Co-Writing 101: How to Open Up to a Complete Stranger

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The modern music industry is no longer a solo writer’s haven. If you take a look at today’s top charts, it’s becoming more and more rare to find a song that only lists a single producer or songwriter in the credits. Everything is a collaboration nowadays.

With this in mind, it’s not hard to imagine that, in the near future, you will likely find yourself in a room with a relative stranger, having decided that you’re going to attempt to write a song together. And that might be daunting. After all, most people wouldn’t share their personal life stories with someone until they were absolutely sure they could be trusted. But in the music industry, it’s as common as swatting a fly. Here are a few tips to make co-writing with strangers a little bit easier.

1. Set rules for the room.

It might not be your first instinct to show up and start assigning roles, or dictating who’s in charge of what, but setting initial rules for the room can actually help improve communication and expectations going forward.

If you’re both strangers to one another, you’ll probably both be uncomfortable at first, unsure of what’s safe to share. One example I’ve heard commonly around songwriters who draw from their own bank of personal experience is that when sharing stories, “what is said in this room stays in this room.” In a way, that kind of rule creates immediate trust and intimacy, and may help you get to work faster.

2. Grab coffee before the session.

Another way to feel more comfortable with a relative stranger is to meet them a bit in advance. If sitting down and jumping right in scares you at all (and it does for most of us), take an hour or two to chat in a stress-free environment, like a coffee shop. Coffee is a great way to get the creative juices flowing from the get-go. Maybe you’ll find something in common to start working on before you even get into the room, and maybe you’ll find that you have a lot in common and make friends with the person. When you’re a songwriter, there’s no shortage of benefits to expanding your professional network. 

3. Be somewhere comfortable.

Sometimes sessions happen in cramped rooms with a tiny piano and no sunlight. Sometimes they happen in the comfort of your own home with your gear, your instruments, and your couch. It always helps to feel mentally “at home” when you’re trying to open up about life experiences to a stranger.

If you’re nervous about the session before it’s even begun, try and pick a place where you know you’ll feel comfortable in your own skin, and a place that will make someone else feel comfortable, too. The vibe of the room will almost always affect the session wherever you are, in terms of your workflow, concentration, or what you choose to write about.

4. Leave out names.

If you’re comfortable sharing the content of your stories but you’re afraid of throwing the real-life characters of your stories under the bus, it’s super common to simply change someone’s name in the song. The songwriting community is surprisingly small, after all.

And secondly, giving your song a sense of anonymity is also a great trick to making sure your listeners feel part of it. So feel free to leave out names entirely and create an open-ended narrative.

5. Know your own boundaries.

If you’re not ready to share a particular subject yet, that’s fine. There are some things we just can’t talk about, or are not interested in making public. Knowing your own boundaries is extremely important when opening up to a stranger, as it dictates what you can and can’t say to them. Writing about your life for the world to hear will always be difficult, so while you should never force yourself, it may end up being good practice for you to learn how to translate tough situations and events into poetic lyrics and entertaining stories.

6. Sacrifice for the song.

A song is stealing 3-4 minutes of your listeners’ lives away from them. Seriously! You’re asking someone to stop everything that they’re doing (grocery shopping, talking to their friends on the phone, dealing with a crying baby, watching a show), to listen to what you have to say. There’s a lot of power in this, so wield it responsibly.

You must have something important to say. And that might mean — especially in co-writing — sacrificing your own comfort for the sake of the song. That doesn’t mean you have to tell all and bare your soul to a stranger, but try to find ways to dabble in an uncomfortable subject in order to create emotionally deep and complex material.

If all else fails, and that story you’ve been dying to write is just too personal to write with a stranger…

7. Get to know the person first.

The great thing about songwriting is that it’s a lifelong pursuit, and you’ll never stop learning and growing if you keep at it. Don’t be too hard on yourself. It may be hard today to open up to a stranger, but the more you take on co-writing projects, the easier it will be, the more people you’ll know, and the better you’ll know them.

If every time you get into a room with a stranger, you feel all frozen up and can’t wait to leave, this is just something that may take time and practice. For now, while you’re getting comfortable with the practice of songwriting, simply get to know the people you’re working with (or want to work with) on a personal level first.

As long as you have the will and desire to work through the difficulties of co-writing with new faces, you’ll be able to face any writing room head on.

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