by Marti Jane Dodson
Jan 16, 2018
I wrote songs for about 5 years before the first time I had anyone at a ‘professional’ level chime in on my writing or critique any of my songs. (Disclaimer: that autocorrected to ‘I wrote dogs for about 5 years’….and I’m not all that sure it isn’t accurate.) There were bits and pieces of goodness in those early songs-a clever lyric here, a hooky melody there-rarely in the same song-but for the most part, they’re exactly where they belong (sealed in my storage shed in dozens of envelopes full of cassette tapes I mailed to myself to protect my copyrights. GO AHEAD AND LAUGH AT ME BUT THAT’S WHAT THE BABY INTERNET TOLD ME TO DO IN THE LATE 90’S.)
Being a part of this summer’s Songtown Master Class has really reminded me what it felt like to be a new(ish) writer. It’s a lot to take in when you pour your creative heart out in three minutes and somebody tells you all the ways it oughtta be better. All the memories stirred up by this class have reminded me of some mistakes I made as a new professional writer (by ‘professional’, I mean when I really started trying to write songs that had a chance to be heard by anyone other than my college roommate, my cat Ming with the bladder problems, and Joel the cute guitar guy from the fraternity down the street.
But it’s not just new or untested writers who make mistakes-in some of my early co-writes with seasoned pros, there were occasionally some things that didn’t sit right with me, and they were mistakes I didn’t want to make in my future. So I thought it might be fun to talk about a couple of sessions from my early co-writing years where both novice writer me, and my proven hit co-writers could have learned a thing or two from each other. Not that we did…but we could’ve.
This one time, in L.A.
I had already scored a pop hit with my band’s song, and this opened the door for me to get into a room with huge hit writers who would never have agreed to write with me before I had a ‘track record’. What ensued was a horrible waste of everyone’s time that I still shudder to think of.
This being my first writing trip to LA, I was unaware of the pitfalls of the traffic there. If my GPS told me it took 30 minutes to get somewhere, I gave myself 35 minutes to get there.
I ended up being two hours late. This was out of my control, but if I had been better prepared, I would have known I needed much more time to travel the short distance to where I was going. Being late and frustrated by the traffic, I walked into the room frazzled, apologetic, and embarrassed-already at a disadvantage.
The next thing that happened was something that unfolded many, many times during my artist career. Professional writers often viewed me as ‘just an artist’ and assumed I didn’t really write and had little to do with the creative input on my songs. This assumption was mistaken, as I had been a writer on all of my songs, sometimes the only writer. In this situation, once we had all briefly introduced ourselves, I LITERALLY CEASED TO EXIST in the room. The two writers ignored all of my ideas, spoke over top of me when I made a suggestion, and insisted that we work on a title I didn’t want to write. (The reason I didn’t want to write it? It was a title that has already been written. Yes, you can’t copyright a title..but there are some titles that are untouchable. I wouldn’t walk into a write suggesting that we write ‘Jack and Diane’ or ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’-even if I had a new, fresh approach. This was one of those types of titles, and I attempted to point that out and was promptly ignored.) The end result was that I sat on the couch silently fuming for hours, they sat in ergonomic chairs arguing with each other about the right way to re-write this idea for hours, no song was written, everyone was hungry, and we all went home mad.
Let’s tally up our co-writing mistakes:
*being unprepared, which made me very, very late. I am never bothered when someone is 10 to 15 minutes late for a write, and I am often this late myself depending on circumstance/traffic/Gary The Dog’s great escape attempts. But two hours is just blatantly obnoxious and tough to explain.
*Showing up frazzled and frustrated, therefore not in the proper headspace to be creative. Sometimes it’s better to reschedule than waste everyone’s time if you can’t contribute. I’ve been in writes where people were physically there, but not mentally present, due to personal issues they had going on-and it sucks for everyone in the room.
*Being intimidated by my cowriters, to the point that I didn’t speak up for myself or the song. No matter how inexperienced you are, all human beings have perspective, and that has value. Songs are usually intended to be universally understood, so every contributor, with his or her unique point of view, should have a stake in what the end result is.
*Assuming since I was an artist, I was incapable as a writer. There are certainly times writers will end up writing with an artist who can’t or doesn’t contribute much. We write with them in spite of this because we want a shot at making the record. But many artists are very skilled writers, and to immediately write someone off (HA! I’M PUNNY!) only insures that you won’t write the best song you could have written, and that the artist won’t want to work with you again.
*Assuming since they were the ‘pros’ in the situation, they were above the rules of the game, and could write anything they wanted and couldn’t possibly be wrong about that because, you know, hits. Even pros can have bad ideas. The REALLY pro move here, would be to be able to acknowledge that you had a bad idea and move on.
This one time, in Sweden
This was my first overseas writing trip. Technically, I was meant to be writing for my second record as an artist, but the publisher who paid for my trip was also looking for songs to pitch. I was booked two and sometimes three times a day to make the best use of my time-often if we take an expensive trip to write, we overbook our days because we don’t want the inevitable cancellations to waste our time there when we could be working. This write just happened to be the third of the day and remarkably none had cancelled. I had an itinerary that told me where to be and who I was writing with, so I showed up at an underground studio looking for one dude. I found that person..along with three others..whom he had decided to ‘bring into the write’. So my two way split song turned into a five way split song without my consent, before it was even written. Not only that, but one of the three random joiners ‘only had an hour ‘-so he wanted to get started so he could put in his input and get his share before he had to leave the rest of us to finish the song (!!!).
We started out by working up a great pop melody and building a track with some nonsense filler lyrics. (Or so I thought..dun dun DUN!!) My experience thus far on this trip had been that I would be the primary lyric writer. Often in other countries where English is not the first language, writers will defer to the English speaker on lyrics-there are some things we don’t think about that get lost in translation, like cliches, slang, and other things that would make perfect sense on American radio, but not necessarily to, say, an English speaking German. Once we got the track going, I started to drop in the lyrics I had been working on-I had a personal idea that I wanted to write. In hindsight, it was fine for an artist’s personal project (you know, ME)..but maybe not as a pitch for other artists. The main cowriter objected to my lyrics, because unbeknownst to me, what I thought were the nonsense lyrics were what they thought should be the actual lyrics. Now, these lyrics weren’t total nonsense-they rhymed and made sense-but they were exceptionally trite and worn out, especially for an intended American pop song. The end result was after hours and hours of going in circles, I was offended, exhausted, and silently fuming (detect a pattern here?) and we ended up recording both versions of the song. Neither one got cut, not even for my own record, but there was some publisher feedback indicating that the lyrics I had deemed too ‘cheesy’ were actually the more pitchable version of the song.
*Not speaking up for myself. When I showed up and the other writer invited three more people into our song, I had every right to say no. Dang the Midwestern in me, I just went along with it to keep the peace (I’m fairly convinced that my untimely death will be a result of me politely going along with something stupid to keep the peace).
*Assuming I knew best regarding the lyrics just because I was the primary English speaker in the room. As evidenced by the publisher feedback, my lyrics weren’t the best of the day.
*Getting my feelings hurt because someone suggested they had a better idea than I did. I was pretty green at this time and very sensitive to perceived criticism. (Have you guys seen the meme of the little marshmallow that says ‘I Am Soft, Pls Do Not Yell At Me’ ? That was me back then.) When you’re writing a song that you want to be a hit, the most pitchable idea wins, regardless of whether it’s yours or somebody else’s.
*Springing a bunch of cowriters on me without discussing it with me or my publisher first. Co-writing should be an endeavor that starts from a place of mutual respect and consent..and ends with a song everyone is proud to be part of.
*One of said cowriters having to leave an hour into the write, but assuming the rest of us would finish the song (which ended up taking several hours) and share equal credit. This is just common sense as far as I’m concerned-if you have a finite amount of time, let your co-writers know up front and expect that you’ll all get back together another day to finish the song. Everybody has to do the work if everybody wants the credit.
*Not thinking everything I said was a pure and shining gem of glorious genius wisdom. (Haha! Just seeing if you’re paying attention!)
In these situations, both the rookie and the pros made mistakes that could have been avoided. In round two of this blog, I’ll talk about some co-writes where both the rookie and the pros did things right!! In the meantime..I am soft, pls do not yell at me.
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