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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 Yasmin Selena Butt @YasminSelena
Soundtrack by Jeff Buckley, Death in Vegas, PiL, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Pixies, Nine-Inch Nails, Skunk Anansie, Garbage, Portishead, The Cure, Interpol, Cocteau Twins, Editors
If I hadn’t have become a novelist with a 36G chest, I would have been a rock star. I’m serious. You try learning electric guitar when you can’t see the strings, it’s dead tricky. Music is huge for me, HUGE. When I was 15, I made a decision not to live abroad because you couldn’t buy Smash Hits in Pakistan. Music back then was the only thing keeping me alive. It fuelled me. I couldn’t risk losing it.
It was a huge, creative fuel when penning my debut, Gunshot Glitter. The title might be familiar to you if you’re a fan of the singer, Jeff Buckley. If you’re not, it was a bonus track released on his posthumous album Sketches for my Sweetheart the Drunk. I loved the song, and, if I’m honest loved the title more. The song itself is lo-fi, distorted, wobbly but utterly impassioned.
Crime drama morality tale
In my novel, Gunshot Glitter is the name of an infamous London burlesque club. How would I describe the story? It’s the genre-bending story of an incinerated boy who never quite goes away; a morality tale, broadly a crime drama. I was thrilled it was shortlisted as a self-published read by The Guardian last year, along with the tome of my kind blog host Roz Morris. (Thanks! – Ed)
This year, I hope to give it the launch it deserves. It hasn’t had that yet for good reasons. Last year, I almost died of anaphylactic shock at a club on the launch of the print edition. It was a surreal way to discover you now possess a lethal shellfish and nut allergy. This year I hope to do the novel justice.
While writing it, I used mainly alternative music as a fuel to take me to the places where the characters go, especially Celine, the protagonist. And some of the songs I played also feature in the novel. When I listened to them, I got so immersed in the music, the songs become little stories within themselves, almost like an operetta with tragedy and pathos in spades running riot in my head. I made two CD compilations ‘Black Glitter’ and ‘Angry Glitter,’ depending on where I needed to go creatively, each featuring 18 songs. Black Glitter was achingly emotional, gut wrenching and tender.
Bands featured on Angry Glitter included Death in Vegas, PiL, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Pixies, Nine Inch Nails, Skunk Anansie. Garbage’s Vow from their debut album is amazingly powerful. I played this song literally on repeat when writing some of Celine’s pivotal scenes when she made some of the darkest decisions of her young life. Portishead’s incredibly sexy Strangers ended up featuring in a bittersweet memory for Cornelia:
She had been obsessed with Strangers with its melody full of dark, sexy suggestion. It turned her on. She even choreographed an examination piece to it. Cornelia put it on and, when it kicked in with its sleazy, dark electronic riff, she winced. Now she hated it. It reminded her of all she’d lost. It’s just music, she said fiercely through gritted teeth, ‘just music!’ Music could never punish her like her own guilt could.
The Cure is a band that bonds lovers Anis and Celine. I played Disintegration heavily when writing their more intense scenes. And Interpol’s Narc rears its head in the aftermath of their sex, like a shadow in the background on the wall. Other songs such as Blind, Dumb Deaf by The Cocteau Twins, was just powerful, no intelligible words as Liz Fraser doesn’t use them, but you can’t help but feel a strong sense of foreboding when you hear it, and, when I was getting inside protagonist’s Cornelia Friend’s twisted head this track made me think of her. It made me think of someone splintering on the inside, as did Editor’s Munich.
There is a darkness, intensity, danger, sorrow, passion and fury that dominates the music that literally leaches out onto the pages. When you have great music, fuelling your fingertips, you’re almost obliged to create an impressive result to justify the privilege of what you’re listening to.
When you read the behemoth or listen to the soundtrack, I’ll let your ears and eyes decide if the fifteen year old girl who grew up to write that novel, made the right call to coming home to grow up in London. I hope you believe that she did.
Yasmin Selena Butt was born and lives in London. She has worked in the Maldives as an English language trainer, freelanced in marketing and been published by The Times as a music writer. She has also written over a thousand poems, exhibited her fiction and photography and performed her debut reading at Proud Galleries in Camden. She adopted ‘Selena’ as her middle name in 2000, after meeting a concierge who told her the story of the naming of his own daughter, Yasmin Selena. She has since repaid the favour by naming a character in Gunshot Glitter after him. Gunshot Glitter is available from Amazon, Kobo and Smashwords and in print from her website. Tweet her as @YasminSelena
authors, Black Glitter, burlesque, Cocteau Twins, contemporary fiction, crime fiction, crime novelist, crime novels, Death in Vegas, Desert Island Discs, drama, Editors, entertainment, Facebook, Garbage, Gunshot Glitter, Interpol, Jeff Buckley, London, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, near-death experience, Nine Inch Nails, PiL, playlist for writers, Portishead, rock star, Roz Morris, Skunk Anansie, Smashing Pumpkins, The Cure, The Pixies, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music, Yasmin Selena Butt
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 romance novelist and Novelicious founder Kirsty Greenwood @kirstybooks
Soundtrack by Jeff Buckley, Fairground Attraction, Phoenix, Carole King, John Grant, Grease 2, George Fenton, Color Me Badd, Bobby Helms, Skeeter Davis, Rosemary Clooney, Duke Ellington, Stacey Kent, Best Coast, Stevie Wonder, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, George Gershwin, Rufus Wainwright, Ella Fitzgerald, Toni Braxton, Ani Difranco
I always intended to have a career in music. Encouraged by musically minded parents, my sisters and I spent much of our teenage time singing in harmony. We were cool that way. Known for our rendition of The Andrews Sisters’ Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, we performed in local pubs, at karaoke, family birthday parties and such. We still get asked to perform Boogie Woogie, but it’s not quite so adorable now we’re in our 30s. At 22 I studied music at college, sang, learned to play the guitar and wrote whimsical/folksy pop songs. I won a ‘Song of the Year’ award and wrote and sang for a local bhangra/pop producer. Music was my everything. Shortly after getting my degree, I was hit with a period of bipolar depression that lasted for over a year. I stopped performing and lost all interest in pursuing music professionally. During my recovery I started to write romantic comedy – writing fiction is remarkably similar in process to writing songs (both crafted in terms of story, rhythm, theme, timbre, pace and texture) – and found it to be hugely enjoyable as well as restorative.
A creative place
I use music to quickly access a creative state, particularly if I’m procrastinating on a book or I’m having a day when I don’t feel like writing jokes. So before a writing session I’ll listen to songs that buoy my spirits, energise and inspire me. Jeff Buckley (Mojo Pin, Vancouver and So Real are all shortcuts to a mood lift), John Grant’s Queen of Denmark album, Carole King’s Tapestry, Eddi Reader, Phoenix, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, Rufus Wainwright, Ella Fitzgerald, plenty of 80s power ballads and, er, the Grease 2 soundtrack which just straight up makes me laugh.
When deep into writing I love the easy companionship of music, but find anything lyrical too entertaining and end up singing along. I’ll listen to classical music and film instrumentals, particularly Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, George Gershwin and George Fenton, whose You’ve Got Mail soundtrack really helped me to get into a jaunty, ‘romcom’ mind-set for Yours Truly, as well as making me think about Nora Ephron and how I need to try harder.
Back to the 90s
My debut novel, Yours Truly, gave me a legitimate excuse to listen to lots of 90s pop. My leading man, Riley, has a thing for the supremely cheesy band Color Me Badd (they had one hit song, it was called I Wanna Sex You Up), and there’s a sex scene set to Toni Braxton’s extra randy You’re Making Me High. Music was used to bond the main characters, as it does so much in real life. Riley, an amateur musician, sings little off-the-cuff ditties to Natalie in order to woo her, and she is constantly amused by his willingness to expose his 90s pop ‘fanboying’.
I’m now writing my second book. It’s called The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance (published June 2014 with Pan Macmillan) and is the first in a series. One of the central characters, Matilda Beam, is a 77-year-old writer who can’t let go of her 1950s glory days. When my protagonist, Jess, meets Matilda, she’s sitting in a grand, cluttered room, listening to a Bobby Helms record on repeat. I find the melodies of most of his songs melancholy and the hefty reverb used on his voice makes it sound otherwordly and creepy. I wanted to provide a soundtrack for the scene that would give the audience an immediate insight into Matilda’s state of mind and also to freak out the thoroughly modern and lively Jess.
I have a dedicated Spotify playlist for The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance. These are the songs I’ve listened to in order to connect with characters and emotions, or to help me get to the ambience of a scene more clearly. The most often played tracks on there are:
End of the World (Skeeter Davis): Hauntingly beautiful, lonely and lost. A soundtrack for Matilda Beam in 2013.
Sophisticated Lady (Rosemary Clooney, Duke Ellington): Sultry and smoky, this song perfectly embodied the young Matilda Beam as a socialite and writer in the 50s. When I listen to this, I think of her being spun across the dance floor at some fabulous New York party.
Wishin’ and Hopin’ (Ani Difranco): I saw a tongue in cheek video for this song on the opening credits to My Best Friend’s Wedding and it mirrors the way Matilda Beam believes women ought to behave in order to find love. Its ludicrousness always makes me laugh and Ani Difranco’s raspy voice sounds so damn sexy in it.
This Can’t Be Love (Stacey Kent): The main romantic relationship in The Vintage Guide to Love and Romance is kind of screwball in nature with fast dialogue, disagreements and a touch of slapstick. This charming little song always puts me in mind of that.
Up All Night (Best Coast): I don’t know much about this band, but I stumbled upon this song on YouTube before I began work on the book and immediately felt it was a perfect fit for the character of Jessica Beam. It’s bursting with youthful longing and excess. I listen to this on repeat before working on emotionally charged Jess scenes.
And there you have my Undercover Soundtrack. Thanks so much for having me, Roz!
Kirsty Greenwood is an author of comedy romances, founding editor of Novelicious.com and director of the Novelicious Books imprint. She likes American TV, green clothes, Point Horror, Kristen Wiig and funny stories. She doesn’t like the Ironside theme tune or the phrase ‘nom, nom, nom’. Yours Truly is out now (Pan Macmillan). Find her on Facebook and tweet her on @Kirstybooks
Ani Difranco, authors, Best Coast, Bobby Helms, Boogie Woogie, Carole King, classical music, Color Me Badd, contemporary fiction, Danny Elfman, Desert Island Discs, drama, Duke Ellington, Eddi Reader, Ella Fitzgerald, entertainment, Fairground Attraction, George Fenton, George Gershwin, Grease 2, Hans Zimmer, Ironside, Jeff Buckley, John Grant, Kirsty Greenwood, Matilda Beam, music, music for writers, music for writing, musicians, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Nora Ephron, Novelicious, Pan Macmillan, Phoenix, playlist for writers, Point Horror, romance, romcom, Rosemary Clooney, Roz Morris, Rufus Wainwright, Skeeter Davis, soundtrack, Stacey Kent, Stevie Wonder, The Andrews Sisters, The Undercover Soundtrack, Toni Braxton, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, writing to music, Yours Truly
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 novelist and Talking Writing columnist David Biddle @dcbiddle
My novel, Beyond the Will of God, is about many things: murder; rural Missouri in the heart of the summer; odd conspiracy theories; altered states of consciousness; and the realities of telepathy. Most importantly, though, this book is about the power of music and its connection to creativity, and what ultimately lies beyond death.
The story begins as a murder mystery, but very early on the reader is confronted with the realization that there may be a sort of magic to music that we don’t understand — rock ’n’ roll music in particular. Understanding that magic is the real mystery of the book.
The idea came to me when I was 17 and had just discovered the sorcery of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar work. The first time I heard his masterpiece, 1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be), I became convinced that Hendrix had discovered a way to channel and tune human thought to a unified vibration. The title for my novel comes from a phrase in this song.
I wouldn’t start writing, though, for another 15 years. New Year’s Day 1990, I was listening to a radio special on Elvis Presley’s early career. Strains of acoustic guitar started up. A voice-over told us That’s Alright Mama was Elvis’s first hit. As I listened to The King of rock ’n’ roll, I saw a bar full of hard-drinking young people in rural Missouri listening to his first hit song, and an Amish boy sneaking in the back. I began to write. That work became the scene that is now in the middle of chapter one, ending with two characters lost in dark farm country hearing strange guitar music on the wind.
I knew the story was a mystery-thriller, but it would also be about the power of sonic vibration of all kinds. The untimely deaths of so many great musicians and personalities in the 20th century would become the center of the plot I was concocting.
Whether we know it or not, our thoughts are connected to all the sound in our lives. One song I kept coming back to that helped me meld the CIA with the hippie search for ‘higher consciousness’ was The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows. Even today, almost 50 years after it was recorded, the use of tape loops, sitar, non-standard rhythm, and Lennon’s lyrics can crack open the most stodgy artist’s mind.
Over time, as I wrote, I listened endlessly to music by artists who, like Jimi and Elvis, had all died before their time – Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Jerry Garcia, Jim Croce, etc. Blues legend Robert Johnson’s story of selling his soul to the devil is where the black magic of rock ’n’ roll got its start. He died at the age of 27. In the classic Come On In My Kitchen he is haunting and mystical. Johnson has an important part to play in Beyond the Will of God.
Ideas of immortality
In the spring of 1997, I read about a singer and musician I’d never heard of before named Jeff Buckley. He’d just drowned in a channel of the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee. As I read, it became obvious Buckley was important to my story. His highly regarded album, Grace, was a smorgasbord of new music inspiration. Last Goodbye is my favorite song, but the title track, Grace, speaks directly to the ethos of Beyond the Will of God. It is dark, swooning, and ponders the idea of immortality. The first draft would be completed shortly after discovering Buckley.
But I wouldn’t have been able to edit and re-write my first draft it if I hadn’t found the rather esoteric album, Sushilove Sessions, by the world beat-improvisational jazz combo Global Illage. There are no easily accessible renditions of Sushilove Sessions online, but check out this recent recording by two of the group’s musicians, talented drummer, Jim Hamilton, and guitarist extraordinaire, Tim Motzer. Here they are, recorded in the spring of 2013, improvising the composition As Real As Life.
I listened to Global Illage non-stop every night for 23 days doing the final re-write of Beyond the Will of God. It went from 450 pages down to 350. Sex, drugs, (metaphysics), and rock ’n’ roll all wrapped up in a murder mystery.
Along with his novel Beyond the Will of God, David Biddle has published two collections of short stories: Trying to Care (2011) and Implosions of America (2012). He has been writing professionally for over 30 years, publishing articles and essays in the likes of Harvard Business Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, In Business, Huffington Post, Kotori Magazine, and BioCycle. He writes the ‘Talking Indie’ column at the online magazine Talking Writing. You can track him down at http://davidbiddle.net. Tweet to him as @dcbiddle
authors, Beyond the Will of God, Biocycle, David Biddle, Desert Island Discs, drama, Elvis, Elvis Presley, entertainment, Global Illage, Harvard Business Review, Huffington Post, In Business, Jeff Buckley, Jerry Garcia, Jim Croce, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Kotori Magazine, Last Goodbye, male writers, middle, Missouri, murder mystery, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Mystery, Nail Your Novel, playlist for writers, psychedelia consciousnesses, Robert Johnson, rock ’n’ roll music, rock n roll, Roz Morris, The Beatles, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing, writing to music
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 Andrew James @4ndrewjames
Soundtrack by Guns N’ Roses, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Nirvana, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Faithless, Chris Thomas King, Jeff Buckley, Purcell, Malena Ernman, Philip Sheppard, Sonny Boy Williamson, Moby
So let’s get the pretentious statement out of the way first, huh?
Prose and music: to me, they’re the same thing. Perhaps more accurately, they’re part of the same thing. Because I could include art and film into that statement, too. I could expand on this at length, but in the interests of brevity and lucidity, let’s crack on with the soundtrack to Blow Your Kiss Hello, my novel of love, rock & roll, guns and quantum physics set in the 1990s. And just a little bit in the 1600s.
The above statement does at least provide a reason (or excuse) for the way I write; staccato sentences interspersed with torrents of tumbling words, driven not so much by actually listening to music as I write but the music that worms itself into my head as subliminal material. The novel itself – at least in my head – is in three acts, with hidden references that occasionally bounce from one act to another. And the music that makes up its soundtrack works in the same way.
Act one sashays its way through straightforward radio rock, setting both the tone and the period with Guns N’ Roses’ Paradise City kicking things off, although for the full effect you’ll need to listen to this with a scarf wound around your head, so it’s muffled and distant. From here, settle into the groove of the Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue and then ratchet expectation via David Bowie’s Queen Bitch, a first suggestion that notions of past, present and future hold no sway here.
By now we and Pistol Star, the fictitious band fronted by my main character and good friend Joe da Flo, are in full flow and are being assaulted by Nirvana, the teen spirit smelling like an adrenaline rush, hurtling forward into a place where the future and the past are all the same, just riding the wave, dodging the bullets, crowd surfing our way into oblivion until it –
Act two. Three initial tracks, bridging the gap between then and something different. The trance of Faithless and God Is A DJ (Yes He Is) tips into the depths of Chris Thomas King’s Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues and wallows in Jeff Buckley’s mercurial and partially autobiographical Forget Her. These songs aren’t just illustrative, they sound as if they were written with the mid-section of the novel in mind and here the notion of the novel as a movie really hits home to me. It’s also here that the story’s marriage to its soundtrack starts to convey the debt it owes to the late Jeff Buckley, who carried the novel from its concept into reality every bit as much as I or my editor Debi did.
As the past started to impact upon the narrative, I was taken over for several weeks by the work of Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and in particular his opera Dido and Aeneas. One piece from that work, Dido’s Lament, became pivotal to a vital scene. However, to understand the soul of the book, to really get under the skin of what the novel is trying to convey, go here. If you’ve not heard this before, it’s quite possible that this might just change your life, or at least, your relationship to art in its broadest sense.
Done that? Deep breath. Time to move on.
Sonny Boy Williamson’s Cross My Heart creates the arc from act two into act three. Incidentally, I have an old vinyl album of Sonny’s music, on which he is backed by Jimmy Page on guitar, Brian Auger on keyboards and one Mickey Waller on drums. I mention this only because in my late teens I could usually be found on a Friday evening in the old Kings Head on the Fulham Palace Road watching Mickey play drums behind another guitarist who now sadly resides in a different universe, Sam Mitchell. As a brief aside, check out this link, simply as a reminder that sometimes we’re closer to greatness than we realise.
As the novel nears its final chapter, it flies on the work of Richard Melville Hall, otherwise known as Moby, and the breakneck Electricity before my wildest dreams hear a song playing as the final credits roll and the audience sits damp eyed and holding hands. Ladies and Gentlemen, Jeff Buckley, live at Sin-e, and Eternal Life. Now you know where that title came from.
Andrew James owned a marketing agency, which he sold in 2010 whereupon Blow Your Kiss Hello began to take shape. He spent his teenage years employed at the Whitehall Theatre, studying for school exams in the lighting box watching such formative productions as What, No Pyjamas? He is a pretty good cook and an okay musician, has curated an art exhibition, climbed Snowdon, ridden motorcycles at ridiculous speeds, had poetry published in Magma Poetry magazine and spent three years living in a church in North Yorkshire. A lifelong Crystal Palace FC supporter, he is also a devotee of South Africa’s Western Cape. He still works in media and marketing and currently lives in south-west London. Blow Your Kiss Hello is his first novel and a second is under way. Find him on Twitter @4ndrewjames
GIVEAWAY Andrew is giving away 2 signed copies. To get a chance to win, he wants you to reply or tweet where the book title comes from. If you take the tweet option, include the link to the post and the hashtag #undersound. Good luck!
Andrew James, authors, Blow Your Kiss Hello, Chris Thomas King, contemporary fiction, crime, crime fiction, David Bowie, Desert Island Discs, drama, entertainment, Faithless, Guns N’ Roses, hidden references, Jeff Buckley, Jimmy Page, literary fiction, literary novels, male writers, Malena Ernman, Moby, music, music for writers, My Memories of a Future Life, mysterious place, Mystery, Nail Your Novel, Nirvana, Philip Sheppard, playlist for writers, Purcell, quantum physics, queen bitch, radio rock, reincarnation, Robert Plant, romance, romance fiction, Roz Morris, Sonny Boy Williamson, The Rolling Stones, The Undercover Soundtrack, thriller, thriller novel, undercover soundtrack, writers, writing, writing to music
- 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'