6 Tips for Writing Songs with Friends

By Ryan Maike

Collaboration.  It can be terrifying.  You sit down with someone you barely know and you both prop empty notebooks on your knees.  Now what?  Maybe what happens next is an outpouring of the most powerful worship song this generation has heard.  Or maybe you stare awkwardly at the other person’s tapping toe while you twiddle your pen.  How do we harness this thing called collaboration?

Matthew Parker, an EDM artist based in South Carolina, regularly collaborates on his songs.  He says, “Collaboration is really cool for a couple reasons. First of all, you can create a product that is different than any single member of the collaboration could make alone. Secondly, with more people involved, the product goes through double or more of the ‘quality control filters’, so to speak, so it’s more likely to connect with more people.”  Check out his cover of “Heathens” at https://youtu.be/VfRk-xCbVg4

At UA Retreats, there has been natural collaboration from the very beginning.  Justin Clifton, Co-Founder and Movement Leader for UA, says that the collaboration that comes out of the retreat is often the most impactful thing for first-timers.  “UA Retreats help people get un-stuck and write their first song, or their next song.  It helps us get over our speed bumps.  People start working together, and it takes the focus off this being my work, or my song that I’m writing for God, and instead the song is offered up to God in a new way.  I only have one part of the picture, and we listen to God through each other for the whole picture.”

For those of us still nervous about our first, or next, collaboration, here are some COLLABORATION TIPS:

1. Focus on the community being built, not just the product.

The best songs come out of relationships of trust, vulnerability and humility.  This is hard to build quickly at a retreat, and so it’s important to arrive ready to engage with people and the process.  As Christians writing together, we have the ability to meet each other at the foot of the Cross.  Each of us is utterly dependent on our Savior, and our identity and worth comes from Him, Jesus.  When we worship and pray together first, we find a new level of openness and connection with our brothers and sisters.

2. Champion someone else’s idea before pushing your own.

This will be a chance for you to practice putting your brother or sister first.  In collaboration you offer yourself in humility.  Humility doesn’t mean thinking you know nothing, it means knowing you only have one piece of the puzzle.  It’s a vital piece, but only one piece.  So your job is to draw all the other pieces out of your co-collaborator(s).  This means a lot of listening and a lot of encouragement.  This tip comes from Sam Parham and Alex Rahill of the indie rock band The Timbre of Cedar.  They have found that writing songs has brought them together as a small piece of the Body of Christ, where they try to approach the process with selflessness, concentrating on the strengths of the song and not their own egos.  Over the years, this approach has knit them together as a community and allowed them to lean on each other in everyday life.

3. Speak honestly, in love and gentleness.

We each need to hear many more encouragements than critiques. But when you’re brainstorming during a collaboration session, there will be more bad ideas than good ones that are put out there.  So how do you handle that?  Justin Clifton says to use the “Yes and What Else?” method.  In order to keep the creative juices flowing, don’t shut down the other person by critiquing ideas too soon.  Instead, keep moving until there’s something that makes you stop dead in your tracks.  Think of it like you are both producing a conveyor belt of ideas, and until you pick something or shut down the machine, ideas will continue flowing by you.  How do you keep the machine running?  By affirming the person, and asking them what they are thinking of next.  “That’s great”, “we’re on the right track”, “I love where we’re going, let’s keep going!”, “Where else do you see this going?”  However, don’t lie to make the other person feel better!  That can only lead to hurt feelings or you creating bad art.

4. Remember it’s a discipline and a skill to learn, not a magic wand.

Sam from The Timbre of Cedar compares songwriting to the batting average of a Major League Baseball player.  “If a baseball player hits 3 out of every 10 pitches, he has a .300 batting average, which is excellent.  70% of the time he’s a failure, and yet that’s all-star territory.  Songwriting is the same way.  You need to show up to the process and not get discouraged every time a good song isn’t produced.”  He recalls how the first song they wrote together took several months just to get a rough draft. Why did it take so long? “It’s a scary and intimate thing to share your ideas. It took those months for Marrissa [lead singer] and everybody to feel comfortable enough to share what was really going on inside.”  The song, aptly named Paralyzed, is an invitation to get past fears that cripple us.  Check out their latest single, I Wanna Know, on their website: www.thetimbreofcedar.com

5. Express what you know, not what you think others should hear.

Alex Rahill, worship leader and electric guitarist for The Timbre of Cedar, says, “I probably care about this too much, but you can’t share what you don’t have.  You should be expressing what is your actual expression.  Not what sounds good.  Not what rhymes best.  Not what people should sing.  David wrote a song to be sung in church about committing adultery and murdering someone, and somehow he’s allowed to keep his office.  I cannot imagine how uncomfortable that would have been to sing in church! It blows my mind and teaches me something about what kinds of songs God wants to hear us sing.  He wants real messy hearts that are pursuing Him.  When we compromise on that or just throw up cliches in worship, it’s like the parable of the sower.  You’re going to have shallow roots, and that means no fruit.  Likewise, if you allow worries and concerns about what people like or what’s popular in music cloud over the songwriting process, the seeds are going to get choked out and bear no fruit.  We have deep insecurities, pains, brokennesses, and needs, and we need to be naked and unashamed before the Lord.  When we write out of those places, we can then give our congregations words and ways to express those things before the Lord.  That can’t be done by writing what we think people want to hear!”

6. Have FUN!

When you allow yourself to relax and be known by your songwriting partner, the process can be really fun!  We are trusting God to give us a song if He wants us to have a song, so kickback and enjoy the process.  When I write with Justin, it seems we do more laughing than writing.  In the beginning, I felt like it was my job to keep him on track because there’s no way that writing a serious worship song should be a time to laugh!  Oh, how wrong I was.  So avoid that mistake and come with an open heart and a ready laugh!

Ryan Maike

Ryan serves as the Great Lakes Regional Director for United Adoration. He is also on staff at His Church Anglican in Livonia, Michigan.