Posts Tagged Sufjan Stevens

The Undercover Soundtrack – Chris Hill

for logo‘Men, women, flirtation and heartbreak’

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 prizewinning novelist and short story writer Chris Hill @Chilled CH

Soundtrack by Bobby Fuller Four, Sonic Youth, Little Jackie, Chad and Jeremy, The Emotions, Sufjan Stevens

My latest book The Pick-Up Artist is the story of a young man’s inept attempts to find love through a web community called the pick-up artists who claim to use psychological techniques to help their members appeal to the opposite sex.

Chris Hill3Authors write books for all sorts of reasons I suppose. Some, a lot smarter and richer than me, will choose what to write based on market research and audience demographics. For myself, what I write starts not with a bar chart but with a feeling and that feeling is often sparked off by a piece of music.

The Pick-Up Artist was sparked off by a lesser known pop song from the early 60s. It’s called Let Her Dance and it’s by The Bobby Fuller Four, who were relatively unknown in their heyday and whose star has fallen even further in the half-century since they ceased to be. If you have heard of them at all it’s probably because their other hit I Fought the Law was made into a much more famous cover version by The Clash in the 1970s.

I can’t remember where or how I first came across Let Her Dance but it snagged on me as songs often will and I took to playing it on repeat on Spotify during the period I was working through ideas for The Pick-Up Artist. There’s a youth and freshness about the song, an innocence, but also a strength and optimism. My book is a kind of romantic comedy. It’s about men and women, about flirtation and heartbreak and Let Her Dance is about all these things too. There’s a sense of excitement and urgency in the music, from the first moment the bass line loops in like a beating heart.

It’s also a song about a strong woman I think, and a man who has to watch and wait. My book is also about strong women and so it’s perhaps not surprising I found myself listening to, and being influenced by, songs by and about such women. One of these was Cool Thing by Sonic Youth. It’s a noisy rock song with a playful, ironic vocal which messes around with gender roles. Though it’s theoretically about a male object of desire there’s really only one Cool Thing in the picture and that’s Kim Gordon who drawls her way over the howl of the guitars, leaving us in no doubt who’s really the boss in this relationship. We don’t need to have any fear of a female planet she tells us, she just wants us men to know that we can still be friends. In some ways I wanted the women in my book to be like Kim, ironic, aloof, in control.

But I also needed them to be like the woman in 28 Butts by Little Jackie. Hers is a song about a real, rounded person, not the romantic cypher we so often get in pop songs. She smokes way too much, another bottle of whisky’s been emptied and she knows we wouldn’t put it past her. She’s not sure about the direction of her life and though she sounds strong and in control she’s also not sure where she’s headed. She tells us she’d really like to be a housewife and we almost kind of believe her, but only as much we believe she’d like to own a llama.

9781910094167I wanted the women in The Pick-Up Artist to be like the subject of 28 Butts, complex and rich with contradictions, the way people are in real life.

I found myself listening to music from a different age when I was writing the novel, and valuing it for its innocence. I was writing about young people and early relationships – so I suppose, subconsciously, I wanted to get to a place which wasn’t all about knowing and experience but was also about wonder and finding your way in life. One of the tracks I listened to was A Summer Song by Chad and Jeremy – a throwaway pop song from the early 60s which offers nothing more complex than a simple love song, some harmonies and a catchy tune. There was also some old soul; Blind Alley by The Emotions is perhaps a female equivalent – young and innocent, charming and catchy, a song about youthful flirtation and exuberance.

I think it was Martin Amis who said that when you embark on a novel you find yourself writing about things you didn’t realise were on your mind. Some time before I began writing The Pick-Up Artist I lost my mother to cancer. I certainly hadn’t intended to write about that but, what do you know, it turns out the young hero has lost his mum too. Casimir Pulaski Day by Sufjan Stevens tells a story about the death of a loved one and the impact it has. It’s a complex story, an amazingly rich narrative to find in what is effectively a pop song. Though the narrative details of the song are very specific, what I took from it was more the feelings Stevens conveys, not just of unexpected loss but of bewilderment and anger. It’s calm and low key but leaves a lasting impression – which is something I want very much for my work too.

Chris Hill lives in Gloucestershire. The Pick-Up Artist is published by Magic Oxygen Publishing. He works as a PR officer for the UK children’s charity WellChild and spent more than 20 years as a journalist on regional newspapers. He lives with his wife Claire, their two teenage sons and Murphy, a Cockerpoo. His first novel, Song of the Sea God, published by Skylight Press, was shortlisted for the Daily Telegraph Novel in a Year prize and won the efestival of Words award for Best Literary Fiction novel. Chris has previously had some success as a short story writer including winning one of Britain’s biggest story awards, The Bridport Prize. Find Chris on his website, on Twitter @ChilledCh and on Facebook.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Catherynne M Valente

‘I look for clever, lyrical music with a twinge of melancholy’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by multi-award-winning author and New York Times bestselling author Catherynne M Valente @catvalente

Soundtrack by Carl Sagan featuring Symphony of Science, Loreen, Ke$ha, Milla Jovovich, Yann Tiersen, Florence + the Machine, Mumford and Sons, The Decemberists, Anais Mitchell, Orenda Fink, Anna Ternheim, Pogo, Sufjan Stevens, Nobuo Uematsu, Tom Waits, Seanan McGuire, Andrew Bird, Circus Contraption, Antje Duvekot, The Innocence Mission, Rilo Kiley, Jason Webley, Neutral Milk Hotel, DJ Earworm, Ru Paul, Lady Gaga, S.J. Tucker

Exeunt on a leopard

Music and Fairyland go hand in hand. I can’t write without music – it’s an intimate part of my process. So often I start a novel by making a playlist for it, songs that say something about the subject and have a beat conducive to writing. Anything too aggressive and I get distracted, too soft and gentle and I get sleepy. There’s very much a sweet spot to find! With the Fairyland novels, the playlist is called Exeunt on a Leopard and it evolves with every book.

Fairyland is a novel about travel and magic, about growing up, about figuring out the world is a more complicated place than you thought. It’s whimsical but it has a bite. A lot of the songs I like to listen to seem like they could be sung in the voice of my protagonist, September, who is carried away from her home in Nebraska by the Green Wind (who rides a Leopard) and finds her way to Fairyland, a kingdom full of wyverns, witches, marauding herds of wild bicycles, and a very wicked Marquess who has inflicted some very human cruelties on the magical world. Fairyland is both an adventure story and a prodding—sometimes gentle, sometimes sharp—of the whole tradition of children’s literature. So I look for clever, lyrical music with a twinge of melancholy – all stories about fairies have a little melancholy in them.

Song to start the muse

I start out every writing day with Symphony of Science’s gorgeous song A Glorious Dawn. It makes me feel so optimistic about the world! After that, the heavy hitters are Florence + the Machine’s new album Ceremonials, Mumford and Sons’s Sigh No More, The Decemberists’ Her Majesty and Picaresque, Anais Mitchell’s folklore opera Hadestown, Orenda Fink’s Invisible Ones, Anna Ternheim, especially Shoreline, which seemed to be just written for September, Pogo’s Alice songs, Sufjan Stevens’s Illinoise and Michigan albums, Nobuo Uematsu’s phenomenal soundtrack to Final Fantasy VII and VIII, Tom Waits’s sad and sweet musical version of Allen Ginsberg’s poem America, Seanan McGuire’s Hugo-nominated album Wicked Girls, the title track of which actually makes a quick, subtle cameo in the climactic scene of the novel, Andrew Bird’s Scythian Empire, Circus Contraption’s melancholy carnival album Grand American Traveling Dime Museum, Antje Duvekot’s Black Annis, Yann Tiersen’s fabulous music wherever I find it, The Innocence Mission for a little early 90s awesomeness, Rilo Kiley, Milla Jovovich’s surprisingly lovely song Clock, Jason Webley’s Ways to Love, Neutral Milk Hotel’s King of Carrot Flowers and In an Aeroplane Over the Sea.

And cheese

When writing scenes heavy on action, I will admit with only a little blushing that I like some cheesy club pop music – DJ Earworm’s mashups that remind you how meaning can be so fluid, Ru Paul’s Glamazon, Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster album, Ke$ha’s Tik Tok (there’s a strong clock theme in Fairyland!) and I’m completely in love with Loreen’s Eurovision winner Euphoria as I’m working on the third book in the Fairyland series. Sometimes the silly stuff makes me feel free to be ridiculous and whimsical in my work–not everything has to be serious and elegant all the time. This is an important lesson for a fantasy writer, I think.

Finally, I can’t talk about Fairyland and music without mentioning S.J. Tucker. She’s an extraordinary singer, and I have her last two albums Sirens and Mischief on a loop when working. But she’s also done three albums based on my books, and a fourth, based on Fairyland, will be coming out soon. So I listen to September’s Rhyme and Wonders quite a bit–they remind me what I mean to say with my books, and why I started this whole crazy business to begin with.

Catherynne M. Valente is the New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest, the Orphan’s Tales series, Deathless, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Own Making. She is the winner of the Andre Norton Award, the Tiptree Award, the Mythopoeic Award and the Lambda Award. She has been nominated for the Hugo, Locus, World Fantasy, and Nebula Awards. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with her partner, two dogs, and enormous cat. She blogs at and tweets @catvalente

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