My last three blogs were about the experience of co-writing a song a day for three days AND recording the demos each day at the Songwriters Association of Canada‘s SongWorks songwriting camp. This is a “pressure’s on” situation that is as intense as it is fun, and in my case, ultimately rewarding with three excellent songs to show for it at the end of the process.
Usually when I co-write the approach is much more relaxed. If I’m going to write with someone, typically we’ve written together before, we know we might not strike pay dirt (and are fine with that), and we won’t be doing more than using a guitar, a pen and paper, and a hand held recorder. We may or may not finish what we start after a three or so hour session. If we decide to demo what we’ve done, it might not happen until days, weeks, or months later.
A case in point is the co-write session I did with Lucy LeBlanc a couple of months ago. At the end of it, to my delight and joy, (I am always amazed every time I complete a new song) we came up with a heartfelt and tuneful song we call “Half A World Away”. Here is Lucy:
John and I have written eight songs together. You’d think that we would have the process down now; but every session is different. Sometimes we labour over the song (one song took us months to write). Each of us has our own opinion on the value of the words….at times we argue over them…. but if it doesn’t spark a similar emotional reaction in both of us, we scrap it.
Lucy was coming over in the afternoon, so that morning I was idly picking out some chords on my guitar, hoping to come up with a musical phrase or two that we might be able to start with. Lucy is a lyricist only, so when we write together I’m the one who comes up with the melody and chords. Luckily (because it doesn’t always happen ‘on demand’) I found a three-chord pattern that sounded good and I played it for Lucy as soon as settled down to write. It caught her attention immediately:
John starts strumming on his guitar, and singing vowels and snatches of words. I start getting pictures and ideas in my head about the lyrics, and then we both start tossing words and lines out. I have to have a quick sharp pen to capture the lyrical flow on paper. I have learned to relax when writing with John. I’m no longer scared to throw out ideas that might be considered silly. Everything is fair game. A silly thought might provoke a new and interesting idea.
As I played the three-chord pattern over and over and mumbled syllables and phrases, Lucy said it sounded like someone was travelling, or far away. Somehow the words “half a world away” tumbled out early on in the brainstorming phase. We got the first verse down and moved on. The second verse was teased out after we came up with the opening line “Romeo ain’t got nothing on the way I feel”.
We kept going (talking, mumbling, reminiscing about similar situations we had personally experienced, singing words, trying phrases) with various ideas coming up. Some were working, others were tried and tossed aside. We looked at the rhyme scheme and decided what had to rhyme and what didn’t. The simple bridge (“too simple?”, my inner critic whispered) worked musically, and we decided to go with it, and the words for that came quickly. We decided to repeat the first line of the song at the end as a coda. I’ve used this “book ending” idea before, and it can be very effective. Again, here’s Lucy:
On “Half A World Away” from start to finish, we had it done it within two hours. John had this incredible melody, and the lyrics just started flowing between us. I love it when it works like that.
Two details on this song. We finished the song at 5PM and coincidentally that night was the monthly SAC Songwriters’ Workshop. I wasn’t planning on going because I didn’t have anything new to play for the group. But now I did, and so I went along with Lucy. A very good suggestion was made from someone in the group to change the second line in the bridge from a statement to a question, to make it more wistful. (“When you come back home / We can start again” became, “When you come back home / Can we start again?”). The improvement tugs at the heartstrings and is more in keeping with the mood of the rest of the song.
Second detail. The home video was recorded a couple of weeks after the song was written. I was driving with a friend down to Los Angeles and late one night he video taped me in the hotel room doing the song. Like I say it was well past midnight, and I managed to forget the lyrics to much of the last verse. I made something up on the spot (as you can see). We did a few more takes, each one getting more polished. But there is something very honest about this first take, mistakes and all, so we decided to go with it.