The “Albert Nobbs” star wrote the lyrics for the Sinead O'Connor song — but the recording process was a three-country nightmare
Glenn Close could lose the Best Actress Oscar to Meryl Streep or Viola Davis and still leave the Kodak Theater with a shiny golden statuette next Feb. 26.
And if she does, she'll be able to thank Brian Byrne, Sinead O'Connor, Skype and a confounding, makeshift recording process that linked her home in Maine with a kitchen in Ireland and a recording studio in Bulgaria.
That unusual, cobbled-together setup was required to produce the song "Lay Your Head Down." The gentle and evocative ballad, co-written by Close and Bryne, concludes the film "Albert Nobbs."
Close produced and co-wrote the film in which the five-time nominee stars as a woman in poverty-stricken Dublin who poses as a man to hang onto her job as a waiter.
Byrne, an Irish composer, arranger and conductor, was hired to write the score for "Albert Nobbs" – but first, before he'd written anything else, he penned a waltz for a dance scene at the hotel where Close's character lives and works.
Close loved the music, and Byrne ended up using it at several places in his score.
"When I was about 80 percent done, I thought that maybe the music could make a great end credits tune," Byrne told TheWrap exclusively this week. "So I decided to write some blah-blah lyrics and get a demo singer to record it so I could play it for Glenn and Rodrigo."
When he played them the song, complete with makeshift lyrics cobbled together from lines in the script, it was not well-received. "It met with mixed reviews," he said. "The lyrics were terrible. But I could see the wheels in motion in Glenn's eyes, and she finally said, 'You know, I could probably write some lyrics … And that was exactly what I wanted her to say."
(The completed song can be heard in the second half of the movie's trailer.)
Close was a member of ASCAP and had written lyrics in the past, so Byrne jumped at the chance to bring her into the process. The two collaborated by phone on the song, with Byrne overcoming his initial reluctance to press Close for lyric changes.
"I had to get over the fact that I was writing with a world-famous movie star," said Byrne. "And I learned that if you ask her for something different it comes back 10 times better."
The song, he said, was put together very deliberately and painstakingly to draw on and refer back to themes from the film.
"There's nothing throwaway in any of the music or the lyrics," he said. "You might listen to it and think, why is that fiddle there, or why is that piano there? The fiddle is there because it's the violin that was playing the first time we heard that piece of music in the film. The piano is there because I wanted to link the sound of the score, which has a lot of piano, with the song, so it doesn't sound like a tacked on song.
"It's an organic piece of music that comes out of the score and out of the emotions in the film."
Writing "Lay Your Head Down," though, was easy compared to recording it. Byrne had worked with Sinead O'Connor in the past and thought he could get the Irish singer to do the song, but weeks went by without any word from O'Connor's camp.
"The mix date was coming up and we hadn't heard back, so I decided that I was just going to record the orchestra on a wing and a prayer, and one, hope that the key was right for her and two, that the song worked."
At the last minute, they heard back from reps for O'Connor. She'd do the song, but she was about to embark on a Eastern European tour and would need to record her part in either Bulgaria or Russia.
Byrne (at right) leapt at the former location, because he'd written and recorded the score to the John Carney film "Zonad" in Sofia and knew a studio engineer there.
He arranged so that the studio would be set up for O'Connor when she arrived at 11 p.m., and used a plug-in device that would enable Byrne (who was in Ireland) to put on headphones and essentially be a part of the session, hearing everything that was going on and speaking through the studio's talkback system.
"And then, 10 minutes before Sinead (below left) walked in, the damn plug-in stopped working."
Byrne thinks the problem had to do with the internet connection at the studio in Bulgaria; whatever the reason, it meant his audio reception was constantly cutting in and out, making a productive session impossible.
But neither was it possible to reschedule, so Byrne ordered up a significantly lower-tech alternative: Skype. He participated from the kitchen of his mother's house in Ireland, while Close listened on a speaker phone at her home in Maine; they could barely hear what was going on in Bulgaria.
"It was like listening on an old radio, but it was all we could do," said Byrne. "I could barely hear Sinead, and I was trying to teach her the song. But Sinead was amazing. She worked for almost seven hours straight through, and she wanted to work all night but I didn't want to blow her voice out before she started a tour."
As the session went on, he said, his ears adjusted to the low-fi conditions, and he was able to teach the song to O'Connor and get a performance he loved from the singer. (Meanwhile, he said, his mother brought him tea and biscuits at regular intervals.)
"All the odds seemed to be stacked against us," he said, "but somehow we got there."
The song sits in the film at the tail end of the last scene, with most of it playing over the end credits. That makes it a tough sell for the Academy's Best Original Song process, which forces viewers to score the songs after watching the specific scenes in which they appear.
(Since the process was instituted six years ago, the majority of the nominees have been songs performed onscreen; songs that play over the end credits make up a tiny minority.)
But as a song that draws its musical themes from the film's score, "Lay Your Head Down" might have a chance of resonating with voters who've seen the entire film.
As for Byrne, he's hopeful, but mostly just pleased that the song came together despite its rocky genesis.
"I'm delighted with how it turned out, but I wouldn’t advise it to anyone," he said. "I'd say, if you want to produce a song, try to be in the same studio – or at least get a more expensive plug-in."