The Basics of Cowriting with Ralston Wells
A Blog Series By: Allison Barrett
If you look at any song on the radio it’s likely that it has more than one writer. This is called “cowriting” and has been happening for decades. But what does that mean? I could tell you my ideas, but instead I started an adventure that has become Allison Asks. Over the next several months I will be interviewing NSAI members to learn more about cowriting and other fun topics. Let’s go!
If you attend writer rounds in Nashville you have likely run into Ralstofferson, also known as Ralston Wells. He plans shows for Radio Sobro, cohosts “Smokin’ on the Row,” and is a staple here at NSAI, frequently using our writing rooms and introducing new writers to NSAI. I thought that people who knew of his work with these groups would be reaching out to cowrite with him all the time, but I learned that isn’t the case so we had a chat!
[RALSTON] Most of my cowrites I seek out, What I’ve found is people generally meet cowriters by people that they are singing with on stage, and I don’t sing or play guitar. So most of the time the four people on stage, if they don’t know each other, they’re going to exchange numbers and ask to cowrite. They don’t come to me drinking a beer at the bar (or unsweet tea) and go ‘I love the way you’re holding that beer. Let’s write a song sometime!’ People want to write songs with people they hear on stage and if you’re singing with someone you don’t know you’re going to be cowriting with them soon if they like your song. So I end up going after 90% of my writes because I’m not that guy up on stage. They don’t hear my songs.
Ralston has been cowriting for over five years and has been bringing around a lot of new talent lately, so I had to ask about the differences in writing with these new writers verses his long-time cowriters.
[RALSTON] I love to do it all. I like to write with the same people because you feel comfortable in the room, but I also like to write with new people because there are new ideas. They may have a different melody - sometimes you write with a songwriter and they have the same melodies over and over so sometimes bringing in a new writer brings in a new way of looking at a point of view. I love writing with anybody, new people, same people. But in Nashville they say to build your team. Find your twelve people and write with them all the time, because if one of them pops hopefully they will take you with them. So, I guess I try to write with as many teams as possible. I just like writing with new people.
[ALLISON] I’m thinking, other than the NSAI Member Directory, how does someone find a cowriter?
[RALSTON] I go out every night. I go to rounds and always go up to people and say if I like the song ‘I like your song, I like your style, I like your tune. I’m available for cowriting if you’d like to cowrite.’ Also, a good way to write with someone who’s above your level is to pitch them an idea, something like ‘I like your sound, let me throw out a title to you.’ Then throw out a title and if they like it then you almost have an agreement that you are going to write it with them.
Another way is to listen to Radio Sobro. It has their name and if you like their song DM them on Instagram and say ‘I like your song, my name is – and I’d like to write with you sometime.’ You’re going to find all independent artists in Nashville being played on Radio Sobro. These are mostly unpublished writers that you have a shot at writing with, where published writers, it’s very hard to write with published writers unless you’re a published writer.
[ALLISON] So wait… you just ask people?
[RALSTON] Yah! Ask and you shall receive, right? I think that’s been around for a few thousand years. A lot of times people are going to say no. I DM people all the time and say ‘Hey! I want to write with you’ and crickets. But, they may be getting hundreds of DMs and emails too, so you don’t know and move on. There’s thousands of songwriters in town. You’re never going to run out of people to write with. But the key is to go out at night, go to rounds, and put your hand out and say ‘Hi! I’m Ralston and I like your sound.’
I then wanted to know what other pieces of advice he had for
people who are new to cowriting.
[RALSTON] I think as Bart has always said, try to have an artist in the room and don’t argue with the artist. If they like something, go with it. Go with the flow because if you argue with them thinking you have a better line than they do they’re not going to sing your song out, they’re not going to cut it, it’s just going to be a dead song. But if they like it, they’re going to be singing it out and there’s a chance of it getting cut. So, what do you want- a song that sits in the dungeon or a song that’s on the radio? So always try to have an artist in the room and let them call the shots. Give them suggestions, but they’re the final say.
Also in cowriting, a lot of it’s more about are you fun to cowrite with. Are you fun to be with in the room? And if an artist does not like writing with you, or you argue with them a lot, or are stubborn and want it to go your way, they’re not going to write with you again. Not that you have to do everything that an artist says, but you have to be fun to write with. You don’t have to be their best friend, but you have to be a good hang. And publishers look for that too. They set you up with their writers to see if you fit into their publishing group, and if you don’t then you won’t get a pub deal with them. You may be the best writer in town, but you have to fit in. The songwriters in the room have to like you---that’s why I never get any cowrites! Ha
All joking aside, I’m having a great time chatting about cowriting!
[RALSTON] I love cowriting. That’s how you meet people. You don’t meet people sitting in your place writing a song by yourself. And if you’re cowriting with two people, you have two more chances of people singing the song out, two more chances of people pitching the song, and two more chances of the song getting cut. But if you’re sitting in a room by yourself writing and you go sing it out somewhere, you don’t have anyone else to sing or pitch the song with. So, I’ve written some songs on my own, but I love to cowrite because you meet people and are social.
[ALLISON] Ok friend, I think I’m catching on! It’s a numbers game?
Well there you go! I think I am ready for my first cowrite - kidding, kidding! But, how do you get started in all of this? What’s it like to write with people that you think might be a little above your level? And what happens when you finally get in the room? Follow along as I ask the questions we all need to know!