The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is Women In Journalism advocate and debut novelist Meg Carter @MegCarter
Soundtrack by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Phil Collins, Elvis Costello, REM, Madonna, The Pretenders, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Patti Smith
I grew up in a house full of music – classical music. An only child, I was discouraged from playing pop music at home by my parents who were a little older and a bit more conservative than others.
Instead, I spent countless rainy weekend afternoons lying on the sofa in my father’s study imagining film visualisations of LP tracks from Walton’s Façade or Holst’s The Planets. With eyes tightly shut, music shaped my characters, plot and place.
Suddenly, music was social currency. Almost overnight, which band you liked or disliked and which non-chart acts you rated (the more obscure, the better) mattered. It defined who was ‘in’ or ‘out’ and also who we wanted to be: lover, survivor, rebel.
How earnestly we’d make each other audio tapes, too. I found one just a few years back in a drawer when we last moved house: a home recording of Freaky Styley (an early Red Hot Chili Peppers album: pre-mainstream success, of course) gifted to me by a classmate’s older brother.
And I kept thinking of this as I began work on my first novel.
The Lies We Tell is a psychological thriller about former school friends Kat and Jude. Set in the present and the late 1980s, past sequences build towards the last time the two girls saw each other: on a school trip when Jude was attacked by a stranger and Kat ran away.
This basic idea is one I’d had for some time. But for a while that was all – no who, where, when or why? Yet I knew the relationship between them would would define what happened next. Hungry for inspiration, for a creative spark, I began to replay old LPs that I’d not listened to in years.
Inside the sleeve of one I found a clutch of A4 sheets on which an old school friend had written out for me every lyric from Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces album… in long hand. She and I were once close then drifted apart. Yet I was intrigued by the fact I still felt deeply touched by her gesture, and grateful. I decided then that Kat and Jude had to be drawn together and – to begin with, at least – be defined by music. It just felt right.
Past and present
How best to interweave and differentiate the now and then stories in The Lies We Tell was an immediate challenge.
The musical references helped me establish time and place. But as important was its role in understanding context and mindset; music also provided me with a short cut to excavate the tangled web of teenage friendship. For example, Kat would rather listen to Elvis Costello or some early REM rather than chart hits like Phil Collins’s Groovy Kind of Love – as she proudly tells Jude on their first meeting. And when she visits Kat’s home, Jude greets her collection of early Pretenders, Bowie, and Lou Reed with a nod of approval. Musical taste is a badge of honour, a powerful means of self-differentiation and a declaration of independence, too.
As important as the role of music in the girls’ teenage years is its lack of importance in Kat’s present.
On inveigling her way way into her one-time friend’s home more than two decades later, Jude notes much of the music collection belongs not to Kat but her partner, Michael – with the exception being a collection of Now That’s What I Call Music compilations.
Without hesitation, she selects Madonna’s Like A Prayer – a track she closely associates with a buried secret that once unearthed would change both girls’ lives, forever.
The dulling of Kat’s musical interest is a reflection of the shadow cast by her past. But it is a pattern played out widely in real life too. Like many, I’ve found as careers and family move centre stage, the joy of discovering new music has been replaced by something else – a nostalgia and a craving to rediscover old favourites that transport us back to a younger, simpler life.
Kat, then, would rather not look back. Jude, however, cannot stop as for years she has navigated life’s challenges with a grim determination fuelled by an acid sense of injustice.
The intensity of Jude’s grievance is encapsulated by her misquoting of Patti Smith’s Babelogue – the spoken poem off the 1978 album Easter, which reverberates with biblical reference and death and resurrection imagery. Jude’s mis-appropriation of Smith’s meaning demonstrates the extent to which her life has become derailed.
I didn’t hear Babelogue until I was at university in the early 1980s at which point, having only encountered Smith through her UK chart hit Because the Night, I found it as shocking as it is haunting. It’s still an inspiration today.
Meg Carter worked as a journalist for 20 years before turning her hand to fiction. Her features have appeared in many newspapers, magazines and online with contributions to titles including You magazine, Independent, Guardian, Financial Times, and Radio Times. She is on the advisory committee of Women in Journalism. Meg recently relocated from west London to Bath, where she now lives with her husband and teenage son. The Lies We Tell is her first novel and is published by Canelo. You can find out more about her at http://www.megcarter.com and on Twitter @MegCarter.
My guest this week has written a psychological thriller in which two former school friends confront a life-changing event from their past. To create their teenage years in the 1980s, the author delved into her own archives, discovering old mixtapes and an Elvis Costello LP whose sleeve contained a lyric sheet written out by a close friend. She was struck by the way music became less significant over the years. What had once been such a fierce marker of personal identity was now an emblem of a simpler time – though not necessarily for the characters in her novel. She is Women In Journalism advocate Meg Carter and she’ll be here on Wednesday with the Undercover Soundtrack for The Lies We Tell.
The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is novelist and former music journalist Dan Gennoe @dangennoe
Soundtrack by Miles Davis, Tindersticks, Bernard Herrmann, Abel Korzeniowski, Shigeru Umebayashi, Goldfrapp, Erik Satie, Clint Mansell, ISAN, Fila Brazillia, Cliff Martinez
I spent 16 years as a music journalist interviewing pop stars and writing about music for the likes of Esquire, GQ, Q and The Mail on Sunday. I had to describe the sounds and pick apart the meaning. It was my job to get inside the artist’s head and try to understand what they were trying to say and what led them to try to say it. Music was the outcome and I had to find the root cause.
Now it’s the other way around. Music is the beginning, the starting point for everything I’m trying to say. It’s a way to immerse myself in the feelings and emotions and people and places I want to write about.
All Neon Like Love is a book about loneliness and isolation, love and obsession, grief and the need to connect with people and the world around us. It’s a book about the need for intimacy, that’s equal parts romance and melancholy.
Grey present, warm past
Set in London and Paris it follows a nameless man searching for an ex, a woman so perfect in his memory that she starts to disappear into fantasy. His need to recapture what he thinks they had together leads him to obsessive, at points disturbing, behaviour. I wanted his present day world to be grey and intense and his remembered past with her to be warm and indulgent – so the reader would understand what it was he thought he was missing and would understand, if not approve of, the lengths he went to to recapture it. I wanted the words to be hypnotic and beautiful, for the reader to be seduced by them and then too mesmerised to look away when it was all getting too much.
To find all of that I put together a playlist of 148 tracks, ranging from lilting classical piano and lyrical jazz, to dark electronica and industrial beats. Miles Davis, Tindersticks and Bernard Herrmann wouldn’t normally be found on the same playlist, but they all had a profound effect on shaping the mood and rhythm and in maintaining the tone of All Neon.
Romance and longing
I love film soundtracks and scores, and most of the music that I listen to when I write is either composed for, or I have discovered via, a film – which I guess makes sense given that scores are made to stir emotions and enhance moods.
The soundtrack for Tom Ford’s beautifully shot film adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man got particularly heavy use during the writing of All Neon Like Love, not least for the beautifully sad romance of Abel Korzeniowski’s strings. Stillness of the Mind in particular is filled with so much longing, and so much sadness, that it would instantly make me feel all the emptiness that filled the central character’s days as he tried and failed to move on from Sophie, the object of his affection/obsession. And on the rare occasions when Stillness of the Mind didn’t do it, the lightness and longing of Mescaline’s piano, with its tragically hopeful melody, definitely would.
Similarly hopeless in its romance, Shigeru Umebayashi’s Yumeji’s Theme from Chinese film, In The Mood For Love, inspired much of the more lyrical passages in the book where the central character is fondly remembering, or perhaps reinventing, days he and Sophie spent together. I wanted the rhythm and flow of the words to lull the reader and allow them to feel the effect of the memories he was reliving, but for there to be a disquieting undercurrent to these sections, to make the reader feel ill at ease with how in love he and Sophie are in his version of things. If it works, it’s largely down to repeat listening of the flawed romance of the violin melody of Yumeji’s Theme.
As well as the hypnotic quality, I wanted a dream-like feel to parts of the book, where he gets lost in the perfectness of the remembered affair. Few people do dreamlike romance as well as Goldfrapp, and few Goldfrapp tracks are as perfectly romantic and dreamlike as Let It Take You from their Supernature album. If ever I wanted to know what love felt like in the head of my protagonist, a verse and chorus of that made me know everything.
But ultimately, the romance and longing the main character feels are less love and more about his fragile mental state, which is probably why I kept being drawn to Bernard Hermann’s score for Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the track Variation on Scotty Trails Madeline – which in the film soundtracks James Stewart’s Scotty following Madeline, the object of his obsession. It’s a beautifully melancholic love theme with a sense of distance and separation to its restrained strings.
Serenity and darker
There were two piano pieces by composer Erik Satie that I kept returning to when I was writing the passages of the book where the obsession of the central character is starting to fester and grow. Gnossienne No.1 and Gnossienne No.4 both have a desolate calm about them which is exactly how I wanted the character to be at this point. He’s very isolated and distant, with a sort of serenity to him, which like the quiet piano refrains of both tracks, feels like it could take a darker turn at any moment.
Soundtracks are a great source for dark moods. Put Your Love In Me from the Tindersticks soundtrack for French revenge thriller Les Salauds, and Clint Mansell’s Welcome To Lunar Industries from sci-fi suspense movie Moon, are eerie and disturbing and claustrophobic and hypnotic and bitter and are about as dark and fixated as anything can be, yet they have a seductive quality that made them easy to get lost in. I would have them on loop for hours at a time when I wanted to darken the tone of the writing and add a discomfort to his thoughts and actions. I wanted the reader to be lulled by the rhythm of the writing yet for there to be a tension and disquiet to it which I hoped would seep into it from these two tracks.
Just as important, though, was the sense that obsession was something he welcomed, that it was something he was happy to occupy himself with, that it was something he immersed himself in. So to the mix of dark obsession tracks I added a lighter, more peaceful but no less oppressive track, Scoop Remix by electronic duo ISAN. It’s a strangely clinical yet warm instrumental, with machine noises and lethargic guitars and a beat that seems to grow and envelope. Listening to it I could imagine him slowly giving himself up to his unhealthy obsession and for it being the one thing that he had that he felt totally comfortable with.
More than just the backdrop to the story, London and Paris are two of the most influential characters in the book, shaping events and how he views and remembers them. London is a grey, flat, empty place for him, it’s the reality that he doesn’t want to face. It’s endless hours of his own company in an empty Barbican flat. I wanted his London to be shapeless but claustrophobic. I didn’t want it to be grim, I wanted it to be beautiful but endless. Listening to Fila Brazillia’s Subtle Body, with its slowly repeating synth chords, weightless electronic swells and wintery bell chimes gave me his view across a damp and endless London skyline. The otherworldly steel drum loops of First Sleep from Cliff Martinez’s score for Stephen Soderberg’s remake of Solaris, were the source of much of the isolation and loneliness the character feels in the flat. If Subtle Body was him looking out, First Sleep was him bouncing off the walls. That was London in the present. In the past both London and the flat were warmer, happier places – one scene features a drunken seduction as Miles Davis’s So What wafts from the stereo and out into the summer night.
Miles Davis also features in Paris, or at least inspired the mood of its rainy late night streets with the track, Générique which he recorded for the soundtrack to French new wave film Lift to the Scaffold. Like everything on that soundtrack it’s got a mournful, listless feel to the languid trumpet line and aimless bass which helped me find the rhythm for central character’s lost nights wandering the city in search of Sophie. And then for when he finds her, I needed a song full of allure and alienation, a Parisian soundtrack for an outsider left lurking in doorways rather than enjoying the candlelit romance. Nothing is more Parisian, alienated or made for lurking than Grace Jones’s I’ve Seen That Face Before. The sinister reggae lilt, the lonely accordions and Grace singing of shadowy figures and dancing in bars and restaurants, conjure the emptiness of being on the outside of the perfect romantic scene, which in essence is what the whole of All Neon Like Love is about.
Dan Gennoe is a London based writer and novelist. A former music journalist, he’s written cover features, interviews and reviews for Esquire, GQ, Arena, FHM, Q, Mojo, Red, Time Out, The Independent and The Mail on Sunday. He’s mixed with rappers and rockstars, ghosted celebrity memoirs and worked as a music editor for Google. All Neon Like Love is his first novel. Find him on Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter as @dangennoe
My guest this week spent 16 years as a rock journalist, interviewing stars and trying to understand what their music was trying to say. When he started to write his first novel, music took on a fresh role – no longer the endpoint, it was now the beginning. The book is the story of a man looking back on an intense love affair, and the music is an aural journey of the character’s obsession, his unstable serenity that could turn dark, his complex sense of comfort in the prison of his memories. Dan Gennoe will be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.
The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is Not The Booker shortlister Iain Maloney @iainmaloney
Soundtrack by Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, The Corries, Mogwai, R.E.M., The Smiths, The Pixies, The Sugarcubes, Pink Floyd, Yes, The Who
Like a lot of authors, it was music that got me into writing. It’s quite surprising (or maybe not) how many of us once harboured dreams of rock stardom. My first pennings were song lyrics but over a clichéd adolescence sitting in my room with a guitar and too many candles, I quickly realised that I wasn’t going to be the next Kurt Cobain. My lyrics morphed into poems until the urge towards narrative took hold and I turned to novels. Music never left me, though, and has informed everything I’ve written since.
My debut novel, First Time Solo, is entirely dependent on music, both as an aspect of the story and in the writing process. The main character, Jack, is a jazz trumpeter and, while training to be a RAF pilot in 1943, starts a band with three of his comrades. Music as a social lubricant, music as a shorthand between friends, music as a means of exploring other cultures, music as language, music as the backdrop for romance and more, all these are woven through the staves of the novel but for me, writing it, music was the window to the past. Before the war starts, Jack is a teenage boy, lonely in his bedroom with only his records, the radio and his subscription to the Melody Maker to keep him company. That’s an emotional world I can inhabit, but what about the reality, the differences between the 1990s and the 1940s?
Historical fiction set after the invention of the gramophone is easier to write than that set before. Listening to a modern performance of Greensleeves does not immediately transport one to the Tudor court despite Henry VIII being suspected of its composition. Listen to Nat King Cole perform Straighten Up and Fly Right or Cab Calloway scatting through Nagasaki, however and you’re dropped into the bedrooms of teenagers in the 1940s with a crackling wireless and heavy 78s or the dance halls that defied the Luftwaffe. Jack’s internal monologue is seasoned with the music he loves and, in order to find his voice, I had to hear what he hears, think how he thinks. I didn’t go so far as to learn the trumpet – though I wanted to – but without jazz record shops and Youtube it would’ve been much more difficult to climb inside the mind of a teenager during the Second World War.
For my second novel, Silma Hill, things weren’t so straightforward. Set in a rural Scottish village in the 18th century, there was little music I could draw on directly. I write with music playing but modern romantic re-imaginings of period ballads didn’t give me the tone I needed, as much as I enjoy songs like The Corries Come O’er The Stream Charlie. For a Gothic tale of witchcraft, torture and death, I needed something stronger. I found it in Mogwai’s soundtrack to the French zombie TV drama Les Revenants. Haunting, brooding, the threat of violence never far away, yet beautiful, moving and melancholy, the instrumental tracks rising and falling like waves of emotion gave me an atmosphere in which I could build my world. Songs like Wizard Motor get inside your head, unsettle you and never leave. When you’re writing horror, that is the ultimate goal.
My third novel, The Waves Burn Bright (to be published May 2016), is the story of a family torn apart by the Piper Alpha disaster. It is set between 1980 and 2013 so finding suitable music was easy. During my research phase early R.E.M. tracks like Finest Worksong brought me back to the late ’80s with style, jangly guitars and a political sensibility underpinning everything. The Smiths, The Pixies, The Sugarcubes, I gorged myself on the cream of ’80s alternative until a thought stopped me like a scratched 12-inch. I was recreating my ’80s, not my character’s. I switched off the music, sat back and had a chat with Carrie, my main character. It turned out she wasn’t much into music. Background radio, that was fine, but she didn’t buy music. One of those people who goes ‘I like that song, the one from that advert that goes “dum dum dum dee dah”.’ Strangely this absence of music in her life – so very, very different from me – was the moment when she became whole, three dimensional, real. After that awakening the novel rolled out of me. Sometimes silence is profounder than any song.
Of course I couldn’t let it go at that. She may not like music but that wasn’t going to stop me getting some in there. Her father, Marcus, wallowing in the misery of his recent divorce, returns to the music of his youth – Pink Floyd, Yes, and The Who.
Music, for me, is inseparable from the act of writing. It sets the mood of the piece, shapes the characters, sometimes even dictates the action. David Mitchell once swore himself off writing about music, calling it ‘An excuse for me to write about writing without writing about writing’. Music isn’t a metaphor for me, it’s as vital as air. I couldn’t live without it, and I certainly couldn’t write without it.
Iain Maloney was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and is currently based in Japan. His novels First Time Solo and Silma Hill are out now on Freight Books. His third novel, The Waves Burn Bright, will be published in May 2016. A poetry collection will follow later in the year. In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize and in 2014 he was shortlisted for the Guardian Not The Booker prize. He is also a freelance journalist and reviewer, sits on the editorial board of Eastlit Magazine and is Reviews Editor of Shoreline of Infinity. His website is here and he tweets as @iainmaloney
I’d like to bet that many readers of this blog went through a teenage phase where they wrote lyrics. Or is it just me? Well, it’s also my guest this week. He says the lyrics phase was superseded when the urge to create narrative took over, but music remains central to his creative life. It has formed many underlays for his novels, including the shorthand between friends, the backdrop to life events, the tunnel to the past. One major character came alive when he realised that music wasn’t a big deal for her. Funnily enough, a significant musical touchstone is Mogwai, who was cited just a few weeks ago by Philip Miller, one of his stablemates at the imprint Freight Books. There must be something in the water. Anyway, his name is Iain Maloney, and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack
My guest this week says she would like to be able to play the piano to concert standard, but since she can’t, she uses words as her instrument of enthrallment. Pianos are central to the plot of her latest novel, a historical romance in which four nouveau riche fathers attempt to marry off their daughters by displaying their talents in a music recital. Mayhem ensues, con brio. She says her musical ear guides her writing; Bach helps her to listen to the cadence of words and Purcell reminds her, in the most emotional way, that writing is all about remembering. (Are you guessing that Dido’s Lament might be coming up?) She is Royal Literary Fund Fellow Katharine Grant and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.