Posts Tagged Nick Cave
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 wartime romance author Davina Blake (who also writes as Deborah Swift @swiftstory)
Soundtrack by Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lena Horne, Kate Bush, George Gershwin, Larry Adler, Alison Moyet, Purcell, Led Zeppelin, Rachmaninoff, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler
Music has always been the mirror of my moods, how I am feeling is externalized by the music I play, so it is fortunate that I have eclectic tastes. When writing I prefer silence, but as I type I am aware of the echo of the music from moments before; it still hums inside me, the undertow to what I am writing.
The edge of longing
I need to be able to access certain states in order to write well, and music helps me do this. What I was trying to capture in Past Encounters was a kind of longing – a longing that borders on nostalgia, but is not that sentimental. It is at the edge of things. We have no English word for it, but the German word is sehnsucht. For this novel I was looking for transparency and intimacy, to keep the words simple so you could almost see through them.
I remembered Mary Chapin Carpenter’s John Doe #24 , which does just this, with its simple tune and narrative arc, telling the story of a blind, deaf and dumb man stripped of identity, the ultimate loss, yet still the character haunts us. In Past Encounters Peter becomes a prisoner of war, just a number, so I went back to the track and listened again. In the song, sensory detail becomes enormously important, his toes feeling the streetcar rails underfoot, the scent of jasmine.
Conjuring the past
In the novel both protagonists, Rhoda and her fiancé Peter, mourn the loss of their familiar life to the outbreak of war. I found myself listening to old recordings to conjure the atmosphere of the past. My mother used to love Lena Horne’s The Man I Love (1941), and the crackling of the LP, the sudden silence when it ends, with just the needle bumping round on the record, seemed to say almost as much as the actual music. When I am working I use Youtube to plug myself into the mood of what I am writing, searching out tracks of the era I am working on. Kate Bush’s recording of the same song with Larry Adler on harmonica really spoke to me. The wailing quality of the harmonica seemed to embody Rhoda’s search for the man she loves, which is both Peter, who is missing, and the longing which is somehow not attached to any one man in particular. It is the same longing that makes me want to write, the stretching out towards a feeling I can’t name.
The story is set in WWII, but it is not about heroes. Rhoda’s fiancé Peter spends the whole war in a prisoner of war camp. But what drives the book is his intense friendships with the other men, and the fact that and he and Rhoda survive on memories of each other. Death stalks the captive prisoners and the music I listened to a lot during this phase of writing consisted of elegies to the dead. Alison Moyet’s great natural voice singing Dido’s Lament by Purcell strips away the artifice of opera to make us think nakedly about memory and how we will be remembered.
Writing historical fiction is an awkward relationship between honouring and dishonouring our relationship with the past. Gallows humour is an essential part of survival, both for Peter in the book, and for me as a writer, and I loved the recycling of an old English folk tune in Gallows Pole by Led Zeppelin, especially the ultimate twist, when the hangman (death itself) is hanged on the gallows pole.
I like listening to the layers in music, and Gallows Pole is one piece that repays that sort of listening. That sudden mandolin! I like to pick out individual layers and will often listen over and over to the same piece, following different musical parts. I do this in the novel too; write following different narrative threads. In Past Encounters it is just two, Rhoda and Peter, in my other novels it has been more. When I edit, I do this too, follow different lines of the narrative.
Strangely, although Rhoda’s story is set during the filming of Brief Encounter, I found the Rachmaninoff score too strident and brash for the subtle feeling I needed. The Rachmaninoff score is heavy on the piano. As Nick Cave says, ‘The guitar is something you kind of embrace, and the piano is something you kind of – when you play it, you sort of push it away. It feels very different.’
So the intimacy and loss I was after is there in the guitar of Blind Willie McTell by Bob Dylan. It is a track that was never completed from his album Infidels, and is therefore more poignant because it was almost lost. It is raw and unproduced – you can almost hear a coat button scratching on the top of the guitar as he sings of the loss of not just one blues singer, but of the loss of a whole era of blues singers. Of course really it is Mark Knopfler on guitar, not Dylan, but the impression of one man and a guitar remains. Music is like writing, a world of mirrors and illusion.
Davina Blake also writes seventeenth century novels as Deborah Swift. She lives in the North of England in a small village close to the mountains and the sea, a fact which encourages her to go out and get the fresh air that every writer needs. Past Encounters is her fifth novel, but the first published as an independent author. Tweet her as @swiftstory. Find her on Facebook.
GIVEAWAY Davina is excited to be giving away three ebook copies of Past Encounters to commenters here. Extra entries if you share the post on Twitter, G+, Linked In, Tumblr, Facebook, Ello or anywhere else you frequent. Breathe on a bus window and write it inside a love-heart. Just remember to say in your comment here that you’ve done it!
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 writer Jessica Bell @MsBessieBell, author of String Bridge
Today I’m not only going to talk about how music influenced the creation of my debut novel, String Bridge. I’m also going to talk about how String Bridge influenced the creation of its own soundtrack, Melody Hill: On the Other Side.
Melody, the main character in the novel, is a musician, who struggles to revive her passion to pursue a career in music after the role of mother and wife stunted its growth. The songs that appear in the book started off as poems. But then I thought, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to be song lyrics? And so, I converted the poems into lyrics. Then it occurred to me that I could create and produce an album conceptually written by Melody. Being a singer/songwriter/guitarist myself, and having written and recorded countless songs over the years, meant it was a task that I could definitely undertake. But I became even more convinced of the idea after listening to one of my mother’s songs on YouTube, which conveniently portrayed my main character’s mindset.
Now, I was more than inspired.
Push and pull
The lyrics of this song are about the push and pull a mother feels from her family to her desires, from her need to be a ‘good’ person, to the pit of guilt and depression that haunts and feeds the creative mind. ‘Do you really want to be this famous?’ is the last line of the song—a question I’m sure every potentially famous person asks themselves at some point or another. Is there anything in this world worth the sacrifice of one’s true identity?
I eventually rerecorded this song with my own voice for my book trailer. It’s also in the album. (Thank you to my mother, Erika Bach, once again, for allowing me to do this.)
Once I finished the final revisions to String Bridge, I sat down with my guitar and wrote music to the four songs that appear in the book by channelling Melody’s musical influences (PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, Nick Cave, Joni Mitchell, Nightmares on Wax, Enigma) and combining their styles of rock, pop, folk, and ambience to create an atmospheric grunge CD that is also a visceral lyrical story. Once those were done, I wrote five more songs in the same vein to complete the album, and had the album professionally recorded and produced. You can hear samples on iTunes.
I’m often asked whether being a musician benefits my writing. And I have to say yes. For one, I think sound is a very difficult thing to describe. And even for me, it is not easy. I spent a long time trying to perfect the parts of the novel where music is illustrated. I didn’t only want the words to describe music; I wanted them to sound like music. Being a poet also, I adore playing around with different words and sounds and hearing how they roll off my tongue like a velvety tune. I thrive on constructing sentences with cadence. It’s like singing without a melody—writing to a tempo.
That being said, writing also benefits my songwriting. Over the past seven or so years, since actively writing novels, I’ve noticed a huge change in the way I approach writing lyrics. So I suppose both skills feed off each other. I can’t imagine my life without either of them.
And do you want to know something funny? I need silence when I write. If there is music playing, all I want to do is sing.
Jessica Bell is a literary women’s fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter who grew up in Melbourne, Australia, to two gothic rock musicians who had successful independent careers during the ’80s and early ’90s. She spent much of her childhood travelling to and from Australia to Europe, experiencing two entirely different worlds, yet feeling equally at home in both environments. She currently lives in Athens, Greece, and works as a freelance writer/editor for English Language Teaching publishers worldwide and is the Co-Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal. Jessica has published a book of poetry Twisted Velvet Chains, and a novel String Bridge, with Lucky Press, LLC. A full list of poems and short stories published in various anthologies and literary magazines can be found under Published Works & Awards, on her website. From September 2012 Jessica will be hosting the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek island of Ithaca, home of Odysseus. Please visit the site to register. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @MsBessieBell