A collaborative songwriting session is a nerve-racking process for most creatives! It challenges the control freak, pulls the introvert out of their comfort-zone and surprises even the most seasoned writer. The goal is to come out with a song that is mutually adored, that you can put out into the world as a representation of you and your legacy.
There are books and books that unpack the technical aspects of songwriting (in fact, I have an article in the works that detail my songwriting process), but much fewer pieces explore the more social aspect of making making music: the art of collaboration, which is arguably just as important.
Walking into a room with a stranger and expressing your truest self off the bat is a nuanced process. It’s easy to become overwhelmed, to withdraw, to feel misunderstood, or to butt heads with your collaborator. I have 10 tried and tested tips on how to minimise these occurrences and how to make the most of your songwriting sessions!
1. BE SELECTIVE. This is perhaps the most obvious of the tips, but you’d be surprised at how important it is. At the start of my career, I was so eager to learn how to collaborate that I would write with any and everyone. Whilst this is theoretically the quickest way to learn, it’s also the quickest way to become unenthused and uninspired. Making music is a special process. For a very short while, I think it’s important to “try everything”. It’s a natural troubleshooting exercise that will help you realise what you do and don’t like in a collaborator, and will allow you find a a tight-knit community of like-minded people that you can regularly make music with. But then, it’s important to select. Do your research about writers being suggested to you. Listen to their catalogue before saying yes. Have a clear sense of who’s project you’ll be writing for. Most importantly, make sure you’re genuinely excited about the prospect of working with them. If you’re not in love with what the other person does, chances are you won’t respect their process or opinion when it differs from yours. So often have I ended up in a room with someone I had nothing creatively in common with, purely because they had been suggested to me. It wasted time, and more drastically, it diluted the quality of songs I was writing because I was spreading myself so thin. Quality, not quantity is a cliché for a reason! I definitely notice the difference between unique writers and more “generic” ones, and it’s their level of selectivity. Don’t be scared to be rare.
2. LISTEN. When you walk into a session, start by bumping some tracks that both of you are excited about. Whether it’s your own music, or things on Apple Music / Spotify that you’ve been listening to recently. Why? – You’ll get a good idea of what your collaborator is currently inspired by. This gives you a frame of reference for when you begin working on your track. – It re-inspires. I’ve compared the way I write music when I consume other art beforehand, to when I create straight off the bat and I always find that the best songs come from the former. – Often my eyes have been opened to musicians and bands I would have perhaps otherwise never stumbled across. Learning by word of mouth from your peers is very culturally powerful, and it has so often affected and grown the way I write my music. – Sharing music in a common space allows you to sync up creatively with the other person/people. There’s a kind of an intangible bond that’s formed when you’re both listening to and enjoying the same song. If from the outset, you’ve aligned your creative energy by appreciating music together, you’re more likely to be on the same page when writing. It sounds a little peace-and-love-hippie, but in truth, most musicians are hyper-sensitive to vibrations, especially in a creative environment.
3. COMPROMISE AND COMMUNICATE. Whilst you may be used to having control in your music-making process, when working with another person, it’s really important to hold space for their opinions and to compromise. You’ve agreed to work with this person because they have a unique set of skills or approach that they bring to the table. This is the whole purpose of collaborating, and also why it’s so important to be selective with your collaborators: if you have a mutual respect, you’ll find it easier to trust them in times of conflict, and will naturally be more willing to find a solution that you’re both happy with. If you find that one of you is consistently saying no and the other one is constantly conceding, you’ll create an imbalanced and unsustainable dynamic. In saying this, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak up. No one likes a Yes Man. It’s important to challenge and push each other. Don’t be afraid to communicate a frank opinion. If you’ve tried their suggestion and don’t think it works, perhaps suggest an alternative. There’s an appropriate way to do this, given that you want to facilitate openness and acceptance. It’s important that everyone feels respected appreciated. If after a while of brainstorming you both haven’t produced a better idea than the one your collaborator originally had, perhaps stick to that idea and flag it as something to come back to at a later time.
4. TRY THINGS. I was debating whether or not to put this as a dot point under the last subtitle. Let’s think of “TRY THINGS” as “COMPROMISE”s first cousin. It’s important to try things creatively that you wouldn’t have thought to otherwise. As a songwriter, I’ve worked with artists that will respond to a suggestion of mine with “it’s cool, but it’s not me”. Whilst I don’t always discourage that response (it’s definitely important to be specific and aware of what’s “you” as an artist), a lot of the time people limit themselves to the confines of their comfort zone, and it’s actually less to do with their artistry than with them being afraid to experiment and explore a new facet of themselves. Know the difference between trying new things, and misrepresenting yourself. There’s a fine line, but they’re different. It can be disappointing when an artist you love never sonically evolves, or just constantly puts the same kind of song out. Personally, I never want to write the same song twice, so I’m open to nuances that give a song an original life.
5. AUTOTUNE, A MUSICIAN’S FRENEMY. People are terrified of Autotune. It’s definitely a trigger word in many music communities. So this tip isn’t a blanket statement, (none of these tips are, to be honest) but I find that autotune is an undervalued commodity that can be really useful in the early stages of writing a song. When the top liner (top liner = the person writing lyrics and melodies) is wanting to freestyle some melodies or put a rough idea down, it can really elucidate the potential of the melodies if any initial vocal errors/pitchy notes are corrected. If it’s live autotune, it can also make the artist more comfortable/free them up to explore unconventional melodies when they’re freestyle. I recommend every producer having autotune on their computer when they’re doing a session with a top liner. It can be frustrating as an artist when I’m in a session and the producer doesn’t have autotune. Whether it’s Antares, Waves, Melodyne or a built-in one, any work (especially if it’s just an initial aid that will be taken off later). Autotune is also a great way for a producer who’s not necessarily comfortable singing, to have some kind of melodic input and to be able to convey it correctly without feeling self conscious.
Whilst I’m on the subject of resources: having a microphone handy at the studio or working space is also something that sounds like a given, but is sometimes overlooked. It doesn’t need to be expensive, just something that allows the writer to get their thoughts down. This is important so that there’s cohesion in the collaboration. If an artist is just singing into the room the whole time, the producer doesn’t have the vocals handy and it becomes hard to visualise how to complement the instruments with the vocal.
6. FINISH THE SONG. The title speaks for itself. I’ve learned the hard way that if you and your collaborator part ways before a song is completed, it will rarely ever be finished. If you bounce a half-cooked song, it will be hard to solicit a solid opinion from your respective teams… they most likely won’t hear what the song is supposed to sound like (note: it’s much harder for others to imagine the finished product than it is for you) and so you often won’t be incentivised to make time with your collaborator to finish it. Also, schedules conflict and working remote on tracks can be really hard and time consuming. When you’re in the same space with all the resources, why not make the most of it? I’m not suggesting you need to walk out of the room with the final vocals and production totally complete. Just that a guide vocal, the structure, lyrics, melody, percussion rhythms and chords are down. The production sounds can be changed and built upon, lyrics and melodies and structure can all be edited, finessed and amended, but a starting point is essential.
7. DON’T OVERTHINK. Sitting on your ideas for too long, whether you’re the producer or the artist, can often perpetuate any feeling of nervousness and lead to writer’s block. I have a rule in my sessions: put something down within the first fifteen minutes. It eliminates any tendency of mine as a perfectionist to “ruminate” and it creates an open energy where everyone feels free to make off-the-cuff suggestions. Having that free-flow is what creates magic. As well as alleviating any initial tension and pressure, it also gives both parties something to work with straight away. Ideas build upon each other. The track can gradually change in direction, and so sometimes the melody I put down doesn’t end up on the final product. That’s ok. Whilst getting ideas down early is a good idea, it’s important not to get too attached. Often in my opinion the first idea is the best idea because it’s the most natural, but things can always be improved upon and amended: always be open to another better idea.
8. TAKE A BREAK. Often I hit a creative wall in a session and find myself pushing something out for the sake of it. Don’t dwell on a piece of the puzzle that you can’t yet find. Forcing an idea will never allow that section of the song to reach its full potential in my opinion. You can always tell when something’s calculated vs. authentic. In saying that, I think it’s definitely important to be strategic in your songwriting process, it’s just essential to never compromise the natural inspiration for the technicalities. but I’ll cover that more in my article on songwriting. So take a break, go for a coffee, or start something new. Time away or new sounds will always give you fresh ears. Often what won’t come to me in that moment will come out of nowhere in the next little while.
9. SPLITS. It’s easy to get caught up on splits even though often it’s less about the money and more about “the principle”. I’ve found that if people are in the room and making any kind of significant contribution, equal splits is a really good way to do things. Often the musician’s publisher or manager will suggest splitting the song based on the specific contribution of each individual, but the way I look at it is, if each of the people hadn’t been in the room, the song wouldn’t have been created. Sometimes you’ll do more of the work in a session, sometimes you’ll do less, and it ultimately balances out. I think getting too specific when it’s all still quite subjective can damage relationships, and it’s not worth it. NB: There are obviously always exceptions to this. It’s always nice to have members of your teams talk amongst themselves and organise this for you, but if you don’t yet have a team, it is definitely important to clarify splits soon after the session. It can get unnecessarily messy if there’s a misunderstanding in this department at a later point.
10. CONFIDENCE. Be confident! If you’re inclined to be shy, remember that your collaborator wanted to work with you enough that they made time to spend the day with you! It’s a vulnerable space for everyone, and it’s ok to ease into the process. It’s fine to be honest about the way that you’re feeling, it often reduces your anxiety and leads to a much more open, self-expressive session. If you feel misunderstood or judged by your collaborator, don’t take it personally or let that discourage you from collaborations or belief in your abilities. You’re not going to have a creative chemistry with everyone, art is VERY subjective.
Those are my 10 tips on how to get the most out of a songwriting session! Hope they’re helpful.