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Lessons from a co-writer

What do you get when you cross a British busker with an Australian opera singer..? I’ll let you know a little later on…

I’ve been writing songs for many, many years now. Some have worked really well, others have missed the mark completely. But it’s only in the last 5 years or so that I’ve really begun to co-write. This is a completely different way of working, and yet I’ve learned more by writing in this way than in all the other years of writing solo. Why? Well, I believe it’s got something to do with the way we we’ve been created. We were never intended to be isolated creatures. When we come together with other people who love Jesus and want to see Him glorified, we end up creating something beyond what we could by ourselves.

Writing music is an incredibly vulnerable thing to do. You are opening up the secret places of your heart for all the world to see… and judge! It’s not just the words you use, but also the musical style, your playing, your singing and the depth of your theology. And let’s face it, the world of social media isn’t exactly the kindest. When you write with someone else, you're exposed to a whole new level of vulnerability.

Until about a year ago I wanted to co-write more widely but had huge insecurities – who would want to co-write with me? To my surprise, it turns out more people than I thought. I tentatively approached a few songwriters, who surprised me by graciously saying yes, and then others started to approach me. I’ve ended up writing with people across the world, sometimes getting up at 2am to write over video calls with songwriters in different time zones.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned about writing with other people:

Come to the table completely open-handed with your ideas:

If you’re willing to throw things out there and see what hits the mark, keep what resonates and throw out what doesn’t, then you have a great platform to work from. Rachel Wilhelm, songwriter and Vice President of United Adoration calls it ‘throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks’. I’ve discovered that I’m a huge spaghetti thrower. In a recent co-write I think we must have written 100 couplets trying to find the best 3rd verse we could.

The best co-writes I’ve had are when we each feel completely comfortable in throwing out ideas all over the place, knowing that we’re looking for the best way to say something to serve the song and those singing it, and aren’t focused on trying to get our lines or ideas in. Someone recently asked me which parts of a new song I’d written, and I honestly couldn’t tell them as we’d both shaped the whole of the song so much. Both of our ideas were woven all the way through that I couldn’t separate them. I love that.

No idea is a bad idea.

Much like throwing spaghetti at the wall… if you have a thought, say it. It may not be a good idea, but:

A bad idea can lead to a better idea...

to a good idea...

to a great idea...

to THE idea...

… and we may well never have got there if we hadn’t started with what wasn’t particularly strong. We learn as much from what we don’t like as what we do. So, weaker ideas can actually help form where we’re heading and keep us on track.

Fight for the ideas that are important to you:

There are some things that you know if you change then you’ll lose what you were writing about in the first place. But don’t be too hard, and be prepared to discuss it. At times I’ve been too close to an emotion or experience to see the wider picture – it’s helpful to remember that in congregational writing we’re serving something much bigger than an expression of our own personal journey.

Phrases like:

“I think I’d want to fight for that phrase/lyric/melody because I think it does this…”

“I feel quite strongly about that line/idea because… what do you think?”

“Where I’m coming from is… it would be good to…. Does that make sense?”

That way were not writing something off, but opening up a discussion about what is best for the song and those singing it and making sure that it is relevant to those outside of our own personal experiences.

Learn, learn, learn:

It doesn’t matter if you’re working with an experienced songwriter or someone new to the game, if we position ourselves as learners then we’ll grow.

As a music teacher I’ve helped several of my students write songs, one of whom is just 8 years old. I get him to pick the chords and a strumming pattern and, due to him being a complete beginner and not really understanding about keys and chord families he just puts things together that he likes. And they’re fantastic. It's so original and gives room for some really interesting melodic ideas. I’ve often had a little play around with those chord sequences myself and he’s cracked open my usual structures. And he's not the only one of them to have done that for me.

We can learn from everyone. Coming to a co-write with that attitude will hugely expand our songwriting capabilities.

Murder your darlings:

This is a well-known saying amongst the RESOUNDworship songwriting community that I'm a part of. You may have had a wonderful idea that started the song (a seed idea), or a fabulous lyric, but if what flows out of it means that it doesn’t fit, be willing to cut it. The same goes for any phrase or moment that you love but doesn’t quite work. Save it for another song.

If you’re finding it hard to adjust to something new in its place, give it a day or two to let your ear and mind get used to it, but be open minded. So many times I’ve not liked an adjustment, especially if it comes late in the writing process, but give it a day or two and it feels right, it can just take time to unlearn it and let the new way settle. Then you can give an honest opinion.

Write with people who aren’t like you:

Find people with different church backgrounds, cultures, writing styles… they’ll challenge you, for sure, but they will also draw out of you something that you couldn’t write without them. You may not end up writing a complete song, but you will have grown in your songwriting.

There will be people you may only write with once, but you’ll learn so much from them, and they from you. And there will be others that you write with and it just clicks - you both make each other better and a beautiful songwriting partnership is formed.

The thing is, you may well be surprised at who those people are.

So, to answer my opening question, here is what happens when you cross a British busker with an Australian opera singer… a song that neither party would have written without the other, that is different from their usual writing styles and that both of them actually really love. A song that has been selected for the upcoming Resound Worship double hope/lament album, Downcast Souls, Expectant Hearts.

When you merge music and writing styles, with God at the centre and a desire to see Him glorified, you end up with something unifying. Only God can do that!

So, step out, go for it. Be brave, push your insecurities aside and begin by asking people you know and trust to write with you. Let’s see what God will do with you and through you.

pictured above, Andrew Finden & Rebecca Beese, co-writers of There Will Be A Day, release date TBC

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