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September 23, 2011

Singer-songwriter Clare Burson Interviews Author Anna Solomon

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Clare Burson is a singer-songwriter whose latest album is Silver and Ash.

Anna Solomon is an author, her debut novel The Little Bride was published earlier this month.

Clare Burson and Anna Solomon collaborated on several songs inspired by Solomon's novel.

Singer-songwriter Clare Burson interviews author Anna Solomon :

Clare Burson: I've known about The Little Bride for a while now.  I know we talked about it (and I was hooked) at the wedding where we first met.  And remember dinner at your house when we were discussing cover art?  Me for my album and you for your book?  So much anxiety wrapped up in the many little decisions that lead up to a release...

Anyway, I think we also talked about some sort of collaboration that night, though at the time, we didn't know the when/ how/ what form it would take. I was so hoping that you would ask me to be involved with your novel in some form ... and then you did!  Lucky me!

But what exactly did you have in mind when you asked me to write a song inspired by The Little Bride?  What were you expecting?  Hoping for?

Anna Solomon: I do remember that dinner. I also remember that we went out to dinner a couple months later, just you and me, to discuss possibly collaborating. Still, we had no idea what we could collaborate about. You came with your Lactaid pills, which made me like you even more.

There was a long pause before I came knocking about a possible song.

Honestly, my main hope at first was that you'd say yes, and that it would be a great addition to my book party. It felt like publicity mostly - a way to spice up the evening.

Then you were really excited about the idea and within hours of reading the book, you'd written a song. And you wanted to write more. I was thrilled. Maybe somewhere in the back of my mind I'd kind of been hoping you'd want to take it further, but I never would have asked and I wouldn't have assumed. Who has time to work on someone else's stuff, you know?

But that's the thing. This project has become our stuff, our mess. First we were talking about songs and readings and then we realized that the songs needed to be part of the readings and vice-versa. So we embarked on a whole different level of performance. And I remember you saying at some point early on, so how big do you want to go with this? And I wondered, before I answered, if you'd be scared by my answer. I said, well, I could go kind of big. And you said, yeah, me, too. That was a good moment.

What I definitely didn't expect was that I'd learn so much in the process. It's been challenging, pushing me to extend my writer-self into a performer-self, a producer-self, an inventor-self. I’ve loved inventing this work as we go. What form will it take? What does it mean to bring story and song together? How do we make the different parts cohere? How important is it that the piece have a narrative arc? What do the musical scores do to the words and what do the words to the music? Are the songs literally about the sections of the book that inspired them, or are they themselves interpretations/extensions?

But probably the best thing about this whole process is that it's changed my own relationship to my book. The first song you sent me, "The Morning You Left," I listened to it, and then listened again, and as I began to really hear it, I started to cry. I felt my character's sorrow - her deep, primal missing of her mother - more than I ever had while I was writing the book. I keep myself kind of separate from my characters as I write - at least separate enough so that I can write them, and not be them. But hearing the music, not just the lyrics but the emotion in the music, floored me. It kind of broke open a new path for me to experience my own work, almost as if it wasn't my own. What a gift.

What about you? I mean, you're a busy woman. Where were you at in your own process that you decided to say yes to writing a song? And I guess along with that, what is your process like? Do songs come to you whole, subject and music and lyrics all together? Do you have to go searching for the pieces? How does Clare Burson write a song?

Clare Burson: When you sent the email asking me to consider writing a song inspired by your book, I was actually at a crossroads of sorts.  My last album, Silver and Ash, was in many ways a lifetime in the making.  Four lifetimes, in fact.  It is a concept album exploring my maternal grandmother's immigration to the USA from Germany in 1938.  When it was completed, I definitely felt a sense of loss, primarily of direction and inspiration.  I felt totally unmoored in terms of what to do next artistically.
So when you basically handed me a project I could sink my teeth into, I was elated.  A story was there already.  I didn't have to create it, and to sweeten the deal, the themes covered in The Little Bride resonate deeply with the themes I explored in Silver and Ash.

I was fairly confident that I could write a few songs, and when I did, it became clear that there was the possibility of creating something quite special in terms of a performance piece.  But - and this is a big but - I was nervous venturing into something more ambitious with you, since I am absolutely not a collaborator by nature.  I like to think of myself as a lone wolf of sorts.  Well, more like a lone hedgehog or something . . .  I lived in Nashville for 4 years as a songwriter.  I tried to co-write, but I couldn't do it.  I would sit in a room with another writer - usually someone I knew well, respected, and genuinely liked - and I would totally freeze.  It felt artificial and totally uncomfortable.  I was bashful and insecure.

This probably has something to do with how I write.  For me, it's a completely visceral experience - and a vulnerable one.  I can't have any walls up if I want to write a half-way decent song.  A good song will start with an intense feeling - longing is a good one - and then bloom as I'm strumming chords on the guitar.  A melody will spill out.  Nonsense words follow.  Before I know it, real lyrics magically form out of the nonsense, and a song takes shape.  The fact that you gave me complete freedom to respond to your novel in my own way was perfect.  I was able to experience it, be moved by it, and then let songs grow out of that.  I guess in this regard, it was a mediated collaboration, but it worked for me.

In terms of the performance, though, that really has been a full-on collaboration, and I've been so surprised at how easy and fun it has been.  We certainly benefit from that fact that though I dream of writing a novel one day, I am not a novelist/ short story writer.  And you, though blessed with a beautiful voice, are not pursuing a career as a singer-songwriter.  We've talked about how that frees us up to be 100% supportive of each other and render critique in a way that is productive and not undermining in the least.

But back to you.  Clearly emotion is at the core of my writing process.  Because of that, I remember being quite surprised when you told me that my song had made you feel your protagonist's struggles to a degree that you hadn't before.  If you work to keep yourself separate from your characters as you write, how do you access the empathy and compassion that makes this book so compelling?  Your novel has so much feeling.  The emotional depth is palpable in your descriptions, in the dialogue, in the action.  How does the emotionally visceral factor into your writing process?

Anna Solomon: The short answer (to all these questions) is: I don't really know. But I'm very curious. I mean, along with my writing itself being emotionally charged, I'm also a very emotionally charged person. I'm very sensitive, very quick to excitement, anger, sadness, frustration. I've never been able not to cry if I feel like crying.

Yet it's true, that when I'm writing, even when I'm writing really difficult, emotional scenes, I'm not (consciously) feeling what my characters are. Maybe it's a kind of dissociation I've developed, a compartmentalizing which allows me not to feel very much so that I can concentrate on expressing feeling instead. But it's not even really as direct as that, because much of the time I'm working to express my characters' feelings in a kind of sideways way: through something sensory (a smell, a texture), or through something that's said that seems beside the point (but isn't), or through the weather, or through the objects in the room, or the landscape. Often through the language itself - the tone, the pacing, the rhythms. This part, the language part, is very intuitive to me.

One result of this dissociation (for lack of a better term) is that I've often had people come up to me after reading one of my short stories and say, "Wow. It's so dark." Or, "Gosh, it's really haunting me." One blogger wrote of my story The Long Net: "Personally, I would not recommend reading this. It is highly disturbing, alarming, and depressing. However, in having these particular feeling towards the story, I think the writer succeeded. The story was powerful in getting emotion out of the reader but [the] particular emotion was not pleasing."

I should say, the story she's talking about two young girls and a pedophile who takes dirty pictures of them. You hear that and think, well of course that would be disturbing. But here's the thing: when I finished that story, even when that story was published, I would not have told you that it was about pedophilia. I almost never know in any coherent way what broader subjects or themes I'm writing about, I think because I'm just so deep in the world of the story itself. Oh! I realize later. This man is doing very bad things. Or, this child is so scared! Or, oh, I'm writing about old women befriending young women again - how interesting that I keep doing that!

For me, I think this lack of awareness - call it obliviousness - is important to my process. It allows me to go places I might not otherwise go. I'm not outside looking in. I'm not coming up with names for what I'm doing, I'm just doing it.

Another question for you. Which grows out of your comments about the utter and wonderful lack of competition between us. You say you dream of writing a novel one day. I've certainly dreamed of being a singer-songwriter. (Also, a potter, a boat builder, and a gardener.) Do you think that you're a musician and I'm a writer primarily because that's what we trained to be, from an early age, and that if we'd had different models/training, we could just switch places? Or do you think that we're in some innate way meant for our particular art form? What about you makes you a musician?

Clare Burson: Our own little nature vs. nurture debate, eh?  How about I hedge my bets and go for a little of both?

I was trained as a musician.  I was also trained as a writer - not necessarily in terms of formal training, but in terms of the emphasis and value placed on the craft.  In my family, as much as my music is/ has been appreciated and encouraged, writing has always been seen as the most important skill anyone can have.  I'm sure this has something to do with my desire to write prose - that would be the ultimate.  I wrote a little book(let) that accompanies my last album, and to be perfectly honest, as proud as I am of the album itself, I'm even more pleased with the book.

Having said all of that, I am completely intimidated by the idea of a full-blown novel or even short stories because to do either involves the ability to develop plot and dialogue and much more than the character sketches and snapshot descriptions that define the songs I write.  Plus, any time I sit down to write something other than a song, I write too much.  What I work towards (and hopefully succeed at) in my songwriting is efficiency - how to express as much as possible with as few words as possible.  Thus far, the ability to do this eludes me with other kinds of writing.

So there's that.  Plus, I was trained as a musician, and after years of training, I have come to love the physical sensation of creating music.  Whether through singing - the creation of sound within me and the experience of that sound filling the space around me - or creating warm, earthy tone from a vintage guitar, or clear resonance from the strings on my violin, it is all intensely satisfying on a visceral level.  I love that the right combination of notes create harmony - not just in the musical sense but in terms of a global harmony, when everything around you comes together for just a moment, falling into place, resonating perfectly.

I'm also a sucker for a captive audience.  I love the immediacy of communicating directly with my audience from the stage.  As much as I cherish and absolutely need solitude, I also crave conversation and eye contact and emotional intimacy.  My songs create a safe space for me within which I can be completely vulnerable and emotionally raw with a group of people - whether I am singing for friends or total strangers.  My hope is that my own vulnerability and rawness can encourage my listeners to make themselves emotionally open - tough to do in a crowd of people, but when it does happen, I experience that harmony I mentioned earlier.  And it's amazing.  Totally.  Utterly.

What about you?

Anna Solomon: First off, to go back to your fear of writing too much, I would say, so what? That's what editing is for. Too much is better than too little, in my opinion - it means you have something to say, to express. So you make a mess. Later, you can scrape away, figure out what's inside, shape and hone. Also, at least on a plot level, in my opinion that is the most learnable (teachable?) aspect of fiction writing. Other things - language, rhythm, energy, depth, vividness - I think those are more innate. But plot is technical - it's a part of craft that you get better at with practice, maybe like learning what elements make a song satisfying? Some people are natural at plot certainly - and I'm in awe of them. But those of us who aren't, we just read, and practice, and so on, and slowly get better at it. We realize that plot is everywhere, once we know how to look for it.

Second, I am jealous of your access to the physical experience you describe - the visceral sensation of creating sound and vibration. That's part of my desire to play guitar and sing, I guess - or dance (did I mention I'd like to be a dancer, too?) - a desire for my work to be more bodily, I guess, to consume and engage more parts of me. Which is part of why I'm loving our collaboration.

That said, it's easy to long for that - it's quite another to have the talent or temperament to achieve it. The truth is I crave stillness, and solitude. I spend most of my waking hours alone and silent, and I like it that way. I need silence to think, and thinking is what I do most of the time - if I'm honest - either just thinking, or thinking through writing.

I fought that for a long time - I couldn't quite accept that I'm a very cerebral person. I dreamed of building boats (as I mentioned) or (no kidding) pulling lobster traps. I think I've always idealized physical work, seen it as somehow more "real." I guess music and dance fall into that category, too. When I was younger, I did play music. I played piano for many years, and violin, and even saxophone for a while. I also sang in a madrigals group - I loved that. And I acted pretty seriously - or at least I took it seriously - through high school and even into college. I loved acting, becoming someone else, stepping out on to the stage. I loved the attention. I still love attention. Which is funny, given how much I also like being left alone.

When I look back, I was a writer from a very young age. My mother recently brought me some old boxes from her attic and I found some of my earliest stories, from first grade. One begins, "I was walking down the street and I saw this head with hardly no neck, but he had some neck." As you can see, I was already a master at equivocation. But seriously. I was deep into stories, both reading and writing them. I remember a friend who was an amazing dancer, even by fourth grade. I still remember her performing a dance she'd choreographed and I wondered if that it was her way of telling stories. Maybe that's the difference - we each have different ways of telling stories. Of course that's a very story-centric way to see art, isn't it?

I also wonder, sometimes, if the question of what kind of artist we become has to do mostly with how we learn - if it's a cognitive thing. I could never learn music theory, for example - no matter how many times my piano teacher drew her charts and explained the situation, I simply couldn't remember, or understand, anything. But writing has always felt innate, both on the technical and creative levels.

None of this is to say that I think we can't train ourselves in different directions. But to do any kind of creative work - to really go for it - I think you have to have some basic tendency toward it, a pull that won't let you go. The work itself is so hard; it takes so much stubbornness and persistence. It's a very defiant act, as far as I'm concerned, to create something out of nothing and declare it worthwhile. If you don't have some real need to do it, why bother?

Next question. You're expecting your first baby. When you think about how becoming a mother will factor into your musical life - and I don't just mean 'career,' I mean your relationship to your music - what do you imagine? What do you hope for? What do you fear?

Clare Burson: To be perfectly honest, my life after the birth of the bean (this is how I refer to her), musical and otherwise, is completely unknowable to me right now.  I have absolutely no idea how being a mother will change me, my priorities, my desires, my needs - especially those relating to music.  I know that being an artist is an essential part of who I am.  I imagine that the framework for my process will change somewhat.  I won't be performing in clubs for a while.  My audience might change.  My sources of inspiration will change - as they already have over the past few years.  But music, writing, performing are the most important ways in which I process and engage with the world.  That can't change.

Or can it?  I suppose my greatest fear is that it can - that the realities of day-to-day life, caring for a child, financial responsibilities, etc. will crowd out any space left for the solitude and stillness necessary for me to create.  I worry that one of the essential aspects of who I am will be crowded out of my life.

Then again, perhaps even scarier is the possibility that the 'real need' you referred to above will simply recede.  Because maybe being an artist is not an essential part of who I am.  Maybe it is an essential part of who I was - a young woman in her 20's and early 30's trying to make sense of the world, find my place, understand relationships, heal my own growing pains, looking for connection and acceptance.  Of course, I am still trying to make sense of the world and my place in it.  Relationships have changed, but they still exist.  I still look for connection and acceptance.  I just wonder if my go-to means of navigating through life will change.

Lucky for me, I'm not the only person struggling with these dynamics.  I am blessed with plenty of friends - musicians, writers, filmmakers, etc. including you, Anna - who have young families of their own and are continuing to grow their craft alongside of their new roles as parents.  I suppose one thing I do hope for is a growing community of artists from whom I can learn - not only how to find balance but also how to expand and make a life that is enriched by music/ creation/ performance in ways I still cannot imagine.

Anna Solomon links:

Anna Solomon's website
Anna Solomon's Facebook page
Anna Solomon on Twitter

Clare Burson links and free & legal mp3s:

Clare Burson's website
Clare Burson's MySpace page
Clare Burson's Facebook page
Clare Burson on Twitter

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)

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