Michael R. J. Roth
Songwriter Michael R. J. Roth was the winner of the 2019 NSAI Song Contest for lyric writing, and received a Gold Award from the 2018 Mid-Atlantic Song Contest for lyrics. He has been called "a cool dark troubadour" and "an amazing writer" by fans and industry professionals, evoking a mix of Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon and others with lyrics known for their intriguing imagery and "deep, profound truth." He is featured in the Great American Song Hall of Fame, and is known for his award-winning, original acoustic songs with "the kind of lyrics that make Nashville writers salivate." NSAI named him "One to Watch."
Past songwriting awards include First Place Lyric Winner in the Unisong International Song Contest, the Great American Song Contest, the Austin Songwriters Group and the Dallas Songwriters Association competitions. He also received two Honorable Mentions in American Songwriter Magazine. He has been a First-Place winner and finalist in numerous other competitions.
Michael R. J. Roth - A Songwriter's Journey
Michael R. J. Roth, winner of the 2019 Nashville Songwriters Association International Song Contest for his lyric “The Price of a Song,” has been writing songs and poetry since childhood. A native of Erie, Pennsylvania, he studied international relations at Georgetown University, where he realized that writing was where his heart was. He traveled to France, playing on the streets of Paris, wandering the cities of Europe and writing songs that have long since disappeared. He later moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he was active in the poetry and music scenes. He taught creative writing in schools, published an anthology of Santa Fe poets, Most of the Holes Are Occupied, and the literary magazine Read Street, which was named an “Outstanding Small Press Publication” by the Pushcart Prize. His poetry appeared in various literary publications and Rolling Stone magazine, and he performed both as a solo artist as well as with Harri Wolf and Cynthia Jones as Eyes Only and Easy Heroes.
In a tale familiar to most musicians, Wolf went off to California, and Roth and Jones had families to tend to. Over the years, Roth dug ditches, washed dishes, painted houses and worked as a freelance writer, teacher, and paralegal before eventually joining the Foreign Service to do diplomatic work until 2016. Roth continued to write and occasionally perform, and still writes with Wolf. “Harri bugs me with text messages about some epiphany or another, then they blossom into full-blown songs,” Roth said.
During his Santa Fe days, Roth spent several years studying Zen, with the same roshi (Zen master) who taught Leonard Cohen (Roth is convinced the roshi was the model for Yoda in Star Wars). “It was just a coincidence,” Roth said, but he was surprised one day when he was visiting the Zen Center in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, and Cohen walked by him in a long line participating in a silent meditation. “It was really cool,” he said, “because he was such an influence on me, but at the same time ironic, because I couldn’t say a word to him. I remember in my high school years being in a music store in Toronto and picking up a songbook of his. I asked a friend, ‘Do you know this guy? Is he any good?’ And he said, yeah, so I bought it, and Cohen’s been like a silent roshi to me ever since, setting a standard I would strive to meet. I’m sorry he’s gone, but the mark he left is indelible.”
Roth later turned to Christianity, and has written many songs reflecting his faith. “Hearts Wide Open” was a first-place winner in the 2016 Dallas Songwriters Association song competition, and “Blood on Our Hands” received an Honorable Mention in the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Song Contest, and other songs have been finalists in competitions. He considers the Psalms and other scriptures a primary source of inspiration. Some of these songs are in the albums Emergency Hymns and Naked to the Truth.
After a long hiatus from the performing life, Roth found he had to re-invent himself, starting with open mics in “the DMV” (as the D. C. metro area is known to locals there), where he gained a reputation as a “Jedi songwriter” (according to Dan Magnolia of the Songwriters Association of Washington). With a host of new songs, he mingled and traded song ideas with fellow award-winning songwriters whom he credits with getting his juices flowing and upping his game. “Some of the best songwriters I know are people you never heard of,” he said. “The DMV music scene is a well-kept secret that should be exposed.”
When he moved back to New Mexico last year, he had to start all over again. Today Roth performs solo as an acoustic singer-songwriter in the Albuquerque area, but still keeps in touch with Wolf and songwriting friends from the D.C. area. Now that he’s back on his home turf in New Mexico, he is getting to know and appreciate the wealth of talent here.
Roth recently won the 2019 NSAI/CMT Song Contest for lyrics and received the Gold Award for lyrics from the Songwriters Association of Washington in their 2018 Mid-Atlantic Song Contest.
On June 1, 2019, both the Dallas Songwriters Association (DSA) and the Austin Songwriters Group (ASG) announced that he had several winning songs in their recent competitions. Roth won first and second place in the DSA 2018 Fall Lyric contest (“The Price of a Song” and “Blasphemous Kiss” respectively) and first place in the Winter 2019 Lyric Contest (“Ashes in Paradise,” co-written with Harri Wolf).
In ASG's Winter 2018 Song Contest, "Movin' On" took third place in the Folk/Americana category, and Roth took second, third and honorable mention in the lyric category (“The Price of a Song,” "Movin' On" and “Blasphemous Kiss” respectively).
His songs have earned first-place and other awards from numerous songwriting competitions, notably first-place lyric winners in the Unisong International Song Contest, the Austin Songwriters Group, the Dallas Songwriters Association, and the Great American Song Contest, as well as numerous other awards and recognition from those groups and others such as the UK Songwriting Contest and the Mid-Atlantic Song Contest. He is in the Great American Song Hall of Fame, and received two honorable mentions in American Songwriter magazine’s lyric competition. He was also named “One to Watch” by the Nashville Songwriters Association in 2016.
His influences draw from a broad range of poets, including French poets Rimbaud and Baudelaire, Russians Anna Akhmatova and Joseph Brodsky, classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, and Americans ranging from T. S. Eliot, John Berryman, and William Carlos Williams to the beat poets. His musical influences leaned heavily on master lyric writers such as Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Jacques Brel and others who delve deep to present the world in new and different ways.
He has done workshops and interviews with beat writers Allen Ginsburg, William S. Burroughs, and Robert Creeley, as well as songwriting luminaries Rivers Rutherford, Steve Seskin, Billy Sprague, Dan Navarro, Pete and Pat Luboff, Gordon Kennedy, and Wayne Kirkpatrick.
Although Roth himself has taught songwriting and poetry, he considers himself a lifelong student. “Someone asked Paul McCartney how to write a song. He said, ‘I have no idea.’ You have to start new with every song. The learning process is never over, and I like to remind myself that my best song is my next song,” Roth said, “but I’m writing better songs now than I did in my twenties. I like to say that I’m like a bat flying in the night, singing songs to find out where I am.”
On songwriting, Roth has the words of Paul McCartney etched in his mind: "You never get it down. I don't know how to do this. You'd think I do, but it's not one of these things you ever really know how to do."
“Allen Ginsburg showed me that you can write anytime, anywhere, about anything,” he said. “Your next song or poem is always right in front of you. And people like Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen taught me that whatever you write needs to be better.”
Roth has released a number of stripped-down digital folk-Americana albums and singles featuring naked acoustic guitar instrumentation and his growling vocals, which listeners have likened variously to Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Gordon Lightfoot and John Prine. They are available on CD Baby (https://store.cdbaby.com/Artist/MichaelRJRoth), iTunes, Amazon, and streaming services such as Spotify.
Songs for Easy Heroes
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Winner of the 2019 NSAI Lyric competition
Winner - 2019 NSAI Lyric competition
Gold Award (Lyrics) - 2018 Mid-Atlantic Song Contest
First Place - 2016 Dallas Songwriters Association
Lyric Winner - Austin Songwriters Group, Dallas Songwriters Association, Unisong, Great American Song Contest