Thursday, 3 March 2016
The Midland playlist
Well, I’m safely back in London having survived mice and fire and have a complete draft of Midland on my computer. It needs another pass I think but before I attempt that I’ve taken the opportunity to step back a bit, do some other work that’s been clamouring for attention, and have a think about things like the Midland playlist.
Writing a book over ten years and juggling it with a full-time job, young children and the general plethora of minor distractions that take up so much of our time is no easy task. One problem is just keeping it all in your head. The story evolved so much since I began and went through so many drafts, that remembering what I’d written and where I was in terms of the story dynamic was a major challenge when days, weeks or even months could slip by between writing sessions. But this technical issue was easier to deal with than the more subtle emotional one of quickly trying to recapture the precise mood I was trying to convey in a scene the last time I’d been working on it maybe a week or two previously. This difficulty was made more acute by the fact that I was often having to work in short bursts late at night or very early in the morning and so was tired and time-pressured before I even began.
One thing that really helped with all this was creating a playlist of tunes to go with the book. I originally got the idea from listening to the parallel movie soundtracks Pedro Almodóvar used to put out, the music not from the films themselves but that he was listening to when he wrote their scripts.
I started out with tracks that put me into an appropriate meditative and writerly mood, but over time I found and added tunes that really seemed to illustrate a particular strand, atmosphere or character, and which I could use to help me key into that feeling whenever I needed to. I must have listened to the songs on this list thousands of times over the past decade, and I’ve made a Spotify playlist so I can share them with you.
In theory it should pull into this page in the slot below, but if it doesn't work here’s the link:
The tracks are listed below with a line or two about what they meant to me in terms of Midland. There’s a couple that aren’t on Spotify; where I can I’ve offered a Spotify-available alternative. The Midland references won’t all be clear to you yet, but will become more so when you get your hands on the book. Over the next few weeks I plan to release a few advance excerpts here in the Shed which should help connect up the dots a bit. Please note, these excerpts will be exclusive to pledging supporters only! You’ll only be able to see them if you’ve signed up for an ebook at least...
Okay, so here’s the list.
Fyrsta - Ólafur Arnalds
I feel a bit like I was the first person to ever discover Ólafur Arnalds, but of course I was actually about the last, given that he wrote the music for Broadchurch (a series I still haven’t seen) before I ever came across him. But that’s the kind of very personal music he makes - he puts you right there in the room with him, and makes you feel that it’s just you and him and, a lot of the time, that it’s just you.
This piece opens of his album Living Room Songs, which he apparently knocked up in his living room in a week, hence the title (I think his living room has not yet been permanently annexed by rampaging children, like mine has). Fyrsta has the same poise and self-reflecting air of domestic isolation that I was striving to achieve throughout Midland; in many ways I was trying to write a book that left the reader feeling as this music makes me feel. Once I discovered it, quite late on, some way into year eight, I probably listened to it every single time I sat down to work on the book.
Whale - Harry Harris
Another latecomer to the Midland party, but one that like the Arnalds quickly dominate the project. I came across Harry Harris when I heard him play in the basement of a pub in Stoke Newington at a gig my daughter was also performing in (as part of the most excellent Hackney School of Folk). I was blown away by Harry’s voice, guitar-playing and songwriting prowess and the next day I dialled him up on Spotify. I couldn’t believe it when I found he’d written not one but two songs with the same titles as sections from Midland, which could indeed have almost been written specifically to go with my book.
I got in touch with him and asked if I could use Whale for my Unbound promo video, and thoroughly excellent bloke that he not only said yes but let me have it for free. I think you’ll agree it makes the video, and do go and listen to the full version on Spotify. Even better, sign up for the Midland pledge level that includes his wonderful album Songs About Other People CD, or pledge for tickets to the Midland launch party. Part of your pledge will be for Harry’s fee, because he’ll be playing live for us that night. It’s going to be a very special evening.
Dig Me A Hole - Dawn Landes
This lovely ballad could have been lifted from Joni Mitchell’s classic album Blue. Landes perfectly captures the particular melancholy of city living that can strike people that have moved there after a childhood spent in the countryside - I’ve experienced it myself many times. In Midland it always captured for me the moment when Caitlin, on a self-destructive cocaine binge following the death of her father, leans off a seventh floor balcony in East London and stares at the carpark below, imagining she can see a hole opening up in the patches of tarmac just waiting to swallow her up.
Überlin - R.E.M.
Strange one this. I’ve never been an R.E.M. fan and in fact I’d hardly listened to them until I came across this song. Initially it was the video that captured me, a slightly self-conscious concoction by Sam Taylor-Wood and her then boyfriend (now husband) Aaron Johnson in which she shoots him dancing through the streets around Brick Lane and Hackney Road, streets that I’d been tramping myself for twenty years or so and in which a few scenes from Midland are set (see Dig Me a Hole, above). Something about the dance just really got me. It’s so arsey in so many ways, but the way Johnson uses his body is incredibly compelling, at least I thought so. I watched it over and over, and by the time I eventually got bored of it the song had got firmly under my skin. It captures something essential about the “young man in the city” experience, reminds me of how I wanted life to be when I first came to London, and I ended using it as a touchstone for Emily’s early experiences in the capital as she tries to make her way as a journalist.
Theme from S-Express - S’Express
This song was part of the soundtrack to my life as an undergraduate, and features directly in Midland. It’s on a tape Alex plays to Caitlin the evening he tries to seduce her. The action takes place in 1989 and I needed a tune that amplified the both the sexual tension between them and the era in which the scene was taking place. This was it.
Flotsan n Jetsam - Laura Veirs [not on Spotify]
A quirky little tune this, and hard to track down; it’s not on Spotify, although plenty of other stuff by Laura Veirs is. I came across it on one of the Comes with a Smile collections from early 2000s and have loved it ever since (in fact there are three tracks on this play list from that collection, which probably reflects the fact that it came out in 2005 and I was listening to it a lot when I started writing the book in 2006).
The guitar work on Flotsan n Jetsam is particularly special. It’s a song that really reminds me of what it was like to be a teenager growing up in Warwickshire, all the pseudo-seriousness and self-conscious passion that sometimes spilled into real seriousness and passion when you least expected it, generally for reasons beyond your control. Waiting for life to begin, and not understanding that it already had. In Midland it’s very much the soundtrack to Matthew and Caitlin’s ill-starred love affair - both sides of it (I don’t want to give too much away here…)
Wild is the Wind - David Bowie
Oh don’t. Just don’t. Especially after the recent death of the Man Who Fell to Earth himself. I actually tried to learn to play this on the guitar when I was seventeen, which taught me pretty quickly that I couldn’t sing and I was never going to be able to play guitar. In contrast to most of the other ballads and love songs on this playlist this is hugely overwrought, massively lush, and speeds up absurdly as it draws to its ridiculous climax. Yet it is at the same time it is genuinely heart-rending and absolutely perfect - typical Bowie, managing to master the hyperbole and put it to work. It illustrates for me how Matthew sees his relationship with Caitlin, describing both the space of his emotions and the solipsism of that space, the sense that he’s in love less with her than with the idea of being in love with her. It’s a self-deception that will lead him to a very dark place.
Everything Ends in Spring - The American Analog Set
More bereft melancholia, lost love and nostalgia. Are you seeing a pattern here? This is another song that, like Fyrsta, captures the whole of Midland for me, a signpost to the overall feel of the book and the kind of story I wanted to write. Because this is what life is like, right?
Blooms Eventually - Pulseprogramming
I love this song. At the time in my life when I was experimenting with digital filmmaking I made several wedding videos for close friends, and I used this as the soundtrack for one of them. It helped me get into all the love relationships in the book, but the one I think it best relates to is that of Luggie and Bea, on their mission to build a life together in south America.
Dogs - Pink Floyd
Very different to everything else on the list, this. I was a huge Floyd fan when I was growing up, then didn’t listen to them for years, then started listening to them again (only with Roger Waters, ahem) when I started working on Midland, partly as a kind of guilty pleasure, partly because their music was so knitted into my teenage years in Warwickshire that I only had to put on Animals or Dark Side of the Moon (two of the first four albums I ever possessed, on C90 cassettes that a friend’s older sister taped for me) for every detail of that time to come flooding back. I can still smell the room in which I was given those tapes as I write this, still feel the hard plastic cases and see their handwritten track lists.
I chose Dogs for the playlist because I wanted something that captured the much harder strand of business and money that runs through Midland. In fact I’d say that money and debt are the book’s real themes, not love at all, which flies in the face somewhat of the music that makes up the majority of the tracks on this list. All my books have been about technology in some way, and the technology in this one is finance. Dogs for me communicates the nature of that world - the world of Tony Nolan, Alex and in particular Alex’s amoral banker pal Freddie Winston - or at least the nature of it as seen through teenage eyes.
Ease Down the Road - Bonnie “Prince” Billy [not on Spotify]
The “Prince” is too cool to put his stuff on Spotify (his beard doesn’t stream properly), and so you’re just gonna have to get this some other way. Over the past decade or so I’ve started to really like “story songs”, and found myself listening to more and more folk and country as a result. Bonnie “Prince” Billy is a modern master of the form and I’m a big fan, though I saw him once in concert and he was absolutely terrible, really boring and uninvolved, which was weird. Maybe he was just being cool. I think he spends a lot of time being cool.
Anyway this song, with it’s spikey little tale of sexual betrayal, really belonged to an earlier incarnation of Midland, when outright infidelity formed the core of the plot. That changed in the end, but this song continued to resonate, maybe because it communicates to me something about the way Matthew feels about the actions of his brother, Alex.
There is a Light That Never Goes Out - The Smiths
Another song that’s directly referenced in the book. Matthew listens to it before going on his big date with Caitlin, because Matthew would, wouldn’t he? That’s the kind of teen he is. There’s also a harsh dramatic irony hidden within the song’s lyric, but you’ll just have to wait till you read the book to find out what that is...
O Mio Babbino Caro - Gianni Schicchi
Tacky I know but what the fuck. Puccini was a genius, this was his peak, it has good claim to be the greatest song ever written (a stupid competition I know), so why shouldn’t it inspire me? It’s probably the record I’d save for the desert island if I could only save one, and it is for me the moment when Caitlin is alone in the dining room with her father’s body. The little aria I’ve written for her isn’t a patch on Puccini’s, but I can’t read the damn thing out loud without welling up, as I did a couple of years ago on stage at the Port Eliot Festival. I hope it does the same for you when you get to it.
I really like the Magda Kalmár performance, which I have on CD, but couldn’t find it on Spotify so I’ve listed this Mirella Frenl version instead, also lovely.
Stag - Harry Harris
Number two by Dalston’s greatest living singer-songwriter, and although it describes a very different kind of encounter with a stag than the one that Matthew has, it still helped bring that section of the book alive for me. I stole a line from it too, Mr Harris’s description of the stag being “the colour of bonfires”, and put it in my text and then riffed off it a bit. Apologies Harry. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say...
We Never Change - Coldplay
Annoying though Chris Martin undoubtedly is, he has written some great songs (as well as a larger number of extremely turgid ones). This to my mind is in the former category, and tells me about my characters when they’re in the twenties, still full of hope and excitement about the pure possibility of life and relationships, still high on the idea that it’s all going to be so straightforward and simple. What’s so good about the song is the way in which the same words that express that hope and simplicity at its start are, by its end, undermining themselves, as the singer becomes aware that they’ve become hollow but repeats them anyway, unable to let what they represent go even though he knows the idealistic dream they describe is just that - an idealistic dream.
The Beach - Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
The Beach is taken from Cave and Ellis’s soundtrack to the film of Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road, surely one of the most depressing books ever written, and not my favourite of his novels. But the book and the film aren’t a reference for me here. It’s the title of this track and its elegiac tone that got it onto my playlist. For me it speaks of the beach in Brazil where Caitlin seeks but does not find her lost half-brother, as well as the South American section of the book in general.
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face - Maria Taylor [not on Spotify]
Countless versions of this extraordinary love ballad have been recorded; many of them are on Spotify; nearly all of them destroy the song through over orchestration. It’s like pouring warm water on a snowflake - the delicate beauty of the lyric immediately disintegrates and you’re left with nothing at all. Maria Taylor’s version is totally stripped down and minimal, and all the more powerful for it. The nearest I could find on Spotify was this one by Alice Groves, which is very similar and not half bad, though she still milks it a bit - totally unnecessarily, as the words do all the work.
Why did I choose this? Because it’s the ultimate love song, really, and while there are several love stories in Midland, for me this song captured the emotional spark at the heart of the two that really drive the plot. Like the Puccini it’s an obvious choice when you’re looking for something to strike an emotional chord. But like the Puccini it’s obvious for a reason - the reason being that it’s a masterpiece.
And that’s it. I hope you enjoy listening to these as much as I have, and I hope too they’ve whetted your appetite for Midland when it eventually arrives.