Songwriting is already hard, and everyone does it differently. Collaborative songwriting is the art of dropping two unique processes on top of each other and hoping they mesh. I’ve had the most success co-writing with Scott Tribble, published author/rhythm guitarist. We played together in a band that went through multiple names and roster changes, a la Spinal Tap, from 2000 to 2007. Scott moved out of state, but wanted to keep writing, so we would meet for the odd weekend to try recording new material.
You need to devote serious time to collaboration. Our songwriting sessions were mostly periods of throat-clearing and empty space, while we waited for our brains to hit the same record groove. One thing we had to our advantage was that we had different strengths. Scott’s end was arrangement. Mine was lyrics. We basically pitched half-formed ideas until something lit up on the other side. It works, but it takes a long time for the flint to spark. Not everyone writes “Get Back” on a smoke break.
“Make It Home Alive” had two sonic parents: an orphaned, Gin Blossoms-style chorus that came to me while practicing, and a melody line that Scott had recorded and sent to me, like a voice memo. Both were at least a year old when we got together in 2008 to record what we labeled the "Tap Sessions." Looking at what we demo’ed that weekend, it was a productive session, but I remember feeling we were losing steam toward the end. Time was of the essence, since logistically our in-person collaborations were few and far between. It might be why Scott decided to revisit his existing melody line (labeled “Honesty” in my iTunes).
I had heard that piece dozens of times, especially because I played all of his tracks in anticipation of the weekend. But there was nothing there until that moment. I overuse the metaphor of fires of creation, but I promise you, dear reader: on a good day, songwriting is more light than sound. And the room was glowing.
The melody repeats itself a little, which inspired an internal rhyme. “Your dad’s saying that you tricked him. Your mom’s playing the victim/But it’s all a trap for you.” Great. Now we had half a verse. All I needed is another internal rhyme and something that rhymes with “you.” Easy.
Scott, meanwhile, saw that I had something, and was willing to just play the same four chords over and over until I figured it out. “We did nothing ‘gainst the law but I’m the only one they saw/So I’m going to take the rap for you.” There’s a good chance that we might have stalled out there, but Scott was playing in A major, which gave me a segue to the chorus I already had in my pocket. I just needed to slow it down to the mellow tempo, which had an alt-country vibe—like a Wilco or Old 97s ballad.
“It’s all right. It’s okay. It’s better it happened this way/And I don’t think I’m gonna make it home alive./You can call the police. They couldn’t catch a disease/And I don’t think I’m gonna make it home alive.” I sang, muttering chord changes to Scott in between words. After two hours of nothing, we had one third of a song written in about two minutes. It only took a year!
We paused long enough for me to write everything down. (I’m pretty sure “gainst” was a deliberate choice from the very beginning but there’s a lot of editing on the fly.) It was a strong template. Unless we did something really bizarre for a bridge, the piece was four chords total. Scott kept playing. His part was done. Now we were just painting the house.
I focused on the ambiguity of the first verse. It evoked rumors and innuendo. Details would only pin down two unnamed souls who already had enough working against (‘gainst) them. I somewhat regret using “we’re not here and we’re not proud” as it’s more explicit than anything else in the song. Is “Make It Home Alive” about coming out in a very conservative community? Yes. It’s also about abortion rights, manslaughter, and John Grisham’s “The Client.” The salient issue is that young people have problems they’re not prepared for.
Even with internal rhyming, ABCB is one of the most forgiving schemes to write within. The rest of the lyrics were finished in less than an hour. We recorded a rough, ROUGH demo, adding some country-fried lead fills to temporarily cover some of the musical gaps. The song was much slower than the chorus I started with, and it’s apparent when I hear myself trying to hold a melancholy note long enough. Rough performance aside, it’s a solid song, and a great example of collaboration as a synthesis of two parts.
At some point, we remotely re-recorded it in a faster "Hey Jealousy" style, with me valiantly and painstakingly adding GarageBand drumbeats to propel the song. But it definitely needed the energy of a full band together in the same room. I eventually started a new project in Chicago and brought the song to the group as something that our guitarist Charlie could sing. We maintained the faster tempo, and it worked beautifully. Our original country weeper was no more, but, hey, we can always include it when we release our Basement Tapes, right?