January 6, 2011
In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).
Marty Roach is an author whose latest book is Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.
Michael Hearst of One Ring Zero interviews author Mary Roach:
Michael Hearst: David Gutowski, who runs the blog Largehearted Boy, asked if I might be willing to put something together for his author/musician interview series. Would you be interested? We could chat about our collaboration on the song “Zero Gravity Blues," and perhaps discuss how writing lyrics is different than writing prose. Could be fun? Of course, no worries if you're too busy...
Mary Roach: I would love to do this. Where/when/how? I'm in Minneapolis for a few days, and will be mostly offline Thurs and Fri, in case I go suddenly silent…
MH: Great! Well, we could just do it by email. I could send you a question, and then you could respond, and add a question. Maybe we could make it a bit more conversational? Or, I suppose I could even use this crazy device know as a telephone. Wait, this is dumb. I'm way over-thinking things. We're starting the interview right now! This is how it starts. It's started! Had you written lyrics before working on "Zero Gravity Blues?" In my unbiased opinion, you rocked it.
MR: I have never ever written lyrics, not even the tiniest bit of lyrics. I can't play anything, so I never had cause to write anything. In my 20s, I used to listen to Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel, even occasionally Donovan ("I see you have a muzzled monkey; the little cup in the hairy hand") and think, I want to write lyrics like that. How wonderful would that life be? That sounds like a lyric right there. But not a good one. Maybe like a Toto lyric. Remember Toto? "Toe the line! Love isn't always on time." What does that MEAN?? Hopefully mine were not a lot worse than that.
MH: I could be wrong, but I believe it's "Hold The Line," not "Toe The Line." Not that one is particularly better than the other. But yes, it doesn't get much worse than that. Well, then again, "I can't go for that. Noooo. No can do!" ranks pretty high on my list of bad lyrics. Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoy working so much with other lyricists is that it takes the weight off me. I didn't write the words. Mary wrote them! That said, you're ability to rhyme the word "deteriorate" was praised by at least one critic. Do you think working on this song will encourage you to write more lyrics in the future? Also, what sort of music are you listening to these days? Or are you still toeing the line with Simon and Garfunkel?
MR: Before we abandon the tangent of misheard lyrics, I have to share my favorite. Someone, I forget who, thought that "The girl with kaleidoscope eyes" (from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds") was "The girl with colitis goes by." Sorry. I'm done now. Most recently the lyrics that blew me away were by Denis Johnson ("Blessing") ... and watch me botch those too. "Bless, please, the people in art galleries; lonely as a distant train. Bless now, the cancer of the bone; the last light making beautiful the poisons in the sky." Now that I see them on the page, without your gorgeous music, I don't love them quite the same way. It's like eating cereal without milk.
How important are lyrics, do you think? Can you have a great song with lame lyrics? Or just vice versa?
MH: Aw, thanks. Yes, those are some of my favorite lyrics from that album. It's funny, I sort of go back and forth on the idea of how important lyrics are. I think it really depends on the style of music. Of course, ultimately it's subjective to the ears of the listener. I personally have days where I'm more interested in music composition, and could care less about words. I've recently been listening to a lot of Bowie, which probably leans a bit heavier toward production, and less on lyrics. Other days, I want to hear well-crafted lyrics, and will put on Leonard Cohen or The Magnetic Fields. I wonder if writers in general listen more closely to lyrics, while musicians focus on chords and production? Do you think you focus more on lyrics when you're listening to music?
MR: I think writers (the nonmusical kind like me) are more tuned in to the lyrics simply because we lack the trained ear. Musicians are listening to songs on levels that nonmusicians aren't. Me listening to a song is kind of like a dog watching tv -- it's just color and movement, you know? So I've got lots of band-width available to be taking in the lyrics. But yeah, writers may have less tolerance for lame lyrics, and may find it harder to ignore. I was thinking about Richard Thompson and trying to decide whether it is his lyrics or his music that draws me in, which matters more. I realized that one of my favorite songs of his is a cover of the Britany Spears bubblegum hit "Oops, I Did It Again." I much prefer his version to hers -- because of his guitar work, his voice, the complex countertempo (I made that up) Irish stuff he throws in after the 3rd chorus - but what I like most, I think, is the surprise of dark, cerebral Richard Thompson singing Britany Spears lyrics. So there's a case where simpleton lyrics actually add to the package of why I like a song. In general I love covers for that reason - the more illogical the better: Jimi Hendrix doing the Star Spangled Banner, the White Stripes doing Dolly Parton's "Jolene." The "Jolene" lyrics really are, when you listen to them, pathetic ("you could have your choice of men, bit I could never love again, ... please don't take him just because you can), and White picks up on that and sings and plays it like a nutcase. I once saw this basement rock band that did covers of that soft rock 70s group Bread. Their "I Can't Liiiiiiive... if living is without you" was one of the most amazing things I've ever heard. Having tried my hand at it, rather lamely in my opinion, I'm now full of renewed awe for great lyrics, internal rhymes, intelligent song-writing. Was just now listening to Leonard Cohen -- Hallelujah. That line "I've seen your flag on the Marble Arch, but listen, love isn't some kind of victory march." Brilliant. I mean, who thinks to bring the Marble Arch into a song about love? Here's something I wonder: Do singers feel silly singing the yeah-yeah-yeah and oh-whuh-oh segments of songs? As I writer, I would not ever naturally write the lyric "yeah-yeah," but they're catchy and effective, those yeah-yeahs... I think you can probably be too cerebral as a song-writer.
Sorry, that was a long answer. I’m on a plane.
MH: I'm always quite proud of myself when I remember to make use of "yeahs" and "ahhs" in my music. It's something I don't do enough of. There's actually a song on the first ORZ album called "Mean Marcus," (my middle name is Marcus), which has no lyrics; the vocal line is simply ahhh ahhh ahhh ahhh ahh ahh ahh. In fact, the song has been nicknamed (by at least one person) as "The Ahhh Song." We typically play it at the end of our shows. Once the chorus kicks in with the ahhs, we turn the mic toward the audience and let them have at it. Good fun! In fact, I'm now thinking I want to start a band called The Ahhs, where each song will only use "ahhh" for lyrics. It's interesting that you think writers might have less tolerance for lame lyrics. I wonder, if when musicians are reading books, they have less tolerance for sentences with poor word cadences. I actually prefer reading simpler sentences that have a nice flow (something you are quite good at) apposed to long sentences that take forever to get to the point. Perhaps someone who loves Mahler more than myself (and actually I love Mahler, especially his 3rd Symphony) has a higher tolerance for long-winded sentences? Curious, who are some of your favorite writers?
Looking forward to performing with you in SF on Tuesday!! Now I must go learn how to play our song…
MR: Annie Proulx, Dave Eggers, Bill Bryson, Michael Chabon, Lorrie Moore, William Trevor, Jon Ronson, David Sedaris, Deborah Blum. These are the ones that were loitering by the door. There are a hundred others behind them that I'm forgetting about. Jon Ronson totally jumped queue. He's good but not THAT good...
What time should I get there on Tues? Do we need to go over anything? Are we good to go? I'm really looking forward to this!
MH: I’ll be getting there around 5:30. Maybe you could come by around 5:45 to learn your theremin part?
[Mary Roach & One Ring Zero event takes place at the SFJCC]
MH: That was so much fun! Even with people in the audience falling over, microphones dropping, etc, you rocked the house. Thank you so much for letting us be part of your event. And, of course, so great to finally meet you and Ed in person.
Safe travels to the Netherlands!
MH: Hey! I’m sitting in SFO, about to board. I really wish we’d gone out last night. I had to get up early to do a Skype chat with a Missouri high school (I’m a softie), and had of course not packed for my trip. It was an interesting experience, having “Zero Gravity Blues" sung to an audience. I found myself gauging them, looking for appreciative smiles or nods at certain points in the lyrics, like I do during talks. But of course, no one really absorbs the lyrics the first time they hear a song, do they? That comes later, the fourth or fifth listening. I wasn't sure, upon hearing the song performed, that the lyrics worked as well as they did on paper. "Commander, please be heedful of your meals" sounded a bit stilted. And “deteriorate" is probably not a good word to sing.
I hope the phantom faller is okay.
Ps. I so loved to hear Jesus’s name being sung out repeatedly in the JCC!
Michael Hearst links:
Mary Roach links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)