Thoughts on Co-Writing

At first blush, it seemed a bit audacious … an editorial suggestion that I write about co-writing. The plain truth is that I don’t do near as much collaboration as I wish I could. My literally lifelong work as a songwriter has been a mostly solitary affair. I’d like to think that it’s not a matter of being unable to “play well with others” but more of a matter of bad networking skills. Also at play here is the fact that my very narrowly defined job description is to write, sing, and record Bob Bennett songs. I’m not being falsely modest when I tell you there’s not a lot of call for that sort of thing. But on the plus side, I really am the only guy who can do it.

But the few times I’ve co-written with others have been great times. Michael Aguilar on “Come and See”, Tom Prasada-Rao on “The View from Here”, Phillip Sandifer on “Unto the Least of These”, Rick Thomson of Sweet Comfort on “Can You Help Me?” and some recent as-yet-unrecorded adventures with Warren Sellers. (Vanity alert: “Unto the Least of These” is probably my coolest achievement as a songwriter because it was covered by Glen Campbell. When I told my parents, it actually sounded like legitimate gainful employment. Still not a get-rich-scheme, but wonderful nonetheless.)

As I pondered “Solo Songwriter on Collaboration”, I thought maybe I do have a point of view that could be helpful to those who have not done this sort of thing very much, if at all. So, here are some things that occurred to me about what I think might be important.

1) Every songwriter is as unique as his/her fingerprints. In some situations, co-writing can be like a shotgun wedding for songwriters. Surely Nashville is the capital of the Collaborative Songwriting Universe. A couple decades ago, I was intrigued to find that songwriters actually make writing appointments with people they don’t even know (or know only by reputation). In a pre-Skype world where voice phone calls and letters were the only way to connect with someone you hadn’t met yet, a first-meeting-to-write was (and still is) a creative leap of faith. Some folks who’ve been co-writing for a while have regaled me with stories of using fax and phone machines, well before emails and texting made “instantaneous” so, well, instantaneous.

2) I have a tendency to take this stuff personally, and that can cut both ways. Some people in a collaborative situation are only focused on the job at hand. They may not want to visit or grab a coffee to set the scene. Others incorporate a little “getting to know you” as part of the process. In the case of my one and only memorable co-write with Song Jedi Don Henry (“The Kings of Summer Street”), I knew of him but had never actually met him. We had so much fun hanging out and getting to know one another that we had to remember that it was time to hunker down and get to work. But our visiting is what led to the song we wrote. Without that “guy behind the co-write” time, who knows what might or might not have happened. So, be prepared for any eventuality. Of course, be who you are, but be willing to adjust to the temperament of your coworker. I think that’s a primary step in a good collaboration.

Song titles especially can jump-start a session. Part of the beauty of the thing is that something that seems to like a “brick wall” or “chronically unfulfilled promise” to you may hit somebody else’s ears/brain with a usage you hadn’t thought of.

3) Come with ideas if you can. Sometimes you can’t, and there are times when I’ve had to sheepishly admit, “I’m dry as a bone and I don’t have a lot to offer up at the moment.” But remember that you can always “raid the boneyard” of past unused verses and ideas. Song titles especially can jump-start a session. Part of the beauty of the thing is that something that seems to like a “brick wall” or “chronically unfulfilled promise” to you may hit somebody else’s ears/brain with a usage you hadn’t thought of. Their instincts can be the difference, so bring stuff if you can. I also try to ask a co-writer what they’ve been thinking about, their reactions to current events, and ideas where they’re stalled. One of my songwriting heroes is Pierce Pettis. (Do yourself a huge favor and get acquainted with everything he’s ever done.) The title song of his album “Chase the Buffalo” draws an incredible parallel between his creative process of songwriting and the Native American hunt for buffalo. He notes in the lyric that “they found a use for every part,” and the pursuit of songs similarly can makes use of almost everything: “There is music in all this / It is all material”.

4) Sometimes before getting down to working there might be a need to discreetly cover each writer’s current publishing commitments. Most of the time it seems that the rule of thumb is to evenly split the credit (and, if applicable and available, the publishing) by the number of writers unless there’s a distinct reason to do otherwise. The reason for touching on this is important, not only because knowing these parameters is never a bad idea … they say “good fences make good neighbors” … but it also leads to the next point.

5) While not a hard and fast rule, a co-write is often split 50-50 regardless of who did what and how much they contributed. Unless your co-writer spends the entire session on their smartphone or camped out next to a snack machine in a hallway, what you’re primarily after is the creative chemistry of your partnership. I once had a successful co-write where I’m pretty sure I did most of the lyric writing as well as a good chunk of the music. But, the other writer’s contribution was absolutely essential. He came up with the title and direction, and as I wrote furiously he helped me vet what I was doing. Sometimes simply passing muster with your collaborator is a really good acid test for “Are we getting somewhere with this?” So, unless something plainly off-kilter takes place, it’s best to resist the urge to count who wrote what lines or suggested a bridge or realized it worked better to start the song with the second verse, etc. For some reason (maybe my own vanity or neediness), I have a tendency to be pretty productive in the presence of co-writers. I thrive on being on the creative hunt with another hunter who has my back.

Sometimes a bad line that makes you laugh leads to the good line that makes you cry.

6) Whether longtime friend or new acquaintance try to, as they say, check your pride at the door. Part of the hunt for a great song is to clear away the dross that inevitably comes up to get to the good stuff. That means being willing to suggest directions or write less-than-stellar lines to move things along. I often refer to these obviously-not-quite-right lines as “placeholders”. Daring to be stupid is something I have a natural knack for. Sometimes a bad line that makes you laugh leads to the good line that makes you cry. For me the trick is to strike the balance between as-we-go editing and the ruthless, cold-light-of-day rewrites required near the end of the process. In my songwriting aesthetic, if I may employ such a lofty moniker, each syllable and word needs to earn it’s keep. It needs to stand up to scrutiny, beat out other substitutions, etc. Part of common courtesy sometimes is to simply get to the point. I sometimes explain to co-writers that I have a shoot-first, Godzilla approach. My tendency is to be in troubleshooting mode a lot of the time, and that sometimes can be interpreted as my being a guy who’s rarely satisfied with anything. But if something “kind of sucks”, we’re duty-bound to be honest with the other writer (and ourselves) and to not take that personally. Everything is in service to the goal of fashioning as great a song as we can. You don’t want to be a jerk about it, but shooting straight usually serves best. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s succinct advice that, creatively speaking, you must be willing to “murder your darlings” applies whether alone or in tandem with others. My line for Christian songwriters is to say that, “When you’re writing about the sacred, nothing is sacred!” Meaning that editing and even discarding ideas borne of wonderful transcendent experiences or motives is not a betrayal of those stimuli/inspirations. Sometimes we equate inspiration and spontaneity with a premature, “this is right, go no further.” Sometimes yes, but a good deal of the time it’s more like, “hey not so fast.” Tinkering and rewriting just make good sense in the pursuit of excellence.

7) Of course, if you’re tasked with writing a specific kind of song for a specific kind of audience, that’s never a bad thing to have in view, as long as the “conventions” of that goal don’t hamstring you in the creative process. In crafting a faith-based lyric, there are the religious equivalents of “moon and June” clichés. On the other hand, if someone is expecting a righteous cheeseburger, even a really good fish sandwich probably won’t work. But if you’re just on the hunt for “a good song” with no firm goals, then it’s a fun time to let it fly and go where you will.

8) I approach songwriting in a “this means war” footing. Meaning that whatever gets the job done can be employed. Rhyming dictionary, thesaurus, sometimes listening to a prior song as both inspiration and to know what to avoid to safely reinvent that particular wheel. One of the ways to prepare for a songwriting appointment is to listen to some great songs on the drive over to wherever you’re meeting. For me, this gives me hope that listening to great songs might beget great songs. If you were to assemble a desert-island playlist of exemplar songs for the art and craft of songwriting, what would those be? Keep those great songs at the ready to prime the pump. It’s said that training a bank teller to spot fake bills is less a matter of studying counterfeits and more a matter of attentively handling real currency.

9) Writing for somebody other than this “Bob Bennett” character allows me to play “musical dress-up”. I can write about things that might not necessarily be “me”. I can inhabit characters who are not me. It’s really fun to do this. Everybody’s permission grid is different, but I think a songwriter who is a Christ-follower has the broadest artistic mandate, not the most restrictive.

10) Determining whether to embrace or avoid the lyrical path of least resistance is an important thing to keep in mind in all songwriting. Sometimes the best way to say something is indirectly. I’m a big proponent of giving the listener something to do and think about as they listen. I try to not rob the listener of the joy of discovery and a sense of identification, even a type of ownership in what I write. The best songs give the listener a place at the creative table. The listener is, in a real sense, the final “co-writer” of a song, as they can’t help but bring their point-of-view to what they’re hearing. This is part of sacred bargain of songwriting that I really cherish.

At a certain point, you may need to “let go” of a song and send it out into the world-at-large.

11) As always when I hit “send” to submit an article, I’ll probably think of a better way to say some of these things or have ideas about what I should’ve included or left out. That leads me to my last item. At a certain point, you may need to “let go” of a song and send it out into the world-at-large. You can’t serve up a meal that never actually makes it out of the kitchen. To this day, I hear songs I’ve written and recorded and worry about how they might’ve been better. In my case, I sometimes still rewrite them to improve whatever I can. I’m not monkeying with Scripture. They’re my songs and they can stand to be rejuvenated. If symphonies can have variances across the life of a composer, why not me? But sometimes, like a photograph, a song captures a moment in time of experience and creativity. Even if you’re having a less than good hair-day, the photo eventually “is what it is” and you can move on. You’ll likely live to write another day.

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