Posts Tagged drama

The Undercover Soundtrack – Marcus Sedgwick

for logo‘My word-hand is singing’

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 multi-award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick @marcussedgwick

Soundtrack: folk ballads of Eastern Europe,  Gustav Mahler

I’ve mentioned music quite a few times a while blogging over the years; and the gist of it all was this: I wish I’d been a musician. You often get asked what you would like to have been if you weren’t a writer, and that’s my answer. And when I say a musician, I mean of almost any kind. But since I’m not, I’m pretty happy being a writer instead, though that being the case, I use music a lot in my writing.

marcusI mean that in two ways, at least. Firstly, like many writers, I prefer not to write in total silence. I can do that if I have to, but I prefer to have music playing while I write. This music isn’t random, however; I choose it very carefully, and the general rule of thumb is that I choose music that creates the same atmosphere in my head that I am trying to create on paper. Music really can help put you in the mood, that’s obvious, and I see it as another tool the writer can use to make life easier. Sometimes, I might choose music that is directly related to what I am writing; for example, when I wrote My Swordhand is Singing, I listened exclusively to Klezmer, the gypsy folk music of Eastern Europe, such as this. It’s music that can be both incredibly joyful, and then, at other times, perhaps the most mournful thing you’ve ever heard.

Births and inspirations

I referred to an actual Romanian folk ballad in the book, and I listened to that over and over again too. It’s called The Miorita (‘The Lamb’) and was inspiring both in terms of mood, but also for the story itself: it’s the mystical tale of a lamb who warns a shepherd that his colleagues are going to murder him, and it’s both beautiful but also right on the theme of the book I was writing, about the acceptance of death.

This is the second way in which I work with music in a text I’m writing. A piece of music may have led to the birth of some element of the book. Another example would be Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the Resurrection, which directly affected whole sections of White Crow. But this time, it wasn’t the music itself, it was something that Mahler wrote in the program notes for the premiere, which was this:

The earth quakes, the graves burst open, the dead arise and stream on
in endless procession… the trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out; in the eerie silence that follows we can just catch the distant, barely audible song of a
nightingale, last tremulous echo of earthly life! A chorus of saints and
heavenly beings softly breaks forth:
“Thou shalt arise, surely thou shalt arise.” Then appears the glory
of God! A wondrous, soft light penetrates us to the heart, all is holy
calm!
And behold, it is no judgment, there are no sinners, no just. None is
great, none is small. There is no punishment and no reward.
An overwhelming love lightens our being.   We know and are.

That kind of thing brings shivers to my spine, and when I read a passage like that, I know that very often it will end up in a book.

marcuscovIn spirals

Which brings me to my new book, The Ghosts of Heaven. This book doesn’t have music in the story directly, and when I came to write it, nothing in my music collection seemed appropriate to play as I typed. So I took a pretty drastic step, which was to write to my own music. The book is made up of four novellas, effectively, four quarters, which are interlinked by an image – the form of the spiral. One part is set in prehistory, and is written in free verse. Another part is a straight narrative of a late witch-hunt in England. There’s a section set in an insane asylum on Long Island in the 1920s, and there’s a quarter that takes place in the far future, aboard the first ship from Earth travelling to colonise a new planet.

There’s a short snippet of what I wrote as the soundtrack to this trailer for the book, and if you think listening to that for days must have put my head in a strange place, well, you can judge for yourself if you read it.

Marcus Sedgwick was born and raised in East Kent in the South East of England. He now divides his time between a small village near Cambridge and a remote house in the French Alps.  Marcus is the winner of many prizes, most notably the Printz Award, the Booktrust Teenage Prize, and the Blue Peter Book Award. His books have been shortlisted for over thirty other awards, including the Carnegie Medal (five times), the Edgar Allan Poe Award (twice) and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (five times). In 2011 Revolver was awarded a Printz Honor. Marcus was Writer in Residence at Bath Spa University for three years, and has taught creative writing at Arvon and Ty Newydd. He is currently working on film and book projects with his brother, Julian, as well as a graphic novel with Thomas Taylor. He has judged numerous books awards, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Costa Book Awards. Find him on Twitter as @MarcusSedgwick and at his website.

 

 

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‘My sword hand is singing’ – Marcus Sedgwick

for logoThere’s a shelf chez Morris that holds a set of books with such exquisite titles as Midwinterblood, White Crow, Floodland and, of course, the one quoted in the catchline of this post. So shall I cut to the chase and state that I’m honoured that he’s my guest this week? His novels blend folktales, myth and sometimes futuristic speculation, and music is a significant companion in the writing – from the mournful and joyous gypsy and folk ballads of Eastern European to the romantic compositions of Gustav Mahler. For his latest novel, The Ghosts of Heaven, no music would fit – so he composed his own. Do join me tomorrow for the Undercover Soundtrack of multi-award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Christina Banach

for logo‘Is there life after death?’

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 debut YA paranormal novelist Christina Banach @ChristinaBanach

Soundtrack by Iggy Pop, Evanescence, Cyndi Lauper, Robbie Williams, Samuel Barber

I find background noise somewhat distracting when I’m working, so my normal practice is to squirrel myself away in my study and write in silence. However this doesn’t mean that music plays no part in my creative process – far from it. Even in the initial stages of brainstorming ideas and exploring characters I find lyrics and melodies filtering through my consciousness and seeping into the story I’m trying to tell. It’s at that point that I compile the playlist that I will listen to, time and again, when I’m not actually writing, that is. Then, as I work through the revisions, shaping my manuscript, this music spools in my mind, helping to deepen character and clarify – and intensify – plot points. This was especially true when I was writing Minty.

005Loss of a twin

Although the book is shot through with humour, Minty is undoubtedly an emotive read, a true emotional roller coaster according to its reviewers. It centres around one of life’s big questions – is there life after death? – and deals with love, loss, friendship and redemption. Above all it is a book about hope. With such weighty themes it is no surprise that much of the music that informed the story is haunting, thought-provoking and stirring.
At the beginning of the book the protagonist, Minty, and her sister, Jess, are ordinary girls who are in love with life. As I grew familiar with their characters one song began to fill my head – Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life.

However, these typical teenagers are also identical twins, girls who are bound by a steadfast bond, one that is jeopardised when Minty drowns during a family trip to the coast. Yet the sisters’ connection isn’t broken, for Minty finds herself trapped between life and death, forced to watch Jess’s spiralling grief.

In the immediate aftermath of the accident Jess is desperate to catch Minty’s last breath (the twins are fascinated with the customs of ancient Rome). My readers tell me this is an intensely emotional scene. It was certainly emotional to write and this is partly due to the song that ran through my mind as I crafted it – Evanescence’s My Last Breath. It speaks to me of Jess’s despair, and Minty’s full appreciation of the situation she is now in.

Jess’s lament

Indeed, Evanescence features highly in the Minty playlist, for it is their songs that influenced the development of Jess and Minty’s character arcs. For instance, My Immortal could have been written specially for this book. It is this song that helped me drill down into Jess’s core and uncover not only the pain she feels now that she has to live without her sister, but also the agony of Minty’s presence still lingering in her mind. It’s Jess’s lament, if you like.
Then there is Bring Me To Life. I tend to think of this as the Minty anthem because, even although it is Minty who is deceased, the twins are both dead to some extent. In their separate, and very different, ways they need to be saved from themselves. Bring Me To Life helped me clarify this.

Why can’t I grasp it? Cos I’m nothing – a shade, a ghost, whatever I want to call it. I am a big fat zero. I should be used to that by now – being in this world but not of it. The thought sickens me. This existence sickens me.

Which brings me to my final Evanescence song, the beautifully haunting, Missing. It is this song that helped me tap into Minty’s pain and confusion at a particular juncture in the story, a plot point that is all the more poignant because it comes hard on the heels of an uplifting episode, featuring Jess and her friends. Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun was the musical inspiration for writing that light-hearted scene.

And yet writing Minty wasn’t purely a full-on Evanescence fest, the music of other artists also wormed their way into my subconscious and aided the creative flow, and I don’t only mean Cyndi Lauper although another of her songs, True Colours, assisted me greatly in pinning down Jess and Minty’s characters.

MINTY - KDPThe funeral

Cue Robbie Williams and Angels. This well-known song  is actually mentioned several times throughout the novel. In fact, it has a significant role in three of the pivotal moments in the narrative. One of these is Minty’s funeral, a chapter that stood unchanged through drafts one to eight of the revision process. I reckon that this song helped me nail it first time. Another of Robbie’s songs, Nan’s Song, was the soundtrack to one of my favourite scenes in the book, a scene based on something rather mysterious and perplexing that had happened to me many years ago. Listening to the music playing out in my head allowed me to capture that moment and transplant it into Minty’s story.

The ultimate fragment in the soundtrack puzzle is Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Several people have told me that Minty is an extremely filmic book, which is interesting because as I wrote it I saw it played out before me as if I were watching a movie on the big screen. This was never truer than when writing the closing scene of the final chapter. For me, it’s a moment of such poignancy, such beauty and high emotion – of hope. Perhaps Barber’s Adagio unleashed something in my psyche that enabled me to create the scene that needed to be written. I don’t know for sure, all I can tell you is that I cried each time I worked on it.
Christina Banach is an ex-head teacher who lives in Scotland, UK, with her husband and their two rescue dogs. Her debut novel, Minty, was the first acquisition of new publishing house Three Hares. She is currently working on her next book, a contemporary ghost story come psychological thriller set in and around the legendary village of Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands. Find her on Twitter @ChristinaBanach, or on her website, or Pinterest. Cover of Minty by Serafim.com

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‘Is there life after death?’ Christina Banach

for logoMy guest this week is releasing her debut novel, a tale of love, loss and friendship centring on a pair of twins. She says that music was her anchor while she was brainstorming ideas and exploring the characters, helping to deepen her characters and refine her plot points. Her soundtrack ranges from the mournful to the joyous, with tracks by Iggy Pop, Evanescence, Robbie Williams, Bette Midler, The Hollies and Samuel Barber. She is Christina Banach and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Anjali Mitter Duva

for logo‘A hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle of rain’

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 historical novelist Anjali Mitter Duva @AnjaliMDuva

Soundtrack by George Ruckert, L Subramaniam, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Chopin

Music is at the heart of Faint Promise of Rain. The setting for the story — 16th century Rajasthan in Northwest India — had already been laid down by multiple visits to that stunning part of the world, where temples and fortresses rise up from golden sand, where textiles are jewel-toned, and the sky is devastatingly blue. The next story layer came in a very different shape: a class in kathak dance, a classical storytelling art from North India.

AMDKoboShot2 by Michael BenabibI’d decided to try out kathak, and stepped timidly into the dance center where a class happened to be offered just down the street from my home. As I climbed the three stories of steps to the kathak studio, the sound of ankle bells grew louder. Then I discerned the slap, stomp and drumming of dozens of feet, and the glorious sound of voices singing in unison. In kathak, the dancer becomes an instrument. In addition to studying dance technique and compositions, the dancer must become intimately familiar with the cycles in which Indian classical music is structured—the 16 beat cycle (tintal), the 14 beat (dhammar), the 10 beat (jhaptal) and many others—and develop an awareness at all times of where in the cycle she finds herself. In addition, dancers memorise their compositions and recite them in a series of mesmerising syllables that roll off the tongue: kita taka tun tun na tete dha dha dhin dha kita dha dhin dha. The hundreds of small brass bells around their ankles lend music to every step, a hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle of rain, a deafening jangle indicating an exploding storm. And then there are the sounds of the feet, sharp slaps of entire soles coming down hard on the floor, deep drumming of heels, soft pats of tapping toes.

As I delved deeper into the dance, I learned of its early history, first among wandering minstrels bringing the Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, from village to village, then as a devotional dance practiced in Hindu temples by devadasis, girls who were wedded to the temple’s deity and served it through dance, while also serving wealthy patrons as sexual companions. Soon, it all began to coalesce into a story—the setting, the history, the dance itself.

Music and rhythm in writing

From the moment I started writing the book, I was aware of the power of rhythm in writing. Word choice, sentence length, the sounds of the syllables on the tongue all contribute to the experience of absorbing a story. When it came time, in the manuscript, to convey through words a moment of dance, I found myself dancing the piece in my dining room, or in my head if I was writing in a cafe, willing the feeling of the music and movement to flow out of my body through my finger tips and into the keyboard. I tried to hear the musicality in the raindrops of the city’s first rain in five years, in the beat of hooves as a horse galloped over searing sand.

Music to transport me

I wrote the book in New England. There are some hot days, and many cold ones. Bundled up in a wool sweater as a Nor’easter rages outside, dumping two feet of snow and closing schools, it’s hard to imagine being in the Thar desert of Rajasthan. So I often turned to music to pull me back to the right place. One of my favorites for this is L Subramaniam playing his violin, especially in Raga Kalyani. The strains of the Indian violin are haunting, rich and emotionally charged. They always give me goosebumps, and conjure up images of India right away. L. Subramaniam is from South India, and plays in a Carnatic style that is not the one found in Rajasthan, but his music is all I need to feel back in India. I get memories of playing among the rocks on the coast of the Arabian Sea in Mumbai with my friends while the sun set smoggily and the air filled with the smoky smell of kerosene fires. I see myself standing wrapped in a shawl on the ramparts of the fort in Jaisalmer, looking out over the grey-blue desert as the sun rises and colors it with warmth. I think of sitting on an elephant, plodding through foliage dripping with the night’s condensation, listening for tigers at the break of day.

FPR_cover_finalMusic to elicit moods

Once in an India frame of mind, I have some favorites that I put on while writing to elicit a certain mood, or to help with inhabiting a character’s mind. For scenes depicting dancers and musicians, I love the creative and melodious music of George Ruckert, sarod player/composer and longtime disciple of the late Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, a true maestro. George Ruckert is the husband of my dance teacher, a professor, a mentor and a friend. His dedication to his art is inspiring, and so is having his music playing as I write. (He is also on the book trailer.) For energetic scenes, I enjoy the dynamic, celebratory qawwali (Sufi devotional) singing of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It’s hard to feel down when he sings. And for getting into the writing mood on a rainy day, I diverge to Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturnes. The simple beauty of the piano playing, stripped of any distractions, is meditative, and reminds me of the necessity of getting to the essence of the story and the characters.

The daughter of an Indian father and an American mother, Anjali Mitter Duva grew up in Paris, France. After completing graduate studies in urban studies and civil engineering at MIT and launching a career in infrastructure planning, she found the call of storytelling too great to resist. A switch to freelance writing and project management allowed her more time for her own creative pursuits. Additionally, she is a co-founder of Chhandika, an organization that teaches and presents India’s classical storytelling kathak dance. In delving into the dance’s history, Anjali found in it, and in the dance itself, the seeds of a quartet of novels. Faint Promise of Rain is the first. Find Anjali on her website, Facebook, and on Twitter @AnjaliMDuva

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‘A hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle of rain’ Anjali Mitter Duva

for logoMusic is at the heart of my guest’s story this week. The setting is 16th century Rajasthan in Northwest India, a landscape of temples and fortresses, jewel-toned textiles, blue skies and golden sand. It’s also the land of kathak, a stamping, rhythmic, hypnotic devotional form of dance practised in Hindu temples by girls who were wedded to the temple’s deity – and wealthy patrons who looked for companions. My guest wrote her story in New England, and listened to the rhythms of the traditional dance to conjure up her novel’s parched, colourful landscape and people, a place where rain was so rare that children would view it with terror. She is Anjali Mitter Duva and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Consuelo Roland

for logo‘Skinny-dipping in greenish-hued waters’

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 award-nominated novelist, poet and essayist Consuelo Roland @ConsueloRoland

Soundtrack by R.E.M., The Beatles, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Youssou N’Dour, Bob Marley

Lady Limbo began with a cancelled flight and a personal tale of sexual liberation imparted to my mother at Charles de Gaulle Airport.

The details of a mysterious organization reside in a little black book belonging to a helpful ground hostess whose name is forever lost in the torrential downpour of a stormy Paris night. It was fun to turn things around and evoke a world where men are paid ridiculous stud fees to be at the beck and call of willful women who can afford to be extravagant. Occasionally a perfectly ordinary, independently minded woman – such as a sexy ground hostess – will use their services.

23smallFrom a little black book to a husband that vanishes into thin air is not such a literary leap of the imagination. The only tangible clues to the ‘disappeared properly’ man’s identity are the vinyl long playing records (LPs) carted into his current incarnation: Daniel de Luc, husband. A man who favours alternative rock, old circus music (think extravagant carnivalesque LP cover art), and African jazz is perhaps not going to be your average conventional spouse.

A voice for intensity

When Daniel de Luc barges into my novel with all his unpredictable here-now-gone-tomorrow energy he arrives together with cult band R.E.M. Their music is constantly playing in my car. The wickedly intelligent lyrics have the enigmatic aura of a Poe story.

Periodically Daniel withdraws from the world (and Paola, his wife) by listening to R.E.M. with its anti-establishment undertones. It is Daniel’s theme music; the friend he turns to when he has to figure things out.

The music of R.E.M. is ideal for Lady Limbo as a kind of activist male anthem. I feel as if I know Daniel as well as any real live man of my acquaintance when I listen to them. My first R.E.M. CD came from a male friend brought up in Europe; the opaque music brings this association with it too, helping me to give a voice to Daniel’s intensity and his foreign outlook.

The only R.E.M. song named in Lady Limbo is the mesmerising Nightswimming. There are echoes of the early party scene when Paola watches partygoers engage in open group sex in a night-lit swimming pool. But her immersion in Nightswimming has its own redemptive beauty and truth even while it suggests the foolishness of being human. The song that Chris Martin of ColdPlay once called ‘the best song ever written’ becomes a bittersweet tribute to relationships and feelings that can never be the way they once were.

It’s all in the night’s song: we are creatures of the night, skinny-dipping in deep greenish hued waters charged with sexual tension and lustful predilections. In Lady Limbo it is the bright light of day with its criminal banality that comes to terrify Paola Dante, and the night’s deep-throated mystery that seduces her.

Music of ambivalence

From music of the night to nights at the circus.

Circus music, with its relentless glee, is the perfect music of ambivalence. It fills a gap between Paola and Daniel with its nostalgic evocation of a carnival atmosphere, and yet its excessive gaiety is strangely disturbing. In Lady Limbo the ghosts of death-defying acts plummet to the sawdust over and over again.

My research uncovers that the atmospheric circus music of yesteryear is for the most part produced by a calliope (steam whistles played by a keyboard) , a very special mechanical instrument. When Daniel hears the frenetic delight he, like The Beatles’ John Lennon who employed snippets of calliope music in Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, is transported to a seat from where he can smell the sawdust on the big tent floor.

A circus music thematic appears; it expresses a magical interpretation of life and independence of spirit that is outside the norm, and somehow beyond society’s approval or control. Old time rumours about the circus as a haven for runaways, freaks, outcasts, and even baby abductors, add a mysterious resonance to Lady Limbo.

Lady Limbo front cover_JacanaJamaican rebellion

From nights at the circus to African jazz and Jamaican rebellion…

Youssou N’Dour (You to his fans) provides the cross-cultural musical bridge I need between Africa and Europe. N’Dour’s cosmopolitan nous absorbs the entire Senegalese musical spectrum, often filtered through the lens of the genre-defying mbalax sound, which takes traditional Wolof music and combines it with Islamic and Cuban influences. Daniel is as intrigued by N’Dour’s roots (a maternal line of griottes) as by his professional exploits. From my perspective, N’Dour’s tenor voice has an unusual prophetic quality that fills a car as it coasts along dark cliff top roads.

In Lady Limbo the past has been neglected, mishandled and deliberately avoided. Since Paola is as guilty as this of Daniel I have her mull over Daniel’s difficult boyhood in the hotel room darkness with Bob Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff playing on the radio in the background.

Caught between reality and fiction Daniel is the flawed paradox at the centre of Lady Limbo’s complex mystery. Marley’s reggae anthem for justice, just a one-liner in Paola’s musings, pre-empts Daniel’s act of protection at the end of Lady Limbo. All of this the music reveals, and overlays and underlays. Only the music, capable of endless interpretation and re-interpretation, tells the truth.

Portrait by Dina Photography

Consuelo Roland lives in Cape Town, South Africa. She writes novels, poems, essays, and short stories. Lady Limbo, a psycho-sexual mystery, is her second novel. She is working on book II in the limbo trilogy, due to come out next year. Her debut novel The Good Cemetery Guide, now an ebook, was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and was also selected via an e-mail poll of readers as one of 30 Centre for the Book’s ‘must read’ South African Books. She is also a member of the League of Extraordinary Authors. Her Amazon page is www.amazon.com/author/consueloroland. Connect with her on Facebook and on her website. Tweet her @ConsueloRoland

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‘Skinny-dipping in deep greenish hued waters’ – Consuelo Roland

for logoWe often don’t realise what surprises our own work holds for us. My guest this week tells me that while writing her post, she realised she was seeing her novel in a fresh light. She’s been on this series before, so is no stranger to Undercover Soundtracks. This time she has a psycho-sexual tale of a husband who vanishes and a wife who follows him into a seductive, mysterious and dangerous night world in which they all become creatures of darkness, ‘skinny-dipping in deep greenish hued waters charged with sexual tension and lustful predilections’. The novel is Lady Limbo, the writer is Sunday Times Fiction Prize nominee Consuelo Roland, and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Trevor Richardson

 for logo‘When I listen to Tom Waits I feel my brain chemistry change’

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 author and creative evangelist Trevor Richardson @theSubtopian

Soundtrack by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Hank Williams, Bruce Springsteen, The Drive-By Truckers, Deer Tick, Jay Calhoun, Press Black, David Rovics, Cartright, Beatles

All I ever wanted was to be Bob Dylan. Only one problem: I don’t have a musical bone in my body. Writing about music is the closest I have come and it’s worked for me.

My novel, Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files, follows a folk-punk protest singer through a collapsing American economy in the not-too-distant future. Joe Blake and his best friend, Lee Green, front man for their band The Johnny High-Fives, travel the country, playing to tent cities and hobo encampments and earn a fair living. The songs from The Johnny High-Fives included in the book were a combination of original lyrics that I wrote and the songs of various friends I have made during my own travels.

headshotOn my own, I wrote lyrics for three songs, Corporate Hun, Protest Nation, inspired by the spoken word riffs of Tom Waits, and Puking Blue that came from absorbing a lot of the post-Yellow Submarine era Beatles songs and ballads from newer bands like Deer Tick and The Drive-By Truckers.

Connective tissue

My search for The Johnny-High Fives’ style led to me listening to four songs at once while drinking a fair amount of coffee. On my record player was Springsteen’s Born in the USA, my PS3 was playing the Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home, and my laptop had two windows open that blasted Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs and Deer Tick’s War Elephant. I was looking for a connective tissue between these different sounds. The noise finally peaked, like that rare moment when you are sitting at a traffic light and your blinker momentarily syncs with the blinker of the car ahead of you. That was when I wrote it.

Gather round, you Corporate Huns, I’ll show you the death of your future sons.

The words just flowed from there and I had found how I wanted The Johnny High-Fives to sound: a hybridisation of folk and punk. I first encountered this sound while living in Denton, Texas, with an old friend who had a band called Cartright. Cartright had this dirty, gritty vibe like The Ramones, Bob Dylan, and Thelonious Monk poured their collective DNA into a whiskey bottle and shook.

Interestingly enough, the band’s name, The Johnny High-Fives, actually came from a night with the Cartright boys. Ben, the band’s leader, and some other guys were trying to determine the name of their new band. At the time, Ben was going by the pseudonym Ben Cartright, and they had been using that same moniker as their band name as a kind of placeholder, but Ben thought they needed something flashier.

As we sat around tossing out random combinations of words and phrases, this guy named John started adding ‘high fives’ to everything that was said.

It was pretty funny and, when it came time to name my band, the only voice I heard was John and his ‘high fives’. There it was, The Johnny High-Fives. Incidentally, Cartright wound up remaining Cartright, and they’re still performing to this day.

Smokin’

Then there was this trip to New York I took with my brother, Kevin, and my friend Jay Calhoun. We had only known each other a couple of months at the time, but Jay needed to get to Omaha from Texas for a gig and Kevin and I needed some extra cash for the road. We agreed to drive Jay to Omaha if he could help pay for gas.

Jay and I were both smokers but Kevin was not. It was Kevin’s car and he didn’t want it to stink of smoke, so we wound up smoking outside while he waited in the car.

A peak moment in my friendship with Jay came when Kevin shouted from inside the car, ‘Will you guys hurry up? If it weren’t for you I could be in New York by now.’

Realizing that if either of us had been the only smoker on this trip, things might have been very different, Jay said, ‘I’m glad you smoke…’

I started to say something generic like, ‘Yeah,’ but Jay shouts, ‘Cause I wanna see you die!’

That became the joke of the trip, eventually even bringing Kevin into it. Some years later, Jay sent me a new song of his which he had called Smoke or I Wanna See You Die. This, of course, had to be added to the repertoire of The Johnny High-Fives and Jay wholeheartedly agreed.

Through my wife, Erin, who was my girlfriend at the time, I met a young Maryland guitar player named Cody Finkner. His old band, Press Black, had a tune inspired by the movie They Live. I went and watched the movie, referenced Roddy Piper’s famous improv line ‘I am here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum’ in Dystopia Boy, and asked Cody if I could include They Live as a Johnny High-Fives song and he happily accepted.

After I got published by Montag Press, my editor asked me if I was familiar with the music of David Rovics, a Portland folk singer. David and I exchanged a few emails and I included Rovics’ song Strike a Blow Against the Empire in the novel.

Mentors

Music also helps me get ideas.

When I listen to Tom Waits I can feel my own brain chemistry changing. I see reality through the purple smoke of a post-Apocalyptic carnival. I feel the vibrations of my surroundings coming together like a vivid dream, both exciting and uncomfortable, and suddenly I just have to write.

dystopia boy frontListening to Bob Dylan is like talking to a mentor. When I put on a Dylan track, I almost always wind up with a piece of writing. While listening to Blood on the Tracks, I became obsessed with the song Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts. I knew there was something in there to be sussed out, but I couldn’t quite find it. Then I noticed a little moment where Lily takes her dress off and hides it away. It wasn’t much, but there was something about the gentleness in it that led to Joe and his childhood crush, Audrey, having a pretend wedding that gets broken up by Audrey’s overprotective father. Afterward, Audrey takes the night shirt she wore as her wedding dress, folds it neatly and tucks it in the bottom of her toy chest where it would remain for years.

Another song, Tangled Up in Blue, has a verse where a guy meets a girl in a topless place which inspired me to write Joe’s encounter with Audrey at a Portland strip club later in the story.

The Hank Williams song Lost Highway also became a refrain through one of Joe’s recurring dreams. The biblical imagery of the song meshed so perfectly that the dream became the Lost Highway itself.

Adding it all together makes me realize I can’t be Bob Dylan, but somewhere between the darkness of old country, the poetry of folk, and the spirit of rock and roll I found an intersection. That is where I find my stories.

Trevor D. Richardson is the founder of The Subtopian, a regular writer and editor for the magazine, and the author of American Bastards, Honeysuckle & Irony, and Dystopia Boy. A west coast man by birth, Trevor was brought up in Texas and has since ventured back west and put down roots in Portland, Oregon. He has devoted his writing career to helping others find success by forming friendships and working relationships with other writers and artists. Trevor looks for ways to reach across media to other types of creative people to find that place where music, visual art, and literature intersect and is dedicated to creating a new market where new voices can thrive without sacrificing quality or principles. Find him on Facebook, on Twitter @theSubtopian and on his website.

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‘When I listen to Tom Waits I can feel my brain chemistry changing’ – Trevor Richardson

for logoMy guest this week describes his novel’s main character as a folk-punk protest singer in a collapsing American economy in the near future. We all know how books can transform us into the characters we are creating, and my guest temporarily became a songwriter as this book was forming, despite being (as he says) completely unmusical in real life. Alongside the prose, he built a portfolio of the main character’s songs that marked the story’s adventures and friendships. Some were inspired by musically accomplished friends; others by playing Tom Waits, Deer Tick and Bob Dylan to keep the vibe. When his publisher, Montag Press, came on board, the editor suggested more musicians for the creative mix – thus proving his views of the novel were in harmony with those of the writer. Trevor Richardson will be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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