This chapter might be one of the hardest I will have to write. I have changed the names of some of the people in this story because I don’t want to hurt anyone. There are always two sides to every story, but this is my story. And this is part of what I went through to create my new album. I’m not holding anything back. (Oh, and be sure to read Chapters 1,2,3,and 4 if you have’t yet! Otherwise this might not make as much sense…)
Tucked behind a large warehouse unit in Amsterdam sat a strange little building. There was nothing striking about it. It looked nothing like the cramped fairytale buildings in Old Amsterdam that crowded along the wandering canal like a bunch of never ending, slightly crooked, happy teeth. But according to our information, this was the studio.
Mingo knocked on the door. I did an internal inventory of my feelings. My heart bubbled up and did a flip. Yep. The trepidation was still there.
The door was pulled open and a tall, good looking dutch man appeared. He had a soft voice and floppy, dirty blonde hair.
“Please, come in,” he said with a slight, endearing accent. “I’m James.”
We shook hands, introduced ourselves, and followed him past a common area. Other producers, he explained, also worked in this space. Each of them had their own room where they built tracks that were shared on an internal music library.
We followed him past a few doors along a little hallway and into his own personal studio. White walls framed clean hardwood floors. At the far end of the room sat a sleek computer flanked by two huge speakers. One oversized, white chair that looked a little like an ice-cream bowl large enough to seat two people was the only other piece of furniture in the room. It was the opposite of Ron’s space in every way.
“So, you are having some ideas for your new music?” he inquired, his accent poking through slightly.
“Yes,” I said. “I really like the work you guys do. I’d love to try getting something down today.”
“For sure,” he agreed and booted up his computer.
The door to his studio opened and his writing/producing partner entered. Paul had curly, greying hair, and smiled at me through sweet yet sad brown eyes.
“Hey guys,” he said warmly. “We’re really excited that you are here.”
“Yeah, we are too,” said Mingo shaking his hand. Maybe this would turn out alright after all? We had come all this way. I was spending a good portion of my album budget to be here. I had to give it my best shot.
We got to work. James pieced together a drum loop on his computer while Mingo strummed out some chords, and Paul and I worked on lyrics. But as an hour passed, and then a couple more, I began to have that same sinking feeling that was so reminiscent of my earlier co writing days. It wasn’t coming to me. The songs were being blocked. I couldn’t access them. Something was creatively not right.
I tried to clear my head and push through, but no amount of persistence on my part would lift the fog of frustration that had settled around my unwritten songs. Paul had lots of lyrical ideas and was sending them to me via messenger. He sat cross legged on the floor, spouting out endless streams of words. I couldn’t keep up with the speed at which he was writing verses and choruses. And as I sifted through his words on my computer screen, I began to realize something very important about myself.
I didn’t want anybody else to write my lyrics. I wanted to write them myself. I can not write, record, perform, and believe in a song for the rest of my life if it isn’t completely honest and exactly, word for word, precisely what I mean. Paul’s words were not mine and the speed at which they were coming at me was stifling my own lyrics. His voice was choking out mine. Maybe if he would slow down a little and let me contribute some ideas, my songs would come to me. I decided to give it till the end of the day.
After a few more hours of spinning our wheels, all the while sinking further and further into writer’s block muck, I asked if we could listen to a couple of the tracks they had in the studio’s collective ‘track library’, hoping it would spark some ideas and we could finally get somewhere. A few weeks earlier when the trip had first been agreed upon, I had asked that they start piecing together some musical concepts for my songs, or at least a few beats.
“We actually haven’t really had any spare time to work anything up specifically,” James explained as he accessed the library on his computer screen. “We have been really busy with our other project, but the other engineers and producers that work here as well have been making some finished tracks we could check out.”
He opened the first one. It struck me instantly. The beat had an awesome vibe, with sampled strings cutting in and out over top of it. It was essentially a finished song including drums, bass, instrumentation, and everything else you’d expect to hear in a song except for lyrics.
“This one is cool,” I said, excited about the beat and the sampled strings.
“We already wrote lyrics over this one for our other project,” Paul said.
“Oh,” I said, endeavouring to mask the disappointment in my voice. Maybe there were other ones that were just as cool sounding.
James skipped through a few more lyric-less songs. Again, I heard an intriguing beat that had an echoing piano rising above. “What’s this one?” I asked. “I like this one a lot.”
“We already wrote on this one too,” Paul said.
I was confused. Why would they play tracks they had already written into a song for someone else in front of me? They must be looking in the wrong library.
But after the ninth track that peaked my interest but was already written, Paul said nervously, “James, stop playing her the ones we’ve already written on.”
“I forget which ones we’ve written,” James chuckled, scrolling through the other producer’s track ideas. “We’ve basically written on all the good ones.”
And that’s when I realized what was going on. They were offering me their discarded tracks, the ones that hadn’t made it on their other project, the very project that had inspired me to contact them in the first place. I had flown all the way across the Atlantic Ocean on my label’s dime, had left a perfectly productive song writing situation with Ron and Jason, to be offered what were essentially their musical ‘B Sides’.
I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, wishing away the dark cloud that had descended on my heart with this realization.
“Maybe we should just keep working on new ideas,” Paul said to James, casting an awkward glance my way.
I stood up suddenly. Mingo looked at me and I looked back at him. I knew he could see the frustration in my eyes that silently said, ‘I have to get out of here.’
“I think we’re just going to go for a little break outside,” he said in his signature nonchalant way. “You know, get some air.”
“Cool. Let’s take a few,” said Paul, reaching for his cell phone to check his messages.
“This isn’t working,” I exhaled as Mingo and I stepped outside the studio into the brisk air. “I can’t hear myself think above Paul’s lyric ideas. I mean, they’re great for someone else maybe. But they aren’t at all what I would say.”
“I know,” Mingo said. “It’s pretty ridiculous that basically every single cool track has been taken already. Why would they play them for us if we can’t write on them?” he asked, just as frustrated as I was with the whole situation. “And they don’t seem to have anything worked up for your songs specifically. They’re just giving us the left overs from their last project.”
“I know,” I sighed. “What should we do?” I had honestly hoped it would work. But I knew deep down we weren’t going to get anywhere. At least not today.
“Well, if we go back in there to work we’ll just be spinning our wheels,” Mingo said knowingly. “I don’t want you to hate song writing again,” he added. We stood for a moment in silence. “Let’s go back in and tell them we’re done for the day,” he suggested, looking at his cell. “We’ve been at it for six hours. We’ll go get something to eat and figure it out tonight.”
He squeezed my hand as we went back into James’ studio. I squeezed back, thankful beyond words that he was with me.
“Hey guys,” I said to James and Paul as we walked back into the room. “I think we’re going to call it a day.”
“Okay,” said James.
“Cool,” said Paul. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”
Mingo and I walked back to our hotel crestfallen, our stomaches growling. Ron called as Mingo and I were just sitting down to finally eat.
“So, how’d it go?” he asked. I could hear the apprehension in his question.
“Well…” I started and paused. There was no other way to describe the day we had just had. “It kinda sucked,” I said.
“What? Why?” he asked, discouraged.
I explained what had happened that day. How I couldn’t hear myself think with Paul’s lyrics bouncing around in my head. And how they had offered us the tracks that weren’t good enough to make it on to their other project.
“That’s wack,” he agreed when I had finally finished. “And they had nothing prepared for you?”
“No,” I said. “Just their unused tracks.”
“Hm,” he said. I could hear the wheels turning as he searched for some kind of solution. “Well, do you want to try again tomorrow? Or do you just want to call it?”
I thought for a moment. “I just can’t believe we came all the way out here for nothing.”
“How about this,” he said. “Why don’t you email them tonight. Ask James if you can meet with him in the morning, from like ten o’clock till twelve. Just you and him. You have lots of musical ideas, why don’t you guys build a track together? It might be kinda fun. Maybe get some lyric ideas down. Then ask Paul to come in at one o’clock. He can hear what you’ve worked on and add to it. That way you can get a basic start and direction for the song. He can hear where you’re going and help you finish it.”
It sounded like a good idea. “I’ll give it a try,” I agreed.
“Call me tomorrow night and let me know how it goes,” Ron said.
I hung up and emailed both Paul and James, suggesting the plan Ron had come up with. Within the hour I heard back from them both. They were fine with it.
The next morning I was at James’ studio at ten o’clock sharp.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Mingo asked as he dropped me off.
“I think I just need to be in there by myself with James,” I said.
“Okay,” he smiled. “I’m gonna go walk around and try to find a guitar shop.” It’s his favourite thing to do.
James was waiting for me in his studio.
“Hello,” he smiled. “I’m just working on a drum loop here. What do you think?”
I listened. It was pretty cool. Funky, a little cheeky, and full of spunk. I could absolutely imagine a song overtop of it. We worked on the track for the next few hours. James programmed a bass sound, some strings and keyboard parts, while I constructed a lyrical idea. It wasn’t the most astonishing song I had ever written. But it wasn’t the worst. And before I knew it, I had some basic lyrics worked out.
“Want to lay down a rough vocal?” James asked after I had sung my idea to him.
“Sure.” I stepped up to the mic and sang it through once.
“Sounds good,” James said. He was just putting the mic away when I heard a little knock at the door. Mingo had come back and was excited to hear what we had come up with. James hit play and a smile grew on Mingo’s face within the first few notes. I knew he was proud of me, and he thought the song had potential.
Suddenly, about half way through the play back Paul burst through the door.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Oh hey Paul,” I smiled, excited to share the start of our new song with him. “We’re just got this rough track started–”
“Can I see you outside James? Right now,” he interrupted me. His face was flushed. Something was wrong.
What’s going on? I asked Mingo in a glance. He shrugged in response.
James followed Paul out into the common area where some of the other producers had gathered for lunch. I could hear the dull murmur of their voices and clanking of dishes as they heated their food in the microwave. Maybe something had come up with their other project that needed immediate attention. I hoped it wasn’t anything too serious.
But then the air changed. The voices of the other producers had faded away to silence while one had angrily rose above the rest.
“What the hell does she think she’s doing?” Paul was yelling. “Coming all the way here, trying to break up our writing team?! I’ve been with you for years James, she can’t just come in and take that away from me!”
A mumbled response, an attempt to quiet his rage.
” I come in here and you’ve got a fully finished track up and running without me!!” he yelled. “She thinks she’s somebody?? She’s nobody!! If she assumes she can just fly in here and steal my writing team away from me, she’s got another thing coming!” Something banged on the table. A fist??
Wait. Was he yelling… about… me??
And suddenly I knew exactly what was going on. He was indeed yelling about me. Adrenaline surged through my veins. But I couldn’t believe it. I could feel my hands begin to shake. I looked at Mingo, astonished. His unbelieving eyes were as wide as mine. And Paul was still yelling unkind, unfair, untrue things about me as we sat silently in the next room, hearing every angry world.
Something snapped in me. I wanted to storm into that common room and throw every horrible thing he was hollering about me back in his face. Wasn’t I the victim here? Wasn’t I the one who couldn’t hear myself think with his incessant, unrelatable lyrics flying at me in a constant stream? Hadn’t I been tricked into flying all the way to Amsterdam, spending a huge chunk of my album budget, only to be offered their throw-away tracks? Wasn’t I the vulnerable one here? On his turf, a total stranger to the other producers he was currently bad mouthing me in front of? Wasn’t I the one with the most to lose??
Mingo laid his hand on my arm as I stood and made a move toward the turbulent storm in the kitchen.
“This isn’t about you,” he said quietly, beneath Paul’s continued yelling. “It can’t be. It’s totally illogical. Something else must be wrong.”
“I don’t care,” I hissed. “Can you believe what he’s saying??”
“No,” Mingo replied softly. “I can’t. That’s what I mean. It’s so ridiculous, he must be upset about something else.”
The same way Ron isn’t really an A&R guy, Mingo really isn’t a human. He’s actually an angel. And right at that moment, his words brought back a saying my mom had quoted to me on more than one occasion when I needed reminding. ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’
I felt my face soften. My heart rate slowed a little. Maybe Mingo was right. It didn’t excuse Paul’s actions, but it did calm me enough to collect myself.
I took a deep breath and walked slowly into the raging common room, ready to face the music.
Chapter 6 coming on Monday….