Songwriter Interviews

Rik Emmett of Triumph

by Trevor Morelli

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When you think about Canadian rock bands, it's hard to ignore Mississauga, Ontario's Triumph and their seminal 1979 hit "Lay It On The Line." Over 30 years after its release, the song remains a staple on classic rock stations around the globe. Triumph has come a long way since playing their first gig at Simcoe High School in 1975.

At age 22, singer/guitarist Rik Emmett joined Triumph after bassist Mike Levine and drummer Gil Moore saw him performing with a different band. Sure, he was enticed by the $175 weekly paycheck that Levine and Moore guaranteed him, but more importantly, he fell in love with the band's music. Triumph's big break came in 1979 when they released their third album Just A Game, which spawned hits like "Hold On," "Suitcase Blues," and, you guessed it, "Lay It On The Line."

In the early '80s, the boys in Triumph continued their success with a couple of hit albums: 1981's Allied Forces and 1983's Never Surrender, both of which caught on in the US and eventually went gold. During this time, Emmett helped pen more hits for the band including "Magic Power," "Fight the Good Fight," and "Never Surrender," all of which exemplified his vision of promoting positive energy in a music industry smeared with cheesy metal and bad disco.

In 1988, Emmett delivered a shock to Triumph fans. He decided to split from Levine and Moore to pursue a solo career and he's been happy ever since. Aside from the occasional Triumph reunion, Emmett continues to focus on his solo career and shows aspiring songwriters how to hone the craft through his teaching gig at Humber College in Toronto. Four decades after he started writing songs, Emmett told us about some of his greatest successes, and offered some free advice - with his tips you may be able to write your own "Lay It On The Line" as well.
Trevor Morelli (Songfacts): When you're starting from scratch with a new song, what usually comes first, the lyrics or the music?

Rik Emmett: I think it just depends on the circumstance. The process that I often use is what I call a sort of a magpie kind of thing. In my notebooks, I'll have little chunks of lyrics, little music ideas. I use an old-fashioned little hand-held cassette recorder. I'll just grab little ideas. Some start with a two or a four-bar kind of little chord progression phrase and a little melody, or sometimes it starts with a line or two of lyric. I'll start marrying the two things together fairly early in the process - music and lyrics - and start developing it that way.

There's no hard and fast way. I've done songs where I've written an entire lyric and then tried to figure out what the music would be like. I find that lately I've been doing a little bit more of that and sometimes I'll have a song and I don't have a lyric. Then I'm sort of trying to find words and phrases that fit and marry. I don't think that it makes any difference to the quality of the song either way.

I had a student in my songwriting class the other day say to me, "Rik, when you're a professional, what is the ratio of success to, 'Well, nice try, but try again?" And I said, "I don't know." In the early stages of working on an album, it might be two out of ten or two out of twelve or something. That's my ratio of what might make the grade and what wouldn't. I don't think the two that make it have gone through any kind of standard process. I mean, sometimes you just get lucky. (Laughing) It kind of just comes.

Songfacts: Sometimes you just hear something that sounds better than the rest.

Rik: Yeah. Then other times, I tend to be a fairly careful writer. I tend to be somebody that works really hard and long at little details. I go back and rewrite and rewrite and fix and edit and fiddle around and change pronouns and consonants. I do a lot of fiddling.

Songfacts: That sounds pretty thorough.

Rik: Yeah, that's just the way I work. I think for some people, the song comes to them in a rush or hurry and maybe the music comes and inspires a lyric. They get some lyric idea somehow or a melody just kind of comes into their head while they're singing it.

I think one of the big things in pop music is the rhythm of things has to fall together well. The rhythms of words have to work with the rhythms of the melody. And the way the chords change also creates a certain kind of acceleration and deceleration, and all those kinds of things. Sometimes it happens easily and organically and then sometimes I've got to mess around for about 7 months before I think "Maybe I've got something here." (Laughs)

Songfacts: After such a long career with Triumph and now on your own, where are you finding that your lyrical inspiration comes from these days?

Rik: Sometimes I'll be reading the paper and I'll have an emotional response to it. Sometimes I'll be reading a book and there'll be a turn of phrase or I'll be looking at a painting and there'll be something that the artist has done that makes me kind of go, "Oh, yeah, that really motivates me." I can feel that. I tell songwriting students all the time it's that thing of recognizing when you've found the acorn, when you've found the little seed, and know that that's what it is.

Songfacts: So it's really about keeping an open mind to everything that's going on around?

Rik: Yeah. But you've got this original little thing that there's an instinct that you develop and you realize there's a song waiting there for sure. All I have to do is go through all the donkey work and make it happen. It's like the acorn; you've got to plant it. It's got to have the right amount of light; it's got to have the right amount of water. It's going to take forever. But eventually you're going to have a giant oak tree. I think songs tend to be like that. There'll be a little moment of inspiration. Sometimes it's just a snatch of conversation that you hear or overhear. I often tell students, sometimes you're just walking down the street and the rhythm of your feet is making you feel something and a little melody starts popping into your head. You're thinking, "Where did that come from?" It's kind of matching the rhythm of what's going on.

I'm a big believer that there are three fundamental things in music. There's rhythm, there's melody, and there's harmony. Of the three, I think very good things come out of having some kind of rhythmic inspiration.

Songfacts: Looking back at all the songs that you've written over your career, which one are you most proud of?

Rik: I think it depends on what day it is. I'd pick a different one on different days. My standard answer to this relatively standard question is: the next one. My favorite song is the next one I want to try and write. I tell students all the time that if you're going to be an artist, you really do have to try and develop that kind of spirit. It's like you're an adventurer, you're an explorer, and you can't be satisfied with what you've already done. And I'm not the kind of guy that sits around and listens to old recordings and listens to my own records. Sometimes fans will push me. I just got off doing stuff on my own website fan forum, and some guy's talking about this song "Stranger in a Strange Land" that was on the Thunder Seven album. He put up a video clip of me from the '80s playing this tune. I haven't thought about that song in 20 years. You look at that stuff and you go "There's a reason why I haven't thought of it." (Laughing) He's a fan, and it matters to him. It's a part of the soundtrack of his life and he loves that song. But I've moved on. There have been a thousand songs since then. Now I listen to it and I just go, "Ugghhh!" All I hear is the stuff that's horrible about it.

Songfacts: (Laughing) You may not like some of my later questions, then.

Rik: Well, no. I'll be a good sport. I'll try to answer all these questions. My bread gets buttered because of "Lay It on the Line," the song that was on the Just A Game album. And there's stuff that was on that Just A Game album that I'm proud of. That was a big record in my life, a big record in the career of the band. We're talking 1979. There's a song on that album called "Suitcase Blues" that changed my life in ways that had a profound effect for me now, at my age and stage. But songs that were on that album like "Lay It on the Line" and "Hold On," those were important songs and they still help deliver.

Songfacts: They stood the test of time.

Rik: Yeah, they've done okay, for sure. Then in '81 we did Allied Forces and that had "Fight the Good Fight," "Magic Power," and "Ordinary Man." On any given day I'd probably pick one from that little mini set there. When Triumph did the reunion, Gil said, "We've got to do 'Never Surrender.' I think that's one of the best lyrics you ever wrote." I hadn't really thought about that tune. I've started to put it back in my set now, because it was a pretty good lyric. I'd kind of forgotten about it, but it's kind of a cool song. So there's maybe 7 or 8 Triumph songs that I'd kind of go, "Yeah, yeah, these were pretty good."

Songfacts: Let's talk about your latest album. It's called reCOVERy room 9, and it's a covers album. What drew you to these specific songs? Were there some that spoke to you on a personal level? Were there ideas presented by other people?

Rik: Well, Dave and I kicked it around and we made up a master list. Some songs we'd try and we'd go, "Eh, that's not working so good." Then we'd try other ones and we'd go, "Surprisingly, this one's kind of cool." And then I was saying we should try and do some stuff that it's kind of feel good, happy stuff. So with songs like "I Hear You Knocking" and the Monty Python tune, "Galaxy Song," we were trying to have something that would work live, something that would be good in a live set that would be kind of fun to play. That was one of the considerations.

Another one was to try and pick songs that people would go, "Are you kidding me? Two guys on acoustic guitars are going to try and do 'Born to Run?' And they're going to play all of the chromatic runs and everything that the E Street Band does? You're insane." That was part of it, too. There would be a challenge and we'd see what we could do against the challenge. Then we threw a Beatles song in there and a Billy Joel song. What we were trying to do is hit some of the really great songwriters that we really admire and love - Billy Joel and Sting, for instance.

Mostly it was just songs that we liked and that we would find entertaining. Dave really likes the John Hyatt tune "Have A Little Faith in Me." People usually think of that as a piano song, same with the Billy Joel song, "She's Always A Woman." They're piano type tunes but it was kind of fun for us to figure out a way to do them on guitar.

Songfacts: That's cool. You're currently still teaching, correct?

Rik: Oh yeah.

Songfacts: What would you say is the hardest part of songwriting to teach?

Rik: Well, you can't teach people to have instinct. Some people have much stronger instincts than others. But you can teach someone to be careful and you can help develop a work ethic. You can help people start to understand when they're maybe wasting their time or treading water. You try and give them technique so that they can figure out how to get to something better, faster and sooner than they would have if they were just flailing around on their own and stuff. I'm 58 years old and I've been writing songs since I was 11, so I have a fair amount of experience at this. So I can say to somebody, "Look, let me try and save you some time here." (Laughs) Like, "Try this. Think about songs this way, and that might help you write better songs sooner than if you just kind of keep sitting around waiting for inspiration to come to you." Good songwriting is usually about communicating effectively about something very emotional. Trying to find an emotional connection between yourself and a listener, between whoever's going to sing that song and their listener.

All songwriting technique kind of boils down to is: What are you doing to try and hasten that connection or to make it so that that's an easier thing to have happen instantly? Because that's the whole other thing about songs is that they're supposed to be kind of seductive or accessible. There's got to be an impact that's immediate. That doesn't necessarily mean that the meaning of the song will be immediate and completely transparent, because with some songs, you listen to them 15 times and then you start to maybe get a sense of what the songwriter was heading for. But the first time you heard it, that song seduced you and served some way, you fell for it and you really liked it.

So there has to be that - your song has something that makes people connect to it right away. As a teacher of songwriting, everything I do lends itself to that particular point. You're just trying to get people to understand when they're failing to make a connection and when they've done something really good.

Songfacts: Do you have any new stuff written right now that you're thinking about recording or putting out soon?

Rik: Always. I'm a writer, so I've got a book full of crap. There's some stuff that is turning itself into something good. I've got an album and a half in the can. I finished a thing called Marco's Secret Songbook, which is a very songwriter-ish kind of project that'll be coming out later this year. It's already mastered and everything. In my songbook, I've probably got 7 or 8 songs that are in various states. I'm ready to go into the studio and see if I can't start trying to do something with them.

Songfacts: That's awesome.

Rik: Yeah, little guitar pieces. Then I would say there's probably another 8 or 9 things that are not-quite-ready-for-primetime yet. They don't really have a marriage of music and phrasing and structure and form developing yet.

Songfacts: Let's go back to some of your older stuff. Is "Lay It On The Line" about one specific person?

Rik: Oh, I don't think so. "Lay It" is about honesty, and it's about wanting somebody to just be honest with you. When I started to develop that one I probably had the hook. Whoever's singing that song is saying, "Just give me the truth." That's really all I want in a relationship is honesty. That's a fairly common theme with me. I come back to that every 15 or 20 songs. There'll be a song about what's true and what's honest and what is it that makes integrity.

Songfacts: Especially considering the world sometimes feels like it's heading in the opposite direction.

Rik: Yeah. Well, it's the same complaint that people would make about politicians, a complaint you make about somebody in your family that's driving you crazy or somebody that you are having a romantic relationship with. It's a fairly common theme for me. But there was no specific person that I was thinking of or anything. You just sort of have this generalized feeling of, "Okay, let's imagine that there's tension in a relationship." It's probably because one person is into the relationship more than the other one is. So the one that's into it more is going, "Come on. Look, just tell me the truth. What's going on here?"

Songfacts: That's really interesting. "Hold On," sounds like a very inspirational song. What was your mind state when you came up with that one? Did you find yourself doubting your dreams at that point?

Rik: No, I don't think that's where it started. I think where it started was I was singing those vowel sounds, like open vowels, high, over top of chord changes, and then "Hold on, Hold on" sort of came out of holding these open vowel sounds. So now I was going to say, "Okay, so the song's going to be called 'Hold On.' What am I going to hold on for? Well, I'm going to hold on to my dreams." Then the lyrics grew backwards out of the hook.

Songfacts: A lot of your songs have a motivational message.

Rik: Well, one of the things that was always important to me was that I was in this band called Triumph. The name of that band was something that I felt we always had to try and live up to - we had to offer an audience something that was motivational, inspirational, and positive. That was always an important thing for me in the band. When it first started, the guys had posters printed up that had devil's heads on them. I would say, "This is not what the name of the band is saying. I know you want to be a heavy rock band and I know you want to make it be all about fleshpots and laser lights and heavy duty rock, arena rock."

I was into that, too, sure. Like "Yeah, this would be great." But I didn't see it as being your typical heavy metal kind of lyric content. I always wanted to have songs that were more about positive things. That's why there were songs like "Hold On To Your Dreams," "Magic Power," "Fight the Good Fight," and "Never Surrender." I would keep returning to that theme all the time. So you were saying at that point in my life was I thinking about something personal? I was thinking more about what the name of the band and what the image of the band was going to try to be to its audience. That's what I was thinking about.

Songfacts: Cool. Can you talk about "Somebody's Out There" and what that one's about?

Rik: Well, that was like a last minute thing. We'd finished the album and we still didn't have what the record company figured was a single. The A&R man from the record company was going, "Oh, geez, what can you do?" In a week, I wrote a song, made a demo, took it in, the guys learned it, we went into the studio, we cut the bed, and we did the song.

I was trying to write a pop song. My recollection is that I kind of had that melody over those chord changes, and then I think I might have heard another song on the radio that had like someone, something, somebody, somehow, some way. And I was going, "Oh, yeah, that's a pretty good idea. Somebody's out there somewhere, somehow, some." So I had the list of all those compound words that start with "some." (Laughing) I think that's probably where that one started.

Songfacts: Moving into your solo career, one of your first solo hits was "When A Heart Breaks." Were you nervous about putting out a power ballad-type tune when people knew you as a guitar player from Triumph?

Rik: I wasn't really nervous so much as I was determined that I was going to try and change how people saw and thought of me. If you wanted to get onto Canadian radio, in particular, you needed to have pop songs that lighter types of radio formats would play. You would never have a good selling hit record unless you had songs that crossed over to other radio formats. In truth, it was easier for me to write more conventional pop songs than it was to try and write hard rock songs or heavy metal songs or any of that kind of stuff.

I liked to be in progressive bands, and I loved bands like Yes and Genesis and Gentle Giant and King Crimson. When I was a teenager, those were bands that I really admired. But as a songwriter, I liked James Taylor and Paul Simon, and I liked Jimmy Webb. I just liked good songwriting. If I was going to sit down and listen to music at home, back in the day even now, I'd rather listen to a Steely Dan record or a Billy Joel record, or a Paul Simon record, or a James Taylor record, or maybe a Christian McBride album or Keith Jarrett album. I love all music - jazz, classical, rock. I love lots of stuff. At the core, I'm a songwriter. That's really what I do, and that's who I am. So at that point in my life, that Absolutely album, I had to try and make the transition in other people's minds that I wasn't just this Triumph guy. In truth, if you remember the cover of that album, I was wearing the leather jacket, like that's the guy that everybody knew. They went, "Yeah, that's Rik Emmett." But when they sat down and listened to the record, they were going to hear a wide range of songs from a songwriter. And "Heart Breaks" was one of those tunes where it was pretty simple. I have a friend - the guy who's the announcer for the CBC, Tony Daniels - and he's actually the narrator on this new album that I've got. Tony always says to me that he likes "When A Heart Breaks" a lot. He says, "You've got to get a country person to do that song. If Shania Twain did that song, it would be a huge hit."

Songfacts: (Laughing) I'm sure it would be.

Rik: (Laughing) Well, I think if Shania Twain decided to sing her grocery list it would probably be a huge hit. But that song is really one of those four-chord kinds of progression songs and I call them laundry list songs. You start out with a premise. I had the hook, so what's the sound that a heart makes when a heart breaks? Well, it would be the sound of a flag fluttering at half mast, or it would be the sound of a tear rolling down a cheek and crashing to the ground. And then I had to try and figure out how to make them rhyme and how to fit them into a structure and which ones get thrown in the garbage and which ones do I keep. And the metaphor of an empty house, of a relationship breaking up so that there's a phone ringing, but nobody answers it. Those kinds of images, that's what started to populate the lyric of that song.
We spoke with Rik Emmett on March 30, 2012. Get more at www.rikemmett.com
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Comments: 6

  • Barry from Gagetown NbAnother Great Rock band that their debut album is the best (IMO) ... Eponymously named as a domestic product in Canada , TRIUMPH ... followed by Rock 'n' Roll Machine ... The same title given to the US debut which was a compilation of the two LPs ...
  • Ted K from Dieppe NbWonderful interview. Fabulous musician, songwriter and singer. Perhaps less known is the fact that Rik was a phenomenal track and field athlete as well as a top grade football player. Sprinting was his specialty. As a receiver and punt returner he was a threat to go all the way on every play. In retrospect the choice of Art over Sport was the correct one.
  • Ed Rahm from Beaver Dam Wi. Edjoyrahn@charter.netYour song "Fight The Good Fight"..is one of your most inspirational songs I have ever heard! What made you come up with such powerful lyrics? This song has meant so much to me I cry every time I hear it. Rik....you touched me deep with this song! I guess all I can say is that it is nothing short of amazing!
  • Pm from CaHope Rik comes back out to perform in Northern CA someday.
  • Shawnerz from Any, MdGreat interview. Personally I love, "Never Surrender". I have maybe 1/64th of the vocal range of Rik or Gil, but it doesn't stop me from screeching it out! :0 I love it and I don't feel sorry for the other people in the car!
  • Cw from CaliGreat interview and congrats on a really really special website. Great fodder for aspiring songwriters.
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