When I started out as a singer/songwriter, the last thing I wanted to do was collaborate. I saw it as a sign of weakness, the inability to do it on your own. My musical heroes were all solo artists - people like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Guy Clark, John Prine - one man alone in the spotlight. They were like Marlboro Men with guitars.
I thought that collaboration would dilute my singular artistic vision, as if that vision was so precious and pure in the first place and needed some sort of protection.
But really, what kept me from collaborating was fear. Fear that I would somehow lose myself, fear that someone would steal my ideas, fear that there were a finite number of ideas out there. More than anything, I was afraid that someone might think that I needed help.
At the core, it was a lack of trust in myself, in others, and in the natural give and take of the creative process.
Three things happened to change my mind about this, three lessons:
The first is, I met a great collaborator - Boo Hewerdine. In 1988, Nigel Grainge, the head of Ensign Records, asked me if I would come to London to write with Boo. On paper, this seemed like a crazy idea. I was very much in the Texas country/folk tradition, and he was straight out of British pop. But, when we sat down to write, I would play something straight out of "country song 101," and Boo would say, "ooh, I like that." Then I would love some chord sequence of Boo's that felt like a Beatles song. Together, we wrote songs that we could never have come up with alone. At the end of five days of writing, we did some demos and got a record deal over dinner. It was the easiest thing ever.
Lesson #1: one + one can equal three.
Next, in the late 90's, I was working with a combination coach/shrink, and he gave me an assignment to go out to the airport, walk through the terminal (this was when you could just walk around the airport without a ticket), find someone headed towards me and walk right at them. The point was to notice what happens. So I did it. I found a guy walking my way, went straight toward him, and...he moved. I found someone else headed in my direction, and again, he moved. I did it a third, a fourth time, they all moved.
Lesson # 2: We're all collaborating all the time. Engage in it actively, and you can use it to create in a completely different way.
Finally, in 2002, my daughter's preschool asked me to come sing some songs to the students. To be honest, I hate most kid's songs, so I told them that maybe I could write something with them. So there I was, writing a song with kids seething with three- and four-year-old energy. Our song was called "I Wish I Was A Rubber Duck (He Gets to Stay In The Tub All Day)." We recorded it and the kids went crazy. But the best part was finding out that they kept writing verses to the song on the playground for the next week. The song was alive.
Lesson #3: It's possible to make magic when you work with other people, and you never know where it will lead.
These lessons led me to a decade-long exploration into writing songs with people that don't write songs, from homeless youths at Covenant House to corporate executives. All of which prepared me for starting SongwritingWith:Soldiers in 2012. The program holds retreats that bring together professional songwriters with wounded veterans to write songs based on their stories of combat and returning home. Painful memories are transformed into lyrics and melodies. Without collaboration, these songs wouldn't exist.
Running a non-profit is one big collaboration project. I work closely with the executive director, Mary Judd, the other songwriters, the board of directors, and the photographers and videographers, to make this program work. I have my skills and I'll bring them full force. But SongwritingWith:Soldiers gets the job done and changes lives because of what others bring to the table, too.
I started out rejecting collaboration, afraid that another person's contribution would somehow lessen my own. The truth is just the opposite: when I open up and combine what I'm good at with what other people can do better, the whole becomes much greater.
Decades ago, when I looked at my heroes and saw them standing alone in the spotlight, my eyes were dazzled by the dream. But all you need to do is squint a little and look around to discover there is always a team. And that's what makes the light shine so bright.