Before you have experienced co-writing, it can seem like one of the scariest things you could ever do in your life. But, looking back over the years, co-writing has been one of the most wonderful surprises of my songwriting journey. In this blog, I set out my top–20 tips for you to have an awesome co-write.
In my book Song Maps (chapter 2) I talk about how, at the very beginning of my songwriting career, the notion of sharing my fragile ideas with another human being filled me with utter terror. In fact, when I first heard of co-writing, my immediate reaction was to try to figure out a way of getting out of it. And that’s the honest truth.
My first co-write was with someone who had never co-written before either, so we were both newbies. We went on to write some great songs together. And I still love those songs. I’ve just played one of them (‘Indelible’) to my daughter Poppy and even she thinks it’s “cool”. In my first ever co-write with a pro, we never actually wrote a word. At the time, he said it was fine. But from where I am today, I realize he was just being super kind. Thank you for that, my friend!
But the more co-writing I did, the more I grew to value the times I spent with my co-writers. Without a doubt, the lessons I’ve learned about co-writing have been from some of the kindest, most wonderful people I could have hoped to meet in the music industry. Out of the many things they have passed on to me over the years, from their professionalism, dedication and commitment to their calling, the one thing that stands out is this:
DO WHATEVER YOU CAN TO BEST SERVE YOUR CO-WRITER
But what does it mean to ‘best serve your co-writer’? It’s about focusing on whatever it takes to get the best song out of the time your and your co-writer have together.
Here are my top–20 tips:
- Preparation – gather together all the ideas in your Idea Bank (see Song Maps for more detail), allocate writable ideas to co-writers and, if possible, have an idea as to who might be looking for the song you’re about to write. Prepare yourself: imagine what success looks like and feel comfortable with that as a future reality.
- Arrive early – you’d be surprised at how many either arrive late or not at all! but it’s great to get settled in, ready to write something fantastic.
- Bring kit – your laptop/iPad/iPhone/paper and pen, an instrument (if required), something to record a work tape on.
- 10 minutes of chit-chat – this can be anything from catching up with family life, other passions/challenges to moaning about the music industry. Yes, it’s quite common to do the latter! But try to keep it to 10 minutes.
- Leave your life outside the writing room – bills, finances, relationship issues, therapy sessions, your car exhaust that’s about to fall off, the leak in your roof. Whatever your problems are outside the writing room, they only come in by invitation. And they’re only invited if they will help you write a better song.
- Put the relationship before the song – respect your co-writer’s ideas, be a good hang, aim to bring the best out in your co-writer (your song will only be the stronger for it) and try to work with each other’s strengths.
- Know when to shut up – sometimes your co-writer will be on a run of brilliance so don’t get in the way of that – it’s a mark of your success if they are feeling open enough to tap into this brilliance. Don’t let your ego get in the way of the song. Shutting up also gives yourself and your co-writer some space to do what you’re there for – writing!
- C=f(T+H+M) – where, C is creative output, T is the level of trust, H is the time spent together and M is motivation and opportunity to be creative. Maximise T, H and M and you’ll get more C.
- Be in the moment – focus on the writing, don’t take yourself too seriously, eliminate (ignore) any possible negativity, respect each other’s ideas, don’t hold back your best ideas, dare to suck, have fun.
- Keep your writing space sacred – if required, turn off device notifications, try to minimise ‘sound bleed’ from rooms next to yours, shut the door so you can play in private. I was writing at one of my co-writers’ houses and his son came in and started making fun of our song and set fire to my co-writer’s guitar. I am not joking. Not a great moment!
- Aim for a work tape within 3 hours – it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get there but there’s a great sense of satisfaction, coming out of a co-write with something at least sketched out.
- Exchange contact details – at the end of your writing session exchange publishing details (company and PRO), cellphone numbers and email addresses.
- Send the work tape to your co-writer – there’s nothing worse than looking back at your catalog and not finding a song that you’ve just realised could be what Francesca Battistelli is looking for her next album.
- Get permission to write next time – strike while the iron is hot. Unless you don’t want to, that is.
- Do lunch, pay separately – maybe it’s the British person I am but when I’m done writing a great track in Nashville I always feel like I want to buy my co-writer lunch. Of course, it’s perfectly alright for everyone to pay for their own lunch. Better to connect than be broke.
- Follow up after the co-write – with suggestions, ideas or even better, pitch opportunities.
- Avoid arguing about the split – I can’t think of a great reason to depart from the norm: equal share. Life is too short to quibble over word count. Co-writing is a lot about being generous. Don’t sabotage a relationship with economics.
- Avoid spending time talking about how to write, just write – leave your ‘shoulds’ outside the door, it will kill the creativity in the room and part of the fun of a co-write is enjoying how the song emerges.
- Avoid quibbling about points of art – your co-writer will probably have seen something you haven’t.
- Avoid asking your Creative Director to arbitrate – if you disagree about a line or a rhyme scheme just work it out, even if it means asking for another writer to join in with the co-write. Take responsibility for your art and get opinions after you’ve given it your best shot. Your Creative Director will give you all the feedback you will ever need afterwards.
I believe the main killer of creativity is fear, so in the writing room anything you can do to make your co-writer feel safe and comfortable is likely to help free up the amazing songs you both have within you.
But what do you think? What would you add to these? I’d love to know.