Songwriting & Production: Writing a song for an award-winning film. 

by Caitlin Grey

We wear many hats here at Harvey/Grey Music and we love the variety that comes as part and parcel of what we do. We never know what we’re going to be working on next. 

We produce songs for other artists. We write lyrics to their music, write music to their lyrics, produce and arrange their vocals into full songs, write full songs for films or music for films. We also turn a lot of poems into songs. Any and all of the above! 

I’m often asked how we go about writing for a brief; that is to say when we are asked or commissioned to write something for someone else whether it be for a particular project, like a film or perhaps turning a poem into a song. The song in today’s post was both of those things. It was a poem, to be turned into a song, for a film. 

No pressure then! 

So today, I thought I’d share how The Puppet Master, the song from the hit movie Lucas & Albert, came into being. 

As mentioned, The Puppet Master was written specifically for a film. The film was UK crime thriller Lucas & Albert, which, as you may or may not know, went on to win Best Feature Film of 2021 at the UK National Film Awards. Lucas & Albert was up against some pretty stiff competition, including 1917! So, we were all totally thrilled when it won. 

Lucas & Albert is the story of two hardened & world-weary villains played by Tony Longhurst and James Osborne. They're aging, professional hit men, who are undertaking one last job for their boss, the  ‘puppet master’, Mr Mac (Michael McKell). It's in the vein of Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels

Robert Putt, the poet (& one of the film's writer/producers) sent me the poem in the hope that we could perhaps write something for it, mainly for his own use, but possibly to be included in the film. 

It’s a fabulous poem. (Scroll down to read the poem). 

It speaks of the futility of life, in that we are all merely puppets with no control over what happens to us, someone ‘above’ is pulling our strings. Most apt and poignant in today’s world! And as a successful actor of stage and screen himself, Robert used the stage metaphor to great effect. To enhance the poem’s words musically, Robert originally wanted a Bob Dylan-esque song, a 'protest' type song, so to speak.  After reading the poem, I could see by the metre that it lent itself well to the rhythmic pulse of a traditional folk song. A style much used by Dylan and his contemporaries. So, once in the studio, Neil & I played around with some melodies and in this instance, we hit upon the one we used quite quickly. Sometimes, it takes a while. Have you ever watched the Irish TV series Father Ted Eurovison episode? Check it out, that’s us. LOL.

Anyway, I digress. 

The poem's structure was interesting in that it was in a semi-strophic format. As a general rule, poems come in a 'strophic' format, that is to say, the same metre, verse after verse after verse, all the same. (Sweeping generalisation, but you get my meaning). But Robert's poem had a second section with a different metre; a deviation from the rhythm he’d used in the rest of the poem. This was ideal for our 'middle 8'. So, we used this separate section to write a different melody and take the song 'elsewhere' for a climactic development. Then we brought it right back down to finish the song with the first verse lyrics, almost 'finishing back where we began', with the ‘puppet master’, ‘pulling our strings’. 

We changed nothing about the poem, no edits or cuts. All the lyrics are Robert's. 

We did, however, add a lyric line. And it was this one...the only extra words that I wrote were in the line 'And the people go oh-oh-oh'.  This was needed to link the song structure together and act as a form of chorus/refrain. Neil laid down the basic track, and in line with Robert’s brief, it was mainly guitar, bass and drums and ‘protest’ song-ish.

Initially, we gave the song to Barry Nelson, a vocalist friend of ours to sing and we used the guitar-based accompaniment in the 'Bob Dylan meets David Bowie' style. Barry did a fantastic job on the vocals. His gorgeous rock voice possesses a heartfelt ‘rawness’ to it. It became a folk/rock song with a distinct bluesy edge, courtesy of Barry’s awesome vocals. He and his team added extra backing vocals to his version and it sounded fabulous. He also changed the last note of the end line of the ‘middle 8 section’, going up instead of down, which we loved! It really lifted the section. 

I had also recorded the song with more piano/strings, just for reference really, to send to our singer chum so he could hear the melody and the ‘feel’ needed. And I had also done all the backing vocals to help the song build and lift. Both versions were sent to the film's director and producers. I used my lower register, which has slightly more edge to it and necessary for this kind of song. 

In the end, to our surprise, my version of the song was chosen for the film. This really did surprise me and Neil as, given the film's subject matter, we fully expected them to go for the rockier male vocals performed by our friend Barry Nelson, a fabulous UK rock singer. 

But, the director felt that the juxtaposition between the two tough, world-weary male character leads and the female vocals in the underscore did work really well. The director also used Neil's melancholy instrumental music from the song in another scene, which was wonderfully poignant. Darren S. Cooke, the director, had a certain vision and used the song and its musical accompaniment to great effect. 

Watch & hear the song in situ. (Also features the other song we wrote this movie, One Last Job). 

Listen here to the instrumental. 

So, in essence, the producers and director, on heating the more orchestral and female vocal version of the song, decided not to go with their original choice of a Bob Dylan protest/male voiced song. It just demonstrates that, even when given a specific brief by the client, their opinions and decisions can change. 

Note to self. Always offer options! 

Obviously, I can’t talk about the two versions without sharing them both with you so you can hear the difference in styles that I am talking about. Click the links below. 

Here is rock vocalist, Barry Nelson's brilliantly raw, emotive version of the song. 

My version, used in the film. 

In summary. 

When we write something for a film or for a custom client, we are never really sure that they will like or indeed, use, what we’ve produced. It’s always a little trepidatious until we hear the verdict (usually positive!). Sometimes we can and do get it wrong. But experience has taught us that if we feel it’s right, then, nine times out of ten, it usually is what they want. All we have to go on is our experience, our own knowledge of how we feel the song or music should progress; in short, our gut instinct, if you like. Then, if we’ve stuck (more or less) to the brief we’ve been given, it usually works out fine! 

If you’d like to chat to us about working with you on your project, feel free to get in touch. 

The Puppet Master 

by Robert Putt 

When the puppet master pulls the strings 

The people jump and the birds take wing 

And we all lay dozin’ in the wings 

Until the puppet master pulls the strings 

Good or bad, we have no choice 

We’re prompted by the master’s voice 

Deeds rewarded in the same way 

As we dance to the tune that the master plays 

You thought you chose what game to play 

Steppin’ on the road of your own highway 

But it was all a lie, all make believe 

Your fate was set with nothin’ in between 

And the friends you’ve made and the loves you’ve lost 

It’s too late now, you must pay the cost 

No goin’ back, no time to wait, 

The master joker has set your fate 

Life begins with a dream and ends with a sleep 

The space that’s in between is bitter and sweet 

Well, you can’t make it happen or go back again 

Pulling your strings is the only game 

When the puppet master pulls the strings 

The people jump and the birds take wing 

And we all lay dozin’ in the wings 

Until the puppet master pulls the strings. 

                            Copyright 2019 Harvey/Grey Music/Robert Putt - All Rights Reserved Published by Barking Green Music Ltd 


How I Write Songs by Caitlin Grey  

                                                                     Writing about song writing is a bit weird!


As I’m sure many other creative people will tell you, song writers (unless they are also teachers) don’t usually have to analyse the mechanics of what they do. In general, I don’t really think about how I write songs, I just do it!

When I first began teaching singing and performance, explaining how I sing and perform came quite naturally, as you could argue that teaching itself is a form of performance. But song writing…mmm?

Song writing (to me at least) is a rather personal endeavour, generally involving copious cups of tea and choccy biccies and executed behind closed doors in a small, airless studio.

The process of creating a song is something akin to alchemy....mysterious and secret!

When you decide to share how you do it and write it down, you actually have to sit down and deconstruct the process because it’s not something you consciously think about. So, like I said, it’s weird.

But I'll give it a go. 

Enough waffle…let’s get to it! 


The right method?

The first thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong way to write songs – however you do it…hey, if it works for you, then keep going! There are however, certain practices and tried and tested methodologies that will definitely help you along the creative way.

So, if your way of writing is not working for you and you’re unhappy with the results of your efforts, then that’s the time to seek help and support from other writers.

I hope that sharing my writing process will shine a small light on the process and maybe provide you with some tips of what to do (or not!) possibly even demonstrating that whatever you are doing is not wrong!

I write songs in a few different ways, often in a jam/improvisation session with my song writing collaborator Neil Harvey. This is a brilliant way to write, I have to say, as ideas can just flow when you work with someone else. 

If I'm writing for a client then, depending on the brief, I will work from set lyrics and write a melody or vice versa. This type of composing requires a slightly different skillset, so I won't go into this now. It requires a post all of its own. 

However, when writing my own songs, I would say that about half of the time, I generally tend to start with a melody and a lyric combined, when I’m on my own. That’s just the way I work. It could be just a saying or a phrase that comes into my head and I just start singing it over and over. I may have been reading something that's inspired me or watched a film perhaps. Maybe I've been talking to someone or feeling something myself; a happy or sad experience that I've had or witnessed. There are numerous events that provoke me in to writing a song. Life is an infinite source of inspiration for songs. That's the beauty of what we do. 

Usually, (as soon as humanly possible!) I record it on my phone or my voice recorder, just in case I have to leave it to do something else. There’s nothing more annoying than thinking up a great melody and then forgetting it and, let me tell you, I've had inspiration for a tune at the most inconvenient times (steady on now!).  So, if I’ve recorded it, even mega roughly, I have it filed and I can go back to it later. Some composers and writers notate their ideas (write them down as sheet music... same process, different filing system!) Sometimes, I will do this, but very rarely and, before you budding writers out there panic, it isn't necessary to be able to read/write music to write songs, at all!   

Anyway, where was I?

Oh yes, so, sometimes, when I listen back to the idea, I’ll think, yep, it’s got potential and get really excited to work on it, but then sometimes, I’ll think, ah, not so good after all and I disregard it, or at least leave it for a while. I have many, many, half recorded ideas that started out as a hit! Some writers don’t record their ideas, but I have to, as my mind is like a sieve! Icelandic singer/songwriter Bjork once remarked that she never records her ideas; she just waits to see if she forgets it! If she does forget, she says, it wasn’t any good anyway. I tend to take a more pragmatic approach to writing and I record absolutely everything I write (if possible).

The nitty gritty!

So, if I decide the idea is good enough to work on, I’ll sit down at the piano and carry on singing it to see where the tune wants to go. Then I’ll try to add more melody and play around with some chords. So, for example, I’ll take it into a chorus, or if I’ve written the chorus part first, (this is quite normal for me) try to work in a verse type melody. Sometimes, this is easy and it all fits and flows fantastically and, sometimes, it’s a bit trickier, depending on the melody I’ve initially come up with. I would say that I mainly write from ear rather than notating music, although like I said earlier, I have done this for a few songs. Generally, I’ll have something in my head and I can ‘hear’ the basic arrangement that I want for the song. I then take my rough melody and lyrics to my song writing partner   Neil Harvey and we start working on it properly, trying to flesh out the structure and instrumentation. We decide on a key and then add the chords to accompany the vocal melody. Much of the time, we get stuck on the middle 8 (termed the 'middle 8' as it's usually the 8, or so, bars of instrumentation or vocal melody, that come after the second chorus in most pop/rock songs, that differ from the main melody of the song).Often a bugbear! (More on Middle 8’s in another article)

Once we have a basic arrangement we record a guide vocal and probably a guitar accompaniment or a keyboard, depending on the type of song. This is where it starts to get really exciting, as you can hear your song coming together. Also, the song can alter radically at this point, for example, changes in vocal melody, lyrics, arrangement, all sorts of things. Or, it could stay very close to the original idea. Like I said earlier there is no one way to do this. Just go with the flow and do what feels right to you. Obviously, it also depends on what genre you are working in. For example, garage or house/hip hop writers generally tend to start with a beat or some beats, building a song or track around a strong rhythm and working from there. Other writers, say.. rock writers for instance, may come up with a great guitar riff and develop a song that way. Like I said at the start, there is no right or wrong way to write songs, this is just how Neil and I do it. I tend to be melody driven as I’m a singer and the voice is my primary instrument to work with. I suppose that I would be considered in the industry as a top line writer; that is to say, someone who writes the vocal melody of the song, termed the top line in sheet music. Although, I do have significant input into the instrumentation as well. Sometimes, I’ll kind of ‘write’ the string parts or woodwind etc. on the spot while we’re recording and Neil has to decipher what I mean with all my hand movements and weird melodies.

Solo writer or team player? 

I am extremely lucky in that I have a collaborator to work with. Working with someone else is awesome. Although, it too, can have its challenges when egos become involved. The best thing is to leave your ego at the studio door and embrace any and all ideas. There was a time though when I worked alone and I wrote my songs on my own (hence all the tea & biscuits!). I just recorded my ideas and maybe put a few chords (from my keyboard) underneath to support the melody. Then, when I could afford it, I went into a recording studio and recorded the song. Many studios offer an arrangement facility. This is when you take a raw song in, for instance, a rough melody, lyrics and a bit of an idea of how you want it to sound, and the arrangers work with you until it’s finished. It can be expensive but at least you get your song done professionally. This is invaluable if you don’t play well enough to do it yourself and/or you don’t have recording facilities at home. Of course, nowadays, with the advent of home studio set ups, most people can record everything themselves. However, if that’s not possible, there are literally hundreds of studios offering help with recording your fledgling song nowadays, from everything to co-writing, providing instrumentation, producing and arranging, mixing and mastering. You can find one to suit most budgets.

In fact, we now offer songwriting and production services ourselves. Take a look at what we offer here. 

Or, if you’d like to chat to me or find out more details, do drop me a line.

If you do need help with recording your song, but you’re seriously broke, (yep, we’ve all been there!) then sometimes music tech students are generally willing to work with you for the experience. Alternatively, you could throw out a call for help to other budding producers or songwriters on social media. This is a great way to meet like-minded musos! And you never know…a new hit-making partnership may be born!

                                                                               Digression alert!

  Copyrighting: Protecting your work

Just be careful to make sure your song is/has been copyrighted before sending any rough recordings/tracks to anyone. It’s also advisable to decide/agree upfront on terms, if any collaborators/producers ask for rights in the composition. If this is freaking you out a little, fret not, I will cover this at length in another post. 

The subject of song rights/publishing and its corollaries is a minefield and can be a major headache for many creatives. As a general rule, although there are exceptions, we artists are not usually too savvy when it comes to copyright, rights assignments and so forth.

Neil and I have learned the hard way, how not to go about all this, through bitter (and expensive) experience.

So, I will be posting a detailed 'how to' on this rather thorny topic very soon. 


In summary

So, this is how I write songs…warts and all! There are no secret tricks involved, just commitment and perseverance. If you’ve been hitting a wall, then, hopefully, it’s inspired you to experiment with your own writing process. Consistency is key here.

'Practice makes permanent' as my old University professor used to say.

So, keep going. Keep experimenting with the creative process. If you're struggling, then try different approaches, reach out to others for collaborations, read or watch movies, talk to others for ideas and inspiration and you will get there. Don’t give up. It gets easier with experience and if you have a passion for your music, then you will find a way.

Above, have fun and enjoy it. To be able to write/make music, sing or write songs is a gift and a blessing.

It has enriched my life beyond measure. 

I wish you good luck, happy writing and see you next time.

Keep the faith.

Cheerio for now!

Love & music,

Caitlin x  

Ps. If you'd like to work with Caitlin & Neil, or would just like more info on our music production services, drop us a line here. 

‘’I'm humbled at the love & hard work poured into my song by Caitlin & Neil. They're freakin' amazing.'' 

Emily Glazener US rock singer/songwriter

‘’Neil & Caitlin deliver such beautiful songs, They turned my poems into something so special. I'm thrilled.''

Jennie Ebbutt, Poetess, Songs from a Spiritual heart (8 songs album). 

‘’You guys are awesome! Thank you so much for Let Me Call You Sweetheart! It works perfectly in the film''

Richard Dee-Roberts, Writer/Director The Reverend & Mrs Simpson