Meet the lyricistby Larissa Anderson, Minnesota Public Radio
The source of musical inspiration is a subject we're exploring in a new edition of our Songs from Scratch project. We look inside the creative process as we ask professional songwriter Adam Levy to pick a familiar story and compose some lyrics based on that story. Then, we give those lyrics to three artists and follow along as the words are transformed into a complete song.
St. Paul, Minn. — Adam Levy is a founder of the local band The Honeydogs.
Over the years, he has evolved as a songwriter, incorporating all kinds of musical styles like bossa nova and Eastern European folk music. His lyrics take on topics from genetic engineering to genocide.
Levy's songwriting is guided by one major rule of thumb.
"Never write the same song twice, and that means musically and that means lyrically," he said.
And for Levy, it also means writing whenever the muse strikes, because with his schedule, he has to write songs in stolen minutes.
That could be when he's tending the chickens in the backyard of his Minneapolis home, teaching at the Institute of Production and Recording, or spending time with his three kids.
Levy's daughter Esther, 9, says even driving can take a backseat to songwriting.
"Sometimes he just grabs the recorder and he's like, 'Oooh, I've got a good idea.' And I'm like, 'Dad, pay attention to the road!' And he's like, 'I have an idea,' and I'm like 'No, focus!'"
It's this kind of creative spirit we wanted in a songwriting guide for this year's Songs from Scratch. So, we gave Adam Levy an assignment.
"I was told I needed to come up with a verse or chorus that came from some large part of literary cultural tradition that we'd all be familiar with, something in the Western cultural psyche that everybody has some idea about. And I came up with 'The Wizard of Oz.'"
Then he wrote up the start to a set of lyrics.
"From the ends of the earth to your own backyard,
Mouth and mind drink all but won't fill an empty heart.
It's all within -- energy and matter, namaste and ohm,
Myriad formulas, nostrums and prayer -- all roads lead home."
Levy says they were inspired by the character of the wizard.
"He starts out in the very beginning as the traveling fortune teller, mystic spiritualist who's just kind of scamming. But there's some sort of wisdom in this guy even as a charlatan, like he knows what's right and wrong," said Levy.
"And in Dorothy's whatever -- dream, altered reality -- he basically hands her the keys to the kingdom by saying, strength is internal courage, intelligence," Levy continued. "All these things we can gain through life, but basically we have them."
Levy's words are the starting point for the three bands participating in Songs from Scratch -- P.O.S., Jeremy Messersmith and Best Friends Forever. They'll write their own songs using his lyrics.
"I'm definitely wondering if they're going to look at this and go, 'Wow, how am I going to write something around this?'"
That's the Songs from Scratch challenge.
- All Things Considered, 07/21/2008, 4:49 p.m.