Feature LukeCunninghamLEAD

Published on November 28th, 2012 | by Ballard Lesemann


Out in L.A. with Luke Cunningham

In early October, Charleston-based songwriter Luke Cunningham had to hustle like a maniac after he heard the news that he’d been accepted by the American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers (ASCAP) to attend the 2012 Lester Sill Songwriters Workshop in Los Angeles in November. He was one of 14 songwriters chosen across the country to attend the month-long gathering.

“About a year ago, I made a big personal commitment to really put myself out there for any and all opportunities, no matter how much effort it takes,” Cunning ham says. “I submitted a brief thing I wrote about my music and career to ASCAP, and then I kind of forgot about it. One morning, I was having my coffee, and my phone rang. It was an L.A. number, and I thought it was my friend, so like a dumbass I answered it like, ‘Hey, what’s up, bro?’ It actually was a guy from ASCAP calling to let me know that I was accepted to the workshop. I was unbelievably flattered.”

Luke Cunningham in the studio (provided)

Luke Cunningham in the studio (provided)

Cunningham spent the better part of 2012 performing in town and up and down the East Coast in support of his well-produced debut album Heart Pressure, a guitar-based collection of melodic power-pop, Americana, and rock ‘n’ roll. He regularly performed solo shows, and he tightened up his new band with Micah Nichols on lead guitar Christian Wood on bass, and Ben Scott on drums.

Cunningham and his bandmates have already started recording their next album at a home studio in Summerville owned by Needtobreathe bassist Seth Bolt. Engineer Neil B. Young has overseen most of the basic track sessions.

Cunningham and his guitarist recently recorded and released a poppy country-rocker titled “Bad Habits.” It’s available for a limited time as a free download at Cunningham’s web site.

“It’s a country tune I wrote with Micah Nichols and Neil B. Young for the purpose of pitching to a country artist in Nashville,” Cunningham says. “The response so far has been great for it, so we’ve recently added it to the band’s set list at shows.”

“This next album will be almost a pop/country record,” Cunningham adds. “I have a record’s worth of stuff like that. There’ll be a lot of songs about California, for sure. I’ve thought about going for a specific style but I come up with stuff that’s all over the place. Sometimes I wake up with a country line in my head. Sometimes it’s a rock line. Sometimes I the most 13-year-old-girl/Katy Parry melody gets stuck in my head, too. I’ve decided not to suppress any of it. As far as songwriting goes, all bets are off.”

Despite recent stints in big music scene cities, Cunningham has stuck with Charleston as his home base. He loves performing and working with musician buddies in New York, Nashville, and L.A., but he’s determined to remain in the Lowcountry as a resident.

“L.A. and New York are great, but I can make a living playing music here, and I can get the time to write songs, too. In Nashville, I’d probably have to get a job at Kinko’s to make rent money.”

“I want nothing more than to create an avenue for my songs and what I write and who I write with,” he adds. “I want to get the exposure and potential placements and pulsing opportunities that somebody in L.A. or New York gets — but without me having to physically be there in those cities. Charleston is home to me, and it inspires me. I’m hoping that this opportunity [with ASCAP] to collaborate and network with these artists will allow me to make these bonds and further my career without having to uproot.”

Cunningham had about a month to prepare for his trip — and that included earning and saving enough extra money to support a full month off from performing many of his regular shows in town. He booked a pile of what he calls “pay-the-rent” gigs at local bars and watering holes, and he even arranged a few special weekend shows where he could fly from L.A. to Charleston for quick weekend gigs with his band.

This week marks the end of the Lester Sill Songwriters Workshop in L.A. At each session, songwriters and producers joined the attendees and sat down, one-on-one, to check out their songs.

“They answered questions and made suggestions,” Cunningham says. “They brought in publishing people and attorneys to meet and make sure you had all of your ducks in a row. They really encouraged the songwriters to write songs together, too. Each person there had their own style. There were all sorts of songwriters and musicians. Katy Perry’s guitarist was in there. I did a critique/writing session with Priscilla Renae, who wrote Rhianna’s ‘California King Bed’ and ‘Who Says’ by Selina Gomez, among many others. Last week, it was Dan Wilson of Semisonic. He wrote Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ and cowrote ‘Home’ by Dierks Bentley.”

One of the key requirements of the workshop was to compose one or two songs with one other songwriter by the month’s end. Cunningham partnered with Jules Larson, an L.A. musician whose songs have been in programs like Pretty Little Liars, Grey’s Anatomy, and a few feature films.

Luke Cunningham in the studio (provided)

Luke Cunningham in the studio (provided)

“The dynamics were awesome, and I even got in touch with my inner 13-year-old chick and wrote pop/chick tunes, which has been fun and something outside of the box for me,” Cunningham says.

“This month and the experience has been one of the best, most rewarding and insightful things I’ve done in my career,” he adds. “The fact that I got to write and sit among those 14 people — and spend time writing with, being critiqued and mentored by literally the best in this business — is something that I can’t begin to place a value on. It was surprising to hear this in L.A., but every top songwriter I spoke with said the same thing about success, and it mirrors the way I approach things. And the consensus was this: Write good songs, and they’ll find a home. The songs are everything, and if you write good songs and strive to be a good person and have character, then people will be willing to help further your career.”

Cunningham flies back to Charleston this weekend for a one-off show at the Mt. Pleasant Wild Wing Cafe, and then he leaves for Nashville to play the Bluebird and do some co-writing.

“The Wild Wing show is something we specifically wanted to do because I’ve been gone for over a month and to go that long without playing a show literally kills us,” Cunningham says. “Plus, we love playing live and we wanted to do a show in Charleston between my time in L.A. and Nashville since our next in town show may not be until the first of the year or later. I also wanted to do it because Rob Lamble [of Ear for Music] is involved. Not to get mushy, but for years Rob has been a bastion for the cause as far as local music goes and his support of me and the band has been nothing short of amazing.”

Cunningham and his band will travel to Nashville this Sunday to perform at the legendary Bluebird Cafe. Look for an online documentary on the making of Cunningham’s Heart Pressure next month. Stay tuned for more.

The Luke Cunningham Band performs at the Mt. Pleasant Wild Wing Cafe at 10 p.m. on Fri. Nov. 30 (it’s the venue’s grand reopening after recent renovations). Admission is free. See wildwingcafe.com and lukecunninghammusic.com for more.

The Luke Cunningham Band, 2012 (Ballard Lesemann)

The Luke Cunningham Band, 2012 (Ballard Lesemann)



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About the Author

Ballard Lesemann

is a musician and writer. Born and raised in Charleston, S.C., he spent years playing in bands and working for Flagpole Magazine in the bustling music town of Athens, Ga. He returned to his hometown and served more than seven years as the Charleston City Paper's music editor. He's better at drumming than he is at playing guitar.

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