Why collaborate?

For most of my life, I’ve written songs by myself. I always looked forward to songwriting as alone time, like journal writing. I also see it as a fun personal challenge, like a puzzle. I should mention I’m an introvert: I’m happy to spend time by myself, so solo songwriting fits my personality.

Writing with a partner changes the whole dynamic. While co-writing has a lot of advantages, it takes a whole different mindset. All of sudden there’s the need for interpersonal communication. How do you explain what you hear in your head to another person? How do you put the mood you’re after into words that your partner can understand? How do you let go of your ego and allow someone else to contribute?

How do you say that a certain line is weak without offending the lyricist? How do remain in a clean creative state when your partner has just trashed your best idea?

Fortunately, there are some helpful answers and guidelines. When we interviewed Jana Stanfield, we were thrilled to learn her approach to co-writing. See the interview in full at the end of this post.

Advantages of co-writing

– you have a like-minded person to bounce ideas off of,
– you can finish songs faster,
– you can concentrate on your specialty: lyrics or music,
– if you get blocked, your partner can pick up the slack,
– likewise if you’re having a bad day or not feeling 100%,
– it can be a lot more fun/interactive: camaraderie
– it can help you recognize your own bad writing habits,
– the more experienced co-writers can mentor
– the more successful co-writers can open doors
– the less experienced co-writers bring a fresh perspective
– the less successful co-writers can bring an hungry energy

And when it comes to almost any aspect of songwriting:

– two (or more) heads are sometimes better than one.

The following is an interview we did with Jana Stanfield in one of our newsletter issues.

I feel very fortunate to have Jana Stanfield as our Member of the Month for October. In a telephone interview, she shared her thoughts on songwriting, on working with a co-writer and the importance of lyrics. I can’t wait to pass her insights on to you. But first, some background.

Jana Stanfield is a triple-platinum singer/songwriter. You may have heard her music on Oprah, 20/20, Entertainment Tonight or the movie 8 Seconds. Her songs are recorded by artists like Reba McEntire, Gary Morris, John Schneider, Suzy Bogguss, and Andy Williams.

Jana has toured nationally since 1991. In addition to her performances at The Kerrville Folk Festival and other prestigious folk venues, she has shared stages with Deepak Chopra, Les Brown and Lily Tomlin and she has opened for artists ranging from The Dixie Chicks to Kenny Loggins.

Jana is known as “The Queen of Heavy Mental.” She describes “heavy mental” music as “psychotherapy you can dance to.”

Fans say her music is the ideal alternative to Prozac…all the mood elevation with none of the water retention.

With soaring vocals, acoustic arrangements, and meaningful lyrics, Jana Stanfield says that her goal is to use her music to give people a “faith-lift.”

“If people are willing to invest three minutes of their lives to listen to what I’ve got to say,” Stanfield explains, “I want to give them something of value. I want to share experience, strength and hope in a way that makes them laugh at themselves, remember a loved one who made a difference, or see the world from a new angle. Like in the song, ‘I’m Not Lost, I’m Exploring,’ the message can get you through those times when you’re wondering where your life is going.”

In less than eight years, Jana has sold 50,000 albums at her concerts, an extraordinary amount for an artist whose music is only available at her appearances and her web site. “My music is the Tupperware of the music world,” she says, “not available in stores.”

For fellow musicians, “A Musician’s Guide to Making and Selling Your Own CDs and Cassettes,” by Jana Stanfield is published by Writer’s Digest and available internationally. The book teaches performers how to find “pre-assembled audiences” in non-traditional music venues. It helps artists develop their niche market and create their own circuit.

Stanfield’s motto for creating abundance and prosperity is, “Start small, dream big, and live large.” Rod Kennedy, Director of The Kerrville Folk Festivals, says, “Jana Stanfield uses her insight and enthusiasm to empower emerging songwriters to go after their goals with new energy.”

STJ: Do you have a set routine or a favorite method for writing songs?

JS: My favorite routine is to get together with a co-writer. When I write by myself, I tend to stop the creative process early by getting too self-critical. When I’m writing with someone else, I’m much more in the flow, I enjoy it more and am more likely to finish the song.

STJ: Do you have a particular person you like to write with?

JS: There are several people who I love to write with because we are like-minded individuals and we are all on the same page. The results are consistently good and the process is enjoyable. I rarely write with anyone else.

STJ: Do you have any advice for songwriters who are trying to collaborate for the first time?

JS: The first time can be awkward. It’s like a first date and both writers can feel vulnerable. My advice is to talk up front about what types of work styles work best for each.

STJ: I get it – some people are night owls while others work best in the morning. Some writers like to have a cigarette going the whole time. Others need absolute quiet. There’s no right or wrong way, but we all have our preferences, so we might as well find a writing partner who is compatible.

JS: I tell my co writers, “Let’s stay in Yes.” That means when an idea for a line of lyric or melody comes out (from either writer), a good response is “Yes!” If you think you can do better, great, but start with the yes response and go from there.

When a co-writer says to me, “no” or “yes, but that doesn’t quite fit” or “yes, but that really won’t work because…,” that type of response shuts my creativity down and cranks my insecurity up!

Even if I think there’s no way that my partner’s idea can work, I’ll say “yes, let’s keep going,” while thinking perhaps we’ll come up with something even better.

STJ: I see what you mean. To take it a step further, would you agree the phrase ‘Yes, but …’ sounds a lot like ‘no’ and feels like a door closing (slamming shut on my ego), whereas the phrase ‘Yes, AND …’ feels so much better? To me it indicates acceptance, forward motion and an opening of more options, more possibilities. I can see how co-writing requires more than just songwriting skills.

How about the perennial question, which comes first for you, words or music?

JS: I do generally start out with lyrics. The lyrics are the most important thing to me when I write a song. If it doesn’t say something meaningful, interesting or worth saying, then I’m not interested in writing it.

I like to write things that need to be said. My songwriting is so different – for me, music is a form of communication – it needs to be a compelling message or a compelling idea or a new way to look at an old situation for it to be worth pursuing.

I like songs that are conversational. Songs that are poetic are interesting, but I don’t have enough determination or extra time to do that. I’d rather write songs that somebody can get something out of the first time they hear it.

If someone is playing a song live and I’m in the audience and there’s nothing universal or understandable about it to me or the rest of the audience, that writer just wasted 3 1/2 minutes of my time.

Unfortunately, those songwriters who have no regard for whether listeners can understand or relate to their lyrics are usually those whose songs go on into the 8 minute range.

Here’s a tip. It’s easiest for me to write a song when I write the chorus first, because then you’ve developed the bottom line and the verses just have to support that. The second reason I like to write the chorus first is that once the chorus is complete, half the song is finished. A third reason is, if your chorus is great, it takes the pressure off. The verses are merely the path to get listeners to the
great chorus.

Being a person who starts the lyrics before melody (I don’t finish them first, necessarily), I see the lyrics as a black and white pencil drawing. As the drawing takes shape, it’s easy to see what colors (melody) will fit best with that drawing.

Maybe it’s pastel colors, which would lead you to a slow, haunting melody. Maybe it’s neon, which leads you to a driving, rhythmic melody. Bottom line: think of lyrics as the pencil drawing or sketch, melody as the coloring. For me, songwriting is really hard, so I try to make it simple.

STJ: What would you say to someone who asks “Can I write songs even though I can’t play an instrument?”

JS: You are so lucky. You will never get caught up using the same chords over and over, just because that’s the habit your fingers are in. Don’t play an instrument? Use it to your advantage.

STJ: Don’t forget the human voice is possibly the world’s most expressive instrument. If Bob Dylan can have a super successful lifelong career as a singer/songwriter, why not you?

JS: My best advice for songwriters wanting more info is to read the Songwriter’s Tip Jar and join the Nashville Songwriter’s Association International (NSAI), which is a non-profit group created by songwriters to help other songwriters become successful.

STJ: And our advice to anyone wanting more of Jana’s gems is to check out her music, her book and listen to her lyrics at www.JanaStanfield.com.

Jana travels internationally doing her music and she runs it as a business, so she is not able to answer email questions.


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