This week I mixed a demo from a failed 2000 collaboration: “Mush.”
One of the first musicians I met in Madison upon arriving in 2000 was Ken Labarre. “Mush” was a song he wrote for his previous band, and it rips on people who bare their feelings on daytime talk shows (not the kind of topic I typically write about, but if it’s good enough for Peter Gabriel, it should be OK with me).
I wasn’t fond of the lyrics (the previous chorus lyrics were: “Have I told you that I think you’re crazy; bag of bones hanging with your daisy; you talk so darn proud of the hurting inside; it’s MUSH.”), so I rewrote them and tweaked the melody to come up with this demo. Ken said he thought I captured the original intent well, but his wife Mel was supposed to actually sing it in the new band we were trying to form, and she didn’t like the faux tough stance (despite my already softening the word “shit” in the choruses to “bit”), so the two of them rewrote the lyrics again, in a way that I thought made it worse, so she quit the band, which led to the whole project getting scrapped. I started Madison Lint, and Ken (who for some reason likes being called “The Jammy Bastard” now) started a great band called Tangy, which apparently recorded part of some version of this, though I don’t know if any of the ideas I contributed were retained.
Despite this acrimony, and the apparent hurriedness of the demo (my guitar is out of tune, and this was recorded on my Tascam 4-track, which is what I HAD to record on prior to 1996 but at this point only used when too lazy to set up the more elaborate digital equipment), this song has been going in my head periodically since November when I digitized the original audio tracks (which had degraded quite a bit), so I used this as a test of my ability to make crappy tracks sound OK through heavy use of digital processing and effects. It’s a nice song, and it would have been nice to hear a full band version.
So, my question: Do lyrics matter? My biggest barrier in this and other cases to working with other songwriters is that I don’t like their lyrics. Most people write in clichés, or to be less harsh about it, they don’t write in a way that would feel natural coming out of my mouth, and this embarrasses me, despite the fact that listeners, especially in a live situation, just don’t care. Ideally, I like bands like Roger Waters’s Pink Floyd where the lyrics have a definite and consistent narrative viewpoint that goes across all the tunes, but at the very least, the different songwriters have to have compatible styles.
My chief means of songwriting collaboration in the past has, then, been my “fixing” other people’s lyrics, sometimes to their satisfaction, sometimes not. Collaborative lyric writing can be great, but should be argumentative, I think, to polish each and every line into something better than each participant could come up with on his own, and the respect and deference that you typically want to offer to someone else’s ideas when you’re working with them usually precludes this.
I think I’m less of an arrogant bastard re. this issue now, but that’s probably just because the other songwriters I currently work with usually don’t set me off, though there was a bit of the second verse to one of the songs we recorded on our last album that I asked Matt again and again and again to fix, and he just couldn’t think of anything better and didn’t like my suggestion… bah!