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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 Writer Unboxed co-founder Therese Walsh @ThereseWalsh
Soundtrack by Robert Plant, Alison Krauss
I haven’t been shy in admitting that I wrote much of my second novel, The Moon Sisters, in a state of fear. Fear that I wouldn’t be able to finish the draft, that I didn’t have a second book in me, that I’d fail despite — or because of — a two-book contract. But a duo of songs helped root me to characters in my story, and whenever I needed to be reminded that these characters deserved for their tale to be told, I brought up this particular music.
Both songs are from an album featuring Robert Plant and Alison Krauss called Raising Sand. The album is laced with conflicting ideas that somehow work; it’s there even in the notion that rocker Plant and bluegrass star Krauss might make music together. But there’s also balance and ingenuity with the merging of their unique approaches; and if this music lives at the edges, then it fits all the better with my lives-at-the-edges novel and its characters.
A gypsy quirk
Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us, sung by Krauss, is the first song that spoke to me, with a gypsy quirk and haunting melody. Its bluegrass spirit complements the setting of the book, West Virginia, where you might indeed hear the bright pluck of a banjo marry with the darker sound of a tensely bowed violin.
This was the perfect anthem for Olivia Moon, who sets off by foot at the beginning of The Moon Sisters to find a will-o-the-wisp light in order to fulfill her dead mother’s dreams. She’ll wander and hop a train and sleep under the stars, stretching personal boundaries that are already plenty different from those around her—especially her sister, Jazz, who has the opposite of a gypsy’s spirit and would rather be in control and safe and left to herself, thankyouverymuch.
It wasn’t just the sound of the music that summoned up Olivia Moon for me; the lyrics were spot on, too. Mmm, don’t you love the poetic weirdness of this? I do. Music, summoned from somewhere unknown. Secrets. The sound of hope. Olivia Moon loves this song. I would venture to say that it’s her favorite. She sways out of time with the music because she’s pondering the sound of hope, even the taste of it. She has synesthesia, a condition whereby her sensory areas are jumbled. She can tell you about coloured letters and the look of a song up above your head, or the way the sun smells like her mother. (She probably won’t want to talk about why she stared at the sun after her mother died and why she’s lacking her central vision, but maybe you’ll pull it out of her before the end of the book.)
The second song that spoke to me, sung by Plant, is called Nothin and immediately called to mind an essential character: a train-hopping drifter named Hobbs. Hobbs hasn’t had an easy life, and this song’s driving blend of eff-you electric guitar, down-home-and-dirty fiddle, and what-ya-gonna-do-about-it tambourine speaks to that. It evokes a damaged person, and if you were to stick a label on Hobbs you might choose that word — damaged. He’d notice that and pat you on the back for your smarts, then send you on your way without hearing an argument.
Motherless Hobbs nodded whenever this song played, and wasn’t one to condemn Olivia’s staring at the sun either, maybe because he understood that bit in the second-to-last verse about how being born is going blind.
The tune itself is dark and uncomfortable and winding, like a train, and feels too personal yet I never could turn away from it. Listening to it helped me to stick with the story, which was just as dark and uncomfortable and winding, and made it just as impossible to turn away from it.
Thank you, Roz, for the chance to share the sound behind the story.
Therese Walsh’s second novel, The Moon Sisters, is published by Crown (Random House). She’s the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Writer Unboxed, a site that’s visited daily by thousands of writers interested in the craft and business of fiction. You can learn more about her and her books on her website, Facebook and Twitter.
GIVEAWAY Therese is giving away a print copy of The Moon Sisters to a commenter here! To enter, leave a comment here, and if you share the post on other social media that counts as extra entries (but don’t forget to note that in your comment on this post)
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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-winning percussionist Pete Lockett @petelockett
Soundtrack by Pete Lockett with Björk, Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, Dido, Bill Bruford, Jeff Beck, Ustad Zakir Hussain, The Verve, Texas, Trans-Global Underground, Nelly Furtado, Lee Scratch Perry, Primal Scream, Damien Rice, Dave Weckl, Thomas Lang, Jarvis Cocker, Craig Armstrong, Nicko McBrain, Iron Maiden, U Shrinivas, Ronan Keating, Vanessa-Mae, Errol Brown, Rory Gallagher, Pet Shop Boys, Hari Haran, Kodo, Amy Winehouse, Mel C, A R Rahman, Sinead O’Connor
This music is just incredible; I’ve never heard anything like it before.”
I doubt if anyone outside of this community ever has. This is what you get when Brahms and Bach have been living next door to one another for hundreds of years.They don’t even use notation any more.They’ve just devised a way to conduct the whole group with nods, looks and head shakes.Look, can you see them there at either side? Bach is doing all the spiky staccato stuff and Brahms is doing the smooth legato.It’s all totally improvised and will never happen again. Every rendition is completely different.They both claim that it is the highest level of composition one can reach.Instantaneous composition, conducting and performance.”
When Ed Trew wakes up with a killer hangover, little does he realise that it is the beginning of a mind-boggling journey of revelations and surprises that completely reshapes his view of the world. In the midst of chaos and confusion he becomes completely seduced by music.
It’s no surprise that music and the arts so often act as a liberating influence, giving some lucky individuals the chance a world of creativity and hope. I am grateful to fate to have been propelled out of an ordinary, functional and less than satisfying existence. Music came and lifted me away and showed me a path towards self fulfilment where my mind could become a canvas for fresh ideas. Everything about music fascinated me and as I grew, I slowly started absorbing influences from every corner of the globe, from India to Africa and Nepal to New York – the systems and techniques, sounds, colours and moods. It also led me to a much deeper understanding of people, their motivations, formalities and habits. The way people make music reveals a lot about the culture from which they have flourished.
This ‘open plan’ consumption and integration of varied influences naturally became a cornerstone of my writing when I finally got around to penning a novel. Having had a great degree of freedom in my interpretation and mixing of musical styles, it was natural that this approach got carried over into ideas and stories.
When I sit down and compose music, I start with nothing. That moment of making the first sound or writing the first note is always special, all the more so because I have no idea where it is going to lead. This influenced me directly to try the same thing with words, to take a simple starting point and embark on a journey, not knowing where or how I would get between the various points along the way.
I knew I wanted to have the same freedom that I find in music, able to bring together seemingly disparate concepts and make a new sense out of it all. To be unbound by all that is ‘normal’ but convincing enough to create a dialogue that stands up under scrutiny. As I wrote more and more, I was amazed about how similar the creative buzz was between both of them. I never thought I would find anything that gave me the spiritual lift that music making did but was convinced otherwise during the writing of A Survivor’s Guide to Eternity.
Just as I would embark on so many journeys with my work as a musician, so the character in my book is thrown headlong into an incredible journey, except his is through life, death, reincarnation and the afterlife. Little does he realise that it’s the beginning of a mind-boggling journey of revelations and surprises that completely reshapes his view of the world.
Structure and suspense
Once I really started to get into it, the writing and music began to feed one another even more in quite an inspiring way. A good gig would send me straight back to the hotel with my laptop to get writing and vice versa. I began to think through certain pieces of music and see how the suspense built up over a set time frame, keeping the listener engaged and waiting for the next development. Indian classical music is perfect for that, especially over long periods of time. I began to experiment to see how I could mirror that in my storytelling, sowing seeds and planting suggestions, but all the while keeping the reader impatient for the detail of the next development. As I thought about it, more and more parallels became apparent between literature and music.
Before I knew it I was unconsciously taking on board the broad shapes of pieces of music, flowing like a river around bends and over rocks, sometimes calm and sometimes ferocious. It gave me a great insight into how to approach the timeline within the novel, sometimes going slowly and patiently before propelling it through rapids and over rocks down towards a calming resolution.
There’s so much in common between the two disciplines. One tells a story with words and the other with sound. We need to keep the listener/reader interested with suggestions but not in a way that paints an obvious picture. We need to create suspense, excitement, anticipation and resolution. I never thought they would be quite so interlinked.
Pete Lockett has recorded and/or performed with Björk, Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, Dido, Bill Bruford, Jeff Beck, Ustad Zakir Hussain, The Verve, Texas, Trans-Global Underground, Nelly Furtado, Lee Scratch Perry, Primal Scream, Damien Rice, Dave Weckl, Thomas Lang, Jarvis Cocker, Craig Armstrong, Nicko McBrain (Iron Maiden), U Shrinivas, Ronan Keating, Vanessa-Mae, Errol Brown, Rory Gallagher, Pet Shop Boys, Hari Haran, Kodo, Amy Winehouse, Mel C, A R Rahman, Sinead O’Connor and many more. He arranged and recorded ethnic percussion for five Bond films and other Hollywood blockbusters and has taught and lectured worldwide, including The Royal College, Berklee School of Music Boston, and The Royal Academy of Music in London. He is the author of Indian Rhythms for the Drum Set (Hudson). A Survivor’s Guide To Eternity is his first novel. Here he is on a mountain with percussionist Benny Greb. Find him on Twitter @PeteLockett
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My guest this week is a percussionist who has worked with an astonishing list of world-class musicians – Bjork, Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, Dido, Bill Bruford, Jeff Beck, Ustad Zakir Hussain, The Verve, Texas, Trans-Global Underground, Nelly Furtado, Lee Scratch Perry, Primal Scream, Damien Rice, Dave Weckl, Thomas Lang, Jarvis Cocker, Craig Armstrong – and more. He found that his music fuelled a desire to write a novel, and after a good gig he would rush back to his hotel room, eager to pour out the next chapter. He says he wanted to take a simple starting point and construct an epic journey that ventured outside the normal – bringing together birth, death, the afterlife, reincarnation and immortality into new coherence, and echoing the journey he takes when working with musicians. The result is A Survivor’s Guide to Eternity; he is Pete Lockett and he’ll be here with his Undercover Soundtrack on Wednesday.
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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.
The 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.
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 –
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.
Sonny 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.
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!
Andrew James, authors, Blow Your Kiss Hello, Chris Thomas King, contemporary fiction, crime, crime fiction, David Bowie, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Faithless, Guns N’ Roses, hidden references, Jeff Buckley, Jimmy Page, literary fiction, literary novels, male writers, Malena Ernman, Moby, music, music for writers, My Memories of a Future Life, mysterious place, Mystery, Nail Your Novel, Nirvana, Philip Sheppard, playlist for writers, Purcell, quantum physics, queen bitch, radio rock, reincarnation, Robert Plant, romance, romance fiction, Roz Morris, Sonny Boy Williamson, The Rolling Stones, The Undercover Soundtrack, thriller, thriller novel, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing, writing to music
- 'Constant murmur of pouring rain, piano chords and a stormy sea'
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- Carol is a concert pianist until an injury threatens her career. Desperate for a cure she discovers her future incarnation - or is he a psychological figment? And can he help her recover?
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What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'