For this album, I wanted to make something that was uplifting, had a lot of energy, and made you want to sing along. How do you do that legitimately, from a real musical place? You can go through the motions, but that doesn’t always make for inspiring music. Colors is not really related to other records I’ve made. I had to invent a new formula. The difference between this album and [2014’s acoustic] Morning Phase was the difference between playing a team sport and taking a long hike through the middle of nowhere by yourself. [Colors producer] Greg Kurstin has played with me for years, but this is the first time we sat down to write songs together. I write a lot on my own, so having someone else there inspired me to come out of my comfort zone. I was trying not to be afraid of simplicity on this album. There’s nothing more difficult than reducing something to an essence that’s not hiding behind any ambiguity. That can fail spectacularly, but when it works, those are the things we love.
The first day Greg and I started working together, in January or February of 2013, we talked about the music we both love, from Prince to the Beatles to the Clash to the Pixies. Then we got up and jammed, and “Dear Life” was what just came out. It was the easiest song on the album to do, and I think the record could have gone more in this direction. This was our natural default setting as musicians and songwriters. It was like the equivalent of putting on your favorite shirt and just hanging around the house.
We were trading chords back and forth, and he hit on the ones for the chorus and then the weird turnaround. It was like, let’s try this weird angular thing, and I just sang a melody over it. So we had the chorus first, which is great because the chorus is always the hardest thing. Then he was out of time for the day, so we had to wrap it up — but literally, in the last 90 seconds, I was like, “Wait, I’ve got the chords for the verse,” which I played on an acoustic guitar. He grabbed his phone and recorded it. And I woke up the next day with the intro — that kind of Kinks-y, Beatles-y little dandy piano part — and I sang it to Greg, who played it on an old, beat-up upright piano. We both have a penchant for $300 pianos. As they say, some of these old pianos, they have songs in them.
The lyrics were all done on the spot — for the first verse, at least. There are some songs where I torture myself and write 30 versions until I get something decent, but the words to “Dear Life” just came right out: “You sang your swan song to the dogs …” I just scribbled that down. When we were working on this record, we edited out a lot of lyrics that were too heavy, though there was always some doom in the mix. “Dear Life” is a little darker than any of the other songs, and I think we said, “We’re not going to go any further than this.” Because you could go to town. I do have an affection for those kind of bemused, sardonic lyrics — Scott Walker, Jarvis Cocker, Leonard Cohen, back to Noël Coward. “Dear Life” is about how you can go through really rough periods and there’s a certain point where you say, “Life, just take me, show me what I’m supposed to do. I surrender.” You’ll have a week where ten things magically go wrong all in a row, but then there’s a bit of humor in that, too. That’s where I was at when we were making this song: Help, I need somebody. But hopefully it has a sort of underplayed humor. And the piano has a bit of charm to it that’s not too pathetic.
I think Greg played most of the instruments on “Dear Life.” He had this great guitar sound from a 1954 Les Paul Goldtop through a Vox AC30. It was a very “White Album” tone. I sang a melody and he played it back to me, and we constructed the guitar solo that way.
I’m credited as one of the engineers on this album, but I actually did more engineering on the last record [Morning Phase], which I didn’t give myself an engineering credit on. Of course, it won the Grammy for Best Engineered Album, and I remember I was up onstage with somebody who’d worked on the record for two days, and they had like three Grammies. Not a bad day’s work.
Anyway, then I wrote the bridge: “Dear life, come and pick me up …” I improvised that as I was heading to the car one night, and then Greg was busy for eight months, so there was a huge gap — I finished Morning Phase; he produced like eight albums, Adele, Pink, and a ton of other things — and we got back and I realized, Oh, shit, we don’t have lyrics for a second verse yet. So I tried like a hundred different versions of it, even though the first verse came in 90 seconds. And then I took days trying to get the vocal to match the first verse. With Colors and Morning Phase, I spent a lot more time than usual on my vocals. I don’t want to sell my early records short, because they are beautiful, but I didn’t like the vocals to be too pretty or too slick, because I was listening to Folkways Records and Arhoolie reissues, and I liked it rough, out of tune, and messed up. There were times on Odelay when I’d sing something and be like, It’s too in tune, and I would go back and sing it as out of tune as I could.
Greg and I were pretty ruthless with this record. We threw away so many ideas. We’d spend two days on a chorus. “Is it working?” “Not really.” “Okay, throw it out. Let’s start over.” He’s not precious, and I’m not precious. I sometimes think that if I were writing “Loser” now, I probably would have rewritten the chorus and gotten rid of the beat. And who’s to say the earliest version of this album [which was delayed multiple times and went through several versions] wasn’t better? Time will tell, but we went through the process. It was nice, because I got to spend a whole year mixing it. I think it sounds a lot better now. My friends all say it sounds the same, but they’re listening on iPhones, so what do they know?
Colors is out October 13.
*This article appears in the September 18, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.