Writing songs for THE BOOK OF DUST, by Philip Pullman
In May last year we got a phone call from a publisher asking us if we'd be interested in writing a couple of songs for the launch of Philip Pullman's trilogy The Book Of Dust, set in Lyra's Oxford. Now, we rarely take commissions directly from publishers - preferring to keep the books that inspire our songs as a curated list from Mr B's Emporium. Having a curated list from an amazing bookshop who choose books they love means we get an amazing unbiased book selection, and stops what we do become a marketing enterprise as opposed to an artistic one. Ok, so we'd love to earn more money, don't get us wrong, we have a little baby (the same age as Lyra in the book) but it's more important that the music we write always comes from an artistic place as opposed to a commercial one, it is just our perpetual challenge to try and make that work and sustainable. Of course, we say YES to the commission.
We've moved far away from Mr B's Emporium, and while we still are bonded to them it's almost impossible for us to come down for their author events so we have to find other avenues for writing. Also, we agree to do the commissions for The Book Of Dust pro-bono, to keep the money out of it. Dumb we know, lost opportunity, but also what an opportunity! We've both grown up with Mr Pullman's work, and feel we can make this literary-judgement on our own and with confidence in the book.
The launch is being held in The Bodleian Library in Oxford, spread over two great halls which are being transformed into Jordan College for the night. Guest's tickets are allocated by ballot and we'll be top and tailing the talk part fo the night with the two as yet not-written songs.
We signed non-disclosure agreements and a month later receive the highly secretive advance copy of La Belle Sauvage. After briefly considering photocopying the book and sending it off to all the major newspapers for a huge fee we settle down to reading, not before of course taunting my brother with a photo of me reading it. It's a big book and we're SLOW readers. I get the first read.
The book is set nine years before The Northern Lights, when Lyra is just six months old and as we read it is difficult not to imagine our own little baby babbling as Lyra. Philip's observations of 6 month olds and how to look after them are spot on. It's these descriptions and Beth's own experiences of parenthood that form the main part of the song she writes. Beth mostly reads the book while feeding our daughter Molly, and the song ends up focusing on Malcolm, Lyra's carer in the book.
Normally when we write songs in The Bookshop Band we do it at the very last minute, for a couple of good reasons. Firstly, we don't often finish the book until the morning of the event. Secondly, nothing focuses the mind like having four hours to write two songs, to be performed in front of the author at 7pm that same day. It is much more efficient; you have no time to procrastinate or second guess the quality of what you're writing and you just go where your songwriting takes you. In the back of our mind we both know that a 4 minute song could, in theory, be written in 4 minutes. If worst came to worst then we'll just have to do that or improvise on the spot, though luckily it has never come to that in over 150 songs. This time, thinking ourselves very prudent and sensible and given the big nature of the event, we decide to write the songs for Philip TWO DAYS BEFORE! Shock horror. It is not our normal process but we feel it is a very responsible work-plan.
The week before the event we have a few concerts and then aim to get down to Oxford two days before the event to write and rehearse the new songs. However, we get a call from the publisher saying that due to the enormity of the book-launch they would like to sign off the songs at least a week before. S**t S*it Sh*t S*** *hit. Plus, they would like recordings of the songs to play at the other events around the country. What songs????? aghhhhhh. OK - so we had a re-think, re-arranged a few things and knuckled down whilst on the road between gigs and looking after Molly to finish the book and get writing. Turns out that having a baby makes your songwriting time a lot less predictable than before the little person came along. Beth focused on Lyra and Malcolm for her song called Room For Three, while I wanted to write something that highlighted the book's undercurrent of the suppression of ideas and inquisitive minds, in a song called Sanctuary.
I put off the requests from the publisher to hear the songs for as long as possible while we hunkered down at Beth's parents house, setting up a makeshift recording space to get the songs down quickly. We were up all night but got them mixed and sent to the publisher four(!) whole days before the event. We don't see these as the final recordings but they will do for the moment (am I selling them to you?) and one day it would be amazing to record them properly. That being said, we think they came out well.
It is quite a wonderful feeling to finish a song. As songwriters, songwriting can be tortuous and open ended. You find yourself never satisfied, in a state of perpetual tinkering. But we're lucky (in some respects) with The Bookshop Band to have a unique and regular moment when you play the song right infront the author whose book inspired it. The song becomes finished in that moment. How can you go back and change anything later? It has had its most important airing and you can lay it to rest. It may never be played again or it may have a life after, but you don't think about that. After a year of writing in this way for The Bookshop Band my (wonderful) mum, having seen me spend years on a song for my previous band, said to me "These songs are great, Ben, but when are you going to write a proper one?". I replied that in my mind these songs are just as valid. I like to think that the song's listener can hear the excitement and mild panic that was part of its writing process. It is no more valid than spending years on something, it is just a different process and a different way of finishing.
We had time to kill when we got to Oxford. Aside from rehearsing we wandered around, visited the Bodleian, bought some clothes for the concert (we had decided to dress as "librarians" - what does a librarian wear? Anything is the answer yet probably not what we chose!). I took my camera and filmed our walk to the Bodleian where we sat for a bit, soaking up the space and read some of the book again.
It is always terrifying the first time you play a song publically, and sitting as the audience grew in library with Philip walking up to sit near us was definitely up in the higher echelons of such moments. Those first performances rarely go without mistake - hence our YouTube channel populated by dodgy first performances of our songs. They are however always emotional experiences, often with either us, the author, or regularly the editor or publicist in tears, having lived intensely with a book for so long and to suddenly have what you know about it transmogrified into something you didn't expect. They are either good tears or polite people for saying so.
Will Ryecroft, one of the hosts, asked us to introduce the songs before we played them, an experience that we are used to but always leaves me out of breath and shaking from the nerves. The first few lines of Sanctuary were terrifying, your breath uttered out into the void of the big beautiful room, countless ears picking up the waves you create - trying to relax and breathe through the butterflies quivering in my tummy. Interesting fact: Philip Pullman apparently has a wall covered in ukuleles. And relax.
The next 45 minutes we remain on stage while Philip is interviewed by Anna Maxwell Martin, the actress who played Lyra in the stage adaptation of His Dark Materials and questions from the audience, including "Why don't you go into politics, we need you!". I don't envy Beth sitting there all that time and then having to go straight into Room For Three right at the end, but she does brilliantly.
The night ends with us playing some background music while others feasted and people signed the guestbook that we take to every concert looking for comments, book recommendations or suggestions of where to play. We got some lovely ones from the publishers:
"Thank you so much for your beautiful songs inspired by La Belle Sauvage which Brough tears to my eyes - and the whole room!! Truly gorgeous." - Harriet
"You were mesmerising" - Jannine
"Thank you so much for the beautiful songs. They were perfect!" - Genevieve
And we asked Philip to write in our guestbook, so he wrote:
"Philip Pullman" - Philip
Never has a man had to write his name so many times than he did on that day, so he is forgiven for not being more effusive, and he was extremely kind and generous when we chatted to him.
The next morning, in order to capitalise on playing for the launch, we got up early and headed to The Trout Inn, which features significantly in the book. Our plan was to take a few shots of Beth and Molly there to add into the video of them walking through Oxford. Combined with some concert footage we would make a music video to release later that same evening, when I would of course finish editing it, and drop it triumphantly into the world amid the whirlpool of buzz surrounding the launch of one of the most hotly anticipated books of the decade.
Like I said, when you have a little baby the availability of time becomes a little less predictable. And so, nearly four months later, here it is.
PS: If you'd like to buy the recordings of the songs, that would be wonderful they are available digitally here on our Bandcamp page.
PPS: They should be up soon on iTunes etc...
PPPS: we have a new website - do let me know what you think. www.thebookshopband.co.uk
PPPPS: If you haven't already read the book, it will definitely be available at your local bookshop and is wonderful.