From Dylan to The Sugababes: art and the production line

Did you ever imagine there would be song factories? Poor saps writing in teams and dreaming of getting one of their lines on a big hit, so they can share in the writing royalties?

Cold as this sounds, the results can be phenomenal. Xenomania, for instance, has produced 20 top 10 hits for Girls Aloud alone; others for Sugababes, Kylie Minogue and The Saturdays.

These factories model themselves on the old Motown concept, including having a house band ready to provide backing tracks for new material.

Motown, in turn, modelled itself on New York’s Brill Building, where songwriters like Burt Bacharach & Hal David, Carole King, Leiber & Stoller and Neil Diamond banged away at pianos all day turning out hit after hit.

Many of them turned out to be pop classics. The factory approach can work artistically as well as commercially.

At the other end of the spectrum, Bob Dylan would sit at a typewriter and hammer out words for hours on end. His ‘stream of consciousness’ was carefully crafted. Lennon and McCartney used to bunk off school and sit with their guitars, trading ideas. Less than a song a day was considered a wasted day.

Others, schooled in the art of composition, will go about it in a more formal way. My old music partner Pete Zorn can notate a song (write it down, to you and me) like the old composers. My son Noel taught himself composition and approaches it all with a Frank Zappa-like contempt for the factory approach. But he maintains a sense of wonder for the occasional dazzling pop record, the most recent of which was Happy, by Pharrell Williams.

There’s still room, though, for the old instinctive method. The pop star who lives in my house writes her own songs. She is also keenly sought out by producers who not only want some of her writing magic – which she can produce seemingly at will in the studio – they also want her voice on their tracks. She’s 16 and completely unschooled in music theory or technique.

It’s all a long cry from the notion of some tortured artist with a guitar, pouring his or her feelings onto the page – James Taylor say, or Joni Mitchell. That used to be my model. Sit at the piano until inspiration hit.

But if you open your mind, songs can come at you in surprising ways. This week’s example emerged from a very different process.

It started with an exhibition of paintings by the artist Veronique Maria.

I know nothing about visual art, so my response to paintings is visceral and subjective. Mondrian, Pollock and Rothko affect me in ways I don’t understand, but the feelings they provoke are deep and profound.

Veronique’s series of paintings under the heading Orogeny set me back on my heels, took my breath away. The exhibition walk-through included a video in which the artist explained the process that went on in her head as she created these works.

I was so struck by the poetic nature of her words that I asked if I could put them in a song. She didn’t hesitate to say yes. Not because she was flattered, nor even much cared, but simply, she said, “They’re out there” (the words) “so they’re no longer mine.” I found this an extraordinarily generous response.

The first two verses of this song, then, are Veronique’s words, pretty much as spoken in the video (link below).

The third verse is me marvelling at the way “she works paint on a canvas“. As you watch the video you will see new universes appear. “She surrenders to the unknown“, a state of mind I can only dream of.

As luck would have it, about two years before I was inspired by Veronique Maria, I had been doodling on the guitar and fallen on a rather lovely picking pattern, which I quickly recorded and then filed away.

I wrestled with Veronique’s words for some time, and then one day I found this forgotten guitar pattern tucked away on my computer and I instantly knew the two belonged together.

So that’s how this particular song came into being.

It’s fair to say that Veronique, having been so insouciant about her words being “out there” reacted quite differently when she heard them in this new context. She finds it, she says, “strange”, partly because she hadn’t expected me to quote her word for word. But also, oddly, she sees no connection between her work, her intentions, and my use of her words. Which, for me, makes it a more generous act on her part to let me go ahead.

Click here to see the interview and film that inspired this song. The film maker is Mark Birbeck.

At the beginning of 2014, Veronique put up a new video work, and threw out a challenge – which I took up – to write a soundtrack for it. So this week, you get two of my recordings for the price of one, and you get to look at two sides of Veronique Maria – the painter and the video artist.

I’ve never done anything like this before. The soundtrack piece is ‘ambient’. It follows the film, and works hard not to be intrusive, but at the same time attempts to be interesting enough to enhance your enjoyment of the film. You be the judge.

Watch the video here, particularly if you’re stressed. The combination of images and music is something like meditating.

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