I Told You How Important You Would Be is a mini album I wrote and recorded remotely with San Francisco songwriter Lily Sloane using prompts from the Song Fight songwriting community – it came out on Tuesday.
I write quite a lot of music nowadays. Some of it is music that people hear, because it’s on a podcast or something, some if it is music people tend to not hear, because it’s on one of my albums. Whether it gets heard or not, it tends to be a somewhat solo adventure – if it’s for a commission, people will using tell me if they want something different/better, but the Getting of Notes is the extent of the collaborative process.
When Lily and I started to work on this, we had no idea how important it would be, if you excuse the pun. It was October 2019, I was about to go on tour with The Allusionist live show, and Lily told me about Song Fight – a regular songwriting club/challenge run by people she knows where she lives in San Francisco. And I asked if she wanted to work on some songs for it together. I was, annoyingly, embarking on a tour that didn’t visit San Francisco, so the writing process was remote, via Facebook messenger and google drive. Luckily we both use the same software, so that at least made it easy trading sessions and building up our performances on the others’ layers, like some kind of geological process of sedimentation, albeit at a moderately accelerated pace. Honestly – this is how most people record music nowadays anyway – throwing some gravel on a layer of mud and seeing how it looks before proceeding to some sand or leafy material. It’s hard to make that part sound cool because, even though this sort of remote work is something that would have been a novelty ten years ago, it was really pretty easy, and not more exciting than google docs. Which, if you’re ever used a spreadsheet to plan a road trip, you know to be very exciting – but the part you’d think to be interesting really wasn’t.
But having a remote connection even before COVID made it that much more robust and connected when lockdown hit and I had to go back to the UK and I couldn’t go to San Francisco to mix the album or even go out of my house, apart from once a day. A thin digital lifeline that remained connected and reminded me that even in The Before Times, digital connection is real connection, and wonderful things can happen without sitting in a room together with a couple of guitars. I’m not sure that in-person pressure would even have helped very much in this case, although it would have been nice to hang out and play Lily’s guitars.
This is the first time I’ve collaborated with a full-spectrum songwriter like Lily; a lyricist, composer, multi-instrumentalist, producer and singer. A really good singer, tbh, but also very on top of all the other stuff too. In collaborations where you provide skills the other lack, and vice versa, there are obvious ways to work, but in this case, that was’t so obvious. I think the bright red line was lyrics – I don’t remember explicitly saying so, but I think we both find it weird singing lyrics someone else has written. Our lyrics overlap, reflect, and intersect, one picks up the theme the other has started – I think it’s when we worked best together, that call and response led to something richer.
In terms of musical approaches, I think Lily’s more experimental – she takes more risks – and I tend to be more minimal, focused on reducing that block of stone to something that looks like a face. I don’t want anything in my songs I don’t know to be useful or believe to be beautiful; she’s got some ornaments I would not have chosen for myself. Come to think of it, I don’t think I own any ornaments, unless you count that tin of “unicorn meat” that sat on my office desk for seven years. People rarely commented on it.
I felt like Lily had a strong vision for what she wanted this collection of songs to be about. Occasionally I would try to derail it by talking about spaceships or time travel, but the emotional themes were still there. And the synthesis of these emotions and my oblique practice of talking about feelings through the medium of absurd or weird fictional people melded together somewhere in the middle, creating these witchy dialogues between the characters we’d created; an ex-couple that won’t let go; a stowaway ruining a gazillionaire’s solipsistic journey to the stars; the symbiosis of a narcissist and the thralls he needs energy from (maybe just an extrovert?); two work colleagues whose work is bringing about the end of the world; or a missed connection across space and time, two people knowing something is missing but finding meaning in their new, askew, lives. I more often than not had to take the role a terrible arsehole, which is ok because I play one in real life.
Letting go of a piece of work and waiting for people’s reactions – or lack of reaction – is hard. My only reconciliation with this is to keep on moving, keep writing, and bring my focus onto why my next project isn’t working rather than expectations of what my last project should be doing in the world. But I like collaborating. At least you can be sure one other person is listening.