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 onto an ad for the Wood and Stone Songwriting Retreat, I felt compelled to go. Mind you, I didn’t even consider myself a songwriter, having only written a few songs by myself, let alone co-wrote a song 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, booked my ticket plane ticket and a few weeks 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 hours outside of Baltimore that had minimal cell phone service at best? Once again…mom was a little concerned! I asked my mom what’s the worst that could happen.. Do not worry about me! 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 knowing no-one. Wyatt Easterling, one of the instructors, happened to be making guacamole at the kitchen table and I offered up my chopping skills. 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! 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 like I was a few short years ago. I really never felt like a legit 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 alot 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.

Two albums and seventeen songs recorded, only one song I wrote all by myself! Does that tell you how much I LOVE to collaborate?!

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 favorite songs are from first-timers and others who are just getting started.

Co-writing is kind of like dating – you may still write a great song with someone you don’t have a ton of chemistry with initially. Same as having a great dinner and inspiring convo but not feel 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 writes 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 don’t stop until the timer dings!

For ten minutes, write about the word “retreat.”

I may spend ten minutes writing about how retreat 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. Like 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 simply ten minutes! Then as we narrow in on a topic that all parties can contribute and find passion 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 very strong writer, lyrically and melodically, and I’m 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 story tellers 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 to 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. I like to finish songs or give it my best shot. I have learned that if it feels like you are pushing a song up the hill trying to steer it one direction or another and it’s just not coming easily, it might not be the direction the song wants to go.

Have an open mind and heart, let the song lead you, and leave your critic (inner and outer) outside the door. You can pick him or her up on your way out.

That’s my two cents for what it’s worth! Carve the time to create beautiful art (music!)

Let’s talk about what exactly co-writing is and why it can be so crucial to the creative process. Co-writing is the art of collaboration. I know it may sound obvious, but there is so much more to it than just writing with another person. For an hour or two, you are connecting with someone to make art.

Sounds way cooler, doesn’t it?

Because this practice can feel so sacred, you don’t want to work with just anybody. It’s okay – shoot, it’s encouraged – to be picky when it comes to finding a co-writer!

Spoiler alert: you don’t have to have a degree in writing or even have any prior experience to try your hand at it.

Over the years, I look for someone who’s a finisher. The way my process works, I can typically think of a few hooks or ideas, but it’s super helpful for me to have someone to help me build the house.

Additionally, anytime you’re doing collaborative creative work, you want to work with someone who has an open mind, an open heart, and the willingness to hang in there when things get tough. Writing ain’t easy! That’s why working with someone who will push through those blocks is so, so important.

Now, if I’ve never written with this person before, I’ll spend some time getting to know them. It doesn’t work unless the people vibe. We have to have a connection and align on a certain topic or idea to write about – bonus points if it’s something that we both feel really passionate about.

Easy example – we’ve all, for the most part, experienced one or two heartbreaks that just rocked us to our core. If I’m having a co-write session with a gal who’s going through a gut-wrenching breakup, odds are that’s a topic we can both relate to. Naturally, the chorus – aka the story – tends to write itself first.

Darrell Scott, the famed musician and songwriter, has a take that has always resonated with me: “Write the song that wants to be written.”

This is why it’s so important to work with someone you connect with and share a likeness to the topic you’re writing about.

On that note, my final piece of co-writing is advice, and arguably the most challenging, is to leave your inner critic behind. The act of creating always tends to bring out our most critical selves. Writing is a process – no one gets it on the first try. Give yourself the space to make mistakes. Every verse you write gets you closer to the finished product. So keep writing, quiet down that inner critic, and don’t get too attached to the facts of the story. Let the song write itself – I promise there is magic to be shared.

Check out some of my favorite songs I’ve co-written on:

West with the Night & Sweet Innocence