Imagine working with six or eight co-writers, with a goal of finishing a song and having a band learn, arrange and perform it — all in about eight hours spread over two days.
Oh yeah, and the “studio” is a gritty warehouse with a noisy industrial-sized fan to keep the August air moving, and most of the writers have just met the others for the first time.
Participants in an unusual songwriting workshop faced that challenge last summer at the Podunk Bluegrass Fesitval in Norwich, CT. They were so successful that their song, A Podunk Family Reunion, is now being sold on iTunes and CD Baby to raise money for the festival.
“It pushed the boundaries of the creative process,” said veteran writer Louisa Branscomb, the workshop leader, with perhaps a touch of understatement.
“We were writing against the clock,” Louisa recalled. “I really don’t work that way, and I don’t think most people do.” But they didn’t have a choice. A song that didn’t even exist one day was going to be sung by Donna Ulisse the next day.
Like many good co-writing sessions, this one started with a brainstorming session. When one of the least-experienced participants said Podunk always felt like a family reunion to him, the group was off and running.
Louisa had two goals at the outset: to create “a safe, creative space” where people who didn’t know each other were comfortable throwing out ideas, and trying to make the process a learning experience. So, Louisa said, “Each idea became an example of a concept in songwriting.”
Some suggestions were better than others, of course, but “you didn’t feel stupid throwing out an idea,” said one of the participants, Dawn Kenney. “Louisa set a very warm, open tone.”
Dawn also recalled that Louisa took the assignment very seriously. “When you’re working with Louisa Branscomb, she’s all in. She’s 150 percent focused.”
Louisa guided the writers at every step, but there were some guest helpers, too. Guitarist Jim Hurst dropped in and offered some feedback. “He’d say, ‘I really like this, and here’s why,’’’ Louisa said.
And then there was Donna Ulisse. She listened to Dawn sing the song, offered a couple of suggestions and got ready to perform it, all with an air that what was happening wasn’t unusual.
“She’s a sport,” Louisa said. “Not every artist would be willing to sing a song a half hour after hearing it for the first time.”
You can watch and hear Donna, accompanied by her band, and Louisa, in this live performance at the festival.
The digital download version features Dawn on vocals and Nashville wizard Troy Engle playing all the instruments.
It’s a catchy, mid-tempo song, and the money will help a fun festival settle into a new location and meet expenses.
“Maybe this song will help carry the spirit of Podunk to the new venue,” Louisa said.