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  The Making of 'Answer Ballads'

Introduction
1. Mrs Jones' Song
2. Maggie's Song
3. Daniel's Song
4. Roxanne's Song
5. Pearl's Song
6. Billy-Joe's Song
7. Marie's Song
8. Bobby's Song
9. Lucille's Song
10. Mrs Avery's Song/Sylvia's Song
11. Dino's Song
12. Jolene's Song
Final
 
 

In spring 2012, I embarked on making an album of 'answer songs': in which hitherto silent characters from other people's songs are given voice. This blog is an account of the songs that I picked, and of how I went about writing and recording my 'answers'.

Original Song:
"Pearl's A Singer"
Composed: Lieber/Stoller/Dino/ Sembello
Released: 1977
Performed by: Elkie Brooks

"Pearl’s a singer
And they say that she once was a winner, in a contest
Pearl’s a singer
And they say that she once cut a record
They played it for a week or so, on the local radio"

Answer Song:
"Pearl's Song"
Composed: Rotheray
Released: 2013
Performed by: Gemma Hayes & The Rotheray All-Star Moose Collective

"They say being somebody is hard
And being nobody is worse
But being nobody is hardest of all
When you've been a somebody first"

WRITING THE SONG

All that I could remember about the character of Pearl from the song 'Pearl's A Singer' was the fact that she was called Pearl and that she was a singer in a nightclub. I also had a vague idea that she probably wasn't massively successful at this job (see footnote 1). So I was picturing a wannabe singing star, possibly someone who'd had a brush with fame, but never achieved it. This led me to think that maybe the modern day equivalent to Pearl would be someone like a losing X-factor semi-finalist. So now had my key to Pearl's psychology- bitterness. I was holding onto a mental picture of Baby Jane (2) , possibly the greatest ever depiction of the malevolent power of fame found and lost. The most obvious metaphor for destructive attraction that comes to mind is the old moth/flame business- but this is kind of worn out and has been used umpteen times in songs (3). I puzzled over this for a while, until I decided to dump the moth and keep the flame. I also made a quick note to avoid actually using the word 'fame' in the song, particularly if used as a rather tired rhyme for 'flame'. So lots of flame, no moth, no fame. I was off.

When it was done, I found that I'd accidentally written a tune in my head while I was doing the words. This happens sometimes, and usually there's no way to get rid of the tune, you just have to go with it.

I rang my old pal Eleanor McEvoy and asked if she knew anyone who could sing the 'Pearl' song -someone who sounded strong, but a touch vulnerable. She suggested Gemma Hayes. I agreed. So that's what happened. We went over to a charming little studio in Newtownmountkennedy (4) and banged it down.

RECORDING THE SONG

eleanor
Gemma Hayes

The very first incarnation of this song was me singing it into my phone, so as not to forget it. I’ll be kind to you and only give you a very short clip of this:

The next stage was to get a decent demo. I emailed my phone demo to Eleanor McEvoy and asked her to do this for me. Here is Eleanor’s rather nice demo:

This demo enabled Gemma to learn the tune in advance, and thus save us a bit of studio time, and hence, money. Here’s how the song sounded in the studio, with the full band:

 

Not a lot wrong here - although Damon was unhappy with his Rhodes piano part, so he re-recorded it later. I also put on some backing vocals, recorded by Johnny Wright over at Paul Heaton’s studio in Manchester. Here’s how the final thing turned out:

FOOTNOTES

1 Explanatory note: I made it a rule when writing my 'answer songs' that I wasn't allowed to listen to the original songs again, or google the lyrics, until after I'd finished: the pieces had to be based upon my memory of the songs, rather than the songs themselves

2 From the film 'Whatever Happened To Baby Jane', (1962) in which ageing ex-child star Jane was played so memorably by Bette Davis.

3 At least I'm pretty sure it has, though I can't think of any right now

4 Yes, it is all one word. It’s near Dublin.