Posts Tagged Billie Holiday

The Undercover Soundtrack – GD Harper

for logoThe 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 GD Harper

Soundtrack by David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Tangerine Dream, JS Bach, Wagner, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Pulp, Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Billie Holiday

In 1974, I saved up my paper-round money and bought a turntable. David Bowie burst into my monochrome life like a rainbow, daring me to be different. Aladdin Sane was the first album I bought, and every track seemed to be a coded message telling me there was no such thing as normal, there was no need to conform, that we had to be true to who we really were. Jean Genie filled my mind with surrealistic, decadent imagery, although on Cracked Actor a 27-year-old Bowie singing to a 16-year-old schoolboy about how fundamentally sleazy is a 50 year-old man brings a smile to my face today.

The Undercover Soundtrack GD Harper suspense thriller ScotlandBut it was Bob Dylan who set out the agenda by which I’ve lived my life. It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) told me if I wasn’t always busy being born, then I’d soon be busy dying. I’ve spent my life reinventing myself, in appearance, in career, in lifestyle, in geography. It’s what keeps me alive. Curiosity is a muscle that needs exercise to stop atrophy setting in.


And so to my novel, Love’s Long Road. I was 55 years old, had sold my business and finally in my life had a financial breathing space to take the risk of another reinvention, to become what I always wanted to be, a writer. My novel is set in the 1970s, of course. There’s never a time in your life like the one when the music in the charts is being written for your generation. It was an era I could write about with passion, and, with a little prompting from Wikipedia, from experience.

Lyrics had inspired me to start on this journey, but to write I needed to find music to fill my mind but not fight the words I was trying to get out. So thank you, Ian Rankin. He did a fly-on-the-wall documentary about his writing process and revealed the secret of his productivity: Tangerine Dream, a German electronic music group, whose vast, formless swirling soundscapes formed the perfect sonic background to my brainstorming and planning as the story took shape. I invested in the 4 CD boxed set, and loaded it into a multi-disc CD cartridge. I’d play it over and over again, never tiring of its astonishing ability to sooth and refresh my addled brain.

Bach and Wagner helped me raise my game when I was trying to be a bit cerebral when writing more literary prose, although I did feel a bit of a heel in the way I used Wagner in the book. The suave, sophisticated baddie in the tale quotes Frederick Nietzsche, has two Doberman Pinschers called Lucifer and Satan, and generally does all the things that scream out at you ‘run away, run away’ (which of course my heroine doesn’t do). So I had him listening to Wagner, even being a real Wagner buff, playing on all these Nazi connotations. Nothing could be more different from the ugliness of fascism than the beauty of Wagner’s music and I’m a bit ashamed of myself that in my own small way I’ve perpetuated a negative stereotype.

Legacy of Bowie

My main character was a 22-year-old woman, and I wrote the story from her perspective in the first person, a legacy of Bowie daring me from all these years ago. And as I started to write the story, the 70s setting started to grow in importance, becoming almost a character in the novel in its own right. The characters pored over the lyric sleeves of albums trying to decipher their meaning; there were parties, with blue lights and joss sticks and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon providing the soundtrack to mass snogging sessions. Clare Torry’s vocals on The Great Gig in the Sky 15 minutes 42 seconds after the thudding heartbeat opening on side one always seemed perfectly timed.

My character had to keep escaping from jeopardy and reinventing herself, so It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) spoke to her as well. And my faith in the corporate music world was boosted when I approached Dylan’s publishing company to quote his lyrics in my book and after they’d read the excerpts that feature Dylan’s lyrics, they became fantastically helpful and supportive in me securing the rights to do that.

The Undercover Soundtrack GD Harper noir music writingAs the story progressed, music continued to shape the writing. If I needed a burst of energy to complement Tangerine Dream’s calming influence, some early-period Van Morrison or Bruce Springsteen would do the trick. And at the risk of being accused of plagiarism, some of my favourite lines in the novel came when listening to lyrics. A seedy bar in the book, where

cigarette smoke hung in the air like a blue fug, the colour of missed chances and broken dreams

was written as Springsteen was singing in the background of broken heroes and their last chances in life on Born to Run.

And my description of a character as

having sprouted into a tall, gangly explosion of energy, jumping about like an oversized grasshopper

suddenly materialised while listening to Jarvis Cocker singing Common People.

Narcotic life

Perhaps the most powerful and harrowing part of the book is in the later stages, which deals with taking heroin and the lifestyle that goes with it. Writing in the first person, I felt I had to show my character initially embracing this destructive lifestyle, but it is a very challenging topic to write about, being mindful of the responsibilities of in any way glamourising or condoning drug abuse. It is still a bit of a literary taboo to describe the narcotic effect of heroin and I found as I wrote about my character’s descent into an opiate hell my writing became more metaphorical in nature. I let songs like Lou Reed’s Heroin or Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit send goose bumps down my spine as I wrote this part of the book. I hope I’ve captured in some small way both the temptation and the danger of drugs as powerfully as these songs have done.

Final cover designAs I finished the novel and it went off for proof reading, I was, of course, shocked and devastated by David Bowie’s death. This is a blog about music but I can’t help but finish without paying tribute to not just Bowie’s musical genius but also to how his spoken word can be an inspiration. As I sat down to start my next book, I thought about what I’ve learned writing this one, about what to write, who to write it for, what people want to hear. And I saw this clip someone posted on Facebook today, with Bowie’s thoughts on the creative process. He says ‘Always remember the reason you initially started working was there was something inside yourself you felt, if you could manifest it in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you co-exist with the rest of society.’

Good advice, David. Thank you.

Glyn Harper spent his career working in marketing for multinational corporations around the globe before setting up his own media and marketing consultancy in 1999. After selling the business in 2012, Glyn trekked the ‘Great Himalayan Trail’ in six months, becoming the first British man to cross the Nepalese Himalayas by the highest possible route. On his return Glyn started writing, being placed third in the Lightship Prize for new authors in 2014. Glyn’s hobbies include music, photography and writing about himself in the third person. Find him on Facebook and his website. Love’s Long Road is his first novel.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Tanya Landman

for logo‘A horse, a hat and a fight for freedom’

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 Carnegie Medal nominee Tanya Landman

Soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein, Ennio Morricone, Max Steiner, Bob Marley, Johnny Cash, Nina Simone, Etta James, Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Billie Holiday

I don’t listen to music while I’m writing – I need total silence to concentrate – and I rarely play music in the house. It’s only when I’m driving that I stick on a CD (yes, I’m that old fashioned), and even then I often prefer silence. So why am I writing this blog? Because, when I was invited to, I realised how much music had contributed to the making of Buffalo Soldier.

Some books have a very long evolution. Strands of music, images and ideas that have been knocking around in your head for years eventually come together and form something new. Buffalo Soldier started with the Westerns that were constantly on TV and in the cinema when I was a child. I grew up wanting to be a cowboy. There were two particularly memorable movie themes that made me long for a horse, a hat, and the wide open range – Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven, and Ennio Morricone’s The Good the Bad and the Ugly. 2012pidred-j.peg (1)

Gone girl

Then there was Gone With the Wind. I was taken to see it for the first time when I was about 11 or 12 and was captivated by its epic scale and sweep. It was the first time I’d seen a heroine take charge of her own fate. I still find Tara’s theme by Max Steiner stirring, particularly when Scarlett vows never to be hungry again.

When I was growing up, the Wild West and the Deep South seemed worlds apart. I had no idea how closely connected they were until I was doing background reading for my book Apache and came across references to black soldiers. It was after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation – who were these guys and what were they doing in the west?

Further research led me to the buffalo soldiers. The Bob Marley song suddenly made sense. That lyric took on fresh importance.

Bitter irony

Many of the men of the 9th and 10th US Cavalry were freed slaves in a world that had been turned on its head. They signed up and were sent to fight the Indian Wars. Freed men, fighting Native Americans? I was struck by the bitter irony of the situation and started reading everything I could get my hands on about slavery and the aftermath of the Civil War. In the car I started listening Nina Simone and Etta James, Paul Robeson and Louis Armstrong. Gospel music. Spirituals. And then I went back to Gone With the Wind. Gone With the Wind is a hugely problematic film, depicting a wildly romantic Old South where slavery is a benign institution, where field hands contentedly pick cotton and sing from pure happiness.

When I re-read the novel, the scene in which Big Sam starts singing Go Down Moses as he’s sent off to help fortify Atlanta against the advancing Yankee army snagged in my head. He’s clearly meant to be a faintly comic character and Scarlett fondly watches him go. Now, Margaret Mitchell was a gifted writer and she knew her Civil War history inside out yet she appears to have no idea about the significance of that particular song. A spiritual about the enslavement of God’s Chosen People. Didn’t she ever listen to the lyrics? Go Down Moses is linked to Nat Turner – organiser of one of the bloodiest slave revolts in US history. It was used as a rallying cry by Denmark Vesey when slaves rebelled in Charleston. Harriet Tubman used it as a code song when helping fellow slaves escape along the Underground Railroad. How could Margaret Mitchell not know this? Go Down Moses gave me an insight into a very blinkered view of history in which whites chose not to see what was happening under their noses. It also gave me a burning desire to tell the story of the Civil War from the other side.

Swing Low Sweet Chariot (sung here by Paul Robeson) was another song I listened to repeatedly and in fact it features in the book – the longing for a better place, to be taken from a world of misery and suffering and carried ‘home’ speaks volumes. It stirred my emotions and helped create mood and atmosphere. The Undercover Soundtrack Buffalo Soldier by Tanya LandmanWay back in school when I was in the sixth form I was in a play, which featured I Shall Be Released (sung here by Nina Simone) and Change Gonna Come (Sam Cooke’s version here). The yearning, the terrible weariness you can feel in both songs, informed various characters’ emotional development and fed my writing. There’s one particular scene in Buffalo Soldier in which Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit was in my mind. So quiet, so passionate, so powerful – I can’t listen to it without feeling a chilling sense of horror. It makes me weep.

And finally – there’s one piece of music that runs all the way through Buffalo Soldier – Sam Hall. I was looking for something with a traditional feel and upbeat but also with a dark, violent undercurrent and a real sense of menace. Appropriately enough I heard the song first watching the 2011 Western Blackthorn with my children and tracked down the Johnny Cash version because the lyrics suited my purpose perfectly.

Tanya Landman is the award winning author of more than 30 books for children and young adults. Buffalo Soldier has been shortlisted for this year’s Carnegie Medal. Her website is here and you can find her on Facebook.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Kim Cleary

for logo‘I write about love and hope’

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 my guest is urban fantasy author Kim Cleary @KimClearyWriter

Soundtrack by Choir of Hard Knocks, Joni Mitchell, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Leonard Cohen, Linkin Park

I love jazz, rock and soulful ballads. I enjoy a scratchy recording of Billie Holiday singing Fine and Mellow, as much as a glossy Youtube of Linkin Park performing From the Inside.

authorheadshot2Music is an essential component of my creative environment, but I prefer to write in silence, or in such a busy place it’s easy to shut out the noise. I find myself listening to the story in the music rather than the story in my head and it’s too easy to get distracted.

Back to age 18

In preparation for this post for Roz Morris’s marvellous blog, I’ve thought about the music that sustained me while I wrote, and rewrote, my debut novel Path Unchosen. Remembering the music has helped me to relive the writing of the book. It’s written in the first person so I often found myself falling into the head of my 18-year-old heroine. When Judy first discovers she’s a necromancer she wants to deny who she is.

Playing the music again has brought back so many emotions. The sense of awe as Judy discovers what she can do. The fear of losing everything she’s gained. The pain of an intimate betrayal. Music reaches into my soul, finds the memories I’ve hidden away, and yanks the emotions to the surface.

I write about love and hope, so it’s no surprise most of the music that has affected my writing is about finding or losing love! In Path Unchosen, I write about the love between a daughter and a father; between friends as close as sisters; the naïve love between a student and her teacher; the first stirrings of desire; and a deep compassion for all creatures that feel pain, hope, and fear. Love and hope.

Sometimes I hear a snatch of lyrics and a scene immediately starts playing in my head. From Otherside, by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers I knew Judy would face the chilling realisation that she can’t go back, she can’t stop being a necromancer. I saw the scene play out between Judy and her spirit guide, in a forest dulled grey and soundless.

A whole relationship

With Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You, the mesmerising chorus triggered not just one scene, but the whole bitter and sweet relationship between Judy and her father. We played the song at my own father’s funeral not many years ago. Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that Judy finds the spirit of her father in a workshop and smithy not unlike my father’s.

Leonard Cohen sings Anthem like a man who has been on his knees in despair. Judy despairs too, but she never gives up hope. Not even in a specially created dark, cold, and silent prison, designed to cut her off from the dead who sustain her.

At other times, I use music to trigger emotion to get into Judy’s head. Linkin Park’s From the Inside is a powerful way to stir emotions of lost love and betrayal, especially when sung very loud in an empty house.

dfw-kc-pu-cover-largeWhen I am very lucky, sometimes while listening to my favourite music, I become Judy. I dance my way across the soundtrack to her life, and ideas for the scene percolate like notes from a symphony. I fight for my life to pounding rock music like Chicgao’s 25 or 6 to 4, Deep Purple’s Black Night, The Red Hot Chili Peppers By the Way, and anything by Led Zeppelin!

I had to stop writing this blog post to sing along to the Choir of Hard Knocks’s version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. The arrangement showcases untrained voices, marred by poverty, substance abuse and illness. I was lucky enough to see them perform live and stood with everyone else in an ovation of several minutes. It was as if strength, integrity and hope, somehow transferred themselves from the singers to the audience. Just like it does in the best stories. The ones we love to read, and hope to write.

It’s a broken hallelujah. But it’s still a hallelujah.

Kim Cleary grew up in Birmingham, UK, studied medieval history and psychology at Adelaide University in South Australia and has worked all over Australia and in London. She now lives with her husband and a cocker spaniel in Melbourne, Australia. Find her on Facebook, Twitter (@KimClearyWriter), her blog and Amazon.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Dave Malone

for logo‘Music dark and soulful. Rural and tough’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is poet-turned novelist Dave Malone @dzmalone

Soundtrack by The Hank Dogs, Hound Dog Taylor and the Rockers, Cowboy Junkies, Billie Holiday

As a boy, I stayed up late without my parents’ knowledge, my ear chaffing against stainless steel of transistor radio. Huddled in my bed, I kept my 10-year-old attention alert for the opening to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, hosted by EG Marshall.

In the country dark of the Midwest, my radio crackled until the bliss of hearing that creaking, almost screeching, door open the show. Then, ominous string and percussion, followed by EG Marshall’s distinct, authoritative voice. And lastly, words coming to life and bringing mystery stories into my bedroom. My imagination soared with dirty dealings, the macabre, and shadow.

DaveMaloneWhile I’ve spent most of my writing life as a poet, I have never lost my love for mystery and detective stories. Living in the Ozarks provides quick and easy access to inspirational characters. Most Ozarkers are no-nonsense and a welcoming bunch — to a point. It was this kind of straightforward man I wanted in my private detective, Walt Records. In my novelet, Not Forgiven, Not Forgotten, I wanted him educated at college for a couple of years, before he considered it useless. And I wanted him a smart-ass, but wise. Tough, but tender.

Diving down

Music is almost always essential for me to getting started, to diving down into the moment. Whiskey has a similar effect, of course. I like to write in the early afternoons. With a bourbon. Everything else fades away, except the characters, the moments.

My private detective keeps shop on the downtown square of a small Ozark town. About the only other private dick in the county, Records comments:

Jones ain’t as good as me. He’ll charge you double, and he’ll find the same shit I did.

For Records, I needed music dark and soulful. Something rural and tough. Something lean. And I found it, in The Hank Dogs. The British band’s eponymous album played throughout not only just the composition but the revision as well.

Mostly, I’m interested in the sounds of The Hank Dogs. The female vocals, the harmonies, the trailing guitar. However, I’m an Angel could well have been written by Walt Records himself who narrates the stories. The song’s sentiment is that we are being judged — not necessarily by Records — but actions have consequences on a person, and this is very much this private detective’s belief. Records is a dark, sarcastic anti-hero, yet he acts with integrity. Despite his fuck-ups and misgivings, he knows he’s ‘an angel by comparison’ to others, including a town preacher and the community’s leading philanthropist — who both are leaders in the town’s dark underbelly of drugs and scams.

Action scenes

There wasn’t anything better to get me started with the action of Not Forgiven than a pleasant three fingers of Wild Turkey and some Hound Dog Taylor and the Rockers. Upbeat, tough, mean, spirited, tender, poetic describes this powerhouse of an album. She’s Gone, Walking the Ceiling and Give Me Back My Wig are three winners. I played this CD while Records chased down leads: crashing Adam’s Rib bar, getting pistol-whipped by the corrupt preacher man, and flying through the night in his old Chevy Cav for the next clue.

Love interest

The love interest, Madeline (Mads), is a lanky, tough, strawberry blonde, and according to Records

That girl is all fire and no rain.

Mads is strong and independent, and the Cowboy Junkies’s Witches set the mood I needed for Records’s arrival at her place when he wasn’t sure she’d be interested:

I wouldn’t say it. Cuz a man only says certain things to a woman. Madeline might have known I’d been clobbered in the face by the butt of a .357, but she didn’t say nothing about it when she answered her door at 10:14 that night. She hadn’t gotten a text from me, and she was a free woman, but I played the odds that on a weeknight, another rooster weren’t in the chicken house.

The simple quiet, plucky acoustRecords_Coveric guitar and Margo Timmins’s ethereal invoice inspired.

To keep me from getting too romantic, I drafted their love scenes by also listening to Billie Holiday’s God Bless the Child. It has such greats as I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You, I Cover the Waterfront, Don’t Explain, and He’s Funny That Way. He’s Funny (lyrics here) plays into the spirit of both Records and Mads — tough Ozarkers, they ain’t beauty queens. But they’re real solid inside. And maybe despite town corruption and any personal insecurity, these two strong characters might find love in Not Forgiven, perhaps like a boy who found love so many years ago in an unexpected place — a storied voice on a transistor radio.

From the Missouri Ozarks, Dave Malone writes crime fiction and is also the author of five poetry collections, including Seasons in Love. His latest volume, View from the North Ten: Poems after Mark Rothko’s No. 15, is forthcoming from Mongrel Empire Press. His interests, bordering on obsessions, include Alan Watts, Ozark culture, crime fiction, gardening, and minor league baseball. He publishes a monthly e-newsletter, If I Had a Nickel, whose title derives from the sentiment of his rascally Ozark grandfather. For more, visit or find him on Twitter @dzMalone.

GIVEAWAY: 5 Kindle copies of Not Forgiven, Not Forgotten to be won! Dave is excited to give away a generous 5 copies of his novelet to commenters here – and as usual, extra entries if you report in your comment that you’ve spread the word on other media.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Erika Marks

The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process – special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by contemporary fiction author Erika Marks

Soundtrack by Billie Holiday

There’s no question music plays a big part in my writing process, and since my novel Little Gale Gumbo featured a woman from New Orleans who loves jazz, I knew I would have a grand time building a soundtrack for the manuscript.

There was one scene in particular where the element of music was especially crucial.

Upon leaving New Orleans with her two teenage daughters, determined to start over, Camille arrives on a small island off the coast of Maine and rents an in-law apartment above the attached barn of a divorced islander, Ben, and his teenage son. Shortly after, Ben learns the first snow of the season is forecast and comes to Camille’s apartment bearing extra blankets. She invites him in.

The scene that follows is an unabashedly romantic one. It’s late in the evening. Ben and Camille’s kids are asleep, and now they are alone together. In thanks for the blankets, Camille trims Ben’s hair while one of her jazz records plays in the background. There’s no question it’s a seduction scene. But Ben is being seduced by Camille through the senses, and it needed to be clear to the reader from the moment Ben steps into her apartment that he’s stepped into another world.

It had to be you

To make this transition convincing, I knew I had to reveal who Camille was to Ben—the reader already has a strong sense at this point in the story, but for Ben, this is really the first opportunity for him to see Camille truly in her element, alone with her passions, which are jazz music and her love of cooking. So as I wrote the scene, I wanted to have the same experience that Ben would have. The same slow appreciation for a piece of music in the background, not too loud, but so distinctive, so rich and full-bodied, and such a contrast to the stark, reserved landscape he knows, that I—and the reader—couldn’t help but be swept into Camille’s world in that moment too.

In the scene I mention how the record plays “the smoky wail of a trumpet, the pluck and purr of a standing bass” so I knew I wanted the soundtrack to be soft, moody, lulling. I also knew that Camille loved Billie Holiday best of all, so while I wrote the scene, I played only Billie, in particular It Had To Be You and I’ll Be Seeing You, which elicited every bit of the smoldering attraction that had been building between Ben and Camille from the moment she arrived on his doorstep.

So, did the music work its magic on my characters as well as it did on me as a writer?

Come now. It’s Billie Holiday. What do you think?

Erika Marks is a native New Englander who was raised in Maine and has worked as an illustrator, cake decorator, and carpenter. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband, a native New Orleanian, their two daughters, and their dog. Find her on Twitter as @ErikaMarksAuthr

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