Anne’s Take on Collaboration

I admit, when it comes to writing and developing new tunes, I have been slow to welcome collaboration. My personality is such that I generally prefer being left alone to my creative process, and, truthfully, my ego often feels too fragile to accept much criticism. But, I have found myself in recent years discovering—through the magic of accountability—the synergy of collaboration. I have found a few approaches that work, and some that definitely don’t, when it comes to successful collaboration.

It doesn’t work well if one person if feeling either superior or inferior. Either way means voices are not equal, and we don’t bring our best, most creative selves forward. We’re already stuck in a judgment, and nothing stifles creativity faster than a measuring stick.

On that subject, though, it is useful to have someone who has the final say in a project, gets to call it done, or say, “yeah, that’s not working.” If we are overly polite, we don’t voice our true opinions. The key is to have a space where all parties involved feel safe—safe to be silly, to be serious, to be wrong, to try, to excel, to try again, and to give an honest opinion.

It really helps if you speak the same language, or, even better, that you are willing to learn how to communicate more effectively. What I mean by that is that shorthand, lingo, and even the connotations of words be understood. For example, some musicians prefer the Nashville number system for calling out chords, whereas others prefer letters, or names of chord shapes. Or folks will talk about playing “on” the beat, “ahead” of the beat, or “behind” the beat. Because descriptors like “slow”, “dreamy”, “sparkle”, “clipped”, “catchy” can mean different things to different people, it can be useful to be able to demonstrate what you mean in more than one way. It’s as though you only had 3 emotions to choose from: glad, mad or sad. What about ashamed, frustrated, content, livid, annoyed…? It’s helpful to expand one’s vocabulary when it comes to expressing musical ideas.

It helps to learn to listen for understanding instead of for the chance to respond. It also really helps to offer feedback and criticism when it is asked for. One of my favorite people to collaborate with always asks before giving an opinion. He often prefaces with, “I had some thoughts about that song. Would you like to hear them?” Then I’m free to be honest. If I’m not ready for feedback, I can say that, and his feelings aren’t hurt.

What doesn’t help is if I bring a song to the table before I’m ready to let it go. It that’s the case, and I really just need to play it in front of people, I can preface with “Hey, I’m not ready for feedback, but would you listen to this?” If I’m wanting someone to tell me I’m good or good job for showing up, I can make that clear. That helps me as much as my audience.

Unspecific negative feedback doesn’t work well, either. If I say “it sucks”, that tells you I’m just being a jerk or I’m not in the mood to articulate my thoughts. But if I say, “the beat is inconsistent, the groove abruptly changes, the lyrics are difficult to hear, the guitar is out of tune” that’s information that might be useful.

And, as with anything where we invite someone else’s opinion, it’s useful to realize opinions often change day to day, and that time generally helps us get a more accurate perspective.

Zak Sloan‘s Take on Collaboration

When it comes to collaboration I have 4 rules. #1 – Work only with people I enjoy being around. If you’re a jerk, I’m moving to the next person, no matter how good you are. #2 – Work with someone who is talented. You gotta be good, not just a good hang. #3 – They need to do something different than I do. Are you a blues based rock guitar player who loves Aerosmith, Buckcherry, Butch Walker, & Jonny Lang? I hope not, ’cause I don’t want two of me on my album. #4 – I need to get the the hell out of the way.

Let me explain #4 by example. Anne & I cut a song I wrote called Go to Bed Angry. When I wrote it I knew it needed a powerful yet clear (read, no rock vocals) female vocal performance. I wanted a female vocal that had a tight sound, because I have a fairly rough & loose sound myself. I wanted someone who was good & my musical opposite. I’m a rocker soooooo, let’s find a bluegrasser. Enter Anne Luna.

When Anne agreed to do this song I was thrilled. I’d wanted to work with her for years, since we hadn’t make music together in a long time. Plus, she fit in perfectly with rules 1 – 3. Rule 4 would be easy.

I’m not going to spend paragraphs on Anne’s talent. Head to her website & see for yourself. Her vocals are quite different from mine & musically our styles are very distinct. What I want to talk about here is how to let a good talent shine when you’re working with them.

I get pretty frustrated when I’m asked to collaborate with someone & they micromanage every little thing I do. I find myself asking, “if you wanted to have this sound like you, why did you ask to work with me?” I didn’t want to make this mistake with Anne. I sent her the recording of the song & the lyrics. My coaching for what I wanted was, “do what you do best.” I was curious as to what she would bring to the table when she came to my studio to record her vocals. What she came to me with was my song but with slightly different phrasing on the vocals & some great harmony ideas. Stuff that I never would have come up with on my own. This is exactly why I wanted an outside person to sing on this song. I knew it needed something more than I could give it, so I found the person who had that something.

The great thing about collaborating with talented people is that I generally don’t need to give much negative feedback. With Anne, if a vocal take wan’t quite right, I generally didn’t have to say much. She knew it & would redo the take. No issues, no hurt feelings. If I suggested something needed work but she didn’t agree it would force me to take a hard listen & consider that I might be wrong. If I had an idea that she didn’t like, I knew to let it go. She is talented, but I wasn’t only working with her for her talent, I wanted to utilize her intuition, her musical instinct. If I was insistent that something be done my way I should just do it myself & not seek outside help.

This idea of avoiding micromanagement applies to collaboration as a songwriter & as a producer. Music production is collaboration. Currently, I’m producing an album by an extremely talented singer/songwriter & she has lots of ideas that go against the way I usually work. Do I put up roadblocks & try to have her album be made “my way?” Hell no. Her unique approach to songwriting & performance is what makes her sound great, unique, & inspiring. When I see her work it makes me want to make more of my music. AAANNNNDDDD…If I tried to make her album sound like one of my albums I would ruin her mojo & we’d make an album neither of us were happy with. Actually, this artist is very clear on what she wants. If I started refusing to help her make the music she hears in her head, I’m quite certain she’d fire me. (As she should) I don’t view my role as a producer like many other producers do. I’m not here to put my “stamp” on other people’s music. I’m hear to help other people put their stamp on their music, while providing guidance along the way.

That’s what collaboration is all about. I take my talents & multiply them by your talents. Then we make something we both are proud of.


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