Singing their stories
Songwriters are among the most prolific and best-known storytellers in the world. They tell tales of love, of heartbreak, of exciting and dangerous worlds. What is more, we fall for it time and time again, memorising their lines and picturing the scenes set in our favourite lyrics. It may seem surprising that more songwriters have not matured into purveyors of hard-copy fiction. Perhaps they have been put off by the experience of Bob Dylan. He may be widely regarded as one of the greatest songwriters of all time - who can forget the searing sorrow of Like a Rolling Stone - but his novel Tarantula was laughably poor. So poor, in fact, that Dylan pretended that it "was never his intention to write a novel". However, now a number of musicians are lining up to write the kind of stories that just do not fit the four-minute pop song format.
Take the clamour surrounding the September release of Nick Cave's latest work. It isn't because of a new record, but his first novel in 20 years - The Death of Bunny Munro. Meanwhile, the American singer Joe Pernice has for the past 20 years made his name as a writer of sensitive indie rock with The Pernice Brothers. But this month It Feels So Good When I Stop, his slacker love story with an accompanying soundtrack, was also published.
There exists a certain similarity between Pernice's breezy three-minute songwriting and his debut novel and obvious links between the two in terms of content as well: the narrator is a talented but floundering musician who is forced to wait tables to make ends meet. Still, for Pernice novel writing is more than penning a hugely extended set of lyrics. "It was pretty hard to do," he says. "I've spent my life writing songs, and I've always liked the crafting of words and sentences and thinking about the ways people talk to one another. I was certainly drawn to writing a book, but you have to exercise a much greater degree of discipline than you would if you were writing a song."
It transpires that, like any writer, Pernice would sit in a comfortable chair at a desk, from 10.00am until 2.00pm and type. Perhaps such discipline wasn't surprising: he studied creative writing at the University of Massachusetts. But this was a process that, day in, day out, he forced himself to commit to as he created his protagonist - a loveable rogue who runs out of a day-old marriage and finds himself stuck between responsibility and freedom when he has to look after his two-year-old nephew. With the best will in the world, pop songs are rarely that involved.
"You know, writing music is pretty much fun from the get-go," says Pernice. "Banging on a guitar has an instant, positive payback. Singing feels good. Tapping on a keyboard does not. Once I finish a song - this could take anywhere from an hour to a couple of one-hour sessions - it's over for me. I rarely think about that song again until it's time to record it. I move on to the next one. But the book was on my mind non-stop for almost a year. It's strange sharing your head with nonexistent characters for almost a year - but I recommend it."
He's not the only musician to recommend it. Willy Vlautin, as the frontman for the country rockers Richmond Fontaine, is perhaps the songwriter who kicked off this renewed interest in the novel format for musicians. The band's songs have, over a 15-year period, been highly regarded as literate tales of the lost and lonely - usually against the backdrop of a desolate America. And in an odd way, it took Vlautin's debut novel in 2006, This Motel Life, for his band to really break through. The story of two down-and-out brothers from Reno, Nevada - one of whom accidentally kills someone and struggles to live with the consequences - found Vlautin suddenly compared to such 20th-century American fiction greats as Raymond Carver and Charles Bukowski. With the follow up, Northline, and the release of a new record, We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River, with Richmond Fontaine, it's difficult to tell where the writer begins and the musician ends.
"Well, my songs and stories are interconnected," Vlautin says. "They all live on the same block and most of the time the heart is the same. I want the listener to disappear into a song, into the world of it. And I want the same thing for the novels. I want the reader to forget that it's a novel. I want them to fall into it like a movie. So for me they're very similar. They both take craft, the lucky thing for me is when I write songs I can bring them to the guys in Richmond Fontaine. I can't say enough about how great those guys are."
The connections between the page and the CD extend to song titles and characters appearing in both formats. Vlautin's body of work explores life on the margins of America. Neither the music music nor the novel are simply side projects to the other. This was confirmed with Northline - the initial run came with a beautifully-crafted instrumental soundtrack to play at key moments. Now both Pernice and Cave are also releasing soundtracks with their new books. Pernice's is a collection of reflective covers, and Cave's is a collection of new work composed with his band mate from The Bad Seeds Warren Ellis.
"That book just about killed me," laughs Vlautin of Northline. "It was a very personal story for me, so it wrecked my head - and when that happens I always play guitar. Out of that came a series of small instrumentals. I've always been a fan of soundtracks and instrumental music and a particular influence was the soundtrack to the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas. I hadn't seen the movie in years but I used to listen to the soundtrack all the time and so the story stayed alive with me: that was definitely the intention with Northline."
Pernice agrees that the mere mention of a song can have a power all of its own, which is why he purposefully placed tracks at key moments of his novel. "The way we all attach particular significance to songs that have soundtracked parts of our lives has a real power, don't you think? So that's why I had songs by Del Shannon (Go to Pieces) and Todd Rundgren (Hello It's Me) mentioned in the book. And though the book isn't explicitly about music, about half way through I realised it would be a cool idea for me to record some of them."
The CD is not something to take hugely seriously. There's also a cover of Chim Chim Cheree from the movie Mary Poppins, after all. But just as the unnamed narrator is flawed but likeable, so is the soundtrack. It is no surprise that the British author Nick Hornby has been waxing lyrical about Pernice's debut; there is something of High Fidelity in the way his hero is a commitment-phobe who finds himself at the centre of an unlikely love story. It's not a coincidence that in America, they're being published by the same company.
"I wasn't thinking about High Fidelity, but I do certainly appreciate Nick Hornby's books a lot, as well as his kind words regarding my writing and records!" laughs Pernice. "Seriously though, High Fidelity changed the culture of writing about music in a way. That's no small accomplishment. And because of its popularity, any novel with multiple references to popular music is going to be compared to it."
And if the image of the tortured musician/record collector/football fan is one that Hornby has explored with considerable success, one wonders what he would have been like if he had begun his career as a songwriter. "Writing a good novel takes a longer sustained effort. Nothing against musicians, but I've known plenty, my old self included, who'd rather stay up late and then wake up at two in the afternoon and strum a guitar," says Pernice. "From my experience, if that's your lifestyle, you have a better chance of knocking out a decent song than a decent novel."
"It's hard to do either well," adds Vlautin, who is just putting the finishing touches to his third novel, Lean on Pete, the story of a troubled kid who ends up working at a low-level horseracing track in Portland, Oregon. "Both take a lot of work. I try to write my songs with blood, with heart. I only write songs when my life is more of a wreck. With stories you have to pull yourself together, because when you write you have to put in the hours. It's disciplined. I like that about it. I go running and stay away from the bars when I'm writing."
For both Pernice and Vlautin, writing songs and novels is easy, but writing really good ones is what drives them. For them, this isn't a break from recording records and touring, but a way of expressing themselves that is not always possible in music. ? It Feels So Good When I Stop by Joe Pernice (Riverhead) is out now. The soundtrack CD follows on September 7 (One Little Indian). We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River by Richmond Fontaine (Decor) is out now. Willy Vlautin's next book, Lean on Pete, follows in the new year.