Posts Tagged Sufjan Stevens
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 award-winning theatre practitioner Deborah Andrews
Soundtrack by Pulp, Oasis, Blur, Massive Attack, Portishead, The Cranberries, LTJ Bukem, Leftfield, Tricky, Goldie, The Verve, Bjork, REM, The Stone Roses, Morrissey, Tracy Chapman, Billy Bragg, Kate Bush, Nick Cave, Sufjan Stevens
The further I write my way into my second novel, the more I realise the extent to which my debut novel, Walking the Lights, is drenched in music. Music is at the emotional heart of the novel. It initially speaks of Maddie’s relationship with her absent father – the songs she remembers him singing to her – and it goes on to illuminate her relationships with her friends, her lovers and, ultimately, with herself.
Walking the Lights is set in 1996/97. I was looking for connections between the personal and political – and a time that would echo Maddie’s emergence – and the culture and climate around the general election of ’97, along with the lead-up to devolution in Scotland, fitted perfectly. To help re-create the period, I read archive copies of newspapers; watched movies and read books from the era; and listened to music: Pulp, Oasis, Blur, Massive Attack, Portishead, The Cranberries, LTJ Bukem, Leftfield, Tricky, Goldie, The Verve, Björk…as well as to music that Maddie would’ve listened to as a teenager: REM, The Stone Roses, Morrissey, Tracy Chapman, Billy Bragg.
Music plays a large role in my life. As a child, I wanted to be a dancer and I trained in dance for ten years. To me, dance was a way of giving music physical form, of being a conduit for emotion. As an adult, I love listening to music as well as singing and playing the mandolin. I can’t write while listening to music though – my attention will be drawn away and my emotions pulled by what I’m listening to. I enjoy walking and mulling over what I’m working on, and will often put my earphones in and spend time getting inside my characters’ heads and hearts.
There were two key tracks that really helped me to get to know Maddie from the inside out. The first of these was Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy. The song relates to a carefree time in Maddie’s life when she used to go out clubbing with her friends, Jo and Roger, and it reappears – after a few dark years – with the prospect of a new romance with visual artist, Alex. I find the track hopeful yet full of longing, and I wanted to reflect something of the swelling strings in Maddie’s feelings of anticipation.
The second track was The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony. This song helped define Maddie at the end of the novel: she’s been seeking love and validation, often looking in all the wrong places, and she’s been searching for her father, leading her to uncover family secrets and testing her hold on reality. She’s in recovery, and she’s reconnecting with her work in the theatre and her sense of purpose. Again, the hopefulness of the melody was important, the string motif, but also the lyrics: being held in one body while playing many parts aligns nicely with the life of an actor.
I could wax lyrical about music in the book, but in terms of music behind the book three main tracks come to mind. In 2011 I was busy rewriting, changing the novel from first person present tense to third person past tense and experimenting with free indirect speech. This was particularly important to help me create some of some of the larger, political canvases, and to take the reader close in to Maddie’s breakdown without causing confusion as to what was going on. I went to see one of my favourite musicians, Sufjan Stevens, touring The Age of Adz at the Manchester Apollo. In I Want To Be Well I heard the chaos and fighting spirit that I was looking to portray in the third part of my novel. The gig itself was significant too – the massive hallucinatory spectacle, that became increasingly wild, and ended with a shedding of costumes, fancy lighting design, video and performance theatrics for a beautiful and tender acoustic rendition of ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’. This was the kind of spectrum I wanted my writing to encompass, and the kind of emotional adventure I wanted to take my readers on.
The second track, Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting, arrived as part of a compilation from a friend while I was editing my novel. I hadn’t heard the song in years and it had a big impact on me. Again, it really resonated with what I wanted my novel to achieve, both in terms of storyline – becoming an adult and coming to terms with the loss of a father – and in terms of emotion: the sense of struggle, strength, fight and defiance. I found the power of the cello, the rising voices, the drums, the layering in the track, like a call to action. I spent several train journeys with the song on repeat, and I think it helped me find the determination to make the novel as good as I could, as well as providing true north for Maddie’s trajectory.
The third track, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ There She Goes My Beautiful World, served a similar purpose. The lyrics are poetic and talk of literary figures and inspiration – the sentiment, tune and arrangement are really kick-ass. Daft as it might sound, this track also helped me get ready to let go of my manuscript and my characters.
Novels can take years from first fragments to publication. I started writing scenes for what became Walking the Lights back in 2007. Playing a musical instrument reminds me that the basics are important, to build strength and improve technique: a lifelong development of craft. I’m always looking for my writing to have musicality – rhythm, flow, timbre, texture, growth, counterpoint – and at least one stage of my editing process involves reading my work aloud. The doubt I often feel when I start work on a new tune reminds me to keep chipping away at my writing, it shows me time and again how commitment and steady work can slowly build something complex and complete and, hopefully, moving and meaningful.
Deborah is an award-winning theatre practitioner turned novelist. Her knowledge of the theatre world inspired her debut novel Walking the Lights, which has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker prize. She has an MLitt (Distinction) and an AHRC-funded PhD in creative writing from Glasgow University. She now lives in Lancaster where she teaches creative writing. Her short stories have been published in several anthologies and she is currently writing her second novel. For more info. please visit her website and her Facebook page.
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.
Authors 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.
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.