November 2019

Thomas in Philadelphia asks about co-writing and collaborating. While my writing tends to be very personal, I’ve also benefited greatly from collaborations over the years. If you’re in a band, of course, you’re often going to end up co-writing on some level. When I compose a song, even if it’s very complete in my mind, it’s really more akin to a visual artist’s pencil sketch than a fully realized landscape painting. Yes, you can see the broad outlines–the bridge, the river, the trees–but you don’t know the colors and many of the details that really fill things out and provide the nuance and richness of the composition. Once the drummer comes up with a drum part and percussion, the bassist develops a bass line, the violin and trumpet work up their solos and backing parts, and I’ve added extra guitars and perhaps changed bits here and there to suit suggestions from the others, it becomes something different from what I initially brought into the rehearsal room.

But I’ve also worked with other songwriters on more classic collaborations along the lines of Tin Pan Alley in New York around the turn of the last century, the Brill Building in the 1950s and ’60s, or Music Row in Nashville today. In those situations, I like bouncing ideas off another person and getting immediate feedback. If you start with a concept and just start riffing on words and lines, you can often come up with something that’s better than what you might have done on your own.

Recently, a friend and I co-wrote a silly country song called Between Wives, an the idea that was sparked when I overheard an acquaintance say, „Yeah, I’m between wives right now.“ So we started musing about what a couple of old guys who’ve been married multiple times might have to talk about, and we came up with the concept of a duet in which they complain about their failed relationships. We each tossed out various ideas such as how the marriages went bad and sordid details of the women they’d married. (Guy 1: My fourth wife was a dancer / Guy 2: My fifth worked in a school / Guy 1: She waltzed with all the fellas / Guy 2: Mine taught me I was a fool ). I could probably have come up with a lot of that material, or something similar, on my own, but it was much more fun working with a co-writer, and likely faster (we got a draft of the song that was pretty close to final in just a couple of hours).

I’ve also done what you might call a lighter version of co-writing, in which a friend and I come up with a few words or a line and challenge each other to include it in a song. In one instance a couple of years ago, shortly after one of Donald Trump’s underlings had coined the phrase „Alternative Facts,“ I suggested we try that. A couple of weeks later I came up with a lament about failed love that had nothing to do with the U.S. president. My co-writer then suggested we try writing something that begins with the words „She drinks.“ It didn’t take me long to come up with the opening line, „She drinks to remember / He drinks to forget,“ from which I was able to put together a song of betrayal and heartbreak–a deeply personal song that was entirely my own, but which had been sparked by the challenge from my friend (whose own composition could hardly have been more different).

Even if you write personal songs, it’s never a bad idea to have input from others, either through the entire process or just to spawn ideas. If you don’t know other musicians, try going to a local open mic or joining a songwriting group online. It’s easy to find willing collaborators. And you can always find someone to simply listen and give suggestions (I often play my songs for band members and others and ask them to critique them, and they almost always get better after I take their comments on board). However you do it, I strongly recommend giving co-writing a try.

Happy SongwRxiting!
The Lyrics Doctor