There are certain elements of romanticism in musical collaboration. Every day, we use words and casual physical affection to express surface feelings, whilst reserving our deepest expressions for those who have our hearts. Depending on the style, music is about co-creating from that deep place. For a collaboration to work, two or more people must be vibrating on the same frequency and completely open to each other’s energy. When the connection is running hot and high above language, it’s transcendent – much like having great sex. That’s why music is so powerful. There are plenty of amazing players out there, but not everyone is compatible outside of the body.
I met artist/writer Alys Ffion after performing with Lachy Doley and Jackie Barnes at The Camelot Lounge in Marrickville. It was my first publicised guest performance since burning out, and I was on a high celebrating my personal feat. Alys and singer Reece Mastin weren’t shy in expressing their own highs from the show they witnessed. It wasn’t long before Alys and I found ourselves speaking about the ups and downs that come with living a creative life and the dynamics of co-writing. Her attitude was not in proportion to the small amount of time she’s spent in the industry so far. Usually, you realise that success is a biproduct of having fun after you’ve bankrupted your soul with at least one underwhelming record deal and ten years of trying to “make it”.
Fear fuelled reclusion dampened my life for some time, and whilst layers were being stripped, I was yet to remove them from my creative world. I avoided connecting with other musicians, and could think of nothing worse than locking myself in a room with someone for hours on end. It was an irrational non-music related fear that developed throughout my burn out. However I knew deep down that my own music called for collaboration and I was tired of feeling alone. I began to open myself up for a connection. No big purpose. No expectation. Just shooting for a vibe. A few breakfasts later, bonding over the catharsis of writing lyrics from life experience, I booked my first co-write in a good six or seven years.
Leaving expectation at the door, the previous night’s slumber shallowed with anticipation dissolves from my memory when I see her radiant, smiley face as she walks into the studio. Guitar in hand, we give each other a big hug. Our teas cool waiting for a gap in conversation that never comes. We start talking ideas. I feel privileged when she tells me a very personal story that inspired a winning hook line. I’ve been invited inside her world. A place that I’ve seen and felt from a distance through my own personal experience. From there, all we need is an acoustic guitar, a piano and our voices to explore. The rest is space and time.
Taking full advantage of the ample time we set aside, creative blocks are overcome by changes of topic or scenery. We find ourselves inhaling the amazing views surrounding the studio at McMahons Point. Harbour side reserves, board walks and Luna Park provide us with the best mental distractions. There’ll be no banging heads against creative brick walls. These miniature escapades send us back into the river of ideas.
Being a sensitive topic, the song is created delicately. Story flow, lyrical tone, wording, balance of imagery, emotion and action, and a melody and chords that support the story. Of course we aren’t consciously aiming for those qualities, but they’re all factors in creating that “ding” moment. That’s the barometer. We don’t choose parts because they fit – they have to make the insides go, “ding!” Three quarters through the song, we start to feel the magic of our creation. The heat tries to seduce us into rushing the final parts of the song, but we call it a night and retire with some Thai food.
The following sunrise brings enough ideas to finish the song in all of an hour. We battle with our egos that believe breakdowns over bridges are for the lazy and do what’s best for the song – a solo (haha!). It stands strong by itself, naked without production. After one final play through, we find ourselves in awe of what we’ve created.
I got to witness another dimension to her talents when I produced and recorded the demo. She inspired me to push past the ability paralysis that comes with playing guitar in open G, by laying down guitar parts that took the production from vanilla to cookies and crème. It went without saying that the right production for this song was one of retention. The magic we felt from the writing process recorded itself. Potent brain chemistry cocktails were bubbling through our systems making everything sound almost suspiciously amazing. I mean, we were laughing out loud over how “out of this world” our clap takes were. And when she laid down her vocal, I wasn’t even on this planet. Often, a performer can pull against my natural musical inclinations, keeping me in the producers seat, but with her I was soaring. She did everything that was in my head, plus more. Maybe that’s what happens when a song sings through a vocalist rather than the other way around. Our eyes slowly open, returning us back to the studio for a “holy fuck!” moment. I’m wowed, and the gleaming look on her face has me feeling flattered. Flattered that I could be the vessel, the presence to help turn her story into song. It was one of the most satisfying creative experiences I’ve ever had.
We sat with pizza and wine at the end of the night, buzzing over not only the song we created but the experience we had. It’s definitely set the standard for the types of connections I want with the musicians I play with in the future.
At the risk of sounding like a hippy, those two days showed me more proof that fear dissolves in the presence of love – when you’re doing something that makes you truly happy. I had to remind myself that six months ago, I’d shutter at the thought of working in close proximity with someone I didn’t know very well. Twelve months ago, I couldn’t even walk into a café without experiencing tremendous anxiety. Fucking cool!!!