Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘My Christmas Number One’ by Leonie Mack.
My Christmas Number One
‘They want me to do what?’ Cara turned from the piano to give her manager her full attention.
‘Feature on a Latin Christmas single.’
She blinked. She had heard correctly. ‘Is that a thing? A Latin Christmas single? Do you mean like ‘In Dulci Jubilo’? That kind of Latin?’
Freddie cleared his throat. ‘No. Not that kind of Latin.’
‘You mean the record company wants me to appear on some Spanglish version of a Christmas song?’
Freddie pulled up a chair. ‘The label contractually requires you to feature on a single written by another of their artists, who happens to be from Colombia, and sings in Spanish.’
Huh. ‘Why?’ Her hands fell to the keys, smooth and reassuring. She picked out a minor chord and set up a syncopated rhythm.
Freddie smiled. ‘I didn’t know you could play ‘Despacito’.’
She felt her way through a few more chords. ‘I didn’t know I knew ’Despacito’. I’m just channelling the vibe. It’s not my scene, though, is it?’
‘No,’ Freddie admitted.
Christmas wasn’t her scene either. Snow and mistletoe, twinkling lights and tinkling bells were for other people – another life.
‘“Contractually required” sounds iron-clad. Does it make any sense professionally?’ The ink was barely dry on her record contract. She’d had one UK top ten single. Falling back into obscurity was not only possible but likely.
‘I would have argued for you if I thought it would harm your career.’
‘I know. It’s you and me against the mighty record company. So, tell me why it isn’t going to suck? I don’t really do ‘Feliz Navidad’, and ’Heroes and Words’ wasn’t exactly popular in Latin America,’ Cara asked, referring to her break-out pop/rock protest anthem.
‘You’re the crossover,’ Freddie explained. ‘The label thinks the song is good enough to chart outside the Latin sphere. They want to make it happen. You have momentum. It makes sense.’
‘It doesn’t make sense. My influences have more to do with church Latin than Latin America. Am I supposed to shake my hips in front of the camera in the video?’ A tickle of concern rose in her throat. Could she even pull that off?
‘The video is planned to be a kind of epic love story with a Christmas vibe.’
Cara choked on a laugh. ‘An epic love story? Between me and this reggaetón star? Surely there’s a way out of this?’
‘His music isn’t exactly reggaetón, although he did some collaboration years ago when it was first going mainstream,’ Freddie said.
‘Oh, God. He’s a washed-up crooner who wants to get back in the charts?’
‘The music’s more upbeat than pop ballads. And he had an album out this year. Sort of… tropical party hits.’
She screwed her nose up in dismay. A tropical party hit about Christmas? She pictured dancing pineapples in Santa suits, which was stupid, but at least easier to imagine than herself wearing a bikini in a music video. Could anything be further out of her comfort zone?
‘What is Daddy going to say?’
Freddie winced. ‘Please tell me that’s a rhetorical question.’
She nodded with a forced laugh. ‘I’m not going to make you ask him. He only grudgingly enjoyed Orff when he’d been dead for thirty years. The exotic rhythms will give him a migraine.’ Like every other risk she took gave him a migraine. There was no hope of impressing her father, but Cara was standing on her own two feet these days – the biological one and the prosthesis.
‘Maybe he’ll like it. This song – it’s called “Nostalgia” – it’s good, Cara. It’s really good.’
She took a long look at her manager. ‘I’m not convinced. What if the song flops and it eclipses the release of the album?’ That sounded reasonable – at least more reasonable than the truth. She couldn’t exactly ask to get out of it because she and Christmas didn’t get along.
Freddie inclined his head. ‘I agree the timing isn’t great. But the clause in your contract is valid. They can require you to feature on the tracks of other artists when it suits them. And it won’t suck. I don’t think it’ll be Christmas number one, but it’s a good song and everyone loves Christmas.’
Cara grimaced. Everyone except Cara and her father. ‘Thinking about Christmas in June is just wrong.’
‘Shooting the video is planned for London in August, with fake snow and decorations.’
‘I hope it’s tasteful at least.’ Cara turned up her nose, wincing as she saw the dancing pineapples again. ‘But we do what we have to do, I suppose.’
‘That’s the spirit.’
* * *
By the late afternoon, Cara’s head was fuzzy and she could no longer tell one version of her own voice from another, so she stowed her headphones with a sigh. She would go for a run and pick it up again tomorrow. The control freak in her had insisted on co-producing the album. She needed to be on top of every detail or she’d succumb to the whispered suggestions from her own mind that she wasn’t cut out for a career in pop music.
She could have chosen another career. With her father’s unwavering financial support, she could have studied to do anything. But music was as close as she’d come to passion. She’d spent five gruelling years being piddlingly successful on the UK indie scene because she couldn’t resist the pull of the songs in her head. After her record deal and her first charting single, she was sometimes nostalgic for those simpler days when less was riding on every song.
Nostalgia… The word had been in the back of her mind since her conversation with Freddie. How could that one word set off the painful memories she subdued every Christmas? The song was probably some frothy jingle with a sappy heart and a bit of Afro-Caribbean drumming. Wasn’t everyone who thought Christmas was the season of joy pretending, just a little? But that word, nostalgia, grabbed her by the guts.
She downloaded the demo to her phone and scanned the email. Freddie had sent her the link to the artist’s Wikipedia page and website and included a couple of lines of bio. Javi Félix. Was that his real name? He’d won a couple of Latin Grammys, but that was years ago. He’d released a new album entitled Por el Amor de Ella, which Freddie had translated as, ‘For the love of her – or possibly it. Google translate wasn’t very helpful.’ She clicked on the Wikipedia link and read while she headed upstairs to change for her run.
Javier Félix Rodríguez Moreno was thirty-seven and enjoyed taking his shirt off in front of a camera. She had to admit he had the abs for it, and a handsome, strong-boned face, but his style was too conspicuous. His musical styles were gobbledegook to Cara – bachata, cumbia, salsa, tropical fusion – but she did see one word to make her nerves wobble – reggaetón. He’d had a good number of hits in the Latin charts, starting when Cara was still in school. He was based in Miami and had an ex-wife and a daughter.
The banner of his promotional website was professional and attractively beach-themed, but Cara wrinkled her nose. She couldn’t place herself in any of his promo photos. His smile was too big. His eyes twinkled with the promise of too many mojitos. Perhaps she could hide behind her biggest guitar. And a snowy Christmas video would mean more clothing, right? Did they have snow in Colombia? She had no idea. Could she place Colombia on a map? Somewhere north of Brazil, she was sure. Perhaps next to Venezuela. She was usually good at geography. She spoke bits of French and German from her private school education, but she’d never learned any Spanish. She was going to feel so stupid.
With her running prosthesis on and her earbuds in place, Cara paused outside the dignified Georgian building that housed her flat. Bristol in June was a far cry from the Caribbean at Christmas, but she had to give this song a go. After a few stretches, she switched on the music and headed up the hill.
The first notes made her steps falter. A warm acoustic guitar plucked a few notes from a minor chord and then his voice – powerful and slightly husky – swept through the compelling opening melody. Then a pause. With a muted shout, the rhythm began, at first only a snare drum and hand claps in a pattern that was both elemental and peculiar. She identified the common time signature, but the rhythm was too foreign for her to follow in her internal sheet music. Instead, it went straight to her blood – impossible to resist. The guitar continued its wistful chord progression, the dampening strokes just as important as the strumming. Between the rests in the rhythm and the muted guitar, Cara was struck by what wasn’t there. Was that the point? She was reading way too much into this.
After a verse and an unexpected additional bar in duple metre, the song took off with a full drum kit, congas, electric guitar and brass. His voice led the charge, soaring through the chorus and settling back into rough melancholy for the next verse. The Spanish syllables sounded like another rhythm instrument, skipping and rolling through a story which meant nothing to her.
The rhythm would be good for running – good for moving – but Cara was listening too intently to keep up her usual pace. She paused at the top of the hill, blind to the view of the suspension bridge and the sheer drop down to the Avon River which usually lifted her spirits. The instruments dropped away as the song transitioned to a melodic bridge section.
Cara heard a lifetime of music in that section. A renaissance setting of a chant from the Christmas matins tickled at the back of her mind, as well as a section of a Brahms piano concerto she’d perfected after hours of sweat when she should have been studying for her A Levels. It even brought back hints of the piano duet she’d played with her father as a child.
Her obsessive musical brain was processing the new material, but the intensity scared her. The off-beat rhythm should have felt alien, but it invoked a longing – to dance, to wallow and, most worryingly, to remember. She resented her mind – not for the first time – for reacting so powerfully to something she didn’t understand.
This was not the time to come to terms with the Christmas she couldn’t remember. She should be thankful that this single was so far from the traditional carols that had epitomised the season before her mother had died. But her subconscious was stubbornly searching for them.
The chorus broke back into the song, a layer of joy against the haunting melody of the bridge, and Cara itched to sing. She made do with running. Over the Clifton Bridge, through the deer park and back along the river she ran as she listened to the demo track over and over.
When she arrived back at her building, puffing and pouring with sweat, she felt as though she’d lived a whole life in that song. The shirtless smiler with the mojito eyes had written this? She stumbled down the stairs to her studio, guzzling water, and sat down at the piano. The Brahms concerto was the first thing to come to her fingers.
She hesitated when the Christmas songs began to come, but she couldn’t resist. It had been years, but she could still fumble through ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ while choking on memories. When she opened the document with the translation of the lyrics, tears were pricking her eyes and she was cursing the catchy, tropical daylights out of the amazing song and its unnecessarily attractive composer.
Her tears spilled over by the end of the first verse, reading about a season stopped in time and a love that is always looking back. She didn’t know what he meant, but she was trapped in the painful memories she usually only faced in December. When she got to the last line of the chorus, her throat was thick. Dance so you don’t cry…
That line lodged deeply in her chest as she processed the rest of the words. There were familiar Christmas references: lighting candles, ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ and the baby in the manger. But there were also evocative images of a Christmas season she didn’t recognise: tears of cinnamon, coconut and joy; banging a drum and making a noise and copious references to dancing as the world stood still every Christmas.
She slipped on her headphones, wanting the intimacy of the sound, and listened again.
* * *
Javi stumbled off the stage, swiping the back of his hand across his forehead. Someone handed him a tumbler and he downed it, grimacing when he realised it was rum. He needed water, not rum, but he didn’t refuse when the glass was refilled.
The backstage crew slapped his shoulders and grasped his hands warmly. ‘You can still rock Miami, man!’
Still… He smirked and drained the glass.
‘Gracias, chicos,’ he rasped and cleared his throat. He tugged his drenched t-shirt off and wiped down his face. He’d sung his last song from behind the drum kit – one of his signature gimmicks – and the drum solo was a killer.
The crowd was still cheering and Javi’s blood was still pumping, so he met the eye of the stage manager, shrugged and strode back on. His manager called out and tossed him a bottle of water. He grabbed the microphone and held up a hand to signal the crowd to be quiet.
‘Un momento por favor,’ he said. He downed half the bottle of water with relief, took a long look at what was left and poured the rest over his head. ‘Mucho mejor,’ he grinned. ‘Uyy, it’s hot in here.’
Cheers and whoops wound the atmosphere back up. Women were screaming and hyperventilating as they jostled in the front. He’d been going for two hours now and the audience was getting hazy, but he blew a kiss expansively in their direction.
He had a moment’s indecision about what to play. The melody that had been living in his head and his recording software for the past month was burning to be played, but it was the one thing he mustn’t give away. For the first time in years the record company was enthusiastic about something he’d written.
‘Una más,’ he called out and, knowing his band would be in place by now, he shouted the first line of one of his upbeat party tracks from ten years ago. He held out his hand and someone shoved the neck of a guitar into it. It was the wrong one, but he went with it, holding the microphone to the crowd to sing the chorus and hamming up the racy bridge section.
He stumbled backwards at the end, the guitar sliding on his bare chest, his hair stuck to his face. Another glass of rum made it into his hands and to his mouth. The crowd cheered as he left the stage, knowing this time he had to go.
He was falling-down exhausted, but so pumped he’d never sleep. He slept poorly in Miami anyway. He owned a beautiful condo where he could throw stones at the Bahamas, but all it was good for was lying awake at night remembering how he and Susana had split the assets during the divorce. He’d crash at the studio tonight, or at a hotel.
The studio, he decided. The email he’d been waiting for had arrived as the doors opened at the club. Cara Poignton had uploaded her files to the system and there was no way he’d wait to open them.
He’d never heard of her until the record company had set out its requirements. He now knew her single had charted well in the anglosphere, but he hadn’t heard it until a month ago. He didn’t know what to make of her or the marriage of convenience they had been forced into. Her single ‘Heroes and Words’ was a driving anthem with a catchy chorus that had delighted a mainly female audience with its indignant independence. It was a good song, despite being formulaic anglo rock/pop. He was anxious to hear what she’d done to his music.
He changed and took a cab to the studio downtown. Javi was sick of Miami, but at least the taxi drivers didn’t recognise him any more. He’d loved this city at first, when Susana had known everyone and the high of selling out gigs was new. Now the gleaming white condos and unrelenting cleanliness reminded him of the times he couldn’t see his daughter. At least in Colombia, Beatríz wasn’t round the corner and the memories had scarred over. He was spending more and more time at home.
Once inside the building, he pulled out his laptop and plugged it into a workstation. He would have preferred his setup in Barranquilla, but at least he had a pass to enter the studio at three in the morning. He pulled up the email and tried to make sense of the file names she’d uploaded onto the server.
She’d recorded two versions. It seemed professional, but he had to wonder what was different. He’d lay each of them over the demo and compare, but first he had to listen to the raw sound. He was producing the single himself. The song was deeply lodged in him and he would hear it in his mind anyway. What he couldn’t imagine was her clear voice joining his – the song in English and in Spanish.
He opened the folder labelled ‘alternative version’ first and shoved on a pair of headphones. When her voice reached him, he went completely still. It was a fifth higher than what he’d written – soaring and ephemeral. The rhythm was almost completely absent and the sound was raw and vulnerable. She was singing his words as a haunting chant. It worked. Goosebumps spread up his arms to the back of his neck. Sometimes he got the impression that the song had written him, rather than the other way round. Cara Poignton had tapped into that and he was confounded.
Listening to the bare track without the rest of the song was like peering into her mind. He heard every breath. He could taste her uncertainty. It was as though she was right beside him. He couldn’t take the headphones off. Her vocals shifted as she sang through the stages of the song. Her interpretation of the bridge section was nothing like what he’d written to mirror his words in Spanish, but his heart pounded as he listened to her sing about mourning elusive memories and the year she didn’t even know if the tree had been green. He sat back, stunned by the intimacy of her voice, her reaction to his music.
God, if this was what it felt like to sing about something real, he was glad he usually stuck to parties and drinking and dancing as his subject matter. But for this one song… It was perfect.
When her voice dropped away on the final note, fading to a gasp, Javi sat back, bewildered. He didn’t know her. He would never have picked her to feature on his single. But it was perfect. His life had never been perfect and where was the fun in perfection anyway?
He felt strangely exposed, frowning in the aftermath of her incredible recording. Like the rest of the song, she’d crept up on him before he was ready to face any of it. But it was just the music. She couldn’t know the chaos of thoughts and feelings that lay behind the track, nor would she be interested. She could never live up to this bizarre affinity in the flesh. It was all in his head.
When he opened the second file to hear a technically faultless recording of the parts he’d sent her, rhythm intact to the last sixteenth, he was able to reassure himself. He could choose this version and bury the spark. It was still a good song.
But the scent of adventure on his tongue told him he wouldn’t.
He opened up her email again and hunched over the keyboard.
What, you after writing credit?
He pressed send before he could second-guess his blunt words. He fiddled around on the internet, trying to convince himself that she wasn’t going to reply immediately, although she was conceivably awake, over there on the other side of the Atlantic. The laptop pinged and he tabbed back to his email with an uncomfortable grin.
Yes… if you use the alternative version.
That was direct. But he didn’t deserve anything more, given the rudeness of his own email.
Okay… if I use the alternative version. Where the hell did that come from?
He tapped his fingers as he waited for her response. Would she be the first to drop the conversation? Why did he care? She put him out of his misery quickly.
It came from Christmas. Wasn’t that the assignment?
He smiled crookedly at her word choice. Assignment?
Pretty miserable… mourning and memories and stuff.
Was he trying to offend her? He should have scraped around for some charm – or at least some decent politeness – but his emotional resources were running low.
It’s your song. Your bits were pretty miserable, too.
He smiled. She had spunk, and she had a point. But not all of his lyrics were forlorn.
If I use the alternative version, it’s our miserable song. Don’t you even like Christmas?
She took so long to respond, he almost shut down the computer and succumbed to sleep.
If you don’t like it, don’t use it. I didn’t choose to collaborate on this and to be honest I don’t know anything about Latin music. It doesn’t sound like Christmas to me. Do what you want.
She hadn’t answered the question. He wouldn’t have had an answer either. Her voice was still echoing in his mind. He was tired and touched and he should stop chatting to her before it got weirder.
What sounds like Christmas to you, then?
He’d never been good with self-control. Her answer – quicker this time – was a link to a video of a group of singers performing some haunting old song in four-part harmony. It was called ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ and was entirely in Latin. He chuckled to himself at her old-world traditionalism, even as goose bumps spread up his spine at the crystalline harmonies and timeless feel.
Cool… How do you like this? The title translates as ‘I want to sing’.
He sent her a link to Cuban musician Jon Secada’s version of ‘Rocking Around the Christmas Tree’. He wished he could see her expression. He thought about googling her again to remind himself what she looked like, but this wasn’t late-night sexting. It was a professional interaction – as professional as he got.
Christmas with steel drums… I haven’t heard that since Boney M.
He paused to grin before reading the last sentence of the email.
But I like your song better.
Something in his chest clogged up. What the hell had he done getting her involved? He’d collaborated with a range of musicians – lots of them women – and blurred the lines of a working relationship, starting inauspiciously with Susana. But there was more riding on this. He was getting old and his chart successes further apart. Perhaps he should have forgotten the whole thing and stuck to what he knew: how to party.
Christmas was one great party anyway – at least in Colombia, the home he’d avoided for too many years. But the nostalgic, miserable themes had crept into his Christmas-inspired song-writing and wouldn’t be dislodged.
He grappled for the light, flirtatious tone he excelled at.
Aw shucks. But this one’s better. A real salsa party for Christmas. Wanna dance?
He attached a link to a favourite Colombian salsa song called ‘Navidad’.
Seriously? That’s a Christmas song? This is a Christmas song.
He clicked on the link she sent and watched a bunch of boys in robes singing ‘Away in a Manger’. He knew the song – he was pretty sure Bea had been forced to sing it at some school event. But no wonder her Christmas was miserable if she had to listen to that for all of December.
How do you dance to that?
Her reply was almost instantaneous:
Now I know why your Christmases suck.
He blinked to force himself to stay awake while he waited for her reply. But exhaustion crept round him with more pull than the warmth of the strange virtual conversation.
Sorry, I’m falling asleep.
He managed to type before crashing onto the sofa. Her reply pinged into his account several minutes too late.
We hope you enjoyed this extract. To read more, purchase the full novel here: https://amzn.to/3dBg995