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Thursday, 14 February 2019

WRITERS ON WRITING #117: Jennifer Egan


When I’m writing fiction I forget who I am and what I come from.  I slip into utter absorption mode.  I love the sense that I’ve become so engaged with the other side, I’ve slightly lost my bearings here.  If I’m going from the writing mind-set to picking my kids up from school, I often feel a very short but acute kind of depression, as if I have the bends.  Once I’m with them it totally disappears, and I feel happy again.  Sometimes I forget I have children, which is very strange.  I feel guilty about it, as if my inattention will cause something to happen to them, even when I’m not responsible for them…

Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (2013)


Click HERE to visit the website of US novelist and journalist JENNIFER EGAN.

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WRITERS ON WRITING #107: Felicia Mihali
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Saturday, 2 February 2019

WORDS FOR THE MUSIC #14: David McComb


DAVID McCOMB 
17 February 1962 – 2 February 1999



A TRICK OF THE LIGHT
THE TRIFFIDS
from the 1987 White/Hot + Island Records LP Calenture





A TRICK OF THE LIGHT


I have a letter, familiar paper
I keep a figurine in a locket
It's dedicated, engraved initials
Yellow photograph in a pocketbook
Well the rim of her mouth was golden
Her eyes were just desert sands

But that's not her
That's just the light
It's only an image of her
It's just a trick of the light

She sent me letters, gave me directions
Name of the street where I should turn
And then she stood out front, wrapped in her bath towel
Yelling 'Once you leave, boy, you can't return'
The rim of her mouth was golden
Her eyes were just desert sands

Ah but that's not her (That's not her)
That's just the light (Just the light)
It's only an image of her
It's just a trick of the light

See I was beating on her like an anvil
Beating her out of original shape 
With the same old panic caught on her face
I copied the image of the ancient embrace

Now you remind me very much
Of someone that I used to know
We used to take turns in crying all night
Oh but that was so long ago now
The rim of her mouth was golden
Her eyes were just desert sands

But that's not her (That's not her)
That's just the light (Just the light)
It's only an image of her
It's just a trick of the light
No no no no no
That's not her (That's not her)
That's just the light (Just the light)
It's only an image of her
And it's just a trick of the light



Lyrics and music © 1987 David McComb & 'Evil' Graham Lee 





The Songwriter:  The middle years of the 1980s were an exciting time for Australian independent music, with many of its most talented and soon-to-be iconic artists –– The Go-Betweens, Ed Kuepper, Died Pretty, The Saints and Nick Cave to name but a few –– beginning to gain recognition not just at home but internationally as well.  A country which had for so long viewed itself as a forgotten cultural backwater was suddenly producing music that was as intelligent, dynamic and compelling as anything being released in the US, the UK or Europe.  

No act was more deserving of the world's attention than The Triffids, a band whose lead singer and lyricist David McComb was writing songs that were as genuinely poetic as they were uniquely atmospheric.  McComb's music achieved the rare feat of being romantic in the way that all the most memorable pop songs are romantic while simultaneously evoking the remote desert landscapes of his boyhood home in Western Australia without once resorting to the inane 'sunburnt country' clichés so beloved of the tourism industry and certain Hollywood-backed big budget filmmakers.  McComb created his own image-based musical vocabulary, one that owed much of its melancholic power to the place in which he was born and the impact that being geographically isolated from the rest of the country had on him as both a musician and as a storyteller.  Unfortunately he became an alcoholic and a heroin addict, the former condition causing him to develop a serious heart ailment known as cardiomyopathy which saw him undergo a heart transplant in 1996 and, after failing to curb his drug and alcohol intake, die on 2 February 1999 at the age of thirty-six.

I find it difficult to describe the impact that hearing A Trick of the Light had on me when it was originally released in 1988.  (It was the second single drawn from The Triffids' fourth 1987 studio album Calenture.)  I was immediately struck by its imagery, particularly by its frequently repeated tag lines 'The rim of her mouth was golden /  Her eyes were just desert sands' which seemed, to the tyro songwriter of limited ability but no small ambition I was in those days, to be poetic in the truest (as opposed to adolescently pretentious) sense of the word.  To this day I can't hear the song without re-experiencing that same peculiar frisson of admiration mixed with envy that I experienced when I first heard it on 2JJJ more than thirty years ago. 

There are many lyrical delights to be found in A Trick of the Light.  Consider the middle eight which seems to hint at domestic violence when McComb is probably describing his narrator's attempt to impose some kind of emotional transformation on his temperamental, now lost lover: 

See I was beating on her like an anvil
Beating her out of original shape 
With the same old panic caught on her face
I copied the image of the ancient embrace

These four lines transform the entire meaning of the song, shedding unexpected light on the passionate but ultimately doomed relationship it so hauntingly describes.  The final line, of course, is a small act of genius:  I copied the image of the ancient embrace.  A line like that is very far removed from anything you'll find in (I've Had) The Time of My Life, Australia's most popular song of 1988 according to the ARIA End of Year Singles Chart.  And that's because McComb's word and image choices were never those of an uninspired, cliché-reliant tunesmith.  If you accept the definition of poetry as the manipulation of language to produce a heightened state of emotion, then A Trick of the Light is as poetic as pop music can ever hope to become without crossing the vaguely defined line that transforms it into chanson, lieder or some other type of 'art song.'

The internet offers many people –– the majority of them, I suspect, of my vintage or older –– a forum in which to express their shock at the fact that an artist as gifted as David McComb never became the international megastar he so clearly deserved to become.  I find comments of this nature disappointing and more than a little ingenuous, given that the primary function of the music industry –– as any halfway honest A&R Executive will tell you –– is to make as much money as possible by reducing 'love' and its vicissitudes to tuneful, easily digested nuggets which can be swallowed whole in one sitting by the maximum number of people.  Not only is quality not a prerequisite when it comes to cranking out hits, it can actually be a drawback in an industry which strives to reduce the act of music-making to a slick commercial process in which uniformity of style and expression is paramount and the golden rule is that songwriters should never try to be too clever, particularly in their use (or all too frequent misuse) of language.  That's why we have (or used to have) independent record labels –– so that artists of the calibre of David McComb can be discovered and celebrated by audiences that expect more from the music they listen to than the same tired old formulas endlessly repeated. 

Today is a sad day not just for Australian music but for music in general.  There's no telling to what heights of poetic magnificence David McComb might have climbed had he been able to conquer his demons before they cost him his life and robbed the rest of us of what, by any standards, was a truly remarkable talent.

Click HERE to visit the official website of THE TRIFFIDS which contains a wealth of information about its founder and lead singer DAVID McCOMB, including many samples of his music and his equally interesting poetry and prose.  You can also click HERE to view many music clips featuring DAVID McCOMB and THE TRIFFIDS on YouTube.

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Thursday, 24 January 2019

THINK ABOUT IT #43: Karen Horney


The individual is told by society that he is free, independent, can decide his life according to his own free will; 'the great game of life' is open to him, and he can get what he wants if he is efficient and energetic.  In actual fact, for the majority of people all these possibilities are limited… The result for the individual is a wavering between a feeling of boundless power in determining his own fate and a feeling of entire helplessness.

The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (1937)


Click HERE to read a brief biography of German born US psychologist KAREN HORNEY (pronounced 'Hor-ney' to rhyme with 'door-way').

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Thursday, 17 January 2019

WORDS FOR THE MUSIC #13: Juliana Hatfield


JULIANA HATFIELD


LOST SHIP
JULIANA HATFIELD
from the 2019 American Laundromat Records LP Weird





LOST SHIP


Unidentified flying object
Hovering over the Harvard projects
If this were real I would be ready
Waiting out on my balcony

Take me away from here
I'm stuck for good, I fear
I can't move, I can't change
It's too late

I wanna ride on the spaceship in my mind
And transcend emotion
Close the door, kill the lights
Lie back and fly so low across my own private ocean

No tenuous intimacies
I'm weightless, airtight and empty
I just wanna be where I want to be
I wanna see what I wanna see

No love, no money
No hate, no jealousy
No one has any power over me
I get back on the solitary plane

I wanna ride on the spaceship in my mind
And transcend emotion
Close the door, kill the lights
Lie down and fly so low across my own private ocean

I wanna ride on the spaceship in my mind
And transcend emotion
Close the door, kill the lights
Lie down and dive into my own private ocean

Oh I've been hurt too many times
Too many bad situations
Close the door, kill the lights
Lie back and fly…


Lyrics and music © 2018 Juliana Hatfield





The Songwriter:  The following biographical statement by STEPHEN THOMAS ERLEWINE appears on the AllMusic website.  [It is re-posted here for information purposes only and, like the poem re-posted above, remains its author's exclusive copyright-protected intellectual property.]

After Juliana Hatfield disbanded the jangle pop trio the Blake Babies in 1990, she launched a solo career, performing similarly melodic indie guitar pop. Singing in an endearingly thin voice, Hatfield married her ringing hooks to sweet, lovelorn pop and startlingly honest confessional songs. Her 1992 solo debut, Hey Babe, became a college radio hit, and its follow-up, 1994's Become What You Are, was primed to become a crossover success in the wake of the commercialization of alternative rock. Although Hatfield had a handful of modern rock hits, including Spin the Bottle, she never managed to gain the mainstream audience of peers like the Lemonheads, and by the late '90s, she had settled into her cult following.

Hatfield was raised in an upper-middle class home in Massachusetts; her father was a doctor and her mother was a fashion editor for The Boston Globe. As a child, she learned how to play piano, and during high school, she played guitar in a covers group called the Squids before discovering alternative rock through the Velvet Underground. Following high school, she attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she studied voice. While at Berklee, she met guitarist John Strohm and drummer Freda Boner, with whom she formed the Blake Babies in 1986. Over the next six years, the Blake Babies and their charming jangle pop became college radio favorites. Hatfield left the band in 1990, and Strohm and Boner formed Antenna.

Immediately following her departure from the Blake Babies, Hatfield contributed several lyrics to Susanna Hoffs' debut album. The following year, she played bass on the Lemonheads' It's a Shame About Ray, which turned out to be the band's commercial breakthrough. The success of It's a Shame About Ray in 1992 stirred interest in Hatfield's solo debut, Hey Babe. Released on Mammoth Records, the album was very similar to the Blake Babies, yet the songs were more personal and confessional. Hey Babe was critically praised and became a college radio and MTV hit, leading to a major-label contract for Hatfield with Atlantic.

In 1992, Hatfield formed the Juliana Hatfield Three with bassist Dean Fisher and drummer Todd Phillips, and the group recorded its debut for Atlantic with REM's producer Scott Litt. As she worked on the record, Hatfield became a minor media sensation; her songs were accepted as friendly, more accessible distillations of the feminist alternative rock movement known as riot grrrl. Hatfield appeared in fashion layouts in Vogue and Sassy, and she became the subject of gossipy tidbits about her speculated romance with Lemonhead Evan Dando and her assertion that she was still a virgin at the age of 25. In light of such exposure, many observers expected her 1993 album Become What You Are to be her mainstream breakthrough. A heavier record than its predecessor, Become What You Are was a moderate hit, as My Sister and Spin the Bottle earned heavy airplay on MTV and modern rock radio. Nevertheless, the album failed to make her a star. Only Everything followed in the spring of 1995 as alternative rock was beginning to decline in popularity. The album was received with mixed reviews, and only Universal Heartbeat managed to make much headway on radio or MTV, causing the album to slip down the charts quickly. Hatfield returned in 1997 with the EP Please Do Not Disturb, followed a year later by the full-length Bed. Spring 2000 was a busy time for Hatfield; she released the quiet, reflective solo album Beautiful Creature and Total System Failure, a collection of louder, poppier material, on the same day. Total System Failure featured Hatfield, former Weezer bassist Mike Welsh, and drummer Zephan Courtney as a new band, Juliana's Pony, which was a trio along the lines of the Juliana Hatfield Three.

Hatfield's next project was a return to one of her first: she reunited with Freda Love and John Strohm in 2000, launching a Blake Babies tour and recording an album entitled God Bless the Blake Babies. The reunion was short-lived, but Hatfield and Love continued to work together in a group called Some Girls, which also featured Heidi Gluck (the Pieces). Some Girls put out the Feel It LP in 2002 and also did a moderate amount of touring. After that, it was back to the solo game for Hatfield. 2004's In Exile Deo was a bit of a surprise, however, since after all her restlessness it was easily one of her strongest, most mature albums to date. That mature streak continued with 2005's Made in China, a raw and direct effort that she produced herself and put out through her own Ye Olde imprint, as well as the Sittin' in a Tree... EP, which was recorded alongside the Boston-based alt-country band Frank Smith. A collection of live tracks called The White Broken Line: Live Recordings followed, and 2008 saw the release of two Hatfield products: first, a solo album entitled How I Walk Away, and second, an autobiography detailing her highs and lows throughout multiple decades of music-making.

In 2010 Hatfield released another solo album, the self-produced Peace & Love, through her Ye Olde imprint. For her next album, she reached out to her fans, crowd-sourcing the funding for the album through the website Pledge Music and giving a portion of the money donated by fans to a pair of animal shelters. The album, There's Always Another Girl, arrived in 2011. Two other Pledge Music-funded albums followed in the next two years –– an eponymous covers album in 2012 and Wild Animals in 2013 –– before she joined with Matthew Caws of Nada Surf for a duo called Minor Alps. After this project, she reunited the Juliana Hatfield Three to record Whatever, My Love, the trio's first album in 22 years. Whatever, My Love came out in February 2015. After taking a detour to collaborate with Paul Westerberg in the I Don't Cares in 2016, Hatfield returned in 2017 with the politically charged Pussycat.

Early in 2018, Hatfield paid tribute to Olivia Newton-John –– the first pop star she ever loved –– via the album Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John

Consistency, as any songwriter will tell you, can be a difficult thing to achieve in an industry dominated by money, fashion and the glorification of everything that is evanescent, ephemeral and frequently ridiculous.  For more than three decades, Juliana Hatfield has been writing and releasing songs remarkable for their blending of her classic pop/post-punk sound and her uncompromising commitment to telling the truth about her times by telling the truth about herself.

Her new album Weird is no exception.  It reflects her decision to withdraw from a world that's becoming crueler, more intolerant and harder to live in with each passing day.  But Hatfield's decision should not be viewed as an act of evasion or defeat.  Rather, it's an attempt to assert her independence as a human being and as an artist and show people that it's okay to disengage and be alone, that to retreat from the noise and hype is not necessarily to retreat from life but instead to rediscover it via small pleasures enjoyed and reflected upon in solitude.  Weird is a brave work of art and, like everything Juliana Hatfield does, a tuneful, memorable and refreshingly honest one.


Drawing by JULIANA HATFIELD
 


Click HERE to visit the website of US songwriter, musician and visual artist JULIANA HATFIELD and HERE to visit her Etsy website which features purchasable samples of her original and often fascinating artwork.  Weird, her seventeenth solo album, will be released by American Laundromat Records on 18 January 2019.


American Laundromat Records, 2019


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Thursday, 10 January 2019

WRITERS ON WRITING #116: David Mitchell


Words like inspiration and creativity I’m really rather suspicious of, though I can’t talk about my work for more than thirty seconds without deploying them myself.  Sometimes I think that creativity is a matter of seeing, or stumbling over, unobvious similarities between things — like composing a fresh metaphor, but on a more complex scale.  One night in Hiroshima it occurred to me that the moon behind a certain cloud formation looked very like a painkiller dissolving in a glass of water.  I didn’t work toward that simile, it was simply there: I was mugged, as it were, by the similarity between these two very different things.  Literary composition can be a similar process.  The writer’s real world and the writer’s fictional world are compared, and these comparisons turned into text.  But other times literary composition can be a plain old slog, and nothing to do with zones or inspiration.  It’s world making and the peopling of those worlds, complete with time lines and heartache.

The Art of Fiction #204 [The Paris Review #193, Summer 2010]


Click HERE to visit the website of British novelist DAVID MITCHELL, bestselling author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks.  You can also click HERE to read part of the original 2010 interview with him conducted by ADAM BEGLEY posted in the online archive of The Paris Review.

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