Given how mysterious some parts of the songwriting process are to even the most experienced songwriters, it’s understandable that there’s no clear formula for what makes great co-writing chemistry. In my experience, it has very little to do with the amount of time you’ve known someone or even how much you respect or admire their songwriting ability. And while some co-writing chemistry will always be unmeasurable, there are a few things that at least will be a solid indication of whether a co-write will work.
It probably goes without saying that when you co-write, you’re inviting someone into your creative space. This is the place you go – figuratively speaking – to explore your own emotions and stories and to bring them to life. It’s challenging enough to do this on your own but if you are going to share the process, it makes a huge difference to do it with someone you enjoy being with. I’ll never forget hearing a Nashville music publisher singing the praises of one of her writers by saying “I can put him in a room with anyone.” In other words, look for people who you wouldn’t mind being stuck in a room with for three or four hours. No matter how talented someone is, if they’re difficult to be around, it can make for an excruciating collaboration that will rarely lead to a great result.
The process of songwriting involves a decent amount of vulnerability when it comes to suggesting musical and lyrical ideas. It helps significantly to know that you’re safe to brainstorm and make potentially ridiculous suggestions along the way without being criticized or judged. If your co-writer engenders that kind of trust, not only will you enjoy the process more but you’ll also be brave enough to take lyrical and musical chances in a way you wouldn’t otherwise. This is where great songs come from. Often, right behind a seemingly nonsensical suggestion, is a brilliant one but it takes trust to put yourself out there in that way.
One of the very best parts of songwriting collaboration is working with someone who has songwriting strengths where you tend to struggle. It instantly frees you up to play to your own abilities and the song is always the better for it. If you love writing lyrics but struggle with melody, look for collaborators who are melodically gifted. This may seem obvious but if you’re a fan of someone’s songwriting and yet you’re both more lyric driven, you might end up struggling to agree on a lyrical approach while the melody suffers as well. In other words, working with a complementary talent is definitely worth keeping in mind.
Even if your co-writer has all of the qualities I’ve already mentioned, you don’t stand a chance of having a successful co-write if they’re not open to any of your suggestions. I’m not saying your co-writer has to agree with everything you bring up and, in fact, it’s often in searching for an alternate line after a co-writer doesn’t respond favorably to something you’ve said, that you come up with something great. Still, you need to feel as though your ideas are being generally well received otherwise a co-write can get discouraging very quickly.
A final quality of a great co-writer is someone who understands that the work isn’t done when you’ve finished writing your song. There are lots of decisions to make and work to do if your collaboration is going to have a chance of making you both some income. This work can include whether to demo your song, exploring pitch possibilities and a host of other things that have very little to do with writing talent. It’s nice to share the work of writing a song but it’s even nicer to share the less interesting work of getting your song out in the world. A co-writer who gets this part of the equation is a rare and valuable one indeed.
As I stated at the beginning of this post, there’s still no accounting for chemistry when it comes to a great co-writer but there are a decent number of qualities that you can look for that will give you an early indication of whether you’ve got a chance of hitting it off. Also, I should probably mention that exhibiting the same qualities I’ve just outlined for your co-writer is equally important for you.