5 Rules of Great Songwriting Collabs, According to Teddy Geiger and Semisonic’s Dan Wilson
On Switched on Pop,we talk to songwriters and artists about how they make great songs. Most are written with two or more people in the room. Something we’ve never done before is pair two of the best songwriters in the business to explain how they create a successful collaboration. Teddy Geiger is a Grammy-nominated songwriter who’s written and produced countless pop No. 1s over the last decade. (You’ve likely heard her work with Shawn Mendes, Lizzo, Leon Bridges, and Christina Aguilera, to name a few.) She’s also been a critically acclaimed solo artist since the mid-2000s, and recently released a single called “Love Somebody” written with fellow in-demand music minds Ricky Reed and Dan Wilson, the latter the bandleader of Semisonic, famous for 1999’s “Closing Time.” Wilson’s also a Grammy winner and the co-writer of Adele’s “Someone Like You” and “Ready to Make Nice,” by the Chicks. He recently shared his top songwriting and collaboration tips published as a deck of cards called Words and Music in Six Seconds.
In this week’s episode of SoP, he and Geiger join co-hosts Charlie Harding and Nate Sloan to lay out the ground rules for collaboration from Wilson’s deck through the case study of Geiger’s “Love Somebody.”
(This conversation originally aired as part of this month’s On Air Fest 2021; below are excerpts from it.)
1. Don’t say “no” to an idea until you’ve heard it.
Nate Sloan: Songwriters usually collaborate in daylong, intimate in-person co-writes, but “Love Somebody” came together remotely as part of Ricky Reed’s streaming Nice Live series. Teddy, would you have previously done remote sessions like this and did letting go of the ideal songwriting session change your creative process at all?
Teddy Geiger: Yeah, it’s hard being in a room with people like Dan and Ricky, it’s intimidating. So it was [less pressure] to be able to have some space in between, where I wouldn’t be observed. I could kind of like pop off for a second and do some singing and try some stuff and then show it to them. Thinking about that idea of trying it before saying no, there was some space for me to try some stuff, even for myself, without telling myself, Oh no, I don’t know if that would be right, or, I don’t know what they would think of that. Whereas, in the room, I might be more timid.
2. Then allow alternate ideas to flow.
Charlie Harding: Dan, you told me that Teddy is one of those songwriters who can most profoundly and quickly change a song right in front of you in this really powerful way. Why is her ability to provide new ideas so valuable as a collaborator?
Dan Wilson: When Teddy and I collaborate, there is this thing that can happen where it looks like she’s pushing three keys on the computer and then what comes out is this completely different-sounding thing. The morphing can happen so fast. When I think about proposing alternate ideas, if someone is fast and can get into that flow, it spares you that experience of having to consider an alternate idea. If someone goes, “What about if we tried this?” everyone’s tempted to worry about it. But the way Teddy does it is turn it upside down really fast and you don’t have time to consider, it just happens. And that’s amazing to me.
3. Trust the good in your work; your co-writer isn’t crazy.
Nate: Teddy, your lyrics on “Love Somebody” are ambiguous. Roughly, it seems to be about someone begging the object of their affection to learn to love more empathetically. And I understand your inspiration for the song was unconventional? It’s not your typical heartbreak song.
Teddy: Totally. I’d been thinking about Dan and Ricky and how they are as fathers, and their relationship with their kids and how much love is expressed. I’ve cried on many occasions with that kind of thing coming up in me and my own relationship with my dad, [which] is very different … but then [the song is] also a more general statement. There’s so many situations where there’s opportunities for love, teaching, and creating space for people to be, like, who they are. And then there’s also this impulse to control the other side.
Charlie: Bringing in that idea about the struggles with your father sounds like it’d be more a conversation for therapy and maybe not good songwriting material; there aren’t many songs about relationships with fathers. But you find the good in that idea. It translates. And when I see the music video, see you singing the song, the fact that it’s coming from such a real place — it’s a very powerful image; there’s real tears in there.
Dan: I think [to] find the good in it is a way of saying that just because you have a skeptical thought [about the writing] doesn’t mean you’re right. You just might be behind. You got to just go, All right, I’m just going to bite my tongue and see where this is going. If the other people you’re working with are feeling something real, follow that.
4. Resist the temptation to overexplain.
Charlie: On the one hand, we want to collaborate and share what’s inspiring to us, but Dan, you say that explanations are unhelpful. Why’s that?
Dan: The test case I have in my mind is Teddy, Ricky, and I in that setting [writing “Love Somebody”]. I don’t really suspect that any of us are that tempted to explain, but it’s sort of unfair, because we know each other and we’ve hung out a lot over time and there’s a lot of trust.
Teddy: You need to keep the theoretical to a minimum. Even if you start being like, “and then there could be like this drop,” all of a sudden you’re running away from writing a song for this theoretical drop you may or may not stumble on.
Dan: I wish that I had made sure to explain minimally; [the opposite] never really did help.
5. Don’t bother playing the “sounds like” game.
Nate: “Love Somebody” sounds like very little else: It mashes up modern drum production with marimba, guitars, and intimate vocals. Would you say comparing your song to others gets in the way of the creative process?
Teddy: It’s just kind of irrelevant, in a certain sense. It always bums me out; I don’t want to just make another one of “those.”
Dan: In my experience, it helps if you just sound like yourself a lot. So if you sound like yourself then it’s never going to be any worse than that song that sounds like me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.