Published January 13, 2015
Rush vocalist Geddy Lee penned the lyrics for the band’s 1974 debut album, but he hadn't written much since.
"I'm a pretty lazy guy," he explained.
But for his first solo album, he found himself once again dusting off his wordsmith skills. The result, the 11-track My Favorite Headache, is being released this week.
"I was happy to do it this time," said Lee in a conference room at the New York City headquarters of Atlantic Records. "Maybe the time is just right for me to do this."
Twenty-five years ago, Lee was content to leave the role of lyricist behind even though he was off to a good start — with future radio staples like "Working Man." That’s because when drummer Neil Peart joined the Toronto-based hard rock trio, Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson quickly sensed he'd be a perfect scribe.
"He reads a lot. And he often spoke with big words," Lee said with a laugh.
Peart had to be talked into the job. "'You could probably do something pretty interesting. You're a pretty smart guy,'" Lee said he told him. "So he had a whack at it and that's how it all started."
So for 15 studio albums, Peart, a.k.a. "The Professor," wrote nearly all the lyrics, while Lee and Lifeson tended to the music.
Now that he’s picked up his pen again, Lee seems to have co-opted the more serious tone Peart brought to Rush. Gone are the days when Lee would pen lyrics such as "Hey baby it's a quarter to eight/and I feel I'm in the mood."
He now writes about the human condition from a personal perspective, with his own wry sense of humor.
In the song "Working at Perfekt," he touches on the difficulty of getting it right: "Nothing is perfect, certainly not me/success to failure, just a matter of degrees."
Less new to Lee, of course, was the music, which he began working on when Rush's usual hiatus turned into an extended break due to a double tragedy in the life of Peart — his daughter and wife both died within a year of each other. The band, while having never once broken up since forming, hasn't played together since its last tour date in 1997.
But far from a sparse one-man band sound, Headache carries some weight — thanks to the contributions of musician Ben Mink, who has produced and collaborated with k.d. lang and Barenaked Ladies among others, and drummer Matt Cameron of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden fame.
Lee summed up the approach they took: "We wanted to do a lot of vocal experiments and melody experiments and really try to create something that was still rock but was very lush. And I think we accomplished that."
Headache has its soft, melodic moments, yet it retains the edgy musical and vocal drive that became integral to Rush on its last two studio albums — which were themselves a reaction to Rush's synthesizer-infused works of the mid and late '80s. "I started feeling like the music was getting less organic and I was losing a feel of connection with the original spirit of the band," Lee said.
Not that the original spirit is ever completely recoverable: "I think in the early days a lot of our music was written purely on instinct and of course as you get older the instinct is tempered with experience."
Experience aside, he still finds inspiration in youth — bands like Radiohead, The Tragically Hip, Foo Fighters and Bjork. "If I'm singing along with something, it's usually Bjork," he said.
Attending his first Pearl Jam concert recently, he said the band "impressed the hell out of me and made me want to play." Lee hasn't decided if he'll tour to support the new album — though he admits playing a bar "would be fun."
Despite his foray into lyric-writing, he expects to return to his music-only role when Rush reconvenes early next year.
"I just feel good about myself," he said. "I feel good about the work I've done, so obviously I'll go in there with some level of confidence.
"But it doesn't amount to much. You still have to learn how to regroup and learn how to carry on in the context of the other two guys. I'm just one of three."
Just not at the moment.