This year is shaping up to be a big one for Nashville-based singer-songwriter Griffin House. On June 28, House will release his 13th studio album, Rising Star, which will be followed up by a full-length documentary of the same name later in the year. Below, House has written an essay on the practice of co-writing, and how he came to embrace it after eschewing it for so long.
When I first started out as a songwriter in my early 20s, co-writing was not something I’d even considered and I was not open to the idea at all.
I thought that co-writing just meant you were too lazy to write the song yourself. I was also afraid of someone else trying to piggyback on my ideas. I didn’t want anyone stealing my songs — they were like gold to me. I wanted people to take me seriously as a writer. I also really believed I had something to say. It didn’t make sense to me that I’d invite someone else in to try to help say “it” for me. I thought, “I’ll speak my own truth, thank you very much.”
Shortly after I made my first album, Lost and Found, in 2004, I was eager to hit the ground running and make another one; I was writing constantly and felt like I could have made three records a year. Around that time, I got a call from my management/label one day saying they wanted to fly me out to L.A. and work with a few producers, as kind of a reward I guess, for all the hard work they saw me doing. They set me up with producers Raine Maida, Ron Aniello, and Jeff Trott. I was so unfamiliar with the music business. All I had were my songs and I wasn’t quite sure how to work with other people.
The experience with producers in those days often went like this:
I’d play producers my songs and they would make suggestions. “This one needs a better chorus” or “this one could be a classic if you changed this” or “it needs a pre-chorus,” they said. The self-assured, over-confident young man I was at the time did not like this. “I thought I came out here to find a producer not a co-writer,” was basically the feeling. I did not want to give up my creative control to anyone. It was important to me to establish myself as an independent songwriter and I didn’t want help. I heard Dylan say co-writing felt like a waste of time most of the time and that was all the affirmation I needed.
Sometimes I was right to stick to my guns. “The Guy That Says Goodbye to You is Out of His Mind” became probably my most well-known song. It doesn’t have a chorus, and it has very irregular form. Even though I was getting an incredible response to the song at my shows, no producer wanted to touch that song at the time because it didn’t have a chorus.
The song-structure formula for writing a hit seemed to be verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, double chorus, out. Big chorus, catchy hooks. But I didn’t write that way. I came from a poetry background, so my songs were typically more lyric- and verse-based.
I think “The Guy That Says Goodbye …” rising to the top of all my others at the time proved to me that it wasn’t a chorus or hook people wanted — it was simply emotional connection, and that can be accomplished in a myriad of ways. Even with something as simple as the combination of a simple melody and one line in the song. I knew that if “Folsom Prison Blues” had no chorus, there was no reason I had to have a chorus either.
As time went on, I wondered if I’d been foolish or too stubborn to not be open to the idea of collaborating with producer/writers … after all, they had co-written hit songs/records and won “Songwriter of the Year” awards. I had done none of that yet, and as I toured endlessly around the country working hard to build my audience, I started to think that maybe having a “hit” song wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
I think my creative direction started to shift because of that. I started to try to say more with less words, trim the fat and get to the chorus. Less Bob Dylan ballads and more Tom Petty-esque radio-friendly jams.
But pretty quickly I realized that wasn’t my forte. The songs of mine that people seem to have gravitated toward are the ones I didn’t even know were any good. They usually came in the middle of me writing a batch of other songs and they felt natural, like I wasn’t really trying.
I don’t worry too much about trying to have a hit these days. I keep the listener in mind, and I edit myself a lot. Most of the time I try not to use 10 words when three will do. It’s much harder that way, but also more satisfying.
Today, my ego isn’t as wrapped up in needing all the credit for being a great songwriter. My 20-year-old self would probably kick my ass for saying this, but I’m not trying to go down in history as a Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen or Townes Van Zandt. It’s more important to me to just put out good music that I love playing and give something to people that makes them feel good or helps them in some way. I’m willing to accomplish that anyway I can these days. That is to say, I’m much more open to collaboration and co-writing. I feel like I don’t have as much to prove, I just want to have fun and try to do great work.
There is that, and there is the fact that I am a full-time touring musician and a full-time father and husband. For the last eight years, I’ve pretty much been managing myself too, and when I tour, I usually fly solo and do tour managing myself, which means I’m working about three to four jobs all at once. The free time I had in my twenties to lock myself in a room for eight hours a day and write is not only not nearly as available but also not quite as enjoyable. I feel like I’m missing out on my kids and on life if I am too solitary in my writing, like I used to be. I have more fun making music with my friends.
For all of these reasons, my new album is very collaborative. I had several friends help me write five to six songs on my new album, including Teitur, Jeff Trott (Sheryl Crow), Brian Elmquist (Lone Bellow), and a duet with Joy Williams (The Civil Wars). It was so fun and meant so much to me to be in the studio with long-time friends Paul Moak and Ian Fitchuk. If this record is a hit, it will be even sweeter because I will get to share all the credit with my friends.