Writing songs can be a lonely process, which is why many musicians and writers seek out a collaborative partner to work with and gain feedback from.
It is interesting to find that some of the best music collaborations between musicians and lyricists occur with a degree of separation between the artists. Many songwriters working together find that locking themselves in the same room until the song is finished is not the best method.
The creative process needs time and space to realize its path, and the creators need room to breathe and accomplish their own perspective on the work. It’s not always straight forward, and a new song will usually go through several revisions before it is ready.
The celebrated partnership of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who wrote a series of hits together including Walk On By, and Do You Know the Way to San Jose adopted a relaxed style of writing together, as Bacharach recalled:
“Our writing process was very interesting. We would sit in a room in the Brill Building and maybe Hal would have an idea — a couple of lines, a title — or I would have a music fragment. And we would go from there. It wasn't like we would sit in that room and finish a song. That never happened. Hal would take his story, get on the train, and go home to Roslyn out in Long Island. And I would take whatever music I had and go back to my apartment. Then we'd meet a day or two later, or maybe talk it through on the phone.”
For Elton John and Bernie Taupin, the process is shaped by the creative independence of the two collaborators, as Elton described in a mid-career interview:
“He writes the lyrics first and gives them to me, and then I write the songs for them. In the old days I would slice bits of verses out and cut things here and there – it’s not so bad now. But it’s always been lyrics first. Very, very rarely have I sometimes suggested a title for a song or maybe a melody. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is the only one I can think of. It’s always a non-collaboration really: he gives me the lyric and I go away and write it without him hearing it, and then he hears it.”
Johnny Marr and Morrissey wrote a string of albums together for The Smiths over a five year period. Their method was to work closely together but to allow each other the freedom they needed to express themselves.
In a South Bank Show TV interview, Morrissy described his approach to penning lyrics: “How do I write those songs? I write them in a very natural way, but in a very detached way also. But not to say I simply sit down a guess, but it is very detached, which I think is also important because not everybody has fantastically endlessly romping private lives.”
In a later interview, Johnny Marr reflected on the integrity of the band’s musical approach: “We weren’t one of those bands who designed songs over a period with different producers or an A&R man. We were a bunch of young guys who were super-tight, very close, and isolated, who would get in a car or a van and go into the studio with just us and Stephen Street or sometimes John Porter. And we would just put our vibe, or our world, into the sound of the songs we’d written. It wasn’t music made by a committee or by the record company. We were left alone to do it ourselves, to get on with it and just do it. Whatever was going on with the group on a day-to-day basis was worked into the sound of the band.”
Not all songwriting partnerships achieved their best work by working apart. The writing partnership of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, which Johnny Marr described as a big influence on The Smiths, was built on a close collaboration, producing such hits as Hound Dog and Stand By Me. In a interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Leiber and Stoller recalled their earliest songwriting sessions:
Leiber: We used to go to Mike's house, where the upright piano was. We went there every day and wrote. We worked ten, eleven, twelve hours a day.
Stoller: When we started working, we'd write five songs at a session. Then we'd go home, and we'd call each other up. "I've written six more songs!" "I've written four more." Our critical faculties, obviously, were not as developed and we just kept on writing and writing.
Leiber: "Hound Dog" took like twelve minutes. That's not a complicated piece of work. But the rhyme scheme was difficult. Also the metric structure of the music was not easy. "Kansas City" was maybe eight minutes, if that. Writing the early blues was spontaneous. You can hear the energy in the work.
Stoller: In the early days we'd go back and forth note for note, syllable for syllable, word for word in the process of creating.
Suggestions for other great song writing collaborations would be welcome.
See the full South Bank Show programme about The Smiths: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbr57W70UdE
See the full interview with Johnny Marr: http://www.avclub.com/articles/johnny-marr-has-no-negative-thoughts-about-the-smi,73276/
See the full interview Leiber and Stoller: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/leiber-stoller-rolling-stones-1990-interview-with-the-songwriting-legends-20110822