Why I Love Song Demos

Lately on my satellite radio I’ve been tuning into Jason Schwartzman’s Coconut Radio show on SiriusXMU (channel 35), and I must say, the guy plays some great stuff.

His latest show theme was “Demos.” He’d play the demo version of some of his favourite tracks and then play the album version for comparison. I especially enjoyed him playing both versions of the Cure’s “In Between Days,” which is my favourite Cure song.

And it got me thinking…what exactly is it that I find so compelling about an artist’s first attempt at creation, when the only person they suspect will be hearing is their fellow bandmates?

As a writer, it all boils down to the emotional element for me. Take, for example, the Beach Boys’ “Surf’s Up.” The demo version is just Brian Wilson and a piano. The song is raw, it has pauses for Wilson to catch his train of thought, it lacks the orchestral embellishments of the finished product. And it is bursting with unadulterated feeling.

I remember reading an interview  Father John Misty did with Pitchfork, where he wrote about how difficult it was for him to write the song “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins).” He often grappled with how he could expose himself without being too open into his personal life, and ended up drowning the track in too many effects, embellishments and flourishes. Finally, his wife told him the only way he could achieve a true version of the track was to put aside his fear of vulnerability and write how he felt.

A demo is a band’s first attempt at capturing a feeling into a sound. It’s the sometimes fragile, sometimes a cacophony, encapsulation of a period in time, a person, a thought, a fear. An artist has to be vulnerable to reveal their demos: You’re hearing the original process before the effects and mixing came along and masked the particularly exposing feelings, buffered the rough edges, stowed away some of the emotional baggage.

While listening to Coconut Radio, I noticed I was enjoying the demo versions more than the original. A major example was The Lemonheads’ “My Drug Buddy.” Already a lyrically exposed song, the demo was slower, sadder and it sounded like the lyrics were painful for the frontman to sing, especially during the “I’m too much with myself/I wanna be someone else.”

Another was Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love.” The demo Schwartzman played was by The Velvet Underground (as opposed to just Lou Reed), and it was far more unpolished and rough-and-tumble than the atmospheric, dense final product. It was fun to hear the relaxed rock side of such an iconic song.

Even Mac DeMarco, an artist that proudly embraces the slacker-rock and jangle pop genre had a lovely demo of “Passing Out Pieces” (originally called “Passing Out Pieces of Me”). It showed that anyone, even someone who’s already as stylistically laid-back and exposed as DeMarco, starts with a tentative rough draft of various outlined feelings.

Basically, releasing their demos is an artist letting you into their mind, their creative process; it’s their attempt to help you feel for yourself what lead them to this creative point. If you listen, you can hear their words calling out to your internal monologue, to make that connection with someone who knows where they’ve been physically and emotionally.

And I, for one, am happy to listen.

Thanks for reading and God bless,

-A.L.D.

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One thought on “Why I Love Song Demos

  1. Pingback: Why I Love Stripped Back Performances | Turntable talk

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