The Mississippi delta was shining like a national guitar!
Or so Paul Simon started singing the other day when I was in the middle of the hoovering.
Isn’t this one of the best song openers ever? As soon as you hear the intro to Gracelands and that lyric kicks in you’re transported somewhere else. At that dust-busting moment I was pinged back to the summer of my GCSEs – waiting for my results in my mum and dad’s back garden, listening to my Walkman (yeah, remember them?)
Singing along and boogie-hoovering in time to the music I realised that Gracelands is one of those songs that is not just a song (about going to see Elvis) it’s a narrative – a novel in miniature, if you like –set to music. There’s a brilliant opening line, a hinted at dysfunctional family, a woman leaving her man and a road trip with hopes of redemption. That’s just the first verse!
Listen again if you don’t believe me, but I bet you do cos if you’re a writer or a reader you know the power of words (and music) and a few well-placed phrases to work their evocative magic and create a world we can touch, taste and feel! It made me think of how certain music has influenced my writing, particularly the feel and tone of my first novel Telling Stories. The tale is told by Lizzy, the heroine, in the present day but it flashes back to her student life at Cardiff University. There’s a definite haze of nostalgia (but it’s clear this is the beginning of something far more sinister.)
Lizzy’s Uni life is defined by the music of the Brit Pop 90s, the Blur and Oasis showdown, the weirdness of the Cool Cymru fad with The Stereophonics in the top ten and Catatonia’s Cerys Matthews belting out, ‘Every day, when I wake up. I thank the Lord I’m Welsh!’ (How we laughed!) It permeates Telling Stories but the soundtrack I was writing to was something far more melancholy. American band Counting Crows, who’ve never been very big in the UK, were an integral part of my student experience and the writing of the novel. Their albums are the soundtrack that seeped into Telling Stories giving it a dark quality – it’s there in the longing, the regret and the disappointment.
Some songs are cinematic in the images and feelings they create. Crows songs have this quality because they’re fierce, regretful, resentful and often very sad, even when the guitars are wailing. My ‘beloved other’ calls it suicide music. As soon as I put it on he pulls faces and makes exaggerated sawing motions at his wrist.
He’s right of course – some of the best writing comes from being abandoned and filled with rage. No one ever wrote a heartfelt novel about being in love with a really nice bloke did they? Songs like Gracelands make us wiggle while hoovering but it’s often the other songs that make us sit down and write. Songs about the bad things people feel, feel guilty for feeling, try to pretend they don’t feel, or wish they didn’t feel.
So if you’re looking for emotional inspiration, don’t be afraid to crank up the stereo and get ready to write! Here’s my mood-music suggestions for instant character empathy!
Suspect your hero’s girlfriend is a cold-hearted bitch? – Miami from Hard Candy will give you instant pages of rage, regret and running away fodder.
Gotta get out of this town baby? – Round Here from August and Everything After provides paragraphs of haunting, small-town teenage inaction angst.
Channelling old-fashioned tender loving? Colourblind from This Desert Life will make you want to undress someone, real slow..! Worth at least a chapter!
Best of the rest
Trying to channel an intense, destructive romance that won’t end well?
The National – any of the songs on the High Violet album, especially Runaway and Blood Buzz Ohio ( no one really knows what the latter is about but just feel that spiralling anger and impotence!) Multipurpose elegiac brooding for sensitive yet manly heroes! Swoon!
Trying to write about dirty-old-man thoughts? Your character feels old and unloved?
Pulp – This is Hardcore from the album of same name – heavy breathing and used hankies abound! Instant sleaze!
TV Movie –lashings of wistful loneliness in less time than it takes to microwave that meal for one…sob!
Need background inspiration for an edgy, urban love story?
Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid album (even the title’s poetic).
Try Grounds for Divorce for passion, poetry and thrown pints.
Or Mirrorball for ‘it’s not so grim oop north’ moments of bedroom bliss
Setting the tone for a coming-of-age summer road-trip?
Paul Simon – Boy in the Bubble, from Gracelands – strange and sinister, top-down, blowing through the bayou footstomper for that ‘this can’t last’ end-of-summer feeling.
Go on – get downloading now! Hankies at the ready!
Share your mood music with me on Twitter or leave a comment here.
*Okay I know I hinted last time I was going to ramble about dystopian fiction this week but sometimes you gotta go with the flow (or the beat). I’ll get round to it – it’s not as if the world’s ending…