Lisa Redford: Writing collaboratively
Are two heads better than one for writing songs? Lisa considers the benefits and perils of writing with a partner
he writers of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building, Lieber and Stoller, Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Difford and Tilbrook and countless more… collaboration has long been a major part of the creative process for many songwriters and the number of famous partnerships who’ve written some of the most memorable songs is huge. Exchanging ideas with another writer can help kickstart creativity, provide a helpful way to generate new ideas, give you instant feedback and and be a valuable learning experience. Here are some key things to consider when embarking on co-writing.
Finding someone with complementary writing abilities is a good start, as is knowing what it is you’re looking for in a co-writer. If you feel your strength is more with melodies, collaborating with a strong lyricist would be beneficial and vice versa. Having a common aim is also worth considering, for example, deciding whether it’s with a view to writing for other artists. As mentioned in my column on writing to a brief, some writers are known as top-line writers, providing the melody and lyrics, so if your approach is usually to write with your instrument, this could provide a way of learning new writing techniques. Cynthia Weil describes Barry Mann, with whom she wrote such classic songs as You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ and We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place, as a ‘mentor’. Her background was more musical theatre, so learning from each other’s different experiences can be a great education and open you up to new writing possibilities.
“Find someone you can be really open with”
Finding a personality that is compatible with yours should be another major consideration. Someone you trust, respect and feel comfortable with enough to present your ideas to and also be able to say when you feel something isn’t working. Creating a song can be a really personal thing, often inspired by real experiences, and especially if your prior writing experience has always been solitary, it helps to find someone you can be really open with and also be able to deal with any negative feedback they may give you on an idea. Also, if you don’t like an idea that your co-writer suggests, you want to feel that you can speak freely.
At times you should be prepared to compromise and keep communicating ideas so a writing session flows well. As well as contributing, listening is also hugely important: being receptive to the other writer’s ideas and allowing them room to present them. Also, someone who fits well into your writing schedule is another aspect to consider.
If you’re like me and some days things just aren’t flowing, a co-writer can really help you get ‘unstuck’. Valerie Simpson of the iconic writing partnership Ashford and Simpson with her late husband felt that, “with the two of us writing together, it’s very seldom we’ll both get blocked at the same time. If I’m stumped musically and Nick is really up on an idea lyrically, his enthusiasm is enough to unblock me.” Just having someone there to bounce ideas off and help fine tune a potentially great idea keeps that creative flow going.
As well as helping the writing process, increasing your output and having another view point are also bonuses of having a co-writer. I recently saw the excellent songwriter Mary Gauthier, whose songs have been placed in the show Nashville, give a speech at a music conference and she says the quality of her writing and range improved by collaborating with great songwriters like Gretchen Peters and Beth Neilsen Chapman.
“Some lovely collaborations have resulted for me via Twitter”
So how do you find other writers? Social media is an immediate way to reach out these days. Some lovely collaborations have resulted for me via Twitter and SoundCloud in particular, and another good thing is following and engaging with those who other writers are likely to be following. For example, PRS For Music, whose newsletter I subscribe to, holds events for its songwriter members. The recently disbanded Civil Wars met at a writing camp in Nashville, so networking and getting involved in your local music scene is useful too: going to open mics, showcasing your songs live, and actively contacting songwriters whose music and writing style you’re a fan of.
It’s also worth exploring whether co-writing is for you. I find this quote from Steve Earle pretty insightful: “I think there is a limit to the artistic level when you co-write. I think my strongest and my most personal songs, you couldn’t co-write.” Writing alone certainly has a freedom and I’ve definitely written very personal songs that I would only have wanted to write myself. Co-writing could possibly feel like there’s too much compromise involved, and maybe it could feel less fulfilling to you, particularly if a song turns into something different than you originally intended. With writing solo you get to be as creative as you desire and say exactly what you want to say. You’re also on your own schedule so can write whenever inspiration strikes.
Co-writing can be an excellent way to develop your songwriting and discover new musical skills and techniques and you never know what exciting new material could result. I’d love to hear all about your experiences of co-writing and what you feel are its benefits and disadvantages.
Regular Songwriting columnist Lisa Redford has been described by BBC Radio 2′s Bob Harris as “one of our finest singer/songwriters.” She has earned acclaim for her heartfelt acoustic music with gorgeous melodies and pure, soulful vocals. You can watch her latest video,for the track Be Around, below.