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 by award-winning novelist, poet and novella-ist Heidi James @heidipearljames
Soundtrack by Nirvana, Ane Brun, Jason Donovan, Kylie Minogue, David Bowie, Beastie Boys, Portishead
I’ll start with a confession – I don’t usually listen to music when I’m writing or reading, or cooking or clearing up, or anything really when I’m alone. I prefer silence and birdsong. Partly I think that’s because I’ve lived all my adult life with people who love and make music, and so have been saturated by other people’s sounds and musical choices; and partly because I have a noisy, busy mind, music has been too much of a distraction, especially if I’m in company, the noise making them less easy to access or decipher.
Yet, that changed when I started writing So the Doves. One strand of the narrative is set in the late 80s and early 90s, so listening to music from that era was essential to finding my way back to the texture, smells, fashion and visuals of that time. Listening to random tunes that I’d never usually listen to, like Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue’s duet, Especially for You (time hasn’t improved it to my mind) helped me visualise that world of my childhood in ways that are not part of the novel, but that would be crucial to the writing of it. Hearing Terence Trent Darby’s Wishing Well, I could see our neighbour, Martin, in his socks and sandals, his knee-length grey shorts and neatly ironed t-shirt as he polished his blue Datsun and there was my mum, her sunbed on the patio, soaking up the rays, cigarette smoke turning and rising above her.
The main characters in the novel, Marcus and Melanie, forge the first bonds of their teenage friendship from a love of music:
‘Marcus,’ she said, her voice low and soft, ‘do you honestly think that what you learn in class today will be of more value to you than what you’ll learn in Vinyl Exile? Come on.’ She stood up, raised her eyebrow and cocked her head in the direction of town. ‘Let’s go my rebellious friend.’
And so I started to listen to the music I imagined they loved and from there the characters became more complex, more rounded. I could see them and hear them when I listened to the razored bass that slices through Blew on Nirvana’s Bleach, I was there lying with them on Melanie’s bedroom floor, sympathising with their longing for the day when they would escape the misery of their/our small town. I remembered the dull rage of interminable Sundays, the relief of good friendships and the welts left from clumsy kisses and lazy punches. About a Girl could’ve been written for Melanie. She’s charismatic and bright and unlike Marcus, she can see straight to the heart of things:
It’s weird; it’s like all romance and glitter and rags; as if it isn’t enough to just be a person who doesn’t fit, because that isn’t worthy of respect.’
Vibrant and fearless, she’s the girl everyone wants to know, everyone wants to be and then she vanishes; and Marcus is alone, and left looking for a truth he won’t find, despite searching throughout his award-winning career as a journalist.
This listening started as a point of reference and research, and yet, the more I listened to music, the more I had a sense of who I had been, the music I’d loved and so I started listening to more and more, rediscovering a self and tastes that I had forgotten. The sweep and drama of Bowie’s Life on Mars, the muscled bass and guitar on Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, the slinky sorrow in Portishead’s Sour Times – the music began to reorder and disrupt the strange taxonomy of my memories, easing the writing but so much more than that too.
Music became a space, a sonic zone of suspense from the physical world. It has become a haven for me, where before it was an irritant, an oppressive force. I tuck myself inside Ane Brun’s Halo, and feel strangely held in the embrace she is singing about, her voice tender and fragile. It reminds me of fiddlehead ferns, the feathery leaves coiled tight; of nests woven from grass; of the tangled strings of cat’s cradle caught on my Nanna’s fingers.
Marcus buys Melanie a record, and it’s a precious gift, the music pressed flat into an object that exists even without the means to play it, and here I am, having sold most of my CDs and records, with a music collection that is ephemeral, spectral, comprised of airwaves and numerical codes, contained on my phone, stored in a cloud. Like the angels I believed in when I was a child.
So I’ve begun to listen to music again, for me.
Heidi James’s novel Wounding was published by Bluemoose Books in April, 2014. She was a finalist for the Cinnamon Poetry Collection Prize. Her novella The Mesmerist’s Daughter (published by Neon Press in April 2015) won the Saboteur Award. Her novella Carbon, was published in English by Blatt and in Spanish by El Tercer Nombre. So the Doves is her second novel. Find her on Twitter and Instagram as @heidipearljames and on her blog/website HeidiJames.me