Session musician vs. collaborator: which one do you need?
Songwriting, like any art form, is a very personal and complex process. Sometimes it is easy and effortless, as if something (or Someone?) else is guiding your pen. Sometimes it is laborious and even strenuous, keeping you up at night and requiring all of your skill and concentration in order to get it just right. There are many rules and there are no rules – all we know for certain is that creativity goes in and song comes out.
Next stage is putting down a recording of your composition, which will serve as the first representation of your ideas in a tangible form (possibly, first of many). Depending on your proficiency at music performance, you might require some help in that department. But whose help do you need, that of a session musician or that of a collaborator?
“Session musicians”, synonymous with “studio musicians”, are [Wikipedia] “instrumental and vocal performers who are available to work with others at live performances or recording sessions”. Work – how?
Here is the general rule of thumb: if your song is complete with both lyrics and melody, and has a well-defined structure, you might be ready for a studio musician or producer to take your song to the next level. However, if you only have the melody written, or just the lyrics, or if your ideas donʼt quite lend themselves to a song format yet, then you still need a collaborator (a co-writer) to help you finish the song before it can be recorded.
Having said that, do not feel like you need to find a co-writer just to have someone sing your song, because you donʼt consider yourself a good enough singer. If your song ever soars to the top of the charts, you might regret giving away half of your songwriterʼs royalties for a simple vocal rendition. So if you are up for recording a rough work tape with your smartphone, to showcase the bare bones of your composition, go for it!
Trust me, trust me, TRUST ME, a true professional session musician wonʼt ever criticize or judge your chops. That would be like a hair stylist exclaiming “Oh my, your hair is a mess!”. (“Geez, that is why I came to the salon today and that is why you have a job!”). The only elements that need to be in place are: 1) melody; 2) lyrics; 3) chords; 4) structure. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we arenʼt even listening for performance. Just the song itself has to be discernible.
If you feel that your voice doesnʼt do your composition justice, and perhaps you have some knowledge of music notation, jot it down that way. Or, if you canʼt quite convey the style youʼre going for, provide a YouTube link of another artistʼs song for us to reference. But please do be realistic – if you have a melancholy jazzy ballad and you wish it to sound like one of Taylor Swiftʼs latest hits, itʼs probably not going to happen.
Finally – at the risk of contradicting this entire article – studio musicians do bring a certain amount of collaboration to the table. After all, you are not hiring robots but human beings, often artists and composers in our own right, so that is sure to color our interpretation of your material. We might even feel compelled to make suggestions (when it is appropriate and expressly welcome) and help you tweak a line or two, or advise you to cut that 1st chorus in half, etc. That is especially relevant when entering music production territory.
For example, when I am asked to record vocals only, I am likely to just sing what is written on the page. On the other hand, when hired to produce a piano/vocal recording with additional string arrangement or other instrumentation, I am entrusted with the overall picture and dynamics, so I am more likely to provide some input and make a few suggestions.
Perhaps the biggest attribute that differs a session musician or producer from a collaborator is that our job is to reflect your vision of the song, not our own. We check our ego at the door. At the end of the day, this is your music, your baby, and we are always respectful of that.
So bring us your songs. Weʼll tend them well, rock them whenever needed, lay them down with care – and send them back home plump and happy.