Posts Tagged music for writing
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
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.
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 guest is Clare Flynn @ClareFly
Soundtrack by Artie Shaw, Debussy, Ravi Shankar, Noel Coward, Pasadena Roof Orchestra, David Gray, The Civil Wars, Joni Mitchell, Martha Wainright, JJ Cale, Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Dean Owens, the Beatles, Fairport Convention, the Black Keys, Pussycat Dolls
When writing Kurinji Flowers I had to spend a lot of time inside the head of my character Ginny Dunbar – not always a good place to be. I tend to work in silence but music plays a massive part in my writing. It helped me get close to Ginny – and sometimes to get away from her. It also took me to Ginny’s world: 1930s England and colonial India.
When the book opens Ginny is 17 and a reluctant debutante, in thrall to an older man who seduced her at 14. Rupert Milligan is playing Artie Shaw in his studio when Ginny’s mother finds out about their affair. The song here is Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine. We had the old 78 RPM disc of this when I was a child so it was nostalgic as well as mood enhancing.
Ginny’s honeymoon is in the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, from where the BBC broadcast its popular radio show From the Palm Court. In 1936 the orchestra was led by a violinist, Tom Jones. Here he is playing with his ensemble in the hotel in 1933.
The sound of the orchestra had kindled a sense of romance in me but it had failed to move my husband”
I visited the Grand and the bedroom where Ginny would have stayed. It has a balcony looking out over the sea and is known as the Debussy suite. The composer had an extended stay in the hotel in 1905 and composed La Mer there. Ginny stands on the balcony, watching that same wintry sea and reflecting on her marriage.
Most of Kurinji Flowers is set in India so I played a lot of Ravi Shankar to create the ambience in my head – this is Raag Jog. As an ex-pat, Ginny had no immediate access to the indigenous culture and was forced to show up and fly the flag at the Planters’ Club, so I listened to Noel Coward, whose classic Mad Dogs and Englishmen fits perfectly, as well as the Pasadena Roof Orchestra – here singing Me and Jane on a Plane.
Love, Loneliness, Lies, Letters and Loss
David Gray’s Sail Away is particularly poignant as it is a declaration of love and a desire to escape with a lover – but Ginny’s husband sails back to India ahead of her and she follows, alone, weeks later. The song conveys what she would have liked but didn’t get.
When Ginny does find love, it doesn’t bring the happiness she’s dreamed of. I was listening to Barton Hollow by the Civil Wars while I was writing the book. Their version of Leonard Cohen’s Dance me to the End of Love is romantic but also plaintive and sad. The harmonies the duo create are a perfect combination of two voices. Sadly they broke up in 2014 – which makes it even more fitting.
Ginny’s loneliness is existential. She’s full of good intentions that always backfire. She desperately wants to love and be loved. Joni Mitchell’s All I Want sums it up well – she’s on a lonely road looking for something but doesn’t know what it is – just like me at the same age – when it was one of my favourite songs. I tuned into Ginny’s misery via Martha Wainwright’s Bleeding All Over You:
Grief, pain, betrayal, gnawing me away like a rat devouring me from the inside. Killing me slowly.”
Most of the men in Ginny’s life lie to her. JJ Cale’s Lies captures the I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-this-any-more moment and the anger and liberation that comes out of it. Ginny feels that anger when she discovers the truth that has been hidden so long.
I’ve always loved using letters. Unlike speech, which is transient and capable of misinterpretation and memory lapse, the words of letters are frozen on the page. The act of writing a letter conveys significance to an event. It allows the writer to say exactly what he is thinking and get it across without interruption from the recipient. Please Read the Letter by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss was a perfect song to channel what my letter writer was feeling.
I was listening to Dean Owens when I was finishing off Kurinji Flowers. One of my dearest friends was dying – and Dean’s music was important to her. Evergreen is all about bereavement and the memories of love.
I had no photographs from that day to draw upon. Only my still vivid memories.”
And I Still Miss Someone, Dean’s version of the Johnny Cash song, captures how the hole love leaves is never filled.
The passage of time
The last section of the book is set in the 1960s. Ginny revisits the pub where her husband proposed to her 30 years earlier. Like so many of her generation, she is out of her time in the swinging 60s. The war changed everything and she is an alien in a strange country. She hears the Beatles song playing on the juke box as a couple are snogging in the seat where Tony proposed to her so formally in 1936.
Yes, love was all I needed but it was everything I hadn’t got”
The incomparable Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention with Who Knows Where the Time Goes? worked perfectly to give me a sense of time passing, of aging, of loss, of change. A kind of weariness.
When I’m writing about sad stuff I need a pick-up at the end of the day. Sitting at a desk in front of a computer means my bones need shaking up too, so my soundtrack has to include music to listen to with a glass of wine, cooking my supper and dancing round the kitchen. What better than Lonely Boy from The Black Keys – the YouTube video features some classic Dad Dance moves. And to go with it, but with a nod to the Indian setting, is AR Rahman’s Jai Ho by the Pussycat Dolls – a celebration of life – and a good fit for the end of the book.
Clare Flynn is the author of A Greater World and Kurinji Flowers. After a career in marketing, working on brands from nappies to tinned tuna and living in Paris, Milan, Brussels and Sydney, she is now happily settled in West London. Co-founder of the popular website, Make it and Mend It and co-author of the 2012 book of the same name, her next novel, Letters from a Patchwork Quilt, will be published later this year. Find her on her website, Facebook, and Twitter as @ClareFly.
My guest this week has written the story of a marriage. Her novel spans many decades, from when her protagonist is a 17-year-old debutante in the 1930s, to the swinging sixties, where the character finds herself revisiting old haunts and sifting through her memories and her hopes. It’s a poignant post, honest and searching, and full of loss. She is Clare Flynn and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.