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It's ok with me!

Ella, Elvis, Paul & John : The Collaboration Effect

Posted at 06:03am on 12th February 2016

A common criticism of the X factor, phenomenon of Saturday night viewing, is that it is a 'karaoke contest.' 'Yeah, they can sing,' says a critical voice, 'but they don't write their own stuff. They're not proper musicians.' Pop acts who sing material constructed by the supposed dark forces of the music industry belong to a lower tier on the musical strata. Second class, lacking an essential component of talent. 

A casual glance back through music history shows this can't be necessarily true. Hallowed names such as Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley - each with a justifiable claim to be the 'greatest' in their particular frequency on the pop spectrum - were karaoke acts too. Okay, they did write a few but, trust me, you haven't heard of them. Their excellence was a result of collaboration, a confluence of talent that created a powerful whole.
 
And if you look closely at hits like Misty, My Way and Love me Tender, (respectively recorded by the aformentioned performers) you'll see that the writing process breaks down further. In each case, a piece of music was interpreted by a lyricist (or lyricists) before again being interpreted by a performer.
 
Take a look elsewhere in the pantheon of musical excellence - the Beatles. Slightly different, they performed their own material, there's no hint of karaoke here. But, the same force is at work. What made them such great songwriters? As Matt Blick of the Beatles Songwriting Blog puts it, 'the magic ingredient in Paul McCartney’s songwriting was John Lennon. And Lennon’s big secret was Paul McCartney.' Collaboration.
 
If this process of collaboration is so fundamental to musical excellence, why do the songs we sing on Sunday so often have a single name attached to them? Of course, we shouldn't expect Christians to blindly follow the norms of the culture. Maybe we should be different. Maybe Christianity promotes individualism to an extent that dwarves that of our culture. But we know that's not true. We're 'all one in Christ Jesus'. We have 'one Spirit'. We're 'one body with many parts'. As citizens of the kingdom of God we should be more together, not less together than the world around.
 
It sounds good. And the good news is that worship song writers are waking up to this. Notable names of our current era are getting together. And producing some good stuff. It's that confluence of talent again. At Resound we've been experimenting for the past ten years with a collaborative approach. We're not perfect by any means, but here's how we do it.
 
We meet together for the day about four times a year. Usually around eight of us. Everyone brings a song or two – a half-formed idea, a melody, a five-verse hymn. Whatever they've got. We play them, we sing them together. And then we say what we think. We praise what is good and we point out the weaknesses that the original writer was too close to see. We suggest lyrical and melodic corrections and directions. Sometimes we bin whole sections leaving only the barest bones. It can be hard to take, when you've brought along something you think is already pretty good. But we've pressed on and learnt to trust each other, and we know that 'iron sharpens iron'.
 
When we go home (from what we affectionately call 'songclub'), we're armed with all this input, ready to start reshaping the song. Between meetings we share and discuss on a web-forum. Bouncing ideas back and forth. Zooming in on a single line or panning out to the whole picture. Sometimes we write version after version after version. And so the process continues until we're all happy that the song is finished.
 
We've found that almost always the song remains in the 'care' of one individual. The process is highly collaborative, but someone has to take responsibility for finishing the thing. Someone has to keep hammering away at those last few problem lyrics until a solution presents itself. A danger of the collaborative approach is that a song doesn't have its own consistent voice, and it seems best for that to be guarded by the person who brought it in the first place.
 
Looking back over the last decade, and the ninety or so songs that we've produced, we're so glad we've done it this way. Some are probably better than others, we know that. But we know the story behind each one. We know where each began and how it has grown and improved, even changed beyond recognition. And when we sing them in worship, we can hear the different voices of our members echoing in the words and melodies of each one.
 
So how about it? How about getting in on this act of collaboration? Find a friend – even better a group of friends – and start writing together. Most people find it impossible to sit down together with a completely blank page, so bring a few ideas, a few songs. And then work on them together. Resolve to be vulnerable. Be honest. Set high standards. Hold each other accountable and don't let a song be finished until its really finished.
 
Imagine what might happen. Maybe Acts 4:22 could be rewritten about us, the songsmiths of the church:
 
'All the songwriters were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their ideas was their own, but they collaborated on everything they wrote.'