Collaborating

There is a lot to be said for working alone when creating something, whether it be a song, painting, poem, anything. Performance is of course a very personal experience – the performer is sharing his or her thoughts, emotions, moods, idiosyncrasies, dreams, beliefs, and any number of private things with the audience. But during performance, one usually has their song, painting or poem in a finished state. The artist has already weeded out the lines that are too cheesy, the melodies that were unconsciously stolen from another artist, the lyrics that serve as a placemat until the better synonyms or phrases present themselves. When you work alone, you can get all of this stuff out of the way without instant feedback, misinterpretation, a deadline, or creative compromise. And you don’t have to open yourself up before you’ve found out how to say exactly what you want to say.

I participated in a songwriter’s meeting last night, where we split up into two groups to go and write songs. Me being a pianist, I did not have an instrument with me. There was another pianist there and I decided not to make a big stink about getting to use the only piano in the building, as he said he was particularly stronger at the music side of songwriting than the lyrical.

So I headed upstairs with two men I had known for about 10 minutes, and we spent probably 80 minutes brainstorming lyrics. We never really settled on a melody or chord progression, just went through the creative process of writing lyrics. We started with a first line I had come up with, which we all three decided would be the title and hook of the song. Many ideas were brought up, about what angle to take on the song, how descriptive to get, what point of view to have, how we were going to make this song stand out amongst all of the other silly love songs out there…It felt a little uncomfortable, “going from zero to sixty” as one of my collaborators put it. I had just met these two men and now we had fallen into the trap of writing a love song together – exposing our emotional pasts and interpretations thereof, our musical preferences, what we thought was cliche and what we thought was forced, and what we thought was musically essential to make a song work…

But I never really got the impression that the song was working.

and all the while, we could hear the other group singing strongly with a piano accompaniment, clearly making a lot more progress than we were. And I was very happy to discover at the end of the meeting that the highest voice in the other team’s choir was infact a woman who had arrived late to the meeting, and not an awesome tenor. I was no longer jealous of someone else’s voice (yes, that happens a lot). Before, it was a bit distracting knowing that the other team had great singers, a fleshed-out musical idea, and were all collaborating very well.

I came to a very simple conclusion (gleaned from this experience and from many tv show commentaries about the writing process): I work best alone.

Or at the very least, if I want to collaborate, its best to give people something to start with and just let them go at it alone for a while. Once they’ve taken the concept somewhere and, its time to get back together. Each collaborator presents what they came up with and then combines the ideas, feeding off of eachother, and making the musical, lyrical, and conceptual compromises necessary to do the song justice.

To that point, I am going to start my first official collaboration sometime this week. A good friend of mine, whom I have known for about 13 years (YIKES!) has sent me some lyrics, and I’m going to try to make a song of them. I think this approach will work much better for me. Someone else has done some work and given me a framework from which to start. Now I can shape those lyrics into a song (or a few songs) for her to approve/amend later, without having to wade through the knee-jerk-reactions to ideas that aren’t fully realized. When I react quickly to input I typically put my foot in my mouth – I’d rather have time to soak it up and take a step forward with that foot instead of standing in the same place, too quick to judge initial contributions.

Thanks for reading, and don’t miss the Acoustic Showcase at Ballydoyle’s Irish Pub in Downer’s Grove, THIS THURSDAY NIGHT at 8:30. Click on SEE above to view my entire performance schedule, and stay tuned for new mixes of songs, and some new tunes never before released on the internet. CDs available at the Acoustic Showcase, so don’t miss it!

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