When to get your ass saved and when to drown
How does the co-writing song process differ from the alone songwriting process you just wrote about?
Co-writing is quite different from writing alone. When I’m working on something alone I have complete freedom. Freedom to experiment, to make mistakes, to try things I’m quite sure won’t work and the freedom to reconstruct whatever has come before and rebuild it like a bad water pump. When I’m working on a song with another writer there is the presence of a vigilant audience accepting and denying every change that is made to a song and the same goes for the other writer obviously. We can tell each other we have complete freedom to try things out but the very fact that someone else will hear what we want to try changes the nature and process of the work. It’s not that you try to present something to impress your co-writer, it’s not that you’re being manipulative. The fact is, when you write with another writer you are trying to find common ground to stand on and that’s quite different from allowing yourself to stand in quicksand. I might allow myself to sink down some murky ground in a lyric but I know how far and in what direction I need to go to pull myself out of the mire. A co-writer can’t possibly know this so writing with another you are constantly looking for sure-footedness as you work. The beauty of writing with another writer is in finding someone who fills your weak spots. I have a fairly good sense of natural language that might come from a characters voice. I have an instinct for keeping an eye on language and making sure a character doesn’t use a word that would be unnatural for the place and time they come from. I don’t even mind language that’s incorrect if the narrator would say the line incorrectly in real life. These kind of details come easily to me. I’m not, however, quite as skilled with the big picture stuff. I love to find co-writers who have a gift for seeing the 75 Nova moving down the highway while I describe the rust on the wheel wells. It’s not as effective to describe the rust on the wheel wells and the peeling STP sticker on the pitted windshield. Somebody has to be the person moving the car down the the Interstate. Of course these roles are amorphous and changing. There are times when I’m the big picture guy and have the arc of the story and the details as well. There are times when what I really need is an editor. As I’ve become more skilled as a songwriter I find that a great editor is just as valuable as an intimate co-writer. Sometimes you simply need someone to say the story doesn’t move along quickly enough, or that the subtext is too subtle or that the rhythm of the words should change from the verse to the chorus. These simple things can be the difference between just another song and a song that can become an important part of the bigger ongoing story you tell. On the other hand there are times when a cowriter would straighten up something that’s beautifully crooked. Here is the first verse and chorus to Down To The Bone from the Girl From Arkansas CD. The rhyme scheme is way off balance. The second half of the verse is longer than the first half. The word “Kid” is used to rhyme with “Kidd”. The list of problems with this little piece of writing is extensive and yet I wouldn’t change a word. It’s perfectly crooked. A co-writer [including myself] would want to pull the dents, sand the rust, prime the bare metal and give it a fresh coat of enamel but that would ruin the bike. It looks right as it is, rust and all.
An Orphan Child
A Foster Kid
Richer baby than Captain Kidd
Gold chains hanging from the smile I hid
Laughing at all the damage I did
Dirt and charcoal
Powder and Dust
Come on baby who you gonna trust?
When the frame has turned to rust
And there’s no time left for us
Nobody’s waiting’ at the door
Down to the Bone
Down to the Bone
I’m gonna love you down to the bone
When all the mockingbirds have flown
Baby down to the bone
Other times a cowriter will really save your ass…Here is the original first verse of a song I brought Slaid Cleaves in on called Rust Belt Fields.
I grew up here
In the Rust Belt Fields
We used to make GMs
We worked hard
But the money was good
We saved a little something
When we could
It’s good but here is the first verse after working on it together.
This is my town
Out in the rust belt fields
We were bangin’ out Buicks
There was always a job
And the money was there
Some say we got a little lazy
Nobody seemed to care
The subtext is richer. The story moves quicker and the lyric brings more complicated elements into play sooner than the version I initially had. This is how co-writing works for me at it’s best. Sometimes you want your ass saved sometimes you don’t but that’s how it works for me…