I cannot count the times in my life when I’ve asked myself “What was I thinking?”
I have certainly always lived my life on my terms, dancing to the beat of my own drum and allowing my intuition to guide me. I am the type of person that takes action based on how I feel in the moment and then normally, I think about it later. Or not. Ha! While this trait has caused my mom and sisters concern (sorry!) it normally works out in my favor. Most of the time anyway…
In 2014, when I stumbled upon an ad for the Wood and Stone Songwriting Retreat, I felt compelled to go. Mind you, I didn’t consider myself a songwriter, having only written a few songs by myself, let alone co-write with other musicians. But despite my lack of experience and downright fear of being put on the spot to sing or play in front of people, I knew my intuition had led me to something life-changing. I had a brief phone conversation with Jen Smith the co-host, then booked my ticket plane ticket. A few days later, I packed for the long weekend, grabbed my guitar, and flew from Houston, TX to Crisfield, MD.
Did I mention the retreat was being held at a state park a couple of hours outside of Baltimore that had minimal cell phone service at best? Once again…mom was a little concerned. I reminded her there was no need to worry. When I walked through the doors to the retreat, I hugged Jen like we were old friends. She was so excited at my spontaneity and boldness to book a trip not knowing a soul. Wyatt Easterling, event instructor and acclaimed Nashville songwriter, was making guacamole at the kitchen table so I offered up my chopping skills and my favorite recipe. We were fast friends crying over the onions and little did we know then, we would be working together bringing my music to the world as soon as the event ended. I knew my intuition had once again paid off and felt with full confidence that I was destined to be here. Over the next few days, my world would be blown wide open as I spent hours upon hours connecting and creating with musicians from all over the country.
This was my introduction to co-writing and my launching pad into other workshops including Mercyland, Song Travelers, and Darrell Scott’s Song Camp to continually hone my craft. Coming on my eighth annual, Wood & Stone is my favorite! I have made the best lifelong friends over these long weekend writing weekends and continue to keep the June dates open to connect and create for 4 days uninterrupted. And I have written too many songs to count!
I have been fortunate to write with some very talented songwriters in the last 9 years and just as many green writers who were scared to death as I was a few short years ago. I really never felt like I could call myself a songwriter as I had no previous experience or training. I just wrote what came naturally to me and crafted my songs with a few verses, a chorus, and sometimes a bridge. I knew my songs could be a lot better, I just needed a little help.
Chuck McDowell was my “first”, (and I his). Neither one of us had ever co-written a song before and we were both nervous. We partnered up in one of the quaint cabins to write our first of many, unbeknownst to either of us at the time. One of my favorite songs came to life quickly that day in about an hour called Sweet Innocence (recorded on my very first album, Gone Fishin’.) Chuck was open-minded to my hook and so easy to write with even though later he would joke about the rules we learned of never judging or poo-pooing a song idea or hook. One of the things I loved about Chuck was his tenacity to finish a song. He would always say, “Let’s get it 80% done.” Then we would come back to it again and get another 80%. We would perfect it until we were both satisfied with the song.
People often now ask me how I write songs and what’s my process. I’m not really into formal processes… Ha ha! No seriously, it really depends, session to session, writer to writer. Now, if we’ve never written before, I’ll spend some time getting to know the person. That helps to find a jumping-off point for me, like breaking the ice. To be honest, some of my favorite songs are from first-timers and others who are just getting started.
Spoiler alert: You don’t have to have a degree in writing or even have any prior experience to try your hand at it.
Co-writing is kind of like dating – you can write a great song with someone you don’t have a ton of chemistry with. Same as having a great dinner and inspiring convo but not feeling like a fit for each other to date, right? But where there’s a creative chemistry and natural flow in crafting a song, it’s magical!
In my songwriting workshops, I learned to spawn ideas for songs through free writing and to expand on a hook once we have narrowed one down. A free-write topic can be something simple or even silly. Stream of consciousness, anything that comes to mind. Pen to paper doesn’t stop until the timer dings!
For ten minutes, write about the word “retreat.”
I may spend ten minutes writing about how re-treat reminds me of Halloween. From there, I could dive into a costume about a monkey, then end up swinging with the monkey from a rope in a tree. It’s normally quite humorous to see where the subconscious mind can take us. As I said it doesn’t need to make sense, it just gets the juices flowing. What’s exciting for me is all the hooks and rhymes that come in just a simple ten minutes! Then as we narrow in on a topic that all parties can contribute and find passion in writing about, I like to craft the story of what we really want the song to say. What message do we want to convey that people will remember? I like to leave the listener inspired, and uplifted regardless of what the song is about.
Chuck always said I’m a “master rhymer”. He was a very strong writer, lyrically and melodically, and I’m always super happy when one of my co-writers takes the lead and is gifted musically/melodically. Now and then when I’m the strongest player in the room, that forces me to grow and up my melody game for sure. Some writers hear only the music in their head, while others only come to the table with lyrics. Some are just great storytellers or know how to craft the song. I personally am guilty of getting so engrossed in crafting/telling the story with words often times I have no clue what key we wrote it in or how to play even it on the guitar.! Then I have to call up my co-writer and say “Can you teach me to play those whacked-out chords you came up with for the song we wrote”?
There also isn’t any rhyme or reason for how fast or slowly a song comes to life either. I’ve written a song in as little as 45 minutes, and if we are tenacious, a couple of 2-3 hour sessions we most times get it done. Or at least 80% as Chuck would say. Some songs may never get finished or could take years! I have learned that if it feels like you are pushing a song up the hill trying to steer it in one direction or another and it’s just not coming easily, it might not be the direction the song wants to go.
I remind myself to open mind and heart and not to give up; just keep pushing because great songs don’t always come easily. Like anything you want to be good at, writing is a practice, so carving out the time to create is key! Every song crafted makes you a better writer. So keep writing, quiet down that inner critic, and don’t get too attached to the facts of the story you are trying to tell. Let the song write itself – I promise there is magic to be shared.