Tuesday, 01 Oct 2013

If you’re used to making music by yourself and writing songs in your bedroom, the idea of working creatively with someone else can be daunting – there’s a risk associated with relinquishing creative control and navigating new personalities that you wouldn’t otherwise have to deal with. In this month’s Tips of the Trade we caught up with two creative types who don’t just know a thing or two about writing a good song – they know how to collaborate.

Meet Mitch Kenny and Jezzabell Doran. As a producer who’s worked with the likes of Beyonce, Zedd, Chris Brown, Nicole Scherzinger, Boyz II Men, Wiz Khalifa and Snoop Dogg, Mitch Kenny is no stranger to collaboration. Same goes for Jezzabell Doran, whose collaboration with Flume saw her record ‘Sleepless,’ become an ARIA Gold selling hit last year.

Jezzabell DoranWhat is the best way to collaborate with a songwriter or producer?

Jezzabell: Always go into a writing session with an open mind so that the creative collaborative process can grow and explore new avenues. That’s how authentic music is made – by being able to throw away any preconceived notions or attachments as to who you are as an artist or a particular ‘style’ and just jam out!

Mitch: The best way is to develop a working relationship with them and just start writing. It really can be as simple as that. I tend to work out quite early on in the session who I enjoy writing with and just take it from there. Some of the collaborations have started through UMPG and others have evolved organically. The most important thing for me is that the other collaborator comes with an open mind and a sense of humour. If we do end up working on a song or record together, chances are that we are going to be spending A LOT of time in each others company and usually over a concentrated time frame.

Do you have ideas before you go into the studio?

Jezzabell: I have a big book full of poems and little things that pop into my head whenever I just write them down. So if I’m ever stuck for an idea or not feeling inspired I can always go back to that for one.

Mitch: Yes and no. Some songs are based on an idea that I have started by myself and others are written on the spot from an idea that comes up during the session.  I like to have an idea of a style but am completely prepared for that to change on the spot once the session starts.Mitch Kenny

What exactly is your method for writing songs?

Jezzabell: Generally I will be presented with a basic beat the person I’m collaborating with has been working on or a few to which I will indicate whether or not I’m ‘vibing’. From there, I play around with lyrics and melodies that pop into mind until something cool sticks.

Mitch: I usually start with a groove or a melodic idea. I believe that melody implies harmony and that harmony implies melody so it is not important to me which comes first.

Whenever possible, I like to work within a team of three – being myself, a top-liner and the artist. I find that having the artist there from the start is always a much cooler way of working than writing what I think they may like. At the end of the day, they’re the ones who will be judged by the song not me, so it’s all about them and the sooner they are involved the better.

You have worked with a lot of different songwriters, what did you do to prepare yourself?

Jezzabell: I usually check out what music they have already made so I can get a feel for what they are about and figure out best how to fuse our styles.

Mitch: As a rule I prefer to write/produce with an artist in mind or with the artist being involved in the session. With this in mind, I spend a little bit of time making sure that I’m across songs that they have released previously or seeking out some kind of direction if this is their first release. This doesn’t mean that I am trying to produce a song that sounds like something that the artist has previously released but I find it really does help to at least have an understanding of what they have previously done as a starting point. In some cases especially with urban and hip hop artists, I will produce almost finished tracks before they come in to a session and play them a selection of “beats”. Sometimes they love one and away we go and sometimes they do not connect with any and we start from scratch. Either way is fine by me.

What do you believe makes for a good collaboration in the studio?

Jezzabell: When neither party are driven by ego. If both producer and artist are respectful of each others ideas and artistry, the working environment is more relaxed which allows the creative juices to flow naturally. When everybody is comfortable and unafraid to express themselves the quality of the music can only be better!

Mitch: I think the best collaborations occur when the collaborators bring a skill or perspective which is different from the other collaborator. I think I have a pretty well developed sense of  “pop” and “urban” but the bands I loved growing up (and still do) were the Hoodoo Gurus and The Violent Femmes and Billy Bragg. I studied classical performance playing cello and at the same time played guitar in bands and it’s the combination of these experiences which is the basis for what I do both in a writing and production sense.

Having fun, being comfortable, saying that you don’t like something and keeping the studio a 100% EGO FREE ZONE during any session are also vital to any good collaboration. I was recently thanked on an album for keeping the vibe up and the 2K down. It’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me !!!!  I hate reading (especially on twitter) about people ” being on the grind” making records. If it feels like a grind, you are either working with the wrong people or not making cool enough records.

Who has been your favourite person to work with in the studio- What was that like? How did you work together in the studio?

Jezzabell: I’ve recently been working with Julian Hamilton from The Presets. Julian is awesome – he’s a super friendly guy with a lot of experience and passion for music. Working with him is always a positive experience as well as productive (which I’ve found rare in this industry). We made a really cool slightly eccentric tune the first time we collaborated which I’m hoping will grace your ears in the near future! However our last collab ‘Catch the Girl’ is a dance track which I found challenging due to my indie folk background and tendency to write slower tempo story telling tunes which are generally more suited to a lounge audience. I love working with Jules and can’t wait till we start releasing these bad boys!

Mitch: This is nearly IMPOSSIBLE to answer as there have been so many sessions which could be described as my favourite. It’s like trying to name my favourite song which today at least is ‘Gap Year Blues’ by Dan Kelly or possibly ‘Walk You Home’ by Horrorshow but I digress…

Working on the Zedd album Clarity is a career highlight because I was involved from the very start and even at that point I knew that we were working on something very, very special. Quite a while before there was even talk of an album. We worked together on ‘Stars come out’ and ‘Follow you down’ and ‘Shave it Up.’ From the beginning it was the type of collaborative effort which is uncommon in the US. As well as being a supremely talented musician and producer, Zedd has a highly refined knowledge of music theory which allowed us to talk in specific musical detail. This not only streamlined the production and writing process but also led to some really complex harmonic ideas to be developed in the songs. This is one of the things that has made Clarity such a success. Even though it is so much more than straight up four in the floor EDM, it sits very comfortably around that genre.  It’s sessions and songs like these which get me out of bed in the (late) morning!!!

Does each different songwriter/producer bring something different to your music?

Jezzabell: Definitely! Different people have different strengths and different sounds. As a singer/songwriter I find working with different producers challenging – as open minded as I try to be, I want to maintain MY sound! Most of the producers I have worked with have been a pleasure. The ones I find best are the ones who trust what I’m doing lyrically and I trust what they are doing production wise. As a writer it can be hard to give somebody else a right to change your story or message and as a singer you’re the one telling it. Personally I want to perform my story with conviction – hence the need to be the writer. So when working with producers from different stylistic backgrounds, the mood of their music really guides the path of my story.

Mitch: Absolutely!!!! But it can be even more specific than that. I see each song as a completely new production and do my very best not to fall back on the “trick” from the track I did yesterday. What I primarily do as a producer is to take a song (which is just an idea) and turn it in to a tangible (which is a record). The song and the songwriter are instrumental (pardon the pun) to everything within the production, from the direction to the sound choices, to the form etc etc. Anyone with [insert chosen music software here] can bash together something which sounds like a record but it takes something on a whole different level to write and produce a song which people connect with. Each different songwriter gives a little bit of their story and experience to a song. It would be completely disrespectful to the writer and the artist and the song if I didn’t as well. It’s also my job to quickly asses what direction the writer and/or the artist wants a song to go and either buy in to that direction or very gently point them in a different direction.

What is some advice you would give songwriters or producers on working together?

Jezzabell: Play nice! Try and find each others strengths and don’t give up if something isn’t working because if there’s a will there’s a way. For writers, if you feel something don’t be afraid to express it because I can guarantee there are 1,000,000 people out there waiting for somebody to say it!

Mitch: No idea is ever wrong and no idea is ever stupid. It has to be a 100% ego free zone and you must be completely open to suggestions and completely prepared to say that you don’t like something. Sometimes saying that you don’t like something is the harder part of a writing session but if you are both grown ups it shouldn’t be a problem. Write what you are feeling about. The most important part of any song is that it is genuine because the audience can pick a fake a million miles away !!!

Check out Jezzabell Doran on Facebook or Soundcloud and Mitch Kenny via his website.

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