Gil Polk did not set out to become a songwriter, but the songs came and he gave them life. The NYC actor who started writing songs some twenty years ago in Seattle, was forever changed in India and Nashville and has recently come into his own with numerous songwriting awards. In 2015, he was NSAI’s “Ones To Watch” not once, but three times. Polk kindly took the time to chat about his journey as a songwriter, his numerous awards and what’s ahead.
You describe yourself as a "late bloomer" in terms of becoming a songwriter. When did you begin writing songs & decide songwriting was something that you wanted to pursue?
I grew up around music and have been in vocal groups all my life, but songwriting wasn’t something I ever set out to do. Songs just started coming to me about twenty years ago. I moved to New York from Seattle in 1999 with some money that I had saved and not knowing why, I just kept writing. In 2003 I entered one of my songs in the Billboard World Song Contest which was the biggest contest at the time. Months went by, and I forgot about the contest, when one day I received an award certificate in the mail. I was really excited when I saw on the certificate that I was in the top 500 in the world in Pop. I wasn’t sure what that meant, or if it was good, so I called them and asked. The woman chuckled and said ‘Uh that’s really good.’ I came to find out that quite a bit of people entered the contest and when I did the math, I learned that I was in the top half of 1% in the world. That got me thinking that maybe I was doing something right.
Talk a little bit about the song that won the award.
The name of the song was "YOU ARE! (The One I See)" and the way the song came to me has a story. A few years ago my partner introduced me to a woman from India named Amma, who is known as the hugging saint. I am not really a religious person, but I am spiritual and I was thinking about her when I was in the ocean and this song poured out of me. I remember running from the ocean into the house and writing down what was coming through me. Amma is so inspiring to me that on my second trip to India, I spent a few months with her volunteering, doing relief work with her after the tsunami [in 2004]. I was privileged to have the opportunity to see her in action like never before. The President of Sri Lanka asked her to come because many of the farmers were committing suicide as they felt it was a better way to provide for their families [since their farms were destroyed]. The song that started coming at that time was called “Leave It All Behind.” I was so moved by the people’s strength during a difficult time - that they could be laughing and smiling with us when such a tragedy occurred - that got to me. All of the songs I wrote in India I put on a charity album for her organization to sell…..and I wish I made more because the albums sold out and the proceeds were used to build a house. It was as if what feeds the fire provided a service in some way and made me feel really good.
I believe that.
After India you returned to New York?
I came back to New York and went to Nashville for the first time in 2007. It was there that the floodgates opened. I felt very humbled, like I was back to square one. Like Socrates says “All I know, is I know nothing.” Before Nashville, I didn’t know that songwriting was such an art form and I didn’t realize that a lot of times the songs we hear on the radio are not written by the person singing them. I joined the NSAI which was my first foray into learning how to structure a song so that it would connect with people. It’s been an evolution.
What genre of music do you write and do you also sing?
I write Pop and Pop-Country as well as some instrumental piano pieces [Polk is self-taught], like ethereal background music. I don't have any aspirations to be a singer. People ask me why I don’t sing my own demos; maybe it’s not liking my voice, but I would rather leave that to the professionals. I want to put my demos into the hands of the people that can sing, which has led me to start pitching my songs within the last two years.
The first song I pitched was “Holy”, which was held by a major artist whose management eventually ended up not going with it. But she loved the song so much and told me that she hoped it finds a home, which meant a great deal to me. “Holy” was a song I wrote for Amma. I invited my friend, Rohan Kymal, to co-write on it with me because I wanted to make the song more universal. We are both close to Amma, and he just started writing and one of the lines was ‘you make everything so easy.’ A lightbulb just went off and we changed the title of the song to “Easy.” In 2013 that song won a string of awards including runner up in IAMA, runner up in Song of the Year and 2nd in the world in the Frank Brown International Songwriting Festival, which were all pretty huge for me.
I also have reached out to different writers to co-write which is something I like. I find it helpful because two brains are often better than one. I wrote with Melissa Otero, who I met at a pitch a thon which is a thing we go to regularly to pitch our songs. She has had a lot of tv and film placement, like “Angels and Demons” which was on Dance Moms. The song I wrote with her was one that was inspired by a play I saw on Broadway years ago. One of the characters said, as he listened to the rant of a woman, ‘What about love?’ That hit me in the heart and as I was waiting for the train, the melody flowed out. I held the melody for a few years and the words wouldn’t come. I presented the melody to her as our first co-write and everything poured out. In the first session we had the crux of the song after that we got together maybe one or two times and solidified the song. RC Banon at NSAI paid me the biggest compliment in regards to this song. He said, ‘This is the prettiest melody I’ve heard since Burt Bacharach and Hal David were making records.” I have a one on one mentoring session with him this month which I am really looking forward to.
Another collaborator of mine, Mike Greenly who won the competition to write the new Virginia state song, worked with me on “Leave It All Behind.” This song has such a special meaning to me and I knew it could resonate with so many people. The poignant, inspirational words just poured out of him, but I didn't necessarily see the finished song as a contemporary country song as much as maybe a Christian or Inspirational. He took it to his song plugger in Nashville who gave terrific feedback saying he could hear Rascal Flatts singing the song or a Bluegrass or Americana artist. It was really exciting to get hear that, but the most meaningful thing is what a special guy Mike is. I was invited to perform at a Christmas benefit for NY Cares at The Bitter End and Mike couldn’t make it, but he sent a carload of coats over for donation which was just another hit in the heart. I know I’m in a special business connecting with the right people. I don’t know where it’s all going, but it feels good.
Your songs are definitely making an impact. Have any other songs won accolades or awards?
About two weeks ago, my song with Jim Adamo, “When You’re Awake” won the highest possible score under the Grand Prize (for the Pop category) in the UK International Song Contest. It also won Finalist in the Song of the Year International Song Contest in 2015. In addition, the song just got published with Washington Street Music in Nashville. Jim said that his song plugger has never really reached out about a song they way they have with “When You’re Awake” which makes me feel like, hopefully I am a strong partner to have.
Seems like 2015 was a good year. What’s ahead for the new year?
I’m pretty optimistic about state of things. Many in the music industry talk about the decline of album sales and the difficulty in getting album cuts, even for seasoned writers. The pie has shifted in different ways and I am intrigued by what I have seen. I would like to find up and coming artists who want songs that can connect with people. I am in the weird place where I cannot put my stuff on the internet because I am a songwriter not a performer. If I was performer, I would be all over putting it out there, but as a writer only I have been told not to post the songs especially if we are trying to get them to an artist. We don’t want a song to go viral so that no one wants to record it. What I try to do is get the songs into the hands of the people who make decisions.
I feel like switch went off a couple years ago that I just try to live every day, follow through and not drop the ball. So I will be doing more of the same and growing and never stop learning. I definitely would like someone to record one of my songs or hear them on TV or film. I’m not alone in having to work full time and get my songs out there, both are artistic endeavors but they’re almost like two different worlds. There is a lot to do and it takes a lot to stay organized, but I feel lucky and blessed not only to have won the awards but to have met people who keep me going.
For more information visit his official website
Find him on Facebook and Twitter