Friday, 23 March 2018

Lev Butts Faces the Music

A few years ago, shortly after I joined Authors Electric, I agreed to write a guest post for one of our member's personal blog about using music when I write. I never did write that blog. I even forgot which member asked me (If you're reading this, whoever you are, I am sorry.)


It's not that I forgot to write the blog, or decided not to write it. I was looking forward to it. I even started it a couple of times. I just couldn't ever get it to really gel, and then it gradually sank into the background as life got in the way, never forgotten, always lurking right there on the edge of my attention, until it was too late to write the thing for its intended venue (even if I could remember what that venue was).

This month, however, I am at a loss for a topic for my post, and so I come back to the blog I should have written years ago.

Depends on how this post goes, really.
If memory (which is a fickle thing) serves, I was supposed to discuss my writing playlist. That is, I was supposed to discuss what songs I listen to when I write and why. I think that may have led to my difficulties in getting the piece to cohere because the answer to that depends on what I'm writing.

It's not that I don't have a playlist. I love listening to music as I write. It's good ambient noise that helps drown out other more distracting environmental noises: cars outside, dogs barking, children playing, your spouse asking you to fix, clean, or reach something, the neighbors being hit by a train, things like that.

"That's right, officer. He never heard the intruder. You see, he was writing."
As a kid, I used to even play music when I read books without distraction. In fact, almost every song played on the local top 40 station in the early to mid-eighties are permanently tied to whatever book I was reading when it was in heavy rotation: Starship's "We Built This City" will always remind me of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy. Tear for Fears' "Head Over Heels" and Prince's "When Doves Cry" evoke John Jake's North and South Trilogy.  Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time"? J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

"If you fall, I will catch you. I'll be waiting, Mr. Frodo."
I can't listen to music while I read anymore unless it's instrumental, but I still use playlists when I write. I just don't use one. You see when I'm writing, I use music not only to drown out distractions, but help set my mood.

So, for example, when I am working on Guns of the Waste Land, I listen to a good deal of Ennio Morricone and classic country music such as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, and Willie Nelson. I also listen to a good deal of contemporary and goth folk music, especially Brandi Carlile and Nick Cave (Brandy's "Raise Hell" and Nick Cave's "John Finn's Wife" are two of the best songs for getting into the minds of hardened gunslingers).

For Blame It on the Mistletoe, my hard-boiled noir retelling of the Norse Ragnarok myths, I listen to a good deal of old swing/crooners like Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Tony Bennett, as well as new acts such as The Squirrel Nut Zippers and a local Atlanta band from the 1990's, Donkey. In addition to setting the tone for writing about down-on-their-luck gumshoes and and cocksure gangsters, I find the lyrics often help me develop a slang for the characters that is at once modern and evocative of the hardboiled vernacular of the 1920's/30's pulp fiction.

I am currently also co-writing a werewolf novel with Brad Strickland that is set in the rural Georgia of the 1890's and based on a couple of my family's legends (I am, in fact, a distant cousin of this woman). For this book I listen to a lot of Tom Waits, especially the albums Swordfishtrombone, Rain Dogs, and Frank's Wild Years. There is something about the carnivalesque nature of Waits in general and these albums in particular that make writing about a teen-aged girl who believes she is a werewolf seem perfectly and utterly reasonable.

This song, especially, may as well be the heroine's theme.

Tom Waits' blues and gospel influences also help set the mood for writing about the protagonist of the novel, Jeremiah Moses Freeman, a middle-aged ex-slave street preacher. In fact, his song "Way Down in the Hole" has become a metaphor for Jeremiah's whole character.


For me, then, playlists serve two primary purposes: the most obvious is to help drown out the mundane noises of everyday life that might pull me out of my made-up worlds, but even more importantly, the playlist, when done well, serves as a semi-conscious inspiration for the work in progress.

Can I get an Amen?

2 comments:

Susan Price said...

Lev, I always used to listen to music as I wrote for pretty much exactly the same reasons as you give -- but I seem to have stopped just lately. Don't really know why.

Loved the account of Emily Isabella Burt. If you strip away the local details to leave: person injures attacking animal; later a lover/family member is discovered to have exactly the same injuries -- then you have a folk-tale which is widespread through England, Ireland and Scotland. (Probably Wales too, but I am sadly unfamiliar with the folklore of my father's father's people.)
I would be fascinated to know how and why this story became attached to Ms Burt -- but that's probably undiscoverable.

Leverett Butts said...

Brad and I are having fun with it, that’s for sure.

Also I’m always up for an excuse to listen to Tom Waits!