The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative life – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is memoirist Ricky Monahan Brown @ricky_ballboy
Soundtrack by the Lumineers, LCD Soundsystem, Nick Cave, Stereolab, Primal Scream, Mercury Rev, Ennio Morricone, Simple Minds, Edwyn Collins
Towards the end of my memoir, Stroke: A 5% Chance of Survival, I mention the psychology writer and broadcaster Claudia Hammond and something she calls the Reminiscence Bump.
It’s why we remember the experiences of our formative years so vividly. That’s when we experience so many things for the first time… The details around them reinforce the formation of our identity. It’s the reason your favourite album came out when you were seventeen.
1991 was a good year. But, my current identity was also forged by the massive haemorrhagic stroke I suffered in 2012, a couple of days after losing my job. So, it makes sense to me that songs from the period are interwoven into that story.
An early chapter of Stroke is called Classy Girl, for my partner Beth. The Lumineers’ song Classy Girls could tell some sort of version of our meeting in a dive bar in Brooklyn, and it was the perfect length for Beth to listen to on her twice-daily walks from our apartment to visit me in the hospital. It conveys hundreds of words’ worth of information and insight into the story of Stroke and its characters and its physical setting.
I like that the song is an Easter egg for pop music fanatics. Another Lumineers song – Dead Sea – always transports me back to those days when that heroic and brave and funny woman dragged me back from the edge of death. It condenses the emotion poured into Stroke and reduces me to tears, every time.
Stroke is a story of the love between Beth and me, and also our love for New York City. Something of LCD Soundsystem’s New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down permeates my memoir. For a decade and a bit, I loved that city and it gave me so much in return. But eventually – with more than a little help from me – it broke me down. NYI©YBYBMD demonstrates how music acts on my work these days: by osmosis rather than direct inspiration. It’s a 5:35 epic that sounds like ten minutes, and the barman at that dive bar let me add it to their jukebox as a value-for-money bonus track. I’ve heard it a lot.
The story of Stroke made its first appearance in a kind of short-form rock opera (or long-form concept single) I wrote and performed with my bandmates Paul and Stephanie in our weird little transatlantic band, Nerd Bait (find them on Twitter @NerdBaitBand). Condensing extracts of an early draft of the book into a short collection of songs helped me drill down on the story I wanted to tell. And, to prove that the musical-literary muse travels in both directions, The Treacherous Brain track Yes, Ricky lifts liberally from John Donne. Paul’s also written music to accompany some of my short stories.
I think that my love of pop music contributed to my long, slow journey to becoming a writer. My listening always had a literary bent, whether the Gothic storytelling of Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat or Stereolab’s motorik rendition of Baudelaire’s Enivrez-vous. Maybe something of those sorts of songs is why my recent short fiction has appeared in places like Haunted Voices: An Anthology of Gothic Storytelling from Scotland and the Hauntings issue of the horror zine Blood Bath.
As a teenager, I would say that I couldn’t read or write as effectively without music on. Now, I can’t write with music on. Instead, the music I listen to seeps into me and then out onto the page. This is certainly the case with three projects that I’m currently working on.
I’m completing a short story collection tentatively entitled Little Apples. The common thread running through those stories is something that I heard David Constantine and Jenny Niven give name to in an Edinburgh event for his short story collection, The Dressing-Up Box: Angry Hopefulism. I’m finding that listening to Primal Scream’s album XTRMNTR, and particularly the Jagz Kooner mix of Swastika Eyes, is a more enjoyable way to find that mindset than rewinding the Six O’Clock News.
I’ve now begun work on Unnatural Strife, a novel about Highlanders fighting on the British side in the American War of Independence, and a screenplay called Nova that I think of as Mad Max meets Once Upon A Time In The West in the Scottish Highlands of the early nineteenth century. Something about Mercury Rev’s album Deserter’s Songs (particularly the song Holes) gets me into the right frame of mind for Unnatural Strife. Ennio Morricone’s The Grand Massacre from Once Upon A Time In The West sets the scene for the Nova, soundtracking as it does a story of property rights and the evil men will do to lay their hands on them. The vast title track of Simple Minds’ Street Fighting Years album helps unlock the scale of the story and the forces and the landscape I’m addressing in it.
I think of the music that informs my writing as a tool to help me try to create the kind of emotion that the best popular music can convey. A couple of years before my stroke, in the aftermath of my mother’s death, I saw Edwyn Collins play an intimate venue in Brooklyn, touring his album Losing Sleep. Losing Sleep was the first album he had written and recorded after suffering his own cerebral haemorrhage.
Edwyn was accompanied to the mic by his wife, Grace, and his between-song banter betrayed the remnants of the aphasia that had originally left him able only to repeat four phrases, over and over again: Yes, No, Grace Maxwell and The possibilities are endless.
But his reliance on a silver-topped cane seemed to me an act of defiance, a promise that the young dandy who had founded the Glaswegian band Orange Juice and the legendary Postcard Records persisted. It was an incredible night.
the physicality of the band’s inspired mix of post-punk and northern soul compelled me to join the politely flailing mass of limbs, and before I knew it I was dancing like a maniac and sobbing uncontrollably.
I’ve been incredibly lucky to survive my stroke with my expressive abilities intact, and it’s been a privilege to tell a story that I hope might help people who have suffered strokes, their loved ones, and maybe ever some other people who have experienced difficult times. If anyone can find in it a fraction of the inspiration that Edwyn Collins and Grace Maxwell seeded in me that evening, my entire writing career will have been a success.
Ricky Monahan Brown’s memoir Stroke: A 5% chance of survival is published by Sandstone Press and was one of The Scotsman’s Scottish Books of 2019. He is the producer and co-founder of the irregular, multiple-award-winning night of spoken word and musical entertainment, INTERROBANG?! (who you can find on Twitter @InterrobangEdin ). He lives in Edinburgh with his wife and their son. Stroke is available from all good bookshops and from Sandstone Press – and readers of this column can get 10% off Ricky’s memoir by using the code SOUNDTRACK10 at the checkout. You can find Ricky in all the usual places: his blog, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and with his band Nerd Bait (@NerdBaitBand) on Soundcloud.
Most of us, when we use the term ‘formative years’, are referring to our teens, the time we began to discover who we would be. The music from that time is always stitched into our identity. My next guest on The Undercover Soundtrack has a second set of formative years, with its own soundtrack – which began on the day he suffered a catastrophic stroke. The memoir he published was one of The Scotsman‘s Scottish Books of 2019 (and he is now a big noise in the world of edgy live storytelling… just look up Interrobang?!) Ricky Monahan Brown will be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack – and watch out for the special discount for readers of the column…
The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative life – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is returning for a second spin – Guy Mankowski @GMankow
Soundtrack by Aleka’s Attic, Nirvana, Babes In Toyland, Hole, Bratmobile, PJ Harvey, Placebo, Manic Street Preachers, Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis, Ocean Colour Scene, Pulp, Alice Deejay, Whigfield, Greenday, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Llama Farmers
The band that best sums up the mood of my fifth novel, Dead Rock Stars, is the late actor River Phoenix’s band, Aleka’s Attic (here’s their song Where I’d Gone). So much so that I named a character in tribute to him.
My novel is set over the course of a wild summer in which a teenage boy (Jeff) comes to terms with the mysterious death of his older sister, Emma, who was a rising star on the 90s Camden music scene. As his summer unspools and becomes wilder and wilder and he learns about first love it is his sister’s diary that guides him through his coming-of-age experiences. I think River Phoenix’s band perfectly captures the mood of the novel, with the warmth and experimentalism of 90s music in which earnest social messages were often filtered through well-meaning- and often very abstract – lyrics.
As well as River Phoenix, an artist who looms pretty large over the novel is Kurt Cobain. One of Emma’s pivotal pieces of advice to Jeff is to never trust people who don’t like Nirvana. When Emma meets the brooding, already-famous musician Adam it is in performing About A Girl to him that she asserts herself as a musician.
As a former singer and guitarist in various shortlived bands, I first learnt to play guitar using this song. The novel is a great deal about young, frustrated artists trying to find a way to express their voice and impress themselves upon the world and it reminded me of when, like Emma, I learnt to play Nirvana’s Unplugged In New York. It was a great album in terms of emotional range and you could really express yourself through playing those tracks but it also had that punk sensibility to it – it isn’t technically complex.
The novel is deeply steeped in the 90s, not purely for nostalgic reasons (though I recently found myself watching many Winona Ryder films and missing slightly simpler times). But more because it was an era in which there was a naïve sense of hopefulness. One thing that fascinates me about the 90s is all the rich music scenes that popped up, when in the UK music weeklies had a monopoly on who was deemed cool and successful. Emma is hugely influenced by the Kinderwhore scene, associated with acts like Babes in Toyland (here’s Bruise Violet), where ruined prom queens, tiaras and leopard print were all used in a twisted appropriation of the feminine and the innocent. It would be remiss of me not to mention the influence of Hole. Their song Doll Parts has lyrics that perfectly capture Emma’s tiredness about having to compete with men for attention.
The back cover of Hole’s Celebrity Skin has artwork of Ophelia drowning, which is a theme on the cover of my novel too, seeing that Emma was obsessed with Ophelia and tragic figures like Frances Farmer.
The Riot grrrl movement, in which the female body was used to display confrontational messages and the physicality of music prioritised, is also a big influence on Emma . (Here’s Bratmobile Cool Schmool.)
But her biggest influence in the novel is probably PJ Harvey, an artist living and creating on their own terms whilst possessing that alluring mix of force and glamour (PJ Harvey 50 Ft. Queenie).
I do miss being in era in which there was that sense of possibility and when an artist performing a song was an event, almost a window into their mysterious life. I remember when Placebo first performed Pure Morning on Top Of The Pops (watching that every Friday was an almost religious ritual for me). It was for me a lot like seeing David Bowie perform Starman was for the previous generation.
The characters in the novel hark back to a time when hearing a song for the first time, or seeing a glimpse of one of their videos on The Word or MTV was a pivotal moment.
Music – in the form of cassettes made for those you were intimate with, or CDs and inlay cards – was a lot more physical then. The gorgeous Smashing Pumpkins artwork is a good example (Daphne Descends).
Pre internet artists found it harder to get their voice out. I remember needing such a physical act of will to find a way to record your songs. I wanted to capture that sense of strain. That push to have your voice heard is, I think, essential to finding out who you are, as an artist.
Over the course of the summer portrayed in the novel, there are certain tracks that to me capture that era. The sheer optimism of Oasis’s Some Might Say captures the naivety and hope of that era, where every Friday after school I would tune in to TFI Friday, and be introduced to at least three new bands. On the Isle of Wight, where I lived, shows like that were a lifeline. Ocean Colour Scene’s theme tune (The Riverboat Song) would, to me, always signal the start of the weekend. I remember that just seeing a poster for a band would be like witnessing a portal to a whole new way of life. Pulp’s now famous poster for their album Different Class felt like a kind of a battle cry for all the outsiders (here’s Mishapes).
The novel also includes teenage discos, in which people have their first kisses. The courage required to ask someone to dance is the closest English equivalent to the prom. For me Alice Deejay’s Better off Alone or Whigfield’s Saturday Night best recall those times.
It’s also a novel set on the Isle of Wight during the summer, a time in which I recall a lot of parties and barbecues on beaches, where someone would eventually pull out a guitar and play either Greenday’s Good Riddance or Red Hot Chili Peppers Scar Tissue.
The latter is a song which captures for me the delicacy of your first hangover, perhaps as you wake up on the beach. This is a novel, for all its heartbreak, about summers and late night parties spent by the sea with music. And to capture that sense of teenage rebellion I’ll finish with The Llama Farmers and Get The Keys And Go.
And I look back to a lost era and ask- how did we get here, from the relative innocence of back then?
Guy Mankowski was raised on the Isle of Wight. He was the singer in Alba Nova, a band who were described by Gigwise as ‘mythical and evocative’. Dead Rockstars is his fifth novel and is published by Darkstroke on 14th September 2020, but can be pre-ordered from here now. Guy’s website is here, his Facebook page is here and you can tweet him on @Gmankow.
Guy Mankowski’s new novel Dead Rock Stars has been brewing a long time. He draws on his experiences growing up in the 1990s, teaching himself to play Nirvana songs on the guitar. (It worked. He went on to play in several bands, including Alba Nova.) Guy says the 1990s was a time when musicians seemed mysterious, and seeing a band poster was like a glimpse of another world. From those feelings and recollections he has created a punky period piece, centred around a teenage boy navigating love and life, helped by the diaries of his dead sister. It’s a coming of age story with first hangovers, first dances, first loves, a sense of hope and optimism. And also, the struggle to find your voice and get it heard. Drop by on Wednesday for his Undercover Soundtrack.
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 returning for a third spin – Gwendolyn Womack @Gwen_Womack
Soundtrack by Doug Appling, A Chorus of Storytellers, Sean Digo, Mozart, traditional Korean music, traditional aboriginal music, James Hood
Thank you Roz for having me back to the Undercover Soundtrack. I’m thrilled to delve in and discuss the music behind my new novel The Time Collector. The story is a romantic thriller about two psychometrists. Psychometrists are people who can touch objects and see the past embedded within them. The pair become caught up in trying to solve the mystery of out-of-place artifacts (“ooparts”) that challenge the timeline of recorded history. Within the narrative, the story travels back in time periodically through the objects, and the answer to the ooparts’ riddle lies hidden within the fantastical world of crop circles, ancient crystals, and sacred geometry. The book has many aspects, so the music I listened to while writing was highly varied too.
The main character of the book, Roan West, is a master psychometrist who has been peering into the past since he was a boy. He wears gloves to control what he touches and the imprints he reads. The only time he takes his gloves off for long periods of time is when he mountain climbs. He is an avid boulderer, someone who climbs without gear or ropes, and bouldering has become his outlet where he can recharge. When I went on YouTube to research videos of climbers I found the climbers’ playlists to be so kinetic and full of energy. I ended up getting several albums and looping specific songs. They became Roan’s songs in my mind. The music I looped the most for Roan was from the album Emancipator by Doug Appling. I particularly loved the tracks Rattlesnakes, Nevergreen, and First Snow.
The other psychometrist and main character in the story, Melicent Tilpin, is just starting out on her journey to becoming a psychometrist. For Melicent, I ended up looping A Chorus of Storytellers’s Within Dreams and Perro for many of her scenes. There is something elusively wistful about both pieces that struck a chord when I was trying to write her.
There is one song in general that I listened to the most throughout writing the book. I first heard it on the internet as background music to a short video piece that Futurism.com was circulating and I loved it so much I researched what it was and how to get it. It’s a short piece of instrumental music called Stream by Sean Digo and I was able to download on Audiojungle. I looped it for countless hours (hundreds) and even now when I listen to it the song brings back so many memories of the writing.
Parts of The Time Collector journey back in time through memories stored within objects. There were pieces of music that helped me write those historical passages. For example, within an antique music box lies the memory of 1700s Vienna and musical prodigy Regina Strinasacchi, who performed with Mozart. There’s a wonderful bit of backstory about the sonata Mozart composed for her and I wrote their chapter playing the sonata.
For another object’s memory—hidden within the key to the astronomical clock tower in Prague in the 1400s—I listened to medieval music on YouTube. And another memory is imbedded within an exquisite Korean fan of a young girl’s life during the Korean War. The girl’s mother was a musician and I found traditional Korean music to help spark my imagination. The full playlist is on my website, but this one performer is how I imagined the mother to look in concert.
An important flashback of the story takes place in Australia and I found some fantastic Aboriginal Didgeridoo music and another piece titled the Spirit of Uluru. I hunted all afternoon sampling music to find what I was looking for.
Sometimes though, you don’t have to go hunting for music, the music finds you. That happened to me while I was watching the movie Sing with my son of all places. One of the songs is a remake of Golden Slumbers/ Carry that Weight. The lyrics struck me and felt connected to Roan’s journey at the end. Roan is carrying the weight of the world’s memories inside of him and trying to get home. I ended up listening to the song many times for inspiration to write his journey. The spark of inspiration happened quite on accident while watching a Sunday family movie.
The two final pieces of music I want to mention is by one of my favorite artists James Hood. His previous album, Pure Ceremony, was pivotal when I wrote The Fortune Teller and it was incredible timing that his next album, Mesmerica, came out right as I was getting started on The Time Collector. The entire album is gorgeous! I ended up looping the songs Tapestry and Mesmerica the most, particularly while writing the end chapters. Last December I had the chance to meet James when I went to see his concert for Mesmerica. The show is an amazing 360-degree immersive art and music show that makes you feel like you’ve stepped inside a kaleidoscope. I highly recommend going. Visit his website to see if he’ll be coming to your city.
To sample all the music that helped to inspire The Time Collector, the playlist is on my website. And if you’d like to read my past posts on Undercover Soundtrack, here are my discussions for The Fortune Teller and The Memory Painter. One of the most enriching aspects of writing is to find the perfect music to go on the journey. I have infinite gratitude for all these artists who inspired me along the way. Thank you for listening!
Gwendolyn Womack is the USA Today bestselling author of The Fortune Teller and the award-winning reincarnation thriller, The Memory Painter. Her latest novel, The Time Collector, is out this month with PicadorUSA. Gwendolyn lives in Los Angeles with her family, collects kaleidoscopes, and paints as a hobby. Visit her online at gwendolynwomack.com or connect with her on social media at Twitter @Gwen_Womack , Facebook and Instagram
If you’ve followed this series for a while, you’ll recognise my latest guest. Gwendolyn Womack writes romantic thrillers imbued with a sense of metaphysics, time and memory. Her stories come to her through music and her Undercover Soundtracks have always been haunting and unusual, with a strong sense of place and emotion. I urge you to check out her first time on the series, when she introduced us to an album recorded inside the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. For her new novel, she conjures a psychometrist who can feel the history in any object he touches – so her mental and musical soundscape includes 1700s Vienna, 1400s Prague and the red plains of empty Australia. Drop by on Wednesday for her latest Undercover Soundtrack.
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 SD Mayes @authormayes
Soundtrack by John Mayer, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Mozart, Liszt
Letters to the Pianist, a story set amidst the bloodshed of WWII, is a parallel dance between that most powerful and complex of bonds: father and daughter. Joe, a Jewish greengrocer and his eldest daughter, Ruth – my two protagonists – narrate their own stories and in many ways sing their own deeply felt songs, as their paths take radically different directions, with at times, devastating consequences. Their story is about choices, the secrets we carry, overcoming challenges, and most of all, the importance of family.
We always hope we have an angel to watch over us, but we don’t realise how our parents are the true guardian angels, for the good times and bad.
Often I would lie in bed and play music, to find that special song, or a melody that could help me express their relationship journey. John Mayer’s song Daughters really helped me connect with Ruth’s complex bond with her parents – and her father’s absence in her life which mirrored mine (my parents split when I was only three) and that contrary emotion you can have with a parent. Fathers are, after all, the subconscious blueprint for a daughter’s future loves.
Let’s travel into the blitz of 1941: a red-brick terraced house in London’s East End has been bombed in the early hours. And Ruth Goldberg, a Jewish teenager, escapes into a fantasy world to avoid the horrific reality of wartime life; the song Dream a little Dream of Me sung by Doris Day really helped me to tap into the dreamy, illusionary state she would sometimes drift into.
One night, Ruth awakens in the pitch dark, still groggy from sleep, and buried up to her neck in bricks. Unable to move, she frantically screams for help, wondering if her parents and two younger siblings are dead. But this introductory scene is no work of fiction; the narrator is based on my mother, Ruth, who as a young girl, awoke to find herself orphaned and alone in this exact scenario.
Dreams and wishes and fairy tales were like icing on a mouldy cake—they can’t hide the truth—because when you take a proper bite, you choke.’
In the creation of a wartime world, a song tapped straight into this atmosphere of ‘rubble-strewn streets and a swamping sadness that hung in the air like the reek of burning flesh’ – along with that desperate sense of hope that Ruth needs to hold onto as she and her two younger siblings are parcelled out to relatives – Smile sung by Nat King Cole, which I played repeatedly until it seeped into every cell in my body and I was almost breathing it.
Ruth, like my mother’s real life experience, believes that she is the ugly duckling, black sheep of the Goldberg family compared with her beautiful siblings – overweight, and spotty, she wonders if she perhaps deserves all this heartbreak, abandonment and loss. And yet there is hope for an internal transformation: My Funny Valentine sung by Frank Sinatra, really connected me to Ruth’s illusionary story of her own unworthiness, along with my mother’s that doesn’t reflect the reality, as she will learn to discover.
Meanwhile, her enigmatic father, Joe, regains consciousness in hospital and soon discovers he can play the piano as good as the great maestros – and this becomes his saving grace, along with his good looks and charm as he marries into a sinister aristocratic family, and achieves fame as a concert pianist with a new identity – Edward Chopard.
Although I had piano lessons from an eccentric French teacher in a housecoat when I was eight years old, I needed to impart that wild energy Edward feels when he plays, as he is moved from a deep space within, which he doesn’t fully understand, being sparked by savant syndrome.
‘He played Mozart’s Overture from The Marriage of Figaro with such ferocious passion, his body twisted and turned, his face contorted and his eyes rolled wildly…
The Mozart symbolises his passionate side and empowers him as he revels in his good fortune, and yet, is it all as it seems?
Edward has many faces that he reveals to survive this complex family drama in which he finds himself, and Liszt’s Dreams of Love evokes Edward’s loneliness, seeking truth and real connection, as the fragments of his lost family still haunt him.
Joe/Edward is a lost soul, in search of who he really is: ‘Who am I?’ is a recurring question for him, and yet often our true selves are reflected back in the people we love. You Made Me Love You sung by Nat King Cole is a song that threads through the story and stirs old memories, and underpins the unfolding of his real identity.
Halfway through the story, fragments of Edward’s memories begin to return. This is triggered when he receives letters from his supposed long lost daughter, Ruth, after she sees a photo of a pianist who reminds her of her dead father in the newspaper, stating that he will be performing at the Proms.
It Was a Very Good Year sung by Frank Sinatra really sums that up Edward’s mixed feelings. He knows things aren’t right – the family he has married into have dark affiliations to Hitler – but he often sees events with pink tinted vision – out of fear of seeing the truth, until he has to face reality.
SD Mayes worked as a journalist for nearly 20years before turning her hand to fiction. Inspired by her mother’s tragic memories of wartime Britain, along with the bizarre but factual events of Hitler’s obsession with the supernatural, Letters to the Pianist is her first WWII suspense novel. She lives in Berkshire, UK, with her teenage daughter and their voluptuous cat, Saphy. Find her on Twitter @authormayes, Facebook, Goodreads and her website.
Hello! It’s been a while since I’ve had an Undercover Soundtrack guest, but that doesn’t mean it’s muted forever. I’ve been writing, and the soundtrack collection for my own book is almost as tall as its namesake (Everest). Meanwhile, I’ve bumped into a few people who would be perfect guests and this week you’ll meet the first of them – SD Mayes. Her novel is called Letters To The Pianist, which you’ll probably agree makes her the perfect first act for the second act of this series. Letters To The Pianist is set in the London of World War II and draws heavily on the author’s own family history. Music was a route map for the key emotions of the characters – from fantasy escape, feelings of teenage inadequacy and the feelings of wild abandon that come from communion with an instrument. Drop by on Wednesday to hear more.
It’s such a pleasure when an early contributor to this series returns with a new title. Today we’re rewinding to a guest from the first year of The Undercover Soundtrack. Dwight Okita was a finalist in the coveted Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award with The Prospect of My Arrival, a story that flirted with ideas of the supernatural and reincarnation. Now with his second novel, The Hope Store, he’s created a low-key magic realism/science fiction fable that centres around an invention that can bring happiness. Music was important for keeping him on message, and Dwight’s muses included U2 and my own favourite, Kate Bush. Drop by on Wednesday to hear more.