When the always-excellent Radiolab podcast turned its attention to the subject of creativity and motivation in an episode called ‘Help?’, they spoke to Elizabeth Gilbert who reminisced about interviewing Tom Waits on this topic:
He was talking about how every song has a distinctive identity that it comes into the world with, and it needs to be taken in different ways. He said there are songs that you have to sneak up on like you’re hunting for a rare bird, and there are songs that come fully intact like a dream taken through a straw. There are songs that you find little bits of like pieces of gum you find underneath the desk, and you scrape them off and you put them together and you make something out of it.
And there are songs, he said, that need to be bullied. He said he’s been in the studio working on a song and the whole album is done and this one song won’t give itself over and — everyone’s gotten used to seeing him do things like this — he’ll march up and down the studio talking to the song, saying “The rest of the family is in the car! We’re all going on vacation! You coming along or not? You’ve got 10 minutes or else you’re getting left behind!”
Last year the New York Times ran a profile of The National, written while they were still recording the wonderful High Violet—my favourite album of last year. The piece circles around the ongoing problems the band were having trying to tame the song Lemonworld:
Since January they’d done it bright, done it drowsy, done it with violin parts overnighted from Australia by Padma Newsome, done it so many ways Bryce despaired, “It’s a riddle we can’t solve.”
This is exactly what we’ve been going through with Salter Cane. For about a year we had a song that had been defying us, stubbornly refusing to reach that breakthrough moment where it all seems to come together. We took a break from the song for a while and when we came back to it, we tried approaching it as a new piece. That seems to be working. It’s finally coming together.
In the end we realised that we trying to make the song into something bigger than it needed to be. Sometimes it’s okay for a song to be small and simple. That seems to be the case with Lemonworld:
Matt said afterward, “we tried so hard and it always seemed to fail as a rock song. It lost the charm of the ugly little demo. Now it’s the ugliest, worst-mixed, least-polished song on the record, and it took the longest to get there.”
I think that Lemonworld is a strong song. It even stands up to be being butchered by me on the bouzouki.