Wyn Cooper: A Serendipitous Career
The Country of Here Below, a first book of poems written by a poet while in graduate school, was released in 1987 in a limited edition of five hundred copies. Seven years later, one of those copies made it to a shelf at Cliff's Books, a used bookstore in Pasadena, California. At the same time, just around the corner, an unknown singer-songwriter was rehearsing with her band. She was struggling with lyrics to match a song that everyone agreed had great potential. During a break in rehearsal, her keyboardist and producer took a short walk to Cliff’s Books, hoping to find inspiration in the poetry section. They picked up a small stack of books, The Country of Here Below among them, and brought it back to the studio.
Several weeks later, the poet Wyn Cooper received a phone call requesting permission to use "Fun," a poem from the collection, as the foundation for a song. Ecstatic, Cooper agreed, nearly offering to license the poem for free, so thrilled that someone was actually reading his book. One year later, the song, "All I Wanna Do," with a few minor changes to the original poem, including the addition of an anchoring chorus to locate the song in Los Angeles, was released as the third single on Sheryl Crow's debut album, Tuesday Night Music Club. It was an instant hit, peaking at number two on the Billboard charts, selling more than nine million copies, and winning multiple Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year.
Cooper, who had been quietly stringing together teaching gigs and establishing his reputation as a poet, was soon receiving royalty checks big enough to allow him to stop working. In an interview with Poets.org, Cooper recalled spending the night of the Grammy's in a limousine with Crow's writing partners, which led to a seven-hour collaborative songwriting and recording session two days later, resulting in almost twenty songs, about half of which were based on his poems.
Inspired by his experience with Crow and her bandmates, Cooper continued collaborating with musicians, including Israeli pop star David Broza, who adapted Cooper’s poem "Opal, Wyoming" for his CD, Stonedoors. Working with Broza made Cooper realize how common it is for musicians and poets to write songs together in other countries, noting "that around half the songs on Israeli radio stations are based on poems. So we're way behind the curve on this."
Though Cooper doesn’t play any instruments, he has become a respected songwriter, so much so that Warner Chappell Music approached him to write lyrics for crooner Michael Bolton, an offer Cooper turned down. His latest project, the CD 40 Words for Fear, has a charmed, serendipitous history. It began when Cooper’s longtime friend, the novelist Madison Smartt Bell, requested song lyrics for the struggling rock band at the center of a novel he was writing. Bell took to Cooper’s lyrics; not only did they end up as part of the finished book, Anything Goes, but Bell, who shares Cooper’s musical interests, set them to music and sent recordings to Cooper. One thing led to another, and the two found themselves with a three-CD recording contract with Gaff Music.
40 Words for Fear was their first release, and was produced by Don Dixon, the former producer of the Smithereens and REM. Released in 2003, the CD features Bell on vocals and a professional house band backing him up (Cooper plays the Clavioline on one track and sings a few stray lines on others). The album received high praise from music critics, even though some initially doubted the writers-turned-rockers. As Esquire magazine wrote: "We tend to be skeptical of actors who try to write or singers who try to act or, frankly, anyone who parlays success at one art form into a stab at another. So when novelist Madison Smartt Bell e-mailed us about his debut album, Forty Words For Fear, with Wyn Cooper, we didn't expect much. We were wrong. This is sonic moonshine--weird, bluesy, and not a little bit ragged." The New York Observer’s Mac Randall called the album "a thoroughly absorbing piece of work," with "mordantly humorous lyrics and a general air of foreboding over rustic blues backdrops."
The next CD is set to appear in 2006, and Cooper said it "is based almost entirely on my ‘postcard’ poems," referring to his next book, Postcards from the Interior, a collection of poems "sent" from places real and imagined, and in a variety of forms, from the prose poem to formal verse. Having quit teaching to concentrate on writing full-time in his home of Halifax, Vermont, Cooper seems to have honed a method that allows him to move between song lyrics and poems. But it’s a method that, for now, he’s not sure he wants to talk about. "I'm not too big on talking about my process," he said. "I'm afraid it might take me off the roll that I'm on."