TV & Radio

From Daisy Jones & The Six to Girls5eva: How do you write music for a fictional band?

The most important character in Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel Daisy Jones & The Six? It’s the music – and any devotee of the book, a fictional oral history of a Seventies rock band, will have strong feelings about exactly how it should sound. It might have shades of Stevie Nicks, a touch of Joni Mitchell, a dash of The Eagles’ soft rock – and it has to feel vital, like it “takes a piece of your heart out and shows it to you”, as the group’s singer Billy Dunne puts it. The success of Prime Video’s Daisy Jones TV adaptation, then, was always going to ride on the songs – but how do you write the perfect track for an entirely made-up artist?

There is a time-honoured tradition of music written specifically for on-screen stories, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Think of Lady Gaga’s Ally making her euphoric debut singing “Shallow” alongside Bradley Cooper’s veteran rockstar Jackson Maine in 2018’s A Star is Born, belting out the guttural howl that electrifies the song’s second half. Then consider the acute second-hand embarrassment of watching Succession’s Kendall Roy spitting out “L to the OG”’s laboured rhymes. From Spinal Tap’s heavy metal to Josie and the Pussycats’ girl-band pop to Hugh Grant channeling Duran Duran in Music and Lyrics, the history of film and TV is littered with fictional earworms.

A BookTok favourite championed by Reese Witherspoon and her online book club, Jenkins Reid’s 2019 novel was the second in her “famous four” quartet exploring women’s lives in the spotlight (following 2017’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo). The 10-part series charts the rapid ascent of a Fleetwood Mac-alike rock group in the Seventies, headed by Dunne (Sam Claflin) and volatile singer-songwriter Daisy Jones (played by actual rock royalty Riley Keough). Their story is replete with love triangles, substance abuse and fraught studio sessions that make Get Back look like a love-in. In the show’s imagined world, The Six’s album Aurora has a quasi-legendary status – only enhanced by their abrupt split soon after its release.

Bringing the band’s (fictional) music to (real) life, then, calls for songwriters with significant pedigree. Step forward musician Blake Mills and veteran producer Tony Berg who have previously worked with artists such as Phoebe Bridgers, Laura Marling and John Legend. Over the course of the show, Mills wrote or co-wrote 25 songs, something Berg describes as “daunting” – and a rarity for a television project. “Normally, a show would go to the Billboard charts, choose the 20 top songwriters, commission songs from each of them. What you get, in my opinion, generally is something aggressively terrible,” he explains.

Instead, Mills’s writing – and Berg’s additional production support – acts as the show’s narrative throughline, giving The Six a cohesive, recognisable sound. It both subtly reflects the group’s musical evolution over time, and takes in the various psychodramas that spring up during anyone’s recording session. The real-life, 12-track Aurora album ranges from the band’s bittersweet first single “Look At Us Now (Honeycomb)” to the thrilling, emotionally charged harmonies of “Regret Me”. It’s difficult to believe that neither Keough nor Claflin had any musical experience before signing up – they sound (and look) like bona fide rock stars.

Mills and Berg’s combined contacts meant that they were able to call on the likes of Bridgers, Marcus Mumford and Seventies singer-songwriter Jackson Browne to help out; Berg’s daughter Z, formerly the lead singer of Noughties indie group The Like and now a solo artist, also co-wrote three tracks. It was a surprisingly hard sell to get them on board, Berg admits, “because television has treated music so poorly for so long… because it’s always mangled”. In this instance, though, he and Mills were able to promise “no interference with the process… the songs would not be monkeyed with”.

Crucially, a TV show with music is a very different beast from a traditional musical. In the latter, the songs might convey real emotions, but they often feel more like a flight of fancy than a radio-friendly hit. For the audience to believe in The Six’s music, it had to feel like the authentic result of the heated sessions we see on screen.

In other words, the circumstances of the writing must bleed through into a fictional artist’s song for the track to really chime with listeners. So when three-time Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Lori McKenna “hunkered down in a studio to write with Lady Gaga” for A Star Is Born, alongside fellow Nashville musicians Hillary Lindsey and Natalie Hemby, she had a different set of considerations to normal.

“As a songwriter, we think about the radio, we think about the audience and we think about the artist’s audience, and what they want to hear from them,” she explains. But as she watched noted Method fan Gaga “sink deeper into how she was going to develop that character” as the days went by, McKenna realised she had to consider exactly where protagonist Ally would have written “Always Remember Us This Way”.

“You want to write something that stands on its own, for sure, but that song had to be written as if it could have just been her sitting on her bedroom floor,” McKenna says. “At that point, she doesn’t even know if anyone’s gonna ever hear her music.” The end product is a raw and elegiac song with “Nashville bones”, and none of the production bells and whistles that characterise Ally’s sound later in the story. It feels emotionally honest precisely because it was crafted to sound as if Ally was just writing for herself, not for packed arenas.

“Always Remember Us This Way” feels remarkably personal, like its imagined writer might have spent years honing it. These fictional circumstances couldn’t be further from the imagined production of the Nineties pop throwbacks of Meredith Scardino’s comedy Girls5Eva. The show, which recently arrived on Netflix, tells the story of a one-hit-wonder girl group who peaked at the turn of the millennium, then faded from the public consciousness – until their biggest track is sampled by a rising rapper. Scardino and her writers’ room work on the lyrics, then composer and executive producer Jeff Richmond sets them to music.

Dreaming up the band’s Nineties back catalogue, Scardino was very aware that “a lot of these songs [would have been] done pretty quickly”. Girls5Eva, it’s safe to assume, would not have had a Max Martin-esque super-producer on speed dial. “You felt like, ‘OK, it doesn’t have to be this incredible piece of art or music,’” she explains. “It could feel like it was something that was churned out in an afternoon, because they were kind of a B- or C-level act. They weren’t getting necessarily the greatest [collaborators].” The result? Parodic but strangely believable tracks like “Dream Girlfriends” and “Jailbait”, which skewer an uncomfortable irony of the era – that female empowerment made a lot of men very rich. “There was this feeling of girl power, but a lot of it was engineered by a team of dudes behind the scenes.”

Scardino does not have a musical background, but acquired a speedy apprenticeship in writing pop parodies while working alongside Girls5Eva’s executive producer Tina Fey (who is married to Richmond) on Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. For one episode of the latter, she was tasked with writing 10 songs for “a parody of those Now That’s What I Call Music! compilation CDs”, called Now That Sounds Like Music (described in the show as containing “music inspired by, but legally different from, the music you love”).

A manufactured group like Girls5Eva was as much about selling a product as it was about creating a sound, and when she was first pitching the show, Scardino created a fake CD to present to TV bosses. “I wanted to have a quick shorthand to give execs at networks an idea of what kind of group they were,” she recalls. She even invested in a “shrink wrapper” and “this blow dryer thing that melts plastic” to make it look shelf-ready (and to stop execs from opening it, “because I didn’t have music on it”). There was a tracklist on the back, featuring song names that eventually made it onto the series, and even “discount stickers”. Those quippy, often joke-led song titles contrast with the more heartfelt tracks that the band record in the present day, written by Grammy winner Sara Bareilles (who plays Dawn in the series). “[They] really ground the show and make you believe in this group as a viable group today.”

The autotune and synths of throwback Girls5Eva are worlds away from The Six’s Seventies sound, which harks back to a time when quirks and flaws weren’t necessarily smoothed away in post-production. Instead, Berg explains, these “idiosyncrasies” became an important part of the soundscape. “There are chord progressions that you don’t hear in hit songs, per se. But that was precisely what made for hit songs 50 years ago – the iconoclasm, the willingness to do something outrageous,” he says of creating Aurora.

To really get into the spirit of the decade, location mattered. The album was laid down at Los Angeles’s legendary Sound City Studios, which Mills and Berg run together. Not only were they in usefully close proximity to the likes of Bridgers and Mumford, who both recently recorded albums there – the cast and their backing musicians were also recording in rooms steeped in musical history, previously frequented by the likes of Neil Young, Elton John, Tom Petty and, yes, Fleetwood Mac. “There’s an aura to the place,” Berg says. “Blake and I have studios filled with equipment that, as it happens, was made and purchased in the Seventies. All the gear that we recorded this on, it’s actually quite faithful to the era.”

What we’re left with is a collection of songs that will stick around in viewers’ minds long after the credits roll on Daisy Jones’s final episode – and that would slot pretty effortlessly into a Seventies Spotify playlist. Could a dedicated fan ask for anything more?

Daisy Jones & The Six’ is on Amazon Prime Video from 3 March. ‘Girls5Eva’ is streaming on Netflix

Fictional Nineties pop throwbacks Girls5Eva

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