Several artists on my email list wanted to learn more about the ins and outs of co-writing. For this post, I tapped my good friend and Decca recording artists, Jarrod Dickenson. Jarrod is a fantastic songwriter in his own right but has plenty of experience co-writing too. Enjoy! – Chris
Songwriting is a strange and mysterious beast. For many artists, this is the place where they can process information and events, work through personal struggles, pour out their innermost feelings or finally ‘be themselves’. It’s an intimate, emotional, often harrowing process. So, imagine adding someone else, possibly a total stranger to these proceedings… Yikes – co-writing!
As you may have guessed, I have a love/hate relationship with co-writing. I’ve had some amazing experiences where everything came together perfectly and resulted in songs that I love and play every night. I’ve also had sessions where, for a variety of reasons, it just wasn’t working, and those moments are as uncomfortable and cringe-worthy as it gets. When that happens you can’t think of anything beyond
“How the hell can I get out of this room?”
So, let’s get down and dirty, shall we? We’ll start with the bad stuff so we can end on a high note.
CONS OF CO-WRITING
It just is. There’s no getting around it. Even in the best sessions, the first few minutes, when you are offering up your ideas for the first time are going to be uncomfortable. In good sessions, you get through that point, and things start moving. In bad sessions that feeling never leaves.
Opinions and Philosophies Differ
People have different ideas about what makes a song ‘good’. These inherent differences of opinion or of songwriting philosophy can make for long, grueling and unfruitful co-writing sessions. You may want to write a thoughtful, well-crafted song full of soul and substance, but your co-writing partner may want to pound out the next mindless pile of pop-country slop. If you’re not on the same page, chances are the song that comes out of the session isn’t going to make either of you happy.
Too Many Cooks In The Kitchen
There are moments when you are onto something. A brilliant line is just on the tip of your tongue, but your co-writing partner keeps spitting out other ideas that hinder your mind from getting to the place you can feel you are so very close to getting. Sometimes all you need is a quiet few minutes alone to get what you’re after, and this can be rather difficult if there’s someone else in the room… particularly if they insist on opening their mouths.
You Don’t Own The Entire Song
Now, this is not something I particularly care about, and I will absolutely judge you as a money-grabbing bastard who isn’t in it for the right reasons if you do, but it could be considered a con nonetheless.
PROS OF CO-WRITING
Another Brain At Work
One great thing about co-writing is you have another mind at work trying to crack the code. Your co-writing partner will almost certainly have a different set of influences and musical experiences from which to draw (or at least a different take on the same influences), as well as different tendencies with melodies, chord progressions, sentence structures, etc. When co-writing goes well, your partner will offer ideas that you may never have found on your own that elevate the song to a higher level.
It Forces You To Work
Writers are all the same. Every last one of us will try to find virtually anything else to do besides write. Writing is hard. No one likes doing things that are hard, so we put it off. We procrastinate. We pretend we just don’t have any inspiration and tell ourselves we’ll sit down at the writing table when that changes… If you are sitting directly across from someone else, staring them in the eyes, it’s far more difficult to put off the task until a later date.
It Forces You To Work Harder
No one likes to be the weak link. If your partner is offering up good ideas, good lines, you want to contribute. You want to walk away from the session feeling like you pulled your weight. In fact, you want your lines to be better than their lines. It’s like a friendly competition… and no one likes losing.
It Gets The Juices Flowing
One thing I’ve found from co-writing is that regardless of the outcome of your session, it gets your own creative juices flowing. There have been several occasions where I left a co-writing session that was a massive failure in my opinion, but when I went home I ended up writing a completely different song that I was excited about. Sometimes the simple act of writing a terrible song with someone else gets your brain working in a way that allows your own creative gears to start moving.
A FEW TIPS…
Don’t Bring Your Best Idea
Unless you are writing with someone you know and trust, maybe don’t bring the best idea you’ve got that you’re super excited about to the session. In my experience, when writing with strangers, the idea that I was really excited about turned into something completely different, and not at all what I wanted. When that happens, it’s a sinking feeling, because you feel like you lost something in the session rather than having gained.
Go In With An Open Mind
You never know what will come out of a session, or what will come after a session. Go into it with a positive attitude, and you might be pleasantly surprised.
Write With A Friend
My most fruitful co-writing sessions have been ones with close friends whose music I dig, whose opinions I respect and whose ideas about what makes a song ‘good’ jive with mine.
In my experience, it’s fairly simple. If two of you wrote the song together, it’s a 50/50 split. If there were three of you involved, each gets a third, and so on. The only times this hasn’t been the case for me were a couple of occasions where I had basically an entire song written except for, say, a bridge or a final verse. I co-wrote that last piece of the puzzle with someone else, and they kindly suggested they only get a third of the song since the bulk of it was already completed.
Now, obviously, you could try to break it down line by line and say “I wrote this”, “You wrote that”, then use some complex mathematical equation to figure out exactly how much each of you should own. Personally, I always loathed math, and I think there’s a special place in Hell for people who are that calculating, and want to make absolutely certain they haven’t missed a single penny that could be theirs.
But hey… it’s your call, hot-shot. I say talk it out, don’t be greedy and focus on trying to write the best song you possibly can. The world could use more great songs. It doesn’t need any more money-hungry assholes.
So, there you have it. As I said before, songwriting is a strange and mysterious beast. Adding others to this equation certainly presents its challenges, and it doesn’t always work, but it can also be a wonderful, useful and educational experience. I highly recommend giving it a go… just go in with the right mindset and expectations.