Songmine: Collaboration: Why two heads are better than one by John Braheny

A John Braheny Songmine column from the archives…

Songmine: Collaboration: Why two heads are better than one by John Braheny

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Songmine by John Braheny

Collaboration: Why two heads are better then one

A substantial number of the world’s greatest songs are the reult of writing as a team. There are some very good reasons why writers choose to collaborate.

1. A writer may have more talent as a lyricist than a composer vice versa. The big question is, “How do I know?” Obviously, if you’re a good lyricist but only marginally musical you should look a composer. Less obvious are situations in which you know you have a good lyric but have fooled yourself into believing that you can write a good melody. Your ego may need to see that “words and music by…” line at the top of the page, or maybe you’re just greedy. You need to look for feedback and pay attention to it. Many talented musician/arrangers can put together the music but don’t feel the lyrics are important enough to warrant a collaborator. This may work in a situation where the writer leads a group with a record deal and a unique sound. This was, in fact, the norm with disco, however we also saw that disco tunes like “I Will Survive” ade a lot more money as a song in which the lyric had a universal peal. Even Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White, to his credit, decided to collaborate with lyricist Allee Willis to increase the aleady fantastic appeal of his records.

2. Writers often tend to get trapped in their own musical and lyrical cliches and a collaborator can supply fresh ideas. You pick your guitar and your fingers automatically go through a familiar, comfortable set of changes, type of chord, picking style or rhythm pattern. Out of these established patterns come melodies much like those you’ve written before and at times you realize they’re exactly the same. You’re now in a rut. You either decide to get a chord book and work out some new chords and progressions, listen to the radio and cop some new rhythm feels or find a collaborator whose style you like.

3. It disciplines your writing habits to plan to write with someone else. Lots of people seem to function best on deadlines and always wait until the last minute, meanwhile thinking up all kinds of other projects like cleaning the house (“I can’t possibly create in a dirty house,”) restringing your guitar or tuning your piano. Len Chandler refers to these diversions as “sharpening pencils.” I think that in some mysterious way, this common avoidance syndrome is a way of signalling and priming the subconscious to start getting to work on the project at hand. At the eleventh hour when you have to do it, there’s a signal to the subconscious from the brain that says “now give it to me!” and you start doing it. The problem is that many writers will avoid it together if there are no deadlines. Those who function best on that kind of ‘crisis’ basis but want to be productive, make sure to create real deadlines. They promise a producer they’ll write him/her a song by next week and set up an appointment to play the song. Or they find a collaborator and plan on a regular day to get together and write. They know that they’ll have to come up with some ideas to work on before that deadline and, that subconscious preparation process will even have a longer time to operate if it knows that every week (or every day) that deadline will arrive.

4. A partner will furnish constant feedback and critique. You’re stuck for a rhyme and you’re anxious to finish the song. You put together the first thing to come into your head so you can start playing the song. You say What the hell, it’s okay, I’ve hear stuff on the radio that rhymes ‘rain’ with ‘again.’ Maybe some British guy will cut it.” A conscientious collaborator is there to say “WRONG! Let’s see if we can find something else.” Maybe you’re a lyricist and your collaborator is a singer and can say, “I’ll want to hold this note in the melody so could use another word instead of ‘garbage?'” Obviously it can keep your quality high and help you both grow commercially and artistically.

Next issue: Finding a collaborator

Previously in the Songmine Collection:

About Songmine and Music Connection Magazine:

John Braheny met Eric Bettelli and Michael Dolan right before they were going to publish Music Connection magazine. Eric and Michael wanted to get their publication out to as many songwriters as they could. They had already heard of the LA Songwriters Showcase, and of John and his partner, Len Chandler. John’s goal was to advertise the schedule of guest speakers and performers at the weekly Showcase… so they made a deal. 

They published John’s Songmine column (he had never before written a magazine article!) in their very first edition, in November 1977. Trading out the column for advertising, this arrangement continued for many years. Plus, Eric and Michael came to the Showcase each week and distributed free copies to the songwriters!

Those articles became so popular that (book agent and editor) Ronny Schiff offered John’s articles to F&W Media, where they became the backbone of John’s textbook, The Craft and Business of Songwriting. As a follow-up, Dan Kimpel (author, songwriter, teacher), who had also worked at LASS, took on the Songwriting column at Music Connection magazine which continues to this day! You can subscribe to get either hard copies or online.

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