This month’s theme song was an idea that came to me in the shower, my number-one place for uninterrupted thought. Vision and its auspicious placement at the start of a new year seemed like a chance to do something special and inspirational. Something that could tide us through 2014. Then I had it: a feminist “We Are the World”!
In case you were not alive or caring about pop music in the mid-’80s, “We Are the World” was a benefit song for famine relief in Africa, written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. It was a seven-minute-long clunker that featured 21 soloists, including Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, and Cyndi Lauper, PLUS 23 chorus members, including Lindsey Buckingham, Sheila E., most of the Jackson siblings, and Dan Aykroyd.
For a song that also could sound totally and not-at-all serious (no offense, ghost of Michael Jackson!), and that would be an actually good anthem with the power to uplift! and unite!, I turned to one of my favorite musical artists, Katy Davidson, the songwriter behind Key Losers, keyboard/piano player for Gossip, and half of Lloyd & Michael, a songwriting duo that also includes Marianna Ritchey. I thought for sure Katy and Marianna would “get it” and be up to the totally weird challenge of writing Rookie’s own “We Are the World.” They proved me right, and how!
Once the song was written, we sent it out to more than a dozen musicians and singers (including Psalm One, Carrie Brownstein, Tegan and Sara, Kate Nash, Tavi, Suzy X., and a whole lot more people who are listed in the credits below). They emailed their parts back, and thanks to them, as well as careful assemblage by the engineer/producer Chad Clark, we proudly present: “Go Forth, Feminist Warriors.”
I talked to Katy and Marianna about their earliest songwriting collaborations and everything that came after—including this brand-new anthem. —Jessica
JESSICA: Were there any challenges or joys in writing this particular song together?
KATY DAVIDSON: We wrote another song originally, and we liked it, but it felt a little too moody, wintery, and industrial, so we scrapped it. Then we wrote this song. Instrumentally, we just tried to imbue it with a real sense of triumph. I think it worked. Writing the lyrics was the challenging part, and not because we don’t have strong feminist convictions. But writing lyrics that are intended to be fun and uplifting and simultaneously about the struggles that all kinds of women face—it really forced us to be creative and to think about feminist issues a lot. Of course, we wouldn’t have been able to write the lyrics without the help of the Rookie staff, and also our friend Sarah Dougher, a women’s studies professor and fellow musician.
Have you written other songs about feminism? Or do themes like that just naturally show up in your lyrics?
KATY: We have never written a song that is directly about feminism before. I mean, we support so many movements, from feminism to environmentalism to equal rights for LGBT people, but ultimately we’re poets. You can glean our feelings on all of these subjects in the subtext of all of our songs, even if it just seems like we’re singing about spiders or wind or computers or mountains.
How did you meet, and what were your first impressions of each other?
KATY: Ritchey and I met in September 1995 on the campus of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, where we were randomly placed together as freshman roommates. We had both just turned 18. My first impression of Ritchey was that she was a cool, smart hippie. I’m fearful of knowing her true first impression of me. I had a blond bob, wore oversize turtlenecks and athletic shoes, and had yet to come to terms with being a homo. We were tight friends within the first few months of knowing each other and were always breaking out in fits of hysterical laughter together.
MARIANNA RITCHEY: My first impression of Katy was that she had her shit together, while I definitely did not. This impression was borne out by the fact that unbeknownst to me, my dad took her aside at some point while moving me in and said, “Keep an eye on her,” and Katy said, “I will.” AND SHE ALWAYS HAS! Her description of how she looked is accurate. Also, we had a big Pulp Fiction poster on our wall. We were extremely cool.
Do you remember whether the first song you wrote together was any good? Did writing together or working together come naturally? Did you fall into certain roles?
KATY: Ritchey played banjo, and I played acoustic guitar, and we would spontaneously make up songs together, usually singing in Spanish, with soaring harmonies, about subjects covered in our conversational Spanish class. I can’t remember the first song we wrote, but it had something to do with “el lobo” and it sounded like Crosby, Stills and Nash. So, yeah, it was great—and terrible! As we got older and distanced ourselves from dorm life, we always wrote songs on our own, then brought them to each other for help with the instrumentation and vocal arrangements.
MARIANNA: Katy, how dare you! The first song we ever wrote was called “El Novio Robado,” which was the name of our Spanish textbook. The second song was the one with “el lobo” in it, and it was our famous hit “Bienvenidos.”
In the early Lloyd & Michael days, who was in your artistic community?
KATY: We played in the band Dear Nora before we started Lloyd & Michael. Dear Nora was essentially “my” band because I wrote all the songs, but Ritchey was so integral to the sound. Ritchey’s bands were Battlecat, the Badger King, and Manta. I bring up these early bands of ours because I feel like our sense of place within an artistic community was strongest at this point. This was the early 2000s. This community was composed of incredible and prolific artists from the Pacific Northwest like Mirah, the Microphones, the Blow, Wolf Colonel, Yume Bitsu, Little Wings, Karl Blau, YACHT—the list goes on. We all grew up together and influenced each other. We started Lloyd & Michael in 2006 or so, still ensconced in this supportive community. Now we all have graying hair and act kind of like adults, but we all still make beautiful, intelligent, boundary-pushing music and art.
MARIANNA: Tight answer.
How do you start when you’re writing songs, individually? Do you use a notebook?
KATY: The way I’ve written songs throughout the years has changed along with my relationship with technology, but I still have a notebook, and I still love writing down my lyric ideas with a pen. My song ideas come from reading the news, writing in my journal, and having conversations with friends. I used to write songs with a guitar, but now I generally write using a keyboard. I play chords and sing a melody and the lyrics just come out. It’s not any more complicated than it sounds.
MARIANNA: I definitely still use a notebook! What kind of maniac wouldn’t use a notebook?! The major way that Katy’s and my methods differ is that she writes music and lyrics simultaneously, and I always write lyrics first.
You are both in a more “serious” place, professionally speaking, with music now than when you started. Does that change how you approach what you do creatively or is that process still purely visceral?
KATY: I would say that taking our music-related careers seriously has not affected the way we make music, except that we challenge ourselves much more. That being said, our aim in writing this song for Rookie was to make something simple and fun, with a melody that we enjoy.
MARIANNA: I definitely started changing the way I wrote music when I started taking music theory classes and learning about Wagner and stuff. But that was a long time ago; I didn’t really write anything before I started with music theory and analysis classes, so the development of my songwriting craft accompanied my learning about things like Neapolitan chords and the Wagnerian approach to tonality. I think Katy and I both take a bit of a cerebral approach to the music we write, whatever that means. We’re thinking about symbolism and imagery and poetics and challenging sonorities. But I feel like we always have, even when we didn’t have the tools to realize our visions necessarily—just like back in the dorm room with the Pulp Fiction poster. ♦
“Go Forth, Feminist Warriors.” Lyrics by Lloyd & Michael (Katy Davidson and Marianna Ritchey/ASCAP Solo Wanderer) with the Rookie staff. Rap verse by Psalm One. Pizza freestyle by Carrie Brownstein. Music by Lloyd & Michael. Performed by (in order of appearance) Katie Crutchfield, MNDR, Kate Nash, Kimya Dawson, Suzy X., Tavi, Katy Davidson, Marianna Ritchey, Geneviève Castrée, Thao Nguyen, Storey Littleton, Tegan and Sara, Dee Dee Penny, Ted Leo, Aimee Mann, Psalm One, and Carrie Brownstein. Mixed by Chad Clark.