Songwriting as Open Heart Surgery

10 Aug 2004
"Songwriting really is a mysterious process,' explains Bono to Robert Hilburn of the LA Times. 'Because we're asking people to expose themselves. It's like open heart surgery in some way. You're looking for real, raw emotions, and you don't find that by sticking to the rules."

Hilburn, a long-time fan of U2, has written an extensive examination of the bands approach to songwriting - and talked to anyone who might know how it works.

"Songwriting comes from a different place," explains Bono. "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."

Hilburn argues that U2 are a group who have 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.'

'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. "When you've got a song to write or a blank page, just desc ribe 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 great piece with more tantalizing hints about the nature of the new album too.

If you have a subscription to the LA Times you can read the piece here

Alternately, those helpful people at are carrying the entire article here


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