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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 NYT bestselling historical thriller author Rebecca Cantrell @RebeccaCantrell
When I start writing a new novel, one of the first things I do is put together a playlist for it. I’ll start with just a few songs and then add them as time goes on, so I might start out with 20 minutes of music and then end up with an hour and half to two hours by the end. I listen to this playlist almost every day while writing the book. At the beginning, I hear every word, but after a while the music becomes background while I’m writing in some Berlin café.
My latest Hannah Vogel novel is A City of Broken Glass and it’s set during Kristallnacht in 1938, so I listened to some modern stuff to establish the right mood and some historical stuff to put me straight in Hannah’s word.
The first song on my playlist is the theme from the BBC series Wallander sung by Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo. It’s haunting and sad and reminds me that it’s time to get serious, to slow down and leave all of my thoughts outside of the writing room and get to work.
The next song was written in 1926, but I think it was more popular during World War II, and it reminds me that Hannah is always trying to help others as they try to escape the burgeoning Nazi menace, even at the cost of her own life. It’s Someone to Watch Over Me sung by Dakota Staton. It’s a love song, and if I’m working on a romantic scene, sometimes I’ll play that song a couple of times in a row. Hannah and Lars both watch out for each other, so it’s not as sexist as it might seem. Or so I tell myself.
After that, I move on to Song of a German Mother, sung by Lotte Lenya with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill. All of them lived in Berlin at the same time as Hannah, and all of them fled to the United States during the Nazi years. It’s a very grim song about a mother who lost her son to the Nazis because she didn’t understand what would happen. It’s a warning to Hannah and a reminder to me that the Germans, too, suffered terrible losses and had deep regrets, even before they lost the war. I try to paint a nuanced picture of all the characters, because few things were as simple then as we like to think they were when we look back on it. I couldn’t find Lotte Lenya singing this on YouTube (although she sings other songs there, all worth listening to—she has a wonderful smoky voice), but here it is sung by Dagmar Krause.
After this, I need something a little lighter and more fun, so I have Mack the Knife, which was also has lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill. I have a version sung by Lotte Lenya as well, where she teams up with Louis Armstrong. Mack the Knife was part of the The Threepenny Opera and was first performed on stage in Berlin in 1928 (with Lotte Lenya and Peter Lorre!). I think Hannah would have scraped together the cast to go and see it. Its message of violence under the smooth surface was prescient. And Louis Armstrong is always fantastic. I could follow that voice anywhere.
The next song is It’s Only a Paper Moon by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. I got it off a CD called A Time to Remember 1934 that was in the birthday card section of a gift shop in Hawaii. I always buy one for the year each book is set, although I don’t know what I’ll do now that I’ve moved to Berlin and can’t get to that gift shop. I played a lot of those songs when I was writing the book set in 1934, but this one stuck with even after and moved on to this later playlist, probably because I have Hannah herself sing it while under the influence in A Night of Long Knives. I think it’s been remade many times over the years, but here’s the oldie version because I think that one is still the most fun:
There are various songs in between, some historical and some not, but all of them hopefully speaking to my subconscious and keeping me in Hannah’s world. The soundtrack ends with Beauty in the World by Macy Gray, as it brings me back to the 21st century. And lunch.
Rebecca Cantrell is a New York Times bestselling thriller author. Her novels include the Order of Sanguines series, starting with The Blood Gospel, the award-winning Hannah Vogel mystery series, starting with A Trace of Smoke and the Joe Tesla thrillers, starting with The World Beneath. She, her husband, and son left Hawaii’s sunny shores for adventures in Berlin. Find Rebecca Cantrell on Facebook, Twitter, and at www.rebeccacantrell.com
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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, spoken-word poet and novelist Dan Holloway @agnieszkasshoes returns with the soundtrack to his latest collection
i cannot bring myself to look at walls in case you graffiti them with love poetry is, according to the blurb I put together for it, ‘a lyrical, heartbreaking, but ultimately joyous picaresque across the neon-soaked night cities of the world in search and celebration of lost friends’. It is about a feeling – one that blends joy and nostalgia and sorrow and celebration and neon piercing the night sky and damp bridges and lives that spring fully and tragically formed from the concrete. The times I’ve seen that done best have both been through powerful connections between image and soundtrack – in the 70s, Bernard Herrmann’s oppressive industrial backdrop to Taxi Driver, and from the 90s the marrying of the dazzling colour of East Asian cities and the Mamas and Papas classic piece of nostalgia California Dreaming.
So music was right at the front of my mind from the start as I was putting it together. It’s also an accompaniment to my first solo spoken word show, which will premier at Cheltenham Poetry Festival on 24 April. So rhythm, cadence, pulling the audience through sound through a rollercoaster ride of the emotions were all right there at the fore. And with the multimedia background to the book, that initial draw towards the neon, nostalgia and grime of the cinematic city soundtrack was the perfect place to begin getting myself into the right place to construct and compile the book.
Rhythm is all
The thing about a collection – and a show for that matter – is that at every level rhythm is everything. Not just within the pieces but within the whole. Every dazzling, intense, searing effect you create is diminished by the wrong amount of repetition, enhanced by the right number of carefully placed repetitions, burnished or dulled by what comes before, after, a similar distance from the beginning, from the end. Every piece must hang together and flow effortlessly just like a perfectly-constructed album. This sense of flow, rhythm, shape is essential to all forms of the written as well as the spoken word, but it amazes me how little I see writers refer to beautifully-crafted albums as their exemplars.
Prog rock and poetry
Being the age I am, married to whom I am, of the musical persuasion I am, and someone who calls himself a prog rocker of the poetry world, there really is only one album to turn to for the perfectly constructed emotional and sensual journey. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is perfect in just about every way, and makes as great a live show as it does an album. From helicopters to gloriously crashing waves of sound via alarm clocks and lunatics on the grass, every step is in just the right position in relation to every other to make the journey an almost mystical path to enlightenment.
And yet, steeped in Bernard Herrman and Pink Floyd, I have the path mapped out before me but it’s still not enough. Still not the mix of anger, desolation, joy and nostalgia and, well, neon-soakedness all in one that I’m looking for. Which is why playlists are so fabulous.
I’ve always loved playlists, ever since as a seven-year-old I’d endlessly sort through my dad’s 45s making little stacks to play in order. And there is nothing better for keying you into the rhythms of whatever you are writing than a playlist the follows your work’s rhythms. So, get your headphones and have a listen to what is, in essence, my latest book.
We begin with the wistful recollective regret of Garbage’s You Look So Fine and the haunting Red Hot Chilli Peppers classic Scar Tissue we find the brutal, angry, relentless drumbeat of The Kills’s No Wow as the reality of loss loses its romanticised edge and gives way to a despair that becomes exhaustion at the nadir of Nine Inch Nails’s stunningly dissonant Hurt and Portishead’s Roads with its pitch perfect association with the film Requiem for a Dream. From that low point we emerge to appreciate the preciousness of the memories with Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car and Eagle Eye Cherry’s celebration of the intense, fleeting joyfulness of life, Save Tonight. But the celebration is only temporary and gives way to the bitterness and desperation of the pounding beat in Portishead’s Machine Gun before, exhausted and scarred but unbowed we emerge with Melanie Pain’s Bruises and finally lay down our heads, our lives and lost friendships streaming ever slower before our eyes as we fade into the night with Emily Barker’s Pause.
Dan Holloway is a novelist, poet and cultural commentator. He runs 79 rat press through which he publishes his own conceptual books and will, in June 2013, be publishing debut collections from five of the most groundbreaking new voices in poetry and prose. In the picture he appears with Diophantus, one of the 79 rats. He blogs at Authors Electric and is a member of the League of Extraordinary Authors. Find him on Twitter @agnieszkasshoes
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- The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where writers - and occasionally other arty folk - reveal how music shapes their work.
- It began as a companion to my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and now thrives as a creative salon in its own right. Pull on your headphones and join us.
- If you're curious about the novel that started it all, click the image below.
Kobo featured book, London Book Fair 2013
Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction, Awesome Indies 2013
Underground Book Reviews Top Summer Read 2012
League of Extraordinary Authors Top 10 Indie Elite 2012
Multi-Story Pick of the Month March and October 2012
Alliance of Independent Authors Book of the Month, January 2013
Email merozmorriswriter at gmail dot com
- All content copyright Roz Morris 2011-2022. Nothing may be reproduced without my express permission in writing beforehand. Photography: Bonnie Schupp Photography, gcg2009 and Roz Morris
What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
- What's on their soundtracks? Zip down to the footer and you can search by artiste or composer. See who shares your taste in inspirational music
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'