Songwriting Part 2: Collaboration

This is about the marvel of collaboration in songwriting. Sam Vincent and I first linked up when he guested on a Goodbye Notes album playing double bass. We then played together for some years as Tyrone and Lesley before we decided to write a song together. With no particular genre or outcome in mind we started making songs. We experimented with process, subject matter and genre, most often starting in traditional roles of lyricist (me) and composer (him) but as each song took shape and started making its own demands, the roles sometimes blur.

Tyrone and Lesley, Backstage at the 2013 Melbourne Ukulele Festival (Photo Joyclyn Vincent)

Tyrone and Lesley, Backstage at the 2013 Melbourne Ukulele Festival (Photo Joyclyn Vincent)

To choose from group of discrete songwords which lyric might be best to compose music for, and then within that set, to nominate one part as chorus, or not attend to another, is to perform an editorial role: to write. Sam does this. But musically the buck stops with him.

For me, to write words towards a style, to play with rhythm on the page, or to play alongside Sam as a musician (in person, or as recorded sound) as we realise a tune, is to arrange, and sometimes compose. I do this. But lyrically, the buck stops with me. We’ve not been too bothered by the bucks so far.

When I was younger I had pretensions towards being a poet. Perhaps you did too. But my poetry wasn’t much chop. Years of practice have taught me that  I’m not a poet: I’m a lyricist. Simon Frith (in his terrific book Performing Rites) suggests that “Good lyrics by definition…lack the elements that make for good lyric poetry…..good song lyrics are not poems because they don’t need to be: poems “score” the performance or reading of the verse in the words themselves, words which are chosen in part because of the way they lead us on, metrically and rhythmically, by their arrangement on the page. (…) Lyrics, by contrast, are “scored” by the music itself.”

We co-wrote a song via email when Sam was in Canada which ended up on the last Goodbye Notes album. We wrote novelty tunes for Tyrone and Lesley which gradually became more and more poignant. We mixed the emotional and the absurd. We mixed rehearsal with recorded sound, redrafting on the page, re-doing demos and developing songs live in the rehearsal room and on various stages.

After a lot of preparation we demoed our first brace of tunes (unattached to any project)  in Tom Green’s studio. Later we got paid to write children’s songs for a creative development. We wrote quite a few,  and when they were presented to the project,  played all in a row, there was both laughter and tears. Here’s one that gave us a sense we were onto something pretty special: much later I braved singing it for Tyrone and Lesley’s first album Ukulele Heart. It’s a risk to be this vulnerable in song, and I’ve no doubt I could never have done it without Sam.

The songs we made survived the project going arse-up, and more importantly we’d forged the foundations for a strong collaboration. Shortly after (and unbeknownst to me) Sam presented one of our grown-up songs  to a band he was playing in, Laique, and they recorded it on their first album. It received a commendation in the Queensland Music Awards. We got a gig collaborating with kids in schools out west for the Queensland Music Festival, writing eight songs in fewer days. Put it in a paragraph and it sounds like a progression.

Tyrone and Lesley's entourage: Backstage at MUF 2012

Tyrone and Lesley’s entourage: Backstage at MUF 2012

Suddenly we were cowriting a lot, squeezing in the work between everything else we do, and the songs we were making were being performed by us and others. For me it was good to transcend the personal flavour that singer-songwriter type music tends towards.

Being a fan of Al Bowlly and other antique musics, I started to get more formal with my writing, to push towards a classic feel without sacrificing originality. Right now, the more I do this, the more restrained the writing is: the more I write towards a world that is not my own, the more dynamic, and paradoxically, emotionally affecting the songs become.

Our process hasn’t settled. There’s no one way of writing a song. We’re playing with process, sometimes going music first. I’ll tend to be more mercurial, pushing a lot of lyrics towards Sam, and celebrating wildly when one of them’s shaped into a music moment. I want to share our new song with the world. Sam is more stoic, carefully seeking inspiration and methodically working (and reworking) the music until, paradoxically, it sounds effortless. Luckily we’re both able to play a song the moment it’s ready. I’ll play guitar or uke, Sam will play bass, guitar, piano or even drums. I’ll often record these attempts for later use. Chords are scratched down  in pencil, crawling over the lyrics or sitting in the margins on the music stand. We don’t use musical notation (which I can only barely read), we work by ear.

The song, thus shaped, begins to tell us what it wants, even before it’s finished. It starts to have its own life, and make its own demands.

Draft lyrics for 'Half Full' (Megarrity/Green)

Draft lyrics for ‘Half Full’ (Megarrity/Green)

As I settle down from my excitement that we’re making a new song, I can start to see what it needs too: perhaps the song was inspired by an initial image. That’s nice. To have painted it well using words and music. But I don’t want to hang a pretty picture on a wall, I want our song to be a doorway into a new place: maybe a place that’s different for each listener. I redraft. With music now in play, the song speaks back to the words, dictating refinements in syntax, image, scansion and rhyme. I’ll change these on the page, and sometimes overdub new words as scratch vocals on demos as well.

Sometimes I’ll create a new ‘franken-demo’ of a song, bolting together rehearsal recordings and overdub other instrumental ideas over the top to create a fuller sonic landscape, just so it feels more like a finished song, even if it isn’t one yet.

Sometimes they are created quickly, like the above Tyrone and Lesley tune ‘Lonely’: the arrival of music suddenly dignifying a strange set of words:  sometimes its a more laborious process involving many drafts of lyrics or demos: but there are lots of moments to look forward to when you’re writing a new song  – the arrival of a demo via mp3, the silence before a new-born song is played in rehearsal, and the moment it’s played for an audience for the first time. The songs come to life alongside you. You can snatch 30 minutes to improve significantly on a set of lyrics, while the same time would have little impact on a larger project.

I’m writing songs with other composers, and I’m still composing them solo: It’s one of my favourite things to do. It’s the collaboration that’s often the keenest pleasure. It’s a leap in which you’re bound together.

I’m rubbish at maths but I feel strongly that the best collaborations are not simply additive (You do this, I’ll do that, then we assemble,) they’re exponential. Once you get to a certain stage of your songwriting practice,  you can marshal the elements to produce something that sounds roughly like what you anticipated: you can meet your own expectations. But productive and respectful collaboration can allow something quite wonderful to emerge that neither collaborator could have anticipated. This quote from John Cleese goes some way towards capturing the chance that can come into play when a process is carefully attended to:

“The really good idea is always traceable back quite a long way, often to a not very good idea which sparked off another idea that was only slightly better, which somebody else misunderstood in such a way that they then said something which was really rather interesting.”

part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5

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