Every song is a journey – at the middle of which is a compelling statement, an engaging story, an emotion. Set to a melody – it’s your perception, your belief, what you struggle with, or towards – your aspirations. And whether the song reveals your deepest corners or is a story captured and told through your eyes – whether it’s your song to sing or for someone else to sing – at the heart of the song, is you.
In February I received a Songwriters Association of Canada (SAC) email about the 2014 Songwriting Challenge hosted by Christopher Ward. Six songs in six weeks with almost a hundred writers participating. My brain ramped up, I held on, and wrote and wrote and wrote as the songs came to me.
The final weeks’ challenge – to collaborate with another writer in the group. Although I’m no stranger to co-writing, I’ve become pretty entrenched in my solitary writing ‘space’. So collaborating with someone I didn’t know and anticipating that it was likely going to take place over Skype, I thought was going to be completely out of my comfort zone. However, determined to successfully complete the challenge, I reached out to singer/songwriter North Easton from Ottawa. I had been intrigued with North, and the songs he had been posting throughout the challenge. I also very much admired the intensity, emotion and tone in his voice. Genuinely talented – this ‘might’ work.
One week, one song with very little time to spend working on it – North and I were literally thrown together into virtual space with our individual styles.
We both agreed that a photography exhibit by Boston, Massachusetts photographer Trent Bell was of interest to write about. Bell had created a series of powerful portrait images that showed what a group of prison inmates would tell their past selves if they could turn back the hands of time. Each inmate asked to pen a letter to their past selves, Bell edited their letters into the background of their portraits, serving as powerful testaments to their regrets, their mistakes and their new-found wisdom. I was truly inspired by this body of work, as was North.
Now … North works on an ongoing basis with writers of all levels who look to him for his songwriting experience, expertise and guidance. He too has amassed a considerable catalogue of songs over his career and of course, established his own methodology for writing songs. After our initial conversation on Skype about our ideas and intention for the song, we both set off on our own to write. Feeling confident in North’s ability to drive the music, I focused my energy on building the story and lyric. Reading and rereading the prisoners letters, I felt their angst as I emotionally transported myself into the cold dark cell to sit on the cot and stare out the window. Meanwhile, North, excited with the potential in the song, quickly grabbed his guitar, climbed into his studio and sent me back an almost completed song – excited and confident that he had captured the ideas we had discussed. However, I had also written a lyric which I felt better captured what we needed to portray.
“This is not going to be easy” – a sentiment shared by us both. In fact, after our 2nd Skype session, with me standing my ground and North his – I was pretty sure I was going to end up writing my collaborative song all by myself. Clearly he was inflexible and this wasn’t going to work. And North was thinking pretty much the same thing about me. With the song at the middle we started talking, opening up, truly listening to each other, North agreeing that the direction of my lyric would serve the song better. And so with one week to complete the task, we battled back and forth, working nose-to-nose, each of us bringing the strength of our writing styles to the table. Our mantra “in the spirit of collaboration” was repeatedly mentioned (muttered) to underline changes we wanted, or would agree to. With barriers down, we experienced the magic and pure energy of the song unfolding and taking on its own life – each line, each note, getting stronger as we analyzed it, together.
“Turn”, is a song with passion and purpose. A song we both agree is some of the best work either of us has done. In fact, I sent it to the photographer with a note about the songwriting challenge, letting him know how far his reach had been with his “Reflect” project. His reply to hearing the song “I have not words. I could only cry as I listened”. Trent has since informed us of his plan to create a documentary around his “Reflect” project and has asked to use “Turn” in his soundtrack.
There’s an underlying magic in what North and I have working together – I’ve been writing long enough to recognize it when I see it. It was, and continues to be a rewarding experience working with North. As fate would have it, we now work together in weekly writing sessions and are in the midst of building some street cred for our songwriting alliance. And the challenge of long distance writing while not ideal, seems to fade into the background. I’m thankful that technology enables us to write together, however, I just know that if we could be 2 heartbeats in a room, our writing would fly even higher.
Since Turn, we’ve written “Deeper than the Ink” and “My Nicotine” which we’re in the process of recording, and we currently have more new songs in the works. While we continue to be two alphas in a virtual room, most importantly, we both greatly value what each of us brings to the collaboration. And because of this, we’re smiling more.
“Turn” is available to listen to in the “HEAR” section of my site www.rbtsong.com
I’m hoping to get Trent Bell’s “Reflect” project to show in Toronto. Will keep you posted on that.