How to write a fictional pop song

The struggles of pop singers on their up or down are the stuff of new movies from A Star Is Born and Wild Rose to Vox Lux and Her Smell. But who gives the characters their musical direction? Alex Denney talks to Nicole Taylor, Wild Rose’s screenwriter turned co-songsmith, and Bully’s Alicia Bognanno, who for Her Smell had to write like she’d lost it.

Alex Denney

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Jessie Buckley as Rose-Lynn Harlan in Wild Rose

Jessie Buckley as Rose-Lynn Harlan in Wild Rose

How do you make a fake song ring true? For filmmakers, scripts that call for fictional pop songs to be written in their service present an unusual headache – firstly, because the songs must feel authentic to the characters that voice them, and secondly, the songs must sound like hits. As Natalie Portman, star of Brady Corbet’s upcoming pop-psychodrama Vox Lux, put it: “If you read a script and it says, ‘And then she writes a hit pop song’ and we don’t (hear) the song, you’re like, ‘OK, good luck getting that.’”

Fortunately, Wild Rose screenwriter Nicole Taylor thinks she might have one such hit on her hands. In Tom Harper’s musical drama, ex-con Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) pursues her dreams of country-music stardom while juggling her duties as a mum of two at home in Glasgow. Buckley is all kinds of wonderful in the role, bringing hard-bitten soul and energy to the songs in the film – including a tear-jerking number, Glasgow (No Place Like Home), that’s already proving a hit with Scottish viewers. “People have stopped me in the street to say how much they love it,” says Taylor, a Glasgow native who is quietly hoping the song will become something of an unofficial anthem for the city. “At the moment when bands play in Glasgow they always play that Dougie McClean song, Caledonia, so now I hope they’ll be playing this one instead.”

Glasgow was written by American actress Mary Steenburgen, also a country-music songwriter, in response to Taylor’s script for the film. But the rest of Wild Rose’s original numbers came from the screenwriter herself, working with Buckley alongside musicians Ian Brown and Simon Johnson. Impressively, it was the first time Taylor, a lifelong country fan for whom the music is “in my bones”, had written a song.

“Our approaches complemented each other because (Jessie is) so instinctive and musical, and I’m sort of into lyrics and construction,” says Taylor, who had to overcome her “fraud complex” in writing the songs for the film. “A lot of the skillset for being a screenwriter felt applicable to songwriting, (because) you’ve got to tell a story. (But) some of my favourite lines from the songs we wrote came from Jessie just singing them. I’d be sitting on my laptop trying to construct things, being a real geek about it, and she’d just close her eyes and come up with some beautiful phrase. With one she had this line, ‘Live the life you’re dreaming till the dreamer’s gone’; it was just so beautiful, it really moved me in the moment.”

The songs were written after the shoot had wrapped, with selected highlights woven into the film’s soundtrack. For Taylor and Buckley, who by this point knew the character inside-out, the sessions were “a way to keep (Rose-Lynn) alive” a little longer. “Jessie and I knew the kinds of things the character would sing about and what she wouldn’t sing about,” says Taylor, who edited her work ruthlessly to ensure the songs were “supremely Rose-Lynn”. “The turns of phrase and tone of the songs we put together are just so totally her, right down to the little bits of Glasgow vernacular we got in there. In The View from Here she says ‘famous folk are weird’ – we argued for ages about [the word ‘folk’], but that’s how Glaswegian people say ‘people’.”

That faithfulness to the character’s voice is what makes Wild Rose such a pleasure to watch and listen to. But not every musical drama can rely upon cast and crew to turn their stars into credible artists. For Her Smell, a dark character study of a toxic indie-rocker played by Elisabeth Moss, director Alex Ross Perry invited Alicia Bognanno – of contemporary alt-rockers Bully – to write songs that reflected his main character’s downward spiral.

Elisabeth Moss as Becky in Her Smell

Elisabeth Moss as Becky in Her Smell

For Bognanno, writing for Moss’s character, Becky, was less a feat of imagination, and more an extension of her own natural instincts as a songwriter. “I think a big part of why Alex wanted me to do the film was he wanted (the music) to be in the same zone as the Bully stuff, so I wouldn’t have to stray too far stylistically. But I had never written for anybody else before, and it was definitely bizarre to watch that happen,” she explains.

As well as writing one of Becky’s big hit songs from the early part of her career, Bognanno had to write for the character at her lowest ebb, strung-out in the studio as she tries to get her career back on track. “(This one song) was supposed to have been written when (Becky) was struggling with substance abuse, and to me it seemed like her character was really defeated. It’s fucked up; she can barely get through it. I was cringing at myself listening to that one, but that’s what I needed to send over,” says Bognanno of the sorry-sounding demo, which prompts Becky’s long-suffering manager to remark, “If this is all she’s got to show for the last nine months, I’m very screwed.”

Even when they’re ‘bad’, Bognanno’s songs are a window into Becky’s tortured inner life, obscured for long parts of the film by the ongoing trainwreck of her persona. But, for Bognanno, the character is relatable even in her monstrous moments – of which there are many. “When you’re a musician it’s strange, because a lot of the time people decide how they want you to act, and you find yourself leaning into that or turning into that person almost without realising,” she says. “(People) want you to be as miserable as you were when you wrote that song all the time, and on top of that, there’s like a false validation bubble.”

Her Smell trailer

In any case, calling a song ‘bad’ is a deeply subjective business, as A Star Is Born songwriter Diane Warren recently discovered. Her song Why Did You Do That? sparked debate online last year, as the perky pop ode to cute butts that country-rocker Ally (Lady Gaga) sings as she stakes her claim on superstardom, much to the chagrin of her husband (Bradley Cooper). Was the song supposed to be a sellout? A harmless bit of fun? In the end, Warren herself had to weigh in on the argument, telling the New York Times: “I would never purposefully sit down to write a bad song, although I guess I’ve done some without trying that turned out that way. This was a fun song, and I love fun pop songs. Not everything has to be serious all the time.”

For pop agnostic Brady Corbet, pairing the right real-life songwriter with his fictional star was important in conveying the deep sense of ambivalence he feels for the format. Like Her Smell, Vox Lux features a deeply flawed protagonist in the midst of a very public breakdown, but in Corbet’s film the effect is less intimate character-study and more baroque satire of the pop-industrial complex.

Enter Sia, the reclusive pop maestro behind hits like Chandelier and The Greatest, who opened up her archives of unreleased material for Corbet to adapt for the character. “I chose Sia as a partner on the film because I knew (it) wouldn’t be complex or convincing if the songs were bad,” the director told Stereogum. “What’s unsettling about the picture is that it does hold the corporate world’s feet to the fire a bit, but it also acknowledges the medium’s virtues.”

Natalie Portman sings Sia’s Wrapped Up for Vox Lux

For Taylor, there’s no such squeamishness about her subject matter – in fact, she’s continued writing songs since the film wrapped, one of which has been covered by a real-life country musician. But of course, Taylor is a real-life country musician now, too. Asked to pick a personal favourite from the songs she worked on for the film, Taylor mentions Covered in Regret, whose name was inspired by an ex who planned to open a tattoo removal clinic. “It has that quality of wit that I really like in country music; there’s a lot of clever lines on there,” says Taylor, beaming. “Can I say that even though I co-wrote it?”

 

Wild Rose trailer

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