Augmenting a partner’s strengths and shoring up their weak spots may seem like an obvious notion, and so it should be, but artists have egos, and sometimes an individual’s understanding of their scope may not agree with yours. If the division of labor is demarcated- as with the lyricist/ melodist model, it’s clear cut. But often the lines are more difficult to draw. If writing partners are bringing a complete skill set to the table (good lyrical ability, adept musicality, melodic strength that can be vocally realized on the spot) it can all seem like a walk in the park, euphoric even. But that kind of synchronicity is rare, and those lucky enough to find it often spend their careers together. However, life has a way of intervening, and sometimes even long-standing partners feel the need to move on.
Many writers began writing solo and got into co-writing because that’s the prevalent model in their corner of the industry, with Nashville being a prime modern example, as are EDM, and hip-hop, where the list of songwriter credits can be longer than the lyric….to be deprived of a long standing writing partner can be devastating, and often neither can ever again match the achievements they attained together. Maintaining one’s individual identity can be a balancing act, because the very act of co-writing involves sharing, and baring elements of one’s inner self. Some people are less able to do that than others, but it usually becomes obvious rather quickly, at which point it’s better to cut and run. As a rule of thumb, if the process feels forced, then it probably is.
My longest partnership was about ten years. We each had the aforementioned skill-set, plus a shared ability to see our subject matter in a theatrical, almost cinematic way, so that the musical and lyrical aspects tended to be apropos to the characters and situations to which we were trying to give flesh. We wrote three to four days a week religiously, and during that time seldom wrote outside the partnership. We meshed well and the result was a solid catalog. But life intervened. I’ve always considered myself a solo writer who enjoys co-writing if the stars are aligned, so I was able to be philosophical- grateful for the experience, but just as ready to move forward to the next table as my former partner was. No bad feelings, no cross words, simply dealing with the reality.
There is also no guarantee that putting established writers in the same room will produce great songs. Some years ago, I was managing the publishing operation of a highly successful, award-winning writer when I came upon a tape box of titles which bore not only my boss’s name, but also the name of an even more famous writer. I wondered why this cache was collecting dust in the vault, but when I brought the subject up my employer said “Didn’t work” I listened to the tapes anyway, but he was right. On paper, this should have been a world-beating collaboration, but in reality it was flat as a pancake, and obviously they both knew it.
RULES ARE MADE TO BE BROKEN.
Notwithstanding any advice you may get from me or anyone else, there are no hard and fast rules. The whole endeavor is so subjective that the wild whimsy of a John Lennon or Roger Miller, and the studied thoughtfulness of a Hal David can each result in wonderful, memorable song craft….for every uber sophisticated Burt Bacharach or Jimmy Webb there is a raw-boned counterpart who can touch the listener just as deeply, and touching the listener deeply is the main object.