2, 4, 6, 8...How Do We Collaborate?
If you look at the tiny print under the songs on a CD cover, you’ll almost always find multiple songwriter names listed. Collaboration is a big part of what we do. How does that work, you might ask?
Well, collaborations happen in many different ways. Sometimes, you’ll find 2 or 3 songwriters working together (lyricists, instrumentalists/melody writers, or most often everybody does a bit of everything). Sometimes an artist – who may or may not have songwriting experience - is paired up with a songwriter or a songwriting team to write material for their next record. Nowadays, you’ll often find a “track builder” collaborating in the songwriting process as well, putting their own stamp on the sound of the song by using audio recording software to singlehandedly layer all the instruments together and create a professional-sounding recording of the song as it’s written.
What does a collaboration schedule look like?
In Nashville, those of us who work as songwriters on Music Row typically schedule our “co-writes” 4 or 5 days a week, starting our day in the songwriting office at 10:30 or 11am Monday to Friday. Although we each have our own pace and style, it’s quite common to finish a complete song by 4pm. After that, you might find us in the studio working on recording demos of our new material for pitching to artists/labels, or some of us might “pull a double” and start another song with another set of collaborators from 4pm to 8pm or so. Not everyone in the industry works at this furious pace, but when you are a staff songwriter living on a salary consisting of royalty advances, the more quality songs you write, the more likely you’ll be to get songs recorded, earn your publisher’s investment back and get your annual contract renewed.
How do you come up with a song collaboratively?
Writing somewhere between 50 and 250 songs per year may seem impossible, but collaborating is like exercising a muscle. After a while, you get very good at it. You’re able to sit down with a complete stranger, immediately talk openly about intimate emotions or experiences, find a song idea that you both feel excited about, pour your heart into a lyric and melody, piece it together like a jigsaw puzzle, and make a quick acoustic recording of the result, all within about 3 or 4 hours.
There are a few tricks to the process. The first rule of collaboration is DARE TO SUCK! You’ve got to spit out your ideas…and I mean verbalize every instinct, phrase or melody that pops into your head…no matter how stupid it might sound. Self-editing has no place in a brainstorming session, and songwriting is full-on brainstorming. Even the most ridiculous idea can spark something in your collaborator’s head, and that’s what keeps a songwriting session moving forward.
What comes first, the lyric or the music?
Sometimes you start with a melody, sometimes with a lyric, or sometimes both pop into your head as a unit. Sometimes you get a groove going on the guitar and that inspires the rest of the song. There’s no hard and fast rule for where the ideas begin.
Sometimes, lightning strikes and you pull a song idea out of the sky right on the spot, but it’s good to come into a songwriting session with some raw material to kick start things in case that doesn’t happen. Preparation is a big part of our job. All pro writers keep a list of potential song titles, and often we take turns sharing these ideas at the beginning of a co-write session until one of them catches our collaborators’ imagination. Sometimes, I come in with a chunk of melody that I hum, sometimes I’ll have a verse or chorus already written, or sometimes I’ll just have an experience or concept I’d like to write about. Track builders may bring anything from a simple drum loop to a bunch of fully-built tracks that just require a vocal melody and lyric to be written over top (a process called “top-lining”).
Music Row publishers keep a “pitch sheet” for their songwriters: a list of artists with upcoming recording dates that includes details about what kind of material they’re seeking for their record. That information can help us to focus our songwriting towards those specific artists, although aiming a song towards a specific pitch as you write it can be difficult. Usually I prefer to write the best song I can on any given day and figure out where to pitch it after the fact, but sometimes knowing who is looking can help us decide which direction to go when we reach the potential crossroads in the writing process: if the song could be happy or sad…a story song or a captured moment…a male perspective or a female one…a Miranda pitch or a Carrie pitch…etc.
What about writing with artists?
Writing with an artist requires a higher level of preparation, because the stakes are higher. You’re more likely to get the resulting song recorded, but you’ll probably have far less time to work with the artist or to revisit the song with them if you don’t nail the concept and finish it quickly. Sometimes you’re out on their bus stealing an hour of their time between the soundcheck and the show…sometimes they’ve flown into town for a day to work with you…sometimes you’re at an intensive retreat where the artist circulates constantly between different collaborator groups. That means you need to do your homework: you listen to the artist’s previous material so you know their style, their vocal range, and so you don’t pitch them ideas they’ve already covered in other songs. Once you’re in the room with them, you find out where they are in the recording process, and what kind of song they may be missing for their upcoming record or for their live performance set list. Then, you have to find a song idea that they can relate to, so it helps to know as much about their life story as you can in advance, and then to listen carefully to what they say about themselves in the room.
How does collaborative songwriting feel?
Collaborative songwriting is the easiest and the toughest thing I’ve ever done. Sometimes, you stare at the blank page or search for a line until your eyes are bloodshot and your brain feels like it’s bleeding out your ear. There’s the pressure of sitting in a room completely star struck by someone you admire, when your sense of self-worth drains away with on your inability to come up with anything the least bit interesting. Sometimes your co-writer leaves you in the dust and you’re left feeling inadequate because you can’t keep up. There are times when everything grinds to a silent halt and you wish someone would call in a bomb threat at your office so you could get the hell out of the room.
But then, sometimes, it flows as if God’s hand is on the pen and you’re just trying to keep up. You click together…you're on the same wavelength, coming up with the same words at the same moment, tapping into turns of phrase and melody that choke you up with emotion. Your co-writers take the song to places you might not have found alone, and vice versa. You might even break down and cry in front of complete strangers because of the beauty of what you’ve just created together. When a song like that is done, there’s a shared dopamine rush that comes from the mutual creative victory. You ride that high like a junkie, and when it wears off, all you want to do is feel it again.
In the end, everything good is better when shared, and songwriting is no exception to that rule.
If you'd like a little more insight on collaboration, check out this video of my co-writers and I talking about the process of writing our song "Ordinary Angels". (Never heard the song? Click here to watch us perform it in the room where it was written.)
Interested in more behind-the-scenes musings about songwriting, creativity, the Nashville music biz and life in general, along with some free songs? Sign up for my email newsletter here.