Allow me to introduce you to Dylan, a young songwriter and protagonist of Wet Paint, my novel-in-progress.
Dylan worked office hours at The Studio in Old Street. Every morning at 10am his colleagues would gather round the ping-pong table, takeaway coffees in hand. Dylan didn't drink coffee but he'd join them with his orange juice for a little banter over the morning headlines, a little chit-chat about last night’s Later With Jools Holland. Soon enough they'd settle down to work, at a piano or computer, in pairs or groups, knocking out potential hits to pitch to chart-toppers and their people. They got sandwiches delivered for lunch and went for drinks on Fridays. It took Dylan a couple of days to take on that he'd landed in a real work place, with a boss, a receptionist, a gender imbalance and a smoothie blender.
A song should take two to three days to lock down with a rough demo sketched out. That was the information given in his induction, along with the door code and recycling policy. Some of the guys had over ten Top 10 hits to their name. Dylan just had his one. The first is a fluke, they teased him, let’s see you strike again. It was only on his third day, whilst losing to Matt at lunch-break ping-pong, that he dared air his concerns. Matt was a little older, a little fatter, somewhat out of breath and a whole lot better at the game.
-You know Matt, my best songs often come to me in like, half an hour. Including the one that got me here.
-Just imagine where another day's work on it might have got you then. Your serve.
-If you really think a song is finished, pass it on to someone else, they'll have other ideas. 8-4.
-And then what, they can just change it?
-You don't have to agree, obviously, but you will. Co-written tracks have a far better track record. Nice shot, 8-5. Give it a week or two, we'll knock the precious out of you.
-I've just never written with anyone else. I mean, the music, yeah, with my band, but they never touched my lyrics.
-Unlucky! 9-5. Don't forget you're not writing for yourself here. You're not passing on your diaries for a re-edit.
-We all had to make the shift. We all used to play in bands and write songs about our crushes. You'll be alright. In the end there's not much time to think about it. We need to churn out ten to fifteen tunes a week between us. 10-5, my serve.
-What if a song gets stuck though, you can't force it, can you?
-If it's not moving by lunchtime, throw it in the shared folder for someone else to pick up. That's what I'd do. You can also dig in there for starting points by the way. Everything's automatically tagged with whoever edits, so splits are easy to work out. Though honestly, if it's just a line or two, the guys are usually pretty generous. As long as The Studio's doing well, so are they. 11-5, my game.
-Aren’t we playing to 21?
-No time mate. Gotta go nail a middle eight.
The pressures and rewards of the job were placed in context on Friday afternoon when the boss came in for an end-of-week listening session. The boss was a shiny, bald man who swaggered like Mick Jagger and dressed like an estate agent who thought it risqué to leave his top three shirt buttons open. Dylan was introduced as the young new recruit, survived the bone-crushing handshake and found an arm rest from which to observe proceedings. He noted definite airs in the air. Affectionate insults and play punches were flying about. Fake laughs fluttered and accents morphed. Emma, the only woman on the writing team, had let her hair down. Beers were opened, seats were taken, volumes turned up and opinions turned down.
Dylan tried to keep smiling as songs were discarded with the flick of a finger, including his own first attempts. Three songs he considered truly awful were declared ready for pitching, at which more beers were opened and backs aggressively patted. A few tunes were sent back for a rework with clear instructions: Try it in the present tense; Might work as a ballad; Your verses with his chorus, now there’s an idea. Dylan was astounded by the lack of debate. At one point the receptionist was called over to provide an average ear – a role to which she took no offence. Right here in the intro honey, would you keep listening, or zap to the next station? (Honestly? I'd zap…)
Once the show-and-tell section of the afternoon was over, the boss’s pep talk began. It was so long and superfluous that Dylan was sure it was orated in honour of his arrival. An opportunity to reiterate the rules. A real performance.
-We all know how to bake a cake – the recipe works, the dough rises – now we just need the icing. Gimme some vanilla essence, gimme chocolate chips. Bring on the food colouring.
He spoke slowly, over-articulating, milking the moment.
-The anthem already exists. The building is earthquake-proof. All I’m asking for is some interior bloomin' decoration.
It was only the following Friday, when Dylan started to notice the repeated phrases, the chains of favourite analogies, that he understood the event was a weekly affair, which would forever continue, with or without him.
-I'm looking, fellas, for the most memorable melody to drive down middle-of-the-road. That's right – the most fluorescent picture you can paint with pastel colours.
The boss would end each session by flagging up a couple of the week’s quirkier efforts, shaming them back to reality.
There's no need to reinvent the wheel now, is there? I don't need the next bloomin' Bjork album. I need the song that'll stick in people's heads for the longest time possible without landing them in therapy. You know how it works. Sprinkle in the coke, a little nicotine, make 'em want more.
A few Fridays in, when Dylan was about to make the grade for the first time, he could already detect the verdict on the boss's face as he listened. He saw his lips twitching, trying to suppress a broad grin and preparing to utter his favourite line of all:
-Well well well, I do believe we have an earworm.
It was only with this first vote of Friday confidence that Dylan experienced a bout of the doubts. So his song was finally going to be pitched. Hooray, he did it. It was a pretty lame song though, if he was honest. He wouldn't have chosen it. About turning twenty-one in Vegas. He'd never even been to Vegas.
Thanks for reading! Your feedback, as ever, is most welcome. Perhaps Damon and Taylor will voice their opinions. Heck, even Neil or Joni might leave a comment. It’s been quite a week for songwriters…
Wow, this is really great, Lail!
Looking so much forward tobreading this novel, Lail!