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How Virtual Songwriting Sessions Became the Nashville Norm

According to some of the city’s top writers, remote collaborations are here to stay. “No one’s worrying about travel. I was writing with people in London and people in Nashville,” says Jaren Johnston

The Cadillac Three — Neil Mason, Jaren Johnston, and Kelby Ray — have done interviews, played live, and written songs remotely during quarantine. "Honestly, I think I wrote some of the best songs I've written," Johnston says.

Jason Davis/ACMA2021/Getty Images for ACM

On a recent mid-spring morning in Tennessee, Alex Kline is learning to live again in her Nashville home.

A week earlier, Tenille Arts’ “Somebody Like That” — a pulsing, pop-friendly debut that Kline co-wrote and produced — became the Number One song on country radio, making Kline the first solo female producer in history to earn a chart-topping country hit. Newly vaccinated, she felt safe enough to celebrate the occasion over wine with Arts and songwriting partner Allison Veltz, having recently left Marin County — the California hometown where Kline spent most of 2020, riding out the Covid-19 pandemic in her parents’ place — to return to Tennessee.

“We’re just excited to be together again” she says of the trio’s Nashville reunion. “I feel the same about my in-person co-writes. I’ve been hosting them on my porch, as I slowly transition back into 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 rendered such get-togethers unsafe. Back then, in-person songwriting sessions were the norm. Kline spent four days a week with other songwriters, acoustic guitars in hand, tossing ideas back and forth. Most Nashville writers operated that way. If you wanted to create a song with someone else, you had to show up.

Things changed on April 2nd, 2020, when Tennessee’s governor Bill Lee issued an executive order requiring Nashville residents — and everyone else across the state — to stay at home. Similar health orders had already been enacted in Los Angeles, New York City, and Austin, bringing the epicenters of America’s music industry to a halt. Album releases were delayed. Recording sessions were cancelled. Co-writes were postponed indefinitely.

Across town, Jaren Johnston found himself staring at a schedule of canned tour dates and scrapped writing appointments. Songwriter by day and the Cadillac Three frontman by night, he’d been pumping out 200 songs annually since 2005, the year he landed his first publishing deal and formed the Cadillac Three’s precursor, American Bang. He’d built his career on the ability to work well with others, whether that meant writing songs with Florida Georgia Line or hitting the stage with his bandmates. How was he supposed to keep collaborating if he couldn’t go anywhere?

As the pandemic stretched 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 jot down lyrics. Perhaps some 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 at the beginning of Covid, because we didn’t know how long it was going to last,” Johnston says. “It was amazing. Thanks to Zoom, I could write with anybody 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 most popular apps in the world in 2020. Foolproof and mostly free-of-charge, it allowed collaborators to stay in visual contact while working remotely. Songwriters used it. Businesses relied on it. Even Saturday Night Live got 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!” cast member Kate McKinnon announced during the 90-minute broadcast, giving the show’s tagline a pandemic-appropriate spin.

“At the beginning, it was tough 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’s worth of Zoom sessions. “But then, like anything else, you start to realize, ‘This ain’t so bad.’ You can get up from the Zoom call and go jump in your pool. You can go make a sandwich. You can shut everybody out for a minute, whether that means muting your co-writers or muting yourself, and then think about the song a little bit better. That’s something you can’t do if you have two or three people in one room, spouting ideas. Honestly, I think I wrote some of the best songs I’ve written.”

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Digitizing the songwriting process came with its own share of challenges, including a delay in Zoom’s audio feed. Simply put, the streams didn’t line up perfectly. If Johnston strummed 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 together simultaneously.

“There’s a millisecond delay of latency between you and the other people you’re working with,” Kline says. “That’s the only problem with Zoom’s platform. Whoever can invent the fix to that bug deserves to be a millionaire.”

Audiomovers, an audio plug-in that allows collaborators to stream the same recording session in real time, proved to be a solid work-around. 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 became a go-to tool for producers and songwriters alike during the lockdown.

“Let’s say I’m doing a session with a guitar player,” explains Kline. “I’ll send the guitarist a Zoom link, and he’ll put the Audiomovers plug-in on his master fader in ProTools. That plug-in has a link that allows him to share his audio. He just presses ‘play’ in Audiomovers, and once he sends me that link, I’ll be able to hear exactly what he’s hearing. It’s like we’re in the studio together. Otherwise, it would be a lot of people sending files back and forth.”

Jordan Phillips and Adam Stark — co-founders of the Nashville-based alt-pop duo Apollo LTD — wrote and recorded the bulk of their 2021 release, Nothing Is Ordinary. Everything is Beautiful., without leaving their respective homes in Nashville. Using a combination of FaceTime and Audiomovers, they remained indoors with their families while still creating new music on a daily basis.

“We’d let FaceTime run throughout during the entire session,” says Phillips. “FaceTime was our lane of communication. Then I’d livestream the master session using Audiomovers, and send a link to anyone we were working with. As we were writing, I’d periodically go into the session, dial up a beat, and get a vibe going. People on the other side of the screen could check out the livestream and listen to the track while working on lyrics. These days, nine out of 10 writes have some kind of track guy in the room, to help keep the energy flowing. It provides more stimulus. Audiomovers allowed us to keep that guy in the room, so to speak.”

For Jaren Johnston, Zoom’s audio issues weren’t a dealbreaker. If anything, they forced him to remain patient throughout the writing process. “Zoom is a completely 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 having to listen and stop talking, because it’s a clusterfuck if everyone’s speaking at once. If it’s a three-way co-write and one person is too loud, you run into the situation where there’s a lot of audio compression that mutes out everything the other two people are saying. That’s difficult when you’re trying to get creative.”

Remaining in Florida for the bulk of the pandemic, Johnston found himself removed from Nashville’s city limits, yet paradoxically closer to its musical community. His artist friends were just a Zoom call away. Geographic distance, once a limiting factor when it came to choosing one’s songwriting partners, wasn’t an issue.

“If you lived in L.A., you weren’t writing with Nashville people unless you actually came to Nashville. But now, it’s very different. There’s more collaboration. More productivity.”

“All of a sudden, it’s easier to access country stars because they don’t have to leave their home,” he says. “You hop on a screen and you’re immediately writing with Luke Bryan or Florida Georgia Line. No one’s worrying about travel. I was writing with people in London and people in 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 would have to fly into Nashville if they wanted to work with you. Now, you can work with people in different cities and different countries. It’s opened up a lot of opportunities, and I think it’s here to stay. I know some writers who’ve packed up and moved back to their hometowns, or to a city where they’ve always wanted to live. They’re going to come to town once a month or so, but otherwise, they’re going to be Zooming a lot. It’s a new world.”

It’s a smaller world, too. As long-distance co-writes become more common, the distance between America’s songwriting communities continues to shrink.

“In 2018, no one was doing virtual writes,” says Phillips. “If you lived in L.A., you weren’t writing with Nashville people unless you actually came to Nashville. But now, it’s very different. There’s more collaboration. More productivity. Virtual writes may not be your favorite thing, but they’re still advantageous.”

With vaccinations on the rise, the music industry’s reliance on Zoom, Audiomovers, and other real-time tech apps has lessened. Songwriters are getting together once again. Even so, the lessons remain.

“A time like this really showcases the resilient spirit of musicians,” Phillips adds. “I graduated college in 2008, when the economy was a shitshow. The music business was collapsing. The housing market was collapsing. You didn’t get into the music business at that time because you wanted to make money; you got into it because it was your dream. There’s something to be said for the creative and business-minded spirit of people who’ve remained in that business. We’re willing to persevere. Things are weird and uncertain, but we’re used to that. We just adapt and figure out how to keep moving forward.”

From Rolling Stone US