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How I Wrote A Hit Single!
Switchfoot
"Meant to Live"


Jon Foreman of Switchfoot reveals how he wrote, recorded and played "Meant to Live," the hit single from The Beautiful Letdown.

Interview by Andy Aledort

The Inspiration
Jon Foreman I was going through a rough period when I wrote "Meant to Live." My overall state of mind was that I wanted to know life is about more than our everyday failures. That's reflected in the line from the verse, "Hoping that he's meant for more than arguments and failed attempts to fly," and the chorus lyric," We were meant to live for so much more."

The inspiration for many of our songs comes from some kind of turmoil. That turmoil is usually associated with relationships, which are often the things that affect us the most. "Meant to Live" is not really a "relationship" song, though; it's more existential and philosophical.

Still, it's about yearning, and in that respect I think its theme is similar to that of the other songs on The Beautiful Letdown. When I was a kid, my dad sat me down and played me U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," which is all about yearning. He said, "Son, this is what a song should sound like," which is not a bad example to try to follow.

The Recording
"Meant to Live" was the first song we tracked for The Beautiful Letdown, and we pretty much completed it in one day. We recorded it at Sage and Sound in Los Angeles. We had planned to record this song first because it's one of the more rocking tunes on the record and we wanted to start off with a bang. The recording also served as an experiment - it let us hear how the drums and guitars sounded - and its success literally set the tone for the rest of the records.

We didn't have a lot of time in these recording sessions, so we had the guitars and amps set up so that they were always ready to go, without having to move microphones around. We used quite a few different amps: a Top Hat cabinet, an Orange head, an old Vox AC-30 and a reissue, and a Bad Cat combo amp. The coolest amp was an old vintage blackface Fender Twin that came from my friend's dad, who's in the band America. That thing sounds amazing! He showed us a picture of America playing in this huge stadium back in the Seventies, and the only guitar amp on stage was that Twin.

We would often split the signal of a given guitar part so that we could use a variety of amps at the same time. Then, when it came time to mix, we'd pick out the best-sounding combination of amps. For guitars, I used a reissue Les Paul Standard with P-90s, plus an American Standard Telecaster. I also used this Gretach guitar called the Beast, which really lives up to its name.

Most of the distortion sounds on "Meant to Live" come straight from the amps, but I used my pedal board for the distorted guitar parts on the bridge. I did end up using a few different pedals here and there on the recording. When it came time to play the song live, I had to try to figure out exactly what it was that I did, in order to best replicate the sound of the record.

How to Play "Meant to Live"
The song starts with two electric guitars in dropped-D tuning [low to high: D A D G B E] playing the intro rhythm part, with each guitar dropping in and out on alternating beats. The first time through, single notes are played on beats one and three; the second time, root-fifth chords are played instead.

On beats two and four of bar 1, I pick the F# note on the D string at the fourth fret and bend it up a half step while sounding the open G note at the same time. I've always loved bends on the lower strings; they have a growl that you don't hear very often in music. The wound strings can be a little harder to bend, so I fret the note with my ring finger and reinforce the bend with the middle finger, using both fingers to push the string away from my palm.

A third guitar enters the third time through the riff and adds a single-note melody, played on the bottom two strings.

For the verse rhythm part, I begin with a sustained G5 chord, fretted by barring across the bottom three strings at the fifth fret. I then alternate between strummed octave figures, fretted on the sixth and fourth strings with the middle and ring fingers, and an open D5 power chord on the bottom three strings.

During the chorus, I fret straight barre chords with my index finger across the bottom three strings. I follow some of the chords with natural harmonics played at the same fret on the same strings. When we recorded the song, I actually overdubbed the harmonics so that they'd stand out a little more in the mix. I recall the half-step F# bend with the open G note as a fill at the end of the second and third bars of this part. In the last two bars of this section, I alternate between strummed octaves and open D5 power chords like I did in the verse, but the order of the octaves is slightly different.

On the bridge, I overdubbed an acoustic guitar tuned to open D [low to high: D A D F# A D] and got some cool open-sounding chords on this part. When you change from dropped-D tuning to open D, you have to lower the top two strings a whole step and the third string a half step: the high E is tuned down to D, the B goes down to A and the G goes down to F#.

The acousitc part is supported by an electric part played in dropped-D tuning, with a few subtle differences between the chord voicings here and there.

The last two bars of this figure are played four times, and this is where I add heavy distortion to the electric guitar part. On the last two beats of each of these bars, I play unison bends on the G and B strings by fretting a note on the B string and bending a note located two frets higher on the G string up one whole step. This is followed by a return to the first bar of the intro, and in the next bar the song fades out on a sustained E5 chord.

Why "Meant to Live" Is a Hit
I think the feelings expressed in this song are universal - they're things we've all experienced. To me, it's really hard to write a happy song because I think we first have to address all the pain we go through in life on a daily basis. This song, to me, bridges the gap between these two things: it talks about the pain that we go through, and it also talks about our hope for something better.