Berklee Students Dominate the 15th Annual John Lennon Scholarship Songwriting Competition; Q&A with 1st Place Winner, Lisa Occhino

Lisa Occhino, first place winner of the 15th Annual John Lennon Scholarship songwriting competition.
Lisa Occhino, first place winner of the 15th Annual John Lennon Scholarship songwriting competition.

Lisa Occhino, first place winner of the 15th Annual John Lennon Scholarship songwriting competition.

By Nikole Luebbe

Berklee students dominated the competition in the 15th Annual John Lennon Scholarship, a national songwriting competition that recognizes the best and brightest young songwriters between the ages of 17 and 24. Seventh semester music business student Lisa Occhino won first place and was awarded a $10,000 prize for her song, “You Will Never Understand.” Hailey Gardiner (non-Berklee student) was awarded the $5,000 second-place prize, and Berklee students April Bender and Nick Goldston received $2,500 each for their third place tie.

The 2012 judges included Warner Chappell Music Publishing VP Lee Dannay, Wind-up Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Gregg Wattenberg, producer Benny Blanco, Imagem Music President Richard Stumpf, and SONGS Music Publishing President and head of A&R Ron Perry. Thousands of students representing schools from every state participated.

Proud of our Berklee students and intrigued by the whole process of the competition, I asked Lisa Occhino to sit down with me and tell me all about her journey to winning this competition.


Berklee Groove: How do you start a song – lyrics, melody, chords?
Lisa Occhino: It completely depends on the situation. In retrospect, most of the songs that I’ve ended up finishing so far have started with lyrics first. But I think it’s good to write from as many different angles as possible – I like trying to write from a title, a chord progression, a rhythm, or anything that feels inspiring to me. It helps keep things fresh, so I don’t feel like I’m stuck inside the same songwriting process all the time.

BG: In “You Will Never Understand,” you play piano and sing. Have you had formal training in both?
LO: I never had consistent piano lessons, and no classical training whatsoever. I started when I was six with just the basics, but after that first year or so, the teachers I had were all jazz musicians. My mom purposely chose not to put me in classical lessons because she didn’t want me to be intimidated or end up hating piano. Since my teachers were active musicians, they were always in and out of the city. I would often go several weeks without having a lesson, so I would just practice every day on my own. When I started writing songs around 12 or 13 I thought, ‘Well, someone’s gotta sing my songs, so I might as well sing them myself.’ But even though I had a few voice lessons later in high school and was always a part of my school choirs, I never really considered myself to be a singer. To this day, it’s something that I’m still gradually trying to accept.

BG: Do you play any other instruments?
LO: I started teaching myself the basics of guitar about four years ago, completely stopped after a few months, and then picked it up again last semester because I want to be able to accompany myself in live situations. I also got a ukulele for my 18th birthday and I absolutely love playing it. There are periods of time where I’m practicing ukulele more than piano! Besides that, I play a little harmonica and have taken two Hammond organ labs at Berklee. I find picking up new instruments really inspiring, and I love trying to find ways to incorporate them into my songwriting.

BG: How long have you been writing songs?
LO: Since around seventh grade. That happened to be right when Garageband first became available, so I was blown away by the fact that I could record music in my own house. I remember being in my basement almost every night playing around with loops and thinking it was the coolest thing ever.

BG: When you write songs, it seems to be mostly because you’re inspired, or because you have something to say. Have you ever considered being contracted to write songs, perhaps for other artists or commercials?
LO:  I actually just finished writing a jingle for a car dealership in New York, and it was really fun! That’s funny though, I was thinking about that exact same question earlier today. I honestly don’t know if I could ever be a staff writer signed to a publishing company with a quota to fill every period. I’m really not good at forcing myself to write songs. However, when it comes to jingles it’s a different mindset for me because the end goal is simply making your client happy – it’s not so much about pouring your heart and soul into it, trying to write clever metaphors, or showing that you know how to add a #9 to a dominant chord. It’s just about the business getting their message across to the public in the most memorable way possible, which 99% of the time means you need to keep it simple.

BG: What do you plan to do after you graduate?
LO: Well, I’ll be graduating a semester early, so I just booked a month-long trip to Europe during what would have been my final spring semester. After that, my plan is work in digital marketing or promotions in New York. It’s my favorite city in the world – it’s very fast paced, and that fits my personality and lifestyle well. Right now I’m working on a startup company for online songwriting collaboration which I hope to start rolling out this summer, so I’m excited to see where that takes me!

For more on Lisa Occhino, visit: