Sing a (Not So) Simple Song

A roundtable with five Twin Cities songwriters

           The Yngwie Malmsteens of the world were probably ripping their hair out: A recent issue of Guitar magazine, with Oasis on the cover, screamed the panicked headline: "Like it or not, SONGWRITING is now just as important as guitar playing--maybe more." The horror! You mean, musicians are now expected to put out substance over style? So be it.

           This seems especially relevant to the Minnesota scene, where songwriting often takes the front seat to musicianship. With that in mind, we rounded up five local musicians, all working at some level of underground prominence, to discuss what the art of songwriting is all about. Our panel members are all up for Minnesota Music Awards (MMAs) Thursday night at First Avenue, and most have made some form of full-length recording debut in the last year. Each of them has a distinct approach to his or her craft, and some had never been in the same room together. Here's the rundown:

           Barbara Cohen, 32, leads the eclectic modern-folk combo Little Lizard. Prior to the release last year of the full-length Black Lake, she won the 1994 MMA for Best Female Songwriter. Presently she's also collaborating in Brother Sun Sister Moon, a trip-hop project with Information Society's Paul Robb, to be unveiled in the fall.

           Stuart Davis, 25, has spent years touring, recording, and self-releasing albums of his songs. His brand new disc, Nomen Est Numen(Triad), is the first to be issued by a label other than his own. Flaunting a vocabulary to rival Shakespeare (well, that's pushing it), the Lakeville native seeks to make pop music safe for the English language.

           Dylan Hicks, 25, a.k.a. Kid Dyllin' Hicks, a.k.a. the Governor of Fun, a.k.a. the Renaissance Man, recently released his debut, Won. A part-time record store clerk, a full-time record buff and the best dancer in Minneapolis, Hicks is a consummate ideas man with a tireless sense of humor. (He once bartered personalized songs for five to 10 dollars each in the City Pages classifieds.) He also manages dylan davis, a "new age/rock/nature sounds" artist.

           Wendy Lewis, 39, a.k.a. Rhea Valentine, which is also the name of her band. Rhea first emerged in the late '80s, but then reappeared in 1994 as a radically different rock band that plays improvisationally off of Lewis's stunning vocal leads, both live and on their debut, Shrug. Lewis and Cohen happen to be best friends, and Lewis and Hicks share a guitarist in the multifaceted Terry Eason.

           Matt Olson, 26, writes all the songs for not one but two bands: Balloon Guy, whose low-profile major-label debut, The West Coast Shakes, is up for the MMA's Best Overall Rock Recording award; and Smattering, his indie supergroup which debuted last summer with Sissy Bar. The hyperproductive Olson belongs to a new school of stream-of-consciousness lyricism.

--Simon Peter Groebner

           City Pages: Would you agree that there's no specific "Minneapolis sound"?

           Matt: I would. Probably there never was. There's certain things that get attention. Outside of this reality it could seem that it's the Minneapolis sound.

           Stuart: It's a perceived identity.

           Matt: I always get asked about the Replacements and Hüsker Dü. "Why don't you sound like them?" When I get interviewed by people in other cities they think that that is the Minnesota sound.

           Dylan: We haven't been in one town yet where people haven't talked about the Replacements.

           Matt: They can't understand why we don't sound like that. They assume that most bands here do. That's obviously not true.

           Dylan: There are tastemakers in Minneapolis and there is a music community in Minneapolis that accepts certain things and rejects others. As a songwriter/performer, whether I admit it or not, I'm going in thinking of my audience. The first people I'm thinking of are my close friends. I'm always thinking of somebody when I write the songs. Hopefully not too early in the process but I'm thinking, who's going to hear this and how are they going to react to it? A factor in that is the general Minneapolis community. I'm not exactly sure how to pinpoint the characteristics there are in that community, but I think it exists and there are pockets of scenes.

           I haven't done a lot of traveling, but I've noticed that things I take for granted as acceptable or popular aren't always that way in other cities. Like Alex Chilton and Big Star. They're really big here. Because of the Replacements song, he comes to town a lot. It just became a thing here. [Then there are] the bands that City Pages and critics celebrate. The whole Wilco/Son Volt thing is huge in other parts of the country, but not to the extent it is here.

           Wendy: I think that's probably even just the geography and the weather trailing through all of us, but you can't put your finger on it.

           Matt: That's pretty abstract, the effects on people's personality.

           Wendy: Yeah. I stay sequestered in my basement.

           Matt: So do I! I hardly ever go see bands, unless I'm interested in something I heard.

           CP: How to you get inspired to write a song? Is there a regimen or pattern to the way you work? Some people I know just get up in the morning and write five hours a day; others just hang around and space out until they feel they've got an idea that's going to explode, then they sit down and work for 12 hours.

           Matt: Sometimes I write on my 4-track for 36 hours straight and then sleep for 2 days. I like to become so exhausted that I can't really think anymore. Then what's coming out of me is less thought about. I like to think that there's your gut, your ears, and your brain, and that's what reacts to music. The more tired I get the more I can tap into the flow of things.

           Wendy: I write a lot in the car. I found I need to have my mind half-occupied by driving, walking, cleaning, and then I have this dictaphone with me. I use it when I'm nowhere near a "songwriting situation."

           Matt: I never write lyrics until I do the vocal. I do a few run-throughs and say whatever comes out of my mouth. I get into a mode of what that sound feelslike. Then I will write the lyrics. I like rhythmic things with words more than actual direct statements.

           Stuart: It's strange for me to hear about processes like that. For me it's like I come up with the musical structure of something, the melody, chord structure--that will all be taken care of in a half-hour, or an hour. You write the chorus, bridge, verse. The body of my time is for the lyrics: 98 percent of my time. I get a sense of dread sometimes when I feel it coming on, 'cause I know I'll be sitting on the couch for maybe 30 hours or more. I might get a verse quickly, then I'll have to sit for five hours to get three words I'm looking for. The most disgusting part of the process is that for a song that took maybe 30 to 60 hours to write, they're not going to go, "Man, that's a 60-hour song right there!"

           A lot of it involves cutting away at things. I'll end up with three songs worth of lyrics. I listen to a lot of artists who work in abstractions and cloudy metaphors. I just cannot set myself in that arena at all. Most of my drive has been put towards manipulating the language in a way that is totally precise and explicit. My mission is precision in lyrics.

           Matt: Well, you obviously have something to say, and I don't! [general laughter] I want to communicate vibes to people. I assume I have nothing new to say to anyone. It's not that I'm addressing something that's happened to me.

           Stuart: Sometimes the music for me is incidental... I focus enough on my music to make sure there's a platform in place for the lyrics. The melody structure is subjugated to the lyrics at all times. Watching your bands, there's an interplay going on between word and melody that just doesn't exist in mine.

           Dylan: I'm always interested in hearing about other songwriting processes. I really enjoy reading Performing Songwriter magazine; I just devour that kind of stuff. But I never labored over a successful song ever. I've labored over songs but they're terrible! I don't have any work ethic at all.

           CP: Does anyone write songs in a way that you just sit down and decide to write a song, and it comes out?

           Dylan: I guess I pick up the guitar and start playing. My favorite is to just walk or drive around and remember it by singing it over and over in my head. I guess if I remember it, it's probably good enough for someone else to remember it. If I write something down, I might get too busy or clever.

           Barbara: My process probably isn't very similar to anyone's here. Because I manage the band and do everything for them, I have both the business and creative sides to deal with. So work-wise I'm split down the middle. When I'm on the business side, it's really hard for me to write music. When I'm writing, I tend to write around midnight to 4 a.m. when it's really quiet and there's no one around. I live by myself in an apartment with thick floors. So I can scream really loud.

           I usually come up with the melody lines on the guitar or mandolin. I don't think of it as this verse-chorus-verse thing. I try to get away from simplistic musical structure. I still write some things in a simple folk vein, but I'm starting to get in this space where I'm like, "screw it." There are so many ways to explore music. Maybe I can just play the chorus once. When I heard Jeff Buckley's hit on the radio, the chorus is once and that's it. And I was like, "YES!"

           CP: Let's talk about songwriting models? What makes a perfect song?

           Dylan: I could name some things now, but they probably wouldn't be the same tomorrow. There are different things... There are mediocre songs that are made into great records, sometimes it's hard to distinguish. But like Etta James "I'd Rather Go Blind"--I can't remember who wrote that song. Some professional who got paid a flat fee for it, probably (laughter). It's just a great record, probably because of her voice. It's a simple breakup song, but the whole concept: I'd rather go blind than see you with somebody else. There's not really very many words but it tells you what you need to know. I like a lot of the Randy Newman songs for the same reason. He doesn't reveal everything.

           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...

           Matt: That's sounds great to me...

           Stuart: I'm not discounting that, but I think there's a distinction to be made between that and between somebody who comes to a show, maybe not even in a mood to listen, but sitting there in the course of the evening, some song takes them by the command of its language and grabs them. And pretty soon they're transformed from one mood or emotion--they can't help it, because the song is in charge--and by the end of that four or five minutes they're put into this place, they're just soaking in this emotion or this feeling that you'd have to ascribe to the song. Somebody working with these lyrics has done that. So those are two different experiences...

           Wendy: But that can happen with the music too, though. I completely hear you on the lyrical thing, because I'm a lyric freak too. But I think it can be incredible to set up an audience where they do take their own bouquet home afterwards that has nothing to do with what you wrote. Because--and this is just a thought--you can't speak to every person in your audience afterwards and find out how they took your song, and even the most precisely written song they may interpret in a way that you could never imagine. And maybe that drives you crazy.

           Stuart: It does.

           Wendy: Like "Oh my god! How could you get that from that?"

           CP: So what about the response that listeners have to stuff? As songwriters, do you feel that people appreciate the craft of songwriting?

           Matt: Well, I think it depends on who your audience is. But yeah, I think that people listen closer than I ever thought they would. And when I said that people have their own interpretations of songs, I saw a review of our [Balloon Guy's] record where there's a song called "Springtime in Ho Chi Minh City," and somebody had written this elaborate thing about it being about a Vietnam vet. And it makes perfect sense and it's not, it's not what I was thinking of at all. So I think that somebody somewhere is really listening. I think it's noticed...

           CP: Fans as well as critics...

           Matt: Yeah, I think so, definitely.

           Wendy: Well, I think everyone comes to it as the individual that they are, and they take out of it what they do, and that is the thing about music. It's so subjective. Lots of art is subjective, but music can keep going and going and going and changing. There's a song that I listened to 10 years ago I could listen to now and it's an entirely different experience to me because my life is different. Maybe it's the music, maybe it's the lyrical content, that I didn't really get that same way... That's the weirdest thing about music, you write this thing, and you put it out there, and it takes on its own life...

           CP: It's really created once it's out there.

           Wendy: Yeah, it's like a cell that keeps multiplying...

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