Wednesday 8 May 2013, 16:01
As the song goes, “it takes two, baby”. But collaboration in music is the most unpredictable of beasts. Do it well and you can create some truly interesting work – valid and challenging musical projects that bring the best of talent together in new, unusual and often unpredictable ways. Think ex-Belle and Sebastian singer Isobel Campbell and former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, both seemingly from different ends of the musical spectrum, combining to glorious effect on their Mercury nominated album “Ballad Of The Broken Seas”. Or serious indie troubadour M Ward and actress ingénue Zooey Deschanel as fey pop duo She and Him – an equally unlikely pairing that somehow has the crucial chemistry and musical integrity to lift it beyond any accusations of being a Hollywood vanity project.
Do it badly however and you can end up with something as, ahem, “challenging” as Lou Reed and Metallica’s “Lulu”. Sadly not the album of covers from the Lennoxtown chanteuse’s back catalogue that we’ve been praying for all these years, but instead a difficult and frequently impenetrable collection of songs that had critics reaching for their pens with the sort of feverish glee only reserved for the most terrifyingly extraordinary of associative works. The album is a concept of sorts, based on two plays written by German playwright Frank Wedekind and featuring Lou’s spoken word set against the thrashing angst of Metallica’s menacing instrumentals. Upon its release in 2011, Pitchfork called it “exhaustingly tedious”, The Telegraph “grueling”, Blabbermouth “a catastrophic failure on almost every level” (the reviews hurtling steadily downhill from there). And to think, on paper it seemed like a sure fire hit!
I know from my own experience that deciding to journey with a co-pilot on any musical expedition is both exciting and scary, simply because you just don’t know how it will turn out. I’ve always been a writer of the solitary kind, mostly because I worry irrationally about how to best tackle creative differences before they’ve even arrived. This may be attributable to some early co-writing experiences that I didn’t particularly enjoy – it seemed to me to be a wasted occurrence, producing what I found to be songs of compromise and mixed messaging. Turns out I was wrong, in part, because naturally it all depends on who you collaborate with – maybe a sign of my advancing years but these days I am less stubborn, more willing and able to sit in a room with someone who can bring a whole new perspective to my own writing style. Add this to the fact that outside of the writers’ den I have been lucky enough to have enjoyed some lovely collaborations as a singer with artists such as Kris Kristofferson, Eddi Reader, and Gemma Hayes, and I can see why so many musicians seek solace in melodic partnership. Misery likes company, after all.
I’ve been musing this of late because of the beautiful new record from Tift Merritt and Simone Dinnerstein – “Night” – that brings the ostensibly disparate worlds of a singer/songwriter and a classical pianist together. Described as “two explorers seeking a common musical path”, this is the get-together of two undoubtedly kindred spirits from different musical backgrounds and disciplines. It shouldn’t really work, but it does. It’s a beguiling collection of songs – delicate, enchanting and completely arresting – and such is the obvious synergy and connection that the two have on record it’s almost as if they have been heading towards this meeting place all their lives. We played a track from it on the show last week – “Colours” – and it provoked such the reaction that we’re making the whole album our Record of Note this week. Expect to hear a few choice selections from it, alongside Leonard Cohen as Undercover Writer and Live on Arrival with Nina Simone, plus all the usual good and the new. But remember it takes two to tango – to make sweet music together, we need you there this Thursday from 10.05pm on BBC Radio Scotland.