Creative collaboration is very much like dating. I can't think of any other experience that comes close to the strange alchemy that either happens, or doesn't. Everyone has that person in their life, someone you really admired and were absolutely sure if they just returned the admiration that you would dance, heel-clicking, off into the horizon...only to discover that your dream came half-true. You DID get close to that person, and found out that they only brush their teeth twice a week. Or yell at their mother. Or give you dirty looks when you eat meat. The idea of what you think your partnership will be doesn’t turn out to have the right chemistry even though you were sure it would. Well, creative collaboration is very similar, and also similar in the way that you get better at predicting success, knowing what to look for, being totally fine when it doesn’t work out, and counting your lucky stars when it does.
My most recent creation, a 3-track EP called MACHIN(e), was the result of a wonderful creative collaboration with ASCAP songwriters Kate Shorr and Tim Burlingame from L.A.-based duo Sweet Talk Radio. The first thing that I will say about great collaborations is to always look to work with people whose opinions you trust, and that you think are better than you are at something. Sweet Talk Radio have a beautiful sensibility for unexpected folk-pop songwriting and production that have garnered them some great placements in film and TV. When it came to knuckling down lyrics on one of the songs, "Machine In My Chest," we all loved the concept. And loved it so much that the song in its original form seemed to move away from the central image without giving it a chance to be the star of the show. So we re-wrote the verses to all start with the same line, and work out from there. Adding a really strong and catchy chorus was also important to taking an idea that is kind of literary, "there’s a machine inside my chest," and making it totally accessible: "I wanna heart that never aches, that never breaks." Having two other songwriters' ears on the revising process crafted it into something much tighter and catchier, something that will ultimately (I hope!) bring across the image and the idea in a more immediate way.
Which brings me to another really important skill in collaboration: being prepared to work hard on revising, and letting go of what you thought you had. Another song I brought in was called "Waiting for You." It was the story of a friend pining for the unrequited love of someone, and waiting for them to realize. Through collaboration, we got deeper into this story, and realized that a more fundamental desire is to be recognized, or seen. The song transformed into the track "See Me At All," and is so much stronger for the collaborative feedback.
Ultimately, a fulfilling creative collaboration happens when you create something that is bigger than the sum of its parts. Sometimes that's going to be working with people whose strength is your weakness, and vice versa. And sometimes it's the beautiful chemistry that can't be defined but works beautifully. It's a delicate dance between building up experience, and always being open to the mystery.
Keppie Coutts is an APRA/ASCAP songwriter, alumna of the ASCAP Foundation Lester Sill Songwriting Workshop, and has been a songwriting instructor at the Berklee College of Music, and the Songwriting School of LA. Her new EP Machin(e) is available now via Keppie's Bandcamp keppiecoutts.bandcamp.com page.
Find out more about Keppie at www.keppiecoutts.com.