The musicians get the lyricsby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio,
Sanden Totten, Minnesota Public Radio,
Nikki Tundel, Minnesota Public Radio
Our project looks at the creative process of writing music, through the eyes of three musicians and a lyricist. We asked Adam Levy of the Honeydogs to pick a familiar story and use that as a starting point for a set of lyrics. The story he chose is the "The Wizard of Oz."
Next we asked three professional music acts to take Levy's lyrics and turn them into a complete song. The artists are the group Best Friends Forever, singer/songwriter Jeremy Messersmith and rapper P.O.S.
If you're looking for a rap song with a monotonous beat and nothing much to say, don't come to P.O.S. The world his tunes reflect is often complicated and messy. With their abrasive lyrics and fractured rhythms, P.O.S.'s songs are made to sound broken.
"And that's I feel like a reason why a lot of rap fans don't necessarily love my rapping," he said. "And even if they like my rapping, the music is jarring sometimes, and it's a lot to think about sometimes."
In other words, P.O.S. isn't afraid to write a "deep" rap tune. Which is why he's looking forward to tackling "The Wizard of Oz."
"It's a pretty beastly, epic story," he said. "I should be able to pull something out of there for sure."
But he'll also have to squeeze in Adam Levy's four lines. When read aloud, they sound song-worthy.
"From the ends of the earth to your own back yard,
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."
The couplets flow pretty easily when P.O.S. reads them, which is important for an emcee, but how do you work words like "myriad" and "nostrums" into a rap song?
No problem, says P.O.S., who was actually a little relieved when he read Levy's lines.
"I thought that this would be lyrically more difficult," he said. "I guess I didn't really know what I had in mind, but I thought it might be more cryptic."
What P.O.S. thinks will be tougher is working within the Songs from Scratch framework. His creative process is simpler, more organic, and, ironically, more from scratch.
"I listen to beats and write, or I write and then create a beat around it," he said. "Those are the two things that I do. I usually don't have something that I have to start from."
At this point, P.O.S. is looking at Songs from Scratch as a chance to give people an inside look at the making of a rap song. He's also excited by what the other acts, Best Friends Forever and Jeremy Messersmith, might come up with.
"I imagine Jeremy's song will be very complicated and cool," he said. "And Best Friends Forever will probably make something that's largely entertaining and informative and catchy. Those girls are brilliant."
And what about P.O.S.?
"I will probably make a big, dense, complicated mess," he said. "You can nod your head to the complicated mess."
BEST FRIENDS FOREVER
Remember going to sleepovers as a kid? You and your friends would stay up all night drinking pop, laughing, giddy with some kind of manic energy?
Listening to Best Friends Forever is a lot like that -- which makes sense, since the band's founding members, Bri Smith and Jess Seamans, have been real life best friends since they were in grade school. Hence the name.
"It's extremely literal, referring to Jess and I being best friends," said Bri Smith. "And being the optimistic person that I am and that Jess can be, we thought we'd throw the forever on the end."
Bri Smith sings and plays guitar and keyboard. For her, when a song comes, it comes in a creative burst. Ideas, words and melodies flow out in an unfiltered mess. That's when Jess Seamans steps in.
"I'm like the editor," she said.
Jess also sings and plays the bass.
"Bri is better at letting things, like, flow out of her. She's amazingly talented and super creative. But I'm maybe a little better at refining things," Seamans said.
Together they churn out quirky pop songs about anything from their favorite president to near- death experiences. Bri says their songs are like a conversation between the two of them, full of personal anecdotes and inside jokes.
Lately, the two of them haven't been hanging out much. They say it's hurting their songwriting, but they hope this project will put them back on track.
They start with Adam Levy's lyrics. And right away, there's a problem.
"I don't know how to pronounce one of these words," said Jess. "N-a-m-a-s-t-e?"
"It's a yoga word!" responded Bri.
But the thing they're most worried about has nothing to do with proper pronunciation. It's finding a way to incorporate Levy's lyrics and the story of "The Wizard of Oz" into a Best Friends Forever song.
"We both feel really awkward and self concious singing things that feel, you know, not just coming straight from our own brains. But I think it's probably really good for us, too, because maybe we can eventually move into the territory of songs from different perspectives."
For now, the band's going to start with something a little more basic.
"Anyone know what 'nostrums' are?" asked Bri Smith. "No? You don't have to. We'll start with the dictionary and go from there."
Twin Cities singer-songwriter Jeremy Messersmith was psyched when he learned he'd be writing a song inspired by "The Wizard of Oz."
"Oh, this'll be so much fun. That'll be great," he said.
As a kid, Jeremy was somewhat obsessed with the movie adaptation.
"I remember every time my mom would make me do chores, I would start doing the Wicked Witch of the West chant that the soldiers did. 'Oh, Eee, Oh, Oh, Oh,' which I thought was really hysterically funny when I was, like, 11."
From channeling silver-screen soldiers to playing trumpet in the school band, Jeremy says he's always preferred communication that doesn't rely on actual dialogue. He's much more comfortable expressing himself through choruses than conversations.
"I'm either frustrated about something, I don't know what to say, and I'll write a song and play it. My wife will hear it and go, 'Oh. Oh, OK. Yeah. That makes a little more sense now.'"
For Jeremy, songwriting is all about the personal.
"Yeah, I guess I'm that narcissistic. I kinda have to write about myself, apparently," he said.
Messersmith is anxious about having to incorporate the words, and point of view, of another songwriter. His jaw even tightened up a bit when he started to read Adam Levy's lyrics.
"It's all within, energy and matter, namaste and ohm, myriad formulas, nostrums and prayer, all roads lead home. That's pretty heavy," said Messersmith. "I think this is pretty great. I don't think I've ever mentioned anything about energy and matter or namaste and ohm. Nostrums, no. This is definitely above my fourth grade vocabulary, I think."
Just like the band Best Friends Forever, the first thing on Jeremy's agenda will be digging out the dictionary. Once he clarifies the meaning of the word "nostrum," he'll be ready to start writing.
"I'm just as curious as anybody to see what kind of a song comes out of this."
- All Things Considered, 07/22/2008, 4:49 p.m.
Chris Roberts is an arts and culture reporter for MPR News.
Sanden Totten serves as the Assistant Producer for MPR's In The Loop.