Since the first time I picked up a “Big K” guitar at the age of 10, I knew I wanted to do something with music. The first song I ever learned was, “If I Had the Wings of an Angel.” I don’t even know if it was a real song, but my neighbor taught it to me anyway, and I sang it loud and proud. It had three chords, and as I learned how to sing and play at the same time, sometimes the singing would have to wait as my fingers searched for the right chords. It would go something like this: Play G chord and sing, “If I had the wings of an . . . (long pause to change to C chord) . . . angel, over . . .” (long pause to change to D chord) . . . “these prison walls I would . . .” (long pause to change back to G) . . . “fly. . . .” It was painful to listen to, but somehow, my parents endured. I decided right then and there that it would be my destiny to sing and play. I kept at it and two years later my folks finally had pity on me and my “chopped-liver fingertips,” and they got me a guitar whose action was great: my LGO Gibson that I still write on today. (LG stands for “Ladies Guitar” and it was prototype #0).
Back then, I was writing short stories, poetry, articles for the paper and letters to anyone who wanted them. Little did I know at age 10 that I could put my writing and my singing together to make a song. I continued to sing and play guitar all through high school and college, even using my guitar to teach French grammar during my early twenties.
It was 1980, and I was making dinner on my Kansas horse farm, when my then disc-jockey husband came in with a friend who just happened to be Johnny Cash’s son-in-law. He had recorded a CD in Nashville and wanted to play it for us. His name was Jack Routh and his CD was great. He had written all the songs, and I was enthralled. I told myself right then that I could write songs too if I put my mind to it, even though I hadn’t played my guitar in several years.
Jack inspired me to pull my guitar out from under my bed and to play again . . . he even brought me new strings the following day. I stayed up all night playing until my fingertips were bleeding. That very next day, I wrote my first song. It was terrible, but I sang it to my daughter anyway . . . she was three months old and couldn’t get away from me. I sang to her for hours. She tolerated it like a trooper.
I continued to write songs by myself for several years until I moved to Nashville and found the Nashville Songwriters Association International (www.nashvillesongwriters.com). It was only then that I found out how bad my songs really were. Pitching them around town was an eye-opening experience. I was thrown out of many of the publishing companies up and down Music Row. I decided to join NSAI to perfect my craft.
Through the many workshops, seminars, song camps and mentors offered by NSAI, I perfected the craft of songwriting, and was introduced to co-writing. My friend, Tommy Rocco, once told me: “Co-writing is great because when you get your award, there’s always someone up on the stage with you to slap on the back and say, ‘Great job’!”
What a wonderful experience co-writing is, but in order to do it, there are certain rules you have to follow:
1. If you wanted it your way, why are you co-writing?
2. Contrary to popular belief, you are not the be-all and the end-all to songwriting.
3. Everything that comes out of your mouth is not brilliance.
4. When you co-write, there are other people in the room who have a say.
5. You are not always right. If one person doesn’t like it, then it’s gone. No defending: You find another way to say it or play it. (This is really hard with three or more writers)
6. You don’t always have to have the last word.
7. Getting angry is not allowed.
8. Never be afraid to give up your “best” line. You can always go back to it.
9. Sometimes lines are bad no matter how much emotion you read into them.
10. “Elbow” and “Orange” only rhyme in Bluegrass music. Don’t fight for the bad rhyme.
When I met my husband, hit songwriter Kerry Chater, on a blind date in 1986, we sat out on my stoop and wrote a song . . . our first date (how lucky was I)? That was the first song we wrote together and it was pretty good, although it never got recorded. The song came out of a conversation about ex-girlfriends/boyfriends, things you’re not supposed to talk about on a first date. My ex-boyfriend used to sneak away from the girl he left me for, (I found out later he was married and it was his wife) and would call me from a phone booth outside Godfather’s Pizza in Nashville. I told Kerry I would hear trucks and cars driving by when he called (I always wondered why he never called me from home . . . okay, I’m blonde!) As I told the story, Kerry would sing the lines back to me. The song was called, “Someone New,” and it went like this:
“Sounds like you’re in another phone booth, so why are you calling me? You’re still with her, the way you were, when you left me alone. And did I say, your same old lies, still cut like a knife? And did I mention, there’s someone new in my life?”
It goes on for another verse, chorus and bridge, but I won’t bore you with that now.
Co-writing with your husband/wife is another animal all together. With a co-writer you are not married to, you spend between three to five hours together writing a song, and then go your separate ways, often not seeing each other again for weeks or months.
When you’re married to your co-writer, you wake up together, eat together, pay bills together, clean house together, spend three to five hours writing a song together, eat together again, discuss the day’s problems, play together and sleep together. There is never an “off” time. Not that I’m complaining, mind you.
Kerry was co-founder and the original bass player of the hit rock group, “Gary Puckett and The Union Gap.” The Gap was on the road 300 days out of 365 for the four years Kerry was in the group. Consequently, now Kerry never leaves the house. Some might even call him a recluse. Because of this, we built a recording studio in our home, and he taught me how to engineer while he played and sang all of our demos. It’s really a sweet arrangement.
But, as with all co-writing, writing with your spouse takes a special understanding. Our number one rule is no disagreements in the studio. That means, if he is mad at me for something: I didn’t separate the wash and turned all his underwear pink or shrunk his favorite shirt; left the gas tank on empty when I borrowed his car, or forgot to hit save before I changed programs on the computer and lost three hours of his music programming; when we walk through the studio doors, we are like two guys coming together to write a song. By the time we come out of the studio, we’re saying, “Boy, that’s a great song,” and totally forgot why we were mad in the first place.
When we write together with an artist, or another co-writer, we usually start at 1PM and go to 5PM. We talk for about 15 minutes around the kitchen table, usually with something to drink or eat, catching up so that when we go up into the studio to work, that’s just what we do . . . work. Kerry will sit at his keyboard, a Motif 8, with a Motif 6 stacked on top of it, and an ES Yamaha keyboard brain on top of that. We have 2 TX7’s (remember them?) and a host of software. We use all those keyboards for bass, strings, horns, and drums. It all gets sequenced on Cakewalk's SONAR, which has an endless number of virtual tracks, and played back on a Yamaha 01X, which is a digital audio workstation (the tech-heads just sat up and took notice and I just lost the creators). We use SONAR instead of ProTools because when we started in the digital world, ProTools didn’t have notation (SONAR did) and Kerry likes to edit the musical notes. If we happen to be writing with an artist, like Bluegrass sensation, Donna Ulisse, we stay around the kitchen table with our guitars, since there are no electronic musical instruments in Bluegrass. On one of my earlier blogs, there is a 10 min. video of Donna, Kerry and I talking about co-writing, and it’s pretty funny. You can find that on our webpage, (***Shameless Plug Alert***) www.chatersongs.com under my blog, “Freedom Rock” or on YouTube. Just search our names.
Because Kerry is a musical genius, he can play and program all that equipment. I either sit at the console or right next to him at my writer’s station where I have a computer keyboard with all my lyrics on it, and access to the thesaurus, and rhyming dictionaries. I usually hold my guitar and strum along with Kerry when I’m not typing lyric ideas. We discuss a lot in the studio, usually with me doing my “stream of consciousness” lyric thing. Writing together for so many years, it is often difficult for another co-writer to come in and keep up, since Kerry and I can finish each other’s sentences. But usually, we write with the same people we’ve been writing with for years, and it works. There is a lot of laughter since everyone knows I’m the original ditsy blonde, and I’m not afraid to be the brunt of the joke.
When Kerry and I write together alone, we try to keep the same regulated hours, 1PM to 5PM, Monday through Friday. If you don’t treat songwriting like a regular job, you’ll wind up in your jammies at two in the afternoon. Of course, we don’t always keep that regulated schedule. We have awakened in the middle of the night and one of us will have an idea and we will get the guitars and write the song right there in bed. One of our “late night co-writes” was called “Trouble At The Door,” and can be found as the Title Cut on Donna Ulisse’s first Country CD on Atlantic Records. That’s the beauty of sleeping with your co-writer.
Since Kerry was the star writer when we first began co-writing, it was hard creating with him. He had been writing for fifteen years before I started, so when I would come up with a brilliant idea and he’d say, “I wrote that one with Rory Bourke.” The conversation would continue. Me: “How about. . .?” Him: “Yeah, Tommy and I got a CMA nomination for that title.” Me: “What about. . . . ?” Him: Austin and I wrote that one and it got a Grammy.” Frustrated, I’d say, “Is there a title you haven’t written?”
He doesn’t cut me any slack either. He’d have his back to me playing the piano and I’d have my guitar on my lap pitching lyric ideas (I’m mostly the lyrics, he’s mostly the music). I’d throw out a line or a story and he’d stop playing and turn around and say, “Lynn, I hate that!”
When we do get a song, by the time I finish the lyrics and type out the finished product, he has the demo ready to put on the vocals. I’ll engineer and he’ll go into the vocal booth and lay down the vocal in front of our Neumann U-87 mic that we bought from the royalties we received when Jamie Foxx (yes, that Jamie Foxx) sang “You Look So Good In Love” on the prime-time CBS special “George Strait – 50 Number One’s.” After he lays down the lead vocal and some of the background vocals, I’ll go in and lay down the higher backgrounds while he engineers. We have a host of Expanders/Compressors, Limiters, Pre-Amps, Delays and Reverbs that we have at our disposal and use often.
But, there are times when that synergy happens, those stars align and everything you say clicks. I remember writing our triple platinum Mindy McCready hit, “Have A Nice Day” (on her Ten Thousand Angels CD). I was telling him the true story of my Aunt Jewell in Kansas who met her husband as a waitress in a small cafe. Every line in the story I told, he sang back to me. It went like this: “She puts the coffee, on the counter, before he takes his seat.” He’d sing that back. Me: “And slides the sugar, closer to him, she knows he likes it sweet.” He sang it back as he tapped on my guitar. Me: “And then she lingers, with busy fingers, waiting for his smile.” He sings back those lines a cappella as he continues tapping. Me: “They talk about the, rainy weather, she’s thinking all the while. . . .” He sings again. We didn’t change one word or one note of that song, and it was done in twenty minutes. Thank you, Lord!
We've had a lot of songs come out like that. But, then again, we’ve had some that were like pulling teeth to get out. One song, “Her Heart’s Got A Mind Of Its Own,” which is on Kerry’s new CD, “Blue-Eyed Blues,” (***shameless plug alert***available on I-Tunes, CD Baby and as digitaldownload on Amazon), was so hard, it took us a year and a half to finish. The first verse and chorus were a breeze, but the second verse was impossible. Every week we would work on that song and when I couldn’t come up with a lyric that he would like, he’d put another instrument on the track to inspire me. By the time we finished that song, the track was HUGE, and the demo was DONE!
As co-writers, we’ve written close to a thousand songs in the twenty-five years we’ve been writing together. Last year, our songs were played on the radio in the United States and twenty-three foreign countries. I’m still amazed how much American music influences people all over the world. I realize the gift I was given and I feel very blessed to be able to work every day with the man I love, make music together, and continue to write songs for our friends.
If you remember the rules, there’s nothing better than sitting down with a friend/lover, in front of a blank screen or paper, and in four hours or less, coming up with genius that people will want to hear. Co-writing . . . (slap on the back) . . . Great job!