The backstage world of artist co-writing sessions is the subject of this edition of Songwriter’s Handbook. An array of top songwriters, producers and artists, including RedOne, Fernando Garibay, Claude Kelly and Taylor Swift, offer revealing first-hand insight into how to get the very best out of artist co-writing sessions and what difficulties you might encounter trying to create a hit song together.
SONGWRITER’S HANDBOOK … #1 Co-writing with the artist - Aug 15, 2013
Click on the interviewee name for the original full interview.
What’s the attraction of writing with the artist?
LAUREN CHRISTY (songwriter/producer for Avril Lavigne, Ricky Martin, Korn ): “My favourite thing is when I’m told: ‘OK, we’re working with an artist. Can you sit down with him, get into their mind, and come up with the first single?’”
CLAUDE KELLY (songwriter for Britney, Christina Aguilera): “I love writing with the artist because then I get their point of view and that makes it easier for me.
CHRIS BRAIDE (songwriter for Pixie Lott, Clay Aiken, Diana Vickers, JLS): “I like writing with the artist because it’s more interesting. Once you’ve got the artist in the room you can make the record as you go. I never do demos, I always produce tracks as if they’re going to be on the record. So, when you got the artist in, you’re halfway there - you’ve got the voice on the track. As soon as the voice is on the track I say, “Aha! I can see this now.”
Also, you can write in a more interesting way. I could never write [Diana Vickers’] ‘The Boy Who Murdered Love’ with another songwriter and pitch it for lots of artists because it’s too obscure, too strange. When the artist is there and they’re a bit quirky then it’s more fun.”
CHARLIE GRANT & PETE WOODROFFE (songwriters/producers for Simply Red, Melanie C, Rooster): “These days it’s very hard to get cuts on songs which are not co-written with the artist. Most artists are reluctant to record songs they haven’t had a hand in.”
Why would a supposed “singer-songwriter” need assistance with writing songs?
SACHA SKARBEK (songwriter for James Blunt, Carrie Underwood): “When James [Blunt] and I first started working together although he had enormous potential he didn’t necessarily have all the songcraft; the understanding of how arrangements work or of how hooks are important and how they work. So not just the technical side but also in how to get your message across - when to make things simple and when to allow a little bit more imagery.“
How do co-writing sessions with an artist usually come about?
TOM NICHOLS (songwriter for Kylie, All Saints): Usually, you get a call from the A&R, the manager or whoever, who ask: "Would you like to get involved in this project"?
How do you prepare for a songwriting session with an artist?
LC: “We never go into a session cold. We listen to their music. We know the style of music they are doing and we always have about three or four ideas to play to them. We have a bit of a chorus or a verse.
“I start all of my co-writing sessions with girl talk”
I have my notebooks with me and we all have these Dictaphones to store our ideas. Then we pick up the guitar and take the piano and go, “Idea three, idea 22, these are the good ones” and we sing the ideas to the artist.”
: “Rather than start from scratch with three people in a room, I just try to get a skeleton of a song together, with gaps and missing lyrics, before they arrive to be certain we have something to get our teeth into.”
How does a typical session start?
: “On the first day it’s strange because the artists are sitting there with people they’ve never met. So we just have fun, play ideas and eat pizza just to get to know the person, till they feel like they can be free in front of us. You can’t be polite when you’re trying to write a song together.”
(songwriter for N'Sync, Boyz II Men
): “A lot of the time they really don’t know what they want. I just sit down and I talk to them. I have just a regular conversation about what’s going on in their life. And they tell me things about themselves and I go and write their whole life story in that one song.
And when they come back in a year, they’re like: Oh my God, I can’t believe you put it all in there! I just have to sit and listen to them, and then just make the story for them but at the same time make it relatable to everybody else.”
(songwriter/producer for Lady Gaga
): For the most part I sit with an artist and talk about ideas. I work best with visuals. So once an artist describes the vision for a song or a feeling I would start playing a few melodies on the keyboard or a synth. From there we get inspired and it will not stop till we get the song done.”
): “I start all of my co-writing sessions with girl talk. I walk in and I go, "I have to tell you what I'm going through right now" and I spend 25 minutes talking about the guy that I met four months ago and how things were fine and then he lied about this and I freaked out. I haven't been talking to him, but I really want to. I want to write a song about that feeling. And then I get out my guitar and say here's my idea, but I wanted to give you the back story before I played you the idea.”
(songwriter for Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, Akon
): “What proved to be the best thing for me was building something from the energy the artist gives me. Sure, I do the research about what the artist is, but you don't want to copy what they've already done. You want to come up with something new and mix up the two worlds together.
Most of the time, I create the track on the spot. Whatever vibe is there, or whatever energy the artist gives me. With Lady Gaga, I almost feel like I'm a mirror. She has crazy ideas - she's like a born energy of inspiration.”
Is it restrictive writing for an artist that has their own distinctive image and attitude?
(songwriter for Ladyhawke, Christina Aguilera, Rachel Stevens, Annie, The Saturdays
): I always find this works best because then you get a sense of what the artist is about. A true artist will have a clear idea of what they want to say and it's up to me to get on the page in a way that they're happy with and that reflects their image and attitude. They have to feel comfortable and above all feel able to sing it like they mean it!
What are some of the difficulties you encounter when writing with an artist?
: Sometimes it’s really hard when you’re working with a girl and her mother is there. Then we say: “Maybe just leave her with us for a while.” Then the girl will get to see that we’re just kids and then she lets her walls down. Once you have broken down that wall, you can start to really focus.
”You can’t be polite when you’re trying to write a song together”
Sometimes it’s just a sweet innocent kid with nothing to write about and you have to invent it for them. At that point we start pulling from our own lives. We are old enough and have lived through a lot of heartache and pain.”
(songwriter for Jennifer Lopez, Anastacia, Kelly Rowland
): “You have to be careful because you might be dealing with a fragile ego. Often, the artist doesn’t have the same reality as you, so you have to word things a little differently and be careful about where you go. You have to consider what they do and you have to think about whether that person would say the kind of lyrics and use the kind of melody you’re writing, and whether they want to go in the same direction they’ve been going or take it somewhere else.”
What do you do if ideas the artist is coming up with are awful?
(songwriter for Tina Turner, Joana Zimmer
): “You have to be a good diplomat and use your power of persuasion to turn that idea into something good. I’ll give you an example: I’m working with a talented up and coming singer who is 17 years old. She was sent round to me by her publisher, who had sent her to a number of well-known writers to collaborate with and they had all treated her like a kid, saying: “Look we’ve got a track here and you just sing on it.”
So I sat down with her and asked her: “what do you want to write about, what is bugging you? Because I’m not 17.” She came up with an idea which was incredibly cliché: she is going out with an older boy and her parents are worried. Songs like “Puppy Love” and “Young Girl” immediately come to mind, and they’ve been done a thousand times. But
, we twisted it and gave it a new angle: she is expected to emotionally act like an adult but she doesn’t have the power of an adult. It became a really good song.”
What kind of things do you have disagreements with artists about?
(songwriter for Monica
): “You do get artists that are a little particular about the melody or the lyric being a certain way and sometimes you’ve got to choose your battles. If not really that big of a deal, sometimes you compromise.
We’ll say: “Maybe we can keep your melody in the first half and then maybe we can change it here’ or, “I like that lyric, but maybe we could say it a different way.”
We’re professionals and we have to say: ‘It’s not that your idea’s not good but you have to trust that we’re professionals and we’ve been doing this for a while and we promised that we wouldn’t let you put an idea down that wasn’t good.”
(songwriter and music director for Stooshe
): “I’ve tried writing songs for artists and had a few bad experiences where they’d go: this lyric is not right, that lyric is not right, and we don’t like the demo singer. So I’d go into the studio, get a new singer in, re-record it and change everything, and then after all that they’d say it won’t get on the record anyway. And I’d be like: Why am I doing this?! Especially when I don’t like the changes I’m making.”
How do you deal with a situation where an artist wants you to change what you think is already a great song?
): “There was a time when I’d think, “It’s a big artist - if that’s what they want to do, I better do it”. 90% of the time you don’t get on a record if you do that. If it’s not a good piece of work it won’t stand up. So if I know it’s a hit concept, I won’t sacrifice it. But if it’s a frivolous, silly change then as long as it doesn’t damage the integrity of the work, I’ll go with it.
You don’t come up with a monster song idea everyday, and so if you have something that is particularly good, wait until somebody gets it.”
(producer/songwriter for Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alabama, Emerson Drive, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Bad Company
): “It’s important to be diplomatic. If an artist has a suggestion that you believe won’t work, you don’t say: “We can’t do that.” It’s more productive to say “I have tried that in the past and it didn’t work. That’s not to say that it won’t work in this situation, but let me give you a few examples where another approach was more productive.”
It’s extremely important to dig into the artist’s psychology, and express your opinions in a way that is diplomatic. The words you use are very important. If you simply say “no” all of the time, you will be out of a job.”
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* Co-writing sessions are the subject of Songwriter's Handbook
* Artists claiming song credits is the subject of Songwriter's Handbook