Posts Tagged The Smiths

The Undercover Soundtrack – Iain Maloney

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 Not The Booker shortlister Iain Maloney @iainmaloney 

Soundtrack by Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, The Corries, Mogwai, R.E.M., The Smiths, The Pixies, The Sugarcubes, Pink Floyd, Yes, The Who

The Undercover Soundtrack Iain Maloney 1Like a lot of authors, it was music that got me into writing. It’s quite surprising (or maybe not) how many of us once harboured dreams of rock stardom. My first pennings were song lyrics but over a clichéd adolescence sitting in my room with a guitar and too many candles, I quickly realised that I wasn’t going to be the next Kurt Cobain. My lyrics morphed into poems until the urge towards narrative took hold and I turned to novels. Music never left me, though, and has informed everything I’ve written since.

My debut novel, First Time Solo, is entirely dependent on music, both as an aspect of the story and in the writing process. The main character, Jack, is a jazz trumpeter and, while training to be a RAF pilot in 1943, starts a band with three of his comrades. Music as a social lubricant, music as a shorthand between friends, music as a means of exploring other cultures, music as language, music as the backdrop for romance and more, all these are woven through the staves of the novel but for me, writing it, music was the window to the past. Before the war starts, Jack is a teenage boy, lonely in his bedroom with only his records, the radio and his subscription to the Melody Maker to keep him company. That’s an emotional world I can inhabit, but what about the reality, the differences between the 1990s and the 1940s?

Time machine

Historical fiction set after the invention of the gramophone is easier to write than that set before. Listening to a modern performance of Greensleeves does not immediately transport one to the Tudor court despite Henry VIII being suspected of its composition. Listen to Nat King Cole perform Straighten Up and Fly Right or Cab Calloway scatting through Nagasaki, however and you’re dropped into the bedrooms of teenagers in the 1940s with a crackling wireless and heavy 78s or the dance halls that defied the Luftwaffe. Jack’s internal monologue is seasoned with the music he loves and, in order to find his voice, I had to hear what he hears, think how he thinks. I didn’t go so far as to learn the trumpet – though I wanted to – but without jazz record shops and Youtube it would’ve been much more difficult to climb inside the mind of a teenager during the Second World War.

Rural Scotland

For my second novel, Silma Hill, things weren’t so straightforward. Set in a rural Scottish village in the 18th century, there was little music I could draw on directly. I write with music playing but modern romantic re-imaginings of period ballads didn’t give me the tone I needed, as much as I enjoy songs like The Corries Come O’er The Stream Charlie. For a Gothic tale of witchcraft, torture and death, I needed something stronger. I found it in Mogwai’s soundtrack to the French zombie TV drama Les Revenants. Haunting, brooding, the threat of violence never far away, yet beautiful, moving and melancholy, the instrumental tracks rising and falling like waves of emotion gave me an atmosphere in which I could build my world. Songs like Wizard Motor get inside your head, unsettle you and never leave. When you’re writing horror, that is the ultimate goal.

The Undercover Soundtrack Iain Maloney 2Piper Alpha

My third novel, The Waves Burn Bright (to be published May 2016), is the story of a family torn apart by the Piper Alpha disaster. It is set between 1980 and 2013 so finding suitable music was easy. During my research phase early R.E.M. tracks like Finest Worksong brought me back to the late ’80s with style, jangly guitars and a political sensibility underpinning everything. The Smiths, The Pixies, The Sugarcubes, I gorged myself on the cream of ’80s alternative until a thought stopped me like a scratched 12-inch. I was recreating my ’80s, not my character’s. I switched off the music, sat back and had a chat with Carrie, my main character. It turned out she wasn’t much into music. Background radio, that was fine, but she didn’t buy music. One of those people who goes ‘I like that song, the one from that advert that goes “dum dum dum dee dah”.’ Strangely this absence of music in her life – so very, very different from me – was the moment when she became whole, three dimensional, real. After that awakening the novel rolled out of me. Sometimes silence is profounder than any song.

FB_FTS_Cover_Visual_4Of course I couldn’t let it go at that. She may not like music but that wasn’t going to stop me getting some in there. Her father, Marcus, wallowing in the misery of his recent divorce, returns to the music of his youth – Pink Floyd, Yes, and The Who.

Music, for me, is inseparable from the act of writing. It sets the mood of the piece, shapes the characters, sometimes even dictates the action. David Mitchell once swore himself off writing about music, calling it ‘An excuse for me to write about writing without writing about writing’. Music isn’t a metaphor for me, it’s as vital as air. I couldn’t live without it, and I certainly couldn’t write without it.

Iain Maloney was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and is currently based in Japan. His novels First Time Solo and Silma Hill are out now on Freight Books. His third novel, The Waves Burn Bright, will be published in May 2016. A poetry collection will follow later in the year. In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize and in 2014 he was shortlisted for the Guardian Not The Booker prize. He is also a freelance journalist and reviewer, sits on the editorial board of Eastlit Magazine and is Reviews Editor of Shoreline of Infinity. His website is here and he tweets as @iainmaloney

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Ian Sutherland

for logo‘Hacking to music’

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 cyberthriller author Ian Sutherland @iansuth

Soundtrack by John Barry, Vangelis, Ennio Morricone, Elgar, Moby, Leftfield, Underworld, The Smiths

I write to music; never to silence. For me, music is essential. It rapidly gets me in the zone and allows the creative juices to flow freely. Right now I’m listening to the movie soundtrack of 500 Days of Summer. I love it when the two tracks by The Smiths come on.

There’s a pragmatic purpose to my use of music. As most people appreciate, writing is one of the most solitary professions there is. And one of the reasons I procrastinated so long in my life before finally publishing my debut novel was my desire to balance time for my family and friends (oh, and work). And even more so when my daughters left home for university, leaving my wife and me with the proverbial empty nest. The only way I could write was to relocate myself to the living room (and be in the same vicinity as my otherwise lonely wife) and wear headphones to drown out the noise of the TV!

034_Ian_Sutherland-3 smallMy debut novel is a thriller called Invasion of Privacy. When I first started it three years ago, I mostly played orchestral movie soundtracks while writing. There were two reasons. The first was practical: at the time I believed hearing songs with lyrics would be distracting (I’ve since overcome that). And the second was because soundtracks follow the tempo of the movies they represent, and pairing different soundtracks to the types of scenes I was writing helped.

For quieter more reflective scenes, my favourite choice is John Barry’s Dances With Wolves, the slow pace of the rather long movie suiting perfectly. For higher tempo, more action orientated scenes, I often selected 1492: Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis. Especially the title piece, which features a chamber choir singing rousting Latin hymns with massive crescendos.


These soundtracks directly influenced my characterisation in the novel and were referenced explicitly. The main protagonist is a computer hacker who, whenever he starts a hacking session, chooses a movie soundtrack to accompany him:

‘Brody selected his favourite movie soundtrack playlist, set it for random with the volume high and pressed play. The opening bars to John Barry’s Dances With Wolves boomed from floor-standing Bose speakers either side of the huge wall-mounted television. Then, like a concert pianist about to perform a solo, he rested his fingers on the keyboard in front of him.’

A hacking session later in the book is, of course, accompanied by 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Ennio Morricone’s The Mission also makes an appearance in the novel. It had to, given the number of times the novel’s author listened to it during the book’s writing.

Musical surprise

Unbeknown to me, my editor Bryony Sutherland (no relation!) had studied music at the Royal Academy of Music. She picked up on the large number of musical references in the novel, starting with the opening scene where Anna Parker, the soon-to-be-first-victim, reflects on her journey towards becoming a cellist:

‘A childhood spent observing her school friends through the living room window playing forty-forty, kerbie and later, kiss-chase, while she practised her scales over and over, her bow movements across the strings becoming autonomic as muscle memory took over, the melodies becoming more complex and harmonious.’

Bryony appreciated the background and characterisation this short description provided, but also commented on how accurate the musical description was. In the scene, Anna auditions for a role in the orchestra of the Royal Opera House. She plays Elgar’s Concerto in E-Minor, a perfect choice for a solo cellist performance:

‘She took two more deep breaths, drew back the bow and launched into the concerto, her favourite piece. The music, as Elgar had planned, came slowly and hauntingly at first. Within a few bars she was lost to the stately rhythm of her part.’

Invasion of Privacy  KINDLE TIFF medSetting the pace

As the novel headed towards its dramatic conclusion, the pace naturally picked up in the writing style. To help me maintain a faster pace during writing, I began to play the soundtrack to the movie The Beach on repeat. High tempo electro beats by the likes of Leftfield, Moby and Underworld were perfect to maintain concentration and a high pace. I also noticed that I set the volume in my earphones much higher as well, drowning out everything except me and the words on my laptop screen.

And I’m finishing writing this very post on a cheerful high. 500 Days of Summer has now looped a few times, but I write these last words to the quirky and breezy song, Mushaboom. Always guaranteed to leave anyone in a good mood! Give it a listen if you’ve not heard it before.

Ian Sutherland is a British crime thriller author. Leveraging his career in the IT industry, Ian’s Deep Web Thriller Series shines light on the threats we face from cybercrime as it becomes all too prevalent in our day-to-day lives. Invasion of Privacy is his debut. Ian lives near London with his wife and two daughters. Find him on his website, Twitter as @iansuth and on Facebook.

GIVEAWAY Ian is giving away 1 copy of Invasion of Privacy, either print or ebook. To enter the draw, comment here and share the post. Extra entries if you share on multiple platforms – and don’t forget to note here where you shared them so we know to count you!

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Isabel Ashdown

for logo‘A scandal in a small place’

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 award-winning novelist Isabel Ashdown @IsabelAshdown

Soundtrack by David Bowie, Nick Drake, Brian Eno, The Clash, Lana Del Rey, The Smiths

When I write, there must be no sounds other than the distant purr of traffic and birdsong, and the tap of my fingers on the keyboard.  But between the moments of physical writing, music plays a strong role in the development of my fictional worlds, and it provides me with a therapeutic contrast to the long hours of quiet and solitary creation.


Isle of Wight Aug 09 Col MasterMy work is always borne out of obsession – a growing fascination with certain ideas, images and themes that will haunt me independently until the strongest of them converge to form the basis of my novel.  At the early stages of Summer of ’76, I discovered these things: it was a story about a scandal in a small place, set on the Isle of Wight in the heatwave summer of that year, and my protagonist was a 17-year-old boy called Luke.  From the outset, David Bowie’s Young Americans played a constant loop through my mind, with its sense of optimistic yearning and sunny, sad lyrics.  Out in my car, driving towards my post-writing dog walks, I’d play the track, recalling the thrill of discovering the second-hand album when I was myself a teenager.

In Summer of ’76, the weather is arguably a character in its own right.  Images and senses of summer play a strong role, and as the drama of the island scandal intensifies and escalates, so too does the temperature.  My own memories of heat-baked lawns, the rise and fall of honeysuckle and the slip-slap of flip-flops on boiled asphalt seemed to draw me to particular soundtracks – those that reflected gentle summers beneath a clear blue sky, and those reminiscent of a fractious, broiling season where tempers fray and secrets spill over.  Nick Drake’s Saturday Sun was a favourite I’d habitually play over weekend morning coffee, and one whose lyrics felt strangely apt.  In stark contrast, Brian Eno’s Baby’s on Fire, an old favourite of mine, has that frenetic, out of control atmosphere that seems to go on without end, not unlike like that ceaseless summer of 1976.  Hearing these tracks could transport me into Luke’s world, and often I’d play them to kickstart the writing where I last left off.

Time of struggle

The year 1976 holds great interest for me, not only because of that extraordinary weather.  Across the country, it was a time of struggle and social change, of unemployment, high inflation and striking workers.  But it was also a time of great opportunity.  Home ownership was the new aspiration, and holidays abroad something within the realms of possibility.  Feminism gained momentum, the punk movement made headlines, and in a period of unprecedented sexual liberation, it seemed anything was possible.  Many would have us believe that the 70s was all Abba and Roussos and Brotherhood of Man.  But of course the pop of an age can only tell us the surface story – and isn’t it what’s beneath the surface that interests us writers more than anything?  Whilst punk was only just hitting the headlines, its electricity could already be felt fizzing in the ether.  For me, for Luke’s burgeoning desire for escape, the track I frequently turned to was London Calling by The Clash, from the album of the same name, and one that’s never far from the top of my playlist.

SUMMER OF '76 by Isabel Ashdown, COVER, April 2013Luke’s summer is bubbling with conflict.  He’s ever hopeful about reinventing himself in the wider world, with its promises of freedom, sex and adventure; yet revelations about his parents’ personal lives cause him to question everything he thought he knew.   This conflict of adolescence is something that excites me greatly in writing – and I’m drawn to music which does the same.  Perhaps it’s where the music does one thing, yet the lyrics do something else, or where the track is at once uplifting and melancholy.  During this writing phase, I discovered a remarkable mashup online: Lana Del Rey vs The Smiths – This Charming Video Game.  I was a big Smiths fan in my teen years, and the blend of these two tracks – and their videos – seemed perfectly heartbreaking, representing to me everything that is tough about growing up, about coming of age.

Isabel Ashdown is the author of three novels published by Myriad Editions: Glasshopper (London Evening Standard and Observer Best Books of the Year 2009) Hurry Up and Wait (Amazon Top Customer Reads 2011), Summer of ’76, and winner of the Mail on Sunday Novel Competition 2008. In 2013, her essay on the subject of ‘voice’ will feature in Writing a First Novel, edited by Karen Stevens, in which novelists, agents and publishers discuss the joys and challenges of writing a first novel (Palgrave MacMillan). Isabel writes from her West Sussex home which she shares with her husband, a carpenter, their two children, and a border terrier called Charlie.  Find out more about her at or chat to her on facebook and twitter.

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