It’s the best way to raise the bar.
When I first decided I wanted to be a professional songwriter, I would have done anything to get in the room with writers who were better than me. It was something they — the mysterious “they” who know everything — called “Writing Up.” I imagine this would apply not just to songwriting, but to film composing, guitar shredding, even tennis playing! Everyone, in fact, should strive to Write Up, no matter what level you’re at. That’s how you improve your game.
That’s why I was so stoked back in 1990-something when, during a meeting at a record label, Jay Landers, the A&R man in attendance, put a call in to Albert Hammond (who wrote “It Never Rains in Southern California” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” among other classic songs) and asked if he would consider co-writing with an unknown.
Albert didn’t flinch.
A week later I showed up at his door in Reseda, California with a couple of song “starts” (the seed of an idea) and a smile. Albert suggested I sit at the keyboard and freestyle while he sat by my side in a red velvet high-backed chair (like a king on a throne) and considered my moves — basically blocks of four-chord progressions with an occasional syncopation thrown in randomly. “Eighth-note-heaven” was another go-to maneuver. Very sophisticated … NOT. Who ever said you had to be a virtuoso to write a song? I’d be in a lot of trouble if that were the case.
Albert was directing me this way and that: “Go here! No, go there! Use the IV chord!” Who was I to question him? He of many huge copyrights. Me of no-name.
I did my best. When you get in the room, that’s what you do. (Actually, what am I saying? You should always bring your best.)
At the time, it felt like I was doing the heavy lifting. But for every chord progression I put forward, Albert pulled out a hook. Amazing. How does he do it? I remember thinking. Hopefully, from him I will learn.
Working with Albert definitely made me better. And, reciprocally, I choose to believe that I offered him something of value as well — if not decades worth of experience, then perhaps a little songwriting cardio. 🙂 He enjoyed it. It was obvious. We had a whole lotta fun. And we got that song recorded, too. Here it is! (The production is admittedly a little dated, but 25 years later it’s still bringing in some $$).
In order for a coupling of a newbie and a seasoned pro to thrive, the pro, in my opinion, has to be willing to play the roll of mentor. It’s not the same dynamic as a one-on-one with a peer of equal skill. That said, every new collaborator — young or old, green or uber-successful — draws something different out of their partner, just like the color red looks different next to blue than it does next to yellow. Even if you’re a jaded journeyman, you still may discover something new within yourself that you never realized you had before.
Funny thing is, I used to be that newbie. But over time, roles change. I am now the more mature and accomplished veteran (how does that happen?) just like Albert was for me. And because we vets came of age with a guitar in hand (or a piano at our fingertips), we usually bring singer-songwriter style contributions — an idea, an angle, some irony at the end of a story. Whereas a younger writer, who’s more in touch with modern arrangements (and algorithms) tends to have the tricks up their sleeve — sound bites, catchy phrases, mainstream structure. They often take my idea and put it in a trendier “package.” And let’s face it: No matter how stellar my concept is, if I want my song to get covered, I have to consider incorporating something contemporary into it.
A generation gap in a writing room can be just what the doctor ordered. Looking back, I think Albert needed some fresh blood in his creative life. And now, at least once in a while, I do too. So let’s keep trying to Write Up. If everyone does their job it can be a rewarding and productive experience. Don’t worry, the tables will turn soon enough. And hopefully everyone will get a chance to sit on the other side.
Photograph courtesy of the author.