How to Be My Substitute Cowriter

All right, thanks for filling in for me. I know you might not have cowritten a song, let alone written a song before, but you’re all I’ve got. Don’t worry, I’m going to show you exactly what to do, ok? 

First off, you can call it a “write” or “session” or “cowrite.” But notice I don’t use a hyphen (co-write). That’s a dead giveaway you haven’t cowritten much. Nobody uses a hyphen around here because the word is so common that it would take up too much time over the course of a career. One millisecond starts to add up. Do you want to be typing hyphens or use the time to finally start that hobby? 

Ok, second. Cowrites almost invariably start at 11am. Partly because Nashville is structured around family, school, and staying up late attending gigs. Sessions happen anywhere and everywhere — Music Row, publishers’ offices, living rooms, home studios. I’m very fortunate to have a writing space and studio in my backyard. So most cowriters will come to you when you fill in for me. 

I know I said cowrites start at 11am, but what I meant was 11:15 or 11:30. Songwriters are almost never on time. Try not to judge them too harshly. After all, the only traffic you’re going to brave is the backyard squirrels. 

So very loosely around 11am you will see a stranger pull into the driveway. They have either Uber’ed or driven themselves. You’ll be somewhat familiar with this stranger because weeks prior my publisher will have sent you samples of their work. If you’re like me, there’s a 75 percent chance you will have googled them or stalked them on Instagram. It’s nice to know you have few friends in common. It’s nice to know their google results didn’t produce an FBI alert. 

Lead them into the kitchen and make them a pour-over coffee. Ask about where they’re from and what they’ve been up to recently. Try not to let on that you know most of this already because you’ve scrolled their IG feed. The goal here is just to make them feel comfortable. 

You should then open the backdoor and begin walking to the studio. They will probably mention Heidi’s garden and that they’ve always wanted to garden. Please tell them they should. Life is short. And the Internet or Heidi will answer any questions they have. 

Once in the studio, you’ll continue your conversation, sipping hot coffee. At some point, somebody has to signal that they want to start writing a song. A person putting on their coat at a restaurant suggests it’s time to go. My go-to signal is to grab my Martin acoustic guitar off the wall and begin plucking a few strings like I’ve just sat down at Guitar Center. 

I should mention here that cowriting is all about trust. If it doesn’t feel like you’ve established enough, then the conversation can go longer. I’ve had cowriters just want to get coffee first before they decide to write at a future date. I’ve had artists talk for two hours before they sing a note. It just depends. Be prepared to go out into the wilderness and do trust falls. 

While cowriting, remember what your third-grade teacher told you about the classroom: there are no dumb questions, no dumb ideas. That’s true in a cowriting session. In fact, the only dumb idea is to make your cowriter feel like their idea is dumb. If you make them feel this way you’ll regret it. You will notice the faucet closing. What do I mean by “faucet”? 

I like to affectionately think of my cowriter as the loveliest faucet in all of Home Depot. Less affectionately I consider myself a five-gallon empty bucket in dire need of water. I don’t really care about the quality. I just need to fill it up. We can filter the water later. A cowriter who feels dumb only drips. No, don’t be disingenuous. You don’t have to pretend all their ideas are brilliant. Just use common sense. 

Once the first verse and chorus are completed, you’ll experience a temptation to pat yourself on the back more than you deserve. Yes, appropriate amounts of back tapping are fine, but too much and you won’t finish the song. A half-written song is similar to an episode of Fixer Upper on HGTV. Except in this episode, after Chip and Jo’ do the big reveal out on the front street, and after they’ve toured the living room and kitchen, the lovely homeowner couple sees that the back half of the house is still in shambles. Just a drywall guy sitting on the floor eating a ham sandwich. 

So, at this half-written song intersection, you have a couple of options: go to lunch or don’t go to lunch. There’s a benefit to both, but each has its own perils. 

If you go to lunch, I suggest you go to my favorite restaurant El Fuego. I recommend the Burritos East, but everything on the menu is good. The problem is, after you’ve partaken in the greatest meal this side of the Mississippi, you’ll lack motivation to craft the final words and melodies much needed back at the Half-Written Song Ranch. In fact, the only motivation you’ll feel is to hibernate. 

Option two? Well, if you avoid lunch, you will likely finish the song. The problem is your grumbling stomach will reach a decibel hard to ignore. A few snacks might tame it, sure, but you’ll still hear the little monsters. Plus, the microphones will likely pick them up on the demo you’re about to record.

Whatever you decide, please just muster the strength to write another verse or two and a bridge if need be. 

When the song is finished, and if your cowriter is the singer, record them singing a scratch vocal after you’ve laid down a rhythm guitar or piano track. That way you can later record other instruments and play around with the direction the recorded song might go.

You’re about done now. It’s time for goodbyes. I should warn you, this part is a bit strange, but I’ve gotten used to it over time. Cowriting a song is the get-to-know-you equivalent of five coffee dates. If you get coffee with a stranger five times, they are no longer a stranger but a friend. This is what you’ll feel with your cowriter. Should they need anything in the future, you will be there for them. Sending Christmas cards, remembering birthdays and other special occasions won’t be out of line. But asking them to be your child’s godparent is. Remember, you’ve really only known this person for about five hours. 

Give your cowriter a hug unless they’re from the Midwest, then a handshake will do just fine or a farewell that lasts about 17 minutes. Tell them you’ll work on the demo and send it to them in the coming days. 

At this point, my kids will want you to come inside the house and play “Monster.” This just means you crawl around the house on all fours and let them jump on you, but we can get into those instructions at another time. 

Thanks for doing this, and if you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask.