THE NEW NORMAL: The House of Songs Shifts Collaboration Mission to the Virtual World
Kaia Kater, left, and Jenee Fleenor in their remotely filmed video for "The Other Side," a co-write through the House of Songs' #Player2Player program.
EDITOR’S NOTE: “The New Normal” is an occasional series of stories that look into how the coronavirus has affected artists, listeners, and the music business. Find other stories in the series here.
The door to the House of Songs first opened when its founder, Troy Campbell, was in the habit of saying no.
Waiting his turn to take the stage for a late-night set at a songwriters festival in New Orleans, Campbell started chatting with a fellow musician with an accent that intrigued him. They swapped a few songs onstage, hitting it off musically and personally, but Campbell figured that would be it. But afterward, his new friend said, “Hey man, you and me, we need to write a song together,” Campbell recalls.
Campbell, accustomed to writing alone and intimidated by the thought of co-writing with a near-stranger, politely declined.
But his friend was persistent, and they sat down for a co-writing session early the next morning, just before both left town at the end of the festival. The man was chart-topping Danish singer-songwriter Poul Krebs, and it was the beginning of a trans-Atlantic friendship and musical partnership that showed Campbell the power of reaching outside one’s musical comfort zone, geographically and creatively.
Years and a lot of yeses later, the door that opened on that small stage in New Orleans, and during the co-writing session afterward, would lead to the House of Songs. Initially, it was a one-year program to bring Danish artists to Austin, Campbell’s home at the time, connecting two rich, but very separate songwriting scenes. Now, just more than a decade later, the House of Songs is a full-fledged nonprofit that has brought together songwriters from more than 30 countries and across genres in physical residencies in Austin; Bentonville, Arkansas; and New York City. Two-by-two, songwriters live and write together in a house for several days, sometimes creating songs that get recorded, hit the charts, and win awards, or sometimes just creating an experience that opens minds and strengthens bonds. Both outcomes are equally important to Campbell.
“The whole goal was how, though collaboration, we could get artists out — through import create export,” he says, “but also how do we create these friendships that we know will last?”
Time together, up close and in person, was absolutely essential to that goal — or so everyone thought. But that became impossible when COVID-19 landed in early 2020. Far from derailing the House of Songs’ mission, though, the forced distance paved the way toward new opportunities for the nonprofit to help musicians mix their ideas and experiences and get them out into the wider world.
The Other Side
Before sitting down for a Zoom session last summer, Kaia Kater and Jenee Fleenor had never met. But after about four hours on their screens, Kater from Toronto and Fleenor from Nashville, they came out the other side with a song called, well, “The Other Side.”
Their collaboration, across the miles, was part of the House of Songs’ #Player2Player program, which puts songwriters together to share ideas with their peers, whether across town or across the globe.
Co-writing offers a valuable opportunity to get “out of your ego,” says Kater, a singer-songwriter and banjo player who had only written solo before getting involved with the House of Songs a few years ago. “You have to say ‘yes, and’ to a lot of things, even if you’re like, ‘I don’t know where this is going. But I’m going to try it.’ But if I were writing on my own I have a tendency to shut down ideas before they even get a life of their own.”
Based in Nashville, Fleenor is in high demand for session work on fiddle and other instruments, and she’s currently part of Blake Shelton’s backing band. As is common practice in the country music world, she has written with others for most of her career. But working with Kater offered a breath of fresh air.
“Nashville has such a way of writing, you book a writing session at 10, 2, and 6,” says Fleenor. “[Kaia] helped me get outside the box a little bit, because Nashville does have its thing, writing-wise everything’s maybe a little more literal. I always love writing with other writers who aren’t in the Nashville bubble because it helps me get outside of that.”
For “The Other Side,” a gently loping song about trying to ease down walls and break through isolation, Kater was ready with a verse and a chorus as a starting point (“I don’t think I would have done that two or three years ago,” she says), and Fleenor jumped right in with ideas to build on it.
“I really felt like Jenee brought the Nashville energy, where she was just like, ‘We’re going to get this done,’” Kater recalls. “That was just understood, which was really nice, because we were making choices quickly and we were having to be a little more direct with each other: ‘Do you like this? Yes or no.’”
In the end, the song became something entirely new, which is exactly the point.
“It’s not really mine anymore,” Kater says of what happens in a co-writing session. “It’s ours, and it’s going to be different than if I’d kept it and written it all as mine. And I think that it was ultimately better. … It ended up being this gospel-y number that I don’t think I would have written without her in the room.”
As the House of Songs was shifting its collaboration efforts virtual last spring, its staff spotted another area of need as the pandemic turned the music world upside-down.
“I remember turning on some livestreams of some friends here and they were just really flailing,” Campbell says from his current home in Bentonville. “They were so awkward and they didn’t know what to do, and all I could think was, ‘We’re not going to climb this digital wall like this.’”
Amid interviews with musicians interested in online co-writing sessions, when House of Songs staff would ask what the artists needed, a common theme cropped up: “Most people just didn’t have gear,” Campbell says.
“They didn’t know they needed a ring light, let alone have [good] Wi-Fi or internet, so a lot of people were really stranded,” he adds. So the House of Songs redirected much of its budget, including a new grant from the Northwest Arkansas Council, toward providing musicians with what they needed in order to perform online. By the end of 2020, the nonprofit had provided 71 artists with gear, internet service, and other essential items for online performances.
Sierra Carson, an 18-year-old singer-songwriter in Fayetteville, Arkansas, received upgraded Wi-Fi, a backdrop, and a ring light to help with her videos for YouTube and livestreams.
“That opened this whole new level of clarity and professionalism, which I think was really cool,” she says. “To be able to set up and have confidence in the way that I looked and in the way that I sounded, everything was taken to a new level.”
Since April, she’s released three singles, with videos and livestreams to support them, and also has participated in the House of Songs’ #Player2Player program, which linked her into her local songwriting community and strengthened her skills as she works to launch her career in unprecedented circumstances.
“It was kind of like starting from scratch when everything hit: How am I going to still get my music out there and meet other people and figure this whole thing out?” she recalls. “The House of Songs was really great to step in and help me with that. I was connected with a lot of different artists and put into this new community of people in the same boat that I was. That was really great and helpful.”
In short, she and other songwriters participating in House of Songs programs have been able to continue saying yes to new opportunities, even as new barriers and challenges emerged. Like Campbell’s change of heart so many years ago that forged a connection with a peer across the pond and planted the seed for House of Songs, those yeses have opened doors to new songwriting communities, whether in the musicians’ own hometowns or a world away. The songs and the friendships that result are souvenirs of a time when new connections are more important than ever, but they’re also just a starting point.