Posted by: Debra Alexander / wordmavenmusic | May 16, 2012

Creative Considerations for Collaborating

Debra with David Leask

Last Friday I did a collaborative workshop called “Writers Connect” for the Glenn Gould Foundation and The Songwriters Association of Canada. I was honoured to be one of the mentors, which included Blair Packham, Carole Pope, and Ayah. We each talked about our collaborative experiences. As the only (mostly) non-performing songwriter, my path to finding collaborators seems to have been different than theirs. While they likely started co-writing with members of their band or the producers of their latest records, I started co-writing because publishers in Nashville told me to.

I’d come to Nashville as a 24 year old with 25 or 30 songs, all written by myself, and the idea of collaborating was a shock to me. I’ll never forget going to an NSAI workshop where some country writer described co-writing as “three people trying to get together to have a baby” —a completely unnatural process. So I knew I wasn’t alone!

Typical reasons to co-write (and you can find these in most any book on songwriting) include:

—to arrive at a better song than either (or any) of you would write on your own

—to boost your output

—to bolster some aspect of your whole songwriting game (i.e., you need someone with production chops or networking skills)

—to establish discipline and accountability for your writing routine

—to break you out of a solo-writing block

—to be pushed by a trusted colleague to write your very best

—to have more chances of getting the song recorded (because both you and your co-writer are exploiting your separate connections)

—to meet more potential collaborators (because your co-writers will introduce you to people in their networks)

—to develop a relationship with an artist or producer

—to get and give emotional support

—to have more fun!

But even when presented with such a list of benefits, I still wasn’t convinced that I could co-write with anyone. And I couldn’t (though I tried). I needed to understand the more immediate benefits of how my songs could improve through co-writing. However, because I didn’t really understand what my strengths and weaknesses were, I was writing with anybody who came along that was up for it. If you’ve ever been to a songwriter’s meeting where you draw random numbers and you’re paired off and you try to write something in a half hour or so, you know it can be a hit or miss type of exercise. Don’t judge collaborating under those kinds of forced circumstances. Rather, consider the following points and imagine an ideal collaborative session.

To get a sense of what your own strengths and weaknesses are, you can:

1) Get feedback from a music pro who works with songs day in and day out

2) Try writing a new lyric to an existing hit song

3) Try writing a new melody to an existing hit song

4) Try re-harmonizing an existing hit song

5) Examine your own songs and see if there’s a common thread to things you’re not satisfied with—ask yourself what you’d like to improve

Most song people will have an immediate sense of whether you’re better at writing music or lyrics. Or you might be quite proficient at both, but you need some more unique ideas/hooks/titles. It’s hard to get perspective when you’re inside your own songs, but usually you’re better at the things that come easier.

Then analyze your songwriting process. Can you identify more strongly with one or another of the following? Which are you?

Idea Generator—coming up with a concept for the song, whether it’s a groove, a title, a chord progression, a lyric, using a certain element of production, etc.

Title Writer—writing titles that cry out to be written and practically write themselves (“I’m Gonna Hire A Wino To Decorate Our Home” by Dewayne Blackwell springs to mind)

Song Starter—already having the beginning of a song in the form of a melody and a chord progression with a lyric, or just any combination of parts of those

Song Finisher—being able to execute the song to its completion by filling in the blanks

Song Editor—revising and tweaking the song so it is presented in the best possible way

Consider how you’ve written your most successful songs to date. Was it:

Lyrics first, music later

Music first, lyrics later

Music & lyrics together


Depending on the personality type of your co-writer, you’ll want to choose the best scenario for getting a song finished. Sometimes you need the energy of being together in the same room, and sometimes you need to be separate to do your thing.

You can be separate but together, in the same room, on the phone, or via Skype or an Online Chat.

Music & lyrics together—in the same room

Music & lyrics together—at a distance

Either way, you’ll engage in the Back & Forth Process. You could go quickly—and finish a song within hours, or a day or two. This usually happens for me only when I’m in the same physical space as my co-writer. You could go slowly—and take weeks, months, or even years to finish a song. I’ve experienced this via e-mails, as well as actual meetings, over a long period of time.

I am so grateful for the co-writers I’ve found, after years and years of looking. I now understand that it took me so long because I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for! But it was worth the wait. And I agree with Marilyn Bergman (lyricist for The Way We Were/The Windmills of Your Mind, etc. ) when she says of the ideal collaborator: “The most important elements are trust, respect, and a willingness to sound stupid.”

What’s your solo-write to co-write ratio? Most memorable writing session? Here’s to your writing bliss.

Debra with James Grant



  1. Debra, is there no end to your awesome?! I LOVE IT!!!!! ;p

  2. Great post Debra. I am a huge believer in co-writing…just co-wrote my entire album with different writers. What two heads can do is many times better than one. You learn a ton about yourself in the process as you described!! Thanks for summing it up so well.

  3. *GREAT* post, Debra! (And I was going to write this response even before being surprised by the picture at the bottom….) I love Marilyn Bergman’s spot-on comment, which couldn’t be more accurate.

    • James! I guess it’s possible to trust and respect someone and still not like them very much, as exemplified by some hugely successful collaborators (like Lennon & McCartney, Lerner & Loewe, and Rogers & Hart), but personally, I prefer BIG LOVE! 🙂

      • Well, I’m sure you know that everyone who collaborates with you feels that same BIG LOVE! You always bring that trust and respect to the table — not only for the person with whom you’re collaborating, but especially for the art and craft of songwriting. Working with you always feels like I’m getting together with family — AND collaborating with laser focus and concentration on a shared significant vision. What productive, fulfilling fun!

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