The Songwriting Castle
Initially, there is everything and nothing to expect. After all, I only got my invitation three weeks before I'm supposed to land in Paris. First, I expect I'll need to get a passport, quick. Then, I expect about eight days in France, and the chance to write with songwriters with more gold records than I have original songs. And yet, in this business, there's too often a big difference between what people tell you on a phone and what's actually going down. Although I'd heard nary a bad word spoken about the castle experience from my friends that have been, it all sounds too good to be true. Caution is good. Besides, if I go in expecting nothing, how could any song I come away with not feel like a hit?
Planes, Trains, Automobiles
First good sign: I like my passport photo. Truthfully, I just like it more than I like 12-hour airline flights. And yet, as I'm boarding the plane, I can't help but think at least part of this is actually going to happen. All the proof was there on the flight: bad pre-ordered vegan food and lame movies. Be it my nerves or the knocking knees of the passengers to my left, I don't sleep. The layovers don't help.
Later, I realize that for every song I wrote there was a layover, and early on I made a note to myself: "Is there already a song called `Hurry Up and Wait'? If not, write one.' If there is anybody other than my parents keeping score at home, it would have read: Austin to Tucson, layover; Tucson to Cincinnati, layover; and Cincinnati to Paris, layover again -- only longer. To get through it, I keep telling myself it's cheaper this way. It was.
Meanwhile, the Perigod Verte, the land on which the castle lies, is two and a half hours by train. Eventually, I find my assigned seat on the train to Angouleme, the city where I'll be met by a car taking me to the castle. Already, I've turned into the "Excuse me, do you speak English?" tourist from hell -- in a country that already doesn't like Americans. I can't figure out how to work the phone, snack machine, and apparently can't even sit in my own seat on the train properly! I discover this only after a surly British couple so ungraciously point it out. Apparently, there are assholes here too. All this and the train hasn't even left the station yet.
The first person I encounter that's also going to the castle is none other than the "Page Six" girl of The New York Post herself, Bijou Phillips. She's a flamboyant model/actress/singer-songwriter, and more importantly, the 17-year-old daughter of the Mamas & Papas' John Phillips. She's 17. I'm not. Then comes Sheppard Solomon, an American expatriate living in London "because of the hits, baby." They immediately start bouncing off each other and by the time the train starts moving, I've stopped. They've worn me, my clarity, and my patience out. In fact, the last time I see them on the train, they're getting kicked out of the smoking car for singing Duran Duran songs, and apparently talking a little too loud about "Fucking fat dubs, man!" This is the first of many times I think, "Whatever."
There are others on the train bound for the castle, however; about eight of us -- a third of this sessions' group -- spread throughout the train. Imagine the cross-country meet-your-new-roommates road trip marks the beginning of every MTV Real World season and you've got some idea of this caravan of idiocy.
If this year's cable cast works together at a day care center, our jobs are to write songs. Most everyone invited has their music published by Rondor, Alamo-Irving, or the Bugle Publishing Group -- all large publishing houses that cultivate writers, pay them advances, and try to work their catalogs to other artists, films, etc. I, like a few other unsigned invitees, have no such machine working for me (yet?). Additionally, there are artists in attendance there to write and receive songs. And because everyone is expected to write and record a song a day for eight days, it doesn't take a mathematician to figure out there will be some publishing income generated here. For me, there are several options. I can find songs for my next album, write songs that may appear on someone else's album, or suffer from writer's block and use my return ticket early.
Toto, This Isn't Austin
At the Angouleme train station we are greeted by Bill, one of the castle's caretakers, and Rod, one of three engineers on the castle staff. They take us -- including the recovered Bijou and Shepard -- by van through the incredible French countryside. It's miles and miles of sunflower and corn fields, and yet the first vision of the castle from the road still manages to take my breath away. First, there's what they call "the Guardian" -- a French villa that precedes the proper castle. Not bad for a glorified outhouse/ stable. The castle itself looks like something out of a fairytale, but each pothole on this unpaved French road serves as a reminder of something more real: I owe a song a day for the next eight days.
Rondor's Barbara Vanderlin and Bugle's Karen Ahmed are two of the folks that make sure this happens, and conveniently enough, they're waiting just inside the gate when we arrive. Before they let us in the castle itself, they assign us our sleeping arrangements and shuttle us off to meet our bunkmates. Wait a minute, "shuttle"? Would I not be sleeping in the house? Indeed, some things are too good to be true. Instead, I'll be staying at what I call the "fish camp," a quaint restaurant/fresh water trout farm, with three attached apartments (approximate Austin value: $600 a month). To my surprise, my new roommate knows a thing or two about Austin rent; she's Maia Sharp, an Ark 21 artist, and friend of the Borrowers, who I already know from back home. This is good.
Ten French minutes later, they've got my first meeting lined up. Okay, it's everybody's first meeting. Sitting at a long dining room table, a 30-seater, we exchange names, histories, discographies, etc. "Hi, I'm Kris McKay and I'm an alcoholic." Whoops, wrong meeting. Actually, I give them the Reader's Digest version of my career: Wild Seeds, Arista deal, release from Arista contract, Shanachie deal, Shanachie album, my hopes for a release from Shanachie contract.
In turn, I hear about a few Grammy-nominated songs. The castle's class of '97 includes artists like the Go-Go's Belinda Carlisle and Jane Wiedlin, Rent's Daphne Rubin-Vega, guitarist Eric Gales, Peter Murphy, Howard Jones, and Pat MacDonald, plus famous collaborators like Hawk Wolinski (Rufus & Chaka Kahn), Paul Brady (Bonnie Raitt), and Jim Vallance (Bryan Adams). Vallance is the guy that wrote "I got my first real six string..." I've written what?
The real business involves hearing Barbara and Karen outline their duties -- assigning the writing teams and booking studio time. In other words, in a room of stars, they have the juice. Here, you're only as good as the team you're writing with, and as for the studio time, it already sounds like a freakish race to the consoles is on. What was a little more pressure among strangers?
Apparently, we would also be able to submit requests to work with the other artists -- just preferences, no guarantees. I wonder if writing Stewart Copeland's name eight times will work.
Everyday I Write the Book
The first day of real writing and recording is simultaneously the longest and shortest day of my life. And the first day is as good an example as any of how a day at the castle works. What a freak show! My first assignment is writing with Bill Deasy of Pittsburgh's Gathering Field and Susanna Hoff's guitarist Dave Bassett. There are writing stations positioned all over the castle and Guardian. We are assigned to the sofage, a small castle offshoot that we come to discover is the entrance to what was once the castle dungeon. We notice a metal trap door on the floor, which we don't really give much thought until Karen comes in to tape it down. Could Ted Nugent's career be down there? Apparently Miles didn't want anybody disturbing the skeletons.
Today is my first crash course in collaborative etiquette. What starts as one idea often becomes another 20 or so, with polite lyrical debates throughout. As much as you want to tell someone, "That line sucks," you can't. Instead, you say things like, "I think it could be stronger," or "I don't know, I had more in mind." A good start was typically broken by lunch.
Watching people wander into the dining room is my first chance to see who's done this before and who hasn't. I notice that the castle veterans say, "How's it going, who are you with?" to one another, with their game faces on. It's then I realize that no matter how much you thought your song sucked, you are to say, "We're off to a great start."
After lunch, we record. We've booked ourselves into the "Gift Shop" with engineer Scott Gordon, aka the Amazing Gord. He makes our first studio experience fairly painless. Our allotted three hours go by like lightning. We elect Dave to lay down guitar and bass, and Bill and I to sing. Lesson number one: Stick with what you do best. Greg Wells, a Rondor writer that plays everything, comes in to play drums. Lesson number two: If you can't do it, find a mercenary who can. We finish our rough mix in the last 10 minutes of our allotted time. That was it. One down, seven more to go.
The next night, our song must face the castle tradition -- a dinner/listening party. Letting someone, let alone two dozen other songwriters, hear a song for the first time is a lot like sending your kid away for his first day of kindergarten. When they play our song, "My Serenity," I try not to look at anything or anyone while the song is playing. This is the first time that the majority of these people have ever heard me sing, much less write. I feel a bit exposed. But the response is more than positive. People come up to say they think it's a hit. I feel like Sally Field at the Oscars: "You like me, you really like me!"
De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
Later that same evening I get asked to sing on a couple of other demos. How cool is that? Eventually, I run around from session to session offering vocals to anyone who asks. One of the coolest parts of the whole experience is that regardless of who you're actually paired with for the songwriting, there are opportunities to work with almost everyone. I never did get to work with Stewart Copeland eight times, but twice wasn't bad. First, he asked me to sing on a session he'd been working on with Pat MacDonald and Greg Wells. Then, he returned the favor a few nights later by playing drums on my track with Greg and Daphne. The reality check was looking through the studio glass and realizing that Stewart Copeland was playing drums on our song. Only in France. Only at the castle.
If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears
Ultimately, the pressure to perform isn't that bad, just omnipresent. Once I'm over the hump of playing my first song, it's just on to the next song and the song after that. Most of the songs wind up better than I could have imagined. All told, I end up writing with Hawk and Eric, Paul and Belinda, and Greg and Daphne. The most interesting and challenging set of collaborations revolves around Bijou Phillips.
Unlike the majority of us who feel our way through the personality maze, Bijou hits the ground running, living up to every bit of her devil-may-care reputation. She more than makes her mark. She's young, outspoken, and alone. I'm sure there are easier things to be than 17 and tabloid fodder. But sometimes collaborating can be a very personal process, and in that, Bijou did not disappoint. We use a poem that she'd written the night before about a really tough subject that brought us all to tears. Jane and I are so touched that we barely touch what she has. The trick is keeping her focused enough to let us finish the song. While Jane takes her for a walk around the grounds, I write the middle-eight and we finish the song. This is the good Bijou experience
On the Road Again
My last day in town, traditionally the clean-up day to finish demos, is all mine -- packing, letter writing, and reading the fine print of my castle contract. In order for Miles to recoup some of the outrageous costs of putting on an event like this, he asks for a co-publishing agreement from all the unsigned writers. Fair enough in my estimation.
Songwriters are typically, and wisely, warned against giving up their share of the publishing pie, but what's a percentage of six songs against this life-altering experience? Not only do I end up writing with people I would never have hooked up with in Austin, but I also live out a songwriter's fantasy -- in a French castle no less. Only now I have to leave the dream and go back to the real world where there's a Waterloo Ice House in place of a castle.
But what a fairytale it all was, even wilder than anything MTV could come up with. I'm clear that their Real World isn't real, yet I know that what I lived through was surreal.