Welcome to my first ever blog post! I was wondering what to write about and decided on sharing some of my observations on the bizarre concoction of psychotherapy, cheerleading and babysitting that is the world of doing cowriting sessions. it’s something I’ve spent an awful lot of time doing in my life in music, and people always seem to be curious to know how it works. In order to maybe make this actually useful to others who are perhaps new to the world of doing cowrites, I thought I’d go for a “My Top Tips” approach. I still have tons to learn myself but these are just a few things I’ve observed.
Don’t Get Bogged Down
It took me a really long time to embrace this one, and it was so liberating when I finally did. Basically, if an idea starts to feel stuck, and the buzzy excitement and inspiration around working on it turns more into a feeling of pushing a large rock up a hill, just park it and move on to something else. You can save yourself a lot of time and that nagging feeling that perhaps you have no talent whatsoever. I’ve spent countless hours staring at a sheet of A4 paper or a laptop screen, or strumming the same chords endlessly trying to move an idea forward when it just isn’t happening…. Generally speaking, if a song starts to feel laboured and unexciting to write, there’s a good chance it will sound like that too. In a co writing situation, It’s almost like the feeling in the room finds it’s way into the DNA of the song you are working on, so it makes a lot of sense to keep the vibe up by saying “Hey, let’s just put this to one side for now and try something else” when everyone starts reaching for their phone to scroll mindlessly on Instagram or nipping out for another Cigarette rather than wanting to work on the song. The days in the studio writing with others where you look back and think “I can’t believe I get to do this for a living” because you laughed so much and had so much fun have an uncanny habit of also being the days where the best songs get written. If you have a session where all you do is start three or four ideas and mess around with them for a while and then move on when the wind goes out of their sails a bit, that’s totally fine. One of those ideas will have enough potential to go back to and build upon. Have fun!
Don’t Wait for Inspiration
Often people’s first question when they find out I write songs for a living is “Where do you get your inspiration from?” – it’s a good question but I find often inspiration has very little to do with it. 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration as the saying goes. If I waited to feel like i was being struck by some sort of lightning bolt of musical brilliance, I’d get very little done. (especially considering I’m a master procrastinator by nature.) Those moments where suddenly there’s a melody in your head and you have to grab a guitar and it all feels a bit magical do happen, but the day to day business
of life has an uncanny way of taking over…I think the point is that it really helps to commit to spending time writing, just showing up to work, whatever mood you are in. Doing cowrites can really help with that because you make a plan to get together with some people with the intention of writing a song. If all you achieve is having a really nice time with some people that you like, there are worse ways to spend a day but I always feel like I’ve let myself and the others involved down if I don’t at least try to come up with something good, and the feeling at the end of the day when you have written something that everyone is super excited about is way more gratifying than the “Oh well, at least we had a nice hang” feeling.
I know these first two points could seem contradictory, and it is indeed a strange thing to show up for work with the intention of extracting something wonderful from thin air. A great analogy comes from those geniuses from ABBA. To paraphrase, creativity is like a dragon in a cave that comes out and looks around for a bit at random points, twice a day. If you sit in front of the cave all day long you will definitely see the dragon. If you just pop back to check every now and then, you probably won’t.
Chemistry Is More Important Than Talent
When it comes to cowriting, I’ve found that the combination of personalities involved, and the dynamic between them has the biggest impact on whether it’s a successful day of writing or not. It would seem logical that if you put three super talented songwriters in a room together for a day or two, amazing songs will come out of the process no matter what. I mean, what could go wrong? As it turns out, quite a lot. Ego, competitiveness, insecurity…..These things are like kryptonite to creativity it seems. I’ve found the most vital ingredients to be willingness, enthusiasm, and open mindedness. You have to feel comfortable enough to bare your soul, and also take the risk to suggest an idea that in the cold light of day isn’t very good after all, and not feel like an idiot who should have kept their mouth shut.
Sometimes you are in a session with someone who is obviously incredibly talented but the chemistry is off somehow, you just aren’t bringing the best out in each other for whatever reason. I know that I have sometimes felt intimidated when writing with really successful writers, and have been so keen to impress that something in me denies my brain access to the part of me that is capable of generating cool musical, melodic and lyrical ideas. Frustrating! In some combinations of people I feel like I have more ideas than I know what to do with, and others I’m utterly blank and wondering what’s wrong with me. You have to take the great days with the not so great, and when you happen upon a combination of people that works brilliantly then do your best to stick with it. Songwriting teams that have a lot of success over the years stick together for good reason, if it works, it works.
Writing with artists is a very different beast to writing with other songwriters. Sometimes it turns out that you don’t have much to offer because what they do naturally is so special that all it really needs is a bit more time to develop. But often, young artists are like rough diamonds that do need some help shaping what is great about what they do, and in the right environment and constellation of other creative people the magic can really start to happen. You have to make them feel at ease and that they are in an artistic, respectful environment and not just with some jaded, radio playlist obsessed hack….I think giving an artist a feeling of ownership of the song you are writing together is crucial, regardless of how much input they actually have. (Making your own ideas feel like they belong to someone else is quite the snake charming job…..) If they don’t feel like a song is “theirs” somehow it will be hard to get a great vocal performance where they are really invested, and even harder for them to be enthused about putting it out into the world and spending months promoting it.
Finding a truly talented artist to write with can be the most rewarding thing about being a songwriter, getting to spend time with someone with an amazing gift and helping to hone it, and adding some of your own ideas into the bargain. The way someone with a completely different and fresh perspective can take your ideas and filter them through their own influences and vice versa is fascinating, and one of the best reasons to write with others rather than only writing by yourself. When all parties in a session are contributing to that process and the ideas are flowing, that’s where the real goosebumps moments happen for me.
Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read this. I will get back at it soon I promise.