The Undercover Soundtrack – Leslie Welch

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 debut novelist Leslie Welch @Leslie_Welch

Soundtrack by Dave Bielanko, Christine Smith, Chris Rattie, Gus Smith, Snow Patrol, Coldplay, The Temper Trap, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kanye West, Imagine Dragons

‘We’re recording these old songs at a church in Millheim. You should stop by.’

Intrigued by the invitation, my husband and I made the 22-mile drive from our hotel in State College to the post-industrial town. Back then, Millheim was growing into the unlikely heart of a serious music scene in Central Pennsylvania. That visit would eventually work its way into a novel I didn’t know I was going to write.

Dave Bielanko and Christine Smith (of Marah fame) had enlisted our friend Chris Rattie to play drums on Mountain Minstrelsy—a collection of old mountain songs they had resurrected with new music. Given the people involved, I expected the session to be different, but we walked into an all-out revolt against modern recording. Recording based on intuition instead of algorithms. My internal monologue alternated between, ‘This is so freaking cool’ and ‘How can this possibly work?’

A tangle of cords, amps, and a giant mixing board crowded the back of the sanctuary where greeters used to welcome people to worship. Mics were set up wherever there was good, natural reverb. Not a computer in sight.

A prodigy

Two towheaded boys chased each other through the pews in loops around us as we checked out the set-up.

‘Who are the kids?’ I asked.

‘The taller one is our fiddle player,’ Chris said. ‘Hey, Gus! Come over and play something.’

Eight-year-old Gus scooped up his fiddle and ripped out a quick melody that sucked me into a serious religious moment. The kind of experience that makes you doubt you could ever be good at anything in your life. That’s what happens when you experience a prodigy in person. Here’s Gus Smith.

Gus, undoubtedly used to these impromptu performances, gave us a look that asked if that was enough of a demo. Before our claps faded into the narthex, he was back to the business of chasing his brother around the church.

While the idea for my novel The Goodbyes wouldn’t come for a few months, I collected plenty of inspiration at that session. Fast forward to November of 2014.

Searching for a Soundtrack

With an idea begging for a blank document and a NaNoWriMo deadline, I sat down to write. Since the story was about Webb Turner, a rock star who races through a blizzard to possibly say a final ‘goodbye’ to the girl who inspired his songs, I packed my writing playlist with songs I thought Webb might write. Snow Patrol, Coldplay, and The Temper Trap dominated the two-hour loop. But when I pressed ‘play’, I found myself skipping each track after a few seconds.

I switched over to my music library, hoping the universe would step in. Song after song, nothing kept me writing for more than a sentence until I skipped my way to the one thing I would have never chosen—Tibetan Monks chanting. Yes, really. I didn’t care what it was, it shifted me into the zone. I tapped out a chapter or two on the train ride home.

When I wasn’t writing, I listened to popular music from the 90s and early 2000s. Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, even Kanye West and Nickelback transported me back to the spirit of that time. These songs play in the background of a lot of scenes in the book. They’re important to the characters, too.

Changing tunes

I finished the first draft in a month. Once I had let it rest for a few weeks, I started the slow and painful process of editing. It wasn’t long before I realised that I needed more than ‘Oms’ to paint the flesh onto the bones of the story. My filmmaker husband suggested listening to movie soundtracks for some momentum. I quickly discovered that these epic melodies, swelling and crashing without apology, are gold for writers who want to add drama to key scenes. The Great Expectations soundtrack hit an especially sweet spot for me.

When it comes to creating a writing playlist, what works for one book might not work for the next. My current manuscript likes The Lightning Strike by Snow Patrol and Radioactive by Imagine Dragons. It’s a nice change, but in the end, the most important thing is finding anything that inspires me to keep moving until I can punch out the two best words in a writer’s journey: The End.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, and raised in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, Leslie Welch spent most of her youth concocting elaborate stories. Her high school English teacher encouraged her to turn these creative lies into creative fiction. Today, Leslie writes at least 1000 words a day on DC Metro orange line trains. She co-wrote her first book in Harrisburg hotel rooms and diners with her best friend, and in 2016 she released her first solo novel, The Goodbyes, published by Blue Moon. When she’s not off exploring the world, Leslie lives in a house full of laughter outside of Washington, DC, with her soulmate, two cats, two dogs, two fish, and a teenager. Find her website here and tweet her as @Leslie_Welch

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  1. #1 by Theresa Milstein on October 25, 2017 - 9:48 am

    Coldplay has been my go-to for a few manuscripts.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 25, 2017 - 3:41 pm

      Hi Theresa! I’m ambivalent about Coldplay as a listener, but if I’m worrying a story idea I find they often get the ideas flowing.

  2. #3 by mrb on November 17, 2017 - 6:51 pm

    Dear Leslie,

    I enjoyed your music Odyssey, and resonate with how the moving experiences of life eventually work their way into a novel you didn’t know you would write.

    Surrounding yourself with the music of the time and place in which your story will take place is an abstract invitation that encourages many possible outcomes for story creation. From fiddles to the music you listened to at the age of your characters. Great channeling. Laughed hard when you found Tibetan Monks to come to your rescue. Did you find yourself chanting too? Lol.

    Lots of powerful music, and Snow Patrol, yes. The Lightning Strike is cinematic. Soundtracks are perfect for editing or sustaining a long scene. If you get into OST’s, tune in Saturday mornings to KFJC’s Norman Bates Memorial Soundtrack show with Robert Emmett. (http://www.kfjc.org/programming/program_info.php?houroftheweek=129&info_id=27).

    Good luck with The Goodbyes. I like the premise and the effort.

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