The art of songwriting is a collaborative process by nature. By the time a song hits your favorite Spotify playlist, it’s gone through a creative chain that’s likely involved the work of artists, songwriters, producers, engineers, A&Rs, and more. Sometimes the finished product hews closely to the original idea, while other times it goes through dozens, or even hundreds, of permutations and edits along the way. So how does an artist keep their music feeling personal and relatable through all of that, and how do they spark creativity in their songwriting process in the first place?
As part of our Song Start series, we sat down with accomplished artists and songwriters Charli XCX, Tove Lo, and Chaz Cardigan to learn more about where they find inspiration for songwriting and how they approach it as a collaborative art form.
“Good co-writing is getting naked with somebody very quickly,” Cardigan mused. “You have to be willing, within the first hour that you meet somebody, to let it all hang out and to show the worst parts of you. Really get honest with people. And that's where you're going to get the good work.”
Charli XCX and Tove Lo are long-time friends and collaborators who have previously joined their talents on songs like “Out of My Head” and “Bitches (Remix).” They keep coming back to each other because the two women have found that their differing creative processes complement each other, allowing them to achieve more together than either would alone.
“When we combine our processes, it’s like I can go, ‘Blah blah blah,’ and [Tove Lo] can go, ‘This bit’s really good, but we can beat this bit. Let’s puzzle it together,’” Charli explained. “There’s this structure we can build when we’re writing, which still feels fluid but also feels like we’re being ambitious.”
Many artists view their songwriting as a deeply personal act of creative expression, and can find the prospect of working in a group to be intimidating at first. Cardigan said the key to keeping your art true to yourself is picking collaborators who will help bring your work to the next level.
“The right collaborators can just push you to think about your own songwriting in ways that you don't on your own,” he said. “The best collaborators as a songwriter will help you find a way to keep your story intact and keep the spirit of your story very specific to you, while finding the language that makes the experience universal.”
Charli reflected on these “universal” moments, which she finds in some of her and Tove Lo’s most commercially successful records. “We both have these phrases that are universal,” she said, noting that it’s often their collaborators who first realize something’s true potential.
“When I was thinking about ‘I Love It,’ I had no idea what ‘I Love It’ was about,” she said. “That was very much one of those stream-of-consciousness things. I had no prior concept. I wasn’t going through a breakup. I didn’t even think of that as being a popular turn of phrase.”
When you get into a studio or writing session, it’s easy to be over-prepared or too rigid with pre-existing ideas. Tove Lo instead encouraged artists and songwriters to start with smaller pieces and let their songs build organically.
“You come into the room a lot of times like, ‘I have something,’ and it’s just lyrics and a melody without any instruments or anything and it just fires everyone and they build around that,” she said. “To bring an idea into a session, it doesn’t have to be like, ‘Here’s a full chorus with instruments and production and everything.’ It can be any little seed that sparks.”
All three artists warned about the dangers of ego, particularly in a collaborative songwriting environment. “Sometimes you’re thinking that your idea is the only idea,” Tove Lo said. “When you come in and you’re trying to push your idea but the rest of the room isn’t really feeling it, you have to just let it go. Don’t assume you’re the hero.”
Charli added that one key to being a good songwriting partner is knowing your place. “The best songwriters are the ones who know how to read the room and understand the ebb and flow and when to step up and take the reins versus when to step back and be more of a supporting role,” she said.
At the same time, Cardigan implored songwriters to be constructive with their criticism and always have a backup plan. “If you shoot someone's idea down, try to have a solution in mind,” he suggested. “Because at the end of the day, what we're doing is so subjective. It's all about taste.”
To learn more about the nuances of songwriting, check out the Song Start episodes below: