What makes Someone a Good or Bad Collaborator?

Welcome to IMAIL #2, my way of staying connected with you all even while we can’t be together in person, and letting you know what is going on inside my head…

Collaboration is one of the most important things in music, in art, in life. Collaboration is really just relationships, and those are something everyone has to deal with in their life. I get asked a lot about collaboration since I started to embrace it in my music in the last few years, after many years of steering away from it. The biggest secret to collaborating well is choosing the right people to collaborate with.

When I was 21, my record label sent me to the U.S.A. with marching orders to come up with the songs that would become my second album Collide. They had set me up with back-to-back co-writing appointments practically every day for a month. Prior to this, I’d written almost all of my songs alone, and heading into this trip my excitement was tempered with dread. I had a vision of trying to pour my heart out to a stranger while they stared at me with indifference or contempt.

My first session seemed to confirm my first fears. Despite plenty of lead time, the co-writers clearly had no idea what kind of artist I was, and tried to hijack my acoustic singer-songwriter music into electro-pop, having decided what they were going to write before I even entered the room and uninterested in any of my ideas. I was tense, uncomfortable with the writers and the song, which I knew was going to be unusable, and I started fearing tears welling up in me because I didn’t know how to speak up.

I left the session deflated, feeling like collaboration was going to be more like domination, where older, mostly male songwriters were going to tell me what I should write and how I should sound. While some of the collaborations on that trip resulted in songs I still absolutely love (two made it onto the record – Tear It Down written with Rune Westberg and Play It Safe written with Joshua Monroy), I ultimately returned home with the sense that maybe collaboration just wasn’t for me.

When I started writing songs for The Making of Me a few years later, I decided to dip my toes back into the co-writing water with encouragement from my new manager Jeremy Dylan. The result couldn’t have been more different. The crucial change was that I was now writing with women and men who treated me as an equal, who cared about what I was trying to accomplish with my music, and who had agreed to write with me in the first place because we shared heroes and points of view – people like Emma Swift, Alex Lahey, Clare Bowen, Anita Lester and more.

Here are some things I’ve learned about what makes a good or bad collaborator…

1) Someone’s credentials don’t necessarily make them a great collaborator for you.
Yes, it’s fantastic if someone has had cuts on a Beyonce record. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to write a great song with you. You may not click, and that’s okay (and doesn’t mean they’re not an awesome collaborator for someone else). For want of a better word, someone’s “vibe” with you is far more important than who they’ve written with in the past.

2) A good collaborator leaves their ego at the door.
This is a tricky one because ego is a big part of being an artist – not in an arrogant way, but in a healthy confidence way. When it comes to songwriting however, I firmly believe that ego has no place. There will be times when your cowriter suggests something you think is horrendous, or when you suggest an idea you think is great but they disagree. It’s a negotiation. The most important thing to remember when this happens is that you are all on the same team. Every writer in that room is prioritizing the same thing – for the song to be the best it can be – and if that means a little ego bruising, then so be it. The song is paramount.

3) Vulnerability is everything.
Meeting a stranger, engaging in small talk for 30 minutes and then delving into your deepest fears and rawest emotions is a terrifying thing. Despite having cowritten upwards of one hundred songs at this point, it never gets less weird to me, but I think that’s what keeps it fresh and engaging. Cowriting with someone you already know and feel comfortable with can be a good place to start, but the best collaborators make you feel like you’ve known them forever even if you’ve only just met. This helps you break down your walls so you can be vulnerable with them, and only through that vulnerability and an almost painful self-awareness will you both create the best song you can together.

On a more recent and much more fruitful writing trip to LA, I had the privilege of writing with Colin Hay from Men At Work. Colin has always been a hero to me, so I was feeling incredibly anxious before our session, but when we sat down together, Colin was so immediately kind and welcoming to me. So much so that I felt comfortable talking to him about my mentor and guitarist Glen Hannah, who we’d recently lost to depression, which is what we ended up writing the song First Class Man about. A similar thing happened earlier on the same trip when I sat down with Taylor Goldsmith of my favourite band Dawes and Jason Boesel of Rilo Kiley. For a long time, I had been wanting to write a song about my family’s dark history with alcoholism, but had struggled to tackle the issue on my own. Sitting down with Taylor and Jason helped me feel encouraged and brave enough to bring it to the surface for the first time. Surround yourself with collaborators who allow you to feel everything safely in their presence.

4) Never settle.
In my opinion, the best songwriters never settle. The same goes whether you’re collaborating on a song with a cowriter or writing solo. I’ve been in sessions where things seem bleak, but we’ve soldiered on until we’re completely convinced that we’ve written the best possible song we could write in that moment. If any lyric makes you cringe or any melody feels half-baked, it’s not done yet. Particularly if you’re a bit of a perfectionist, you don’t want to be working with a collaborator who says “Near enough is good enough”. I think that phrase should be blasphemous to any songwriter, and I doubt Joni Mitchell or Bruce Springsteen ever said it, so that’s reason enough for me to throw it out.

Try to remember that collaborating is a push and pull scenario, and there is always compromise involved. But the beauty of collaboration is that two or more people can come together to create something which has flavours of them both, but which neither of them could have written on their own. That doesn’t mean it’s a better or worse song than it would have been had it been written solo, it just means that we all have different approaches and tendencies, and the mere presence of another writer in a room can throw up ideas you never would have conjured had they not been there. It’s mystical and perhaps the fact that it’s never the same twice and I can’t quite explain it is why it still excites me so much.

I’m looking forward to sharing something new with you later this week, but in the meantime, I hope you’re all keeping safe, wherever in the world you are. Thanks for being here!

All my love,
IC x