Co-writing Conversations at the Whitsundays Songwriter Festival
Based on the Podcast Episode: “Co-writing Conversations at the Whitsundays Songwriter Festival” – Bonus Episode, The Magic of Songwriting with Francesca de Valence
We interview 5 professional songwriters about their co-writing experience at the inaugural Whitsundays Songwriter Festival 2022. Hear from Graeme Connors, Tia Gostelow, Karen Jacobsen, Bryce Sainty and LT (Leanne Tennant) in the full podcast audio, or read below for some quick co-writing tips. Whether you’re a seasoned co-writer or a first timer, this conversation is sure to offer up new ideas and inspiration to take your co-writing to the next level.
Tia Gostelow – Co-writing is about people skills
Writing songs is a beautiful thing to be able to share with other people. Most of the time I haven’t met the people I’m going to write with, but you go in with an open mind and readiness to write an amazing song. It’s best when everyone is caring and listens to each other’s ideas. I’m always willing to try everyone’s ideas and also say what I feel in a way that’s kind. It’s all about people skills and being able to manage feelings.
How to navigate an idea you don’t like
I will try anything in a co-write. If it’s something I’m not 100% on, I’ll say, I love what you’re trying to do, why don’t we try this minor tweak and see how that feels. This is about being kind and being able to also stand your ground. It also depends on your role in the co-write. If you’re a topliner writing for someone’s project, I’ll just let them have it. In the end, it’s their song and if they’re super passionate about it, there’s only so much you want to push back on that.
Bryce Sainty – It’s the easiest way to get to know someone on a deep level very quickly
Co-writing is my favourite thing to do and it’s the easiest way to get to know someone on a deep level very quickly. When we all are like-minded, we just click. They’re telling you their life story and you’re diving into personal aspects of their life that you would not normally have in a random conversation with someone that you just met. And you’re then writing a song about it. I feel closer to those people when I write songs with them – through that emotional connection.
How I typically approach a co-writing session
I have a reference list with lots of different vibes and themes. My reference list comes from songs that I can relate to and songs that I love. On Fridays, when there’s lots of new music out, I’ll listen to snippets of new songs and if I fall in love with a song, I’ll put that on my reference list. Then when I get into a co-writing session, I show that list and we pick a song and write a song in that kind of a vibe. And I also might have a title idea that would work with that idea.
LT (Leanne Tennant) – Co-writing opens me up to writing in new ways
Lyrics or Melody First?
When working with others the approach is always different. Some people like to hash out lyrics first, but that’s not how I usually work, I usually start with the melody first, that gets put aside, and then a song gets structured around that idea with the lyrics and the story. And then sometimes you jam on melodies and chords, until the music comes together and then the lyrics get written last. It’s a great learning experience because it opens me up to writing in new ways and now I approach my solo writing with more options and in new ways.
How does the I Heart Songwriting Club process compare to all the different ways of writing?
I find speed writing in The Club to be great for me as I don’t have the luxury of time. But I find that speed songwriting happens in co-writing too. I enjoy that, because it moves you through it quickly. A process like the IHSC process works really well for me – to have a goal in mind, and be pushed to achieve that, enables me to be less attached to the song and the outcomes of the song, and that gets the wheels in motion for writing more songs. And then eventually I would write one that I really loved. But that wouldn’t have happened, if I hadn’t done the other songs first.
Graeme Connors – I search for what I can hear in my head, like a radio that’s giving me a new song
What environment do you need to write songs in?
I generally don’t need to have a specific environment to write in, I provide the environment in my head and I keep it fertile. I do a lot of reading, looking at art and particularly photographs. It can be the look on someone’s face, the interaction between people. I approach writing like a radio I’m listening to that’s giving Graeme Connors a new song, and I’m there to write down what that is. I search for what I can hear in my head, rather than playing something and then fitting something to that. And often I get the opening line!
There are grooves in the mind too, just like there are in the hands. And sometimes you find yourself walking down a well-chosen path and you can sometimes change it up a bit, by going to an instrument. I see musical instruments as assistance rather than the real event. I’ll pick up an instrument to take me to another place or reinforce.
How does writing songs by yourself compare to co-writing?
Most people come to me with an idea that they want me to assist them on. So we just talk about the little bits of detail about that thing and eventually we’ll talk ourselves into lyrics. I’m really listening to the people that I’m working with, but I’m also trying to contribute. I’m listening to everything that they say and finding translations for their conversation to lyrics. I really love co-writing when you really talk a lot. When the three of you are really open, be willing to throw some stuff out there. Some of it can be completely off the mark, some of it can be really pertinent, and some of it can be magic!
Tell us about your songwriting apprenticeship
I had an amazing apprenticeship which went from 1973 to 1988 all the way to my “North” album. I left my hometown of Mackay and that night I opened for Kamal. Then I was the opening act for Sherbert and that was a great opportunity to learn about the mood of an audience – don’t hang them up on a Bread song, when they want some fun.
I went on tour with Kris Kristofferson. He was the kind of person that believed in what goes around comes around and wanted to help people get a leg up. He paid for me to get into the studio.
I felt on a trajectory to stardom and everything fell into place like I was being supported to move forward. But I didn’t have my story. That ‘radio’ that I talk about was playing other people’s songs, not my songs. And that’s when I stepped into songwriting. And it took me a long time to write something of value.
Whilst I was playing clubs in Sydney with Marcia Hines and Jon English, I was honing my songwriting skills in the background. I contributed to some other people’s songs, but it wasn’t enough to put food on the table.
It wasn’t long after that the liquor licensing changed and it changed the abundance of opportunities for making money and playing shows. Everything changed dramatically. And I moved from being an artist to music publishing as my bread and butter. That was a really formative time for me in those 3 years. It was at this time that I started writing from 5.30-7.30am each day at the kitchen table tuning into my ‘radio’. In that time, wrote all the songs that became “North”.
It was Dianna Manson from ABC, who championed this project. We were working on another project and she asked to take a listen to what I was writing. She felt that ABC needed to be doing Australian stories in a contemporary setting and the rest is history. A platinum selling record, that has well and truly surpassed that. It was career-forming.
Karen Jacobsen – Creating a space of having a profound connection between writers
What was your vision for the Whitsundays Songwriter Festival?
A celebration of the magic and the art and the craft of songwriting. It’s a creative adventure for professional writers to participate in a residency to create new work together, and then it’s the outreach from those writers over that period of time to offer the ability for emerging writers to be mentored and then to experience them live.
When I was growing up regionally, it was like an embarrassing secret that I wrote songs. And I knew I wanted a big entertainment career, so I moved to big cities to do that. Now that I’m back to this region, I can bring an element of contribution from the big cities to this region.
It takes songwriters willing to be open to others to be able to participate in this festival. Creating a space of having a profound connection between writers who write regionally.
Timestamps for podcast audio:
2:30 – Tia Gostelow
15:26 – Bryce Sainty
29:17 – LT (Leanne Tennant)
43:08 – Graeme Connors
1:14:15 – Karen Jacobsen
About the Whitsundays Songwriter Festival:
The Whitsundays Songwriter Festival is an annual residency for Professional Songwriters, with sessions for Emerging Songwriters in Airlie Beach, the Heart of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Founded by Karen Jacobsen and Francesca de Valence in 2022, the festival is proudly supported by the Whitsundays Arts Festival, I Heart Songwriting Club, Regional Arts Fund – Flying Arts Alliance and Mackay Regional Arts Development Fund. Follow the festival: Facebook / Instagram
Episode Show Notes:
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Podcast theme song: “Put One Foot In Front Of The Other One” music and lyrics by Francesca de Valence
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