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.

nanowrimo-songwriting-november

NOVEMBER SONGWRITING MONTH ANNOUNCEMENT

artist, creativity, music, productivity, songwriting

Hi everyone!

I have always been a massive fan of NaNoWriMo, where writers commit to writing a novel in a month, but it recently occurred to me that there was no such thing for songwriters… This is why I spent the last couple weeks putting together emails with songwriting prompts, writing inspiration, and interesting links. The idea is that if you sign up for the November Songwriting Month mailing list, you’ll receive a dose of daily inspiration to help you achieve your songwriting goals for the month. And if you’re in dire need of a songwriting community now that this pandemic has scattered us all over the world, there is also a Facebook group where you can share your stuff and give others feedback.

Happy writing!

Erika x

inspiration-journal-songwriting

Why I Have an Inspiration Journal

artist, creativity, music, productivity, songwriting

In Belgium, I had a mystery drawer with Post-its with ideas and words that I like. On my bookshelves, I had dozens of dog-eared books with index cards between the pages, writings in the margins, and underlined sentences. I had cutouts of articles I’ve read, poems on my walls, photos of places and friends, and postcards with my favourite paintings. My childhood bedroom was a shrine to creativity. Maybe also a hoarder’s paradise.

When I started moving around, it became hard to acquire stuff – index cards got lost, books were too heavy to cart around, and I didn’t have walls to decorate with paraphernalia anymore. My bedroom was never as over-the-top as Florence Welch’s house, but looking around always filled me with inspiration. If I was feeling stuck, or couldn’t get past the terror of the blank page in my songbook, I could always start from a picture on the wall or a word in someone else’s poem.

I came up with a new system when I moved to a hostel in London, though calling it a system is probably overselling it. I started writing down phrases from books I liked, copying poems, and drying flowers in between the pages of a journal. After a while, I started taking leaflets from galleries and cutting out drawings to paste into my notebook. And in between the art I admired, I wrote my own songs, that had started from a line in a poem or an idea I got from a quote. I called it my inspiration journal.

A blank page is always daunting, but having an inspiration journal, or an inspiration nook where you keep some poetry books and lists of interesting rhymes on hand, can give you a starting point to write from. It can also encourage you to read more, go to museums once in a while, and watch more films. It can make you a better listener and reader, as well as a better songwriter. Here are some ideas on how to fill your journal and what you can do with it:


1. Fill it with poetry and interesting sentences.


Read poetry, listen closely to lyrics, study fiction. As songwriters, we are always on the lookout for beautiful turns of phrase, and unique metaphors. I find autobiographical essays a great source of inspiration, too – some of my favourite writers are Joan Didion, Deborah Levy, and Olivia Laing. But don’t just write down stuff that sounds good. Write down the words that spark your imagination. For different songwriters, that will mean different things. I’ve written down quotes about lightbulbs that didn’t work and turmeric in the kitchen because I wanted to use similar details in my own lyrics.


2. Make lists of words.

As a folk songwriter, I like telling stories in my songs. But to make them come to life, I need descriptive, meaningful words. Most of us can make do with the words in our current vocabulary, but as writers, we need to do better than that. We want to be in a place where we can choose from a pool of words that might mean the same thing, but roll of our tongues in different ways, leave a new taste in our mouths. Jimmy Webb even goes as far as to suggest we read a dictionary back-to-back.


Few of us are naturally inclined to sit and read an entire dictionary (like Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate for example, at fourteen hundred pages) but I will advance the argument that a writer who attempts to write prose, poetry, song lyrics or automobile advertising without a vocabulary of suitable depth is entering a tournament of wits unarmed. I will go one step further and say that if there is any intrinsic merit in curiosity then we should read at least one dictionary from aardvark to Zwolle (a city in the Netherlands).

Jimmy Webb, “Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting”

I have not attempted this yet, although I intend to read a dictionary someday. I do keep lists of interesting words I come across and original rhymes I see or think of in my notebook, though. I use them for writing lyrics, for moving the story plot along, finding unpredictable rhymes, etc.


3. Cut out paintings, paste in photographs, let a friend draw in your journal.


Writing from an image is a valuable exercise for songwriters in a rut. It can provide a change in your current songwriting process, bring imagery into stale lyrics, or evoke emotions that will make you think of a brilliant melody. I don’t often use this method because I’m not much of a visual person, but I have friends who swear by it. I recommend cutting out photos of paintings from museum or gallery leaflets, pasting in photographs, and even letting friends draw in your notebook. I have let friends do that before who weren’t good at drawing at all – it doesn’t always have to be serious, sometimes a good bit of fun is what you need.


4. Keep newspaper articles that hit a nerve.


I struggle with writing songs that are not about me, and for most people, songwriting can be a narcissistic endeavour. To challenge myself, I sometimes write about events on the outside that affect me in some way – climate change, racism, sexism, there’s enough out there to pull from. My songs about big issues often sound like pretentious crap and don’t see the light of day, but it’s the exercise that counts. I’ve found that referring to newspaper articles helps, especially the ones with personal stories that bring humanity into these grand narratives. Not long ago, I started stuffing them in my inspiration journal to use details from them in my songs. I’ll keep you updated on how well it works.


5. Write down your ideas. Obviously.


Inspiration doesn’t always come from outside. Sometimes we get our own great ideas. The thing with our brain is that we forget them. I often write something down believing the idea is so good that I will remember it forever, to read it back a week later and see it for the first time. So, keep your inspiration journal at hand and write down the great lyric or the original song idea when it comes to you. Or keep index cards in your bag that you then paste into your journal. Whatever works.


This works for me, but I know that all creatives have their rituals, so please let me know if you have any other ideas!

best-books-for-songwriters

My Favourite Books for Songwriters

artist, creativity, music, productivity, songwriting

For those of you who don’t know me – I LOVE reading. Not just love. LOVE. For someone who hasn’t lived in the same place for longer than four months in the last three years, I have a lot of books. And since I’m a songwriter, a lot of them are inevitably about writing and music. So, I thought I’d share my thoughts on my favourite ones with you.


On inspiration and creativity

‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert

big-magic-elizabeth-gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert is the woman that brought us ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, inspiring people all over the world. ‘Big Magic’ has a different purpose. It doesn’t talk about how to become a bestselling author or how to embrace your wild, creative dreams. Instead, it focuses on small victories, on how to live a creative life without harbouring unrealistic expectations. Gilbert writes about her own life, her process, and how creating in itself should be the goal. It’s the book to read when you’re feeling stuck, or when you don’t know why you’re doing it anymore.

‘Writing Down the Bones’ by Natalie Goldberg

This is the best book on writing and inspiration I have ever read. Natalie Goldberg gets down to the joy of writing, incorporating Zen practice and meditation into her teaching. The love she has for writing and creativity is so contagious it will make you want to throw aside the book and start writing. Which is exactly what books like these are supposed to do anyway.




On lyrics

‘Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting’ by Jimmy Webb

tunesmith-jimmy-webb

This is probably the most thorough book on songwriting I’ve ever read. It’s written by one of the greatest songwriters of our time (think ‘Wichita Lineman‘ and ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix‘) and gives amazing insights into how professional songwriters work. Webb dedicates a whole chapter to his writing process, describing in detail how he starts and finishes a song. It’s a book for more advanced songwriters, as it deals with some theoretical concepts and frameworks beginners might not be familiar with, although Webb briefly explains all the terms he uses. He also delves deep into melody and harmony, which a lot of books on songwriting fail to do.

‘The Songwriter’s Idea Book’ by Sheila Davis

songwriters-idea-book-sheila-davis

Sheila Davis has several books to her name that have become required reading in music courses. In this book, she talks about how personality types influence the way we write and think about our work, and offers 40 strategies for writing a song. She talks about everything from rhetoric devices and figurative language to plot strategies and the importance of a good title, but the main emphasis of the book is on ‘whole-brain writing’ and how our personality influences our productivity.


On music business

‘How to Make It in the New Music Business’ by Ari Herstand

This book is the Bible of the music business for independent musicians. Ari Herstand – a DIY artist himself – talks about everything you might want to know. Although parts of the book focus specifically on the US, most of it is geared towards musicians everywhere. He gives practical tips and provides strategies, timelines for releases, and templates for emails. It’s the most hands-on book on music business I’ve read so far.

‘The Art of Asking’ by Amanda Palmer

Although technically it’s not about the music business, it taught me more about how to handle my career than most other books that are. Amanda Palmer – a DIY legend – writes about how she started out, the innovative (read: crazy) strategies she used to build a fanbase, the work that went into her Kickstarter campaign, and the mental toll of it. It’s not a step-by-step guide by any means, but the creativity with which Amanda Palmer built her music career from the ground up is so inspiring, it will spark interesting marketing ideas in any songwriter who reads it.


On recording

‘The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook’ by Bobby Owsinski

If you’re like me and don’t have the money to record in a studio and pay a mixing engineer, this book is a great guide to start your research with. There are a lot of good Youtube videos out there to help you with whatever DAW you’re using, recording techniques, etc., but it can be hard to find good videos on mixing. This book, however, has everything. Owsinski talks about dynamics, effects, dimension, frequency. The book also includes interviews with producers/mixing engineers like Bob Brockman, Dave Pensado (who also has a great podcast on music production called ‘Pensado’s Place‘), and Ed Stasium.


If you have any other recommendations I haven’t mentioned, let me know in the comments!