Thursday, May 08, 2008

It Takes Two, Baby - Measure for Measure - Opinion - New York Times Blog

One of my favorite things to do is to get with a singer and write songs for (and with) them. In this new entry in the songwriter blog, Measure for Measure, from the NY Times, songwriter Darrell Brown hits it right on the head. I felt like I could have written this myself.

It Takes Two, Baby

By Darrell Brown

I love people. I could not even begin to count how many times my dear friends have tortured me — lovingly, of course — about my unlimited affection for any and every stranger who comes my way. I have made myself late to many a movie or dinner engagement by getting into impromptu conversations with the valet, the police officer, the mailman, the crossing guard, the paperboy, the street vendor, the truck driver. They could be 4 years old, 98 years old, it doesn’t matter. I have gotten lost in conversations with them. I can’t help it. I just love people.

When it comes to writing songs, I’m the same way. I just love co-writing. I can write songs by myself all day long, but it’s simply not as much fun for me as writing with someone else. As it turns out, most of the songs I write are collaborations. So I am happy on that count. I have found collaboration to be a brilliant way to grow as a writer, take a new path or discover a different view of a song. It always teaches me something.


Sometimes, if I know I am going to be writing with someone else, whose personality and style I don’t know that well, I may gather the scraps of a musical or lyrical idea on my own, but I intentionally don’t go past a certain point with some aspect of the song, to leave room for my collaborator’s input. It’s like being an actor and preparing for a scene. You do your homework, show up, then react to what your partner gives back.

I go into each co-writing experience with the belief that the other person I am writing with has a voice as important as my own.


Exactly. And even more to the point, I dig deeply into their minds and psyches to find points of view that would never occur to me. It's in the individuality and specificity that great songs are born.
One evening LeAnn and her husband Dean came over to our house for dinner. As it happened, LeAnn had been having some family issues, and that day had been a weird and emotionally cathartic day for her. I was going through a similar experience myself and so we ended the evening talking for an hour or so about learning to let go of people and things in our life that we have no control over. Basically, we were having our own little therapy session (actually, a lot of songwriting sessions start out that way).

Well, near the end of our talk I started typing out phrases. Just as she was about to knock me on my head for playing with my computer and not listening to her, I read her back a lot of what she had said. Right there and then we started arranging the sentences and phrases into couplets, then arranging the couplets in verse order. The mood of everything we were talking about was still hanging deep in the air, so the tempo and the chords fell naturally into place. The verses came out in that one session.

My technique is to ask the singer to write me an essay about some very intense experience. Just tell the story without regard to form or rhymes or anything else. Then, I'll take that paragraph and start breaking it down, sentence by sentence, trimming words, rearranging phrases and looking for ways to make it all rhyme.

Darrell continues telling the story of how this one song was born. I suggest reading it. It's very much like how I've ever written anything. In little bits over a period of time, letting each new section announce itself in due course.

Appended to the blog is a humorous listing of the traits of bad songwriting partners.

The “Legal Beagle” Songwriter : They approach co-writing as if they are negotiating a contract, constantly looking to make sure everything is “even Steven.” For example: “You wrote 49 words so far and I wrote 37 words so in the bridge I get to write at least 12 more words than you — because if I don’t the song won’t feel like it is half mine. And the next time we write I get to bring in the idea unless of course you have a better idea and in that case I get to write more than 50 percent of the chord structure.” So on and so forth.

The “Factory” Songwriter: They write as if they are working on an assembly line. Put the nut in, turn screw to the left two times — next please. Put the nut in, turn screw to the left two times — next please. Try to change the design or break the mold to get something different out and that songwriter’s machinery will shut down saying, “that isn’t how it is suppose to be done.”

Oh, yes, and then there’s the dreaded Songwriter Bully. This is a co-writer who wants his or her way no matter what. It is their song or no song at all. They will wear you out. The bullying usually comes with the rolling of eyes and some belittling of your ideas or just plain ignoring you as if you are not in the room. No fun to be in the songwriting playground sandbox with them and what’s the point of writing songs if you can’t have fun at least most of the time?

I've known and worked with all types. But usually, I'm best with singers who haven't written much. I like opening them up to the creative process and showing them that they, too, have a point of view -- and having an original and specific point of view, after all, is what makes one a true artist.

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The Steve Show #screamcry

My first show since my surgery. With Blake Zolfo.