Sing a (Not So) Simple Song

A roundtable with five Twin Cities songwriters

           Matt: For me the ultimate song is Los Lobos's "Kiko." I love pop music and strong song structure, but I think that appeals to one part of me--that's my ears. I also love abstract stuff, because it appeals to my mind. And I also love AC/DC because they appeal to my gut...

           Dylan: Or something lower.

           Matt: Could be--I'll never forget the first time I heard the song "Highway to Hell" [laughter]. So in order to create that ultimate song, you'd need all three of those things to line up. And they do in "Kiko." Or "Teenage Riot," by Sonic Youth. It appeals to all three senses.

           Dylan: Well, I like all that stuff too, but "Teenage Riot" to me is a great record; I don't know if it's a great song. It's a great entirety, but I don't know if I'd like to hear Stuart playing along with it in the morning (laughter)... Although you'd probably get away with it! It would probably sound cool.

           Stuart: I agree that what makes a song great is gonna change as much as your life does from day to day. Because you're composed of different things, and there's interaction between that and the music.

           Matt: I disagree. I think there's definitely a timelessness in some music. I hate Oasis, yet that song "Champagne Supernova" to my ears possesses a certain weird timelessness. It would have been a hit whether it was put out in '74 or now.

           Wendy: I feel that way about the Eagles' "Desperado."

           Matt: Yeah, that's so cool. Certain stuff will be interesting to people 200 years from now--like "Teenage Riot," I believe. That's what I love about a lot of the Zeppelin stuff, too. It's timeless.

           Dylan: I guess I like to try to judge everything on its own terms. Ideally I aspire to someday write something that has the emotional density that something like Etta James, whatever, some of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan or something like that. But I'm not there yet, I can't do that at this point in my life; I guess I'm just not that dense [laughter]. But I think I also really like the stupidity of pop music. It's part of its charm. It's low culture and I think that rock & roll should remain that way to a certain extent. Not to deny lofty things, but I don't think there's any dishonor in doing something solely for amusement. I like a lot of those '60s garage records. They're really stupid, but still really great songs.

           Sometimes I like to write songs with no consideration for their quality--like I just finished a song a couple of days ago called "Terminal Dancer." It's about me or this character being a great dancer all their life, like [sings] "I'm a terminal dancer, gonna dance my life away. De-de-de-de." And there's this line, it's the stupidest line I've ever written, after I admit I'm not really a terminal dancer, I go [sings] "I'm no Baryshnikov or even Baryshnisneeze" [laughter, derogatory comments]. But I love it and I really like singing that. I really like listening to, you know that Wanda Jackson song "Fujyama-Mama"? It's just absurd, it's the most ridiculous song, but it's just great. You can do something in a very lowbrow medium and still have something worthwhile happening.

           Barbara: I think that's true. But what I tend to be drawn to and think of as my personal great songs, they tend to be sadder and more intense, but I love great pop songs too. What comes to mind is Leonard Cohen's "Joan of Arc" or "Famous Blue Raincoat" or Joni Mitchell's "Blue" or Ricki Lee Jones's "Company" or "Last Chance Texaco." These songs where they kill me, Jesus Christ, these lyrics are so powerful and the melody is powerful and they're sung with so much emotion and passion.

           [To Stuart] I know what you're saying, too, in terms of wanting lyrics with some meaning. I do painting to make money and there's always some radio station constantly droning in the background and you're painting. Especially by like one in the morning, I'm losing my mind, and some of these lyrics that are coming on, and I'm getting more cynical and more cynical, and tearing these songs to shreds as I'm painting, you know.

           CP: What about your own songwriting? Do people take the time to listen closely to lyrics?

           Matt: Hey Stuart--there was the great hit by the Goo Goo Dolls, now I don't remember what it was, but I heard it and I thought the lyrics were terrible. But I got the feeling that those guys thought they were really good, you know? So where's the line, and how do you know what people are actually going to get out of your lyrics? I'm not picking on you or anything [laughter]...

           Stuart: Well, I think if you're working with metaphoric, symbolic, or abstract kinds of lyrics, then you have to throw it right back in the lap of the listener. In my opinion, in a bad scenario with metaphorical or symbolic writing, the listener is doing more creatively than the writer is. If they're a person who expends a great deal of energy in the interpretation, they're going to go "oh, this and that," and bring a fuckin' world to the song...

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