John Roderick is the singer/songwriter for Seattle band The Long Winters. His column appears every Monday on Reverb.
It’s not a simple thing to collaborate, let me tell you. Songwriting, unlike painting or novel-writing (or meditating) lends itself easily to team effort because there are two distinct halves to a pop song -- music and lyrics—but that doesn’t make it easy or fun to work with someone else on a pop song. The Brill Building songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller, the Holland-Dozier-Holland team at Motown, and the classic rock archetypes of Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards have ingrained in people’s imaginations the image of songwriters huddled around a piano or guitar hammering out a tune in the spirit of good-natured one-upmanship. One person is absentmindedly tinkering on the piano while the other person is twiddling with a pencil; suddenly the lyricist hears a melody and inspiration strikes: “That’s it! Play that last part again!” He sings a line, the piano player inserts a minor seventh, and they quickly and effortlessly compose a masterpiece, laughing uproariously. Then someone does a tap routine with a coat rack, and an angel gets its wings.
When I first started writing songs I pictured myself as half of this kind of partnership, even when I was writing songs alone. Would my other half be Steven Tyler to my Joe Perry? Or would I be Plant to someone’s Page? I even dreamt of being Mike Nichols to someone’s Elaine May, eschewing music altogether, so dear was the dream of having a partner. I figured my other half would come along eventually, and I kept a coat rack handy.Over the years I’ve written scores of songs with other people, and some of my partnerships were both prolific and fun, but as I got older I turned more and more toward writing songs alone. The passionate arguments and beer-soaked jam sessions of collaboration seemed like fun, back when I had infinite patience and no confidence, but when my attention turned away from funk jams and toward three-chord ballads I found my partners were making fewer interesting contributions. As I got better at writing songs, my partner’s suggestion that the chorus be played with a Reggae backbeat just seemed like it was wasting precious time. Democracy is a lovely idea, in bands as well as nations, but it’s seldom implemented perfectly and is often a mask for dishonesty. I’ve known many bands where the pretense of equal contribution to the songs was a real handicap: clearly one person was doing the best songwriting, but most of the band’s energy was spent stoking the egos of the minor contributors. “Oh… yeah, play the chorus reggae style? Yeah… good idea. Let’s try that. Hmmmm, yeah, interesting. Yeah, what if… I love the idea, but… uh, what if we try NOT doing that?”
At a certain point, after thousands of conversations like that, (and one too many dramatic band break-ups) I resolved not to enter into any more songwriting partnerships. I established at the outset of the Long Winters that it was going to be a place for my songs, and if my bandmates wanted to write songs they could start a side-project and I would play bass. It seemed like a simple matter at the time, an easy solution to the heartbreaking rock Darwinism that consumes so much energy. Every person who joins the Long Winters does so with this understanding, and most have expressed relief and excitement at the prospect of just being allowed to play music and be responsible for their corner without having to fret over roles and responsibilities. The flip side of the equation is that my bandmates frequently quit the band after a year or so to pursue their own projects: one went to graduate school, one designs video games, one does improv comedy, etc. I’m often asked in interviews whether the high turnover of band members is due to my dictatorial ways, the suggestion being that if we wrote songs collaboratively my bandmates would feel more of an investment in the project. I can only reply that, in ten years of working collaboratively in bands, I was never in a project that stuck together for more than a couple of years, whereas I’ve maintained the Long Winters as a somewhat constant entity through innumerable line-up changes (four drummers, a half-dozen other players) without ever really having to explain the changes. Our current line-up is the strongest ever.
Still, the shadow of collaboration haunts me. Many of my closest friends are also in the arts, not just music but theater, dance, film, painting, etc, and the suggestion that we collaborate is always just below the surface. When we were younger it seemed like we were constantly on the verge of combining forces to create an art explosion! None of us were well known in our respective fields so we had no reputations to damage, and we all loved staying up late and blathering about subjectivity, intention, and the role of the artist. We whiled away many hours excitedly conceiving multi-media art projects that would shake the world: the musical theater piece about wheelbarrows which we would record, film, choreograph and then animate! Brilliant! But none of it ever progressed past dreaming, killed at the outset by an almost fundamental inability to collaborate in any practical sense. The moment someone took the reins, or labor started being divided, eyes glazed over. I was as guilty as anyone: I didn’t want to work with just anyone, and invariably the artists with whom I most wanted to work were the ones who wanted to work alone.
I started to think it was something peculiar to Seattle. Everyone’s a genius here; there are no supporting players. It’s not just that people have a reluctance to share credit, although they do, but also a terror of ceding control, a feeling that the thing will be wrested away from them, neutered, denatured, and presented as a mockery. When Seattle artists do collaborate it is usually announced with portentous fanfare, as if the simple prospect of two artists collaborating is its own, remarkable art project. “Amazing. You mean to say that they are working together? On the same project? It’s madness!” Other cities have markedly different vibes: Austin feels like the whole town, including dogs and babies, is one big performance art troupe, and Portland has so many side-projects involving banjos and Casios that it resembles a Fibonacci sequence. I’m not suggesting that either of those situations is positive.
These ideas of ownership and credit can seem small-minded. We’re tempted to ask, “Who cares?” Doesn’t the desire to produce better art trump the petty hoarding of glory? If you had the choice between being a part of something truly lasting, or being solely responsible for something merely good, wouldn’t you choose the former? Unfortunately, it’s never that clear. Collaborations don’t always, or even often, produce better work than people working alone. One songwriter’s weakness won’t necessarily be their partner’s strength. More often than not you’ll have two people working on a song and neither one of them knows how to write a chorus, but both of them are passionate about their vision for the middle eight. It should be reggae! The frustrations of working with another person, even when the work ultimately benefits, don’t always pencil out. As a friend recently said to me: “It’s every artist’s choice to embrace working alone, even if they know their work suffers.” Too true.