Friday, March 20, 2009

Music and Lyrics Part One

A while back I was mentioning here, as I do periodically, the way I use music to get the old creative juices going, and Marie asked me to explain how I do it. As I've been a bit busy finishing the rewrites to Last Christmas and generally playing catch up from having had too many children at home too often of late, I've only just got round to it. So thank you, Marie for being so patient. You've probably forgotten you even said it by now...

I think I may have rather a lot to say on this subject, so I probably need to write more then one post about it. You are very welcome to skip these posts entirely if you don't find the way my creative synapses work that fascinating. (And let's face it why would you really?)

At the risk of being a tad self indulgent, I'd like to start by giving you some background to my interest in music and why it's so important to me when I'm writing.

In some ways it's highly amusing that I do now find music so important in my writing . As a child, coming from a vast family (there are eight of us. Yes, I know. I did say eight.), and being a twin to boot, I was always desperate to find my own identity. I was also incredibly pig headed. So as all my siblings bar one took up a musical instrument, I went my own way and decided not to. I even went out of my way not to learn music properly. So while I recognise what a double clef is to look at, I can't read a note of music, because, though I found it relatively easy to learn, I just mentally switched off. Much to the disgust of my music teacher who awarded me the only D of my academic career.

I regret this of course now. Particularly now the sprogs are all learning the piano and no 1 is also having singing and guitar lessons. I so wish I could join in with them. I did go through a phase of wanting to learn the guitar when I was fifteen (mainly inspired by a boy I fancied), and my fantasy life would involve me being a rock chick a la Chrissie Hynde (in fact, I have that all lined up for a book some time in the future), but sadly I never pursued it, and while I can reasonably hold a tune, I cannot count musical talent among my accomplishments.

Having said that of course, you don't have to be any good at music to appreciate it.

My parents were never keen on pop music, but loved classical, and while I couldn't claim expertise in this area, I do recognise Beethoven, Bach, Mozart et al, and have some firm favourites from the classical canon (Pachabell's Canon in D, Vaughn Williams Theme from Thomas Tallis, The Carmina Burana to name but a few). Thinking about it the Theme from Thomas Tallis, is probably the first music that inspired me creatively. I used to listen to it obsessively when I was revising for my A levels, as I found it incredibly soothing. Try it if you're stressed, it's very calming. But it also makes me think of green rolling hills, and English countryside, and probably because I was revising it at the time, Far From the Madding Crowd. I can remember "seeing" images in my head very clearly as I listened to it, of grand sweeping landscapes rolling out before me like the opening credits of a film that could be adventurous, heartbreaking, romantic , stirring. It was the sense of incredible yearning that that music still engenders, which somewhere taps into the creative part of my soul. I haven't used that music for any writing yet, but I will one day.

As my parents weren't that keen on pop music, I was a bit of a johnny come lately in that regard, and whereas most of my peers were probably buying their first singles in their early teens, I didn't actually buy much music till I was much older. I was also very wary of stating my preferences, because at that time in my life you always had to be "for" a particular kind of music - you couldn't like ska and disco for example, if you were into heavy metal as I was, you couldn't possibly like pop, and you dared not mention anything as naff as enjoying a Cliff Richard record. If you opened your mouth and said the wrong thing you faced endless ridicule. So I spent a lot of my teens piggybacking other people's choices and passing them off as my own. The result I think is that I have a hodge podge of different kinds of music that I now like, so I'm fond of the Spice Girls and Girls Aloud, but I also like Franz Ferdinand and the Kaiser Chiefs. I love Bon Jovi so much I used to play it to no 1 when she was a baby, but I also love the pathos of Gary Jules' version of Mad World.

Spouse's influence has also been incredibly important. Growing up in the 80s when there was a big nostalgia for sixties stuff, I was of course familiar with the Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but Spouse got me into the Animals, the Swinging Blue Jeans, the Zombies and most importantly, the Kinks. As he has fairly eclectic tastes, I can also thank him for Lords of the New Church, Sisters of Mercy, Psychedelic Furs, Joy Division and New Order.

There aren't many types of music I won't listen too, although rap has never done much for me, and I can't claim to be all that keen on country, but generally speaking I am always keen to find new stuff where I can. My current new obsession is a band called Fleet Foxes, whose Mykonos I absolutely adore.

I do know the exact moment when I got turned onto pop music. I was thirteen, it was a youth club disco, and a boy asked me to dance for the first time in my life, to Roxanne by the Police. Being incredibly naive of course, I didn't really understand what it was about, but something about Sting's plaintive wailing lodged in my psyche and I was hooked.

As I suspect is the case for many of us, so many of the songs I heard growing up had significance at the time, and I hear them now and am instantly transported back. I listened to Ultravox's Vienna for the first time while doing my art O level a claywork project which took three weeks over lunchtimes. We'd sit in the art hut with our lunches, working on our pieces of art, listening the radio. Vienna was number one for weeks, and I cannot hear it now and not see my fifteen year old self, getting frustrated because my fingers weren't producing the grand vision in my brain. One of the reasons Ashes to Ashes worked so well for me was because they played Vienna as Alex wakes up in 1981. I was there instantly...

Simon & Garfunkel's Greatest Hits album reminds me of the sixth form and my best friends then, and all of the various traumas we had with the boys we fancied ourselves in love with. Careless Whisper is the summer before I left home. Like a Virgin is my first term at university, and don't get me started on the numerous songs which formed the soundtrack to the time Spouse and I got together.

I'm sure everyone has similar experiences with music. Because music above all other mediums, it seems to me, has the power to evoke emotions, inspire, reduce us to tears in a way no other medium can. It is pure and primal and rips out our souls.

And THAT is what I try and tap into when I'm writing. It isn't a structured kind of process. More an organic kind of thing. Sometimes I hear a song and it inspires me to a particular plot line, for example, ever since I heard Keane's Somewhere Only We Know, it's spoken to me of starcrossed lovers for some reason, and it's down on the list for the parallel universe story I plan to write some day.

Other times, a song takes me into the heart of a character. In Strictly Love, Rob, who started off as a jack the lad when I first envisaged him, suddenly turned into something else entirely and it became obvious that his theme song was Robbie Williams Feel, which seems to me to be all about wanting to be better then you are and not being able to escape your nature. You have to hand it to Robbie, he does know how to turn out gutwrenching stuff, I've used him again in Last Christmas, which is a lot about mothers and daughters and the moment when you start mothering your mother. Angel was perfect for that, and as it happens has turned out to be particularly poignant.

The way I write seems to be that I always have a pivotal scene at the latter half of the book, already worked out in my head before I even have a whole story. I don't know why that is, but it's the way the process works for me. So in Pastures New (if you've read it) it's the rainy scene in the allotments, and in Strictly Love it's the picnic scene on the downs. Both scenes had a song at the heart of them.

In the PN scene it's Travis' Sing, which seems to me to be a painful acknowledgement of the impossibility of ever truly reaching another human being, however much you love them: For the love you bring won't mean a thing/unless you sing, sing, sing. It was just perfect for the situation in which my characters found themselves, and I tried to capture something of the pain of the situation. That is the most frustrating part of the process for me. I know how a song makes me feel. Try to put that into words? Eek.

Mind you I don't think I'd have felt the same way about this song if I'd seen this video first. Sometimes it's better to have the song without pictures...

In Strictly Love, the song was Fields of Gold by Sting, which makes me think of long lazy summer days, and falling in love, and wanting to be together, with just a hint that maybe the love won't last: You'll remember me when the west wind moves/upon the fields of barley/You'll forget the sun in his jealous sky/As we walk in the fields of gold. That's so beautiful it makes the hairs on my back stand up every time I hear it, but it also has a poignancy to it, which again was perfect for the scene.

For Last Christmas (coming out this Christmas) I have another pivotal scene which I won't reveal because it would give too much away, but again I had had it in my head for months before I wrote it. I didn't have a song for it for a long long time. Then I heard Neil Diamond's Pretty Amazing Grace and it totally blew my mind, and I knew I had my song. This book is a little bit (I hope without sounding preachy) about the claims of the spiritual versus the material, and these lines encapsulated the heart of dilemma of one of my characters.
Stumbled inside the doorway of your chapel/Humbled and awed by everything I found/Beauty and love surround me/Freed me from what I feared/Asked for amazing grace /And you appeared.

I'm just about to start book 4, and already have my pivotal scene. This book is going to be as much about the love of friends as it is about romantic love (though as it's about weddings, it's going to be about that too). I have already alluded in an earlier post to some of the emotions I find myself tapping into for this story. And when I heard Hurt by Johnny Cash for the first time (having entirely missed my twin sister's attempts to introduce it to me) I knew I had my pivotal song.
I hurt myself today/To see if I still feel/I focus on the pain/The only thing that's real

When I saw how they used the song to great effect in Being Human, I knew I'd chosen the right one.

There is like I say, an awful lot more I want to write about this process, so I'm going to leave it there for now, but in the meantime I'll leave you with my favourite song of the moment. I have no idea what the video is all about. Like I say, sometimes it's better just to hear the song and let your imagination do the rest...


Nic said...

We have very similar tastes in music! I love Thomas Tullis! I also like RVW's motifs on folk music and sea shanties.

Have you heard Fleet Foxes' White Winter Hymnal? Exquisite.

Jane Henry said...

HI Nic! Long time no see. Yes White Winter Hymnal is wonderful too. Terry Wogan gave it an airing this morning. Never came back to you with those educational questions, but I have acknowledged your part in inspiring the nativity parts of LC!

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Fleet Foxes were incredible when we saw them live late last year (having - just - missed a gig in an even smaller venue just two days before we really discovered them).

I'm thinking that with your fairly open tastes it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for me to construct a list of tunes for you... Let's talk off line about that!

And although I grew up on Wogan and I know that FF are very Crosby Stills Nash and Young, there is still something odd about seeing hip young bands' names next to Radio 2 and Terry Wogan...

Persephone said...

Have you seen this? Mind you, it was a little more poignant in the days before the Hand Doctor...

Jane Henry said...

Lisa I had my beady eye on your song list on your blog cos I knew barely any of it! So yes, let's talks. Specially as I now have Spotify (sorry Persephone)

And Persephone. THANK YOU. That was brill. Still poignant, as I am quite adept at excising the memory of Hand Doctor from my head...

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

JH -- I too am adept at wiping Handy from my memory (though not necessarily the delight of two David Tennants from my imagination). But yes, we must email some conversation about music... :)