For Alex Forbes ’76, collaboration is the key to creative songwriting.
“I highly recommend it,” she says. “When I write with other people, it brings other colors to the work. They may be strong where I’m weak. You have to have someone to spur you on.”
Forbes has written hundreds of songs, many of which have been commercial hits—her bread and butter is her ability to craft tunes that are both energetic and commercially viable. “Too Turned On” by Alisha was her first bit hit, followed by Taylor Dayne’s version of “Don’t Rush Me.” She also writes for television and film: you’ve heard her music on Nurse Jackie and The Hills, and her song “Melt Away” was featured in Denzel Washington’s film Déjà Vu. Forbes is the author of Write Songs Right Now and leads workshops for the ASCAP Foundation and NYU’s Steinhardt School.
Many of Forbes’ songs also have a socially conscious message. “Where Will the Giants Roam” raises awareness about poaching, and “Meant to Be Free” highlights animal rights.
“Writing animal rights or human rights theme songs, those are things I believe in at the core of my being. Those are a lot more scary [to write than pop songs],” she says. “I’m changing as a person. My writing is going to change over time.”
Forbes began playing guitar at Taft, after hearing another student playing in a dorm room. At Taft, her need to push creative boundaries found its muse in legendary art teacher Mark Potter ’48.
“He certainly was the greatest influence. He blew my mind wide open,” she says. “I really took to [art] like a fish to water…He took me under his wing, [because] he saw that I had that drive.”
Forbes says Potter once asked her if she was an “artist with a capital A.”
“I stopped for a minute, then said ‘yes.’ I could never go down the straight and narrow path, and he gave me permission and the willingness to take the path less traveled…to go down it and never doubt it.”
She graduated from Stanford with a degree in English and creative writing, only because the university didn’t offer a degree in songwriting. “I sort of made my own major.”
After graduation, Forbes tried her hand as a graphic designer, but says the pull of music was strong. She has been self-employed as a songwriter and songwriting coach since she was 23, and has never looked back.
“I think the life of a painter is more solitary, and I’m more collaborative,” she said. “I don’t think you can necessarily teach songwriting, but you [can] give feedback. Over the years I’ve gotten to where I can constructively give feedback. The great thing about [coaching] one on one is you can really focus like a laser beam on that material.”
Forbes said beginning songwriters tend to imitate other singers and songwriters. She helps them discover and express their own unique voices.
“It’s their willingness to take their stands and strike out on their own and…reveal it in a work of art—whatever that work of art is. I think that’s the beauty of teaching and the beauty of art itself. You’re pushing your own boundaries.”