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Words And Music

Writers who are also musicians

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ It’s a famous quote about the perils of trying to discuss a particular artistic process, and it’s a quote that has long fascinated me for all sorts of reasons. I first came across it attributed to Frank Zappa then, when I dug deeper, Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson, Steve Martin and others, and that confusion over its origin only served to make it more intriguing to me.

One of the reasons I love it so much is that I’ve written about music for years. And reversing the equation, I’ve also written and performed songs about literature. In one sense, I agree with the pointlessness of trying to describe in words a wonderful chord progression or a plaintive harmony, but on the other hand I disagree with the sentiment. What better thing to write about than the transformative power of music, the ethereal nature of an artistic form that can reduce people to tears or raise them to euphoria without a single word being spoken?

Let’s rewind a little: I was a musician before I was ever a writer. When I was a toddler growing up in the small Scottish east coast town of Arbroath, I apparently used to sit on the sofa with my mum’s knitting needles and batter out a rhythm in time to bands playing on television. I was around three or four years old and still unable to read, but something inside of me was strong enough to want to express itself in an embryonic musical way. Or maybe I was just a kid who liked to hit things.

Either way, that set me along a path in which music has been an intrinsic part of my life for over four decades. I became a drummer at school, playing in various terrible bands, and I taught myself guitar by sneaking into my older sister’s bedroom and playing hers when she was out. I continued to play drums for rock, indie and country bands at university, then gradually moved to guitar and vocals, writing my own songs along the way.

At the same time I was harbouring a love of words, writing short stories in my spare time and sending them off to competitions and anthologies, but never hearing back. I was writing by then for my day job too, writing about music. I began as a music journalist in 1999 and worked as a freelancer for fifteen years, tackling that Zappa (or whoever) quote head on, writing about the bands and artists I loved, the ones I hated too, and trying to get across in prose exactly how a certain piece of music can make you feel.

Meanwhile, it was only when I started working on my first novel that I had any success with fiction, and that book was, you guessed it, all about music. Called The Ossians, it was about an unsigned band falling apart on a tour of the Scottish Highlands in a mess of drink and drugs as they prepared for a big showcase gig in Glasgow in front of various record label executives. I was still in bands at the time and so much of The Ossians was drawn from personal experience, as they played terrible gigs to hostile audiences, haggled with promoters and generally got themselves into big piles of trouble.

When I submitted that novel, the start of each chapter featured lyric quotes from some of my favourite bands. When my editor explained it would cost thousands of pounds to use those quotes, we decided to write some lyrics for the fictional band The Ossians. Some of these lyrics were pretty good and I was reluctant to leave them as just imaginary songs, so I ended up writing songs to fit some of the lyrics. Then the real band I was in at the time, Northern Alliance, decided to record those songs, just acting like a younger, angrier and noisier version of ourselves.

These recordings eventually saw the light of day as the mini-album The MacPherson Tapes, and I found myself in the rather strange position of taking an acoustic guitar along to book events and ‘covering’ various songs by the made-up band. To be honest, I loved it, and it really gave me a taste for combining the two, something which has long outlived promotion for that book and which continues to this day.

Over the years I’ve discovered I’m far from alone in being a music-minded writer. Since it started five years ago, the Bloody Scotland crime writing festival in Stirling has had an open mic night in which authors do a musical turn for fans. From this night a band has emerged, called the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, who cover songs about death and murder. Featuring Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, Chris Brookmyre, Stuart Neville, Luca Veste and myself on drums, the band have been selling out at festivals across the country and creating a party atmosphere it’s hard to imagine at a conventional book reading.

But there are plenty more writers in bands as well as musicians who have written brilliant books. Stephen King used to play in The Rock Bottom Remainders, Neil Gaiman and Ian Rankin used to front punk bands, while American literary figures Jonathan Lethem and Rick Moody have played in indie outfits. On the flipside of that, Americana guitarist Willy Vlautin and Scottish folk singer James Yorkston have both become accomplished novelists, while Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen have straddled the divide between music and literature to critical acclaim.

As for my own crossovers between music and writing, these have continued with every book. In The Jump, published in 2015, the Scottish indie band Frightened Rabbit feature as a favourite of one of the characters. I quoted from one of their songs, ‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’ at the start of the book, and then found myself covering the song at book events. And again, with 2016’s Crash Land, set in Orkney, I found myself playing some old Northern Alliance songs inspired by Orkney, songs which had originally been written and released by my band over a decade previously.

Prior to those books there was another novel heavily influenced by music. In The Dead Beat (2014), the entire backstory centres around various grunge bands and the connections between their fans at shows in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the early 1990s. The book also dealt in depth with the difference in attitudes to music between that generation and Millennials, and how they relate to music in a profoundly different manner as consumers and fans. It also gave me the chance to cover songs by The Breeders, The Lemonheads and Teenage Fanclub at book festivals.

The same crossing of boundaries applies to my short stories. In 2011 I published a story in Gutter magazine called ‘Bloodier Than Blood’, the title of which is a stolen snippet of lyrics from the Americana band Wilco. When I attended the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2013, I was commissioned to write a short story based on a song from The Doors’ album L.A. Woman. Now, I can’t stand The Doors, so the result was ‘Mojo Falling’, a nasty revenge story which saw some priceless Doors memorabilia getting torched. When I read it at the festival there were gasps in the audience, not when the main character was murdered with a clawhammer, but when a valuable test-pressing of the album was set on fire.

It works the other way too. Back in those early Northern Alliance days, before I was a published author, I wrote a song called ‘Preston Falls’ based on one of my favourite novels by American author David Gates. Another song, ‘The Years the Locusts Ate’ was inspired by something I came across in George Mackay Brown’s memoir For the Islands I Sing. And so it goes on.

In terms of logistics, writing a novel and writing a song are very different things, at least they are for me. A novel takes a lot of planning and plotting, structural organisation, character development, background research and so on. When I write a song, it’s a much more mysterious and esoteric process. But, to my mind, the essential germ of the idea, the genesis of the creative process is the same: what do I find interesting or upsetting or scary or overwhelming at the moment, and how can I make something creative using that as an inspiration?

That might wind up being a three-minute rock song or a three-hundred-page novel. It might be a short story or a film script, or it might end up back in the ideas folder, waiting to be rediscovered. Because that’s something else I’ve realised, nothing is ever wasted when you have various avenues of creativity ahead of you. That snippet of overheard conversation, that newspaper clipping, that dumb pop song, that literary short story, that essay or biography or poem or travel guide that you read, one day that could be a story. Or a song. Or both.

Doug Johnstone has had nine novels published, most recently Fault Lines. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions, and he’s also an arts journalist and RLF Consultant Fellow. Doug is a musician with seven albums released in various bands.

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