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
5 tips to help develop fruitful music collaborations
1). Record yourself: If you’re a musician or a singer, you will almost certainly have a "style" all of your own. Your preferred tempo, your pitch, your technique and your playing approach will all contribute to your signature style. When looking for other musicians to work with, it’s good to let them hear what you do. Give them a taste of your flavour by making a recording of yourself and letting people hear it.
If you’ve been making music for some time, you’ve almost certainly got plenty of recordings you’ve already made. That doesn’t matter. It’s worthwhile making a new recording to capture your style as it sounds today. Just sit and play your best stuff. Afterwards, listen back to yourself and think about what would compliment you. Finding other musicians is about knowing yourself and understanding what you sound like. Think about what other musicians hear when they listen to your recordings.
2). Establish your ambitions: On the more practical side of things, it’s a good idea to know what you want from a musical collaboration. Do you want to play live gigs? Do you want to share the songwriting credits, or are you better when you write alone? Are you a “front-man” or “band-member”? All these questions will help establish the sort of musician you are looking for, and make the path to successful collaboration a smooth one.
3). Try collaborating at a distance: Nothing can quite match the feeling of making music with others in the same room, jamming and creating in the same spontaneous moment. But there are other ways. With the web, collaboration can take place over large distances. If you’re looking for a musician to play with, they needn’t live around the next block. I know a very talented, hands-on keyboardist who is currently enjoying a fertile collaboration with an electronic musician via email and Dropbox. They live miles apart, so if they are working on a track they simply pass it back and forth between them, each one adding a bit more each time. It works because it’s a pure exchange of music without egos getting in the way.
The other exciting thing about collaborating at a distance is that people from very diverse musical backgrounds can get together. What would your music sound like with a musician from Japan, Brazil, South Africa or Mexico playing with you?
4). Post you details: It goes without saying that the web is great place to make new contacts. You've probably searched through listings pages for adverts posted by other musicians, but why not post an avert yourself? There are plenty of free listings pages or forums where you can start talking about yourself and attracting attention. Here at Verse-Chorus, you can post an advert for free.
5). Don’t be afraid to try something new: To create new music is a leap into the unknown. Of course you’ve got to practice and hone your technique, but just as crucial in the mix is experimentation. It’s only by trying out new things that originality can prosper. So when looking for other musicians to work with, don’t be afraid to try new avenues. Be open to chance meetings, unusual collaborations, less traditional instrument combinations, that sort of thing. We've already mentioned the idea of collaborating with musicians from around the world. Alternatively you could try working with musicians from a musical background that is different to yours. Could you collaborate with a folk singer, or a punk musician, or someone into electronica? Try it, and see what happens.