Posts Tagged comedy

The Undercover Soundtrack – Chris Hill

for logo‘Men, women, flirtation and heartbreak’

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’s post is by prizewinning novelist and short story writer Chris Hill @Chilled CH

Soundtrack by Bobby Fuller Four, Sonic Youth, Little Jackie, Chad and Jeremy, The Emotions, Sufjan Stevens

My latest book The Pick-Up Artist is the story of a young man’s inept attempts to find love through a web community called the pick-up artists who claim to use psychological techniques to help their members appeal to the opposite sex.

Chris Hill3Authors write books for all sorts of reasons I suppose. Some, a lot smarter and richer than me, will choose what to write based on market research and audience demographics. For myself, what I write starts not with a bar chart but with a feeling and that feeling is often sparked off by a piece of music.

The Pick-Up Artist was sparked off by a lesser known pop song from the early 60s. It’s called Let Her Dance and it’s by The Bobby Fuller Four, who were relatively unknown in their heyday and whose star has fallen even further in the half-century since they ceased to be. If you have heard of them at all it’s probably because their other hit I Fought the Law was made into a much more famous cover version by The Clash in the 1970s.

I can’t remember where or how I first came across Let Her Dance but it snagged on me as songs often will and I took to playing it on repeat on Spotify during the period I was working through ideas for The Pick-Up Artist. There’s a youth and freshness about the song, an innocence, but also a strength and optimism. My book is a kind of romantic comedy. It’s about men and women, about flirtation and heartbreak and Let Her Dance is about all these things too. There’s a sense of excitement and urgency in the music, from the first moment the bass line loops in like a beating heart.

It’s also a song about a strong woman I think, and a man who has to watch and wait. My book is also about strong women and so it’s perhaps not surprising I found myself listening to, and being influenced by, songs by and about such women. One of these was Cool Thing by Sonic Youth. It’s a noisy rock song with a playful, ironic vocal which messes around with gender roles. Though it’s theoretically about a male object of desire there’s really only one Cool Thing in the picture and that’s Kim Gordon who drawls her way over the howl of the guitars, leaving us in no doubt who’s really the boss in this relationship. We don’t need to have any fear of a female planet she tells us, she just wants us men to know that we can still be friends. In some ways I wanted the women in my book to be like Kim, ironic, aloof, in control.

But I also needed them to be like the woman in 28 Butts by Little Jackie. Hers is a song about a real, rounded person, not the romantic cypher we so often get in pop songs. She smokes way too much, another bottle of whisky’s been emptied and she knows we wouldn’t put it past her. She’s not sure about the direction of her life and though she sounds strong and in control she’s also not sure where she’s headed. She tells us she’d really like to be a housewife and we almost kind of believe her, but only as much we believe she’d like to own a llama.

9781910094167I wanted the women in The Pick-Up Artist to be like the subject of 28 Butts, complex and rich with contradictions, the way people are in real life.

I found myself listening to music from a different age when I was writing the novel, and valuing it for its innocence. I was writing about young people and early relationships – so I suppose, subconsciously, I wanted to get to a place which wasn’t all about knowing and experience but was also about wonder and finding your way in life. One of the tracks I listened to was A Summer Song by Chad and Jeremy – a throwaway pop song from the early 60s which offers nothing more complex than a simple love song, some harmonies and a catchy tune. There was also some old soul; Blind Alley by The Emotions is perhaps a female equivalent – young and innocent, charming and catchy, a song about youthful flirtation and exuberance.

I think it was Martin Amis who said that when you embark on a novel you find yourself writing about things you didn’t realise were on your mind. Some time before I began writing The Pick-Up Artist I lost my mother to cancer. I certainly hadn’t intended to write about that but, what do you know, it turns out the young hero has lost his mum too. Casimir Pulaski Day by Sufjan Stevens tells a story about the death of a loved one and the impact it has. It’s a complex story, an amazingly rich narrative to find in what is effectively a pop song. Though the narrative details of the song are very specific, what I took from it was more the feelings Stevens conveys, not just of unexpected loss but of bewilderment and anger. It’s calm and low key but leaves a lasting impression – which is something I want very much for my work too.

Chris Hill lives in Gloucestershire. The Pick-Up Artist is published by Magic Oxygen Publishing. He works as a PR officer for the UK children’s charity WellChild and spent more than 20 years as a journalist on regional newspapers. He lives with his wife Claire, their two teenage sons and Murphy, a Cockerpoo. His first novel, Song of the Sea God, published by Skylight Press, was shortlisted for the Daily Telegraph Novel in a Year prize and won the efestival of Words award for Best Literary Fiction novel. Chris has previously had some success as a short story writer including winning one of Britain’s biggest story awards, The Bridport Prize. Find Chris on his website, on Twitter @ChilledCh and on Facebook.

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‘Men, women, flirtation and heartbreak’ – Chris Hill

for logoMy guest this week describes his novel as a romantic comedy about a young man’s attempts to find love through an internet community. Despite its thoroughly contemporary setting, he says it was sparked by a song from the early 1960s, by a band who have long faded into obscurity. Other songs joined it, to represent the strong women characters who are at the centre of the book – people who are aloof, cool, full of contradictions – and some of them dealing with the painful bewilderment of losing a loved one. He is Chris Hill and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Alice Degan

for logo‘Music is a ritual of invocation’

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 medieval literature scholar and metaphysical fantasy writer Alice Degan @ajdegan

Soundtrack by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Maddy Prior, Adele, Sarah Slean, Loreena McKennitt, Squirrel Nut Zippers

14805487315_d629b6cefb_kBefore iTunes, making a mix of music to write to used to be this whole ritual. For me it was one of those great para-writing procrastination activities, like buying notebooks or clearing off your desk. I’d want to carefully select a track to go at the beginning of the CD, which served as a kind of invocation to set the mood as I sat down to write. Often this one would be a song that wasn’t musically appropriate to the setting, but had some apposite lyrics, or related thematically somehow. With From All False Doctrine, which I began after I had started migrating my music library onto my computer, things were a bit different. It was easier to create a soundtrack, which deprived the ritual of some of its distracting power, and it wasn’t necessary to select just one track to open with. Several different songs ended up playing that role of invocation.

Adding to the choir

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was the track that most often functioned as an entry point. It’s an exquisite piece that embroiders on the melody of one of my favourite hymns. It builds slowly and quietly, but reaches a dramatic climax. Listening to Vaughan Williams’s version calls to mind not so much the exact words of the hymn but its general theme and mood: a feeling of inadequacy in the face of greater powers, and a plea to God for the strength to add my own voice to a great choir. That spoke to me as I approached my writing, and it evoked the concerns of my main characters in their different pursuits.

If it’s the life you feel called to, it’s what you should live. If you’ll pardon the expression.’

‘What expression?’

‘ “Called. “’ He grinned up at her apologetically. “It implies there’s Someone to do the calling.’

‘It’s just a turn of phrase,’ she said sternly.

From All False Doctrine is set in the 1920s, but jazz music isn’t a major feature of the plot, and didn’t help in its creation either. Of course that’s partly due to my own musical tastes. But it’s also partly because the book is set in Toronto, which was still a fairly conservative city in the ’20s, not a hotbed of the kind of social and artistic innovation that we associate with the decade. A jazz soundtrack wouldn’t quite capture the mood of 1925 Toronto as I understand it. My story centres on the worlds of the university and the Anglican Church. My hero, Kit Underhill, is a young Anglo-Catholic priest in the working-class neighbourhood of Earlscourt, an area populated at the time mostly by English immigrants. Elsa Nordqvist, my heroine, is a classics student who has lost her faith in God but believes passionately in her academic calling.

Spirituality

The words to a number of hymns feature in the story, but I didn’t listen to most of these while writing: they’re songs I know from years in the pews, not from recordings. Jesu, lover of my soul, in Maddy Prior’s atypical rendition, was one I did play while writing, though it doesn’t get a mention in the story. Privately, though, I know that my characters like it: I think of it as expressing something of Kit’s spirituality while at the same time evoking Elsa’s Protestant upbringing.

Then there are songs that evoke just the right mood even though the style and lyrics may have no obvious connection to the story. One of those for this book was Adele’s Set Fire to the Rain, which spoke perfectly of the unhappiness of a secondary character, Harriet Spencer, a charismatic young woman who is abandoned by her fiancé. (Come to think of it, she looks a little bit like Adele, especially in that video!) Sarah Slean’s Society Song evokes something of Elsa’s relationship to propriety: it’s a defiant, upbeat song that made a nice contrast to the more contemplative tracks on my list.

False Doctrine Front CoverStar of the County Down is the shiftless fiancé’s theme. A classic folk song about a determined suitor, it’s also very close in its tune to another hymn, I heard the voice of Jesus say, so it evokes two aspects of this character for me. I have several recordings, but the one I had on the False Doctrine soundtrack was Loreena McKennitt’s rendition from The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

Finally, because of the turn that the story takes towards the end, the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Hell made it onto the soundtrack.

He reached for her hands and then stopped. ‘At midnight my soul—whatever that may be—is forfeit to that thing and its Master. Do you think I would hesitate to throw you to him, to save myself?’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You are hesitating right now.’

I’m working on a sequel now, and the song I use to get in the mood (this is a slight spoiler) is Sarah Slean’s Angel.
Alice Degan is an academic and novelist who lives in Toronto. She studies and teaches medieval literature, and writes fantasy and something she likes to call metaphysical romance. From All False Doctrine, a supernatural mystery wrapped in a 1920s comedy of manners, is her first published novel. She also has a series of urban fantasy stories involving a collection of misfit otherworldly characters who live above a bakery. You can find her on Twitter as @ajdegan, or on her website.

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‘Music is a ritual of invocation’ – Alice Degan

for logoI find it so interesting how one novel’s soundtrack can absorb so many styles.  My guest this week has written a supernatural mystery wrapped up in a 1920s comedy of manners and her soundtrack is a glorious tour of classical, folk and madcap jazz. Even more interesting, she uses Thomas Tallis – as my guest did last week – but with such a different outcome. We all operate in our own key of creativity, which is one of the wonders of this series for me. Anyway, this week you’ll be entering the classical, folky and knock-bones skelly-shaking jazzy world of Alice Degan – and her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘The music gave me short sentences, like gunshots’ – Grigory Ryzhakov

for logoMy guest this week tackles a range of narrative styles – comedy, action sci-fi and romcom. He uses music to tap into the right mood for a character or to find the right rhythm for the prose. He also composes and performs music under an alias, so when he hasn’t been able to find a suitable soundtrack for his writing, he creates his own. He is Grigory Ryzhakov and he’ll be here on Wednesday with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Cally Phillips

for logo‘Without the music there would have been no creativity’

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 screenwriter, playwright and novelist Cally Phillips @i_ebookreview

Soundtrack by Michael Jackson, Shaggy, The Beatles, Harry Belafonte, The Muppets, Nat King Cole, David Rovics, Sam Cooke, John K and Fred Ebb, Joel Grey, Liza Minnelli, Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters

All my life I have made up words to songs. As a student I used to entertain my companions on the way to and from the pub by making up ‘different’ lyrics to pop songs and musicals.  It was just something I did.  I heard music as a soundtrack in my head all the time and used the melody to write my own version of songs.  I had a love of musical theatre and sort of wished that the world could be like that, people breaking out into song in the oddest places without any provocation. Strangely, I never thought about a career as a lyricist (I didn’t know you could). When I ‘became’ a writer for a job in my late 20s I chose screenwriting because I needed to earn a living. But life takes you on all kinds of unexpected paths and sometimes all the creativity inside you just hits that perfect moment. I’m lucky. For me the moment lasted the best part of 10 years. And changed my life.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIn 2003 I started working with an advocacy group for adults labelled with learning disability who wanted to learn drama. I had no experience of ‘learning disability’ but plenty of experience of practical drama. It was challenging to begin with. Most of the group couldn’t read or write, some couldn’t or didn’t even speak. However, an amazing thing happened. Music unlocked the door.

One member of the group who never spoke beyond ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Happy’ just came alive when we started to use music. He revealed a talent for singing as well as a keen memory of 50s and 60s music. Consequently I started using music to bind together our flexible scripts. I found that by changing the lyrics of familiar pop songs to suit the story we managed to create dramas that the cast could engage with and which entertained an audience.

In 2004 we did a comedy musical version of Hamlet (called Piglet!) which included ‘ghosty’ pigs doing a song and dance version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller  (song starts 04:40) and Shaggy’s It Wasn’t Me alongside my adaptation of a well-known classic with one word changed! ‘Piglet, do you want to know a secret. This was followed up by devised musical plays around the theme of Fairtrade – Go Bananas which featured Day-oh and Wake up and Smell the Coffee which featured, among other songs You’re the cream in my coffee and a play on recycling using the title of a David Rovics song The End of the Age of Oil and built around that song.  Performed at the Scottish Parliament, we opened the event with our ‘star’ singer (the man who didn’t speak, remember) singing Amazing Grace accapella. That was a high point of my life. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Our most ambitious project was performed in 2008.  Aiken Drum’s Recycled Musical was our first full musical. For the uninitiated, Aiken Drum is a traditional Scots tale which deals with how people view ‘outsiders’.  It was a really political piece in many ways. We set it in a sort of fictional Industrial Revolution town called Trade Town. All the songs were adapted from pop songs. For example I adapted the lyrics of Wonderful World  (song starts 0:38) –

‘Don’t know much about industry,

Don’t know much about commodities,

Don’t know much about stocks and shares…’

and my favourite line

Don’t know why you want to work for money, I don’t think consumerism’s funny.’

And we also butchered Cabaret’s classic Money Makes the World go round

‘When you haven’t any shoes on your feet and your coat’s thin as paper and you look thirty pounds underweight

My advice is get a job, get a mortgage, pay with credit, have all the luxuries you need

Cause money makes the world go around…’

We also nicked a concept from Godspell (watch this it’s awesome by about 2.20mins) engaging in a competitive sing off with Accentuate the Positive with You cannae shove yer granny aff a bus.

Week with No Labels, A - Cally PhillipsHaving moved 200 miles north I no longer work with the group, but I have taken our experiences from that time and published them as a novel, A Week with No Labels, which includes all the ‘dramas’ I’ve mentioned and a few more besides. It includes many of the ‘created/adapted’ lyrics. Described by Julia Jones as ‘perhaps the most significant book I’ve read on my Kindle this year’, it is a tribute to my time with this amazing bunch of people who changed the course of my life and changed me irrevocably as well. Without the music there would have been no creativity. Without ABC there would have been no novel.

On the way to writing A Week with No Labels I have learned that music and creativity is for everyone. And that life can be a musical. One shouldn’t take it too seriously, one shouldn’t strive for perfection because what’s most important in life is to live and love and be creative together. The song which was always in my mind while I penned A Week With No Labels and remains there whenever I think about it is You’ve got a friend. Sung by my friend, Larry. Among other things he taught me that in our real life musicals the voice is less important than the heart. So maybe music is about more than just words.

Cally Phillips has worked as a screenwriter and playwright for 20 years and is now focussed on fiction writing. Committed to a life of creativity, she publishes advocacy work through Guerrilla Midgie Press and other writing through HoAmPresst Publishing. She writes in silence but still makes up songs, sometimes to extant tunes, sometimes recycling other melodies. Only the dogs get to hear these masterpieces.  She is currently director of the Edinburgh eBook Festival and reviews for Reading Between the Lines Collective. She is also a member of the Authors Electric Writers Collective. A Week With no Labels is available in ebook format for Kindle and epub and as a paperback.Her website is here. Find her on  Facebook and Twitter @i_ebookreview  

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‘Music and creativity is for everyone – and life can be a musical’ – Cally Phillips

for logoMy guest this week has always made up lyrics, whether alternate versions of existing songs or not-terribly-serious inventions of her own. She says she wishes life was more like a musical, where people might burst out singing if the fancy takes them. Her deep-held belief that life should be lived with lusty vocals led to a collaboration with a theatre group for adults with learning disabilities, and, by circular means, a novel that commemorates the experience – A Week With No Labels. She is screenwriter, playwright and novelist Cally Phillips and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her very individual Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘The Greatest Love Songs In The World…was the most awful writing track’ – Fiona Walker

My guest this week is a multi-bestselling author of romantic novels, once dubbed ‘The Jilly Cooper of the Cosmo generation’. Her characters frequently express themselves with a lusty song or two and she writes to a soundtrack that never appears on the page. But, as you see from the post title, there are some choices that are not as suitable as you’d think… She’s Fiona Walker and she’ll be here sharing her Undercover Soundtrack on Wednesday

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