The Art of Co-writing

By

“Something You Choose” (unfinished)
by Kelly Burton and Ben Shive

The Lord must want me to start co-writing. It keeps coming up.

Before January of this year, I had avoided co-writing like the plague. Why? I guess I’ve always been a bit cynical about the outcome and even more cynical about the process. In my view, the difference between the process of writing by myself and that of co-writing has always looked something like this: when I write for myself I attempt to come up with the words that will most delight me; in a co-write I try to come up with the words that I hope will least offend what I perceive to be my partner’s sensibility. Sound like fun?

But I don’t feel that way anymore. I don’t know what happened. My distaste for it simply vanished.

It might be that I wrote two records by myself. And yes, I was trying to prove something. But what I ended up proving (NOT my intent) was that it’s lonely when you don’t have anyone with whom to share your victory, or worse, your defeat.

Or—Lord I pray it’s true—it might be that I’m in the foothills right on the border of that lovely country called Over Myself. If I am approaching that fair land, let’s be very clear that God brought me to the verge of this country and on the way I got dysentery and my wagon caught fire—both clearly my fault. I can think of two modes by which God would have brought me safe thus far. One would be the aforementioned two albums’ worth of trying to be Brian Wilson’s heir-apparent only to find out that was a dumb dream. Don’t argue. The other would be ten years’ worth of producing, every day of which I’ve had to make the decision of whether to appease my unholy ego or to render the best service I can to my artists.

I met with Charlie Peacock a few years ago and in his words I saw my next twenty years of spiritual and professional growth. He told me he believed in his own ideas more than ever but that never has he been less interested in pursuing them. Why? Because he has become so captivated with other people’s ideas and because he has learned to choose loving his listener over flattering his gigantic brain. Yowza! Them’s words to get excited about. Am I going to write my string arrangement all by myself today to prove that I can or am I going to ask the artist if she wants to sing some ideas together? Am I going to bristle when the producer says he doesn’t like the first piano hook that popped into my head or am I going to get excited because that sounds like an invitation to go find something even better together?

Maybe that’s why I feel like co-writing all of a sudden. Regardless of how I feel about it, it’s the order of the day. Like I said, God keeps putting it on my plate right next to the humble pie.

Take, for example, the curious case of Kelly Rae Burton.

Kelly Rae Buuuuurrrrrrtooooonnnnnnnn. I elongate her last name so profusely because she’s just that good. She’s got a beautiful country voice somewhere in the neighborhood where she can borrow a stick of butter from Alison Krauss and a cup of sugar from Mindy Smith. And let me tell you, she has got the songs to throw at it! Her songs are so good I pretended they weren’t just so she’d let me write more with her.

She came to Nashville and brought with her three or four songlets as she called them. A verse and a chorus and a shrug of the shoulders as to where they should go from there. She played me all of them and we picked one at random because they were all lovely.

We didn’t pick out china patterns
Baby you and I were paper plates
We didn’t rent a car
I don’t recall a sunset
We took your old Ford
And made our escape

And I won’t say the rain came down on our parade
But I won’t say the dream came true
We set up camp somewhere in the middle
And we’re still
Learning that love
Is something you choose

After I inhaled deeply and exhaled a few superlatives, we went to work. The first thing we did, because I am assertive to a fault, was change the chorus. I didn’t like “set up camp.” It’s a nice phrase but “up” and “camp” don’t want to be sung together. We brainstormed a minute to “settled down.” Not only did it sing better, but a “down” metaphor is better than an “up” metaphor at conveying the emotion of the chorus. I also didn’t love “and we’re still” because the emphasis fell on still and it just didn’t sing great or sit right. We changed it to “and we’re here.” The way “here” fit the melody created a nice sense of “well, I guess we’re here and we’re going to be here a while.”

From this, I already knew a thing or two about Kelly. First, she could receive criticism. Who cannot accept criticism? The insecure, unseasoned, and immature. I can say this with authority because I often have a difficult time with it and I am all of those things. Second, she had a great sensibility because she felt just as I did the better-ness of lines that roll off the tongue and of metaphors that suit the sense of the lyric. This was going to be a good day.

Where to go from here? Verse 2 is like starting over, but this time with constricting rules. I found pants I like, but they’re a weird green and now I have to find a shirt that matches. But this was a country story song, so we knew we weren’t going to go wrong with a chronological progression. I asked if we were going to write about kids or marital difficulties (they’re one and the same, baby . . . one and the same). She said marital difficulties cause that’s what our chorus was about. Duh. I will now put a little extra space between this paragraph and the next to represent the interval of time we spent staring at the wall and mumbling to ourselves.

. . .

. . .

. . .

In this case the construct came before the lines got filled in. We decided the first half of this verse would be about those funny little flaws you discover in one another during the first years of your marriage, and the second half would either be about some of the deeper flaws—the ones that hurt a little more—or would be about some of the things we come to value about one another. We figured this much out:

I’ll never learn to cook
Like your mother
And you can’t fix a car
Like my dad

Those lines were both Kelly’s I think. And here I return to the subject of co-writing. Had I written those lines myself (though of course I wouldn’t have written THOSE lines exactly) I would have thought to myself, “Those are delightful.” But because I was writing with someone else, we looked at one another and said, “I love it! I love the way that ‘like your mother’ actually sounds like an eye-roller the way it’s phrased over the melody!”

I was inspired and offered:

But I can make you laugh
Like no other
And you bring a joy to me
I never thought I’d have

We found a little melodic change to lift those lines up and into the second chorus. Another reason for me to enjoy writing with someone else: when I sing my melodies they sound like me singing my melodies. What a joy to hear someone with a really lovely, winsome voice singing a melody I’m proud of!

So then it was on to the bridge. What is a bridge exactly? Well, it’s not a verse and it’s not a chorus. Andy Gullahorn would argue that in this sort of song the bridge is where time passes, but that requires a third and fatal verse which we weren’t willing to write. So instead we opted for a simple sentiment:

Oh, it’s worth it all
We have to believe it’s worth it all
If we stand or if we fall
Tell me that love is worth it all

It’s not earth shattering but with the melody it’s heartfelt. Basically, “This thing isn’t easy and some days I need reassurance that these tears aren’t for nothing.”

So we high-fived. We made a bad iPhone recording of our little baby song. We spent a few minutes sort of walking around the room of the lyric, testing the floor boards to make sure they held weight. Good. Done. We then proceeded to finish three or four more songs in about a day and a half. Crazy! And so fun.

I’m all out of insight but might I let you hear the song we wrote? And might I suggest that you support Kelly’s Kickstarter campaign? She has just a few days left and a long way to go so be awesome and support awesomeness.


7 Comments

  1. That Guy

    Nice Ben! It’s fun to craft an idea, but without other voices to hone it, it just isn’t perfect. For writers it is that voice of the editor, family, and/or fan base (for Ender’s Shadow Orson Scott Card send his draft out to his fans and they helped hold it together and cross well with Ender’s Game). Glad to hear that Ben Shive will remain on the back of albums. I love Sleeping At Last along these lines as well because Ryan has all these friends who play a multitude of instruments that he trusts to accompany his music.

  2. Esther O'Reilly

    One of my best songs was sharpened by a friend simply by his saying “I think you can do better” when I would bring him a fresh line. He never even offered a specific suggestion. That alone just pushed me to do my best. And… now it’s going to be my first cut!

    Now, what’s everybody waiting for? Go Kickstart this girl!

  3. Esther O'Reilly

    One of my best songs was sharpened by a friend simply by his saying “I think you can do better” when I would bring him a fresh line. He never even offered a specific suggestion. That alone just pushed me to do my best. And… now it’s going to be my first cut!

    Now, what’s everybody waiting for? Go Kickstart this girl!

  4. Esther O'Reilly

    Okay, I have NO idea why that comment appeared twice, when I only hit “submit” once. Sorry!

  5. Peter B

    Oh my gosh, Ben. The NSA has finally invented brain monitors, stuck one in my head, and given you the receiver.

    Printed words can’t convey the overwhelming, crazy ME TOO that banged around my insides as I read all this. By contrast, though, I’m still getting dysentery and living on deer jerky.

    Can I tell you something, now that you’ve blazed the trail into this far green country? I love your songs.

    No, really. Many are the artists whose new releases intrigue me and motivate me to buy (or wish I could)… but there is nothing like the thrill I get when I realize I’m about to hear a new Ben Shive song.

    Maybe it’s your innate skill, or your producerly instincts, or the gracious way (also producerly) you move through the process and the music — but it moves me to joy each and every time.

    This was no exception, and you and Kelly delivered on a whole new level. Thank you for opening up (as usual) about how you came to be here and how God continues to sail you through these treacherous waters that threaten to swallow us all.

    Forgive me if that outburst caused you to look back over your shoulder. If you do, though, maybe you’ll notice me waving in the distance as I chase the fading light toward that welcoming land.

If you have a Rabbit Room account, log in here to comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *