Kevin Godley and the Consequences of Remote Collaboration
In 2020, working remotely is commonplace. Even before circumstances required it, many people found that working from home could be just as efficient as showing up to a formal workplace. Creatives and musicians, of course, have known this for longer than most. Elton John and Bernie Taupin famously collaborated by mail for years, putting words and music together without being in the same room.
Today, technology has made remote collaboration even easier. It’s now commonplace for, say, a guitarist to record his or her lead parts in a home studio and then email a high-resolution WAV file to someone else, who in turn adds those parts to a track already in progress. Entire albums – good ones, even – are made by musicians who’ve never met in what we used to call “real life.”
Some artists have taken this concept even farther. Celebrated video producer, songwriter and musician Kevin Godley (10cc, Godley & Creme) is one such artist. And it stands to reason that Godley would push the boundaries of the creative process in this way. “I straddle so many different mediums,” he explains. “Music, film, writing, video, and so on and so forth; I sort of hop from one thing to another.”
Around 2015, he was contacted by a couple of musicians with whom he had no previous communication. “I think they were both reaching out to people who they would like to work with,” he explains. “I was on both their lists. So they sent me a couple of instrumental tracks for a project they were working on.”
Godley was intrigued, and he found the subsequent experience of remote collaboration a creatively rewarding one. The success of that project sparked a bigger idea. “My thought was, ‘Okay, if I’m a natural collaborator, why don’t I put this out to the general public instead of professionals?’ Because there are so many people who make music on their own in their bedrooms and [who] have mastery of instruments.” He thought it would be even more interesting to open the concept up to a wider group of potential participants.
Godley explains that the project – which would come to be known as Muscle Memory – consisted of two ideas at play. “One was to try to get some samples of music in from people, and the other one was to raise enough money to actually finish the album,” he says. Fans would provide the music, and Godley would write the lyrics.
So in summer 2017, he put out a call to fans, inviting them to collaborate with him on songwriting. The response was overwhelming. “I got a lot of contributors,” he says with a chuckle. “I got 286 pieces of music sent to me! It was incredible to get that many submissions of music, to hear what people are actually doing out there. Such a vast array of different genres and sounds.”
Unfortunately, the platform Godley had chosen to use for this novel collaborative venture was PledgeMusic.
A direct-to-fan music platform launched in 2009, PledgeMusic was designed to connect artists and fans in the early stages of creative projects, providing financing for recordings while affording fans the opportunity to support and interact with their favorite artists. While it wasn’t created with the idea of the sort of collaborative project Godley had in mind, PledgeMusic’s infrastructure seemed a good fit for Muscle Memory.
But as fans and potential songwriting collaborators signed on to the Muscle Memory project, PledgeMusic was going down the tubes. Financial mismanagement led to the platform shutting down in July 2019 and declaring bankruptcy soon thereafter. Several artists – including alternative rock band Failure, multigenre composer John Zorn, musical satirist Neil Innes and Kevin Godley – went unpaid for money owed via pledges. An untold number of fans who pledged also found themselves empty-handed as well. With droll understatement, Godley says, “That was a little bit of a disappointment.”
Happily for all concerned, State 51 Conspiracy (“an unusual company,” says Godley) approached him with an offer to provide financing to finish Muscle Memory and release the album. So Godley got to work. And while he says that “at least one” of his collaborators is a name some might recognize (Australian singer-songwriter Gotye, co-writer of “Song of Hate”), his chosen method of working kept his partners anonymous during the process.
“When I started listening, I didn’t want to know who was sending me the music,” he explains. “Because I didn’t want to be influenced by names. I would listen to something, and [decide] whether I felt I could work with that particular piece of music or not.” Only once a song started coming together would he let himself know who had submitted the material. “It was a matter of trial and error,” Godley says.
The songs didn’t all come in at once. “Maybe three or four one day, ten on another day, next week nothing, then five,” Godley says. “I was peeling them off as they came in, taking notes about each one, and putting them into separate lists of preferables, potentials and definitely-nots.”
Godley says that a few submissions had the feel of having been written to conform to what people might have thought his music should sound like. “I maybe got about half dozen that I could sense they were trying to give me something that they thought would attract me,” he says. But those ran counter to the instructions he had provided: “Don’t send me anything normal.”
Instead, Godley says that he was interested in submissions that didn’t stick to the “verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle-eight, verse, chorus, end” format that characterizes conventional pop songs. “So I got extremes,” he says. “I also got stuff from people who didn’t quite understand the brief: they sent me finished songs, which was kind of not really the point.”
In the end, Godley found himself with a remarkable amount of material with which he could work. “And it was a lot of fun,” he says. “In many cases, I had an idea, but it half worked. So I’d park that one and then I’d try another track with the same lyric and it worked much better.” It was a daunting process, but a novel and creatively fulfilling one. “Making music is like sculpting air,” he says. “I’ve just got 286 pieces of air to play with in this case. But what a great experience.”
Submissions took the form of rough instrumental audio mixes. Each time Godley came across one with potential, he took things to the next step. “If I liked it, I’d just pull it on to GarageBand [digital audio workstation software], and sing over the top of it, straight into a computer.” That done, he’d send that combined audio file – a demo, not a finished track – back to his potential collaborator, seeking creative feedback.
“And in every single case,” Godley says, “they were really pleased with what I’d done, and said, ‘That’s great. We like that. Carry on.’” After receiving the stems (individual audio components) for the selected tracks, Godley set about making proper, polished recordings of the collaborative songs.
Remarkably, Muscle Memory is the debut solo release from an artist who’s been making records for 50 years. In his earliest days, Godley worked with Lol Creme in an obscure duo called Frabjoy and Runcible Spoon. Later, the two joined forces with hit songwriters Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart as Hotlegs; that group soon changed its name to 10cc, going on to release a string of critically and commercially successful albums and singles.
Godley and Lol Creme left 10cc after 1976’s How Dare You!, relaunching their career as a duo. Godley & Creme released six albums through the ‘80’s, beginning with the highly idiosyncratic cult classic, Consequences. After the duo split, Godley continued his work as a highly sought-after music video director, working with artists including U2, Boyzone, Rod Stewart, Bryan Adams, Eric Clapton, Jean-Michel Jarre, Phil Collins, Band Aid II (“Do They Know It’s Christmas?”) and The Beatles (“Real Love”).
Kevin Godley – who as a songwriter has always worked in one or another collaborative format – says that in many ways, making his solo album wasn’t all that different from how he’s always worked. “It was like sitting opposite someone who plays an instrument,” he says. “Because that’s what I usually do: just write and mumble whilst somebody plays.”
And Godley found the Muscle Memory project a liberating experience as well. He says that a “normal” collaborative writing session features interaction along these lines: “Well, I like that. Why don’t you try this chord? That doesn’t fit. Let’s switch that bit and put it there.” And while that back-and-forth can yield good results, there’s a downside. “It can go on for fucking days or weeks!” Godley says. “The discipline of not doing that – and also not having anybody looking over my shoulder at what I was writing down in notebooks, and not having to answer to somebody until I had something that I thought was worthwhile sharing – was great.”
The 11 songs that make up Muscle Memory are a varied and eclectic collection, but Godley emphasizes that he didn’t consciously set out to make that the case. “The material dictated it,” he explains. “There were so many different styles of music coming my way: country, blues, electronica, punk. You name it, it came.” Yet the new songs all have the signature blend of melody and weirdness that characterized Godley’s work with Lol Creme on “Under Your Thumb” and “Wedding Bells” – both hits in their native UK and throughout Europe – and the MTV-era worldwide smash “Cry.”
Still, as good as the individual songs on Muscle Memory are, Godley admits that initially, he wasn’t at all sure they would hang together as a whole. “I didn’t really know if it would function as an album until I recorded and mixed everything and we started putting it into some kind of order,” he says.
Sequencing is an often-overlooked part of making an album. Godley likens sequencing album tracks to constructing a sentence. “It’s a bad sentence if you put the ‘the’ over there, and the ‘all’ here,” he says. “It may make no sense whatsoever. But move a few words around and it could become beautiful. Or shit, depending on what the words are.”
The overall lyrical tone of Muscle Memory is a bit dark, as titles like “The Ghosts of the Living” and “Song of Hate” would suggest. “I think the things that are maybe somewhat darker than usual are because the world we live in today is very much darker than it was,” Godley suggests. His lyrics must meet a standard he set for himself long ago. “You want to say something, but have you said it well enough? Have you said it subtly enough? Are you beating people over the head, or does it work? And does it match that original thought you had about this track and what it could be?”
The cohesion of the Muscle Memory tracks owes itself to more than just the song order and the common thread of Godley’s vocals. “I think there’s something else going on,” he says. “I maybe gravitated toward a certain sound, a certain set of chords. I don’t know if it’s just my taste buds or my memory working in a certain way, but it does feel like an album to me.”
Rather than release an entire album at once, Godley is taking a different path. Beginning in July with the debut of “Expecting a Message,” he released a new track one at a time, about twice a month. The eleventh track, “Bulletholes in the Sky,” was scheduled for release on December 3, with the full album – on CD, vinyl and in digital format – becoming available in mid-December.
It happens that Muscle Memory’s measured rollout wasn’t Godley’s idea at all. “This was the label’s idea,” he says, admitting that while the idea confused him at first, he’s on board with the strategy. “It’s not throwing the full package at you from the word go, and bracketing it, shutting doors behind you and in front of you,” he explains. “It’s saying, you know, ‘Here’s some stuff. Get used to it. There may be something in here you like. And if you do, here’s a full thing.’” Godley has faith in the people at State 51 Conspiracy. “This is the business side, which I can’t really argue with,” he says. “So I’m going with their plan.”
With Muscle Memory, Godley has only scratched the surface of the solid material submitted by potential collaborators. “There’s enough material there to probably make another dozen albums,” he says. “But whether I want to or not, I don’t know. I at least have to see if Experiment One worked before trying Experiment Two.”
Photo by Sue Godley.