You Can Write Virtually Anywhere - Making Cowriting Work Over Zoom with James Maltese, Ryan Jacobs, and Tim Comeaux
A Blog Series By: Allison Barrett
Lately Allison Asks has been focusing on things that help you navigate a cowriting room. But what do you do when that room is online? Is it really that different? I sat down with three NSAI members to discuss how they regularly cowrite being on opposite sides of the country. Not to brag, but NSAI helped make this great connection!
[JAMES] Well, actually, Tim and I were writing together, and Jill introduced me to Ryan and Tim to Ryan. And then Tim, I think were you the one that asked me to hop on one of your writes?
[TIM] Right. So, I joined the three of us for a co-write because I figured style and everything would be a good match for the three of us and definitely, definitely was right. In fact, we haven’t finished the first song that I love so much and that I brought the hook for. These guys showed up to write and wanted to go in a different direction, but all good.
[JAMES] Yeah, we wanted to go forward, and he wanted to go in reverse!
[ALLISON] So, do you remember what your first time writing together was like?
[RYAN] What was our first write? ‘Screen Door Slams?’
[TIM] Yes! That brilliant song we still have to finish.
[RYAN] Oh yeah. I remember because we had several false starts actually. I think our first two writes we didn’t finish and then we stuck with it and wrote one of the ones we finished. The Ohio one, I liked that one, and then ‘Everyone You’ve Ever Been’ which is an NSAI Top 40 smash right now.
[TIM] Now that one actually came from a lot of titles we talked through. We almost wrote one of the titles James had developed and we were close on it, but then Ryan, you were mentioning some quotes from books and stuff and we caught on to one of those. We didn’t finish that in one write because it took us a while to get to what we were going to write. So, I think we finished that one on the second time around.
[RYAN] Yeah and I’m 99% sure I’m going to cut that in May when I do my record, so it’s probably going to make the record.
[ALLISON] So how is it writing online compared to writing in person?
[JAMES] I think the first thing is, it seems natural because I really started most of my cowriting in the middle or beginning of COVID. So, I didn’t have a lot to compare it to, but now that I have done both I think a lot of it is you have to do the same things just the same way you’d be prepared for an in person write. You have to have your computer ready to go, bring some ideas, have your guitar next to you as opposed to halfway across the room and not in tune and not with a capo, things like that. So, I think for me, the first thing is to pay respect to the people you’re writing with and be ready to go. Having said that, they say in a three hour write the first hour is everybody kind of BSing and I think that’s the same thing here. Maybe we start a little earlier, maybe after a half hour, but most of it feels the same as being in the room with somebody.
So, they’ve mentioned that a couple of their writes they left with the song not finished. I wondered if this was more common on Zoom than in person.
[TIM] That’s an interesting question. I write mostly on Zoom. I would say typically I don’t notice much of a difference. If it’s an in person cowrite and I’m in town then I’m incentivized and hopefully my cowriters and I can stick around the extra 30-45 minutes if we have to to get it done because we’re all here and it might take a while to reschedule. Zoom is a lot more flexible for stuff like that- you could do a 30-minute Zoom catch up anytime if you just had to get a bridge or something like that. I think for us, we’re in a really solid groove and our process was we’re a little bit slower on the first couple and then we got into a groove where we figured out how we all work the best together. So, I think we’re on a pretty steady groove at this point, but you know to me the friendship and the camaraderie ship, if we know we have similar goals and we know we are all passionate about achieving those and we get along well, we’re good friends. You know, not every song is going to come out great and not every song is going to be ultra-productive, but if you have the right crew, you’re going to get to it is what I feel like and I feel like we’ve definitely gotten to that group.
I would have had NO IDEA these guys were friends when setting up this Zoom call. (kidding, kidding!)
[RYAN] Whether it be in a Zoom Room or actually in the room, in my experience, if you’re there with people who are there to do the work it’s going to be good- something’s going to come out of it. With these guys, I’m on PST, they’re on EST, and it’s like we’re going to finish this and they’re hanging in there until all hours until we get to a stopping point to pick up on a clean space next time or finish it if we’re close. I think if you’re working with people like that, that’s the key to share that mindset.
[TIM] I think we fight to get it right. You know, we’re committed and want the line to be right and we know each other’s styles. I feel like we all serve the songs, so if one of us throws a lyric out that we like, but the other two don’t click to it we let it go and we keep moving with what serves the song the best. On some of those late-night writes James usually keeps a pack of cappuccino ice cream bars, so that can help on those late-night writes.
[ALLISON] So what do you do if you’re new to the Zoom Room?
[JAMES] One thing I’ll throw out is with both of these guys my first time online was a half hour introduction without the plan to write. So, the reason I say that is people might have a lot of pressure like ‘oh I’m going to meet them online and we have to start writing’ and I don’t usually schedule that. It’s kind of like meeting for coffee except online. Learn a little bit about each other and see if there’s a vibe. We might send some songs back and forth so by the time we’re actually getting on to writing we know a little bit about each other already and I think it brings down a lot of barriers.
[RYAN] And I’ll just add to that, it’s as weird as you make it. I remember Jill set me up before I’d even been out there with James. He was my first cowrite actually ever and it was via Zoom. And I was like man that’s going to be f***ing weird. When I lived in Berlin I’d done a writer’s retreat with some Danish songwriters, but it was a different style of cowriting than Nashville. It’s a different vibe, a less structured, more esoteric kind of thing. So, when this got set up I was like ‘what is it going to be like? Who is this guy?’ and it just worked. It was good. I was determined for it to not be weird, but I think it would be very normal for a lot of people to have a lot of apprehension to meet somebody for the first time via Zoom and to also be creatively vulnerable or think ‘is there going to be a delay, are they going to be hearing the guitar, what does it sound like?’ I think it just takes a couple open minds or whoever’s involved to be open to that flawed kind of medium of Zoom and how it is in this dynamic. You can’t have that natural conversation where people chime in and dovetail on each other. It makes sense, everyone has their turn. It really is a unique thing particularly with music and I think with our dynamic it works well because typically I’ve got the guitar and then we’re chipping away at the lyrics.
[TIM] And I would say we use a Google Doc. I think that’s pretty common. I use those in in-person writes too usually. We’re on a Google Doc either way, but I love a group, and I feel like this group is for sure this way, where you can take chances and say ‘okay, this might sound a little crazy, but I’m going to put it out there anyway and free flow what comes to mind’ and no one takes offense. If people don’t like the line, it’s no big deal, but you come up with some great ideas even if it’s not that line- someone sees that line and they build off of it with a different idea. I feel like if you’re in the safe space of ‘we serve the song and we’re just going for it no holds barred, we’re putting every idea out there.’ I have a style as a lyricist where I say ‘I’m just going to type away to do idea generation so I’m not trying to put it in the slot and say I think this has to be there. I’m just going to keep ideas flowing.’ So that if I’m in a new write so that other people don’t say ‘geez what is this guy doing? He thinks he’s writing the whole song’ they just know this is my process. I want to make sure I’m not stepping on your toes, and usually if you set up the expectation of how you work, I think that gets everybody in a pretty good zone. And then once you’ve written together and you have a vibe like we do, we know each other’s stuff and can joke around, and it flows nice and easy.
[RYAN] Yah typically our flow is I try to leave the room and hope they solve the problem.
[JAMES] It’s amazing how often those dogs need to be walked or fed! So, in our writes when Tim starts writing I go right behind him with an eraser before Ryan sees it.
[RYAN] Then I follow James’ place correcting spelling mistakes.
THESE GUYS!! I promise they really do like each other.
[TIM] I tell you the friendship makes the writing even stronger though. I do believe that. When you have trust it’s such a key factor to make it all work I feel like.
[ALLISON] Any other takeaways?
[TIM] I’ll say that I’m a pretty aggressive Instagram user. I do a lot of Zoom writing. Anytime I’m in Nashville I’m sort of writing as much of a percentage of the time that I’m there as I can because I feel like ‘okay, I’m taking the time to be in Nashville I’m going to be as efficient as I can.’ I post just about every cowrite because my hope is that if I get a publisher to the page, if they scroll, they’ll say ‘okay he’s working hard’ and stuff like that and get a sense of who I’m writing with. I’ll say I’ve definitely met some people simply through that to develop a relationship that are good friends now and ended up cowriting with simply from somebody commenting on somebody’s posts and saying ‘Hey! Want to write?’ or whatever. I feel like I spend a lot of time in Nashville, but I don’t live in Nashville so being pretty aggressive on that has helped me a lot in terms of the network building.
[ALLISON] Should I put your handle?
[TIM] @ticonashville! And these guys are on there too.
[JAMES] In contrast, I’m the opposite. I don’t post a lot, so Tim and I go back and forth. But, the reason that the three of us are writing together is because Tim is so good at networking so it is definitely working for him. I think everybody kind of has their own style. I try to post whatever high notes are out there.
As always, hanging out with these guys was a lot of fun and I hope you learned new things about Zoom writing like I did!