I often lament that there is no instruction manual to being a rock band, and one of the areas I most frequently wish Arcati Crisis had some sort of guide to is selecting songs when your band has multiple songwriters.
Ideally, this guide would be written by The Beatles, or maybe Fleetwood Mac. However, Gina would probably not read it if it was written by Wham!
(What is the grammatical rule for punctuating sentences that end with a name that includes punctuation? Like, I didn’t mean that sentence to be exclamatory. I certainly don’t want Gina to think I am shouting (again) about her not liking Wham!)
(There it goes again. Damn you, Wham!)
Lately Gina and I have been on a new-song-selecting kick. It is interesting to pick multiple songs at the same time because we always choose one song from each of us at a time, but there is a huge disparity in the pool of selections. I write a lot of songs – anywhere from 6 to 20 every year – in many different styles. Pop, folk, rock, country ballads. I’m all over the place. Gina writes relatively few songs. There have been years when I have only heard one or two finished ones, even if she has many others lying in wait. Yet, Gina’s songs are much more thematically consistent.
Thus, the selection process is a bit madcap. A few weeks ago, I played twenty-five songs for Gina to select a mere two. I had my preferences, but I have long since learned that it doesn’t do any good to try to force Gina’s hand into a pick. The resulting song will suck. Gina has to hear a space for herself inside of it.
In the midst of reading the monstrous New York cover story on Grizzly Bear, I discovered they utilize nearly the same process.
Ask them who they’re thinking of when they write, and it’s not an end listener—it’s the other members of the band, who might dislike what’s been written, or lack anything to contribute to it, at which point it’ll be tabled. “Everyone has to have a fingerprint on every song,” says Droste. The whole thing sounds like passing major legislation through Congress.
“Maybe it’s a lot,” says Bear, “that we’re asking ourselves to all be four democratic voices on everything. Maybe that’s not common.”
It is common, Grizzlies! See, this is why we need a guide.
(After reading, I was inspired to listen to Grizzly Bear’s new LP – Shields. It was very well-produced – transfixingly so. Yet, not a single melody was memorable. I felt pretty similarly about their last record.)
(I don’t think my votes would be very popular in their democracy).
By contrast, Gina played me a mere seven songs (a bumper crop, for her), of which I became immediately obsessed with six, so then she had to go back and choose four more of mine. One of hers was about zombies, another about Ben Franklin, a third particularly ingenious one about Daylight Savings Time. It helps that I am a massive fan of Gina’s sensibility in just about everything.
However, there was one I was not obsessed with. Gina also played it for me earlier this year, and at the time I said I thought it might not be done. I made the same argument a few weeks ago. “Maybe it needs more of a refrain,” I said, “or a slightly different chord change in that middle section.”
Now I realize – after Grizzly Bear so succinctly summed up the democracy of songwriting – that there is simply no room for my fingerprint on the song. It is distinctly Gina, with very little room left for my own devices. I am trying to convince her to change it to make room for my fingerprint, but it doesn’t really need it.
How is it that I have always understood that about Gina’s choices in my songs, but never about my choices of hers?
See: we really need an instruction manual.