“It’s the one with the huge rocking chair on the front porch, you can’t miss it,” said Olivia’s voice on my iPhone.
She was directing me to a publishing company that was letting her and her friend Conner use a writer’s room. To write.
I was to join them. To write.
(I primly believe all writer’s rooms in Nashville are used exclusively to write. I trust that the aspirations of the Hopefuls demand they focus on their verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-choruses.)
Much of Music Row is an early 20th-century neighborhood of bungalows and mansions, and the streets are very confusing. Most are one way and many bend around, failing to connect logically. Some change names.
That’s why this particular publishing company had the big idea to mark its porch with a bright yellow rocker too big for anyone to sit in.
And there it was! I self-consciously parked my not-fancy car several bungalows away and walked toward the giant chair.
I was carrying my not-fancy guitar, which I have learned to bring with me and then leave in the case, which implies “I have it if I need it, so I’m ready.” But everyone in Nashville plays better than I do and wants to play her own really nice guitar—or else play the even nicer guitar someone else brought. To be taken seriously, I have inferred it’s best if my old, banged-up, lower-end-of-the-line Washburn stays out of sight.
The yellow rocking chair seemed less big, somehow, when I stood next to it. Up close it just seemed impractical.
I tried to open the door. Locked. I had to buzz a button and say what I wanted. A receptionist (I bet she sings and/or writes) let me in.
She led me downstairs in the little bungalow. It smelled basement-y. She opened a door. There were Olivia and Conner! Just as planned. The little room they were in had brown carpet, a couple brown leather bachelor-type sofas and a chair, a little table, and an overhead light. Conner had a guitar, and Olivia had a pen and paper. Her guitar was on the sofa next to her.
They had been there together for awhile.
After maybe 40 seconds of chitchat, she and Conner performed a song they’d just written. It was really good. He played, and she sat in the chair and sang out, loud and clear. He joined her on the choruses, creating harmonies.
They hadn’t just gotten together and wasted time. They’d been working.
Impressive.In advertising, we work in teams. I frequently sit with art directors who don’t want to talk about anything but the project, immediately tossing me ideas. Many people are very disciplined.
If I’m honest with myself, I’ll admit I tend to want to warm up with some chat before we start tentatively approving or gently rejecting each other’s ideas. Still, I must respect a Puritan’s work ethic and try to keep up.
Olivia wondered if I’d brought them any ideas.
I opened my little black Moleskine notebook, in which I’d compiled some of my best fragments into two or three pages.
Even though I’d already decided which fragment I would offer up first, I was moving my pen around as if considering my glut of options. So many possibilities! I suppose the pause seemed to say.
“Um, here’s one: ‘I have only made two bad mistakes/In case you’re keeping track/One’s Leaving/The other is Coming Back.’” I spoke in cadence, shy about actually singing so early in the session.
They both responded with encouraging, slightly surprised, maybe-somewhat-relieved enthusiasm. “Hey, I like that,” said Conner. He started playing a blues pattern.
He sang the phrase over the chords.
I felt it would seem stingy to limit my suggestions to only one, especially after my display of sorting through the choices, so I consulted my notebook and threw out another one: “Orrrrr, there’s this: ‘Man oh man, you’re weren’t kidding/Course I never have known you to kid/I just didn’t think that you would go and do/What you just went and did.”
They were quiet. Each of them compressed their lips on one side, the non-verbal, Hm, nope, I’m afraid not.
“I don’t think I…get that,” said Olivia. “I like that first one, let’s work on it!”
Silence, as we all thought about the first one.
Olivia tapped her pen.
I shifted and looked up at the beige wallpaper. I wondered if the giant yellow rocking chair was over my head at the moment. Would the basement extend under the porch?
Conner played his blues riff some more and sang the phrase again in a bluesy style, as the chorus.
I was so grateful they liked it, I didn’t tell them that I had never intended for it to be a bluesy song. For one thing, you don’t hear very many bluesy songs on the radio.
My idea for the music was more straight-up rock, maybe a little Lucinda Williams-ish bite to it.
Chunk-ch-chunk-a, chunk-ch-chunk-a. Conner kept playing 12-bar blues. That was okay. We could change it later.
“Oh! I have lyrics I’ve been saving!” Olivia said, as if the time had come to uncork a bottle of ‘67 Chateau Margaux she’d been hoarding, waiting for this special moment.
She said a couplet that I thought was clever, but wasn’t exactly the tone I was thinking this song would have.
“Oh, that’s great,” said Conner, and he started singing the couplet over the blues chords.
It was an excellent couplet (I’ll not repeat it here, so that Olivia can still use it somewhere if she wants to) but it wasn’t hitting me right.
Still, I didn’t say anything.
Anyone who’s done any brainstorming knows not to shoot a suggestion down in cold blood. By now, I suppose everyone has heard that cliché rule of improv comedy, saying, “Yes, and…” instead of “No.” Before I’d ever heard that improv adage, I read in Chuck Jones’ autobiography about his insistence on “Yes Sessions,” based on the same principle: you couldn’t just gun someone’s idea down. You could improve it, but you couldn’t kill it.
I picture the cartoonists sitting around in the Los Angeles heat, wearing ties. “The monster who chases Bugs is made entirely of hair.” “Yes, and Bugs styles it like a hair-dresser.” “Yes, an effeminate hair-dresser.” “Yes, and he attaches dynamite to each of the curlers.”
So Olivia’s couplet was a go, as were Conner’s blues.
The three of us tossed out phrases that might add to the story. The lines piled up into a first verse, but to me it sounded like a cobbled-together set of remarks composed in the manner of an “exquisite corpse” word game.
It wasn’t, to me, a convincing story yet.
But who was I to say? They were playing and singing words I had suggested, so it seemed small of me not to smile and approve their contributions.
It’s really hard to tell someone you’re not buying what they’re selling, when you don’t exactly know what you’re shopping for in the first place.
I’m used to it in advertising—we sit and come up with ideas and some of us spark to some and together we narrow the field and end up with ads we can all agree on. Somehow song co-writing feels different, being more personal and less driven by a clear, strategic business objective.
Eventually I think we all realized the song needed a rest, and the time arrived when the receptionist wanted to go home and we were supposed to leave.
One of my favorite country radio songs of the last couple of years was written by three people—it’s called “In Color,” and it’s performed by one of its co-writers, Jamey Johnson. The story of the song being put together by three friends was repeated over the course of various interviews I heard on the morning country radio show I listen to. But I still don’t know how they did it, really.
Who gets to say yes, good enough, we’re done? Whose right is it to say, hm, not yet, not quite?
It’s hard enough with two people.
It’s not even easy when you’re alone, singing to yourself in the Jeep because you’re bored with the radio.
In advertising, the creative director arbitrates, solomonically forces decisions, plays The Decider.
I guess in pro songwriting, the publisher sort of does that. But before it gets that far, someone has to guide the song to a stable, decent place. Often in a two-person partnership, there’s a dominant person. Other times, it’s equal, a real balance of give and take. Either way, it often seems that two heads are more productive than one.
Add that third person in there, though, and it’s suddenly as complicated as the Music Row street map.