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Co-Writing, Ghostwriting, Song Writing from Jenny Owen Youngs

Posted by Annie Zaleski on 23rd Jul 2020

Co-Writing, Ghostwriting, Song Writing from Jenny Owen Youngs

How Jenny Owen Youngs found creative balance while expanding her career.


Some people might know Jenny Owen Youngs for her thorough pop-culture podcasts, Buffering the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars Investigations. Others might be more familiar with her extensive catalog of insightful, vulnerable solo music, which hews toward well-crafted indie tinged with rock and folk influences.

However, in the past few years, Owen Youngs has evolved from a solo artist to a hit co-writer: She has songwriting credits on Panic! At the Disco's massive hit "High Hopes," as well as tunes by Pitbull ("Bad Man"), Ingrid Michaelson ("Miss America"), and Brett Dennen ("Home Away from Home").

Owen Youngs started exploring songwriting for others in the mid-2010s. A former manager thought she had the potential to augment her success as a solo artist with work in the co-writing realm, and so she started booking trips from her home in Brooklyn to Los Angeles for writing sessions. However, maintaining a bicoastal lifestyle had its pitfalls.

"No matter how well you plan for a three-week writing trip, there's always going to be stuff that gets canceled," she says, "and there's always going to be opportunities that you miss by virtue of not just being around all the time to randomly get pulled into stuff to build your writing network."

In 2015, Owen Youngs decided to move to L.A. and see what it was like—a decision made easier by the fact she was looking to leave Brooklyn anyway. Five years later, she's still there and maintaining a busy creative lifestyle. Not only is Owen Youngs releasing her own music (including 2019's Night Shift EP), she's continuing to co-write; in fact, a song she penned with Dan Wilson and Ethan Gruska, "Red Light," was released in March.

Finding this career balance has been a slow and steady process. "Learning to write songs with and for other people—or for specific licensing pitches—there's a learning curve," she says. "There is more room for your personal voice in your own artist project. And then when you're writing for other people, you have to make sure other people understand what you mean."

We chatted with Owen Youngs to talk about what she means by that, and how her experiences with co-writing have helped her grow as an artist.

Spotify for Artists: Talk a little bit about the differences between writing for yourself and writing for someone else.

Jenny Owen Youngs: A lot of the sessions that I do, if I'm not in with an artist, I'll often be in with maybe two other writers who are also doing sessions all the time. And they're the threshold of, "Does this make sense? Do we all think it's cool? Does it make sense to all of us—or does it make enough sense to all of us—to continue to chase this idea?" Sometimes we think, "Oh my God, this makes so much sense." And you say it in the room and everyone's like, "Wait, what?" [Laughs.]

You have to acclimate to making yourself very vulnerable in these moments where normally, in days of yore, I would be alone with a sheet of paper…. It's often not even about the thing you said—but more about what that sparks in somebody else's brain. You say the idea, and then somebody else in the room is like, "Oh my gosh, not that, but what about this thing you made me think?" And it's really very exciting in that way. You never know what's gonna happen.

What was the biggest adjustment for you having those kinds of experiences in the songwriting room with other people, and how did you adjust?

The biggest mental hurdle for me to get over was thinking about writing as not failure. At the time when I started doing co-writing sessions, anything other than making my own records and touring seemed like I was giving up on making records and touring. That was a huge mental adjustment which took years, and occurred in incremental little bits. [Laughs] A lot of the time I felt, "Oh, I'm giving up. This is what defeat looks like. But I will go and I will do what I can, and try to do a good job." And then, little by little, I started to re-find the joy in those moments where you're writing with people and all of a sudden you find the idea.

There's this moment that I love in sessions when all of a sudden you're pushing the boulder, you're pushing the boulder, you're pushing the boulder. You think at a certain point sometimes, "Well, maybe a song's not going to happen today." And then, all of a sudden, something will gel. Something will happen and the coolest song will suddenly crystallize in the room with you.

Songwriting is a little bit like going to the gym. Working out those creative muscles made it more accessible for me to write for myself. I found myself thinking, "Wow, I'm doing four sessions a week. Am I going to have anything left over for me? Am I ever going to have time to write for Jenny stuff?" But what happened was by virtue of constantly putting myself in that creative situation and working out those muscles, stuff just started to bubble up. All of a sudden, I was writing more songs for myself than I had in years, a much greater volume. It's been really rewarding in that way too.

Has getting a co-writing credit on a song like "High Hopes," which was such a huge song, opened more doors—or different doors? What have you found?

I would say the No. 1 thing that's changed is that the sessions I get pulled into more often have artists in them, which is the dream. And that's very cool. So many people worked on ["High Hopes"] and it felt like while it was peaking, it was happening to somebody else. I was like, "This is awesome," but I didn't experience it as something that I possessed.

I would say doors to sessions that are exciting to me are more easily open. It's like a progression. It's like the next step. Lucky for me, my name is attached to a song that did very well, which makes people think, "Perhaps this could happen again. Let's get her in here."

You mentioned that doing all the co-writing has made you do more creative when writing for yourself. Have you seen the music you've made change in any marked way?

I'm hoping it's getting better. [Laughs] My No. 1 goal. I'd like to think that I'm able to maybe do things that I've learned over time in sessions [and] incorporate [that] into my own writing process. The greatest gift of doing session work has really [been] the gift of collaboration as a skillset and collaborators as a network. I put an EP out in November [Night Shift] that was largely worked on by people that I've met through session work.

Jake Sinclair, who has produced a Panic! record, produced one of the songs. His brother John, who's an incredible mixer, mixed it. Ethan Gruska, who I also met on a blind-date writing session, produced three of the songs and wrote one with me. Christian Lee Hutson, who I also met on a one-day writing session, we wrote a song together for it. And then there were a few buddies from back in New York that also worked on the EP. But the vast majority of the personnel were all people that I met through writing sessions.

Can you share any other advice that you wish you had known before getting into co-writing?

I think it's really so important for people to remember that there's only one of them. They have ideas that no one else can have. They have those ideas in a way that no one else can have them. Everyone has something to contribute.

It's a strange business, and it's so easy to get discouraged. But if you love it, you just have to keep doing it. Keep trying and keep making, because today could be the day that you write the song that opens the door to the next song that opens three more doors to 10 songs.

It can be really, really frustrating to feel, like, "Man, I'm putting all of my creative juice into this pursuit and I don't necessarily feel like I'm getting something back." And I would encourage people to try to expand your thinking beyond, like, "I want a No. 1 song. That's my goal." If you can expand your thinking beyond that and think, like, "Okay, what are all the ways that you can feel satisfied and fulfilled by what you're making?" Make a list if you need to.

And reconnecting wherever you can with the feeling of when you first wrote a song, or what was exciting to you about the process of writing a song, that you then finally wrote your first song. Keeping yourself buoyant is so important.

—Annie Zaleski