A long time ago, before the term Topliner entered our zeitgeist, way back when the idea of becoming a professional songwriter was a twinkle in my eye, there were occasions when I wrote a piece of music and offered it up to someone else to come up with words and melody. But time after time, those words didn’t resonate with me, so I decided I wasn’t going to farm it out any more. From then on I wrote (or co-wrote ), the words to my songs.
As a Topliner, I think of myself as being on top, hovering like a bee over various flowers that need fertilizing, pollenating, adorning. I conjure story lines and catchy phrases. I fit pieces together and (hopefully) put it all to an unforgettable melody on top of a musical bed of sound.
The programmer/AKA producer/AKA track guy (or gal) is on the bottom supplying vibe, mood, tone, ambiance. He is the inspirer who is catching my stuff. And if he’s doing his job well, I'm going to come up with tastier bits and rise to greater heights.
I enjoy being on top. But I've always wondered what it would be like to be “a bottom”—to let someone decorate me. Well, a few weeks ago, on the last evening of a 10-day-long songwriting camp, I grabbed a guitar and went into an empty room and started strumming. James (Newman) and Nat (Dunn) strolled in soon after and spontaneously, started Toplining to my chord progression. Random words and phrases suddenly materialized out of thin air. It was magic. Wasn’t that my job?
It was the oddest feeling not having to be responsible for the bits. However, what I did have to do was keep strumming or else the spell would be broken. So I strummed until my fingertips were raw. Before we knew it we had a song. All the while I…was on the bottom!
I often hear Topliners say they have the hard part: inventing fresh ways to express universal sentiments. I’m sure producers would disagree: it’s time-intensive to flush out a complete production.
All this got me thinking about about how much fun it would be if the songwriting community traded places—Topliners took the bottom and the bottoms took the top—so we would better appreciate each others’ function. Topliners would have to relinquish control over the direction of the story…but it could be liberating having seasoned pros telling the story for us…trusting them and delighting in where they’re taking us. I imagine a bottom climbing on top would have a better appreciation for how challenging it is to walk into a different studio every day and come up with a new plot. But how much fun to get out from behind Pro-Tools and let their freak flag fly.
What have we to lose? Maybe we’ll surprise ourselves and realize we have talents we never knew existed…that we swing both ways. Switch hit. Then again, maybe we'll decide it wasn't all that much fun and we never want to stray again. Fair enough. I do however, believe there's something to be said for putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes now and then and seeing what the world feels like on the other side.