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My guest this week says that most of her better ideas are sparked by music. She keeps noise-making apparatus at the ready in every room in her house. When she’s stuck she charges up her headphones with inspirational pieces and does a hand-occupying household activity until the ideas return, which usually isn’t long. Quirky and speculative fiction is her milieu, and her short stories have won prizes. Now she’s launching her debut dystopia novel, Rats, with the Triskele books collective. She is JW Hicks and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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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’s post is by journalist and novelist Catriona Troth @L1bCat
My novel, Ghost Town, is set in Coventry and Brixton in 1981. Around that time, young musicians from different communities were developing styles of music that melded sounds from their cultural roots with modern pop, and writing lyrics that expressed their anger and discontent. The music they produced played a vital part in taking me back to those times and in helping me identify with characters from three different communities.
Coventry in 1981 was the city of 2 Tone Records and Ska; it was also a city riven by conflict between skinheads and young Asians. The 2 Tone sound was essential to the atmosphere I wanted to create.
Ska has its origins in the West Indies, but by the time it stormed Britain in the late 1970s and 1980s, it had a flavour all its own. The line-up of the bands on Coventry’s 2 Tone label – like The Specials and The Selecter – were a mix a black and white musicians, and the message of their songs was often explicitly anti-racist.
One of the characteristics of the 2 Tone sound was the use of a horn section, epitomised by Rico Rodriguez’s wailing trombone sole at the start of The Specials’ Ghost Town – surely one of the most haunting openings to a pop song ever written. Ghost Town inspired not only the title of my novel but underpins much of its mood.
That was the day that The Specials released Ghost Town. For days it keened from every radio, every jukebox, every stereo. Those stabbing horns and that eerie, wailing chorus became the soundtrack of their deaths.
Equally poignant is the voice of Pauline Black, lead singer of The Selecter. Black’s voice slides from contralto (in Three Minute Hero) to soprano (in On My Radio) – dark and light all in one unforgettable package.
Tracks like these helped me to unlock memories and recapture the feel of those troubled times.
Down in Brixton, the defining sound for the young Black community was reggae. If 2 Tone drew me back into my own past, then reggae opened a doorway into a different world. Like most people, I knew a few Bob Marley tracks, but in writing the book, I explored others like Barrington Levy’s Shaolin Temple and King Tubby’s Flag Dub.
Most of the rioters had slipped away through the alleyways, back into the maze-like estates beyond. Behind the blank façade of the night, the sound of reggae spilt into the air. Brixton was celebrating.
At the same time, dub poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson were performing live to a reggae backing beat. Highly political lyrics written in Jamaican dialect (such as LKJ’s New Crass Massahkah) capture the fury that led to the Brixton riots in a way that no amount of reportage could possibly convey.
Back in Coventry, the third element of my story lay among young British Asians, many of whom arrived in Coventry as children when their parents were expelled from East Africa.
Many young Asians identified with the 2 Tone sound, but they were also developing a sound of their own. It would be another two years before the first Bhangra records were pressed, but meanwhile, local bands were experimenting with blending the traditional sound of instruments like the dohl (drum) and the single-stringed tumbi with Western pop.
Most of us are familiar with Bhangra music now from films like Bend It Like Beckham and Slumdog Millionaire, but back then it was new, exciting and a little bit dangerous. Fans were known to gatecrash weddings where the best bands were playing.
The stringed instrument opened by twanging out a melody and was answered by the seductive beat of the drum. The singer threw back his head and produced an ululating sound that formed a contrapuntal beat. The other instruments joined in one by one, weaving between the two rhythms … Feet tapped and bodies began to sway. A circle of dancers formed, energetic and sinuous –hands clapping, wrists twisting and shoulders shaking.
Those early bands were unrecorded, but you can catch something of their feel from listening to the earliest Bhangra stars, such as Malkit Singh, on Putt Sardaran Da or Alaap with Heera Group UK on Chamm Chamm Nachdi.
Listening to these three styles of music helped me get under the skin of the different characters, to absorb something of their rhythms and to switch from one ‘mode’ into another as I moved from scene to scene.
Catriona Troth is the author of the novella, Gift of the Raven and the novel Ghost Town. She is a former researcher turned freelance writer and a regular contributor to Words with Jam magazine, and a proud member of the Triskele Books author collective. Find her on Twitter as @L1bCat and on her blog/webpage at CatrionaTroth.com.
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Coventry and Brixton in the 1980s. My guest this week has drawn on reggae and the music of the iconic Two Tone label to evoke cities riven by racial conflict. Music was a strong part of identity and hers is a soundtrack of jagged horns and simmering beats. Her novel’s title echoes one of Two Tone’s landmark tracks – Ghost Town, by The Specials. If you know it, I bet it’s started in your head – and hold that thought, because she returned to the track time and again to capture her characters’ tensions. She is Catriona Troth and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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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’s post is by editor, journalist and crime novelist JJ Marsh @JJMarsh1
Music, along with artworks, act as ambient markers when I’m writing. I need silence to write, but return continually to certain images and tracks to remind me of my original intention. When I start a book, I know what mood I’m setting out to express. But while concentrating on the myriad elements of construction, the mood can get lost or forgotten. I also use music and art references to convey my concepts to the cover designer/artist. So these notes on music provide me with a trail to follow if I get lost.
Octave One’s Bout to Blow buzzed around my brain for a long time. I planned a screenplay – Cognoscenti – furious morality overlaid by cynical pragmatism. The Wire meets Wall Street. Turns out it wasn’t a screenplay at all. It was Behind Closed Doors, my first European crime novel about corporate greed and rough justice.
I spent hours listening to Schubert while researching, and shared this fact with my paperback cover artist, James Lane. He used the second movement of Death and the Maiden to underscore the video he made of creating the oil painting.
Several characters in the book owe much to InGrid’s Tu es foutu. But this track represents the voice of the character who doesn’t have one.
Departures always a carry an emotional charge for me, and Taxi’s Campari Soda, with all its sense of loss, longing, change and optimism is that missing chapter between 37 and 38.
I can’t find the book, but when I was a teen, I read a story about a child in the Scilly Isles seeing something she shouldn’t. The first three minutes of Biosphere’s The Things I Tell You triggered that memory and provoked the opening chapters of Raw Material. (If anyone can tell me the title of that book, I will send you a box of Kirschstengeli).
Broken atmospheres and clashes of sensations create an awkward, yet appealing kind of tension. There are two key plotlines in this book, and when returning to the subways of Finsbury Park, I listened to Photek’s Hidden Camera to remind me of the tone of the predator: something unresolved, compulsive and endless.
In the final edits, I listened to the first three minutes of Jan Garberek’s Twelve Moons, to harmonise the overall feeling. Garbarek can tell stories, and this one contains a certain damaged purity. It also led me to the final title.
With Tread Softly I wanted to echo the atmosphere of Federico Garcia Lorca’s plays. That combination of passion and tragedy and pride. Pedro Abrunhosa’s Tudo o que eu te dou was my tonal base line. There’s a painful tension in his voice, a love song as lament.
I had real problems nailing my villain. He needed to be cultured and sophisticated but capable of the worst cruelty. Then I heard Tree, by Aphex Twin. The scariest kind of psychopathy. Insanity on a leash. Enter Arturo de Aguirre.
One of the subplots contains an inevitable emotional car crash. A half-remembered song expressed that sense of time running out, so I spent ages trying to find it. When I did, it was so perfect, it gave me the shivers. Vaya Con Dios – Heading for a Fall. And I fell in love with Dani Klein’s voice all over again
Jill grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. She has worked as an actor, teacher, director, editor, journalist and cultural trainer all over Europe. Now based in Switzerland, Jill is a founder member of author collective Triskele Books, part of the Nuance Words project and a regular columnist for Words with JAM magazine. She lives with her husband and three dogs, and in an attic overlooking a cemetery, she writes. Her novels are Behind Closed Doors, Raw Material and Tread Softly. Find Jill’s detective character Beatrice Stubbs on Facebook, or find Jill’s Amazon page, or connect with her on Twitter @JJmarsh1.
GIVEAWAY You could win a copy of one of Jill’s novels if you comment here – extra entries if you tweet or otherwise share the post. Don’t forget to let me know if you have shared on other networks and how many there are. AND don’t forget those Kirschstengeli. That book is in somebody’s reading backlist somewhere…
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I’m rather fond of Jan Garbarek and Aphex Twin, and I’m delighted to see them working their influences on my guest this week. A crime novelist, she gathers soundtracks to make sure her stories stay true to the mood she has envisaged for them. She looks for music with a sense of tension, loss, instability and says that Garbarek in particular tells her stories – and even gave her a title. She’s also spent years searching for a very influential novel she read as a teenager. If you can identify it, she might send you a special prize (although she might be joking). She is JJ Marsh and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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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 2011-2021. 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'