"What it really comes down to is anybody can write a song," says Jeff, who was named BMI Songwriter of the Year in 1998. "It's either being crazy enough to just go and do it without worrying about what people think. You're not going to be an expert at it the first time you do it. It's just an ever-learning process. I don't think I've learned every single thing there is to know, and I'm glad. I'm always learning something from pretty much everybody I write with."
And Jeff has had plenty of practice. Aside from his prolific career with Crow, he's brought his expertise to artists like Stevie Nicks, Joe Cocker, Liz Phair, Rob Thomas and Counting Crows, and has produced albums for actress-turned-singer Leighton Meester (Heartstrings) and Americana singer-songwriter Max Gomez (Rule the World). He even wrote and produced his own album, Dig up the Astroturf, a blend of classic rock and pop with psychedelic and electronic elements, in 2001.
Jeff spoke about the nuts and bolts of songwriting and gave us the inside stories on many Sheryl Crow hits, including the surprising inspiration behind "Soak up the Sun" and his theory about the mystery man in "My Favorite Mistake."
Jeff Trott: Yes. I was on the road with Leighton Meester. I produced her Heartstrings record, and I did some songwriting, but more like some adjustments to the songs. She came to me with a bunch of songs that basically just had verses and choruses, but no middle section or a bridge. I would just suggest things like a bridge would be great here, or some kind of instrumental section. Or hey, you could say a lot more in this section.
So then she was just like, well why don't you write one, and then I would just write a bridge. So that's kind of how I collaborated with Leighton on her record. Not at the beginning of writing the song initially, but after the fact.
Songfacts: What is your typical songwriting process like?
Trott: I write in all different manners. Sometimes I'll have an idea, and I'll bring it to someone that I'm working with or collaborating with - whether it's an artist, or another writer - and sometimes they come with ideas. It's really sort of unpredictable. A lot of is just happenstance. You start talking about what you're up to, or something someone said, or something topical, or you know, "Someone texted me this message that was really odd, and I thought it would be a great song title."
As a writer you're always trying to capture those little things, I call them song seeds, like little ideas that could turn into something. Those are important. You collect lots of them. Like one - I got this text from Leighton Meester awhile back after I finished mixing a record. I had sent her this one mix to get her approval, and she texted me back this message that was, "I'm having a panic attack... of happiness."
I thought that was really a unique way of expressing that you like something, you know, having a panic attack, but you're happy. I thought, wow I've got to write a song. The last couple of sessions I've had, I've thrown that out there: Panic Attack. It's gotten a nibble, but it hasn't blossomed into anything yet.
That's just one of hundreds of little ideas that you get. Another one was just the other day. I wrote with this girl from Nashville named Jaida Dreyer (country singer-songwriter), and I had never met her before. It's kind of like speed dating, in some ways, when you get together with artists and other writers.
The first hour you're just getting to know each other, and she started telling me, "You know I had this friend that I hadn't talked to in a long time, and I was just thinking, My God! I really want to talk to her. I wonder what she's up to, you know?"
Then like the next day, her friend calls her, just out of the blue - and this is somebody she hasn't talked to in maybe a year. And Jaida goes, "I have this thing where I feel like sometimes I can almost sing somebody into my life. Like I can just think about them in a song, and then all of a sudden they come back." I thought, okay, we've got to write a song.
Songfacts: That's interesting. So how did you turn that seed of an idea into a song?
Trott: We wrote about thinking about somebody, and putting it out into the universe, and having it come back. The title is "There's Always Something in the Way." Sometimes when you're trying to reach somebody, it seems like there's a roadblock that just prevents you from connecting with somebody, whether they're just busy, or you play phone tag - It's all these things that stand in the way.
But it all turned into this really beautiful song. Some of it has the idea of, maybe I can sing you back into my life or it could also be about somebody who's passed, like a grandma or just somebody you know who died. So many different things can be turned into songs.
I've been finding the best ones have been when you have a real concept as to what it is that you really want to talk about, or some sort of theme that you want to express. Once you know what that is, then you can direct yourself to where you want the song to go. Then other things unfold, and you might find, oh really, this is really what I'm talking about. I'm talking about this thing. But at least it gets you there.
Songfacts: I think one of my favorite things I read you was that you were actually pulling ideas out of a hat for some Sheryl Crow sessions.
Trott: Oh yeah. I look at songwriters like they're people who really love puzzles. When you don't really have the real heart of the theme developed yet, and then all of a sudden, you stumble across it, I always say something like, "All right we've cracked the code." Now we know what this thing is about. And we can get more detailed, and more personal, and add more images, and metaphors. It's easier when you have a better idea of what it is, rather than just trying to grasp things out of thin air. It's like drawing out of the hat. We literally did that. We were writing a song called "A Change Would Do You Good."
Songfacts: What was the inspiration behind "A Change Would Do You Good"?
Trott: We were trying to come up with something like the Staple Singers. Mavis Staples is one of those legendary soul singer/songwriters, and Sheryl and I have this affinity for those old soul songs, Motown, stuff like that. We're always trying to find those rare, rare songs for inspiration.
Sheryl had this real simple idea just talking about how a change would do you good. Like maybe things aren't working out, so a change would do you good. That's all we had. Then we tried to figure out, should it be directed at somebody? Maybe the first verse - who's it going to be directed at?
I don't know how we were talking about Madonna, but the second verse of "A Change Would Do You Good" was directed at Madonna. "You wear your fake fur on the inside." It's been awhile. I can't think of all the lyrics. But one of them was "Mercedes Ruehl and a rented Lear."
There was a bunch of little non-sequiturs because Sheryl said, "We need to write some really colorful verses and just get out there and be really abstract." So, we just sat down with Brian MacLeod, who's a drummer that we did some writing with. He always has some really great little ideas, or hooks. He's got a really super wry sense of humor, and so he's fun to have around just to throw ideas.
So, the three of us are just sitting at this table in this place in New Orleans called King's Way. It used to be this old mansion that was turned into kind of a funky studio. We just rented it for a while, and just lived in New Orleans for around six months, and we sat around and wrote songs.
For "A Change Would Do You Good," I distinctly remember the room we were in. We were sitting at this little round table and we had magazines, and books, and all sorts of stuff to try to lift ideas. We kind of had the rhythm, and melody, and phrase, and what the verse was. Then we all individually wrote out a ton of lyrics. And Sheryl's like, "God everybody has such great ideas. Okay. Why don't we take all the ideas, and we'll throw each one of our lines into a hat, and draw them out."
The second verse was about Madonna, so we each would write something about Madonna to go with a change would do you good - maybe something that's descriptive of her personality, but it can be really abstract. We put the lines in the hat - a ton of lines, probably ten lines each.
Sheryl just picked them out randomly and put them on a piece of paper, and we all read them. We all thought, "Whoa, this actually makes sense, even though it's so oblique and completely abstract." So, we put this thing together and tried to keep the order pretty close, just swapping a couple of the lines to make more sense.
That's how we wrote the song, at least the verses. So the second verse is mostly about Madonna and a few other people. The first one was about Bill Bottrell, a producer who walked out of making Sheryl's second record (Sheryl Crow). She had a little bit of resentment towards him, but not in a harsh way, but in a playful kind of way. I think the last verse is actually about Sheryl.
When we were trying to figure out the last verse, I just said, "Oh Sheryl why don't we write about you?" And she's like, "No I don't want to do that." I'm like, "Aw c'mon. C'mon." And she's like, "All right. All right." She goes, "But if I don't like it, I can edit it, right?" We're like, "Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Of course."
It was just that crazy, anarchy kind of thing that turned into something really great, and very colorful. If you analyze each line, you think it's just nonsense. But it's just so colorful. Then when you add a change would do you good, it gives all those lines some sort of purpose.
I think for anybody writing, you want to make it fun, and you want to make it so that you don't feel like you're really working a regular job - you don't want to feel like you're some factory worker, even though in a way you kind of are. You're making something but it's all intellectual, rather than something tactile or physical.
You kind of have to trick yourself to be creative. You almost have to make it like a game. The other thing that's good about taking that approach is that you can hear it in the music. It sounds like those writers, or that artist, was really having a fun time when they were doing their record, because you can just hear it in the things that are being said, and the fun, and the humor. You're kind of celebrating being able to do music.
Songfacts: And I'm sure that makes it a lot of fun to play those songs live, too.
Trott: Absolutely. You also want to write stuff that you personally would want in your collection. Not just because you did it, but just because it's good. And if someone else had done that song, you would be right there - you'd want to know "what's that song?" That's really a cool song.
I think pop music is really hard to write because you're trying to please a lot of people, and you don't want anybody to be bored. But you want to make it thought provoking. Sometimes I think that more emphasis on songwriting nowadays seems like it's geared towards just being popular, rather than just trying to do something that's really great. I'm not saying everybody does that. There's a lot of really great commercial stuff that's out there that's really unique.
But in general, there are so many writers now, and they're just worrying about trying to have a hit, rather than trying to create art.
Songfacts: Is there a different approach in writing for different genres? Does it hinder you at all to say, this is going to be a country song, this is going to be a pop song?
Trott: Well it's interesting because each genre has sort of unwritten rules. Like if you look at country. I haven't really written a lot of like typical country songs, even though I'm influenced by some classic country, because it's always about working class person, which I relate to.
Typically with country music, I've found that it's all about the words, and phrases, and the humor. But you can't really write about being sophisticated, or you can't write about concepts that are not salt-of-the-earth-type of concepts.
It's changed so much now. What country is now - a lot of it is just regular pop that's dolled up with maybe a dobro or a fiddle or something like that. But it still has those rules, whereas in hip-hop you're talking about the conquest or being real rich and buying all this expensive stuff.
In country, it's almost the opposite. The conquest would be more about sex or love. I think the agendas may be a little different.
I actually wrote with this guy in Portland named Mic Crenshaw who had a hip-hop band. He was kind of a free styling guy who wasn't into the gangster kind of thing.
He was more about being intellectual. I can't really say that I have technically written a rap or anything like that. I would love to try it, but it's not really in my wheelhouse. With all the people that are so good at it, I would rather just be a facilitator if I'm involved in it, instrumentally. That's where I won't really be as involved in lyrically.
Songfacts: Do you feel more comfortable collaborating rather than just writing on your own?
Trott: You know, it's weird. It's not a comfort thing, for me. I've written on my own and I enjoy it. But I don't have anybody to share it with, other than saying here's a song I just wrote. Collaborating is such a kick because you've teamed up to do something that's maybe better than what you could just do on your own, or what the other person could do on their own.
But it's not a comfort thing. I can totally sit down and write a song from beginning to end very easily, especially if I'm really inspired by something. I have made my own record before, but honestly, I just don't see myself as being the star of the show. I'm way more into making somebody else shine.
I feel like I bring my service to somebody else and try to make them really great, rather than the other way around. That makes me feel great. Maybe I don't have enough of an ego or something that will make me want to be in the center of attention.
Songfacts: So, when you go to co-write with somebody, do you always know who you're writing for? Or are there some that you pitch to different artists?
Trott: The last one I did I wrote for Jaida Dreyer. She's also had several songs in that TV show Nashville. We sat down, we wrote, and it's either we could get somebody to cut it or we can try to get it placed in television or a movie.
Then there are others. I wrote with this girl named Kita Alexander, who's from outside of Sydney, Australia. She's only 19, and she has a really cool voice and does a version of indie pop.
When I got together to write with her, that was specifically for her record. So, it's all different. Sometimes you get together with people and it's like, Beyoncé needs a song. Let's try to write a song for Beyoncé, knowing that we probably won't get it, but we just do it anyway.
Songfacts: I was thinking of the one you did for Joe Cocker, "I'll Be Your Doctor."
Trott: This producer named Matt Serletic will sometimes hold these writer's camps. He'll basically collect eight to ten writers that he really likes, that are from different genres, and have different skill sets. Then, he'll just have you write with one group of people for about three hours, and he switches you over to another group and you're with them.
Joe Cocker, he never wrote his own songs. Maybe he wrote one somewhere. He's more of an interpreter and great singer. So, he always had songs written for him, or he did covers. Matt, who was producing Joe's record, collected a whole bunch of different writers with the idea of just writing as many great songs for Joe to do as possible. For one of my rounds, I was paired with Victoria Horn, who is a British pop songwriter, and Steve McMorran, who had worked a lot with Kara DioGuardi. The three of us got together, and we started writing this one song, and it was pretty good. I started playing around with this other theme on the piano, and it turned into a completely different song called "I'll Be Your Doctor."
Matt just fell I love with the song and said, "Oh! I think this one is perfect for Joe." So, we got that cut. I guess it did pretty decently over in Europe. That was a lot of fun, and that actually connected me with Steve McMorran, who's a really brilliant writer.
And Victoria Horn, I write with all the time. In fact, last week we wrote with David Archuleta, from American Idol a few seasons back. The three of us just wrote this really great little song, and so I've become really, really, good friends with Victoria, and have written a lot of really super cool songs with her.
We have a real great chemistry. It's really nice when you find your musical allies, the people that you can do your thing with really comfortably and effectively.
Songfacts: Are you finished with the David Archuleta song or are you still working on it?
Jeff: It's pretty much done. We wrote it in a day. I think we're going to make the second verse longer than we originally made. I just finished up the demo for it, and after I really listened to it in my car - which I feel like I get a little more objectivity when I'm sitting in the car, and outside of my studio - I kind of felt like the second verse was too short. It didn't have enough information.
It's funny, when we started emailing each other we were all thinking along the same lines. It's really good when you write with people you can really be on the same page with. It's really not too much of a problem and there are no egos involved. It's just that we want the best song. So, what can we do to make this outstanding from top to bottom, or bottom to top?
Songfacts: I just want to see what you remember about some of these individual songs I have in front of me. In the past, you've called "Chances Are" your favorite song that you wrote with Sheryl, if that's still true-
Trott: It's not now. I've beaten that song now. But I love that song. It's a little bit inspired by this doctor Terence McKenna, who wrote a book called Archaic Revival. He studied Psilocybin mushrooms, the effects and the religious aspects of these hallucinogenic drugs. He had this theory that human beings didn't start talking until like a Neanderthal picked a mushroom and ate it, and then all of a sudden his brain started developing and he could speak, or he could communicate through words.
It's really weird. It's kind of far fetched, but I love reading stuff that's just out there. He also called Psilocybin mushrooms the telephone to God.
"Chances Are" really was inspired by this kind of philosophy. I managed to somehow talk Sheryl into writing it with me, and it's pretty cool. I love the music in it, too. It's really kind of odd and not what you would typically associate Sheryl with. It's not that weird, but for her it was a little left of center.
Songfacts: So what surpassed "Chances Are" as your favorite?
Trott: I just wrote this really great, straightforward, from the heart song, called "Give it to Me" on Sheryl's last record (Feels Like Home) and felt like that was the best song I'd ever written with her. I always had a really hard time writing really direct, literal songs. It's easier just to hide behind odd images or metaphors rather than just being direct and saying what the hell you're trying to say.
Maybe I'm a little braver now. Sheryl's really good at being direct, and she's really super intellectual. People don't even realize how bright she is. So we just wrote this straightforward, kind of sexual song that cuts to the chase about desire and lust - something that we've never really written before.
"Give It To Me" also has a really nice melody. It sounds like something that the Eagles would've done or something like that. So, that's the current favorite at the moment.
Songfacts: And did you guys sit down with that idea, or did you have a melody in mind first that inspired the song?
Trott: Sheryl actually was singing this melody, and she wanted to do something like Loretta Lynn. She just started playing this thing, and then I started adding to it. It kept sounding like she was wanting to come out and say, "just f--k me." Like, just c'mon, give it to me, and I said, "Well, why can't you just say it?" Like if you say "give it to me," that's saying the same thing.
But in the song context, it doesn't really sound like that was the motivation. Even though that sounds really cheesy, and crass, we had never written anything really super direct like that.
When you write with people, sometimes there's sort of a flirtatious side to it. I'm really close friends with Sheryl, but I'm more of like a fun-loving brother to her. But there's also an attraction that we've had for a long time, but it was always like, if we got involved, it would never be the same. Why mess it up?
And now I'm a happily married man with a family, and she's got her family, so now the flirtation is more out of fun. But it kind of fires that creativity for some of the songs.
It's a good way of working, really. There's always that kind of dynamic between a man and a woman, even as friends. You need those things in order to write songs.
But my wife will hear a song that I've written, and she'll go, "That's about me, isn't it? You're writing about me." Well, yeah. There's a little of you there, but then she's like, "Oh! It's about somebody else then. And you're writing about someone you really love." [laughs] I'm like, it's a song. You know, it's a song. Yeah it's about you, babe. It's all about you.
But we've been together for a long time, and she knows what it is. In fact, she worked as an assistant at the recording studio that Sheryl recorded her Tuesday Night Music Club record. But I didn't meet her while she worked there.
So, it's interesting, that whole dynamic between songwriters and even their significant others. Sometimes you can write some really juicy stuff that if you're not careful you could hurt somebody too. It leaves people wondering, who's that about, you know?
Songfacts: Like with "My Favorite Mistake", everybody was kind of comparing that to "You're So Vain." Everybody was trying to figure out who it was about.
Trott: You know what's funny? I've never ever talked to Sheryl about it - never, ever. One of these days, I'm just going to like throw it out there. Everyone just assumed it was Eric Clapton, but I thought it could be Jakob Dylan from The Wallflowers. The Wallflowers supported Sheryl Crow when I was in her touring band.
But she dated Eric Clapton for a little while, for about six months. We were touring all over Europe, and he would just go with us everywhere. He would come out and play the encores. It was pretty excellent to play your show, and then do the encore with Eric Clapton standing next to you just blazing away. That was pretty cool. He was really super, super easy to hang with and was just great.
He'd always compliment people, "Oh Yeah! Hey, I heard that really cool thing you did on the slide there. It was great." There were times when he would just sit in on a song that maybe we didn't even rehearse or anything. He could just pretty much stand there and then just throw in a solo whenever.
One time we were playing this song that had a complicated bridge section and he came over before the bridge was coming up - he would come over to me and ask, "What's the first chord of the bridge?" You know, like I'm telling Eric Clapton how to play a song.
But he was really into Sheryl, big time. I thought for sure they were going to get married. I think the real deal is that he really wanted to have a very traditional marriage, meaning that Sheryl would take care of things, in a traditional housewife role. At the time, this was like when she was pretty much peaking and playing everywhere, and she would've had to give that up.
Songfacts: What do you remember about "Soak Up The Sun?"
I was living in Portland, Oregon, and I think she was living in New York at the time. She was saying, "Hey, let's get together. I don't have enough Sheryl and Jeff songs on the record. I really need more. I know we've got it in us, c'mon, let's do it." So, I'm in Portland and it's raining all the time, and normally I would have a few things ready for her, a riff or some idea, or a little bit of a song.
But I had just finished making my solo record. I was kind of written out, and I had nothing at all to give her. I was excited to go see her but I was nervous that, oh my God, I have nothing. I'm bringing zero. So I got on the plane from Portland to go to New York, and while I'm sitting on the plane, I'm just thinking of my situation, like gosh what am I going to do.
And I'm thinking this is really ironic that I'm leaving Portland being soaked in rain, and I'm actually going to New York to soak up some sun. I'm going to New York to soak up some sun. That's got a ring to it. That's kind of cool.
Then I started thinking about the sun, and I started thinking of these Beach Boys-style harmonies. On that five-hour flight, I had come up with the whole song completely in my head, not all the lyrics necessarily. I had a good chunk of the chorus of "Soak Up The Sun," but I had harmonies and everything all in my head, and I'm just having to scratch it down on a piece of paper.
When I landed and took a cab, I was getting really nervous. I'm thinking gosh, the song is good, but it really doesn't sound like something Sheryl Crow would do. It sounds too poppy, you know, too Beach Boys. She likes the Beach Boys, and the Beatles, but she's always complaining, "It's too white." It sounds too much like white frat dudes or something.
I was kind of nervous thinking that's going to be the kind of reaction that I get from her. And so, I get there. Of course, she's like. "Oh, come on. Sit down. Let's see. What are you up to? What do you have for me? Do you have something for me?" Well I kind of have this idea. I grab a guitar, and I'm like fumbling around trying to figure it out. And then I finally kind of figure it out what the key of it was, because I didn't have a guitar on the flight or anything. Everything was virtually in my noggin.
I started playing the song - a little bit of the chorus, and she goes, "That's really, really, catchy. Let's finish it."
I think the original line I brought to her was, 'so you want to soak up the sun, want to tell everyone to brighten up.' And she was saying you know what, 'brighten up' sounds too sarcastic or something, you know, lighten up maybe would be better than brighten up. I'm like, all right, well, cool.
Then we started trying to get ideas for the verses. This song has a little bit of a young, juvenile feel to it. Not juvenile, like delinquent, but kind of playful. What if it's from the point of view of a teenager? Like Sheryl as a teenager, thinking back to when she was younger.
So, we kind of carried that over into the song as the voice of Sheryl as a young teenager with a lot of oddball friends who can't really quite make out why people are the way they are. There's a reference to 'I've got my 45 on so I can rock on.' The 45 on was like a kid with a gun, originally, and then we thought that's a little scary.
We were talking about Columbine and we're like okay I've got my 45 on, so I can rock on, like I can blast you guys. I'm going to blast all the people that are bugging me. That's kind of where we were at with it, and then we said that's just a little too-
Songfacts: A little bit heavy.
Trott: Yeah, it's a little too over the top, and probably not going to be too believable either. So I just said well a 45 can also be a 45 single, like in the old days, a single on vinyl was like a 45 rpm. So, I said yeah, that's what it is. I've got my 45, and I can rock on, because I'm going to listen to this music.
So, we just changed the point of view, but we kept some of the images, and the feeling. So when you listen to it, you're not going, "Oh this is about a teenager who is disgruntled about life." This is just a teenager describing how funky it is growing up and trying to figure out the world.
Songfacts: Did you expect it to become as big a hit as it was?
Trott: I remember one day about a year after "Soak Up The Sun." I run into this guy I hadn't seen in a long time, this record producer named Tony Bird. He asked me to do some session work or something with him, and he said, "Jeff I just got to tell you I love all the songs that you've done with Sheryl. That's the stuff I really like."
Then he goes, "I really don't like a lot of this other stuff that she's been doing, like 'Soak Up The Sun.' What the hell is that?" And I'm going, "Tony I wrote that one. What's not good about that song?" He's like, "C'mon, you know, like the surfboards and being at the beach." I go, "What are you talking about?" because I had never seen the video.
I never really watch videos and stuff like that. I just don't. I'm too artsy for that. I would rather watch some weird film, you know. I'm not into the video thing at all. His impression of the song was just based on this video. So, I watched it. I thought, "Oh my God, Sheryl's surfing. What the hell is that? It's not even close to what it's about."
I think having Sheryl on a surfboard, being at the beach, is probably more palatable then having her in a trench coat shooting people in a lunch cafeteria. Not that I thought that that's what the song was, but my impression from writing it was that it was much edgier than what came across. The video of course is like, hey, we're having a holiday. We're surfing. We're catching some sun. Everything's cool. Strum acoustic guitar. Like, wow! That's not even close to what we thought it was about. Maybe that's why I don't like videos so much, because they just...
Songfacts: They shape people's perceptions.
Trott: Just like some movies ruin books. Sometimes, you can't even put in everything that's in a book in a movie. You just end up chopping out some of the most important things because you don't want to bore people. So anyway, that was kind of my feeling with that. It's like, okay now I get it. I see why Tony had the reaction. He was reacting towards that video.
I felt a little hurt, but one of the things that I did get to say back to him was, well you know, it was top 10 for something like 152 weeks or something crazy. It was a top-selling song for well over a year in the top 10 in Adult Contemporary; it didn't slip below it.
I had no idea about that either, until my publisher called me up and said, "Jeff, I want to take you out for a glass of champagne." I said, "Oh Why?" And he said, "Well 'Soak Up The Sun' just dropped out of the top 10 after being on the charts for over a year" and I'm like, "Wow! Okay. You can buy me a glass. I guess it's time to like celebrate."
But it was weird that I had no idea that it was up there that long, you know. So anyways, Tony Bird, you can eat my hat; you can eat my surfboard. [laughs]
Songfacts: So, I'm going to ask you to go even further back. What can you remember about "Everyday is a Winding Road"?
Trott: You know, it's funny. These kinds of interviews I think are good for jogging the memory. I think on this one, I remember it started with the main guitar riff.
We were at Brian MacLeod's cabin up in gold country, near Yosemite. We took over his parents' cabin. We just brought a bunch of gear out there and started writing a bunch of stuff and made some drum loops. I think we made a stomp-clap loop, and then used that to play along to. So, we worked on that song, kind of got the form, but never really quite got all the lyrics to that really dialed up.
It was one of those songs that are so catchy but, what is it about? It's sort of like, some days are good, some days you can't quite figure it out. Sheryl did most of the lyrics. I didn't really have really anything to do with coming up with the lyrics on that one.
All she did was would run by, "Hey what do you think sounds better - this or that?" Or and I would say, "Why don't you change this to that?" But she pretty much came up with everything on that, as far as the lyrics. By the time we were ready to complete the record, we had brought it from New Orleans back to L.A. we were trying to decide which songs were the best, because we had like 40 or 50 songs.
I remember, we were working on one song, and Sheryl got a call from Robbie Robertson, because he was doing music supervision for this movie called Phenomenon, starring John Travolta. He asked Sheryl if she had any songs that she could contribute to this movie - something up-tempo and lively.
So, we had a little meeting. She was like, "Okay what can we give Robbie? I don't want to give him anything really good because I'm putting out a record, and I don't want to give away the best songs for this movie." Back then, if you released one song on the radio, then you had another song in a movie, it could derail your single.
We went through the whole list of everything. One of us said, hey what about "Winding Road?" That one's like such an awful song. Let's just give that one to him. It was a song we weren't really super happy with. We thought this sounds like a train wreck. It was really a lot different, though. The version that we had at that time was much different than the one that got released. But anyway, we sent a rough mix of that song to Robbie. He heard it and goes, "I love it. Just, can you give me a version of it with just drums, bass guitar, and vocal? That's it. Nothing else. Take away all that other stuff." So, we did that. We stripped it down. Started working on a mix.
Sheryl was saying something like, "Gosh the bass is kind of not grooving very well with the drums. Maybe we can we replace it with something?" We were in Tchad Blake's room, and he had this Moog Synthesizer that had this great bass sound, like just really subby-bass and kind of fuzzy, too. So I just said, "Well hey, why don't we try Moog bass and get rid of the guitar bass?"
I was just trying to get a sound on the Moog, and I started playing along with the song, but I wasn't playing the right bass line, like the original bass line. I was playing just something to get the sound. And she's like, "Oh my, God. Jeffrey what are you playing? The groove's so hard. Wow. That is amazing."
I ended up just playing this Moog bass line like any dummy could play it, but it just worked so great in the track. So we got it all together and then she says, "You know you used to play like this little slide thing on it. And how come we took that out?" I said, "Well Robbie said he just wanted guitar, bass, drums, vocal, right? We don't want to have something else." And she's like, "Oh it needs something, you know?" And I'm like, "Okay here we go again." Because I started adding a lot of stuff back to it.
We realized, too, by pulling back all that stuff that, wow there actually is a really good song in there, and it's just being covered with layer, upon layer, of instruments. With it exposed like that, we're like, okay, this is turning into something pretty good. The very last thing that I did was I couldn't quite get the slide sound that I had on the original. So I just plugged my guitar directly into the mixing board and put a bunch of compression - I needed to have compression to give it sustain. The sound that this engineer got from me was so wacky, it sounded like a rubber band or something like that.
So I played slide and I was just going, "Well, dude it's just playing itself. How fun, man this is cool." I was really getting off on it. So we recorded that, and Sheryl's like, "Oh my, God. That is so catchy. I can't tell you. This is just so amazing. Well maybe we shouldn't send it to Robbie."
What are we doing? We're giving our best song away to Robbie Robertson for a movie? It became a little bit of an issue because I think, originally, we were going to put out "If It Makes You Happy" as a first single.
Then "Every Day is a Winding Road" was going to come out before it in this movie. So, A&M Records said, look you can't have two singles out at the same time. We said, we'll just have one, but the other will be in the movie. No. You don't understand. That song is going to do really well, and be in a movie. And then you'll have this other single and it'll be crazy. You can't do it. You just cannot do it.
Good problem to have, obviously. So we ended up releasing "If it Makes You Happy" first. "Everyday is a Winding Road" was released second, and it did pretty well. It just took off on radio. It didn't go to number one or anything like that, but it got a lot of radio airplay.
It's also one of the most-licensed songs. I get requests for that all the time, licensing for movies and commercials. It's just pretty much everywhere.
Even when I lived in Portland, the basketball team there, the Portland Trailblazers, had a theme song for when they televise the basketball games. Theirs was a total rip-off of "Everyday is a Winding Road," but it was an instrumental and was a slightly different rhythm. I was hearing that like, "Oh my, God! Why don't they just get ahold of me? I would've written them a new theme." But we didn't do anything about it.
I'm too influenced by people around me, and things I see and hear. I think that whole thing is just a joke. I mean, if I sat down and played "Blurred Lines" on the piano for you, or something, and then sang the Marvin Gaye song on the piano. You would go, "Oh those are two different songs."
You know, I analyzed the cowbell pattern in that rhythm. It's not the same. It's playing a busy pattern, but it's not the same pattern. It's different. It's so funny because I thought, "Oh everybody's thinking the cowbell."
Plus, in publishing, a rhythm instrument, or a tambourine--you can't copyright a tambourine part. I hear some people say, "Oh yeah it sounds exactly like Marvin Gaye's song and all that. And that Robin Thicke is an asshole. So, he ripped him off and that's for real." That's not being factual or really looking at the truth behind it.
It's being emotional because if they don't like Robin Thicke, it must be true that he's a thief. I think he's like any other musician that has ever heard other music. You listen to music, and it becomes part of you. To me, ripping something off, you're just flat out stealing the melody and some of the words, and maybe just change a couple of things.
Even the Marvin Gaye song is taken from somewhere else, too. You can draw that to something that he was influenced by. I don't think the jury in that case was really listening to the facts. You have to actually consider what really happened? What are the real facts here? Is the melody the same? Are the lyrics the same? What's the same? What's same, what's similar? The bass line?
But it's like if you say a bass line, a rhythm riff is similar, it's probably going to be similar in about 1,000 songs. You know, like any like Motown songs, like those James Jamerson bass lines and stuff? The same bass lines are like on like hundreds of songs; they're just like in a different key. And they're just grooving the way Motown grooved, you know.
I think this is important, I guess that's why I'm spouting out about this whole thing. The whole "Blurred Lines" thing is not a good thing for music. I do feel, though, that music creators do need to try to be more original. If you're going to plagiarize, then plagiarize Brahms, and Beethoven, and Mozart, because those are public domain. You can do that. So maybe that's where we need to be looking, is in the classics or something like that, for inspiration, but I don't know. They'll know when they're in trouble. But anyways, I'll get off my pulpit now. What else do you want to know?
Trott: Yes. Yes. I love Max.
Songfacts: I was reading his take on it and how he called it an anti-love song. Was it mostly him writing the lyrics and you coming in with suggestions, kind of like you did with Leighton, or was that something that you guys sat down and wrote together?
Trott: Yeah, I did write that with him but kind of as a producer, playing the producer's role. I helped him shape it, but the idea really did come from him. I think he had a romance that went bad, and it really put him off of being in a relationship. He was thinking, I'm probably better off being a gypsy and just living like that because I just haven't been able to figure out why I attract people that I should probably be running away from. Anybody can probably relate to that. But lyrically he was in the driver's seat for that.
Songfacts: Did it have a different sound before? I think he said it was a lot smoother and you guys gave it more of like a rock sound before it actually became a single.
Trott: I think it was more of a folky kind of thing. Max usually just performs solo, with an acoustic guitar, maybe somebody else backing him up, so he never really had a band behind him. But for that record, he really wanted to have a band and make it more of a bigger record. We had to approach the songs in a slightly different way.
It's got a little bit of a Creedence Clearwater, like old Americana vibe to it, but it's a little more interesting than just a straight Americana record. Like with the track "Ball and Chain," I made that kind of greasy. But most of the ideas are really coming from him as far as lyrics go.
He's always kind of done everything himself, just him and his guitar and singing. He's played in front of people since he was really young, so I think he's comfortable in that kind of setting. Collaborating with other people is not for everybody. I think I got away with it with Max because he enjoyed playing music with me. I'm pretty easy to play with, so I think he gave me more trust than most people.
Songfacts: Correct me if I'm wrong, but you were in the video for that weren't you?
Trott: Yeah. [laughs]
Songfacts: I thought it was funny because you said earlier that you didn't like music videos.
Trott: I did. Well, he asked me to be in it. But I never get asked to be in videos, so maybe I was taken off guard and I just said well, you know, it's for Max. Sure. I'll be in it. I don't care. What do you want me to do? Oh just play lap steel. I really seem like I'm out of place there.
Songfacts: Yeah, It surprised me when I was watching it because suddenly you were sitting on the bed there out of nowhere. It was just funny.
Trott: Yeah, what the hell am I doing in there? This is like romance and then what is this old man doing sitting on the bed? Yeah. I know I kind of thought that, too. But I went with it because I was supporting him, and he really wanted me to be in it. I think he was just thinking he was doing me a favor like, "Oh yeah Jeff will love being in the video."
Kiefer Sutherland directed it, so I did get to hang out with Kiefer a little bit and play. I think we sat around and played guitars and stuff in between takes. We were just hanging out. He's really fun. He's a good guy to just kind of hang with. And he loves music. So I think he did it just purely out of the love of doing it, and he really loves that Max Gomez record a lot.
So he really felt like, "Hey I could help this kid out." I think that's really cool that someone who doesn't really need to do something like that can just give back to somebody who's trying to get known, to get their music out there. That was really super cool of him to do it, you know.
I think it's really important that these classic songs have a little bit of a legacy that another generation will know about them. It's good that it gets documented, because over time, sometimes you just forget about these things that happened. They can just vanish over time. I know when I first started playing music and learning about all the different genres and the different eras, it kind of shows you what the lineage of it is.
Even though we think of everything as all separate, it really is still kind of like a musical family tree, like it's massive. Each thing is connected somehow, so it's nice to continue having those things out there for other generations.
April 23, 2015. Get more at jefftrott.com.
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