Songwriter interviews

InterviewJune 12, 2013Songfacts

Although John Rzeznik has had more than his share of commercial success with the Buffalo-based Goo Goo Dolls (over 10 million albums sold), he hopes that writing excellent songs will ultimately serve as his greatest legacy. "It's more important to me to be a writer," he says. "I'd like to be remembered more for being a songwriter than a guy in a band."

Evocative and enduring songs like "Slide" and particularly "Iris," which was written specifically for Nicolas Cage's character in the 1998 film, City of Angels, rank Rzeznik among the best in the songwriting realm. In 2008, the very discriminating voters at the Songwriters Hall of Fame (Bob Seger didn't even get in until 2012), made him a member of their club.

Rzeznik is unapologetic about the big influence Paul Westerberg and The Replacements have had on Goo Goo Dolls music - not surprising to anyone who viewed the Goos in their Upstate New York club days. The more obvious influences - Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen - Rzeznik didn't discover until later, although their vulnerability and verisimilitude have clearly seeped into his art. Yet Rzeznik has also found his own voice; one that distinctly sets him apart from those musicians who indelibly impacted his artistic development.

With the release of the 2013 Goo Goo Dolls' album, Magnetic, Rzeznik expresses the urgency of always trying to live in the 'now,' and not letting life pass him by. "Life is moving really quickly, and I better get up, get out and live it before it's too late," he states.

Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Let's talk about the new album, Magnetic. First of all, why did you choose to name it that?

John Rzeznik: I keep trying to come up with a better story for it, but really, I got a phone call from my manager who said, "You need a title for the album. Try to make it one word." And that word just sort of rolled off my tongue. I was, like, Magnetic. And then we went back and tried to find 100 other names for it, and something just stuck with that name.

Songfacts: No pun intended. It sticks. So, how was the experience of recording it?

John: It was a really great experience. It was a lot of fun. I learned a lot from a lot of really great writers and collaborators with me. All the producers were really great. We did one of the songs down in Culver City, actually, at Greg Wells' studio down there.

Songfacts: Do you oftentimes work with collaborators, or do you work better by yourself?

John: I wrote most of our material on my own over the years, and I started making friends with other songwriters over the past few years and we collaborated on other people's material. Then I was like, 'You know, I had a really good time doing that, so why don't we do it for our albums?'

The song "Iris" was written for City of Angels, a 1998 movie starring Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan. The movie's plot revolves around an angel named Seth (played by Cage) commissioned to watch over humans and protect them, just like any good guardian angel would - especially those close to death. City of Angels is actually a remake of the far better Wim Wenders 1987 German film, Wings of Desire.

Songfacts: The song your band is most famous for is "Iris." When you sing that song now, what do you picture in your mind? Do you have certain visuals that you conjure up to inspire you when you sing it?

John: Yeah, I try to get back into the moment of the original intention of that song. Like, what was I thinking and feeling when I was writing that song? And sort of go back into it in that way. That helps. That puts me right back in the mood to play it, over and over and over again.

Songfacts: So what kinds of things were you thinking about when you wrote it?

John: When I wrote it, I was thinking about the situation of the Nicholas Cage character in the movie. This guy is completely willing to give up his own immortality, just to be able to feel something very human. And I think, 'Wow! What an amazing thing it must be like to love someone so much that you give up everything to be with them.' That's a pretty heavy thought.

Songfacts: Were you commissioned to write it?

John: I was, yes.

Songfacts: How often does that happen, and how comfortable are you with those kinds of experiences?

John: I did a couple of songs for a Disney movie [Treasure Planet]. I've written songs for two of the Transformers movies. And I did that [City of Angels] movie and then they used a bunch of our songs in other movies. But I like it. I like it because it puts me in the role of supporting cast member. I have my subject matter in front of me and I'll read the script, I'll see the movie.

I'll try to talk to the director, if that's possible. I'll talk to the music supervisor and ask them what kinds of things they want. To me, it's a really great exercise for songwriting because you have to fit what you're doing in a very supporting role. It's not the main thing. You're there to support the vision of the director, and support the story. And enhance whatever part of the movie you're asked to put the music into.

Songfacts: Have you ever had the chance to talk to Nicholas Cage about the song and his role?

John: No, no, no. Although I did sit behind him at the premier. [laughter] I didn't talk to him.

Songfacts: I've talked to songwriters before that have said that when they watch movies, they get ideas for songs. In fact, they'll write down little notes and then after seeing the movies, they'll write songs. Has that ever happened to you?

John: Yeah, definitely. That definitely happens. Music and books. You read a line in a book or something. Or maybe reading poetry. A lot of times I'll just get it with having conversations with people where somebody says something and you're inspired by it. You just run with it.

The Hal David Starlight Award was named after the Songwriters Hall of Fame chairman/CEO, Hal David, who passed away in 2012. This prestigious award, according to the organization's website, "was established to honor gifted songwriters who are at an apex in their careers and are making a significant impact in the music industry via their original songs." Other past winners include Alicia Keys, Rob Thomas and John Legend.

Songfacts: In 2008, you were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. You were given the Hal David Starlight Award. What did that mean to you?

John: It meant that I got recognized by my peers as a songwriter, and that meant a lot to me. Because I don't really care about the whole rock star thing. It's more important to me to be a writer. I'd like to be remembered more for being a songwriter than a guy in a band.

Songfacts: Who were the songwriters that really inspired you when you were learning your craft?

John: Ray Davies, a lot. I really love what he did. Simon & Garfunkel. Paul Westerberg. Bob Mould. There are a ton of them. Later on, I discovered all the people I was supposed to be influenced by, guys like Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. It's interesting to listen to what they're doing. It's nothing like what I do, but it's interesting to have them influence you in a certain way. Certain words that they use, or the way that they'll say them, can sort of creep up into your own writing. I can appreciate any kind of song, as long as it's done well.

Songfacts: I think it's interesting that you mentioned Paul Westerberg, who is one of my favorite songwriters. When you were starting out, a lot of people compared your band Goo Goo Dolls to The Replacements, which I think was a fair comparison - and not anything to be ashamed of, by the way. You've certainly outgrown those comparisons. Did you feel any pressure to separate yourselves so that you wouldn't get lumped into that comparison all the time?

John: I knew I had to work really diligently to find my own voice because we were so heavily influenced by them and I listened to them so much. Music is like the telephone game, you know? I listen to Paul. I reinterpret it this way. Someone's reinterpreting it a new way. I hear young bands that have a taste of us in them, and you can tell that they've been influenced by things that we've written. I embrace it. I love it. I think it's really, really awesome. And that's how music evolves and carries on.

Songfacts: Can I put you on the spot and ask you if you have any favorite Replacements songs?

John: I would say "Unsatisfied," "Answering Machine," "Left of the Dial," "Happy Town." I love their version of "Black Diamond."

Songfacts: If it were me, I'd say Let It Be and probably the whole Tim album.

John: Yes! Hootenanny, as well. I love that.

Songfacts: To circle back to where we started, what do you like most about the new album? Are there songs that stand out as your favorites?

John: There are songs that stand out as things that I like, but it changes every day. I find things that I like and hate about them every day. I really wanted to push myself as hard as I could lyrically into writing something that I really enjoyed singing and I felt thankful and reflective of where I am in my own life.

Songfacts: Are there any recurring lyrical themes on the album?

John: Yeah, when I look back on it now, the theme that really sticks out for me, or the thread that kind of runs through all the songs on this album is that life is moving really quickly, and I better get up, get out and live it before it's too late.