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The Songwriters | U2

'Where craft ends and spirit begins'

In a singular process of collaboration, U2 puts mood and emotion first. The words follow.

August 08, 2004|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — "It's one of the most banal couplets I've ever heard," Bono says sheepishly about the words he wrote for one of U2's best-known songs. " 'I want to run, I want to hide ... ' That's not very interesting, but you know what? People don't hear the couplets when we play the song.

"They hear something else in the music. They hear a band talking about a special place, a better place, and asking if the audience wants to go there with them."

Bono, who writes most of U2's lyrics, is keenly aware that the music's power often comes less from his pen than from the sweeping sonic foundation built by the band.

"Feelings are stronger than ideas or words in a song," he says, pacing the floor of his Central Park West apartment, offering a contrarian view of pop songwriting.

"You can have 1,000 ideas, but unless you capture an emotion, it's an essay. I'm always writing speeches or articles for causes I believe in. That's probably what I would have done if I wasn't in music, but that's not songwriting."

The comments are surprising from a man who devotes so much of his time to ideas -- from the spiritually tinged themes that underlie many U2 songs to his high-profile crusade to get wealthy nations to forgive Third World debt.

"Songwriting comes from a different place," he continues. "Music is the language of the spirit. I think ideas and words are our excuse as songwriters to allow our heart or our spirit to run free. That's when magic happens."

It happens so often for U2 that the group has come closer to matching the quality and mass appeal of the Beatles over the last 25 years than any other band.

This is pop music at its most ambitious -- personal and independent enough to satisfy discerning listeners, yet open and accessible enough to pack stadiums. Though the group has experimented with electronica and other contemporary sounds, the essence of U2 is classic rock 'n' roll.

You won't find lots of humor or party toss-offs in U2. The Irish quartet's flurry of Top 40 hits, including "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "One," mostly are soaring anthems built around the same message of brotherhood that characterized the Beatles' later years. Yet U2 arrives at songs in a much different way.

John Lennon or Paul McCartney usually came up with songs and then taught them to George Harrison and Ringo Starr. But U2 collaborates to a degree that is rare -- a process that depends on the singular chemistry of the four musicians.

Bono and guitarist the Edge bring ideas into the studio -- a title, the trace of a melody or a catchy riff -- then bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen join in the actual construction of the songs. The grueling give and take sometimes stretches for weeks as the musicians toss ideas back and forth, equal partners in the search for an emotion that seems fresh and deeply rooted.

When the marathon sessions are going well, Mullen says, the rehearsal studio feels like a playground. When they're going badly, it feels like a boxing ring.

"We're tough guys," Clayton says. "We know we'll get there eventually. A lot of it is perspiration. You just have to put in the hours and do your time." The Edge is fond of repeating the band's private joke that it's "songwriting by accident."

"It's more like Miles Davis than the Beatles in a way," Bono says as he keeps pacing the hardwood floor of the sun-filled living room, whose minimalist furnishings reflect little of the flash of the typical rock star lifestyle.

Only after the band finds that powerful emotion, be it blissful or melancholy, does he begin applying lyrics. Sometimes he'll draw phrases or lines from the notebook he carries with him, even when he's on holiday or meeting with world leaders such as President Clinton and Pope John Paul II. Occasionally, he'll work from a finished lyric he's brought into the studio.

Mostly, he tries to capture the spontaneous feeling the music inspires in him -- a creative strategy he learned listening to Lennon's first two solo albums, "Plastic Ono Band" and "Imagine."

"He showed that the best way to unlock yourself as a writer was to simply tell the truth," Bono says, settling on the couch, while his wife, Ali, and 13-year-old daughter, Eve, have breakfast nearby. "When you've got a song to write or a blank page, just describe what is on your mind -- not what you'd like to be on your mind. If you feel you have nothing to say, your first line then is 'I have nothing to say.' "

A language all his own

Bono's improvisation in the studio often starts with him just muttering sounds that seem to fit the flow of the music being created -- "Bono-eze," his bandmates call it.

"When Bono starts going through his Bono-eze, it can change what we're playing and take the song in a different direction," Mullen says. "If he's doing something very intense, it might not even be what he's saying, but the way he's behaving, the way he's throwing the microphone around. The energy and intensity helps shape the song."

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