Sports analogies are songwriter/producer Rob Wells’ go-to when explaining his preference for co-writing music rather than going it alone. “When you co-write, it’s like how you discover the game of tennis,” says Wells. You start out alone, hitting a ball against a wall. Eventually, “you get to know how that ball’s going to come back,” he adds. Once you start playing with someone else, “you have no way of knowing how it’s going to come back at you. Whether it’s going to go left, right, up, down, or into the net,” he concludes.
Speaking from his home in Pickering, ON, where he’s quarantined with his five-kid family, Wells expounds further. “The moment that I started co-writing with other people, and lots of different people,” he offers, “I began to really find the true joy in songwriting and production.”
That joy has been accompanied by several armloads of awards and accolades, including three SOCAN No. 1 Song Awards, several multi-Platinum, Platinum and Gold sales certifications, and a discography that includes stellar work with a cavalcade of international and Canadian superstars in a rainbow of styles, from Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Corey Hart, and Randy Bachman, to The Backstreet Boys, Serena Ryder, and Selena Gomez.
For nascent songwriters, Wells again resorts to sports. He likens the songwriter’s process to that of a body-builder. “You head to the gym and on Day One you’re lifting two-pound weights, and it feels really ridiculous and stupid, but after half-an-hour you find that, ‘Wow, my arms are actually getting a little bit sore.’” You increase the weights over time until, “after a couple of years, you’re bench pressing 250 pounds. It’s a slow process, there’s no way to get from A to B really fast.”
You work on that first song, as he says, “coming up with a melody, coming up with chords, coming up with simple lyrics, and then not dwelling on that song but moving on [to] write another. Finish that in a day, then move on to another one, and another. After a year you’re going to look back and you’ll say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe how horrible those are, but look at what I’m doing now!’” Then the quality of your work increases exponentially once you start collaborating with others. If you work like Wells, the “wows” keep on coming.
“The quality of your work increases exponentially once you start collaborating with others”
Inevitably, you’ll want to extend your control of the song to producing it yourself. “When I first got started,” says Wells, “I would write songs and the artist would choose the producer. Quite often. I was very disappointed with the results I got back. It’s not an ego thing. It’s just that, for me, music is just so emotional and so communicative. For me, holding the reins of production, I’m able to emotionally communicate what the song is supposed to be.”
But even with his producer hat on, Wells always puts the song first. “I don’t think about production until the song is done,” he says. “Once I have the song written, I focus on the chorus first. The chorus, for me, is the most important part of the whole production, and I try to make it as big as possible, using as minimal instrumentation as possible. That way you can create this great-sounding chorus without being over-produced, and then work backward and start to strip away for your pre-chorus, really strip away for your verse, and really strip away for your intro.
“If you do it the other way,” says Wells, “where you start with the intro, then add more instruments for the verse, and then more for the pre-chorus, by the time you get to the chorus you’ve got this crazy, massive amount of sound going on, and it’s totally over-produced.”
Wells has teaching gigs at the Harris Institute and Lakefield College School, but novice producers and songwriters can learn more from him directly via his series of YouTube tutorials (like the first one, embedded in this story).