The season of Lent is a ways off, but Bono already knows what he’s giving up: humility. “During the week there was this story about me not liking the sound of my voice,” he points out, referring to a podcast comment he made about his youthful tone making him feeling “cringe” — an offhand remark that generated reams of headlines and some catty quips from U2 non-fans. “And I was saying, it’s not bad at all. It’s just live is where U2 lives… and I love the (early) recordings, but when I hear my voice on them I just hear the fragility of it.” But he knows people took the self-effacement and ran with it. “It’s OK for me to occasionally try to be fucking straight-up honest with people,” says the singer. “I was trying to be humorous in this interview, and a bit humble.” But he’s come to a conclusion: “It doesn’t suit,” he laughs. “I am back to full-on bollocks.”
Well, not entirely, as Variety found in a conversation with the U2 singer and his bandmate, the Edge, this week. There was indeed a fair amount of pride — in the name of bollocks? — but also enough self-abnegation to show that this is still a band that believes in something bigger than itself. Like, not to put too spiritual a point on it, the connection between an artist and audience that can bring both listener and performer back from a despairing brink. This just happens to be the subject of “Your Song Saved My Life,” the tune U2 came up with for a climactic scene in “Sing 2” that is currently shortlisted in the Oscars’ best original song preliminary voting.
In our interview, the Edge and Bono talked about a variety of subjects, including: the subterfuge of sneaking serious themes into family-friendly animation; their previous Oscar nominations (and losses); where U2’s recording and touring status is at; and putting any recent comments about the “cringe”-worthiness of U2’s early music in context. And yes, the man who plays a lion in “Sing 2” — leading the movie’s voice cast as a beastly, reclusive rock star needing to be rescued from the throes of grief and depression — does sound like someone who might have some experience hanging around Pride Rock.
Edge, it’s clear that Bono and “Sing” filmmaker Garth Jennings bonded very early on and there wasn’t a lot of worry about whether animation was a suitable route to take for the next U2 music. But when he brought the prospect to you and the other band members, were you sure it was a good step for U2 to take, or have any worry that the fans might think, “Their previous movie songs were for Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders, or singing about Martin Luther King, and now Bono is an animated lion”?
Bono: [Denying that the film is anything but live-action.] Hours in the make-up chair… doing the Method, and then just the hours — I had to get to get up so early, to spend six hours in the chair.
Edge: I do think that with animated films, there’s a certain sleight of hand with them, because they’re not supposed to be weighty. They’re not supposed to be dealing with the big questions. But for them to have any real resonance and heft and power, they need to, and they often do, but they do so in a disarming way. And I’m fascinated by animated films, because unlike most other films, they survive being watched 20 times. And it’s something to do with the essential quality that they deal with things in a very light-hearted way that’s very meaningful. So although I was surprised in some ways that it was something Bono was doing, quickly, when I saw the film, I was like, “I get it.” So I’m a fan. I appreciate animated films, and also comedy — I’m a huge fan of Will Ferrell and all that stuff. Although we write some of the heaviest songs, and we really like to go there, I think that there’s genius in that kind of work, too.
Bono: And also, I certainly have a part of me that’s kind of practical and pragmatic, and I’m thinking, “How can we break into your children’s consciousness?” [Laughs.] … For me, it was a holiday from the first-person that wasn’t heavy and intense. I got to play. And I think with creativity, really and truly, adult-ism is kind of the enemy of it. The playpen is really important. That’s why I love Garth so much, because he is full of wonder, and what’s that Van Morrison song? “Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder?” Well, that’s it. I just want to be around wonder, and I want to be around wonderful people. And I mean, you’re jealous of that. You want your songs everywhere, you know? And so, gosh, it was a real opportunity to steal into our children’s minds, and their parents’. [To interviewer.] Do you have any kids?
Can we steal their minds? [Laughter.] Please? There’s all kinds of microchips going around…
There is a kind of immortality in sensing that families might still be streaming animated films in a hundred years, or whatever the technology is then. But as for other possible futures for the song: As you were writing “Your Song Saved My Life,” was it on your mind that this is a song that could be part of the U2 concert repertoire, and not just exist in the context of this movie?
Bono: It would mean so much to sing that to a crowd. Because in so many ways, those people who paid to see us have saved our life — or certainly given us a life, not saved it, but given us an incredible life. I say that regularly, but I’m reminded of it regularly. Edge, still, when we’re sitting around, thinks the cops are going to come and take our house away, and…
Edge: Like the real owners will show up and go, “Who are you? Get out of here.”
Bono: So I’ll be singing it, yeah, to those people who’ve stuck with us over the years and have grown with us over the years, and people who’ve come into it, as we’ve got a young audience growing and growing. I would love that, and I would love to hear them singing it to each other.
Can you talk about the germ of the song? Bono, do you have like a hook you’re forming in your head or just a thought that you take to Edge and say, “What have you got, melodically, that works with this”?
Bono: There’s a joke — I don’t know if it translates, and it’s not really a joke — about football in Ireland and in the U.K., which is: “Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more serious.” And I think we sort of apply that to our music. We take something as sort of melodramatic as “Your Song Saved My Life,” and you think to times when you were … not just my teenage life but in fact, all through my life, times where I really held onto songs to get me through a time. And I’d never managed a way to crystallize it. It’s a phrase we have thrown around this town, here in Dublin, and there’s been many late-night discussions in many late-night bars with people trying to get to the bottom of why we do what we do. And then it just kind of came out of me when I was talking with Garth on the phone. He was asking me, “What makes a singer? Where does this come from?” And then I brought this to Edge, and we now have a world-class tune.
I’m not saying it’s a world-class thought. But I think it was important for me to admit that I’m still a fan. You know, people think of you as a rock star or something like that, and I’ve never felt quite like that, even though I’ve played the role at differing times at differing levels. But in the end I’m a songwriter, really — and in the end, I’m a fan, really. And those songs, they mean a lot. And finding a tune to put that thought to… We did this together, so. Edge, maybe you can take it from there.
Edge: It’s hard to talk about writing music in an interview, because it’s a form that can convey an emotion that you really can’t put into words. And where words stop is where music really starts in terms of its ability to convey emotion. Working with Bono, I’m always trying to deliver something that he will jump off from and find something in it that he can connect to personally. With this song, I think that the music, as often happens, started first, but it was in this very abstract, amorphous and out-of-focus way. All it was really is some chords that I felt had a certain emotional gravitas. So Bono starts jamming over these chords, and then he comes out with these lines, and I’m like, whoa, this is exciting. That’s the fun for me, to start to see where the lyrics start to take that emotion and take it into a much more emotional, intense place, because it’s now connected to somebody’s real, vulnerable, personal sentiment and place. Whereas when I’m writing on the music, it’s much less specific.
It feels like not very much of a break from form, emotionally, at least, from what U2 has been doing since the beginning of the century. In the ’90s, there was some ironic detachment with “Achtung Baby” through “Pop,” and then what you’ve done since tends much more toward the heart-on-sleeve.
Bono: Did I speak to ever talk to you about “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”? So we were sitting with Brian Eno and I said to Brian, “Do you think we should do another album together?” And he was like, “Why? Have we said enough? Or do you think we can add something original?” And I said, “What about an album that’s just essential things, that’s just pure, stripped down emotions that are really basic and as raw as it could be?” I joked and I said, “I want to write a song called ‘I Love You.’ Believe it or not, there hasn’t been one. Right? There’s ‘Ich Liebe Dich’; there’s variations.” And he said, “There’s gotta be a song called ‘I Love You’!” I said, no, there isn’t. And I said, to be that un-embarrass-able that you could, at this point, write that song? And he said, “Mmm, that’s interesting. The only problem is, the word love’s a little overrated, and it’s overused in songs.” But I remember the feeling going into “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” that part of what U2 does best, if we do anything best, is finding those essential feelings, and finding those cracks in the ceiling where the light gets in, as Leonard Cohen talks about it. Finding those emotions that unlock stuff.
So when that chorus comes at you in“Your Song Saved My Life”… I am sure, because you love music, that you have felt that; I am guessing, and it’s impertinent of me to, but I’m guessing. And I know our audience have that feeling. … I got it from John Lennon. He was my tutor, my mentor in this. I don’t know — I feel the ghost of John Lennon in “Your Song Saved My Life,” I just do. It’s a certain stance, you know?
What was different about composing the chords on piano, Edge, if that is not your usual method?
Edge: Initially, because I often write on guitar, there’s something really liberating about moving to the piano for me, as a composer, because you’ve got so much more access to different right-hand/left-hand interactions, which you just can’t do on guitar. So what you’re hearing is me reveling in this sort of freedom to find unusual chord changes and unusual movements between the chords on piano. And when we find something new to explore, it’s often the gateway to new ideas and inspiration. We’re not people that work from a position of technique. We work from a position of “inspire me.” So over like four or five days, it really came into focus. And we actually stumbled over a few different potential melody lines, but once the vocal melody for the verse came into focus, we knew we had something special. And then Bono came up with this chorus part, and that’s when the lyric came together. To me, that was when I knew that this was a really strong song. And that’s the thrill for me, I have to say — that’s the sort of drug of choice. That’s the thing I am still both excited about and I suppose obsessed with, the idea that you could wake up one morning, go to the piano, and by the end of the day, you’ve got a song that didn’t exist before — something completely novel. That is why I do what I do.
What songs in your catalog might you see this one being in a tradition of, either musically or lyrically? One or two of them are elsewhere in this movie, like “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of.” Or “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own.”
Bono: Oh, that’s good.
And Bono has talked before about the song being based in the character’s grief, and U2 has a history of grief songs, individually — “I Will Follow” to “Mofo” — and collectively, from “Mothers of the Disappeared” or songs about the troubles, albeit songs that are maybe more outrightly sobering than this more uplifting song is. And just musically, you’ve had your share of those that weren’t strictly guitar-based.
Edge: Well, from the music side of it, I would think “Stay” is another song that couldn’t have really been written on guitar. So that’s one. And maybe “Kite” — that’s a sound that has a similar kind of emotional resonance that’s uplifting, but it’s also got a kind of heartbreak in there somewhere.
Bono: The last two albums, “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience,” broke a rule of ours, which was to keep looking forward and keep going, to not stop or look back and turn into a pillar of salt. (But) opening up to questioning why you do things, and about how you grew up and why you ended up where you ended up and all of those kinds of questions, once I opened that door, I couldn’t close it. And there was a lot for me to look at. Was it Eminem who talked about tidying his room [laughs] — “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”? That’s just an amazing song. Yeah, it was a bit of tidying of the room.
And then I’m looking at, what does music mean to you? What is it with U2? Like, can’t we just dial it in? And people who’ve been on the road with us know this: When we’re out on stage, there is nothing left. We go out like this is the last show we’re ever going to play. And you might think, “Look, turn it down there, Bono! Just don’t be so intense.” But we grew up listening to Joy Division and that kind of artist, or John Lennon, where it was open-heart surgery. You just pull back the rib cage kind of thing.
And so to answer your question, there’s a song called “When I Look at the World” on “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” and I don’t know why I say that, but it’s that kind of desperation that drives us. And to try and make a pop song of that, well, come on! We turn the base metals into gold, if we can. Our shite, as they say around here, into gold, as alchemy, Dublin-style. I mean, every artist actually is (doing that); maybe we’re not exceptional in it. But within entertainments, that might be unusual. It’s like, “Chill out, dude!” But even Sinatra I think was incredibly revealing, not because he wrote those songs, but the songs he chose to record and to play were very autobiographical. And that’s the thing, if you’ve got that relationship with your audience where you say, “I’m not gonna fuck about. We’ll give you this. You’ve given us this incredible life. We don’t have to worry about where our kids go to school and all that stuff; we can go on our summer holidays. We’ve got a fantastic life. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” The deal is: just don’t dial it in. And whether you love us or loathe us, we don’t dial it in. And even on an animated film, we manage to find a song about grief. I mean, it’s a bit mad.
You’re walking a fine line between making a happy song kids can sing and something that has a deep undertow of perceived sadness. But as you say, maybe that’s par for the course.
Bono: When you’re a teenager, you get into some very dark places, and other people’s songs can get you through difficult times. Since then, I would say, yeah, you hold onto songs tightly, but it’s a different kind of urgency, a different condition that you’re being saved from. It could be just a dark moment people have about your mortality, or you lose somebody that is very close to you, and you just can’t manage. And I think I deal with death quite well, as it happens now. But it’s still an astonishing thing to come up against it. And so many people have come up against it in the last two years. We lost Hal Willner, who was just the most extraordinary man. I don’t know if you ever met him, but he was full of sort of joyous static, and comedy and seriousness and music, and we lost him to that (COVID), and a lot of people lost somebody close to them in the last while.
And, you know, that’s kind of where we live. I joke about it. I say, “Weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs — that’s the U2 group.” And I’d like to be doing more bar mitzvahs, if I’m honest. Bat mitzvahs. But yeah, weddings are great. And we do divorce, and we’re available for that, too. But it’s much better to do… I’m sure, around the time of the “Pop” album, we discussed this: We wanted to make an album with “Pop” that was just full of dance. We’d been listening to Sly and the Family Stone and all that stuff through the ‘90s. And we ended up making a much more introspective album. I think that would be the Irish in us. [Laughs.] Even the Welsh. We can go to melancholy if we’re not careful.
What’s meant to happen in a song just happens, maybe, if you let it?
Bono: The closer you get to figuring out songwriting — as we’ve been studying songwriting in the last 10 years in a more formal way — the more you realize, it’s impossible to craft the great things. You can get to the place in your craft where finally the craft falls away. And that’s very humbling. Because you’re hanging out with very good all the time. We’ve gotten very good! But U2’s not around to be very good. U2 can be crap, disappointing — I don’t mind all that! — or “This is the best show I’ve seen.” And when you get very good, there’s a danger, and there’s a great chasm between very good and great. And they are not next-door-neighbors. They’re not even kissin’ cousins — it’s just a long way. So when you touch it, it’s a great gift. And you have to be aware that, sometimes, that song you didn’t know was great when it came out pulls away over a 10-year or 20-year or even a 30-year period. And the things that we think are just the most incredible moments, then they don’t mean anything.
The articles that came out of the Awards Chatter podcast based on you saying you sometimes feel “cringe” at the sound of your voice… It’s hard to imagine you are out there on stage thinking in the back of your mind, “I don’t like the sound of this,” however you feel about the records.
Edge: I love Bono’s singing on those early records. The vulnerability is part of it.
Bono: I’m used to those songs live. And I love the recordings, as far as [to Edge] you guys are concerned. But when I hear my voice, I just hear the fragility of it. And it’s like teenage diaries … You look back and you go, “Ooh.” The further we go on this climb to whatever Everest you’re trying to go up, it just turns out it’s not Everest at all. You have to go back to the base and start out again. And you’re on the wrong mountain, dude. [Laughs.] Us, I mean, [to Edge] you are a master, might I say. I will always stay a student. And I’d enjoy this moment while I’m feeling very raw and fucked up, because I’ll be right back (being cocky).
Live, when it happens, the songs are singing you. It’s the most incredible, miraculous thing. And something like ”Pride (In the Name of Love),” which I find particularly excruciating when I hear it (on record) — and it’s a marvelous recording with Eno and Lanois, it’s incredible, the band is incredible. But I sing that on stage and I sing it for everybody. Something is going on there that I have very little to do with.
There probably aren’t any Zoo TV anniversary tours in the offing? Or even a new-album tour?
Edge: Well, we finished a cycle of touring at the end of 2019. And so, beginning of the pandemic, we were doing exactly what we were planning to do, which was kind of all go off separately to start the early stages of working on music for the next U2 record, which we’ve continued to do. So as I say to people, I knew we had good management. I just didn’t know they were quite that good, to plan it all so perfectly for us. So we’re in a great position where we have a lot of new material. We’re not sure what we’re going to do yet, but it’s just been a wonderful creative time for us.
Bono: It was my fault — blame it on me or give me some credit for the “Joshua Tree” tour, the retreading of that, because I wanted to honor the album. And I thought it’d be like a couple of months and do it, just really make sure, because people forget. And it’s a shame not to be able to do it with… I don’t even know if we would have done it, but you can’t now, for “Achtung Baby” [which had its 30th anniversary last year], because it is an incredible album. When did we put out “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”?
It was 2000.
Bono: Yeah, we missed that one, too [for a 20th anniversary tour]. But I’m for people doing those album-type tours. I think it’s something you did and you should take it around as a retrospective. But we did a lot of it. We had so much fun, we didn’t know when to get off that wheel. And we ended up doing four different tours in four years (between the “Joshua Tree” and “Songs of Innocence/Experience” outings). We played more shows in the last five years before we broke than the previous 15.
Looking ahead to the Oscars this year, the shortlist, it’s star-studded, and talent-studded. Looking at who you’re up against, is there anybody you’d the most embarrassed about beating, if you won?
Bono: Oh, no. We’d never be embarrassed about beating (anyone)! Although I will say, (losing to) Eminem (in 2002, when U2 was nominated for a song from “Gangs of New York”), I have to be honest, that song, “Lose Yourself,” we were sitting there — he wasn’t even there — and it’s really an extraordinary song. I still had a tiny bit of humble, and there was a part of me there that was going, “Mmm. This will be hard. To win against that could backfire.” But we lost to a children’s animation, I think, for “Ordinary Love” (in 2013, when “Let It Go” won). But it had that incredible psychedelic line in it, didn’t it? [When Elsa sings, “My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around.”] So we had to let that go. … Look, at this point, you just want your song to get a chance to be heard, and this is a great vehicle for it.
Edge: I think it’s an amazing array of songs, maybe the best array of original songs in the last five years, because you’ve got Beyonce, you’ve got Billie Eilish, you’ve got Van Morrison, all these amazing works. So whoever wins I think will be a worthy winner — and I hope it’s us. But it’s going to be hard to even get nominated, I think.
Bono: There you go. Anyway, I’ve tried humble. It doesn’t work. I think I’m getting back to being loud and proud. The humble pie, you can eat it, but you don’t want to be choking on it. We want to win! We don’t want to come in second. All those people who appreciate songwriting, and the truth behind it, the truth behind the tale, I hope they’re gonna show up for us. [He starts singing Mac Davis’ country-comedy song “It’s Hard to Be Humble,” complete with accent.] “Oh, Lowrd. It’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror. I’m getting better-looking each day…”
Edge: He’s not as nearly as humble as I am. I’m just saying, I am way more humble than him. Just going on the record.
Bono: I’ve tried it. I’m over it.
(For an earlier video chat with Bono and “Sing 2” director Garth Jennings, click here.)