I just finished writing a piece on the Fresh & Onlys for Blurt, and I couldn't figure out how to incorporate this bit from the end when I asked him what makes a great song a great song. (I ask everyone this.) So I thought I'd use it for a blog post.
It's kind of cool because Cohen has this two-sided background in hip hop and psychedelic pop...and he picked two songs, one psych folk and one hip hop.
JK: So I want to ask you a question that I ask all songwriters. What, to you, makes a great song a great song? And if it’s hard to answer in the abstract, you can talk about a specific song.
TC: Well, the thing that makes Bill Fay’s “The Garden,” which is one of my favorite songs, and actually, it’s the demo version that I love the most. A great song. It’s the pureness of the melody in the song. The lyrics are awesome as well. It doesn’t matter what instruments are playing. It’s so honest and pure.
JK: Is that one of the ones that got reissued by Secretly Canadian this year?
TC: ]It’s not. It’s on the first Bill Fay record, the self-titled Bill Fay record. It’s on the demo collection, which is called From the Bottom of an Old Grandfather Clock. The melody is so immediate and so sweet and the sentiment is so sweet and to me, it just arouses all these emotions in me.
JK: So it’s all about the melody for you?
TC: Well, the melody, for this song in particular, it’s the melody and the lyrics both. The melody grabs you and then you start realizing what he’s saying. His timing…the way you can hear them both at the same time is what makes it great. He’s attacking you from all sides in a way. It’s a very unassuming quiet plaintive song. That’s the first example of a great song that I can think of.
Another example is “Today Was a Good Day,” by Ice Cube. The song is about, “Today was a good day. Today I didn’t have to shoot anyone. Today I didn’t get hassled by the police. My mom cooked me breakfast with no bacon.” It’s just all these things like…the great thing about it is that the music is both happy and sad. You can’t tell. And he’s talking about how this is such a great day. And why is this a great day. Because I didn’t have to shoot anyone, because I didn’t get robbed, because all these horrible things in my life didn’t happen today. That’s the only reason it’s a great day. And then the music is like (he sings) It’s super summery, but it’s also got this minor key affectation to it. It’s really sad and it’s really happy, and that’s like a perfect…that’s what I would hope to achieve through songwriting, to have someone be able to feel something during it, whether it’s good or bad or both, or one day it’s this and the next it’s that. That’s one of the few examples of a song in which electronic elements are used that I’m able to still feel, because Ice Cube is such a lyrical genius and whoever produced the song, I think it was [it was DJ Pooh]. They really knew what they were doing. I think they knew that they were reaching people on multiple levels. And it was a big hit. It was a huge hit and they had a video and everything. And that’s really unusual. Nowadays when I hear big hits on the radio…you know the “Grenade” song [Bruno mars], it’s really put on. They don’t really cut to the core. That’s just a symptom of modern music. It’s really less about writing great songs. It’s more about just writing the hook.