Rachel Bettesworth studied Vocals and Songwriting at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance after studying English Literature at Roehampton. She started performing in musical theatre at 9, and has since performed in musicals, choirs, as a backing singer, session vocalist and singer-songwriter in the UK, Europe and the US. Rachel released 2 EPs before parting ways with her management in 2015. She lives in London where she works as a vocal coach.
Her first novel, When I Grow Up I Want To Be Relevant, is about a successful child actor who, now in her late teens, tries to make it in the music industry.
When I Grow Up I Want To Be Relevant
Arcade Studio, Ealing, London, July 2006.
Jake pushed the key in the door and twisted it. He grinned at me as it opened, his whitened teeth glowing a little in the dark.
‘See,’ he said, switching on a light. ‘No alarm.’
‘Clever,’ I teased. He gestured for me to step inside while he held the door open with one foot.
‘I turned the CCTV off too. Earlier this evening before I left. So you see? We’re not gonna get in any trouble.’ He waved his fingers at me. ‘You’re in safe hands.’
Jake was a really good guy. He was a producer for David Harper, one of the UK’s most successful songwriters, and he was tipped as the next UK producer heading all the way to the top. He had been instrumental in the early days of a number of female artists whose careers had taken off recently, and I caught a lucky break when he saw me perform at The Bedford three weeks before. He’d asked if I was interested in getting some demos down, we’d gone for lunch in Chiswick and he’d offered to do some tracks for me. Normally he cost a fortune, but he believed in me. He said he’d do the tracks for a couple of hundred each at his place, but I’d still get to record the vocals at Arcade Studio, David Harper’s recording studio. Jake had the keys, so we could sneak in one night without anyone knowing.
In the reception, all over the walls, there were discs. Platinum and gold discs. And all of them had been worked on- recorded, mixed or mastered- here, at Arcade.
‘Hold on here a sec, Paige, while I just go turn the lights on and do all the boring stuff. Have a look around if you like. D’you want some tea?’ I made a goofy face at him, conscious of my response.
‘Can I just have some boiling water in a mug please? I have honey and lemon teabags with me.’
‘Christ,’ he laughed, ‘You’re a proper singer singer then.’
For a few minutes I was alone. It was cooler inside than it had been out in the summer city night. I was wearing just a crop top underneath my hoodie. Jake had said that the studio would be cold to begin with, but then it’d get a lot warmer with the machines up and running. I was ready for both.
Alone, I looked at the discs on the walls and tried not to pinch myself. Coldplay, Oasis, Bloc Party, Sugababes, Crossfire Messiah, Arctic Monkeys, The Kooks, Lione$$, The Futureheads, Lily Allen, The Killers, Damien Rice, Kate Nash, Ella Ford, Will Young, Albino Go, Razorlight. And then, halfway down the corridor, there it was.
‘No way,’ I said out loud.
‘What?’ Jake had reappeared through another door holding a mug. I pointed at the large frame, lit up by a light of its own.
‘That’s the first album I ever bought.’ He followed my finger to see where I was pointing. ‘I can actually remember walking into Woolworth’s and counting out my own money on the counter. On cassette as well. I got it on cassette.’
‘Yeah?’ he said. ‘The Baron co-wrote almost every track on that record.’ Jake had referred to David Harper as The Baron when we met for lunch. Apparently it was a thing people did. ‘Pretty sure the PRS royalties for that one album paid for the whole of this studio to be built,’ he was saying. ‘It sold like three million copies.’
‘August 1997,’ I said, looking up close at the plaque now. ‘What’s that nearly nine years ago? I reckon I could still sing every word if we put it on right now. There was one track- track seven- I used to love that song.’
In 1997, a few months before my first ever audition, we went down to Cornwall for half term. One afternoon, my mum and I were parked on the beach in Polzeath. It was raining. We’d been horse riding a few miles away while Harry spent the afternoon at Doobie’s Surf School with some school friends who also happened to be down. He was thirteen then. Far too cool to go riding with his mum and seven-year-old sister. So while Harry finished up, we sat in the car. We were probably colouring, or reading or something, smelling of horses.
The cassette was playing. The A side finished and neither of us flipped it over for the B side. So I started singing the next song without the tape. It was this lovely acoustic guitar and vocal track. I sang every word, every note, keeping time, picturing the strumming of the guitar in my head. I don’t think I’d ever sung like that in front of anyone before. About a verse in I remember noticing my mum’s eyes watching me in the rear view mirror. I knew she was listening and I carried on as though she wasn’t. I was performing for her. Pretending I hadn’t seen.
When I finished, she turned around in her seat and looked at me.
‘That was beautiful, Peggy,’ I was still Peggy then, to everyone. ‘You have a lovely singing voice. Did you know that?’
I smiled at her.
‘I really like singing,’ I said.
‘Well you’re very good at it. I’m impressed. That was beautiful. Clever you.’
‘C’mon, Paige,’ again Jake was holding a door open for me. I took one last glance at the face on the album cover before I headed into the studio.
The control room was huge. There weren’t discs on the walls in here. Instead there were guitars. All over the walls there were Strats, Teles, Les Pauls, SGs. And keyboards and synths. About thirty of them, mainly Nords and Junos. Bordering the room were amps. Marshalls, Oranges, Fender Twins. Trays and trays of pedals. Hooks with XLR cables and jack leads, all meticulously wound and taped to avoid every musician’s least favourite anything: tangled wires. The walls behind all this were a rich red colour, and the air was cool. It hummed electrically. Computer fans and air con.
On the other side of the control room was a large window through, and the door into the live room. That was where the live recordings took place for any acoustic instruments. I could see a piano through the window. A glossy black grand. A huge drum kit. Another piano, this one an upright. Beside that window was a smaller window into the vocal booth. Through that was a microphone, a pop shield, and a set of headphones hanging from the stand.
Jake was now sitting in a black leather swivel chair in the middle of a square of wooden flooring in the centre of the control room. The wooden flooring, surrounded elsewhere in the room by plush dark carpet, was about the size of a dance floor at a wedding. Framing it were monitors, mixing desks, speakers, interfaces, compressors and a whole bunch of other machines I hadn’t seen before. There were so many things in that room I hadn’t seen before. It was like walking into the Inventing Room in Willy’s Wonka’s chocolate factory.
Jake noticed as I looked into the vocal booth.
‘Y’know Amy Winehouse was the last person to sing into that mic.’
‘Actual Amy Winehouse?’ I said, right before I remembered to sound less impressed than I was.
‘She was here yesterday afternoon,’ Jake nodded.
‘Can I go warm up a sec?’
‘Yeah sure. You go warm up and I’ll open the first track. What d’you wanna work on first?’
I thought for a moment.
‘Let’s start with ‘Up’? We can have some fun before things get serious with the other one.’
I sat at the piano for about twenty minutes while Jake fiddled in the other room. He’d already been working on getting basic tracks down and as I warmed up he opened the first and started playing around a bit, working on the drums. I ran myself through some exercises. Some breathing, humming, gentle sirens.
Halfway through playing one of my own songs, I heard the door shut behind me. Jake was grinning through the window. He signalled for me to go over to the vocal booth and put the headphones on.
As I got up I realised I was nervous. I’d gone quiet. Not that there was anyone to speak to in the live room but if there had been I don’t think I’d have spoken to them.
When I put on the headphones they were much too loose. I adjusted them to fit my head so the cans sat over my ears.
‘Wow. Amy Winehouse has big hair,’ I said, and I heard Jake chuckle in my ears. He could hear me in his headphones through the mic.
‘Yeah, it was massive.’
‘Hi. Are those cans too big for you? There’s loads of others if you want to try.’
‘No no,’ I said. We looked at each other through the window between the rooms and I shook my head and smiled. ‘It’s fine. These are great. Thank you.’
‘Up’ was a upbeat track. It got to the chorus in twenty-seven seconds and it was full of catchy hooks and quirky lyrics, but it was still full of soul, still quite jazzy. Lots of extended chords and a cheeky Hammond organ part that I had played and sent over to Jake before this session. I wrote ‘Up’ so I’d have a radio-friendly single to bring to the labels, but one that still fit in with my soul/jazz sound.
The first few times through, I was still a little nervous. Jake was watching and I felt slightly uncomfortable. I was very aware of his presence. I tried to push my nerves to one side and get into the song. I started performing.
‘This is great, Paige,’ Jake’s voice said in my ears once I’d settled in. ‘We should go over the verses a couple of times each now. I’ll just loop them and you can go round and round with them. Have some fun with it. This one really works when you start having fun. I can hear it in your voice when you let go. Here, listen. The vocal is totally dry right now but just so you get an idea.’
The track started in my ears and there I was, singing on my own track. I’d been writing songs since I was a small child. Back before I even started working in theatre I would sit for hours on end playing piano while my mum and Harry played cricket in the field behind our house. I must have written over a hundred songs by the time I was twelve. I’d heard myself on Original Cast Recordings, but never my own music before. It felt like fireworks.
‘See?’ said Jake, and I nodded along, not wanting to admit that I thought it sounded pretty great actually. ‘Verse one first then yeah?’ he went on. ‘We’ll go verses, middle 8 and then choruses. If you fuck up it’s fine just pick it back up. Then we’ll chuck in a few harmonies and an ad lib track, OK? Just a guide with those though. We can layer up all the backing vocals at mine another day. I just want something to work with.’
‘OK,’ I agreed, all fireworks and no fear now. ‘I’m ready.’
An hour later, once we’d run through all the sections of the song a bunch of times and I’d put down some basic backing vocals, Jake’s voice came up in my ears again.
‘I think we’ve got it. Are you happy?’
If Jake was happy then I figured it was probably OK.
‘Yeah. OK. Shall I come through?’
I came back out to the control room and we high-fived. We listened through one of the takes and my smile grew so big I almost couldn’t fit it all on my face. Stay cool, I kept thinking.
Jake saved the files on to an external hard drive. He was going to comp it all later, he told me. That meant taking splices of the best takes and chopping it all together to make one lead vocal track. He could cut words in half, change notes, swap in single words for better takes, delete my breathing. I was learning so much about what goes into a pop track. How the vocal is copied and pasted and dusted and polished and turned into perfection once the singer stops singing. It was nothing like theatre, where everything has to be perfect there and then in front of fifteen hundred people. Or like recording in the days of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, where the band recorded together and everyone was done in one take.
We went outside for a cigarette. I didn’t smoke but the next track was darker than ‘Up’ and I wanted to get a gritty rasp in my voice. We stood on the front step and neither of us moved to the second even though we were quite close to each other.
Jake was twenty-one. I’d turned sixteen a few months before so he was considerably older than me. I started thinking he fancied me and wondered if I fancied him. He was attractive. Just north of 6ft with fair hair, big green eyes and an estuary accent. He was wearing black, straight cut jeans, black Chelsea boots, a plain white t and a leather jacket. He was cool. And he was a successful producer, so he was even cooler than that.
As we smoked he told me about some artists he’d worked with recently. Ella Ford, Cheska Wilde. They were both kicking off. But they were both really poppy. I didn’t want that. Not for me.
‘And what about your brother’s band?’ Jake asked. I had been waiting for this. I was sure he’d have done some research since I’d mentioned my brother was in a band when we’d had lunch. ‘He’s in Starting Fires right? Aren’t they killing it stateside right now?’
They were. ‘Falling’- the follow up single for their second album- was currently number three in America and number two here.
‘Yeah,’ I nodded. ‘Their second album just went gold out there. And it’s number 1 on the billboard album chart. Crazy really. But yeah. They’re back in a couple of weeks to finish the tour with a few UK dates and ending with two nights at the Brixton Academy. I can’t wait.’
‘Sweet,’ said Jake. ‘Great album their new one. I’m such a pop punk geek at heart. The songwriting is so fucking good. Does your brother write any of it?’
Harry was the main songwriter in Starting Fires. He basically wrote every song on the first album and wrote or co-wrote most of the second.
‘He does,’ I said before I took the last pull of my cigarette, dropped it on the ground and pressed it under my trainer. ‘He’s the rocket behind it all to be fair. Ed’s the beautiful face and the sexy voice, but Harry’s the heartbeat.’
‘Harry’s the guts and Ed’s the glory?’ Jake grinned. ‘Story of a songwriter’s life, Paige. It’ll all end in tears.’ He rolled his eyes and shook his head before adding, ‘It usually does anyway. Right. Let’s get moving yeah? Back inside.’
Back in the control room I checked my phone. It was 1am. Jake had dimmed the lights. He had a slight headache. It was much hotter in the studio now, as he’d said it would be. I took off my hoodie and put it on a chair and left my phone on top. The vocal booth was small and I guessed it’d be even warmer in there, so I went back in in my crop top.
‘Sing right up close to the pop shield for this one would you?’ Jake said, walking into the vocal booth once I’d sung the next song through twice and checked levels. He’d brought me another mug of hot water with honey and lemon. ‘You can even let your lips nearly touch it when it’s all a little more intimate. Just don’t be scared of really getting up close, yeah?’
‘Got it,’ I said. I blew across my tea and realised it might have looked like I’d pouted my lips at him. He didn’t seem to have noticed. He was looking in my eyes. He held eye contact for a split second too long and he reached for me. My stomach swooped but, and I felt an internal cringe when I realised, he was just reaching for the headphones.
‘Actually, make sure you have one ear off when you’re singing quieter. Like that.’ He pulled one can off from over my ear. ‘You’ll get a much better indication of how you’re sounding. And then when it builds for that huge ending you can put it back on and just go for it. OK, kid?’I nodded at him and realised, no, I didn’t fancy him. It was more of a big brother vibe. ‘You’re allowed to be vulnerable in here,’ Jake said, focussing in on my eyes again with his own piercing greens. ‘This is the song that made me want to work with you, remember? With a beautiful song like this you need to go back to where you were when you wrote it. Don’t just perform it like you’re a character. You need to really remember how you felt when it happened. I know it’s tough, but you can do it.’
This was what I’d heard about him. That he was good at helping the singer get to the heart of the song. Bringing out the vulnerability to get the most honest performance. I smiled at him and felt a bit naked.
‘I might cry,’ I laughed.
‘That’s OK,’ he said, his voice kind. ‘I won’t tell anyone. What happens in the studio stays in the studio.’
‘Good. OK.’ I paused and Jake made to leave the vocal booth. ‘Jake?’ He turned. ‘I don’t want any harmonies or cut and paste in this song,’ I said, ‘I just want to sing it.’
‘Cool, sounds good. We can do full takes. You wanna prove you can be a one-take wonder?’
‘I’ll give it a shot,’ I said, aware of my heart rate. ‘Right. I’m just gonna be quiet for a moment.’
‘OK. I’ll leave you to it. You just wave at me when you’re ready.’
He clicked shut the door and went back to the control room.
The booth was twilit, since Jake had dimmed the lights, but I closed my eyes anyway.
‘Burn’ was the name of the track. I ran my thumb over the mark, still slightly raised, white and taut on my wrist. I thought of my shattered cheekbone, my blackening eye. I remembered the guilt I’d felt to have I’d caused a situation that made Harry react that way. Harry. The big brother I loved so unconditionally and whose acceptance I wanted so badly. Harry who was so angry at so many things when we were growing up. Harry who allowed himself, over and over again, to ball up his fist and aim that anger at me.
There it was. That was it. That was the feeling. Like lead and the strongest gravity. Eyes still closed, I waved at Jake to start the track.
What happened next felt nothing like any performance I’d ever given. Tiny at first. No singer showing off what she could do. No trying to impress anyone. Just this little voice, and the piano, and all this space around it.
By the second chorus, I was singing my lungs out. And as the song built, and the horns swelled, and that huge drum fill lead to the middle 8, I roared. I almost forgot Jake was even there. I almost forgot everything. The fireworks I’d felt earlier were nothing. This was more like a supernova.
When the track ended, I regained my breath and opened my eyes. Jake was standing up in the middle of the control room, grinning at me and nodding. He was clapping. I wiped the tears from my eyes and smiled at him. And then I noticed something was wrong. It took me a while to see what was happening. I thought he was clapping. The walls were soundproof and the lights were dim. He could have been clapping.
But then I noticed his belt was undone. And he’d lowered his jeans.
I didn’t understand. I looked at his erection in his hand, moving up and down, and his grin. I thought there was some joke I’d missed out on. I almost laughed, a knee jerk reaction. But then it didn’t stop.
‘What are you doing?’ I said. But he’d taken his cans off. I couldn’t tell if he could hear me. I didn’t want this to happen. I thought maybe he’d got the wrong idea- maybe something I’d done that made him think- the lip thing maybe.
I went to the door, I wanted to leave. It was locked. He’d locked the door. Fuck. I didn’t know what was happening. What was going to happen. When I went back to the booth he’d stepped closer to the window.
‘Jake? What are you doing?’ I shouted. ‘Please stop.’ I saw his eyes on my stomach. I looked down at my body and began to cry. I wished I hadn’t taken my hoodie off. I felt like a slut for wearing this little crop top. He probably thought I’d wanted him to see my body. See my stomach. See how much I looked like I could be a star. I had wanted that, I thought. I had.
I tried to cover myself with my bare arms. I could feel his eyes on me. I felt sick. I looked at him through the window and shook my head. Crying harder now.
‘Please stop, Jake.’
He’d sped up. Still grinning. But he was grimacing now too. He’s going to rape me, I thought. I am so stupid. What did I expect? No one knows where I am. What did I think was going to happen? I am so fucking stupid. He’s turned the CCTV off. He’s going to come in here and rape me.
I started banging on the window, shouting at him to please stop it, please let me out. And then he leant back, eyes still on me and I saw him groan. His body jolted and his face looked angry. He twitched. And then he came.
I stood there. I didn’t know how to move. I was so ashamed of my crop top.
Jake reached for a tissue from the desk, wiped himself, got another tissue, disappeared behind the desk as he wiped the floor. He put the tissues in the bin and put his dick back in his jeans and did up his belt. And then he walked towards the door to the live room.
I was so sure that I was about to be raped. I thought of picking up the mic stand and hitting him over the head with it and running. Or throwing my mug of hot water over him. It’d still be hot enough to hurt.
But when he unlocked the door, opened it, and stood in the frame, I couldn’t move.
‘Fuck,’ he said. ‘That was amazing, Paige. You’re fucking amazing,’ he chuckled. ‘Do you know how rare it is to find a star like you?’ I didn’t reply. I stood there, barely able to breathe. I don’t think I was breathing. ‘Fuck me,’ he continued, ‘I feel so lucky that I am the only person on the planet who got to see that. And no one but us two will ever know what just happened in here. That was fucking amazing, kid. You’re amazing.’
He didn’t touch me. Apart from that one high-five he didn’t put a hand on me all night.