co-writing

On Co-Writing

artist, creativity, music, songwriting

Last weekend, I was walking around Treptower Park with a musician friend, and he was talking about a song he had co-written with someone else. He seemed under the impression that co-writing is a bit of a cop-out, like something you do when you can’t write a song by yourself. Maybe that was partly the reason why he later rewrote the lyrics to the song that was originally at least somewhat of a collaborative effort (it turned out to be a damn good song nonetheless).

I’ve definitely met other musicians who share this opinion – for whom writing is a strictly personal business and whose songs seem too private to share with anyone else. And I get it. My songs are personal, I spill my whole life onto the page in vivid detail. But that doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally enjoy letting others into my writing process. I think that some of the best songs I’ve written have been written with other people, and I don’t believe it makes me any less of a good songwriter. Quite the opposite.

I’ve written with both good and bad songwriters, and I’ve always come out of the session a better version of myself. You learn to communicate your ideas and be vulnerable, you see new songwriting techniques or guitar riffs, you get to work with someone in a profession that can feel extremely self-involved, you learn to be more efficient. On top of that, you might come up with a great song. If this all sounds good, here are some tips on co-writing that will hopefully kick your ass into gear enough to want to try it:


1. Choose a co-writer wisely.


If you’re at a songwriting workshop, you probably won’t even get to choose who to write with. But on average, you have three options when choosing someone to write with. You can choose someone you know well and click with, someone you respect but don’t really know, or someone you want to write with purely because it might open some doors. Some people are overly focused on the aspect of networking and end up writing with people they dislike just to get more followers or to break into a new part of the industry. If that’s what you want – fine, but be honest with yourself about your intentions. For first co-writes, it’s better to go with someone you know and trust.


2. Don’t plunge into the writing session straight away.


Even if you’re writing with someone you know well, writing a song together can feel a little awkward at first. Don’t rush it. Make sure that when you schedule a writing session, you cut out at least three hours for it, so you can spend the first one faffing about, catching up on news, and talking shit. There’s a big chance a songwriting idea will flow out of that conversation naturally, propelling you into writing your song. Give each other time. Give your ideas space to breathe.


3. Come in with some ready ideas.


If this is your first co-writing session, you’ll probably be nervous as all hell. That’s okay and it will get better, but the best way to handle it, for now, is to come prepared. Coming in with a fully formed song defeats the purpose of a co-writing session, but it will help you to have something written down. Think lyric ideas, a chord progression, writing prompts on specific topics you want to write about (don’t say you want to write a love song, but saying you want to write about how your ex loved his boat more than you would be a good starting point). Have a quick brainstorm before the writing session.

Besides, there are no rules about what you should be writing in a co-writing session. No one said you should write a song from scratch. Maybe you need help finishing an old song, or you want someone to help you write a hook or to co-write the lyrics. Just be clear about this with your co-writer before you walk into the session.


4. Don’t be afraid of voicing your ideas and hearing they’re bad. Don’t be afraid of telling others when you think they’re full of shit, either.


Co-writing can be brutal. I’ve had my ideas shot down by others a fair few times. I have a friend that I have written with several times, who absolutely HATES it when I’m being too obvious in my lyrics. “Curry stains on your jeans? Do we have to put that in?” he’ll ask, and I’ll nod enthusiastically. And he loves metaphors, which I’m not too fond of. “No one will know what this means,” I’ll say about a lyric about a figurative roundabout. In the end, we make our songs better because we balance each other out. He makes me more poetic, and I bring him down to earth (I think).

But if we always accepted each other’s ideas blindly, we’d end up with half-assed songs that are neither here nor there. We need to be honest with each other, and it’s not as scary as you might think if you do it respectfully. And feedback can open your eyes to what makes you you. I didn’t realise that being direct was my thing until several songwriters chuckled at the openness in my lyrics. Some songwriters believe that writing with others will somehow diminish their songwriting voice, but it will only amplify it because it’s through dialogue that you’ll discover who you are as a songwriter.


5. Embrace new things.


If you go into a co-writing session wanting to write a song like all your other songs, you’ll fail. If you go into the session with a preconceived idea of what you want to come out with, or thinking you have nothing to learn from the person you’re writing with, you’ll fail. But if you walk into the room with an open mind, an open heart, and the willingness not to be perfect, beautiful things might unfold.

You don’t have to agree with every idea, and like I’ve mentioned above, it’s important to let the other person know when you don’t like something. But ask yourself why. Try it out before you shoot it down. You might like that jazzy chord progression even if you thought it wouldn’t fit your style, you might want an egg shaker on your recording, or some lyrics in Portuguese. Why the hell not.


6. It’s not just about the song.


A co-writing session is never just about the song you write, so don’t discard the session as a failure if a great hit doesn’t come out of it. Sometimes, co-writing is about learning from each other, exchanging ideas, or just making a connection. Sometimes, it’s about getting a tarot reading first and writing some lyrics second. And not every session will be successful, and that might just be because one of you is having an off day. Don’t pressure yourself and trust the process. What needs to come will come.


7. Follow up if you haven’t finished the song and you think it’s good.


It’s easy to reach the end of the session and promise each other you’ll get together soon and finish it. You won’t. It’s like running into that friend you keep cancelling on and saying: “Yes, let’s totally meet up for coffee next week!” Co-writes have the tendency to fade from your memory, you never quite get around to calling that person you almost finished the song with. Or when you do get together, it’s invariably to do something other than writing. So, if you end up writing something you like, but you run out of time before you finish it, follow up that same week. Do it while the song is fresh and you’re still excited about it.


8. Be clear on the splits from the outset.


Something all songwriters ignore until it’s too late: copyright. Traditionally, if there are two of you in the session, the split will be 50/50. But if you want to be absolutely clear, you might want to discuss this before you start writing or at least before you’ve recorded the song, and you want to put it in writing. Here’s the Song Share Agreement drawn up by the Musicians’ Union. And that thing people say about how if the person’s in the room, they get a part of the split? Yeah, not a myth.

If you have any questions about co-writing, or you want to tell me about your own experience, let me know in the comments! Also, while I’m at it, there is one week left of the November Songwriting Month – sign up if you want emails with songwriting prompts, tips, and learning resources in your inbox. Or just sign up to my mailing list for some half-finished lyrics, music news, and more songwriting musings.

does-music-education-matter

Does Music Education Matter?

artist, music, songwriting

I remember how I decided to study Songwriting almost three years ago. It didn’t involve as much decision-making as thinking “oh why the hell not”. The reason I’m publishing this post now, and not when most teenagers decide on a university, is because I enrolled in my course in September, during freshers’ week. It’s to say it’s not too late for those who are still trying to figure out what they’re going to do. And why you should take the leap. Or shouldn’t.

I had just started my Law Degree when my mother stormed into my dorm room and cried out: “If you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to!” She has a flair for the dramatic that I have inherited because I immediately proclaimed that studying law seemed akin to torture (even though I had been very enthusiastic about it up until my first lecture) and wanted to live my life and seize the day. An hour later, I was on the phone to BIMM London to check if they still had any spaces left. I moved to London at the end of the week.

For me, studying Songwriting was not a conscious decision. It was an escape from a career path that would have led to a 9 to 5 job, and to the nineteen-year-old me, being a musician sounded thrilling and adventurous. Those aren’t great reasons for starting a degree, though, which is why at the end of my first year, I was already thinking of dropping out.

I didn’t think I belonged, I didn’t know what I was there for, and it was costing me a lot of money. To top it off, as a music student, your music will be criticised constantly, your artistic persona questioned, and your integrity compromised. When you don’t have a clear idea of what you’re doing there in the first place, those things can be hard to deal with.

After a lot of journalling, talking with my ever so patient ex-boyfriend, and arguing with my parents, I decided to stick with it and go in for a second year. But this time, go all in. I worked hard on my assignments, was more involved in social life, started recording my own music and playing with other musicians. I started to have faith in the process. And at the end of my second year, I started understanding why music education could be beneficial, and it became clearer to me what I’d learnt. For those of you interested in pursuing music education, here is what it did for me:


1. It made me more professional.

In a lot of different ways. Before starting the course, I didn’t know how to communicate with other musicians – I didn’t know the difference between melody and harmony, I had never heard of Ableton, I had never tried writing with other songwriters. During my studies, I learnt to hear the difference between a good recording and a sloppy one, I started setting higher standards for myself, I started carrying myself with more confidence at gigs. These are all things that musicians can learn on their own if they take themselves seriously enough, though. Which leads me to another point:


2. It gave me the license to take my music seriously.

No one is ever going to question that medicine is important for mankind. Or that we need teachers, scientists, and engineers. But somehow, even though everyone spent lockdown watching films, listening to music, and reading, the importance of culture gets questioned every day. So, growing up in that environment, I always considered music to be a hobby and could never see it as something I could pursue full time. But doing a degree in Songwriting left me no other option but to work on my songs in earnest. And when people asked what I did, I didn’t feel as stupid saying I was a singer-songwriter anymore.


3. It forced me out of my comfort zone.

Until my first year at BIMM, I was confident I knew what ‘my sound’ was. I don’t know why I was so certain about it, since I had never changed my sound and was reluctant about trying something new. But our assignments included writing for other musicians, and I had to let go of my ego and start writing in new and different ways. I was forced to experiment for the first time, and to my surprise, I enjoyed it. I found out I liked music production, and that my music sounds better with a bigger arrangement. I tried different kinds of singing. Again, this kind of experimentation comes naturally to some people, but I’m not one of them.


4. I’ve met like-minded people that will support me on my journey.

This one is a double-edged sword. In my first year, I hated being surrounded by so many good musicians because it made me question my worth. I started comparing myself to everyone and tried to keep up, even though every artist has their own trajectory and each of us moves at a different pace. Once I came to terms with that knowledge, it became easier to make friends, and I noticed that most of us had the same doubts. I discovered the joy of having friends who understand why you’re passionate about music, who don’t judge you for not having a ‘proper career’, and who take your music seriously. Most people talk about networking in uni, but to me, it was about finding a group of people that make me feel like I belong.


5. I learnt about the music business and branding.

Like any other musician, I’d rather pretend the business side of music doesn’t exist. However, in university, a big part of my curriculum is based around the music business, branding, my image as an artist, etc. It made me consider things I’d never considered important before. At one of the tutorials about my release strategy, my tutor told me my covers were my problem because they didn’t look folky enough, so I couldn’t attract the following that would be interested in my songs. It was not something I had previously considered – I was only thinking about my cover being pretty, not about all the connotations that go along with it.

I didn’t know what a music publisher was, and all I knew about labels was that they signed people. It seems like some basic research could fix most of these issues, but there’s a lot to being a musician – the legal framework, the marketing side of it, the practical stuff like music distribution, and tour planning that musicians can’t be bothered with until they’re forced to.


I don’t think that music education is a necessity for people who have the self-discipline to work on their craft every day with no outside incentive. But, let’s face it, that’s not how most of us function. Most of us just want to plop down on the couch in the evening and watch some Netflix. Music education provides me with the necessary motivation I need and provides me with the feedback I need. If you think you can do it alone, go for it. But if you don’t… it’s fun to do it together.