“ No man is an Island unto himself” is a famous quote from the poet John Donne. This is true for many aspects of life but also true in relation to creating music and songwriting. These days many people write songs- not just classically trained musicians. This is fantastic because we have a wealth of different cultural idioms and styles that make for diversity, fusion and interest. This also means though that the person writing the song/music may need to call on others to make the process complete, as they may not have the academic knowledge to write those other parts. For instance I sing and play wind instruments ( which I can’t accompany myself with) so to have instrumental accompaniment and interest in my songs means that I need the expertise of other instrumentalists who can excel at creating harmonies in their own medium, on guitar, piano or other instruments.
I am a bit untraditional in what I want for accompaniment. Most songwriters are sensible and stick to guitars, keyboard, drums with the odd extra bit of fiddle or sax for interest. Not me! I don’t have anyone to collaborate with at the moment except my imagination- which is both a creatively open process which then perhaps also becomes limiting- through my wacky take on it all!
I look at my songs as stories or mood/ emotion journeys which is given life and texture through the balance of poetry, voice, melody, vocal colouring and the interweaving tapestry of other instruments. I choose these instruments for their qualitative colour and texture and how that will interplay with the other chosen instruments. I think of instrumentation as something that needs to to have the right balance between colour, light, dark, different emotions and different feels in the harmonies. All of it creates a depth and story telling quality that is greater than the sum of its parts. In some ways it is a bit like doing interior design for a room or telling a story- each needs to have the right balance of colour or interest to make for a good overall effect.
I chose electric echoey spacey guitar with viol and duduk for one song on my ep (Phoenix), didgeridoo, acoustic guitar and duduk for another track (8000 Souls). Some other tracks that I have not yet worked on with other people would include – in imagination only at this point- crystal singing bowls, acoustic guitar, a hang drum and a duduk….others would include other things. Sometimes I manage to contain my exploratory self and just have fiddle and guitar (Skyland) or even just a piano (Summer)! (All named songs from my debut ep “Azure Blue”).
So- collaboration is the absolute beating heart of making a song interesting and three dimensional….listening to my demo’s with just the vocal line is a very bare, slightly boring experience compared to the wonder of hearing it complete with everyone taking part.
Collaboration is that process of creating musical magic…I might have a general overview of the mood, feel and texture but the other musicians bring their expertise and creativity to the song. I always think that they bring a little bit of their soul, so again, it makes for something richer and bigger than the sum of its parts. For this alchemical process to happen you need several things to happen:
- You need to be able to find each other to work with! ( Seems obvious, but this isn’t the case if you are a rural musician such as myself!)
- You need a space and place to meet ( again seems obvious but not always easy to orchestrate- pun not intended!)
- You may need modern recording equipment if you are to collaborate remotely or work on things later ( exemplified by my later tale of working with a duduk player from Armenia). This is expensive as all that technology comes at a price, and then one needs some know how, to use it!
- You need to get on as people and creatively click. This is very important and so you need to get a feel for someone to see if one might be a good match. You have to share a “ seeing prism “of how to view/create the song . You have to give each other space to feel into things. If someone is too bossy or a stress-head then this impedes the process. The song writer ( and producer if you are working with one) holds the vision of what they intend whilst allowing lots of creative space and room for creative journeying.
- You need time…and plenty of it!
- Then you can start!
It takes time to work up a song in my experience- to get just the right chords, the right interplay between voice and other instruments. One can not rush this process- it is an organic feeling process as people create together. Sometimes magical moments of flow happen but it is often hard to re- create them and for them to become concretised!
This is drawn from my experience of working with semi professional and one professional musicians for my debut ep “Azure Blue”. The right people happened to manifest about 6 months before I recorded it, and this gave us the time to work on these four songs in bits and pieces, a morning here and an evening there once a week. Luckily the guitarist, Jerry had a converted garden shed where we meet and recorded bits and bobs if we needed. Everyone was a delight to work with and I am forever grateful for their generosity of time, spirit and kindness in doing this for me. It always felt like a wonder when we had added the next bit to a song or another instrumental layer. Sometimes I would have to pinch myself to see that it was actually true! There is a creative joy in this kind of productive creative collaboration.
Finding these musicians was a wonder itself in north east rural Scotland and since that time they have moved away and disbanded leaving me with lots of songs and no collaborators to make them into performable, 3-D versions of their accapella starting points. It would be great if creative organisations had a “Soundbank” database of musicians and an example of their work so musicians could find each other from far and wide . For someone like me that would be invaluable…..I have not yet found anyone to replace the guitarist and am even happy to travel to London- where I have family to stay with- to collaborate.
Collaborating remotely is also now something we can do with the advent of modern recording methods. This is true on my debut ep ‘ Azure Blue”. I decided I wanted the duduk- the national instrument of Armenia- not something easily found in north east Scotland! So, I put out a FB request and forgot about it…..thinking this would be a bit of a tall order to fulfil!
Many moons later Arsen Petrosyan got in touch with me- he is considered the “torchbearer” of duduk players and had recently graduated from Yerevan Conservatoire. We fb message chatted and I could tell he had the right” feeling” about him as a human being for it to work, even remotely. It took awhile to get the money together for doing the ep and for him to be paid ( he was the only musician who was paid ). I made the tracks in a local studio with the other musicians who had worked up their parts and then we sent it digitally to Armenia for his part. It was an act of faith and trust combined with giving him absolute precise details of timings/feel and requirements. English is not his first language, we had never met but I trusted that all would be well and it was! His musicianship and ability is second to none and he is the icing on the cake on the two tracks he collaborated on.
Arsen and I have still not met but we fb message chat on occasion. He is doing well and has just completed a tour of young world musicians to the UK . Unfortunately they have not come this far north, so I have yet to hear him in person and met him. Ironically it is easier for a male young duduk player from Armenia to develop here than a British rural female mum to develop as a fusion artist in north east Scotland. There are more situational, financial, geographical and genre related barriers for me than for him- worth noting so changes can be made.
I have been discussing collaboration in a professional music making sense- which is a wonderful thing to be part of but collaboration can happen at any level. My day to day work is as a music teacher- mostly to primary aged children but also a few adults. Sometimes we do duets, two part harmonies and sometimes in schools I have also done songwriting projects. Most of this comes from material that is already written down/composed but occasionally it isn”t. Always the children have a sense of awe when we make harmonies together- either vocally or on recorders. This encourages bonding, community adhesion, team building, team work and a sense of collective artistic pride. Valuable learning outcomes indeed.
One time my early years class asked me to make up a song on the spot about one girls little brother who kept going for the coal shovel in my sitting room by the fire! So I came up with this pentatonic offering with them with appropriate actions” Ben, Ben , Ben stompy little man, Ben, Ben, Ben funny little man, picks up a shovel…run if you can “( he nearly hit me on the head with it! The kids absolutely loved it and it became the first round that they sang!
Collaboration rocks whatever age you are at- and creates community magic whether you are a three or a professional musician!