CoWriting: Find Your Spot on the Boat

CoWriting can feel overwhelming, especially when you’re first starting out. Most of us first start as songwriters who write when the inspiration hits us, often taking our time over our songs. Making the decision to get into a room with other people to create something together is quite an adventure, and requires adjustments that some can make more readily than others. When there are dynamic personalities, people throwing out all kinds of ideas, a new cowriter can feel lost, or a bit left behind.
My friend Kris Bergsnes is a long-time Nashville writer with a ton of great analogies and advice. Sitting with him for even twenty minutes I always learn something new. Recently, he described co writing like going on a boat trip.
In the boat, you have someone keen to take the front spot. They are probably the one who suggested the trip in the first place. If they’ve asked people along, now they need to consider the wishes of other people – if they want to have a fun, enjoyable and successful trip, that is! They’ll usually be the one to tell everyone where they should be going, leading with ideas. Beside them sits the person riding ‘shot gun’, observing, maybe wanting to lead, in direct conversation with the ‘leader’. But at the back of the boat is the person at the rudder. Like anyone in the back of anything, they might not always feel like a part of the conversation, leaning forward here and there to interject, but, interestingly, in the most influential position to steer the boat. This is the person who listens, who catches the ideas and who gently nudges the boat the way it needs to go, sometimes without the others even realizing they are being steered.
Kris’ analogy was a lot more elaborate, and I hope he’ll forgive me for bumbling my way through a version of it. But I think it illustrates an important point: everyone has a place in the adventure called songwriting, if the goal is to create a great song. It is meant to be a shared experience. A quiet influence might be just as powerful as a dominant one. If you find yourself “in the back seat”, note the rudder beside you. Watch the dynamics between the other people. Listen. Catch phrases or concepts or musical ideas that will best move the song forward. You may even have the chance to play the diplomat (or referee!) between other writers. You could very well be in the best position to guide a song forward.
The main thing is that there is give and take between all involved, with the goal of creating something everyone feels good about, and in a way that makes everyone feel good. By my estimation, the best cowriters are able to quickly assess the dynamics in a room and figure out from which position they can best serve the song and the strengths of their collaborators. The ability to be flexible in any role is a huge asset, and can take some experience to achieve, but knowing your personal strengths can also help you choose cowriters that will best compliment what you have to offer as well.
So get cowriting! And don’t feel discouraged if it all feels a little bit crazy at first. It’ll sort itself out, and you’ll find people you “fit” really well with. Most of all – enjoy the ride!

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