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GRAMMY TALK: U2


For more than 40 years, U2 has been the same quartet of friends making emotionally direct, sonically powerful statements in the medium of the pop song. We asked Bono and The Edge about the thematic and musical currents in their most recent album, Songs of Experience—and about the power of music and idealism in these contentious times.


What’s the significance, for you, of Songs of Experience in the U2 discography? What do you recall most vividly from creating it?
Bono: Songs of Experience is a sister album to Songs of Innocence; a two-part story idea we had borrowed—or maybe stole—from 19th century English poet William Blake.

It’s the first time U2 wanted to be completely autobiographical. Before starting Songs of Experience, I decided to take the advice of a great Irish poet, Brendan Kennelly, who challenged me [by saying], “If you really want to get to where the writing really lives, write as if you’re dead.” Sounds macabre, but not really—it’s a challenge to go through and beyond the ego or worrying how your words might affect the people around you. It prioritizes what you might have to say if you think these may be your last utterances.

I think it’s OK for people who listen to these songs to know that a lot of them I approached with a sense that I might not be around to hear them on the radio. They’re like love letters—to people in our lives, to each other, to our audience. A lot of them are indeed just that.

Not for the first time, making this album made me recall how difficult it is to write songs that might mean as much to others as they do to you. I wondered if it was a bit indulgent to be so raw, but sometimes the best songs are the ones you have to write.

My only regret is that I’m not great at writing the band’s personal stories, because they are the reason people are listening to mine. As I’ve taken to saying in the show, I am one quarter of an artist without these three remarkable musicians at my side, watching my back—all of us demanding that each of us go a little bit further, become a little bit more than we imagine we can be.

This album was created with several producers. How did this choice come about, and how did the approach shape the resulting music?
The Edge: Our songs are the boss. The songwriting process usually starts with some rough music compositions. They tell us what needs to be done, and who to work with.

Experimentation in sound has always been a part of the band’s creative process, and our production teams have helped steer many of those experiments in sound, but in recent years we find ourselves focusing more on the essence of songwriting. If you can’t sing a tune over an acoustic guitar or piano and get it across, then regardless of the sonics, you probably have a half-baked idea.

Bands need to be shaken out of their comfort zone from time to time. Because it’s the same collaborators on every album, if you’re not careful, you can end up using well-trodden paths that give you a predictable result but avoid the need to head into new territory.

Bringing new faces into the studio helps keep things fresh. Jacknife Lee is a long-term musical collaborator of ours, but he really rose to the challenge on this album. He produces work in many different genres, so working with him can give you some unexpected results. This was our first time in the studio with Jolyon Thomas, who was a very inspiring influence. Jolyon likes to keep things raw. Ryan Tedder has become a highly valued co-conspirator, particularly when it comes to maintaining songwriting discipline. Ryan had  crucial input into some of the songs from Songs of Experience. It was the first time we worked with Andy Barlow. Andy brought a perspective drawn from electronic music, a completely different aesthetic to our own. His was often a very useful counterargument.

 

What was the catalyst and process to writing and recording “American Soul?”
Bono: As I was saying, the songs on the album were a collection of letters to different people—and this song is a letter to America, this country still inventing and reinventing itself, this country which has been a muse for many, many years since I read Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles, heard Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and got to know the great poet Allen Ginsberg.

It’s become like a mantra for me, but America is not just a country—it’s an idea. It’s a land of promise, a promise of a life based on equal opportunity, a promise of a fairer, more dynamic society. It’s been a wild ride, but as we recorded these 13 songs—and then toured them across the U.S.—it felt like the American idea was being challenged and put under new pressures. The jury is still out, but I believe America will come through despite episodes like Charlottesville and Parkland. America, like us all, is a work in progress. How it turns out is up to all who love her and live with her. But for a while there, with babies being pulled from their mothers’ arms by border guards, it was hard not to believe that this present version of America was not a betrayal of the great promise and words written by Emma Lazarus at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”

Kendrick Lamar gravitated to the bit about America being an idea, not a place, and requested that section for his song “XXX” on his album DAMN. It was one of the great honors for Edge and myself to stand beside and perform with him at this year’s Grammy Awards, where he just ripped up the script on how an awards show can be opened—incredible choreography, very entertaining, but the vision of America was a chilling one. Not usual for such a family show.

What’s the story behind “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way?”
Bono: This song means more to me than any other song on the album—maybe any other song we’ve ever written. I asked myself: “If there was one line, one thought, one phrase I had to pass down to my kids, what would it be?” It’s not even a song; it’s a promise: that despite the wading through shite, which happens to every life at some point, you don’t have to be dragged down in it. It can slow you down; it can put you down. But it doesn’t have to take you down, if the way you see it stays true to your values.

People have gone through unimaginable obstacles and they have become unimaginably great people. Even just talking about Quincy Jones the other day—the triumph of his life is there’s not a shred of bitterness in it or him.

Yes, for sure, love is bigger than anything in its way—but to be fair, there’s a lot out there in your way.

U2 has always been a voice of uplift and inclusion. In these divisive and distracted times, how can music continue to be a healing force?
The Edge: There’s a role for music to be a healing, unifying force—and this is such an integral part of our work that it will always be a strong component of our songs and live shows.

However, if music fails to acknowledge the times into which it arrives, it can end up being tone-deaf to the real issues of the day. The Songs of Experience tour went quite deep in addressing the times we live in.

My opinion is that in spite of all the obvious political discord and division, much of what we are seeing is a form of mass group therapy. It’s all coming out, so we can finally start to deal with it.

Black Lives Matter and #MeToo are a sign of progress.

What is definitely under threat in these polemical times is objective truth. Those who want to suppress or pervert the truth for their own political gains must be resisted. If we lose a good grasp of the truth, we lose more than a theoretical social anchor but a crucial political navigational tool.

Music has always helped me stay focused on essential truths and ideals, and hopefully music can help us all find some badly needed common ground.

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