Virtual writing: How Nashville writers collaborated during a pandemic
On a recent mid-spring morning in Tennessee, Alex Kline learns to live again in his Nashville home.
A week earlier, Tenille Arts’ “Somebody Like That” – a thrilling, pop-up debut album Kline co-wrote and produced – became country radio’s number one song, making Kline the first solo producer on the song. story to win a chart. -Top country hit. Recently vaccinated, she felt safe enough to celebrate the occasion over wine with songwriting and arts partner Allison Veltz, having recently moved from Marin County – the California hometown where Kline spent most of 2020, riding the Covid-19 pandemic at his parents’ home – only to return to Tennessee.
“We’re just excited to be together again,” she said of the trio reuniting in Nashville. “I feel the same about my co-writings in person. I hosted them on my porch, as I slowly walk back to my recording studio. It’s nice to sit across from someone else and really connect. “
“Somebody Like That” was written in Kline’s spare bedroom in March 2018, two years before Covid-19 made such encounters dangerous. Back then, in-person songwriting sessions were the norm. Kline spent four days a week with other songwriters, acoustic guitars in hand, throwing ideas back and forth. Most of the writers in Nashville operated that way. If you wanted to create a song with someone else, you had to introduce yourself.
Things changed on April 2, 2020, when Tennessee Governor Bill Lee issued an executive order requiring residents of Nashville – and everyone else in the state – to stay at home. Similar health ordinances had already been adopted in Los Angeles, New York and Austin, putting an end to the epicenters of the American music industry. Album releases have been delayed. Recording sessions have been canceled. The co-entries have been postponed indefinitely.
Across town, Jaren Johnston found himself looking at a canned tour date calendar and deleted writing appointments. Songwriter by day and singer of Cadillac Three by night, he has been releasing 200 songs a year since 2005, the year he landed his first publishing deal and formed the precursor to the Cadillac Three, American Bang. He had built his career on his ability to work well with others, whether it was writing songs with Florida Georgia Line or taking the stage with his band mates. How was he supposed to keep collaborating if he couldn’t get anywhere?
As the pandemic dragged on for weeks, songwriters like Johnston and Kline found new ways to keep their industry afloat. For decades, the tools of their trade had remained the same. You needed an instrument. A place where you could write down the lyrics. Maybe recording software. But now there was a new tool in town. You just needed a wifi connection.
“I moved to a beach house in Florida with my family when Covid started because we didn’t know how long it was going to last,” says Johnston. “It was amazing. Thanks to Zoom, I could write with anyone in the world and still be on vacation.”
Zoom launched its video chat service in 2013, went public in 2019, and became one of the world’s most popular apps in 2020. Foolproof and mostly free, it has kept employees in eye contact while on the go. by working remotely. Songwriters have used it. Businesses were recovering. same Saturday Night Live had a piece of the action, airing an episode in April 2020 that was filmed entirely on the video platform. “Live from Zoom… it’s somewhere between March and August!” actor Kate McKinnon announced on the 90-minute show, giving the show’s slogan a pandemic-friendly twist.
“At first it was hard to get used to,” admits Johnston, who co-wrote songs like Lee Brice’s “Atta Boy” and Florida Georgia Line’s “Life Looks Good” during a year of Zoom sessions. “But then, like anything else, you start to realize, ‘It’s not that bad.’ You can get up from the Zoom call and go jump in your pool. You can go make a sandwich. You can shut everyone out for a minute, whether that means mute yourself or your co-authors, and then think about the song a little better. This is something that you cannot do if you have two or three people in the same room, coming up with ideas. Honestly, I think I wrote some of the best songs I’ve written.
Digitizing the songwriting process came with its fair share of challenges, including a delay in Zoom’s audio stream. Simply put, the flows didn’t line up perfectly. If Johnston were to strum a guitar, his songwriter partners on the other end of the virtual call wouldn’t hear the instrument in real time, making it impossible for long-distance co-writers to perform simultaneously.
“There’s a millisecond latency between you and the other people you work with,” says Kline. “This is the only problem with the Zoom platform. Anyone who can invent the fix for this bug deserves to be a millionaire. “
Audiomovers, an audio plug-in that allows collaborators to stream the same recording session in real time, has proven to be a solid alternative. Used in conjunction with a video app (like Zoom, Teams, or FaceTime), it turns the recording studio into a virtual space. Like other virtual conferencing platforms, Audiomovers was invented before the pandemic, but has become a staple tool for producers and songwriters during the lockdown.
“Let’s say I’m doing a session with a guitarist,” Kline explains. “I’ll send the guitarist a Zoom link, and he’ll put the Audiomovers plug-in on his main fader in ProTools. This plug-in has a link that allows it to share its audio. He just presses “play” in Audiomovers, and once he sends me that link, I will be able to hear exactly what he hears. It’s like we’re in the studio together. Otherwise, a lot of people would send files back and forth. “
Jordan Phillips and Adam Stark – co-founders of Nashville-based alt-pop duo Apollo LTD – wrote and recorded most of their release in 2021, Nothing is ordinary. Everything is beautiful., without leaving their respective homes in Nashville. Using a combination of FaceTime and Audiomovers, they stayed indoors with their families while creating new music every day.
“We would let FaceTime run for the entire session,” says Phillips. “FaceTime was our line of communication. Then I would stream the main session live using Audiomovers, and send a link to everyone we worked with. While we were writing, I would periodically go into the session, compose a beat and make it vibrate. People on the other side of the screen could watch the livestream and listen to the track while working on the lyrics. Nine out of ten scriptures these days have some sort of trail guy in the room, to help keep the energy flowing. It provides more stimulus. Audiomovers allowed us to keep this guy in the room, so to speak.
For Jaren Johnston, Zoom’s audio issues weren’t a deal breaker. Rather, they forced him to remain patient throughout the writing process. “Zooming is a whole different method of songwriting,” he says, “but it really helps you learn your place in the writing room. It teaches you what your strengths and weaknesses are. You find yourself compelled to listen and stop talking because it’s crap if everyone is talking at the same time. If it’s a three-way co-write and one person is too loud, you end up in a situation where there’s a lot of audio compression that cuts out everything the other two people are saying. It’s hard when you’re trying to be creative. “
Staying in Florida for most of the pandemic, Johnston found himself removed from the city limits of Nashville, but ironically closer to his music community. His artist friends were just a phone call away from Zoom. Geographical distance, once a limiting factor in choosing his writing partners, was not an issue.
“If you lived in Los Angeles, you didn’t write with the people of Nashville unless you actually came to Nashville. But now it’s very different. There is more collaboration. More productivity. “
“Suddenly it’s easier to access the country stars because they don’t have to leave their homes,” he says. “You jump onto a screen and immediately write with Luke Bryan or Florida Georgia Line. Nobody cares about travel. I wrote with people from London and people from Nashville. I was writing with Brian Kelley, who lived half a block from me, but we were still on Zoom.
Alex Kline agrees, adding, “Before, people had to go to Nashville if they wanted to work with you. Now you can work with people in different cities and countries. It opened up a lot of opportunities and I think it’s here to stay. I know writers who packed their bags and returned to their hometowns or to a city where they always wanted to live. They’ll come to town about once a month, but if not, they’re going to zoom in a lot. It’s a new world. “
It is also a smaller world. As long-distance co-writings become more and more common, the distance between communities of American composers continues to shrink.
“In 2018, no one was doing virtual paperwork,” says Phillips. “If you lived in Los Angeles, you didn’t write with the people of Nashville unless you actually came to Nashville. But now it’s very different. There is more collaboration. More productivity. Virtual writes may not be what you prefer, but they are always beneficial. “
With the rise in vaccinations, the music industry’s reliance on Zoom, Audiomovers, and other real-time technology applications has diminished. The songwriters meet again. Even so, the lessons remain.
“A moment like this really shows the resilient spirit of musicians,” adds Phillips. “I graduated from college in 2008 when the economy was a shit. The music business was collapsing. The housing market was collapsing. You didn’t enter the music business then because you wanted to make money; you entered it because it was your dream. There is something to be said for the creative and business-oriented minds of the people who have stayed in this industry. We are ready to persevere. Things are weird and uncertain, but we’re used to it. We adapt and figure out how to keep moving forward. “