Rickie Lee Jones – and why words don’t always matter.

40 years ago this month, Rickie Lee Jones released her debut album. It is one of my all time favourites; for starters, how many other album covers can you name, where the performer – male or female – is smoking a cigar?! (Jay-Z, she was way ahead of you!)

From the first time the cassette got plugged into our car stereo at the start of a family holiday (I wasn’t joking about the ‘40 years ago’ bit), I have no idea how many times I’ve listened to it. Here was a tantalising glimpse into a sunlit Californian world which couldn’t have been more enticing, and different to a Britain languishing at the tail end of the 1970s. Many people will know the opening track, the radio airplay staple “Chuck E’s in Love,” but the rest of the album was our little secret. There’s the smoky, languid, jazzy double bass intro on “Easy Money,” the squeaky fretwork on “Night Train,” the brilliantly abrupt ending on “After Hours,” her male vocalist impression on “Coolsville,” the hilarious hatchet job on Sal Bernardi, who would later become her partner, in “Weasel and the White Boys Cool.” I know every note, chord, bass line, every brush of a cymbal.

So you’d assume I would also know all the lyrics off by heart – that I’d be totally word-perfect.

Actually, no. In fact not even close. And with this particular album, I would never want that to change.

“Now hang on just a minute there Rory,” I hear you say (I’m assuming that ‘affable politesse’ is your favoured style of confrontation). “You’re someone who’s paid to read out words for a living; doesn’t your previous statement rather undermine your calling as a natural, versatile, London based, neutral English voiceover artist?” (I’m also assuming that you’re keen to help with the SEO for my website.)

Yes, of course lyrics are important but, just as important is the mood, the style – and how that song makes you feel. As voiceovers, music will accompany a huge number of the scripts we record. If I’m in a session, a producer will often ask if I’d like to hear the music bed before I do a take. Personally I love NOT hearing it. What happens is that I think I’m going to read a script in a certain way, then I hear the music and it can completely change my style, intonation and energy. Most importantly, those decisions are completely instinctive, because I haven’t had any time to prepare or think. And often that take is the best.

By the same token, we can sometimes forget how musical the spoken word can be. The most obvious example of course is the rhythmic meter of poetry. I used to love reading AA Milne poems to my children, because the rhythm and rhyme were so perfect. “Disobedience” is one of my favourites. This is the first verse and to get the full effect you HAVE to read it out loud!

James James

Morrison Morrison

Weatherby George Dupree

Took great

Care of his Mother

Though he was only three.

James James Said to his Mother,

“Mother,” he said, said he:

“You must never go down to the end of the town,

if you don’t go down with me.”

If you’re like me, you’ll have finished the verse a lot faster than you started, as you gradually become more and more comfortable with the rhythm. Note also that there’s no punctuation at all in the first 6 lines – the musicality is just created by the words alone.

So back to Rickie Lee – a hipster way ahead of her time. This album is a masterclass in whimsical moods, imprenetrable LA lingo and late night jazz club moments. Take ‘Danny’s All-Star Joint’ as a particular case in pojnt – I think I can tell you one word every 10. It’s part sung, part spoken, so effortlessly cool, so West Coast, so sassy and a little bit naughty (something about kissing boys behind the magazines). If I were to learn the words, that magic would most definitely be lost.

So no sleeve notes / azlyrics.com (delete as age-appropriate) for me; I will continue listening in blissful lyrical ignorance. All right, just one small sop to the word-lovers: ‘PIP’ in the opening line of ‘Chuck E’s in Love’ stands for ‘Party in Person.’

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Mary Poppins – what’s with the funny voices?!

You don’t have to talk about Mary Poppins for long before the subject of accents rears its little head. Thanks to Dick van Dyke, with his “Croiky Meery Poorpins” interpretation of Cockney patois, we almost forget the film’s hard-hitting messages about women’s suffrage and the fragility of the modern banking system (ok, not that hard-hitting!)

So when the long-awaited sequel dropped just before Christmas, a lot of the chatter leading up to it had been along the lines of:

“Oh well, I’m sure the producers won’t be stupid enough to make the same mistake as the original and cast a non-British acto…. What? …. Lin-Manuel Miranda? … Isn’t he American, with Puerto Rican grandparents? … Yes, I did find that out on Wikipedia, but that’s beside the point … won’t he mangle the fine Cockney lingo even worse than Dick van Dyke?”

As a voiceover artist, I admit I am ridiculously quite picky about actors getting accents ‘right’ in films. And since I live in London as well, I was even more eager to see the end result. It was a casting decision that showed considerable cojones; either that or Disney don’t really give a toss what a few British critics might say about the geographical veracity of a character’s accent. And anyway, Lin-Manuel Miranda was playing a lamplighter, not a chimney sweep. Huge difference!

His screen presence exuded warmth, kindness – how could you not like him?! The voice was … OK. Not great, but as Don Cheadle in Ocean’s 11 will confirm, a Cockney accent is a tricky nut to crack (although Chris Pratt on a recent Graham Norton episode doing impressions of TOWIE characters is worth YouTubing). There were one or two moments when it was clear Lin-Manuel was not “from these parts.” One example stood out: the word ‘fix.’ In Cockney, it would have a hint of an ‘ee’ sound to it, but if you overdo it by even the tiniest of margins, you’ve jumped all the way from Pearly King to Puerto Rican. These are fine margins and the role was also cleverly scripted so as to avoid too many more “Gor Blimey” bear traps.

But the main thing was, I’d stopped paying too much attention to his accent once Emily Blunt had uttered her first line! I should point out that the most recent film I’d seen in which she starred (and was jaw-droppingly good) was Sicario! So this was always going to be a bumpy transition.

But, seriously, why? Why the voice?

Julie Andrews had sounded like … well, Julie Andrews. She was posh, clear, and with none of the affectations that we got from Emily Blunt. In case you need reminding, the original Mary Poppins was set in 1910 and there is more than a 20 year gap to the sequel, during the Depression era of the 1930s. However, the excessively clipped tones gave the impression that Mary Poppins had been blown off on the east wind, to spend the next 20 years living in PG Wodehouse novels, or had taken a position with a member of the Bloomsbury set, some of whose affectations had rubbed off on her. For historical purposes, have a listen to the interview with Virginia Woolf, recorded in 1937 (clip at the bottom of this article).

In the inter-war period, linguistic affectations were all the rage. This was the era of Brideshead Revisited and the Mitfords. “Off” became “orff,” “girl” was “gel” (hard ‘g,’ not what teenage boys put in their hair) and the stuff that would soon start clogging up our oceans was definitely “plar-stic.”

However, there was one glaring error in her diction.

My late grandmother, who grew up in the 20s and 30s, was made to learn the following poem, as part of elocution lessons, and she often used to recite it to me.

Mr Brown looked out of his house on the South Downs,

Where he saw a brown cow browsing on the plough.

Out bounced Trouncer, growling loudly.

“Down, foul hound!” he shouted, clouting him soundly on the snout.

The purpose was to ensure elongated vowels, and the ‘ow” sound was the most important to master. The mouth had to work vertically, rather than horizontally. If anything, a hint of an ‘a’ vowel would be added, so it sounded like “aow” rather than “eow.”

Why? Well, the British class system of course, where the way you spoke was the first indicator of your social standing. No doubt people went round and round tying themselves up in knots trying to talk in the right way, or as they would have said, “raand and raand.” Because, my dear, any sort of ‘e’ entering the inflection was just infra dig!

In this respect, unfortunately, Emily Blunt’s Mary Poppins was not practically perfect in every way. “Neow” and “eout” were littered throughout her lines. Normally, I might not have noticed this or it might not have bothered me. But the accent practically defined the performance. It was a central thread of this Mary Poppins, and for me it was an unnecessary distraction. Of course, what was all the more ironic was the fact that when she and ‘Jack’ sing “A Cover is not the Book” she does it in a Cockney accent! And it’s brilliant!!

Dick van Dyke may have been a longstanding joke for his role as Bert in the original, but I feel the mantle of “Dodgiest Mary Poppins Accent” has well and truly passed on to a new generation. And don’t tell me you didn’t have a tear in your eye when he appeared at the end of the sequel. I certainly did.

Oh, and we never got the chance to talk about Meryl Streep and her “whatever THAT was” accent!

 

 

 

The Mid-Atlantic Accent

This is an article I wrote, which appeared in the Summer 2017 edition of “The Buzz” magazine, the only magazine dedicated to the Voiceover industry.

Picture the scene if you will: ‘Brring Brring’ (yes, I’m aware it’s 30 years since phones rang like that, but you get the picture).

“Hi, I’ve got a possible job lined up for you; the client is wondering if you can voice this in a…” they pause, and your heart sinks as you know what’s coming next “…Mid-Atlantic accent.” And there it is! ‘Mid’ Atlantic – with its Doppelganger brother ‘Trans’ – the fairytale unicorns of Voiceover accents: with genuine, engaging appeal to the whole English-speaking world for the cost of just one session fee. Ohhh, if only it were that simple! Read more