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Songwriters on Songwriting: Collaborating Can Help Sow the Seeds of Success

Co-writing helps many top tunesmiths hone their skills.

Posted in Songwriter 101 on November 22, 2004 by

Collaboration is a key aspect of the trade for many songwriters. The interplay with another writer can serve as a sounding board for ideas and help unlock new areas of inspiration.

“I actually prefer collaboration,” says Dave Cobb, former member of the Tender Idols and now a songwriter/producer whose list of credits includes work with Shooter Jennings (Waylon’s son) and The Strays, a new group formed by Small Faces founder Steve Marriott’s son, Toby. “It’s more fun, and it gets you more excited about the music. Writing by yourself can make it kind of hard to judge if what you’re doing is crap or not.”

Lauren Christy, a member of the highly regarded songwriting/production trio The Matrix (Christina Aguilera, Avril Lavigne, Liz Phair), agrees. “Each one of us comes up with ideas all the time,” she says. “Maybe a line or a cool lyric, and we can always rely on our partners to make it better.  I feel so confident in my partners, that you can put us into any situation - with Shakira in Spain or Ricky Martin or Avril or Mooney Suzuki or whoever - and we are up to the task. I like having my co-pilots with me. We each on our own have our strong points, but together it really just all comes together.”

Songwriter/producer Pam Sheyne (Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle,” Jessica Simpson), who also prefers to work with others, says collaborations can come together in a variety of ways. “Often it’s a publisher or a record company - or even just word of mouth - that gets people together,” she says. “Sometimes one of us has a title and the other has a track - I do lyrics and melodies so I tend to work with musicians, who usually have a track prepared.

“Inspiration is something that can’t just be turned on,” she continues. “Some days I have no lyrics at all, just a melody. But quite often we’ll have the song completed in a couple of days, and then fine-tune it afterwards.”

Grammy-nominated songwriter and Songwriter101.com faculty member Shelly Peiken (Meredith Brooks, Brandy, The Pretenders) notes that the nature of the music business tends to change every six months or so, swinging back and forth between a focus on singer/songwriters and on bringing in outside writers to work with artists.

“When labels are looking to bring a lot of outside songs to artists, I tend to write more with other songwriters, not with the artist themselves - writers who have developed their craft,” she says. “There’s great joy in that; it’s not as much of a difficult challenge because we both know what works.

“But there are other situations where they’ve never written a song before but their manager for financial reasons feel they should be a ‘songwriter,’” she adds. “That’s not nearly as much fun. You can end up doing most of the work and still find what you thought to be a pretty great idea getting diluted.”

Brothers Bobby and Izzy Avila, who have written and produced as the AB Experience for such acts as Gwen Stefani and Earth, Wind & Fire, say they try to ensure that the acts they work with don’t end up sounding like everyone else.

“Everybody who comes into the studio says, ‘We want to sound like such-and-such,’ whoever’s got the chart hit or the club smash of the day,” says Izzy. “What they don’t realize is that, by the time their record has come out, that sound has come and gone. We are in the business to compete, not to replicate.”

“We developed our production skills pretty much at the same time as we were developing as songwriters,” adds Bobby. “We learned at a pretty young age that if you’re going to have a career and be everything you can be, it’s good to learn about as much as you can to bring you up to the caliber of the great writers.”

Indeed, record production by its very nature is collaborative. “To me, production is songwriting,” says Cobb. “You can be a producer who’s basically just an engineer, I guess, but a good producer is kind of a fifth band member, and should always understand the basic elements of songwriting - what works, what doesn’t.”

“Songwriting is definitely my favorite - it’s the most rewarding,” says The Matrix’s Christy. “But we have a vision of how we think a song should sound as we’re working on it, and we’d really rather not have it go off in another direction, which is why we usually produce as well. ‘Sk8r Boi’ and ‘Complicated’ had been in our heads for some time, and we knew exactly how they should sound.”

Sheyne agrees. “Songwriting is probably the most enjoyable for me, although I also enjoy doing vocals production, given my singing background. It’s like painting a picture, you have free reign on how something should sound. Very often I’ve had my songs produced by others . . . some turn out great and others turn out not-so-great.”

Collaboration need not be restricted to the actual writing of songs, either; all these professionals recommend surrounding yourself with a solid team (manager, agent, attorney, etc.) to help spread the word about your songwriting talent.

“Songwriting came naturally to me, but it was definitely something I had to work at,” says Sheyne. “I wrote with lots of different people - [manager and future husband] Nigel [Rush] was very good at making me network and would take me to the opening of a door, really; I went to all these songwriting clubs. He was very avid about it, and encouraged me to carry on writing.”

“Our manager has always buoyed our spirits and made us believe in ourselves,” says Christy, whose Matrix has its own album coming out next year on Columbia. “We’re constantly questioning ourselves, and he’s always there as a kind of cheerleader.”

“Getting out there and working it is the most important thing you can do,” says Bobby Avila, who with his brother will release an album as The Avila Brothers on Universal by year’s end. “Making connections through networking is very important, and at the same time can help sharpen your craft.”

Eventually the need for collaboration may wane a bit. “These days I screen who I write with,” Peiken says. “If it’s an artist who’s writing with everyone else in the world, I tend to stay away. I don’t want to compete with 30 other songwriters, because then I feel like I’m working in a factory. But if I’m with someone who feels that what I do is special, that makes me feel more honored. But you do have to take a chance once in awhile, and those can be magical moments.”

For the beginning songwriter, however, the advice remains simple: “Do everything,” Peiken says. “Work with anybody you’re set up with. At the beginning of your career, how do you really know what you’re capable of and what works for you? Anyone who says, ‘You should work with so-and-so,’ do it. As you discover your strengths you’ll know with whom you’re a better fit. But you must feel you can bring something to the party, even if you’re working with someone who has a solid track record. Otherwise, what are you doing there?”

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