East Bay tunesmiths write between jobs, family

East Bay tunesmiths write between jobs, family

Nellie Walcoff and songwriter partner Jeff Johnstone pose for the cover of their CD, “Light a Flame,” which was released last year.

Nellie Walcoff and songwriter partner Jeff Johnstone pose for the cover of their CD, “Light a Flame,” which was released last year.
Jeff Johnstone and Nellie Walcoff each have their own families and day jobs to keep them busy, so whenever a song idea crops up they must seize the moment. Even if one of them finds inspiration while sitting in a car outside a big-box store.

“This happened once when I was in the parking lot at Wal-Mart and Nellie was at home,” said Mr. Johnstone, speaking of his songwriting partner, Nellie Walcoff.

Often times, he said, the duo will share snippets of songs captured on a digital recorder and then share them through e-mail or text messages. This time it was all about the lyrics.

“The first line was, ‘I wrote this song in the parking lot at Wal-Mart.’ The first verse and the chorus happened through texting back and forth,” said Mr. Johnstone, who lives in Portsmouth.

Such is the life of two professionals who decided to give songwriting a stab in the later stages of their lives. While their younger Nashville friend Joe Doyle established himself as a commercial songwriter more than 20 years ago, Mr. Johnstone and Ms. Walcoff — 53 and 56, respectively — are just now trying to get their feet in the door.

Getting a song out to the masses is hard enough, but it’s even more of a challenge when you’re already balancing family and a career. Mr. Johnstone is president of J Boats, a boating industry giant his father and uncle launched in 1977. Ms. Walcoff, who lives in Adamsville, is director of communications at Providence Country Day School in East Providence.

They met when Nellie showed up six years ago at a regular songwriting support group that Jeff had been attending in Middletown. “We immediately started collaborating on a song together. I think Nellie had the words and I had the music. Things just jelled,” said Mr. Johnstone.

In 2010 they met Mr. Doyle at a Rhode Island Songwriters Association (RISA) workshop. (They’ll be performing with Mr. Doyle at Sandywoods Center for the Arts in Tiverton Saturday night; see below for details.) Later they learned that Mr. Doyle’s nephew attended Providence Country Day with Ms. Walcoff’s daughter.

“It turns out he was one of my daughter’s best friends,” said Ms. Walcoff.

“That’s Rhode Island for you,” added Mr. Doyle.

After the RISA workshop, Mr. Doyle told his new friends that if they’re ever in Nashville they should look him up. They did just that when they were later invited to participate in a songwriting workshop in Music City.

“It was incredible because it was three straight days of sitting in the Bluebird Cafe with 16 other songwriters and each of our songs were being played for Nashville publishers,” said Mr. Johnstone. “We came away with a lot of great advice and inspiration to keep writing.”

Ms. Walcoff said the experience was valuable because although their friends were always supportive of their music, the team had never had any professional feedback before. “The publishers were very straightforward with us. They told us, ‘We’re here to find hits.’ That was interesting because we had never written with that perspective. At the same time, they told us not to stop being who we were.”

‘Play upbeat songs’

Publishers told them they mainly were looking for “upbeat songs for female vocals,” Mr. Johnstone said. When they performed several shows in Nashville — both sing and play guitar, with Mr. Johnstone occasionally on piano — they also heard requests for “upbeat” songs, said Ms Walcoff.

They didn’t always play along.

“We play some upbeat songs, but we’re really strong ballad writers,” said Ms. Walcoff. “We said, ‘Nah, we’re gonna play what we want to play.’ We played a ballad that was sort of new at the time and there were some people there who weren’t with the workshop. This one gentleman said, ‘We sure did like that song, ma’am.’”

Although Johnstone & Walcoff performs occasionally and put out its own CD last year — “Light a Flame,” recorded by Steve Rizzo at Stable Sound Studio in Portsmouth — the main focus is on writing with the hopes that someone else will record their songs.

So what performer would be the ideal fit for their songs?

“We’ve talked about a group like Lady Antebellum because they have really strong harmonies — male and female leads,” said Ms. Walcoff, referring to the country pop music trio formed in Nashville in 2006. They were also advised, she said, to focus more on up-and-coming stars.

The duo visited Nashville a second time to record professional songwriting demos, utilizing some of the best session musicians in town. They plan on making a third trip to do more demos in February.

Recording is a completely different discipline than performing live, said Ms. Walcoff. “Our favorite expression in Nashville is, ‘That was perfect. Can you do it again?’”

Country music is not their only focus, however. Their favorite songwriters include Neil and Tim Finn (formerly of the New Zealand group Crowded House), Elton John/Bernie Taupin, Lennon/McCartney, Burt Bacharach, Carol King, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Neil Young and others.

Nellie Walcoff tries to make her songwriter partner, Jeff Johnstone, smile during a photo session for the cover of their CD, “Light a Flame.”
‘Don’t quit your day job’

Mr. Johnstone said although he and Ms. Walcoff would love to see an established star record a tune from their songbook — now 60 or 70 songs deep —  they have no plans at this time to quit their day jobs to pursue songwriting full-time.

“We’re delighted when our own friends play our songs. For us it’s more about the songs,” he said.

But they can still dream, added Ms. Walcoff.

“My husband’s always saying, ‘Write that hit so we can all retire!’”

Saturday at Sandywoods

Johnstone & Walcoff and Joe Doyle perform Saturday night, Nov. 10, at Sandywoods Center for the Arts, 43 Muse Way, Tiverton. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., with Johnstone & Walcoff going on at 7 p.m. before Mr. Doyle. Tickets are $8 advance, $10 at the door (advance tickets can be purchased at Coastal Roasters, 1791 Main Road, Tiverton, or at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/268984). BYOB and food is allowed.

For more information about Johnstone & Walcoff, visit www.johnstoneandwalcoff.com.