[Note: this is an expanded version of the original entry.]
Photo: Chris La Putt
At her suggestion, we did a song we’d been writing together, one of about 8 or so. Our collaboration was partly inspired by the Dirty Projectors/Björk thing at Housing Works many months ago that we both attended. We agreed to do something similar there, though there is no timetable. Annie (her real name) has been on tour, on and off, for quite a while, so the collaboration proceeds in fits and starts. It was a good idea of hers to get this one song at least up to speed, as it gave us a deadline and allows us to see where problems and musical issues might lie.
Annie also came up with the concept of using a brass ensemble as the core band for these things, which gives us a unifying musical direction and coincidentally will also work nicely in someplace like Housing Works, where the “less in the PA the better” rule applies — the acoustic volume of brass instruments means that if we are careful the balance in that room could be natural, and mainly the voices will require amplification. It’s a case of music being written for a specific situation for sure.
Another one of our pieces looks like it’ll see the light of day this summer via Bang on a Can’s Asphalt Orchestra, which is kind of a new-music marching band. They’re larger than what we’re envisioning for most pieces, so they’ll help reconfigure and orchestrate what we’ve begun for their special needs and situation — outdoors, a large specific ensemble, in motion. They’ll perform around Lincoln Center in August. More news at 11.
I’ve done a slew of collaborations over the years — more and more as time goes by, and they are always slightly different from one another, though there are more similarities than differences. One could say that some of the songs co-written with other members of Talking Heads were also collaborations, so the give and take nature of collaborative writing skills got developed early.
The Here Lies Love project — due out in early April — was largely a collaboration with Fatboy Slim, and one of the most extensive I’ve done in while. Not all the 22 songs on that project were collaboratively written, but more than half were.
How do these things work?
My last record — the Byrne/Eno Everything That Happens Will Happen Today — was, as far as the process goes, typical in some ways. Brian had a slew of tracks on the shelf, tracks that seemed to want to become songs (as opposed to ambient tracks or film scores), but he was unhappy with his own attempts at completing them. So, from his point of view, he has nothing much to lose by passing them to me to “complete” — they were just gathering dust anyway (although one did get passed to Coldplay), and unless I did something horrendous (which we agreed he could veto), it was a win-win situation.
I was sent stereo mixes of his musical ideas, which I sometimes left alone and worked over as is, but just as often I slightly restructured them to bring them closer to a song form. However, I never even thought about requesting musical changes in the tracks — key changes, changes in groove or instrumentation. The unwritten game rules in these remote collaborations seem to be to leave the other person’s stuff alone as much as you can. Work with what you’re given; don’t try to imagine it as something other than what it is.
This always presents some musical challenges, of course, but the benefits generally outweigh them. The fact that half the musical decision-making has already been done bypasses a lot of waffling and worrying. I didn’t have to think about what to do and what direction to take musically — the train had already left the station and my job was to see where it wanted to go. This restriction on one’s freedom — that some creative decisions have already been made — turns out to be a great blessing. Complete creative freedom is as much a curse as a boon. Freedom within strict confines seems to be ideal.
I work in a home studio, which I’ve carved out of a larger room.
Tidy, eh? Embarrassing, actually.
There is no professional sound baffling, but the floors of this industrial building are concrete — and I put industrial carpet down on the floor, and one wall is a kind of sound absorbent sheetrock. Unless a truck backfires or an ambulance goes by it is OK for vocals and guitars. There’s no room for drums or anything like that… but for writing it is fine. There’s a good tube mic for singing, a radio studio mic for the little old guitar amp (woops, you can’t see it), and a nice pre amp and compressor. That’s pretty much all you need to find out where things want to go.
Serial numbers and security codes for software are pinned to the wall, along with a Tammy Wynette poster. The computer is under the desk. It’s a mess, it’s not much, but it’s enough for writing and, amazingly, some of the vocals I’ve done here end up being keepers. Guitar parts too — and of course, midi stuff, if it survives the evolution of a tune. The vocal I did on the hit version of the song “Lazy” — the collaboration with DJs X-Press 2 — was recorded using a decent mic into a G3 laptop! So clearly pro gear is nice but not super essential. The track those guys sent me sounded completely different texturally than how it ended up — they stripped it down and made it more “housey” after I sent in my vocal.
With Annie we’ve worked in a similar fashion to those collaborations, though from both directions. Sometimes (as in the song we did at the Allen Room) she’d give me some instrumental tracks she’d done in Garage Band using brass (and other) samples, and then I’d organize those using the music software Logic, and add some stuff of my own. In the case of this particular song I first added a “virtual” acoustic rhythm guitar and some percussion — which cemented the nice herky-jerky brass parts she had recorded. I sent these via email to her for approval. After that (she liked what I had done) I improvised a vocal melody on top — thus far without words. She liked that too.
She sent back some new brass chords and harmonies under one of my vocal verse sections — and that eventually turned into a middle 8 (sometimes called a bridge in the US). She also sent some melismatic vocal improvisations of her own that pushed the verses into being nicely asymmetric.
I did some further restructuring and began to write words — written to fit the metric and rise and fall of the vocal melody I’d improvised earlier. Many drafts later we had a song. While I was writing the words, I brought in Tony Finno, who had done arrangements for brass and strings for Here Lies Love and the Big Love score material I did a couple of years back, to do charts for her brass guys — who turned out to be horn guys more than brass guys, but they were flexible enough to cover the parts.
Although writing words to fit an existing vocal melody and meter is what anyone who writes in rhyme does naturally and intuitively — every rapper improvises to a meter, for example — I was encouraged to make the process more explicit when Talking Heads made Remain In Light. I found that, remarkably, solving the puzzle of making words and phrases fit existing structures often resulted, eventually and somewhat surprisingly, in words that did in fact have an emotional and sometimes even narrative thread. They may have begun as gibberish, but often, though not always, a “story,” in the broadest sense, emerges. Emergent storytelling, one might say.
With other St. Vincent collaborations that are in the works, I have sometimes started the brass parts on my end and then sent them to Annie; I’ve also sent her words, potential lyrics, that I had written. The latter is unusual, as I don’t usually write words in advance, but I wasn’t sure what form of collaboration she’d be comfortable with. So far none of those have achieved true song status. It’s all still evolving — where these will end up? We don’t know — and that’s a nice place to be in.
It seems she doesn’t like writing words — and she’s not alone there. Brian hates it as well. I find it to be the most labor-intensive part of songwriting, but when it works, and it doesn’t always, then the song can seem more like something whose constituent elements magically flowed out — something that emerged naturally, rather than something that was made in incremental pieces or layered up.
But at times words can be a dangerous addition to music — they can pin it down. Words imply that the music is about “that” (“that” being what the words say literally) and nothing else. They can, if not done well, destroy the pleasant ambiguity that is a lot of the reason we love music so much. That inherent ambiguity means that we can psychologically tailor music to our own needs, sensibilities and situations — but words limit that, or they can. There are plenty of beautiful tracks that I can’t listen to because they’ve been “ruined” by bad words — my own and others’. So I understand some folks’ trepidation, and my own sometime-failures.
Once I have a melody and vocal arrangement I, or both collaborators, like I’ll transcribe that gibberish as if it were real words. I’ll listen carefully to the meaningless vowels and consonants and try to understand what that guy emoting so indistinctly (that’s me) is actually saying. It’s like a forensic exercise. I’ll follow the sound of the nonsense syllables as closely as possible — if a melodic phrase of gibberish ends on a high ooh sound, then I’ll transcribe that as a word that ends in that syllable, or as close to it as I can imagine.
I do that because the sound, the difference between an ohh and an aah, and a B and a TH sound is, I assume, integral to the emotion being expressed. I want to stay true to it. Admittedly that emotion has no narrative or literal text thus far, but it’s there — I can hear it. I can feel it. My job is to find words that match it, that don’t destroy it.
Part of what makes words work in a song is how they sound to the ear and feel on the tongue. If they feel right, if the tongue (wooo!), and the mirror neurons of the listener (isn’t that part of why we love music and performance — mirror neurons?) are made to feel (neurologically) the delicious appropriateness of the words coming out, then that rightness sometimes trumps literal sense. We “sing” in our minds and muscles when we hear and see singing. In a sense, performance and listening to music is a participatory activity. So the writing of words — the putting them down on paper — is certainly part of songwriting, but the proof of the pudding is in the singing. If the sound is untrue, we can tell.
After the initial transcription of verbal sounds into nonsense sentences made of real words, a long, tedious process begins. I then begin to write out every phrase I can think of that matches that sonic/syllabic flow — no phrase is too mundane or stupid. I try not to pre-judge anything that occurs to me at this point — one never knows if something that sounded stupid at first will, in a new context, make the whole thing shine.
Sometimes sitting at a desk trying to do this doesn’t work. I never have writer’s block, but sometimes things do slow down. (And sometimes the shit backs up.) My conscious mind might be thinking too much — and at this point, one wants surprises and weirdness from the depths. Some techniques help in that regard — I’ll carry a small micro recorder and go jogging on the west side, recording every single phrase that matches the song’s meter as they occur to me. On the rare occasions when I’m driving a car, I can do the same thing — are there laws against driving and songwriting? Basically anything that occupies part of the conscious mind and distracts it works. The idea is to allow the chthonic material freedom to gurgle up.
I’ll accumulate many, many pages of this stuff, and then begin to sort through it. Sometimes just a verse, or even a phrase or two, will resonate — but that’s enough to “unlock” the thing, and from there on it’s more fill in the blank, conventional puzzle solving.
With Norm (Fatboy), I sometimes wrote songs over simple drum loops of my own, which Norm and Tom (Cagedbaby) Gandey then replaced with their own funkier and more characterful grooves. Other times Norm sent me basic groove loops — sometimes with some bass or instrument samples mixed in, sometimes not — and I sliced and diced those and wrote melodies and words over them. The songs in that project that I initiated myself tended to be more harmonically complex — to have more chord changes — than the groove-focused ones that Norm sent me. Together they made for a nice variety.
The lyrics on that project came about in a slightly different way for me. As I did research on the characters and their story, I took notes — emphasizing both curious and emblematic events, and things that the characters said. Often a direct quote from one of the characters put their feelings and point of view in such a perfect nutshell that much of my meandering lyric process was shortened. I often used the character’s own phrases: “Just say — here lies love” was one. “Please don’t — don’t let them look down on us” was another.
“I knew if I did not react they’d kill us, every one,” and, “I made a promise to my mother that for every tear she shed there’d be a victory” — these and many more were ever so slightly tweaked, and integrated. It was the easiest lyric writing task I’ve ever had.
I did another collaboration recently with Yuka Honda and Petra Hayden that I believe Petra will end up singing (though now I hear it’s a duet with me); a couple with Dirty Projectors for the Dark Was the Night charity record; and one with Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio is in progress. More are lined up on the runway. I’ve joined the roster of artists covering Peter Gabriel tunes in response to him covering our tunes. His record — orchestral versions of songs new and old — reminds me in some ways of the first Cat Power Covers record, in which it was sometimes halfway through a tune before you figured out what the song was. This is nowhere near that extreme, but he takes liberties with the songs — changing grooves and even melodies — in an effort to make them his. And in most cases he does. It’s a tough assignment covering songs that folks are familiar with, and sometimes a radical reassessment is the only way to make them new again.
I’ll have to do something similar to the song I cover — though exactly what remains to be seen. So many of his tunes are instantly texturally identifiable. In the era of recorded music, we have often come to think of one specific recording of a song as being “the song.” Is it? Legally, it’s not. Though it might seem unjust, I don’t think one can copyright sounds, a groove and a mix — though sometimes that’s what draws us into a recording. Anyway, I’ll have to somehow subvert that identification — as he did, but in some other musical way.
A writer at Pitchfork critically said I’d collaborate for a bag of Doritos. I do love it, and the results are sometimes surprising, sometimes creatively successful and sometimes even popular (“Lazy” was a huge hit everywhere except the US).
Beyond the reward of the bag of Doritos, why collaborate at all? One could conceivably make more money not sharing the profits — if there are any — so why collaborate if one doesn’t have to? If one can write alone, why reach out? (Some of the most financially successful songs I’ve ever written were not collaborations, for example.) And besides, isn’t it risky? Suppose you don’t get along? Suppose the other person decides to take the thing in some ugly direction?
Well, as I said earlier, one big reason is to restrict one’s own freedom in the writing process. There’s a joy and relief in being limited, restrained. For starters, to let someone else make half the decisions, or some big part of them, absolves one of the need to explore endless musical possibilities. The result is fewer agonizing decisions in the writing process, and sometimes, faster results.
Another reason to risk it is that others often have ideas outside and beyond what one would come up with oneself. To have one’s work responded to by another mind, or to have to stretch one’s own creative muscles to accommodate someone else’s muse, is a satisfying exercise. It gets us outside of our self-created boxes. When it works, the surprising result produces some kind of endorphin equivalent that is a kind of creative high. Collaborators sometimes rein in one’s more obnoxious tendencies too, which is yet another plus.
There are also some more market-oriented, pragmatic arguments for collaboration. If both collaborators are sort of well known, then there is a natural interest among the combined set of music fans. Part of the marketing has been done without having to do any corny PR. Even if the collaborators are not all that well known there is often some curiosity at what friction might result and what sparks might fly.
But one might also ask: Is writing ever NOT collaboration? Doesn’t one collaborate with oneself, in a sense? Don’t we access different aspects of ourselves, different characters and attitudes and then, when they’ve had their say, switch hats and take a more distanced and critical view — editing and structuring our other half’s outpourings? Isn’t the end product sort of the result of two sides collaborating? Surely I’m not the only one who does this?