The Times May 16, 2009
- Ginny Dougary

It’s taken a year, but Ginny Dougary’s latest song is about to be unveiled in public. It’s been a steep learning curve

(Scroll to the bottom of this article to listen to the songs)

This time next week, 150 singers will be on a stage crooning a song that has taken a year to write. Why has the gestation period been so extended? Is it because the piece is unbelievably long and complex? Or that the lyrics came from some deeply angst-ridden place? Could it be the case, as Nick Cave once told me, that: “In order to write a worthwhile love song, it needs to have within it the potential for pain or an understanding of the pain of whatever you’re writing about. I don’t think they allow themselves to be written until I’ve fully experienced what it is I’m writing about. They wait patiently to be finished.”

The answer is, unfortunately, rather more mundane — the occasionally fraught business of collaboration. As a team, the composer MJ and I are pretty new to this game, with maybe a dozen songs to date, some performed by professional singers and actors but mainly by amateur choirs.

The composer, as an experienced songwriter, more often than not, has the upper hand. This can be a frustrating process, particularly as she has not had to deal with a writer’s ego before.

This is the sixth year that the Brighton City Singers, now joined by the South London Choir (both directed by MJ), have performed new choral works commissioned by her for the Brighton Festival Fringe. The pieces come from composers all over the world who are thrilled that their work will be performed in public. Even with the current widespread interest in singing — choirs being the book clubs of the Noughties — contemporary composers, and that includes established ones, don’t get much of a platform.

There have been some terrific concerts: one of the most memorable was Vocal Tango; the title song had a fabulous troupe of ageing tango dancers performing, and the choir replicating with their voices the plucking sounds of the violin and the swooning strains of the accordion. This year it’s Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll — which is a suitable challenge to most people’s idea of what choral music can be.

The first song we worked on was intended for last year’s festival — Food of Love. My idea was to write a sort of pastiche of (or homage to) those 1930s Jelly Roll Morton/Bessie Smith numbers that were laden with sexual innuendo while ostensibly being about the joys of food (“I wanna put my banana in your fruitbowl”, etc). What I find challenging is that it’s almost impossible to write the lyrics without having a tune in your head — but the composer, naturally, has her own views about the musical style. Before I put the words down, we talked about the theme of the song: the idea that women tend to prefer slow cooking while the men are after a quick bite.

Sometimes — although surprisingly rarely — the sound of the song is so wildly different to the one that started out in my imagination that it becomes hard to reconcile the words to the music. The first version of Slow Cook Me last year sounded too squeaky clean and “choral” when the lyrics were so dirty. The new one works well because it has that languorous bluesy sound and, even better, it is not a pastiche but something original.

It has been a bit of a learning curve for someone who is used to being the mistress of her words to discover that if there’s a contest between a cracking tune or scintillating lyrics (one lives in hope) — the tune will always win. This means that I have had to learn not to become too attached to a phrase or a couplet because if the words don’t work in the rhythm they will be ruthlessly dispatched. For example, certain vowel sounds will be more pleasant to the ear — such as “when”, which people tend to say or sing brightly — and others will be less so — “what”, which can often sound very Brooklyn, and not in a good way. Apparently it’s something to do with the position of the tongue and the palate.

The composer will tend to use as many of my rhymes as she can easily mould into her music, and fill the rest with her own just so they fit, before handing the lyrics back to me to rewrite. My first job in journalism was as a sub-editor, inserting characters into a headline whose length had been dictated by the designer. This has proved invaluable for our method of songwriting, as I beat out the rhythm of the line, write the stresses on a piece of paper in a series of dashes, and then make the words fit into that pattern. Once the words have been agreed, the composer transforms them into fourpart harmony, and records each part on computer as a rehearsal aid for the choir.

As someone who is not naturally musical but loves to write and sing, I find the next stage quite magical. To hear the song taken up with enthusiasm by a room of singers, tentative at first but growing in confidence until the song really comes to life and takes off, is thrilling. It’s also fascinating to discover how malleable a song can be. This Moment, a love song we originally wrote for a musical as a duet, sounds, strangely, almost as intimate now that MJ has adapted it for the choir.

What makes a good song? Jarvis Cocker is considered to be pretty hot stuff as a songwriter (“This is our music from a bachelor’s den / The sound of loneliness turned up to ten”) but he told me that he prefers people not to read his lyrics when they are listening to his songs because it interferes with how they experience the music. Besides, he said, some of the greatest pop songs have rubbish lyrics.

While some of my all-time favourites are undoubtedly as much about the words as the tune — Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You, Nick Cave’s Into My Arms, Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone and Mr Tambourine Man, Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows — just as many are not.

Louie Louie, a song that is so successful it even has a festival dedicated to it, is a case in point. It was written in 1955 by Richard Berry (no relation to Chuck) as a firstperson story of a Jamaican sailor returning to see his girl. It would be fair to say that this is a good example of the tune beating the lyrics hands down. In fact, it has been rewritten by several groups and recorded more than 1,500 times. One version by the Kingsmen in 1963 prompted an FBI investigation into the alleged obscenity of the lyrics. It inspired a number of pop hits, including the Troggs’ Wild Thing (they also did a version of Louie Louie) and You Really Got Me by the Kinks, and ranks 55 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs.

When I bought my flat in Brighton I was told that the previous owner was a a big deal in the music business. He didn’t leave a forwarding address and continues to be sent royalty statements — which I must confess to opening once, and was delighted to discover that the songs were ones that I knew and once loved: Baby Come Back (recorded by the Equals in 1968) and Hold Your Head Up (Argent, 1972). The Pollyanna bit of me hopes that those same sea views will one day inspire a similar success.

Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll, Hove Town Hall Centre (www.brightonfestivalfringe.org.uk ), May 23.

Listen to MJ rehearse Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll

Listen to MJ rehearse Slow Cook Me

Listen to This Moment (Soloists – John Savournin and Katharine Prestwood; Chorus – Jonathan Mudgridge, Rosalind Strobel, Jake White, Rosamond Lomax, Mary-Jane Harris, Belinda Bunker, Rebecca Rocheleau; recording/ sound engineer – Tom Stone)

Listen to Ginger Chorale by MJ and Ginny Dougary

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