Music Inspired by Literature: From Cornwall to Småland | Part I

This morning, I’ve found myself thinking about the following quote by German theologian Albert Schweitzer, one which the Internet loves:

“There are two means of refuge from the misery of life — music and cats.”

I’m not sure if Schweitzer actually said this (somehow, there’s no citations anywhere), but that doesn’t necessarily matter. Either way, these are wise words, my friends.

As I was cuddling with my cat Vivi and listening to Tori Amos this morning, I was thinking about how hard-er this new norm (aka self-isolation–and really life in general–) would be if I didn’t have:

1) my cat 2) music and, of course, 3) books

Although I can certainly write pages about this trio (and I probably will soon), I want to focus on books and music right now. More specifically, music inspired by literature and literature inspired by music.

The rich connections between the two forms of expression have long received much attention. See: Bob Dylan Receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature; Musical encounters in novels such as High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (1995) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes (2009); the Journal Music & Literature, and more.

Now, I’m not an expert on the relationship between music and literature; I’m by no means a music critic, either. But I do love the myriad ways in which music enhances my reading experience.

I’m one of those who can’t focus and write with any music in the background. When it comes to reading with a playlist on, however, count me in! I particularly enjoy making playlists for the novels I’m reading. Sigur Rós pairs well with Margaret Atwood, for instance. I’m often drawn to Mercan Dede when I’m reading Elif Shafak. Or at times, I like to listen to Carla Bruni’s version of “I Felt My Life With Both My Hands” when I’m reading Emily Dickinson. And I know I’m not the only one.

In fact, novelist Anne Valente discusses how she creates a playlist for her own books:

I’ve created playlists for each book I’ve written to remember the patterns and rhythms, as well as the emotional tone of the sounds, that went into writing the words even if the songs that mean something to me never make it to the page. After I wrote my first novel, a friend asked whether I’d been listening to a lot of hip-hop while writing the book. I had been.

In Literary Hub

So, I wanted to come up with a mixtape of songs inspired by literature in a two part series. Part I and II will present songs and albums inspired by literature–some of my all-time favorites.

Without further ado, here are:

Five Songs (and an album) Inspired by Literature:

1-Leyla McCalla, “Song For a Dark Girl” from Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes (2014)

Leyla McCalla, Vari-Colored Songs

In her debut Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes (2014), the New Orleans-based artist Leyla McCalla revisits African American poet and activist Langston Hughes’s poem “Song For a Dark Girl” (1927). Her rendition is hauntingly beautiful.

McCalla’s album itself is a love letter to Langston Hughes, inspired by Hughes’s poetry, the Harlem Renaissance, as well as American jazz and traditional Creole and Haitian music.

In an interview, McCalla discusses the pivotal role Hughes’s poetry played in her development as an artist:

I grew up knowing about Langston Hughes. I think when I was about 16 or 17 my dad bought me a book of his poetry and actually wrote me a poem in the front of the book. And I loved his poems so much … and I just started to feel rhythmic connection to some of the poems and I just fell in love with his words.

Here’s McCalla’s rendition of Hughes’s poem “Song For a Dark Girl”:

2- Kate Bush, “Wuthering Heights” from The Kick Inside (1978)

“Wuthering Heights” Single Cover

Kate Bush’s tribute to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1947) is witty, eclectic, and a bit wild–just like Bush herself.

Bush wrote the song at the age of eighteen after seeing the last few minutes of BBC’s Wuthering Heights, which urged her to read the novel.

Bush’s version is from the protagonist Cathy’s perspective. When you listen to the song, you feel that Cathy becomes a part of Kate Bush herself. As she discusses in an interview:

When I first read Wuthering Heights I thought the story was so strong. This young girl in an era when the female role was so inferior and she was coming out with this passionate, heavy stuff. Great subject matter for a song. 

I loved writing it. It was a real challenge to precis the whole mood of a book into such a short piece of prose. Also when I was a child I was always called Cathy not Kate and I just found myself able to relate to her as a character. It’s so important to put yourself in the role of the person in a song. There’s no half measures. When I sing that song I am Cathy.

Here’s Bush’s dreamy “Wuthering Heights”:

3-Aimee Mann, “Ghost World” from Bachelor No. 2 (2000)

Bachelor No. 2

Aimee Mann’s song “Ghost World” was inspired by the cartoonist Dan Clowes’s graphic novel which bears the same title.

Ghost World (1997) charts its protagonists Enid and Rebecca’s transition into young adulthood. Whenever I listen to Mann’s rendition inspired by Enid and Rebecca’s adventures, I always imagine her joining the two characters. As the lyrics goes:

Finals blew
I barely knew my graduation speech
With college out of reach
If I don’t find a job it’s down to Dad and Myrtle Beach

So, I’m bailing this town
Or tearing it down
Or probably more like hanging around


4- Lusterlit, “Lost in Space” from Hopeful Monsters (2016)

Lusterlit

“Lost in Space” by Susan Hwang and Charlie Nieland, also known as the literary art-rock band Lusterlit, was inspired by Swedish writer Reidar Jönsson’s My Life as a Dog (1983). The novel follows the curious trajectory of its protagonist Ingemal in a small Swedish town, Småland, as he comes to term with his mother’s terminal illness.

Writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jane Austen, Chuck Palahniuk, Téa Obreht, and Jonathan Ames inspire Lusterlit’s songs.

In an interview, Nieland explains why the band is drawn to literature:

“I just want to capture the experience of reacting to the book. When that world opens up to me, I want to express it in the most immediate way. I feel like a translator or an alchemist. Sometimes I’m telling a story that runs parallel, using ideas or a phrase or even just a feel that I’m attracted to. Other times, it’s the whole story, and I’m running just to try and cut it down to a few verses and a chorus. My goal is to render that moment of connecting with something in the most visceral way possible.”

World Literature Today’s September 2018 issue on Music and Literature

Here’s “Lost in Space” by Lusterlit:

5- Carla Bruni, No Promises (2007)

Carla Bruni, No Promises

Carla Bruni‘s album No Promises is a delightful tribute to the art of poetry. Bruni reimagines eleven poems, including “Those Dancing Days Are Gone” by Yeats, Emily Dickinson’s “I Went to Heaven”, and Dorothy Parker’s “Ballade at Thirty-Five.”

Needless to say, all the adaptations in the album are a treat for those who love literature. In an interview, Bruni discusses how she decided to create the album:

I’ve been reading poetry since way back, but not necessarily the work of these particular poets. I was familiar with Shakespeare and Shelley, but I didn’t know much Yeats, apart from his most famous poem, of course… I find English and American poetry very hypnotic. Actually, I never set out with the intention of adapting poetry, but when I read the poems, something grabbed me. I knew I had to sing them!

Check out No Promises, you won’t regret it:

Carla Bruni, No Promises

6- Tori Amos, “Jamaica Inn” from Sleeps With Butterflies (2005)

Without a doubt, Tori Amos is not only a musician, but she is also a poet, a fierce force, and a goddess.

Sleeps With Butterflies, one of my favorite Tori albums, houses an underrated song “Jamaica Inn” inspired by British writer Daphne du Maurier‘s crime fiction, also titled Jamaica Inn (1936).

The title may sound familiar to you, since the novel was famously adapted for the screen by Hitchcock in 1939.

Jamaica Inn takes place in Cornwall, U.K. in 1820 and follows its protagonist Mary Yellan’s adventures at Jamaica Inn. The coaching inn, a real place built in 1750, was a meeting point for pirates, smugglers, and gangs of wreckers, as history tells us. (On that note, Jamaica Inn is still open today! )

The idea for the song “Jamaica Inn” came to Tori Amos when she was driving in Cornwall:

“and I pulled over on a cliff and I started to think about the story that I had been told by some of the locals where the wreckers would come in when a ship would run aground and take everything.

…The song waltzed into my passenger seat and as she sat down, she began to weave a tale of a modern love triangle.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer (2005)

She adds:

“When I was being told a bit of Cornish history I was fascinated with the stories of the wrecker. Wreckers did not bring accidental destruction upon a vessel. By holding up a light, wreckers gave ships the false signal that it was safe to come in. Daphne Du Maurier’s book Jamaica Inn goes into detail about the Cornish custom of wrecking.”

Amos further explains how the history of wreckers made her think about the modern-day notion of home-wrecking as she continued her drive along the coast:

“In my car I started to sing the chorus for the song ‘Jamaica Inn’ after seeing a small boat through the gales that I found myself in. After all, I was physically in the land of Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, which was a real place, as well as Rebecca, another one of her books that took place in Cornwall. I reference both of these books in the song because they are the antecedents. I still don’t know to this day if my character survives the shipwreck she is in.”

From Piece by Piece (2005)

Here’s the magic:

The sexiest thing is trust
I wake up to find
The pirates have come
Typing up along your coast
How was I to know
The pirates have come
Between Rebecca’s
Beneath your firmaments
I have worshiped
In the Jamaica Inn
In the Jamaica Inn


Lately, these songs have been playing on repeat in my house. If you’re “literary-minded,” it is difficult to resist such gifts. I call these songs magic elixirs; they are simultaneously soothing and rejuvenating.

There’s certainly more that I’d like to add to the list. But now I will make another cup of coffee, hit the re-play button, and enjoy the rain with my cat curled up next to me.

I’m sure Schweitzer would approve.

-Neri

Here’s little Vivi enjoying a good book.

If you have any favorite songs inspired by literature and books inspired by music, do let me know!

10 Comments

  1. Jamaica Inn!! I loved this song off this album and would listen to it over and over while solo travelling and walking through Montmatre in Paris in the springtime, what a great song! We are on the same page about many things it seems. Your amazing storytelling around the meaning of the song has given it a whole new meaning…thank you so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your comment makes me happy–thank you ❤ I love Tori, and Jamaica Inn is one of my favorites from The Beekeeper. The story makes it a lot more special ❤

      Like

  2. An incredible idea to pair music with books. Sigur Ros and Margaret Atwood…now that is a powerful pair! Two of my personal favs but I would never have put them together, but yes you are right, there is a resonance. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I have listened to the album Ágætis byrjun many times, and also recall how amazing The Blind Assassin was…it definitely does go with that book very well with the mood. Such a good idea for a post, it makes me recall other book/album pairings, I may do a post on this myself if you don’t mind.

        Liked by 1 person

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