Better Than Ezra set up base in New Orleans, where Kevin lived until Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, flooding his son's school. He moved to Los Angeles, then to Tennessee, which isn't just country anymore. Better Than Ezra is still going strong - their latest album, All Together Now, was released in 2014. Kevin treated us to an in-depth discussion on the songwriting techniques that have made him one of the top cats in the scene. And we finally found out what "Desperately Wanting" is about.
Kevin Griffin: I'm home in Franklin, Tennessee. It's like 18 miles south of Nashville.
Songfacts: Since you've become a Nashville songwriter, you have a pretty good hit rate: Your songs get recorded for the most part. Whereas, if you're one of these guys who's going in writing tracks for Katy Perry and Pitbull, you're part of the whole rat race of coming up with hooks and hoping they stick. But it sounds like if you write a song, there's a good chance it's going to get recorded.
Griffin: That's the way it sounds, Carl. [Laughing] There's no difference. I will say this: There are more songs written on a daily basis in Nashville than in LA or New York combined, and the majority of those you'll never hear. They'll languish on hard drives. But the quality of the songs in Nashville, those songs are amazing.
And you're right - typically here, when you get together with some collaborators or an artist, you're going to write a whole song start to finish and it's going to be pretty bulletproof because it's such a craft here. In LA you may spend a couple of hours and you may just be pulled into a room to write a hook over a track that you've been given by a producer, or do a topline melody or do something like Bonnie McKee does, who's a very successful songwriter. She'll come in just to fix songs, like she did on "California Gurls." The song was done, but they were like, "We need some better lyrics, some fresher stuff."
But here it's more like the whole song. In the pop world in LA, you certainly can just come in and do it piecemeal, but they can both be, if successful, very lucrative.
Songfacts: How do you typically write a song?
Griffin: I'm going to have an idea when I go into a session. Unless I really know the guys I'm working with and we work together all the time, I'm going to come in armed with some stuff. If I have an artist coming in, I've listened to their music, I know them, I know what we've done in the past. Or if it's a new artist, I've done my homework and I'll come up with some ideas.
So that said, it's different. So if it's an artist, I'll ask them if they have anything. "What are you thinking? You got some ideas you've been working on?" And then we'll go down that road with them. A lot of times, though, they're like, "Man, I've got nothing."
Sometimes when I've got a beat and some programming done on a computer, Pro Tools or Logic or whatever, I'll start the song on a guitar, and I'll say, "So imagine, blah blah blah," this kind of vibe, and drop a reference to the song and then start this idea. And a lot of times it's usually just the hook, just the chorus, and then just see if they like it. Sometimes they like it and sometimes they don't, but usually we keep working on ideas.
It's melody, it's vocal melody, and maybe an idea for a title - just very bare bones and seeing if it sparks that collaborator's interest. And then we're off to the races.
Sometimes, though, when it's not my session and I go, we'll listen to some tracks and some beats that maybe a producer has made. But more times than not, it's that melody that pulls the writers in or the artists in. And at the end of the day, you've got to have that idea, that angle. That's what works for me.
More and more, though, people like writing to a really fleshed-out beat, so I do that as well. But my bread and butter, where I'm most comfortable, is a way of starting a song that's been around since songs were written.
Songfacts: There is a very wide range of emotion in your songs, which makes me think that these are coming from some personal experience. Is that true?
Griffin: A lot of times they do. You invest in yourself or some kind of experience. But once you get beyond your band and your first couple of albums, more times than not, you've mined a lot of the personal experiences that you had, so you start getting more adept at knowing what feeling you're going for emotionally in a lyric and a melody, and it doesn't have to draw off of personal experience. At least that's what I'm thinking when I'm writing it: that it's completely fiction. But people often ask me, "Was that song about this in your life?" I'm like, "Maybe it was... actually, I didn't even think about that."
But I guess one of the hallmarks of the way I write is going for that emotional reflex. You know, some people are great with just a beat and a propulsion in the way a song feels. I'm more about that melody and change that gets you emotionally. So it's not all personal experience. I've gotten good at tapping into that reserve, whether it's real or I'm using dramatic license.
It's like crying on demand. An actor can cry on demand. Sometimes you cry on demand as a songwriter. You're like, "I need this to be emotional," and you get yourself into that place.
Songfacts: Talking about a song that doesn't rely on a beat but relies on that emotion, the one that comes to my mind is "Collide." That is all emotion, and you have to get it just right. How did you and Howie Day do that one?
Griffin: That song, I had the title "Collide," and at the time I couldn't find any other songs that had used the title. Funny enough, there's been quite a few since then. But that's the way that works.
I just loved the way "collide" sounds when you say it and you sing it, so I knew it was a great title. And I had a couple of different song ideas to go with "Collide."
Sometimes a great title can also be troublesome, because you've got to make the music and the melody live up to the great title. This was an instance of that, where I could not come up with a song that was as good as the title. I did a rock song and then something else that I can't remember exactly what it was. Then I was writing with Howie and I started playing this kind of descending chord progression, the one from the "Collide" we all know. I had most of the chorus melody, that main, "Even the best fall down sometimes." Howie heard that and was like, "Oh, hell yes, I'm in."
So we wrote the verses, the bridge, and the lyrics. Tweaked everything. That was a great collaboration.
Songfacts: Now, were you thinking of "Collide" in the sense of two people who can't get along, but somehow they manage to make it work? What were you thinking about in terms of that?
But that song lyrically is about people who come together despite being different, and this song, "Collide," is about a person who is kind of closed off and insular and not a gregarious person, coming together with someone who is. And that despite being two different types of people, you still come together and find a common ground. And then literally colliding into one another and how life has a way of doing that.
That was kind of the angle of the song, but it's really about someone who's kind of reclusive and an isolationist.
Songfacts: You did something clever in the song. There's a line in there where Howie sings, "The wrong words seem to rhyme," and then you rhyme the wrong words. The next line is, "Sometimes you find, you and I collide." "Find" and "collide" don't really rhyme.
Griffin: [Laughing] They did to us.
Songfacts: Did you actually think of that, like, "Let's actually do this little thing here?"
Griffin: Yeah, we actually did laugh about that. But to us, that was a soft rhyme. It was more about saying sometimes the wrong two people get along. That was more what we were going at. But that's astute to notice that. I remember laughing about that, and even making it more so to be not even a soft rhyme. That was how that developed.
Songfacts: And then you did "Perfect Time of Day" with Howie, which is another one that has this really interesting meaning, almost like he's having a revelation. What was your lyrical intent with that one?
Griffin: The chorus of that song and the feel was written in Gulf Shores, Alabama on this beautiful spring day. I was with my family and a bunch of family friends, and we were all out at the beach. Everybody was still out in the water playing, and I was up on the deck playing the guitar and playing that A minor, G, and F chord progression.
I think it's about those auspicious moments in your life. The real meaning behind it is that any moment is the perfect time of day, and any moment could be the last day, the last moment of your life. It's really a call to arms to go out and do whatever it is you endeavor to do.
Songfacts: In a lot of your songs there will be one line that really jumps out at me, and I don't know if these are lines that you use as jumping off points or how important they are when you're actually writing them, but in your James Blunt tune, "I'll Be Your Man," you have this line, "Everything I want to say sounds like a worn out cliché," which hits a spot: You're trying to come up with that blue talk and it's just not there. Was that one of the key lines, or is that just something that happened?
Griffin: That song is talking about the coyness in the games that two people play when you're making moves on one another and you're trying to be cool and trying to say something eloquent and sincere, but because you're trying so hard, everything comes out as a cliché. On that one, the meaning is as it is on the surface. It literally is. James was talking about being at this club and there was this beautiful girl, and his inability to be even remotely cool. And that's kind of how we started that song.
Songfacts: For some artists, it seems like there's a bit of a theme when you're writing. Tristan Prettyman, the songs that you've written for her, "Madly," and "My Oh My," they deal with these very intense love/hate relationships. Do you tailor that to the artist?
Griffin: Yes, I do. My success in writing with other artists comes from putting myself in their shoes. I hear what they're singing and writing about in their other music and try to take those strengths or those tendencies and amplify them. Some writers, you'll hear a song that they do with an artist and it sounds like the writer. Like Ryan Tedder. Don't get me wrong, Ryan's amazing. I wish I was as successful or had as many hits as Ryan, but you can tell it's him. Like the song he did for Gavin DeGraw, "Not Over You," sounds like a OneRepublic song - it sounds like a Ryan Tedder song. My songs a lot of times don't sound like me. They sound like, hopefully, a really good song by an artist you already know, or that artist.
So with Tristan, "Madly" is kind of uptempo, and "My Oh My" has that cool KT Tunstall groove. I like songs with momentum that are upbeat to counter heavy lyrics or weightier lyrics. I just like that contrast.
And certainly, when I was working with Tristan, she was going through some emotional stuff, famously with Jason Mraz. She wanted to address the "love is a battlefield" kind of thing, so that's where we went.
Songfacts: Another female artist that you wrote some pretty intense stuff with is Missy Higgins.
Griffin: Oh, yeah.
Songfacts: You wrote the song "Scar," which is really intriguing, and she really puts a lot behind that song. That's another one that's got this great line where she's trying to squeeze a triangle through a circle. Can you talk about coming up with that song?
We did our collaboration and then we got back together maybe six weeks later. I played it for her again, and this time she dug it. I won't let go of an idea if I think it's good.
She took those lyrics I had and the melody for the hook, and we worked on the melody. When I say the hook, people say "hook" these days instead of chorus, so when someone says the hook, they're referring to the chorus. But I worked on the melodies for the verses, and she really wrote the majority of the lyrics for "Scar."
She wanted to write about these bad experiences she had lately cowriting with other people. One woman was kind of picking at her past and trying to make her into something that she was not. And she was definitely not wanting to be all pop. That's where the line, put a round peg into a square hole, what is the...
Songfacts: The triangle through the circle.
Griffin: The triangle. And so that was literally about bad songwriting experiences. I was like, "Well, I hope I'm not one."
That's what the song is about, but then taking that experience and that trauma or something you go through and wanting it to leave a mark on you so you don't forget it. Hence, "Scar."
Songfacts: You talked about how when you're first starting out as a songwriter, you've got this lifetime of material that you're ready to get out. That shows on the first Better Than Ezra album. You had a lot that you were getting out there. I'm trying to figure out what was going on in your life that led you to write the song "Good," that was your breakout hit.
Griffin: My challenge musically on that one was writing a song that was the same chords start to finish. Even though it modulates - it goes up a full step in the bridge - it's the same four chords the whole song. I'd been listening to a lot of Dylan and he was just a master at three chords and the truth. And then R.E.M. and the Pixies... you know, the Pixies were all about the same chords and using a distortion pedal on dynamics, and they have those strong transitions.
But lyrically, that was a song where I wasn't drawing from personal experience. I've told people for years that I was, but I was happily living with my first girlfriend - well, we were dating, anyways.
I wanted to talk about the positive things that come from the end of a relationship. There's always the hurt feelings and everyone's guarded and it can be traumatic, but when the dust settles, it was about looking at the good things - no pun intended - that you got from that relationship. How did you grow? What did you learn emotionally? And to experience some stuff. And in this case it was just kind of reflecting on how this person changed.
I think I may have been projecting, because I ended up breaking up with this girl shortly after. But this girl I was dating at the time kind of pushed me out of my southern mindset and my tendency to take a known path as opposed to setting out on an unknown path, but something that would be ultimately more satisfying and rewarding.
Songfacts: And I read that you had that song back in 1990?
Griffin: Oh, yeah. That's when it was written. I graduated LSU in '89 and so that song was written at the end of 1990. Might have been '91. But it was once Better Than Ezra was a three-piece that I wrote that song. It was part of our set for many years until we finally got signed in '95. It had been turned down - people had heard it and said, "I don't know, I don't hear a hook. What else you got?" It just goes to show.
And the funny thing is, there was a band we were touring with - we were both unsigned - and we laughed, because a year after "Good" became a big hit, our friend called me up and goes, "You'll never believe what our A&R guy, what song he told us to go listen to to see if we could write one like it." He goes, "'Good.'" [Laughing]
So the song that gets turned down, it becomes a hit and so many people are like, "Yeah, you need something like that."
Songfacts: What's going on in "Desperately Wanting"?
And then it's a story of two people who took divergent paths in life. One person made a lot of bad decisions and ended up having some mental issues. And then just how you lose touch with people. And how when you're young and you're running around all night, and life hasn't had its way with you, the playing field is equal and it's flat. And then life takes everybody on their own journeys.
But there's a time where all your potential is untapped and the world hasn't had its way with you. That's an amazing time of promise, and that's what "Desperately Wanting" is about.
Songfacts: The line that strikes me there, which I did a double take on, is "you pumped out your guts." What does that mean?
Griffin: It's about someone overdosing, drinking too much, going to the hospital and having their stomach pumped. That was me using dramatic license. For me, the song is about someone you know who's in rehab or a mental institution, and losing touch with them and writing letters. It was using dramatic license and hyperbole and having something powerful to write about.
But in real life it was me writing about a friend who was having mental problems and some drug problems. And it's funny, when I sing that song now, it makes me just kind of smile, because the '90s were all about super-emotive, heart-on-your-sleeve singing about heavy things. And you don't do that anymore, at least not that, "when they pumped out your guts, filled you full of those pills," you don't write that way anymore. It's just a different thing. But in the '90s in alt rock, that's what it was about. And that's something I love about '90s music: there's just really heavy lyrical content.
Songfacts: "In The Blood" is kind of like that, too. And that's one that used to drive everybody crazy, because they didn't know how to ask for it because the title isn't in the lyric. Can you talk about that song?
Griffin: Yeah. "In The Blood" was inspired by this song called "Black Metallic" by a band called Catherine Wheel. Do you remember Catherine Wheel?
Songfacts: I do, yeah. They were big on college radio.
Griffin: Yeah. They're a British band. Rob Dickinson, by the way, was the singer in that band, and his brother is Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden. Small world.
A lot of people don't know what that song is about. That song is about a good friend who had AIDS. He got HIV and AIDS and he passed away in '94, '95. And it was literally about what's in your blood, and what we give to one another emotionally and through experience. But also just spot-on hitting the nail on the head physically. I never really explained that song, because it was from real life. But that's what it's about.
A girl I was dating, it was her uncle who was dying of AIDS. I was seeing what they were going through and this sweet man who was going through this, but I didn't want to be too overt or explain it too much, because then it would lose its thing and it would feel kind of heavy-handed.
Songfacts: Were "Rosealia" and the "King of New Orleans" real people?
Griffin: Rosealia is real. Rosealia wasn't the inspiration. Rosalia Murphy was the owner of a place in Santa Fe, New Mexico - a place called the Pink Adobe, a very famous restaurant that's still there. She passed away. I used her as a name, and the "wearing your cape" was talking about the Zozobra, the Day of Dead celebration that they have every year in Santa Fe where they burn this big effigy, not unlike Burning Man.
But the person I had in mind was this very good friend of mine, Cece Hutchinson, who was this really cool artist I knew in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I always kind of pictured her as the heroine in the story. So it's a combination of two people.
And then again, I like putting people in situations where some type of drama is going on - in this case, someone who's in a verbally and physically abusive relationship. That's what "Rosealia" is about.
And what was the other song?
Songfacts: "King of New Orleans."
Griffin: Oh, "King of New Orleans" was a composite of these kids that lived and still live in the French Quarter. The French Quarter in New Orleans, the weather is always mild. It doesn't get very cold, so homeless kids from around the country live there. They call them "gutter punks." They live in the Faubourg Marigny and the Lower Ninth Ward, and they're always begging or playing music or whatever.
I saw this one kid who was really charismatic, and I could tell he was kind of a leader among all the kids, the gutter punks, so I made him into this fictional kind of a Peter Pan-esque guy, and these kids were the Lost Boys and called him the King of New Orleans - I made up this story about him. That was what "King of New Orleans" was about: trying to write the story about these kids and where they came from and where they were going. And encountering a bunch of drunk frat guys who looked down on these kids. Like, "Play some Cat Stevens" when he's playing guitar.
The happy ending is there was this beautiful girl in the video with these dreds and these amazing tattoos. She did the video and then we lost touch with her. Then it was maybe 10 years later, she came to a show and she looked great, and she was married and just a normal girl. She was having a kind of wild time in the Quarter living on the streets at one point in her life.
Songfacts: In your song "A Lifetime," you sing about an R.E.M. song that goes three-and-a-half minutes. I'm trying to figure out, first of all, if Ally's a real person, and second of all, which R.E.M. song you're singing about.
Griffin: Ally is not a real person. I use the name Ally in three songs I can think of off the top of my head - I just like the way it sings. I just like saying it, and it hasn't been used by many other writers.
The song is about personally losing a friend in high school mixed with the story of Gram Parsons. When Gram Parsons died, his friends famously stole his casket from LAX and took it over to 29 Palms, Joshua Tree, and they set his coffin on fire when the sun was rising. I've always loved that story. There's debate about how true it is.
But this is kind of like what we talked about earlier: You can't just draw on your personal experience, because you would end up running out of things to write about. So this started with the idea, and it was personal. And then taking it to a whole crazy place about taking an urn with some friends and taking the ashes of a friend and spreading them out on the beach as the sun's coming up.
And the cool thing is, the R.E.M. song is "Perfect Circle," and it's exactly three-and-a-half minutes long. And then "Lifetime" is three-and-a-half minutes long. Now a lot of songs are only three-and-a-half minutes, but back in the day when that song was written, songs would go 4, 4:05 or whatever, very arbitrary. But it was a nice little thing that the song was three-and-a-half minutes and the song I was writing about that was playing for these kids was three-and-a-half minutes. That was, like, Oh, very cool. Not quite up there with Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz, but close.
Songfacts: You have all these little Easter eggs in your songwriting, which makes it really interesting.
Griffin: Thank you.
Robertson is friends with Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut who sang "Space Oddity" in space. Hadfield got a kick out of the line.
Griffin: First off, I've always been a Barenaked Ladies fan and I love Ed Robertson's wordplay. So I started off as a fan, and at some point it came up, "Hey, you want to get together with Ed Robertson and write?" And once he and I got together, we were just birds of a feather. We're about the same age and the same things make us laugh, so when we get together, writing songs is just fun and easy.
Ezra has songs like "Juicy" or "Extraordinary," where it is fast wordplay, and "Extraordinary" I namechecked Barenaked Ladies. I had the idea for "Odds Are," which was just like, "odds are we're going to survive the night." Those kind of high-concept ideas Ed really likes and I do, too.
"Duct Tape Heart," you know what, we wrote that in the studio I'm talking to you from here in Franklin, Tennessee, Ed and I. He did go work on some lyrics back at the hotel where we were staying, so I'm not sure if he called up the astronaut, but one thing I do a lot when I'm writing a song and I have a title is I Wikipedia whatever it is, and in this case it was duct tape. So I'm reading the Wikipedia about duct tape and its history and its uses and what it is, and that's when we were writing the bridge. I was reading what duct tape is technically, and it says it's polyethylene-coated pressure-sensitive tape. And I was, like, "Ed, I've got our lyric."
And of course Ed Robertson is going to hear that and go, "Oh, fuck yes." This is the guy that wrote the theme song to The Big Bang Theory. He's a brilliant guy.
Then I was like, "Oh, it was used on the Rover. They fixed the fender on the Rover with duct tape." I think that's when he went home and called up his buddy and got his facts right. But I was not in the room when the astronaut was consulted.
Songfacts: That's the guy who actually sang "Space Oddity" in space. That's some high-level stuff.
Griffin: Oh, yeah. I'm working with Ed again in April and James Blunt, too. So it's fun to continue writing with these guys.
April 27, 2016.
Get tour dates for Better Than Ezra and for Kevin's solo shows at betterthanezra.com.
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