Poetry Meets Its Melody

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Songmaker Productions founders (from left) Chris Wentz, David Hawkins, and Richard Wilder. The West Chester-based start-up helps anyone put thoughts to music.

Timothy Gallagher is a retired medicinal chemist who spent his career with some of the world's top pharmaceutical companies, immersed in the highly technical work of synthetic drug compounds.

"I'm known for my creative problem solving," said Gallagher, 61, a longtime Harleysville resident who now lives in Maryland. "I can't sing at all."

Yet he has just made an album, coaxed out of his "I'm-not-musical" self by Songmaker Productions, a West Chester-based start-up that aims to help anyone put thoughts to music, from expressions of love and loss to celebrations of friendship and fun times.

"All you have to do is think up a poem and you can be a songwriter," said David Hawkins of Limerick, Songmaker Productions' founder.

In Gallagher's case, his son Brian wrote the poetry, before a combination of methadone and antidepressant, antipsychotic and antianxiety prescription drugs led to his accidental suffocation in May 2009 at age 26.

Brian was "very intelligent, very creative . . . he just didn't seem to be able to adjust to living," his father said. Diagnosed with schizophrenic affective disorder, Brian communicated largely through his hundreds of poems, many addressing his life's difficulties, often with a spiritual confidence.

I try to make sense of what I was handed,

like a plane you hope has landed,

God's plan we can't understand it,

But with his love,

any obstacle, we know we can handle it.

Those words are from one of 12 tracks on Inner Core, the CD that Songmaker Productions helped Gallagher create to memorialize his son.

Of the album, which cost close to $5,000 to make, Gallagher said, "It's something that's going to be eternal. He'd be very proud."

Achieving such personal impact is what prompted Hawkins, 44 - a musician who started playing piano and keyboard at 10 and writing songs at 12 - to apply his passion in an entrepreneurial way.

Initially, Hawkins admitted, the endeavor started from a more selfish place. Suffering through an office job setting up online seminars for doctors, he said, he found himself thinking: "How can I get the hell out of here?"

Then he dreamed one night that he had a job helping people record songs.

"Honestly, that's how it happened," he insisted.

He got out of bed and started scratching out a business plan. Online-based, it would offer clients a vast menu of choices to help guide their song creations, including musical genre, beat, sex of the vocalist, and instruments used.

Finding nothing similar on the Internet, Hawkins launched MakeYourPoemASong.com in 2008. Wisely, he kept his day jobs until 2011.

"The business ran at a loss for a while because I didn't have enough orders, and I wasn't making any money due to lack of business skills and marketing," he said.

Serendipity struck in fall 2014. Hawkins was at the Pickering Creek Inn in Phoenixville, having a few beers. Richard Wilder was there, too, with friends.

When Wilder stepped to the bar to buy a round of drinks, he asked Hawkins what kind of work he did. Intrigued by Hawkins' answer, Wilder delivered the drinks to his table and returned to the bar to hear more about MakeYourPoemASong.com.

Wilder - who spent 23 years at Iron Mountain, starting as a telemarketer for the information-management services company and finishing in 2013 as senior vice president of product management - had been considering options for a second career.

Within days of meeting Hawkins and poring over his website, Wilder, 51, of West Chester, called a former neighbor, Chris Wentz, and urged him to check out the site.

"This is really cool," is what Wentz, 49, of Collegeville, recalled of his reaction.

With a history in sales management, Wentz currently is managing partner and part-owner of American Retail, a division of American Solutions for Business, a design and fabrication firm in the retail fixtures and custom-display industry.

Unknown to Hawkins at the time, they had a friend create a song through his website and sent the finished product to Michael Rogers, a friend of Wilder's who is national director of promotions at Curb Records in Nashville.

"I was pleasantly surprised," Rogers said. "What they provide is a quality demo/finished product to someone who typically couldn't afford a studio session to try and produce their music or put their words to music. I've already referred people."

In February, Hawkins, Wilder, and Wentz inked a partnership deal and changed the company's name to Songmaker Productions.

With more than 80 customers, it projects it will deliver 250 songs this year, costing $279 to $479 each. The traditional route of reserving studio time and hiring musicians, an engineer, and a producer could cost as much as $5,000 for one song, recording experts said.

Hawkins, the company's chief creative officer, draws from a pool of 45 composers who have signed contracts with Songmaker Productions. Each composer has the right to reject any song sent to him or her - something that rarely happens, Hawkins said.

YourSongmaker.com provides customers choices aimed at alleviating anxiety about a creative process foreign to many, and best illustrating the type of songs they want.

"At the end of that, we have a pretty good idea of the DNA or recipe of the song that translates quickly to our composers," said Wentz, chief customer officer.

Once all the selections are made and the lyrics submitted, a sample song usually is available for a customer's review within 10 days, and a final cut within 16 days.

Most customers request the finished product in email format. CDs and sheet music also are available.

Should a song become a commercial hit, proceeds would be split between the composer (40 percent), Songmaker Productions (35 percent), and the client (25 percent).

Wilder, president and CEO, sees "no limit" to Songmaker Productions' potential, noting the enormousness of the wedding industry alone. The company's marketing reach has extended to wedding planners (think the happy couple's first dance), DJs, and funeral directors.

Jennifer Campbell, 42, a corporate lawyer in Toronto, found Songmaker Productions while searching the Internet for help making a song from something she had written for her boyfriend's birthday.

In three weeks and for about $300, she had a soft pop-rock song accompanied by an acoustic guitar.

"I was blown away. It was exactly what I had been thinking of," said Campbell, who described her boyfriend as awed by both the creativity and thought that went into the gift.

"Better than a sweater," she said. "I don't know how I'm going to beat it for Christmas."

Gallagher found marrying his son's poetry to a melody both therapeutic and enlightening.

"When words are put to music, every word becomes important," he said.

Words from the album's title track are inscribed on Brian's headstone at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd.

"It's as if the songs made the poems come to life," Gallagher said.

And, in a sense, his son.

"I didn't regularly read his poems," Gallagher said, "but I listen to the CD almost daily."

dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466

@dmastrull