Monday, August 16, 2010

Collaboration and The Birmingham Music Scene

Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and occasionally Young). These musicians created a plethora of memorable music through intense collaboration. These relationships exist mainly between individual musicians but can also affect the songwriting community of major, music-infused cities.

The melodies that float from the heart of Birmingham, Alabama songwriting collective, are well thought out and innovative, but often underappreciated.

“Birmingham musicians have grit and sincerity. We have our backs against the wall and I really believe that we have a lot of fight left in us,” says Jon Black, a musician who moved to Birmingham from Georgia a few years back. Black plays his own style of folk/rock with an Americana twist and frequents the city’s most prominent venues such as Workplay Theatre and Bottletree CafĂ©.

“We're not Nashville and we're not Atlanta,” he continues. “We're a bunch of post-punk southerners with a do-it-yourself attitude.”

Part of this “do-it-yourself attitude” allows for more artistic freedom. The 21st century musicians are discovering ways to record and distribute their songs in an innumerable amount of avenues. This sea of independent talent is often so overwhelming and crowded that an artist must find an element that sets him apart in songwriting. Musical collaboration plays a role by providing artists with a challenge to blend styles and ideas, to immerse themselves in a community of songwriters, and to impact the future of the local music scene.


A songwriter often develops a personal style that is familiar yet creative. He seeks after a particular sound and hones in on the lyrics and melodies. However, he sometimes becomes stuck in his chosen genre while creativity ebbs and flows. He begins to seek outside sources to spark his imagination. The process can begin with simply changing from an acoustic-driven sound to something more electric-laden. Lyrical collaboration can lead to a variety of themes and concepts that neither party had previously explored.

“Collaboration in the songwriting process can be critical. I think the one thing that people need to realize is that the songwriting process is not the same thing as co-writing a song,” Black says. “The process is a tedious journey through multiple versions of lyrics and music and you will always need someone there to bounce ideas off of.”

The concept of “bouncing ideas off each other” serves as a system of checks and balances. While collaborating, one artist must be able to read into the other’s thoughts in order to pull out a more complex version of the original concept. On the other hand, that person who comes up with the initial song idea must be willing to relinquish some control in order to create a successful tune.

Matthew Mayfield, another Birmingham songwriter who once fronted alternative rock band Moses Mayfield and currently records under his own name, understands this system. During several of his recording sessions, he enlists the help of John Paul White of the indie-folk group, The Civil Wars. “We just have a good friendship and he's an amazing writer/player. He gets me and my strengths and I can reciprocate. That makes for a really great dynamic,” Mayfield says.


Jon Black also adds that to build a music scene through collaboration, musicians must rely on and support each other, both in a recording and performance setting. “You have multiple bands playing shows together and multiple people playing in multiple bands. Backstage they're talking about life and being friends. They're talking about what records they're listening to and what they ate for lunch. They're sharing life with each other and that's the collaboration that leads to great songs.”

In the Birmingham music scene, the act of musicians playing in several different bands during the same show manifests itself in the ever growing songwriting movement known as Grey Haven Community. Local photographer Caleb Chancey started the organization in 2008 as a way to drawn in and showcase local talent. He and musician/pastor Josh Wilson met for BBQ and began discussing an issue that had been on Chancey’s mind, the future of music.

” You see musicians on labels, videos, and TV. You see musicians doing their own thing and then you hear about community of musicians that band together like the Brooklyn Community, the Asthmatic Kitty Community and the Seattle and Portland communities. They have this great camaraderie. So what is the idea of us getting together and exploring music together with the sole purpose of doing nothing but creating together?” Chancey says.

Grey Haven takes the simple formula of the ten songwriters/two songs each open mic night and gives it a unique twist. Every time a new member comes to the bi-monthly gathering at Urban Standard Coffee, they must perform with someone who has played before. This rule encourages collaboration between both professional musicians and hobbyists. Oftentimes, the performers play anything from traditional “band” instrument such as acoustic and electric guitars, drums, and keyboards to more “unorthodox” rock instruments such as cello, mandolin, ukulele, and violins. A punk rock act can be found on the same set as a country artist and folk and electronica musicians also populate the stage.

Members of Grey Haven use their collaborations from these meetings as a springboard to explore further musical ideas. Landscape architect and musician, Neil Couvillion, started playing at Grey Haven after the second show. After a few performances, Chancey approached him. “At the fifth show, Caleb came up to me and said we had to record the album. That was the beginning process. We started planning out the album in the fall and I have met not only great musicians, but kind of a family of friends and musicians. It opened a lot of doors and creativeness.” The result was Couvillion’s 2009 release, Time Machine, which expanded on his original compositions by incorporating the efforts of several Grey Haven performers. In instances such as this, the artist dives head first into the community and allows this new reservoir of ideas to challenge his or her own ideas about songwriting.


In the final stage of the collaborative process, the musicians take their creative efforts from the studio to the world around them. The ultimate goal is to continue developing relationships with artists who are willing to create and develop new ways of playing and enjoying music.

Grey Haven Community keeps an online library of every musician who plays at their events
that contains bios, lists of specialty instruments, and music. The group uses this catalogue for future participants in the Grey Haven events who are looking for collaborators, but Chancey has much more ambitious goals. His hope is for Birmingham to be a resource for travelling musicians. If an independent band plays a show in the city and need a violin, bass, guitar, or piano player, they can contact Grey Haven and request the musician who plays that particular instrument.

“When you have that, you have independent musicians pulling from the local scene and they’re playing with them. No longer is your friend the opener for the band, they’re playing with the band. You’re going to want to go see that show because your friend is playing with the band and that creates a deeper community. The musicians benefit, the songwriter benefits, everyone benefits,” he says.

Others recognize the importance of groups like Grey Haven, but know that many more musicians must jump on board for the scene to be successful. “The Washington Post said that Birmingham had the potential to be the next Austin or Athens,” says Jon Black. “I believe that but we really need a few artists to catch some breaks and figure out a great way to build a bigger community around local music.”

Until then, performers in Birmingham will continue to collaborate, continue to perform, and continue to pour out melodies that echo the heart and soul of the scene.
Check out music from the interviewed artists: