Phil Cornish On Songwriting

Phil is the only person I’ve collaborated with to write, and actually finish, an original song. It’s an instrumental called “Snowfall on Cedar” and we recorded it on the Copper Canyon CD Tales from the Canyon along with Megan Lynch, Pat Ickes and Jerry Logan.

Although that’s the current extent of my own co-authoring experience, Phil has written songs with a variety of other songwriters in recent years, including Megan, Paul Lee, Eric Guest and others. That makes Phil something of an expert on the subject, so I was curious about his thoughts on the process.

Rick: How is co-authoring a song different from writing one by yourself?

Phil: There’s someone there to reel you in when you stray or push you forward when you’re on the right track. It can be exciting and fun, or very formal and remote. In any case, it’s usually easier because you don’t have to do 100% of the work. On the other hand, you might have to compromise some of your ideas, which can be frustrating (but don’t worry, you can save those ideas for another song later!). No matter what, you’ll always have to share the glory — but you can also share the criticism if bad reviews abound.

Rick: Mmmm… Less work. Compromise. Glory/blame sharing. Sounds a bit like a relationship. What do you like best about that kind of collaboration?

Phil: I think there’s a special satisfaction gained due to the fact you can get along with someone well enough to pull it off. I think it allows you to sell the song better if you’re the type of person who is not 100% into self-promotion. Most of the time when I’m introducing a song to a crowd on stage, I’m more comfortable telling them I co-wrote a song because I feel less boastful and it also gives me a little wiggle room in case they don’t like it.

Rick: In your experience, how do you begin the process of co-writing a song?

Phil: Sometimes you pop open some beers and show the other person an idea… maybe some words or chords or melody and it just goes from there whether planned or not. Other times someone dumps two verses in your email in-box and says “You do the rest” or “What do you think of this… want to use it for something?” It can depend on whose idea it is to start something, or what sort of projects are on the horizon. In a specific case, a friend told me an interesting story about a failed marriage that seemed like great fodder for a song and it went from there. Another time, a co-author and I had each written incomplete songs that seemed to fit together after a little tweaking.

Rick: Are two heads really better than one, or does one of the writers tend to make most of the contributions?

Phil: I think there’s a cut-off point. I’m not sure where it is but, for example, if someone is showing you a new song and you make one suggestion that locks the song into place, that doesn’t make you a co-author. Maybe you’d need to write a whole verse or section or premise to be granted that title. I would wager it is not usually 50-50, and I would also like to suggest that it is in the eye of the originator. If the originator wrote 99% of a song but someone came along with just the right word to change the song from a mediocre tune to masterpiece — and the originator feels so strongly that the contributor deserves credit — then it can instantly become a co-authored song.

Rick: What advice can you offer to other songwriters who might have an interest in co-writing original music?

Phil: Leave room for the brainstorming period where there are no bad ideas. Have patience with the other person. If you get stuck, take a break of 5 minutes, 5 hours, 5 days or 5 months. Show your progress to a third party, or even invite a third person to contribute. Be open to the idea that if things do not work out, one of you can take the body of work and revert it to single author status.

Rick: One more question: How do you know when the song is finished?

Phil: It’s not like compost, in that there’s no scientific definition you can refer to in answering this question. In fact, I would say a song is never finished because even after you’ve saved the Word document, recorded, mixed, mastered, printed, declared a copyright and shipped the CD, you still might change a word here or there when performing it on stage. And if someone else comes along and wants to borrow it, they’ll do it differently as well.

Rick: Very cool, the idea that songs — like languages — continue to evolve through time. Thanks, Phil, for your time… and for that snowy afternoon in Twain Harte when Cedar the Wonder Poodle inspired us to co-write a melody that evokes the pure joy of watching a puppy play in the snow.


2 Responses to “Phil Cornish On Songwriting”

  1. 1 Kathy July 31, 2008 at 9:20 pm

    I love Phil’s response to your question about when a song is done: “It’s not like compost.” Of course, for those urban folk among your legion on readers, it automatically begs the question: how do you know when compost is done?

    Thanks for the great post.

  2. 2 Rick Jamison July 31, 2008 at 9:35 pm

    A great post is better than a compost (unless you’re gardening, of course!)

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