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Nashville, TN
USA

Blog

Cowriting

Jen Hartry

People in Nashville cowrite songs. Generally, you meet up with someone at 11AM, sometimes at your house, sometimes in a writers room on Music Row, and you get amped up on coffee together. With the coffee’s help you do one of two things: One, you get to talking about life, about what’s going on in your life, and how those goings-on have got you to thinking about this one thing, and how this thing seems song-worthy. Or, two, you get to talking about song ideas you have, and if you’re me, you figure out if you can connect to any of those ideas personally, whether it be through your own personal life, your sense of humor, or your sense of empathy. A lot of songwriters talk about how cowriting is like getting into a room with another person, sometimes a stranger, and pulling your pants down. 

I often think in a good cowriting session that the world would be a much more peaceful and lovely place if everyone talked to each other like two songwriters trying to get to the heart of a song. On one hand you’ve got two people who have agreed to admit that they are sensitive and vulnerable in both their experience of the world and the way they write about it. And on the other hand you’ve got two people who feel strongly and deeply about something, something that is true to them, and they have to work in such a way that the song, in the end, reflects that feeling. Inevitably, and hopefully, both writers compromise with each other, but they do not compromise their sense of truth or their sense of what makes a quality song. It’s a beautiful process that sometimes produces beautiful songs. And when you’ve experienced such a process and written such a song then there is no feeling quite like it.

Yet, though I’ve cowritten somewhere around 50 songs in my life, I’ve released only two cowritten songs myself (out of 40 released or soon-to-be-released tracks). I don’t know why, but I can’t really cowrite unless the song is for someone else, or for some other purpose. In fact, though I’ve made cowriting out to sound like the greatest thing ever, I am rarely as happy about the product of cowriting as I am about the product of solo-writing. Something happens to me in the process that keeps me distant from the work. When I wrote for EMI a decade ago, which is when I was thrown into the cowriting universe, I felt like the process was destroying me artistically. As over-the-top as it sounds, I would come out of writing sessions and feel like my soul had been assaulted, and I’d feel like the people I was writing with weren’t real artists. How could they be, with the types of songs they wanted to write? To me, they wrote all wrong. They wrote songs as a whittler whittles, from the outside in, tossing a title out like a block of wood and carving away at it until it resembled as closely and cleanly the title they’d thrown out. It was all about titles. I’d never written songs like this. I’d always written, say, to stick with the metaphor, as if I were suddenly trapped in a piece of wood and had to carefully claw myself out. In the end I’d turn around and look at the wood, and how I transformed it with my clawing, and I’d think, Hey, I made it pretty! In addition to that, it usually took a month or so for me to write a song, not a few hours. My metaphor-made-stupid aside, I was young, and so I thought my way was the right way. And I thought any song written with an inferior method was an inferior song. After I left Nashville, and EMI, I didn’t cowrite for more than ten years.

And now here I am in Nashville, about to sign a publishing deal again, and cowriting at least twice a week. What’s changed is that I can have fun with it now, and I can appreciate that as far as jobs go songwriting is a good one (not paywise, but satisfaction-wise). In other words, I don’t feel like my soul is under assault; perhaps because I spent ten years learning the layout of some of my soul and can therefore defend it. I’m also a lot more interested in different processes than I used to be. There are a few songs on my records (Holly, for example, off Vacations) that started as a title (or, in the case of Holly, a pun), and they turned out pretty good (in my opinion), and I’d like to be not so stuck in my one way of songwriting. With a less precious and defensive state of mind I’ve already learned a few really valuable things in my recent cowrites, and I’m glad for that. Still, despite all that, distance remains between myself and these songs. I’d like to think that maybe the more I practice it the more I’ll close the gap, because the gap makes me feel not just like I’ve done something kind of inferior, but kind of wrong. Which leads me back to the feeling I had at EMI, which, if history were allowed to repeat itself, could drive me away from Nashville songwriting again. 

But maybe it’ll always be there, and maybe it’s a good thing to feel that way, and maybe I wasn’t all wrong in my youthful artistic righteousness. It could be that I just had it backwards. Because these days, when I get the feeling of having done something wrong, I no longer think it’s the result of some failure to defend my artistic soul against attack. Instead, I blame it on a failure to advance my artistic soul in its own offensives, to expand its empire. That’s a horrible way of putting it, especially after claiming that cowriting might be a way toward world peace. But I guess that’s the whole thing, ain’t it? It’s tough to fit souls together.