Bit of background: I’ve been engaged in a taking-way-too-long project with a songwriting partner of mine, wherein we place the names of artists we respect in a hat and then draw out two names at a time. We then try to write a song that represents what we imagine it would sound like if those two artists collaborated. Fun, right?
The hat has included literary heavyweights (Leonard Cohen), lyrical pucks (Elvis Costello), and straight-up songwriting badasses (Tom Waits). And yet, no name plucked from that hat filled me with nearly the dread as when I drew Smokey Robinson.
Why? Because there is absolutely no fat on a Smokey Robinson song. Every stanza, every syllable is fashioned with impeccable, intuitive craftsmanship. You don’t fake that. You can’t. You can indulge a bit of purple prose with Cohen, a too-clever twist of a phrase from Costello. But any pyrite in the mix of a Robison tune is going to hit the ear badly. It’s a hit or it isn’t--there’s no room for error.
I should probably mention, the other half of this randomly-chosen imagined collaboration was The Postal Service. And so, as with all of these tracks, the first step was to determine the Venn diagram thematic overlap. What do both Smokey Robinson and The Postal Service sing about? Love gone bad. Great, now we at least know what we’re writing about.
But where do we start from there? With prior tracks, I’ve used the names of the artists as a jumping-off point to create the hook. (In fact, several of the tracks, including Willie Folds, Prince of Beirut, and Waitin’ on Your Stripes are straight-up just the names of the artists mashed together.) Using this conceit, I tried--rather awkwardly--to fashion something from the concept of a misbegotten love letter (Postal Service) being burned in the fireplace (Smokey) of an ex-lover. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and, frankly, none of it was very good.
Part of the process, though--and this is something it’s taken me a long time to get comfortable with--is allowing yourself to suck long enough to provide an opportunity to pick through the bones and find something worth building from. And poking amongst the scraps, there was one lonely phrase that jumped out--“the ashes in your eyes”--and made me think, “Huh. Maybe there’s something there worth working with.”
Long story short, we proceeded to build a hook outward from that phrase, doing our best to keep the lyrics simple and universal until we had something substantial. Is the result Smokey? Hell no; I’m not that delusional. But being able to salvage it into something I’m not embarrassed by is all the victory I require.