For Nashville’s songwriters, social distancing has posed some unexpected challenges.
Artists who typically spend their days creating music together are now trying a new approach: virtual co-writing.
Last week, Leah Nobel tried something she’d never done before. She wrote a song over FaceTime.
Her laptop started ringing. That little melody you’ve probably heard before. Then the click of a mouse.
“Hello?” she asked her collaborator, music producer Jakub Vanyo. “Did you get a chance to listen to what I sent ya?”
“Yes,” he said, a smile coming through on the other end of the line. “It’s so great.”
Nobel writes music for TV and advertisements for the Nashville-based music publishing company Big Yellow Dog. She says she likes writing with other people, because she gets to learn from their different skillsets.
“So, there’s that part,” Nobel says. “Then, there’s just the beautiful part about collaborating with someone and creating something that didn’t exist before, with another person. And the emotion that goes into that, and the friendships that are born from that.”
But Nobel’s last in-person co-write was several weeks ago. And it definitely didn’t feel normal.
“We didn’t, you know, hug each other or touch each other. And we just kind of sat far away,” she says. “Those writes were, honestly, really hard, because I think that we were both very, like, mentally distracted.”
Now, Nobel is holed up at home and adjusting to a new workflow.
“I’m learning what my style of collaboration is,” she says.
For her first virtual co-write, Nobel sent her producer a rough sketch of her ideas. He responded with a music track, and then she composed a melody, wrote the lyrics and sent back a scratch vocal.
Once they had all the pieces in place, Nobel and Vanyo discussed their next steps over FaceTime. The whole process went pretty smoothly.
But for some songwriters, there’s more of a learning curve.
Elbow bumps and hand sanitizer
Bart Butler, for instance, is nervous about virtual co-writing. He’s a songwriter with Mojo Music and Media in Berry Hill.
Up until about a week ago, he was still collaborating with other songwriters in person. From a distance, that is.
“First of all, when we see each other, normally co-writers go, ‘What’s up?’ And we haven’t seen each other in weeks or whatever and we hug each other,” Butler says. “But we were doing elbow bumps. We were, like, ‘What’s up?’ Doing elbow bumps.”
Butler says he checked in with everyone the night before, to make sure they hadn’t been sick, and everyone brought their own hand sanitizer. But a lot has changed, even in just the past week. Everyone’s going virtual now.
“I’m gonna have fun with my first one,” he says, giggling a little. “I’ve actually got a costume I’m wearing.”
Butler says even a little distance can’t get in the way of his relationships with his co-writers.
“If this is what we, the way we have to do it for a while, we’re just gonna bear down and do it. I mean, it’s our job,” he says. “And plus, people need to hear music right now. And the music’s not gonna stop.”
For many musicians, disconnecting from co-writers is not an option, even if they can’t work together in person. Songwriter Hera Lynn typically spends five to six days a week collaborating with other artists.
“For me, the collaboration aspect is everything. That’s kind of why I decided I wanted to write for other people, because I love working with other musicians every day and kind of bringing their stories to life,” Lynn says. “Ideally, you create a song that’s better than what each of you individually could make on your own.”
Lynn normally has songwriting sessions booked up to two months in advance. Now, people are hesitant to put things on the calendar. They don’t know what could change by May.
Lynn says many artists are canceling sessions, for the time being. But that can only last so long.
“A lot of people can afford to, kind of, stop for a couple weeks. But, you know, it seems like this is a little more long-term than that,” she says. “So, I think everybody’s going to at least be attempting virtual writes to keep the creative process going.”
Lynn had just had her first video co-write the day before we talked, and it went surprisingly well. So, Lynn says she’s adjusting to the times, and trying not to worry about what could happen in the future, when everything is still so uncertain.
To help make ends meet, she’s also set up a page on the music business platform Patreon, which she’ll use to share new music with fans who pay to subscribe.
Anything to give her an excuse to keep writing, she says.
“I mean, I’m definitely not writing any songs about quarantine,” she says, breaking into a laugh.
But she’s already got a rough mix of her first song written over FaceTime. And it doesn’t mention the coronavirus once.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.