Q&A with Miley Cyrus songwriter Jessi Alexander: 'The Climb' being pulled from Grammy noms is 'devastating'
Songwriter Jessi Alexander and her co-writer Jon Mabe may be two of the briefest Grammy nominees in history: “The Climb” got pulled from the Best Song Written for a Motion Picture race yesterday, after Disney determined that it hadn’t been written specifically for the Miley Cyrus vehicle Hannah Montana: The Movie (as Grammy rules for soundtrack songs require), and withdrew it from the category. Naturally, this came as quite the shock to Alexander, who has been under contract as a Disney songwriter for, as she puts it, “three and a half years that have been really good to me.” We are still awaiting comment from a Disney rep, but in the meantime, we spoke to Alexander about the “gray areas” of the songwriting process, and her questions regarding the technicality that got “The Climb” disqualified.
Entertainment Weekly: I’m assuming you found out earlier than the rest of us that this was happening. Did Disney tell you? Or did the Grammys tell you?
Jessi Alexander: Some of the Disney brand staff members congratulated me about the nomination. So I spent one night on a high. And then the following morning was a new low, when I was told it was gonna be pulled by Disney.
Did they talk to you before they pulled it?
They were in the process of pulling it. And of course, my take was, I understand that there are rules — although I knew nothing about the rules when I found out about the nomination — but let’s at least just tell NARAS where the gray areas are and let them make the decision. But Disney made the decision, and I was just told.
So was the song written specifically for the Hannah Montana movie?
This is the gray area. The story is, originally, me and Jon Mabe sat down as songwriters, like we do every day, and I had this melody that came to me on the way to work that morning. I knew that it was special. I knew it was pop. And I knew it was Disney. We started a song. It was actually called “It’s the Climb,” and it was a more spiritual song, sung in third person. And it was really about my woes, and Jon’s woes in the music business. But when I write songs, being at Disney, I turn them in and of course think they all should be submitted to film and television. That was one of the reasons I signed at Disney, was to hopefully get placements at film and television. So before filming, Peter Chelsom, the director of Hannah Montana: The Movie, actually came to Nashville and heard my music, and wanted me to submit songs for the movie. I put the song “It’s the Climb” on a CD, and he called back within weeks and said the song was gonna be an integral part of the movie, and the only thing he needed was for me to change what I would consider to be a substantial amount of the song. And that’s where the gray area is. For me, when you change something from third person to first person, it can change the whole meaning of a line. And I remember Jon and I wrestling over taking words out—there was a line about prayer. Like I said, it was a more spiritual song. And we had to think about, you know, how much can we change to keep the integrity of the song. But after many back and forth drafts, we all came to a great place, and it felt like it was perfect for the movie, and they told me, you know, “This is perfect for Miley, it’s gonna change her life, gonna change your life.” As a songwriter, my job is just to follow these wonderful little pieces of music and lyrics that I get. And so many don’t find homes. It’s one in a million that you get this kind of placement. It’s hard to say when a song is finished. And it’s hard to say what you’re writing a song for. And that’s not my job. That’s why I have a publisher. And that’s why I feel like NARAS needs to reassess the eligibility requirements for this particular category. Because I think I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last.
Are you upset with Disney that they did this without consulting you and giving you a chance to plead your case?
I did get to plead my case with NARAS. But yeah, you should talk to them. Disney pulled the song. So. Yeah. It sucks. I’ve got flowers and champagne showing up and people constantly congratulating me, and now I don’t know how to respond.
Do you want to try and regain your eligibility?
I don’t even know if that’s possible. I know that there’s been big, big people out there fighting for me, and being my advocate. This has been a huge debate within NARAS. Because it’s a hard call. Disney’s standpoint, and you should get this from them, is that the song has to be commissioned. But that’s another hard part. I am in some ways commissioned, being a Disney writer. I get paid to write songs for them. And then also, you know, “It’s the Climb” was a different song than the one that found its way into the film. You can look at it a million ways. And I’m sure they wouldn’t do this if there wasn’t a true belief that it wasn’t eligible. To be honest, it’s devastating. I’ve had such a roller coaster ride in this business — I’ve lost record deals, I’ve had big songs get kicked off big records, I’ve gone through a lot. But this is a new low. Just to have NARAS grant me a nomination and then take it away has been tough. And humiliating, really. It makes it look like I tried to submit it, or I’m covering up. We all know how difficult it is to get a Grammy, especially as a songwriter. There’s only two categories for us, and those are so sought after and hard to get to. And the other thing that’s sad for me is that this song has just been such a blessing to so many people, to Miley’s fans, for me and my family. I hate for it to be tainted at all with politics. When I got that melody, I couldn’t have said, “This is for Hannah Montana: The Movie!” I have to just write songs. And I send them to my publisher and they go out and find a home. That’s the process. The real question is, Who submitted it? And don’t they have a screening process? Why put an artist or songwriter through this? By taking this song out, how does that alter the voting? People who voted for me could have voted for something else. There’s a lot of weird parts to this. But like I said, I really want to do whatever to make sure this doesn’t happen to another songwriter. If nothing else, the good that can come is that hopefully this particular category will be reassessed to make sure that the eligibility is black and white.
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