Posts Tagged David Bowie

The Undercover Soundtrack – Isabel Ashdown

for logo‘A scandal in a small place’

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’s post is by award-winning novelist Isabel Ashdown @IsabelAshdown

Soundtrack by David Bowie, Nick Drake, Brian Eno, The Clash, Lana Del Rey, The Smiths

When I write, there must be no sounds other than the distant purr of traffic and birdsong, and the tap of my fingers on the keyboard.  But between the moments of physical writing, music plays a strong role in the development of my fictional worlds, and it provides me with a therapeutic contrast to the long hours of quiet and solitary creation.

Obsession

Isle of Wight Aug 09 Col MasterMy work is always borne out of obsession – a growing fascination with certain ideas, images and themes that will haunt me independently until the strongest of them converge to form the basis of my novel.  At the early stages of Summer of ’76, I discovered these things: it was a story about a scandal in a small place, set on the Isle of Wight in the heatwave summer of that year, and my protagonist was a 17-year-old boy called Luke.  From the outset, David Bowie’s Young Americans played a constant loop through my mind, with its sense of optimistic yearning and sunny, sad lyrics.  Out in my car, driving towards my post-writing dog walks, I’d play the track, recalling the thrill of discovering the second-hand album when I was myself a teenager.

In Summer of ’76, the weather is arguably a character in its own right.  Images and senses of summer play a strong role, and as the drama of the island scandal intensifies and escalates, so too does the temperature.  My own memories of heat-baked lawns, the rise and fall of honeysuckle and the slip-slap of flip-flops on boiled asphalt seemed to draw me to particular soundtracks – those that reflected gentle summers beneath a clear blue sky, and those reminiscent of a fractious, broiling season where tempers fray and secrets spill over.  Nick Drake’s Saturday Sun was a favourite I’d habitually play over weekend morning coffee, and one whose lyrics felt strangely apt.  In stark contrast, Brian Eno’s Baby’s on Fire, an old favourite of mine, has that frenetic, out of control atmosphere that seems to go on without end, not unlike like that ceaseless summer of 1976.  Hearing these tracks could transport me into Luke’s world, and often I’d play them to kickstart the writing where I last left off.

Time of struggle

The year 1976 holds great interest for me, not only because of that extraordinary weather.  Across the country, it was a time of struggle and social change, of unemployment, high inflation and striking workers.  But it was also a time of great opportunity.  Home ownership was the new aspiration, and holidays abroad something within the realms of possibility.  Feminism gained momentum, the punk movement made headlines, and in a period of unprecedented sexual liberation, it seemed anything was possible.  Many would have us believe that the 70s was all Abba and Roussos and Brotherhood of Man.  But of course the pop of an age can only tell us the surface story – and isn’t it what’s beneath the surface that interests us writers more than anything?  Whilst punk was only just hitting the headlines, its electricity could already be felt fizzing in the ether.  For me, for Luke’s burgeoning desire for escape, the track I frequently turned to was London Calling by The Clash, from the album of the same name, and one that’s never far from the top of my playlist.

SUMMER OF '76 by Isabel Ashdown, COVER, April 2013Luke’s summer is bubbling with conflict.  He’s ever hopeful about reinventing himself in the wider world, with its promises of freedom, sex and adventure; yet revelations about his parents’ personal lives cause him to question everything he thought he knew.   This conflict of adolescence is something that excites me greatly in writing – and I’m drawn to music which does the same.  Perhaps it’s where the music does one thing, yet the lyrics do something else, or where the track is at once uplifting and melancholy.  During this writing phase, I discovered a remarkable mashup online: Lana Del Rey vs The Smiths - This Charming Video Game.  I was a big Smiths fan in my teen years, and the blend of these two tracks – and their videos – seemed perfectly heartbreaking, representing to me everything that is tough about growing up, about coming of age.

Isabel Ashdown is the author of three novels published by Myriad Editions: Glasshopper (London Evening Standard and Observer Best Books of the Year 2009) Hurry Up and Wait (Amazon Top Customer Reads 2011), Summer of ’76, and winner of the Mail on Sunday Novel Competition 2008. In 2013, her essay on the subject of ‘voice’ will feature in Writing a First Novel, edited by Karen Stevens, in which novelists, agents and publishers discuss the joys and challenges of writing a first novel (Palgrave MacMillan). Isabel writes from her West Sussex home which she shares with her husband, a carpenter, their two children, and a border terrier called Charlie.  Find out more about her at www.isabelashdown.com or chat to her on facebook and twitter.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Andrew James

for logo‘Notions of past, present and future hold no sway here’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is Andrew James @4ndrewjames

Soundtrack by Guns N’ Roses, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Nirvana, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Faithless, Chris Thomas King, Jeff Buckley, Purcell, Malena Ernman, Philip Sheppard, Sonny Boy Williamson, Moby

So let’s get the pretentious statement out of the way first, huh?

Prose and music: to me, they’re the same thing. Perhaps more accurately, they’re part of the same thing. Because I could include art and film into that statement, too. I could expand on this at length, but in the interests of brevity and lucidity, let’s crack on with the soundtrack to Blow Your Kiss Hello, my novel of love, rock & roll, guns and quantum physics set in the 1990s. And just a little bit in the 1600s.

andrew jamesThe above statement does at least provide a reason (or excuse) for the way I write; staccato sentences interspersed with torrents of tumbling words, driven not so much by actually listening to music as I write but the music that worms itself into my head as subliminal material. The novel itself – at least in my head – is in three acts, with hidden references that occasionally bounce from one act to another. And the music that makes up its soundtrack works in the same way.

Radio rock

Act one sashays its way through straightforward radio rock, setting both the tone and the period with Guns N’ Roses’ Paradise City kicking things off, although for the full effect you’ll need to listen to this with a scarf wound around your head, so it’s muffled and distant. From here, settle into the groove of the Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue and then ratchet expectation via David Bowie’s Queen Bitch, a first suggestion that notions of past, present and future hold no sway here.

By now we and Pistol Star, the fictitious band fronted by my main character and good friend Joe da Flo, are in full flow and are being assaulted by Nirvana, the teen spirit smelling like an adrenaline rush, hurtling forward into a place where the future and the past are all the same, just riding the wave, dodging the bullets, crowd surfing our way into oblivion until it –

Stops*.

The gap

Act two. Three initial tracks, bridging the gap between then and something different. The trance of Faithless and God Is A DJ (Yes He Is) tips into the depths of Chris Thomas King’s Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues and wallows in Jeff Buckley’s mercurial and partially autobiographical Forget Her. These songs aren’t just illustrative, they sound as if they were written with the mid-section of the novel in mind and here the notion of the novel as a movie really hits home to me. It’s also here that the story’s marriage to its soundtrack starts to convey the debt it owes to the late Jeff Buckley, who carried the novel from its concept into reality every bit as much as I or my editor Debi did.

As the past started to impact upon the narrative, I was taken over for several weeks by the work of Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and in particular his opera Dido and Aeneas. One piece from that work, Dido’s Lament, became pivotal to a vital scene. However, to understand the soul of the book, to really get under the skin of what the novel is trying to convey, go here. If you’ve not heard this before, it’s quite possible that this might just change your life, or at least, your relationship to art in its broadest sense.

Done that? Deep breath. Time to move on.

blow your kiss hello coverSonny Boy Williamson’s Cross My Heart creates the arc from act two into act three. Incidentally, I have an old vinyl album of Sonny’s music, on which he is backed by Jimmy Page on guitar, Brian Auger on keyboards and one Mickey Waller on drums. I mention this only because in my late teens I could usually be found on a Friday evening in the old Kings Head on the Fulham Palace Road watching Mickey play drums behind another guitarist who now sadly resides in a different universe, Sam Mitchell. As a brief aside, check out this link, simply as a reminder that sometimes we’re closer to greatness than we realise.

As the novel nears its final chapter, it flies on the work of Richard Melville Hall, otherwise known as Moby, and the breakneck Electricity before my wildest dreams hear a song playing as the final credits roll and the audience sits damp eyed and holding hands. Ladies and Gentlemen, Jeff Buckley, live at Sin-e, and Eternal Life. Now you know where that title came from.

*Gallows Pole, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page

Andrew James owned a marketing agency, which he sold in 2010 whereupon Blow Your Kiss Hello began to take shape. He spent his teenage years employed at the Whitehall Theatre, studying for school exams in the lighting box watching such formative productions as What, No Pyjamas?  He is a pretty good cook and an okay musician, has curated an art exhibition, climbed Snowdon, ridden motorcycles at ridiculous speeds, had poetry published in Magma Poetry magazine and spent three years living in a church in North Yorkshire. A lifelong Crystal Palace FC supporter, he is also a devotee of South Africa’s Western Cape. He still works in media and marketing and currently lives in south-west London. Blow Your Kiss Hello is his first novel and a second is under way. Find him on Twitter @4ndrewjames

GIVEAWAY Andrew is giving away 2 signed copies. To get a chance to win, he wants you to reply or tweet where the book title comes from. If you take the tweet option, include the link to the post and the hashtag #undersound. Good luck!

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Dwight Okita

‘If I should ever lose her voice, Joni Mitchell can guide me back’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by poet and Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award finalist Dwight Okita @DwightOkita

Soundtrack by Sara Bareilles, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie and Queen, Ryuichi Sakamoto

I write in busy coffeehouses in Chicago and my iPod Shuffle is always close at hand. I like to be surrounded by the chaos of life because I am writing about life. The sound of side conversations and espresso machines are part of my undercover soundtrack, along with the music I immerse myself in and the voice of the novel’s narrator. The hardest writing period of my life was when I was awarded a week at a writer’s retreat in a quiet, idyllic setting in nature. It drove me nuts.

Wonder and curiosity

I tend to associate my main characters with certain songs. I find it helps me better envision them when I can hear them out loud. My first novel The Prospect of My Arrival is about a human embryo that’s allowed to preview the world before deciding whether to be born.  It’s soft sci-fi or literary. The main character Prospect is the embryo and he is full of wonder and curiosity, but he’s also very vulnerable, very susceptible.  (Disney Studios has taken a peek at my book along with indie filmmakers. It would be great to see Prospect on the big screen one day.)

The song I associate with my hero’s unique journey is Gravity by Sara Bareilles. The piano work is so clean and pretty, and there is something in the way Bareilles phrases as she sings that radiates wonder and urgency. The lyrics resonate with well with Prospect’s naivete. In the passage below, you can hear the newness of the world as he explores the swanky penthouse of a new acquaintance:

A chrome spiral staircase connects the main floor to the upper one. It reminds Prospect of a big strand of DNA. Once he’s out of the shower, he feels new. He opens a window. The gentle hush of traffic is surprisingly soothing. It is like putting a seashell to his ear, but instead of hearing an ocean, he hears a city and all its voices.

Here is Prospect’s book trailer.

The Hope Store

I’m currently working on another speculative novel called The Hope Store, which is about the opening of the first store in the world to sell hope.  The main character, Jada Upshaw, has been hope-starved all her life. (She is, by the way, the polar opposite of Prospect.) One song that makes me think of Jada – her voice, her predicament — is Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now. Especially the haunting version Joni sang in 2000 as a mature woman.

But where Joni’s version has gravitas and love and wisdom, you have to imagine a mutated version in which the love and wisdom have been sucked dry, and you are only left with gravitas. And perhaps numbness. I hear the song as a kind of elegy to Jada’s life unlived. The gal is just barely hanging on by a thread. If she has a saving grace, it’s her black humor:

Living without hope for the past fifty years is kinda like wandering through a dark cave the size of the Grand Canyon with bats flapping overhead and not having a flashlight to your name. It’s a mystery to me how I survived this long, though I’m sure that bravery had nothing to do with it.

As I write and revise, it helps me to hold this song in my head as a talisman, for it reminds me of Jada’s essence. And if I should ever lose her voice, the song can help guide me back. This version of Both Sides Now has a meandering undertone, possibly it is a cello. Ms. Mitchell’s voice is husky as she sings about clouds that got in her way. That’s Jada Upshaw in a nutshell.  But what will happen when Jada gets her first new dose of hope at the Hope Store? You have to wait for the book’s publication for that. (You can subscribe to my blog ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Dwight’ if you’d like to be kept in the loop. And here’s the book’s trailer in advance of completion. )

As I work on significant revisions to the climax of The Hope Store, the song I plan to keep looping in my Shuffle is Under Pressure by David Bowie and Queen. The song has the driving rhythm of a well-oiled machine. It is a rhythm that seems capable of eating anything in its way…the perfect music to write a climax to.

Crossing With The Light

Lastly, I wanted to mention that I started my writer’s life as a poet.  In the early days, I loved performing poems aloud to music. Crossing With The Light is the culmination of 10 years of my poetry writing as a young man. Probably my favorite pairing of music and words was when I would read In Response to Executive Order 9066 to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s gorgeous piece Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

9066 is one of my most widely published poems. It deals with a Japanese American teenage girl who is being forced by the US government to move with her family into an internment camp. The music and poem complement each other perfectly. Here is a poetry video I made back in the 1980s in honour of my poetry book.

Even back then, notions of an undercover soundtrack were very natural for me. Much thanks to Roz for inviting me to share this musical post with you all.

Dwight Okita is the author of The Prospect of My Arrival which was a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards in 2008, and the poetry book Crossing with the Light which was nominated for best Asian American literature book by the Association of Asian American Studies in 1993. He also designs websites, blogs and video trailers. He blogs at Dwightland and can also be found on Twitter (@DwightOkita) and Facebook

GIVEAWAY Dwight is offering his poetry book Crossing With The Light and an autographed copy of his novel The Prospect of My Arrival to one reader who writes a comment here that strikes his fancy. To win you must live in the UK, the US or Canada. Good luck.

 

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Corwin Ericson

‘Gets me in the mood to think about dark, druggy music brutal enough to stun whales’

The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by literary novelist Corwin Ericson

Soundtrack by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet, Gavin Bryars, Bill Laswell, Apocalyptica, Amon Amarth, Mieskuoro Huutajat, Penguin Cafe Orchestra

It’s cold and I realize once again my ancient refrigerator is noisier than a truck. The fire in my wood stove has dwindled to embers; I recall it had been tocking and sizzling like a banshee. The well pump comes on too often; I should fix that. I don’t think my laptop has a fan, but something’s whirring inside. I have a headache; it amplifies my tinnitus. My leg is asleep. My nose is drippy.

That’s what my successful day of writing sounds like. It’s easy to ignore the household sounds – I have plenty of practice, but the music I chose was supposed to complement the writing, or at least keep me company as I worked, yet it has been forgotten. These are the jewel cases: the Dracula soundtrack composed by Phillip Glass and performed by Kronos Quartet. Low Symphony, the Bowie album as composed by Glass. Vita Nova by Gavin Bryars. Divination’s Dead Slow, composed by Bill Laswell.

Crescendo and reconsider

I remember hearing the first part of Dracula. I like how it matches my own compositional pace–moves forward, forward, reaches a small crescendo, reconsiders, starts over with some variations, and moves forward again. But I don’t recall even hearing the clacking of my CD changer announcing the next disc.

All of these recordings were chosen to induce me to stay in my chair and write. And to be ignored. I don’t want to listen to insipid music, but having ignored the music means I have been concentrating well, maybe even writing productively. Now I’ve fed the stove and I’m standing over it feeling sore and peevish. It’s too smokey. This is ‘la petite mort’ of the workday of writing. I am full of regret and lassitude. I have wasted my day, my life. Later after I warm up, I’ll try it all over again, but fail, since I have to seduce myself into concentration, and I’m not going to fall for that trick again. I want a cigarette, a drink, a nap, and then someone to bring me supper.

Estonindian black metal dub

Now I’m inventing a genre of music, something for Waldena, a whale hunter from Estonindia, to blast from her boat, the “Hammer Maiden”:

This was Estonindian black metal dub. Music for wounded bears as they shrugged off tranquilizer darts. A genre so conclusively suicide-inducing, blue-ribbon Congressional panels were afraid to listen to it. If Francis Scott Key had been a ninth-century raider whose head was still throbbing and clanging from an ax-blow to the helmet, standing with one hand braced on the dragon prow of his longship watching his enemies’ tarred warships burn in an uncanny blue bituminous haze, while unseen galley slaves chanting the stroke rumbled the ship from below, he may have closed his eyes, thought of Ragnarok, and composed an anthem like this.

Finnish Screaming Men choir

To write this, I am listening to the Danish band Apocalyptica’s Apocalyptica Plays Metallica by Four Cellos,  Amon Amarth’s With Oden on Our Side, and The Star-Spangled Banner by Mieskuoro Huutajat – that’s the Finnish Screaming Men choir. Putting these together does not equal Estonindian black metal dub, but it gets me in the mood to think about dark, druggy music brutal enough to stun whales. I stand in my living room imagining I’m on the prow of a Viking ship that has a motor with enough horsepower to launch it into orbit.

This time I’m feeling larkier. Music from the Penguin Cafe by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra was a good choice. I am trying to write about yoiking. I had been trying to listen to someone yoik about a bear in the Arctic night via my dial-up modem. This is impossible, and over the half-hour I gave to this fruitless experiment, I heard what sounded like someone dying very slowly of the hiccups. Even when I finally hear yoiking properly, it still resists description. It’s an improvisational, non-musical vocalization that has no beginning or end. It is, perhaps, cousins with yodeling and throat singing. My cat used to find all of these forms very stimulating when I attempted them. He would join in, claw me, and then flee outside. I yoik and write best when I am alone. Thank you, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, for putting my caterwauling in perspective. The absurd ongoingness of novel-writing seems amusing this dark evening.

Corwin Ericson is the author of the novel Swell. He lives in western Massachusetts and works as a writer, editor, and professor.

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