SKF NOTE: In our 1984 phone interview, Neil Peart spoke, in part, about how Rush writes songs. This exchange is from my full transcript of that interview, much of which was never published because there wasn’t room for it.
Scott K Fish: In 1980 you spoke of the Rush songwriting process. You said, “The three of us try to establish the same feeling for what the song should be. Then you bring the technical skills in to try to interpret that properly, and achieve what we thought it would be.”
Can you [rephrase] that [in] English?
Neil Peart: Nothing could be plainer! It’s verbalization. When we’re working with a set of lyrics, we determine: What should this song be? What kind of mood do we want? If it feels like a light, slow song, should we make it a heavy, fast song?
We verbalize the possibilities. We discuss the emotional context of the songs. Is this song ironic or direct and to the point? Is it accusatory or confessional? It’s the attitude the character of the song has. The attitude of the song is talked about before any music is applied. Even the tempo and rhythmic feel will be verbalized first.
That’s where the relationship between us becomes critically important.
It’s usually a first person song, occasionally a narrative song. “Manhattan Project,” the story of the birth of the A-Bomb is a documentary, a third person narrative about a seemingly cold, historical event. We were very conscious of personalizing it, of putting in tension, aggression, and all moods that would be involved in it.
We were talking about such an enormous event, we had to think big musically. We orchestrated a string instrumental solo in the middle. That was [producer] Peter Collins’s bit of input.
Geddy [Lee] suggested the “imagine a man” device. Imagine a time when the war was going on. A place in the desert. Imagine a man walking back-and-forth. Inviting the audience to share this image instead of saying, “Here’s the picture.”
It was a great little piece of inspiration.
SKF: You said in 1980 you don’t put much importance on lyric writing. Still true?
NP: Yeah. If I remember, part of my reasoning was the amount of time I spend on it. I might spend one or two months every two years writing lyrics. And I don’t think about it all the time.
If I see a neat phrase that would make an interesting title — I’ll write it down. An image I like. A line that springs into my head while riding my bicycle. I collect all those things very informally. Page after page of scratchings.
When it’s songwriting time I can literally say, “Okay, today I’m writing lyrics.” There’s no waiting for inspiration. I’ve collected all the inspiration months before.
I lavish enormous care on every word, rewriting until I die. In average [Rush song] lyrics I guess I have a couple hundred words. So I’m very conscious of every word’s value.
Often, the line I started with doesn’t exist at the end. It becomes the foundation.
I’ve heard this applied to story writing. You apply your foundation, build up the story, and take the foundation out, because you don’t need it anymore.