Every song is a journey. At the middle of which is a compelling statement, an engaging story, an emotion. It’s your perception, your belief, what you struggle with, or towards, it’s your aspirations – set to a melody. And whether the song reveals your deepest corners or is a story captured and told through your eyes – whether it’s your song to sing or for someone else to sing – at the heart of the song, is you.
I began songwriting at the age of 8. Embedded in the folk scene at 14, I crossed the ocean at 16 to perform in Europe, spent many years as lead singer and songwriter / co-writer with various rock bands touring North America and then went on my own, focused on writing and releasing my album. I’ve written an extensive catalogue of songs over ‘a few’ decades – and through the years I have struggled with and established a personal relationship and process with my songwriting.
In February I received an SAC email about the 2014 Songwriting & Blogging Challenge hosted by Christopher Ward. Six songs in six weeks. A new song written each week based on Chris’s suggested approaches with decipherable versions to be uploaded by the end
of each week for critique and comment by the participating writers. More so than usual, I was a live wire – every image, thought or conversation guised as a song. The regimented writing with a deadline was intense, but once my brain shifted gears, I ramped up, held on, and wrote and wrote and wrote as songs came to me. And while many participants fell to the wayside exhausted, overwhelmed or, just simply short on time – those who hung in were the better for it.
I listened to what was almost a hundred writers at the beginning of the challenge and
was exposed to all levels and experience of songwriting. The final weeks’ challenge – to collaborate with another writer in the group. Although I’m no stranger to co-writing, I have become pretty entrenched in my solitary writing ‘space’. So collaborating with someone
I didn’t know and anticipating that it was likely going to take place over Skype, I thought was going to be completely out of my comfort zone. However, determined to successfully complete the challenge, I reached out to singer/songwriter North Easton from Ottawa.
I had been quite intrigued with North’s talent, his level of writing and the songs he had been posting throughout the challenge. I also very much admired the intensity, emotion and tone in his voice. Genuinely talented. Well, I thought, this ‘might’ work.
And so, the challenge was on. One song in one week with very little time to spend –
North and I were literally thrown together with our individual styles, rhyming patterns
and thoughts on how to convey an idea into virtual space. Initially emailing North a list
of possible song concepts, we both agreed that a photography exhibit I had come across by Boston, Massachusetts photographer Trent Bell was of interest. Bell had created a series of powerful portrait images that showed what a group of prison inmates would tell their past selves if they could turn back the hands of time. Each inmate was asked to pen a letter to
their past selves. Bell then took their portraits and edited their letters into the background, serving as powerful testaments to their regrets, their mistakes and their new-found wisdom. I was truly inspired by this body of work, as was North.
Now … North works on an ongoing basis with writers of all levels who look to him for his songwriting experience, expertise and guidance. He too has amassed a considerable catalogue of songs over his career and of course established his own methodology for writing songs. After our initial conversation on Skype about our ideas and intention for the song, we both set off on our own to write. Feeling confident in North’s ability to drive the music, I focused my energy on building the story and lyric. Reading and rereading the prisoners letters, I felt their angst as I emotionally transported myself into the cold dark cell to sit on the cot and stare out the window. Meanwhile, North, excited with the potential in the song, quickly grabbed his guitar, climbed into his studio and sent me back an almost completed song – excited and confident that he had captured the ideas we had discussed. However, I had also written a lyric that I felt was strong and I was pretty sure that my lyric better captured what we needed to portray. Feeling rather awkward, but at the same time not willing to settle for less than what I thought the song could be, I hesitantly responded to North’s email with “Hey North … um … I like the first line in the pre-chorus”.
“This is not going to be easy” – a sentiment shared by us both. In fact, after our 2nd Skype session, with me standing my ground and North his – I was pretty sure I was going to end
up writing my collaborative song all by myself. Clearly he was inflexible and this wasn’t going to work. And North, well, he was thinking pretty much the same thing about me. However, with the song at the center, we started talking and, listening to each other. In opening up, we both agreed that my lyric served the song better. Time ticking, we battled back and forth while we worked nose-to-nose, each of us bringing the strength of our writing styles to the table. Our mantra “in the spirit of collaboration” was repeatedly mentioned (muttered) to underline changes we wanted, or would agree to. And finally, barriers down, we experienced the magic, the rush, the pure energy of the song unfolding and taking on its own life. Each line, each note, getting stronger as we analyzed it – together.
“Turn”, is a song with passion and purpose. A song we both agree is some of the best work either of us have ever written. In fact, I sent it to the photographer with a note about the songwriting challenge, letting him know how far his reach had been with his “Reflect” project. His reply to hearing the song “I have not words. I could only cry as I listened”. Trent has since informed us of his plan to create a documentary around the “Reflect” project and has asked to use “Turn” in his soundtrack.
If not for the SAC Challenge, and leveraging the technology of Skype, this collaboration would never have happened. It was truly an insightful and rewarding experience working with North. And as fate would have it – we continue to work together with focused intention and scheduled writing sessions. There’s an underlying magic in what North and I have working together – I’ve been writing long enough to recognize it when I see it. And although we continue to be two alphas in a virtual room – most importantly, we greatly value what each of us brings to a song. And because of that, we’re smiling more.
Have a listen to the song: