Posts Tagged Bat for Lashes

The Undercover Soundtrack – Philip Miller

for logoThe 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 award-winning journalist, arts correspondent, twice-nominated Arts Writer of the Year, poet and novelist Philip Miller @PhilipJEMiller

Soundtrack by Mogwai, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Boards of Canada, Neurosis, Converge, Laura Veirs, Bat for Lashes, Gallows, Isis, The James Orr Complex

Friend of the Night

When I write I listen to music. Often I spend a while finding the right music to write to. Sometimes if the music is wrong, I can’t write. For some reason, The Beatles, who I adore, are bad writing music, as are Pixies. But Mogwai are a constant: and The Blue Horse would be a very different book without the existence of Friend of the Night (from the Mr Beast album). It was as important to the conception of the book as Neurosis’s I Can See You or indeed the first disturbing day-dream that led to me writing the novel.

ucov1I love Mogwai and listen to them a lot, but Friend of the Night is for me their masterpiece. If you have not heard it: it has no lyrics. The deep and resounding melancholy of its melodies, there are at least three and they intertwine gorgeously, are lifted by its main theme, played on piano, which signals a chime of hope and light. When the piano rings by itself, it is singing a cracked but steely song of survival and beauty. The song has forward purpose, it is not depressed. It has succumbed.

This how I wanted the main character of The Blue Horse, George Newhouse to be: damaged and distraught, but deciding to live on, deciding to keep walking forwards, even if he was walking into darkness. The pianos chime amid the splendour of the sulphurous guitars – and from the start of The Blue Horse, Newhouse, widowed and lost, has a flame of hope and life.

Whenever I lost my way writing The Blue Horse, I played Friend of the Night – the story of The Blue Horse is contained for me its 5 minutes, 30 seconds. It is rare when a piece of music seems to, in mere notes, explain and also confirm a feeling, an emotion, a sensibility, in some way, while also transcending and providing illumination. Sometimes I feel I could write a book about this piece of music: in some ways I already have.

Loss and rapture

The Blue Horse circles around loss and memory, around survival amid the darkness of the world. It has a earnest Gnostic undertow (although perhaps no one’s noticed it yet…) and a belief in other worlds at its core. Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was played over and over as I wrote. Its main melody is not only incredibly beautiful, it seems to be speaking of something valuable and divine that has been lost. There is a grieving in its notes. When the full theme is played, around two minutes in, I often find it overwhelming. The fingers are lifted from the keyboard. That sense of being overwhelmed by both beauty and grief was a vital one in The Blue Horse. In the chapters where Newhouse remembers his wife – swimming in the Atlantic, driving through rural Ireland – this is playing. When Ruth appears to him amid blood and magic in Venice, this is playing.

Dark Horse

The Blue Horse goes to some dark and broken places. I did not write the book from beginning to end – I often wrote at night or in scraps and moments while travelling. I dotted about in the narrative. Playing certain songs would help me leap back into those places.

I knew Newhouse, a curator at a major gallery in Edinburgh who is searching for a lost painting, The Blue Horse, would end up in darkness, in living nightmares, in some unpleasant mental and physical spaces. Converge’s Dark Horse, from their Axe to Fall album, has that sinister equine spirit in its title, of course, and ends with their lead singer shrieking. It is also tremendously powerful, punishing, its opening two-note call always a deranged spur to action. I would put on Dark Horse while I wrote two chapters in particular: when Newhouse, bereft and drunk, sees an apparition in Leith docks. And secondly in a club he is led to by Flintergill, a sinister agent. The club in Edinburgh is full of the powerful and the influential, and involves orgies and dark sex as well as drink and intrigue. The punishing but exhilarating riffage of the second half of this song fuelled the relentless tone of that place and those people.

Memories and remembrance

I saw Laura Veirs live at the ABC in Glasgow around the time of the release of her album The Year of Meteors. One song, Through the Glow, stuck with me. It played a lot while I wrote. The lyrics are elusive as well as detailed. The intangible power of memories and remembrance, of dreams and changeable mental images, is key to the story of The Blue Horse. In its gentler moments, when Newhouse feels a sense of life, when he sees beauty in nature and friendship, when he meets another woman, Tyler, Laura Veirs would often be playing, as would Bat for Lashes’s wonderful Moon and Moon, and a fine, tremulous, beautiful song by The James Orr Complex, Fade Grey to Fade Blue.


Cursed places

Gallows’s Grey Britain is a fine, fine album, one of the best rock albums made by a British band in the last ten years. I played it a lot. The Vulture, a song in two parts, one acoustic and gentle, the other vicious and heavy, a razor-blade across the face, was perfect for writing The Blue Horse: darkness and light. Doom and violence. It fed into, most notably, the chapter Rudi. Rudi, Newhouse’s great friend, tumbles – aided by possibly malign spirits – into the abyss. This song tumbles into an abyss. It is also riveting and bewildering…a bit like that chapter. The Vulture sings of a country that is beset with devils, real and unreal: like Rudi’s life in that pivotal chapter.

Reach for the Dead

The Blue Horse exists in this world, or a mirror image of it: in real Edinburgh, there is no Public Gallery, and in the real world, there was no Pieter Van Doelenstraat, a Dutch painter of the 16th century. I knew the novel would also touch on the occult and the sublime. Boards of Canada’s album Tomorrow’s Harvest came out in 2013, just as I was editing the novel for the first time. Its beauty and bleakness – it appears to ‘about’ the inevitable end of human civilisation (if a wordless album can truly be about anything) – played as I wrote chapters, such as at a drunken party in Edinburgh’s New Town where Newhouse encounters an apparition in the bathroom. BOC’s music is limber and fluid but also unsettling. There are snatched, half hidden voices. Subliminal whispers amid the electronica and analogue arpeggios and crescendos. It is not as it seems. When I listen to BOC I can imagine walking into a mirror, or meeting myself on the street. At some times – late at night, when writing – it seemed to point my writing in new directions. When Newhouse’s mentor, Dr Martinu, is killed by his own doppelganger, it may have been because this haunted, insistent music was playing as I typed. He was originally going to have a heart attack and fall into his own open fire. A weirder fate was given to him by this music.

Blue HorseTranscendence

The final chapters of The Blue Horse are at the Venice Biennale. Newhouse, by this point deranged and befuddled, comes closer to finding The Blue Horse, and it comes closer to finding him. The novel ends in fire and blood, in visions and transcendence. Isis were a tremendous, visionary American guitar band. They released two albums, in particular, Oceanic and Panopticon, which remain among my favourite. I write to them all the time: they are muscular, dynamic, and possessing a kind of super-heavy sense of intense beauty. Like a wall of ice collapsing into a polar sea. The final track of Panopticon is called Grinning Mouths. Like many of their songs, it begins in serrated, fuzzy riffage, thunderous beats and bellowing. Then something remarkable happens – four minutes in, the music takes flight. Something clears. The music is simultaneously super powered and inundated with a new light. It becomes driving and extremely beautiful. Aaron Turner, their lead singer and songwriter, is still bellowing, but tunefully, with soul. The move from ugly to serene, the song’s incredible sense of momentum and flight, powered the final scenes of The Blue Horse in Venice. Whenever I lost what was happening in the city on the water, I played Grinning Mouths again. It solved things for me.

Philip Miller is an award-winning journalist and author of The Blue Horse, which is published by Freight Books. He has been Arts Correspondent for The Scotsman, The Sunday Times in Scotland and The Herald, and has twice been named Arts Writer of the Year. His short stories have been published in The Herald, Gutter Magazine, The Island Review and Head On. His poetry has been published in Gutter, Valve Journal and the 2014 Fish Anthology. He lives and works in Edinburgh. Tweet him on @PhilipJEMiller

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Anne Stormont

for logo‘Music for the inner wilderness’

Once a week 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’s fiction writer Anne Stormont @WriteAnne

Soundtrack by Rufus Wainwright, Tom Baxter, Van Morrison, Elbow, Cat Power, Neil Diamond, Louis ArmstrongGlen Hansard and Marketa IrglovaDon Maclean, Military Wives, Blair Douglas, Greg Laswell, Bat for Lashes, Ungar and Mason

It took me almost a decade to write and publish Change of Life. It was a brush with mortality following my diagnosis with ovarian cancer in 1998, and an Arvon Foundation writing course that finally spurred me into getting my writing act together. And so, while teaching full time and putting the finishing touches to my fledgling adult children, I began.

high res 3661I love music. I have eclectic tastes, from musicals, to Scottish traditional, through hard rock, and classical to contemporary. I’ve always had a soundtrack running in the background. I studied for high school and university exams with 1960s and 70s rock and pop in the background. I got through my cancer treatment to a background of songs by the Lighthouse Family and others, put together by my daughter on a mixtape – remember those?

And it has continued to be music that provides me with focus. While I’m writing, even if I’m not consciously hearing it, it’s on and it keeps me in the zone. It’s very much a mood thing for me. Much like inhaling a reminiscence-filled scent, a few bars of the right music and I’m transported.

Change of Life has two main characters, husband and wife, Tom and Rosie. The narration is in first person and Tom and Rosie take it in turns to tell their story.

Tom, being male, was a challenge to write, but it was one I relished. To get into his head it was Rufus Wainwright’s Do I Disappoint You, Tom Baxter’s My Declaration and Van Morrison’s Have I Told You Lately that did it. Tom betrays Rosie’s trust and, when their resulting separation after more than 20 years of marriage, and Rosie’s diagnosis with breast cancer threaten to rob him of his wife forever, he has to do a lot of soul-searching and face up to some difficult truths. These tracks captured both Tom’s anger and his yearning. They helped keep me ‘in character’ and to tap into the appropriate emotions.

Making the switch to Rosie’s head was helped by Elbow’s Grounds For Divorce, Cat Power’s Woman Left Lonely and Neil Diamond’s You Don’t Bring Me Flowers. She also experiences anger and yearning, but this is overlaid with the fear that her cancer may kill her. When writing these darker passages it was Louis Armstrong singing We Have All The Time In The World that helped me bring out the poignancy of her situation.

Then as the story came towards its conclusion, it was If You Want Me by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, along with And I Love You So by Don Maclean that kept me focussed and at the right emotional temperature.

For my new novel Displacement, it was mainly the Military Wives album In My Dreams that helped me set the tone. Again there are two main characters, Rachel and Jack. Two very different characters, both with their own demons, they meet in dramatic circumstances on the Isle of Skye. Rosie, a sheep farmer and writer of children’s books, is grieving for her dead soldier son, and retired policeman, Jack, is facing up to some difficult truths about himself. They begin an unlikely friendship. The story is set on Skye and in the completely contrasting, but no less dramatic landscape of Israel/ Palestine. The Soldier’s Lullaby and Sonamarg by Skye musician Blair Douglas also featured in supporting roles, as did Your Ghost by Greg Laswell. This last one captured Jack’s longing and conflict perfectly. I should also mention Wilderness by Bat for Lashes, which perfectly reflects both the natural wilderness of Skye and the Middle East and the inner wilderness of the two main characters. And finally, the Ashkovan Farewell by Ungar and Mason was the one track that broke through any resistance I felt when I came to the desk to write this novel. It just led me straight in. What more can a writer ask of their musical soundtrack?

New Change of Life Cover MEDIUM WEBAnne lives in the Scottish Hebrides. She can be a subversive old bat, but she maintains a kind heart. She’s about to take early retirement after 36 years as a primary school teacher. Her stories are about and for the sometimes invisible women; the 1960s feminists; women in their late 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond; thinking, feeling, loving, intelligent women. There is a strong element of romance in her books, but she’s resistant to the restrictive ‘romantic fiction’ label as she likes to think there’s more to her novels than just romance. Her first novel, Change of Life, is about to be republished under her own imprint Rowan Russell Books and, her second novel, Displacement, is due to be published at the end of May. Her work-in-progress is a children’s novel called The Silver Locket and is scheduled for release in the summer. Anne tweets as @writeanne and she blogs at She also writes for Words With Jam and is a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors.

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