This special stop in “The Script in studio” series is a London studio with the Guardian’s challenge: to write and record a song in a day. Having an audience who then wrote his experience into an article, provides an interesting insight into what is actually happening in the studio when the lads are writing the songs.
The Guardian, Friday 14 March 2008
The skinny rocker is standing in front of the mirror in the toilet of a west London recording studio, noisily snorting white powder. But for Danny O’Donaghue, the lead singer and pianist with Dublin trio the Script, the cliche ends there. The powder is nothing more narcotic than table salt; and it’s been dissolved in tap water.
Flushing his nasal passages with salty water is part of a singing regimen suggested by Tina Verbeke, the vocal coach Danny shares with Bono. “It gets all the mucus out and improves my higher register,” he explains between bouts of sniffing, dribbling and gargling, “but it tastes disgusting.”
It’s 7pm on a Wednesday night in February, and O’Donaghue is about to record his vocal part on None the Wiser, a song he and his bandmates – drummer Glen Power and guitarist Mark Sheehan – are still writing. A few miles away, the pop industry is sitting down for a night of back-slapping and motor-paced bonhomie at the Brits, but at Olympic Studios in Barnes, the Script are all about the music, not the business. They arrived late this morning, armed with a lyric, two riffs and copious confidence. Their task? To write and record a song in a day, while the Guardian watches, with the results made available on the Guardian’s music website.
The Script have plenty of experience, but the potential for public humiliation is high. So perhaps it’s not just the chill of the cavernous live room that is giving Danny the shivers as he takes his place behind the microphone. The self-imposed pressure is definitely on.
After setting up their equipment, the band had knuckled down to work at 12:45. To ensure the studio hire isn’t a complete waste of money, they have brought a complete lyric that Mark has written during the previous couple of days on the band’s tour bus. Full of deliberately ambiguous lines – “We stole from heaven, now there’s hell to pay” – he hopes they will be able to turn it into a song that works both as an ecological protest and a piece about a relationship in crisis.
“You can have your own meaning,” he explains, “but to make it work for everybody you need to have something there that anyone can relate to. You don’t want to ram things down peoples’ throats.”
The lyric doesn’t change all day, but it’s the only thing the Script bring to Olympic that is anywhere near fully formed. They have two ideas for pieces of rhythm and melody, but how they’ll fit together – if they’ll fit together – is far from clear. They can’t even agree on how fast they should go, though a consensus is developing between Mark and Glen that they work better as uptempo, rockier riffs rather than the slower type Danny tends to favour.
“He’ll still sing it like a ballad,” Mark laughs, nodding at Danny as the singer gets himself comfortable at the studio’s grand piano. “He always does. But that’s good, because it means there’ll be a strong emotional base.”
Mark begins playing a riff on his acoustic guitar, and things come together quickly. After only eight minutes of improvising together, they have an intro that will also become the song’s chorus. As Danny vamps an exploratory melody line, what’s developing is not a million miles away from another band whose lead singer has a considerable range and also plays keyboards.
“We do try to channel Chris Martin,” Danny admits, not at all shamefacedly. “Can you not see the genius in that guy’s lyrics? He gives you these simple one-line phrases that people literally hold on to for dear life.”
In Song Man, his book exploring the art of pop composition, Guardian contributor Will Hodgkinson argues that the only way you find your own style is by trying to copy your heroes, and getting it wrong. It’s a theory the Script happily sign up to. As Mark later points out, when deciding whether or not a proposed backing vocal line is “too Bono” or not: “Anyone who says they don’t nick things is a liar. That’s how you do it. We’re all standing on the shoulders of giants, it’s just about picking the right giants.”
Only half an hour into the process, the song has a distinct shape. There is a verse and a chorus, with a melody line that works. Glen has come up with differently shaded rhythm patterns, moving from Police-ish reggae in the verse to dramatic, driving rock for the hook and what they have decided will be an instrumental chorus. Transitions from one to the other build tension and anticipation. Ten minutes later they’ve come up with a middle eight.
At 1.45, Mark pronounces the writing over. Pizza is ordered, and Danny heads across the road to drop his washing in at the local launderette. It has only taken an hour to turn a couple of musical doodles and the lyric into a song. But it will take another 14 hours to record it.
Sheehan (27) and O’Donaghue (26) met in their teens. Quickly establishing a writing partnership – and with the encouragement of U2 manager Paul McGuinness – they spent some of a publishing advance on a trip to Virginia Beach, where they blagged their way into R&B producer Teddy Riley’s studio. The result was a succession of jobs in the US working on pop and R&B records with such luminaries as Riley, the Neptunes and Dallas Austin. By the time they got their own recording contract they had put in years as songwriters, backing vocalists, producers and remixers.
As the band begin to piece None the Wiser together, it’s clear all that experience has had a profound impact. The day disappears as they record multiple takes of drums, piano and vocal, then go through each instrument line by line, bar by bar, picking out the best parts with engineer Dan Frampton. Frampton then stitches these together using the recording software Protools, until a perfect version of each part exists for the whole song.
It’s a time-consuming process, made even lengthier by the counter-intuitive decision to spend the first hour on a MIDI version of Danny’s piano part – something that won’t even make it on to the final cut. Drums are the foundation, so they are recorded first: but rather than record to a “click track” – a metronome tick that plays in the drummer’s headphones to keep him in time – Glen has a different way of working.
“I suppose it’s because I’m a rounded musician,” says Power, 28, a multi-instrumentalist whose singing was good enough for him to be a frontman for a while, and who jumped at the chance to get off Dublin’s cabaret’n’covers treadmill when he met Sheehan and O’Donaghue six years ago. “I prefer to play along to guitar or piano than a click track, because I get a better sense of what I want to do musically.” Hence the MIDI track, which is played “live” but can be finessed in the computer to be as regular as a metronome, but still provide Glen with the greater sense of the song he needs.
After an hour behind his kit, and another hour compiling the final drum track, Glen heads to the studio’s green room for a table football session with the band’s tour manager. “It’s Danny’s turn now to get on his BMX and pull a few wheelies,” he grins.
It takes another two hours to record and compile the piano part. Danny seems to want to lose himself in the music, turning the studio lights down low; when it’s time to do vocals, he’s like an actor getting into character. His job isn’t just to hit the notes and carry the tune, but to touch the listener, and he has an unusual way of knowing when he’s ready.
“I can’t sing if I don’t believe it,” he says, bouncing on the spot behind the microphone, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled tight over his head. “If I don’t believe totally in what I’m singing, you sure as hell aren’t going to! And I can’t believe it until I can stand topless in front of everyone and sing it like I mean it.”
As recording begins, Danny is as good as his word, singing naked from the waist up. He delivers increasingly animated and emotional performances, and what seemed to be solid but not quite spectacular words on paper start to rise on to another plane.
The bug is infectious. By 9.30, when Danny begins painstakingly improvising a bass line, I realise that during the preceding 10 hours, the rest of the music has already implanted the “right” bass part in my head. Despite a complete lack of relevant experience, I can’t help pointing out when Danny goes “wrong”.
“There was a certain expected line that was gonna follow, and when I didn’t get it, I felt it and you felt it as well,” Danny laughs later. “And that’s what producing is – it’s that first reaction to what you think is right and what you think is not.”
In the early hours, a series of backing vocal lines and a guitar part Glen has worked out are added. They call it quits around 2am, with Frampton agreeing to mix the track on his equipment at home later in the week.
Reflecting later, the band seem content. None the Wiser has turned out so well there is talk of adding it to the album.
“If we do that, we’d really love to get stuck into it and produce it up,” says Mark, “but we wanted to keep it to what we did on the day, rather than add any tricks.”
“As a snapshot of a day’s work it’s better than I expected,” Danny concludes. “We’re constantly finding out what this band is: so if we’d come up with a bad song, at least we’d know that style doesn’t suit us, so we’d have enhanced the next writing session. But I think the stars aligned for us.”
· The Script’s debut single, We Cry, is released on April 28. Check out their Guardian track None the Wiser.
What did you think, did they do well?
PS: Did you notice the spelling of Danny’s name? It seemed to have happened quite a lot back then.
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