Undercover Soundtrack

The Undercover Soundtrack – Deborah Andrews

redpianoupdate-3The 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 award-winning theatre practitioner Deborah Andrews

Soundtrack by Pulp, Oasis, Blur, Massive Attack, Portishead, The Cranberries, LTJ Bukem, Leftfield, Tricky, Goldie, The Verve, Bjork, REM, The Stone Roses, Morrissey, Tracy Chapman, Billy Bragg, Kate Bush, Nick Cave, Sufjan Stevens

The further I write my way into my second novel, the more I realise the extent to which my debut novel, Walking the Lights, is drenched in music. Music is at the emotional heart of the novel. It initially speaks of Maddie’s relationship with her absent father – the songs she remembers him singing to her – and it goes on to illuminate her relationships with her friends, her lovers and, ultimately, with herself.

undercover-soundtrack-deborah-andrews-1Personal and political

Walking the Lights is set in 1996/97. I was looking for connections between the personal and political – and a time that would echo Maddie’s emergence – and the culture and climate around the general election of ’97, along with the lead-up to devolution in Scotland, fitted perfectly. To help re-create the period, I read archive copies of newspapers; watched movies and read books from the era; and listened to music: Pulp, Oasis, Blur, Massive Attack, Portishead, The Cranberries, LTJ Bukem, Leftfield, Tricky, Goldie, The Verve, Björk…as well as to music that Maddie would’ve listened to as a teenager: REM, The Stone Roses, Morrissey, Tracy Chapman, Billy Bragg.

Music plays a large role in my life. As a child, I wanted to be a dancer and I trained in dance for ten years. To me, dance was a way of giving music physical form, of being a conduit for emotion. As an adult, I love listening to music as well as singing and playing the mandolin. I can’t write while listening to music though – my attention will be drawn away and my emotions pulled by what I’m listening to. I enjoy walking and mulling over what I’m working on, and will often put my earphones in and spend time getting inside my characters’ heads and hearts.

Inside out

There were two key tracks that really helped me to get to know Maddie from the inside out. The first of these was Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy. The song relates to a carefree time in Maddie’s life when she used to go out clubbing with her friends, Jo and Roger, and it reappears – after a few dark years – with the prospect of a new romance with visual artist, Alex. I find the track hopeful yet full of longing, and I wanted to reflect something of the swelling strings in Maddie’s feelings of anticipation.

The second track was The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony. This song helped define Maddie at the end of the novel: she’s been seeking love and validation, often looking in all the wrong places, and she’s been searching for her father, leading her to uncover family secrets and testing her hold on reality. She’s in recovery, and she’s reconnecting with her work in the theatre and her sense of purpose. Again, the hopefulness of the melody was important, the string motif, but also the lyrics: being held in one body while playing many parts aligns nicely with the life of an actor.


I could wax lyrical about music in the book, but in terms of music behind the book three main tracks come to mind. In 2011 I was busy rewriting, changing the novel from first person present tense to third person past tense and experimenting with free indirect speech. This was particularly important to help me create some of some of the larger, political canvases, and to take the reader close in to Maddie’s breakdown without causing confusion as to what was going on. I went to see one of my favourite musicians, Sufjan Stevens, touring The Age of Adz at the Manchester Apollo. In I Want To Be Well I heard the chaos and fighting spirit that I was looking to portray in the third part of my novel. The gig itself was significant too – the massive hallucinatory spectacle, that became increasingly wild, and ended with a shedding of costumes, fancy lighting design, video and performance theatrics for a beautiful and tender acoustic rendition of ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’. This was the kind of spectrum I wanted my writing to encompass, and the kind of emotional adventure I wanted to take my readers on.

The second track, Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting, arrived as part of a compilation from a friend while I was editing my novel. I hadn’t heard the song in years and it had a big impact on me. Again, it really resonated with what I wanted my novel to achieve, both in terms of storyline – becoming an adult and coming to terms with the loss of a father – and in terms of emotion: the sense of struggle, strength, fight and defiance. I found the power of the cello, the rising voices, the drums, the layering in the track, like a call to action. I spent several train journeys with the song on repeat, and I think it helped me find the determination to make the novel as good as I could, as well as providing true north for Maddie’s trajectory.

walking-the-lights_coverfrontThe third track, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ There She Goes My Beautiful World, served a similar purpose. The lyrics are poetic and talk of literary figures and inspiration – the sentiment, tune and arrangement are really kick-ass. Daft as it might sound, this track also helped me get ready to let go of my manuscript and my characters.

Novels can take years from first fragments to publication. I started writing scenes for what became Walking the Lights back in 2007. Playing a musical instrument reminds me that the basics are important, to build strength and improve technique: a lifelong development of craft. I’m always looking for my writing to have musicality – rhythm, flow, timbre, texture, growth, counterpoint – and at least one stage of my editing process involves reading my work aloud. The doubt I often feel when I start work on a new tune reminds me to keep chipping away at my writing, it shows me time and again how commitment and steady work can slowly build something complex and complete and, hopefully, moving and meaningful.

Deborah is an award-winning theatre practitioner turned novelist. Her knowledge of the theatre world inspired her debut novel Walking the Lights, which has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize. She has an MLitt (Distinction) and an AHRC-funded PhD in creative writing from Glasgow University. She now lives in Lancaster where she teaches creative writing. Her short stories have been published in several anthologies and she is currently writing her second novel. For more info. please visit her website and her Facebook page.



13 thoughts on “The Undercover Soundtrack – Deborah Andrews

  1. Hi Deborah,

    Congratulations on your new novel, “Walking the Lights” and being shortlisted! Great title by the way. So you are taking in music to define a character and to partition the main stages for your novel.
    Massive Attack, as you say is “hopeful yet full of longing,” which is a great state to for a character to be in. Unfinished Symphony is often in my listening, but assigning it as a character motif makes sense. Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony (you must like symphonies 😉 ) is also an intimate revelation of self.

    Sufjan Stevens, I Want To Be Well was new to me, and I like its wild musical shaping. They Might Be Giants first came to mind, but Panda Bear might be a distant chaotic cousin, easier to write to. “Bros” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQUrf6DpXjc

    Thanks for Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting from Hounds of Love. I had always loved Running Up That Hill from the same album, and the instrumentation is very similar. (How did Kate get Donald Sutherland to perform on the Cloudbusting video?) Reminds me of Robert ParkeHarrison’s imagery is you are into pictorial inspirations.

    Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is always effective. I loved his work in the “Wings of Desire.” First time for There She Goes my Beautiful World. Rich and interesting.

    Thanks for writing of your musical inspirations in Roz’s column.

    Best of all possible worlds,

  2. Hi Mark,

    Many thanks for all your fab comments and kind words! I hadn’t realised, till I was copying in the youtube links, that the music video for Bittersweet Symphony pays homage to Unfinished Sympathy. In my mind, the singer walking along urban streets fits nicely with the flaneur aspects of my main character (though not the bashing into people – as Richard Ashcroft does!) I like Panda Bear (and Animal Collective) – lovely, rich, often joyous sounds. Kate Bush is just a remarkable artist, isn’t she…I’m tempted to listen again to all her albums now (I’ve no idea how she got Donald Sutherland to perform in that video! Love the video though, so will look up your reference, thanks). Funnily enough Wings of Desire has been weaving though my mind quite a bit recently and I’ve been thinking it’d be great to watch it again. Mark, I’ve just read your fab Undercover Soundtrack too…a lot of new listening there for me – I’m looking forward to it. Yes, hats off to Roz for this wonderful blog!

    With thanks again and very best wishes,


  3. Hey guys! I’m glad you two got talking. I’m in a particular Kate Bush phase at the moment because I found a rather good biography of her in an Oxfam bookshop the other week. I devoured it immediately. It described each of her albums in detail – so I’ve been relistening as well. She was my first creative love, period. An absolute beacon for a misfit teenage girl who thought the world needed to be more wondrous and strange.

    I didn’t know about Panda Bear but I’m going to give them a try. My own Undercover Soundtrack for my current novel is already vast but I’m sure it can accommodate more.

  4. Hi Roz,

    Oooh, the Kate Bush biography sounds great – would you recommend it? I loved reading more about Cloudbusting as I was writing my piece…so much depth to her work, and so many literary connections. Yes, I can appreciate that feeling about your first creative love! Such an incredible enigmatic performer/dancer too… I can sense there’s more for me to discover here and am likely to be diving back in soon. Hoping all’s going well with your current novel. Looking forward to reading it, and your next Undercover Soundtrack 🙂

    1. The Kate Bush biography is called Under The Ivy by Graeme Thomson. It’s pretty good. Rock biographies can be full of fannish gush – and it’s definitely not that. They can also be full of posturing prose that’s more about the journalist than the subject – and it’s not that either. It seems pretty intelligent. So yes, I’d recommend it.

      And speaking of the Cloudbusting video, apparently before Donald Sutherland was cast they were thinking of using Patrick Troughton. Imagine it!

      1. Fantastic – thanks, Roz! It’s going on my list, and will be my first ever read of a rock biography! Amazing detail about the video…

  5. Hi Deborah,

    Delighted to have your response and commentary on my Undercover Soundtrack. Yes, Roz should get a dame-hood from Her Majesty for this blog, a cultural resource. I have read many of these author’s essays and benefited from an expanded music library. I was sent here by Gwendolyn Womack whom I had just met at the Historical Novel Society conference in Denver debuting The Memory Painter. Her novel has a great premise – while discovering the cure for Alzheimers, two scientists find the drug recovers ancient memories of past lives.

    Wings of Desire, yes. I saw Wim Wenders brilliant film when WoD first came out at the San Francisco Film Festival. Don’t you love that overdub as the angels are thinking in the beginning?

    Als das Kind Kind war, wußte es nicht, daß es Kind war, alles war ihm beseelt …
    translated, though it is said best in German:
    When the child was a child it did not know that it was a child, everything was soulful …
    Song of Childhood / Lied Vom Kindsein by poet Peter Handke.

    Back to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in WoD. Strangely, I was reading a modern translation “Yes and No,” required for my research on Eleanor of Aquitaine. The scholar Priscilla Throop who translated the hounded philosopher, Peter Abelard, had a cover drawn of, and writes a poetic dedication to Nick Cave.

    Hope to read your work in the coming year.

    The best of all possible worlds,

    1. Wow, I love how these things weave together! And, yes, that’s just gorgeous at the top of WoD. Many thanks, Mark, and hope you have a wonderful autumn…

  6. Hi Roz,

    I have been listening to a ton more music – open to so many more influences. Panda Bear came to me a few years ago, listening to the music of the boyfriend of my daughter. (Listen to youth, the know the way the wind is blowing first).

    As for Panda Bear, make sure you listen to Bros, Good Girl/Carrots(skip first 3 minutes), Ponytail.

    Their former group as Animal Collective is not as ‘expansive’ and well composed, but if you have the time, take in “Summertime Clothes,” and “Turn into Something.”

    Enjoying all you do as a writer and a literary impresario.


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