwriting" on "California King."

"It's one of those things like: god, I wish I'd written that," Etheridge said.

Inspiration often strikes in the shower, Renea said. Etheridge agreed it usually happens whenever she doesn't have a pen or a guitar.

When it comes to actually writing music, Etheridge is old-school and Renea is high-tech.

"I got discovered on YouTube," the 27-year-old said.

She composes music and lyrics on her computer or iPad with an app called MasterWriter where "you can flip back and forth between screens and do voice notes and sing your melodies." Renea also keeps a running file of song ideas to plumb when she's feeling inspired.

Etheridge, on the other hand, said she's "not a computer kind of person."

The 54-year-old has experienced technology's evolution throughout her career ("My first record was on vinyl and cassette"), but only recently embraced it. Etheridge collaborated with various artists at their home studios to make her most recent album, 2014's "This is M.E.," rather than taking her traditional route of writing an album's worth of songs before spending two straight weeks in a recording studio.

Digital recording advances mean "you can have these small studios and you can create right there," she said.

But she still writes lyrics longhand.

"I like to write it and then scratch it out," Etheridge said. "Because if I erase it, it's gone forever, and sometimes I want to go back to that idea."

As the two songwriters chat, their mutual admiration grows. After their mini jam session, they make plans to work together.

Both said there's no way to know which songs will become hits, and because no manual exists for how to make it in the music business, artists just have to keep on creating.

"You just never know, so you just have to do what you love," Etheridge said. "Do your best, do what you love and put it out there."


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