Move over, Morrissey: the musicians who moonlight as writers, and vice versa

Morrissey is far from the first performer to turn to prose, or writer who can play. Paul Muldoon, Julian Gough, Ferdia MacAnna, Billy Roche and Brendan Graham explore the transition and we profile a host of others

Novelist Julian Gough reprises his early career as lead singer with Toasted Heretic, flanked by an early novel by Leonard Cohen and a forthcoming poetry collection from PJ Harvey

Novelist Julian Gough reprises his early career as lead singer with Toasted Heretic, flanked by an early novel by Leonard Cohen and a forthcoming poetry collection from PJ Harvey

 

Heaven knows thousands of Smiths fans are that little bit less miserable now that publication of Morrissey’s debut novel, List of the Lost, has been confirmed for next month, though unlike his bestselling Autobiography, it won’t be an instant Penguin Classic.

Morrissey put the Smith into wordsmith and his lyrics are littered with literary references so his cultural jump is more of a step and less than a shock. In fact, he is far from the first singer or musician to have another string to their bow. Equally, many a well-known writer has a secret other life as a professional musician. Neil Jordan wasn’t just making it all up when he wrote about a jazz musician in his debut short story collection, Night in Tunisia. He used to play in a jazz band with painter Robert Ballagh.

What follows is a list – exhausting but by no means exhaustive! – of notable writers, both Irish and international, who are reformed musicians or singer songwriters, beginning with five who discuss their own experience in detail.

Julian Gough

Gough was songwriter and lead singer on four albums by Toasted Heretic in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including Songs for Swinging Celibates and Charm & Arrogance. They had a top ten hit in Ireland with Galway and Los Angeles, a song about not kissing Sinead O’Connor.

In Gough’s own words, they were “a fiercely independent, incredibly bolshy band from Galway, [who] played what could probably best be called literary pop. Songs about sex, drugs, Nabokov, and the commodification of art”.

His novels include Juno and Juliet, the very funny Jude: Level 1, the prologue of which won the prestigious BBC Short Story Prize, and Jude in London. He lives in Berlin, just like Bertolt Brecht and Christopher Isherwood did, has just signed a big book deal and reviews occasionally for The Irish Times.

“I learned a lot of my craft in my teens and twenties, writing lyrics for my band Toasted Heretic. Then I started writing practice novels in the gaps between albums. I found that once I was in novel-mode, lyrics no longer came to me; and vice versa. Your brain will obediently change gear, and supply ideas in the new format. The trouble is, it’s a radically different format; you have to unlearn some of your virtues as a lyricist, because they are vices in this new form.

“I’m very fond of Morrissey, even though (or perhaps because) I disagree with 60 per cent of his opinions. He’s a fine lyricist, and, like Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen (two of the more effective lyricist/novelists), he can tell a swift, efficient, narrative story in a song. More impressionistic lyricists like Dylan have struggled with longer fiction; no one would call Dylan’s Tarantula a great novel, though it contains some great lines.

“The chief problem a lyricist faces, when trying to write the 60,000 or 100,000 words of a novel, is the overall structure. Lyricists have incredibly well-developed muscles at the word and sentence level; they have no muscles, at all, at the plot and subplot level. The result tends to be a book of shining sentences, that gets strangely wearying after a couple of dozen pages.

“And the characters required for a song are cartoonishly simple in comparison to the complexity of character required for a novel. A brilliant surface is easy for a lyricist. Getting depth is difficult.

“Most pop stars’ novels need ruthless editing. But they are unlikely to get it, because they are pop stars: it’s hard to edit a famous person with a fragile yet overdeveloped ego. Particularly when they can point to writing achievement in a different field (hit singles!) and say ‘That’s how I write, and it works’.

“I remember discussing this with Irvine Welsh in San Francisco. We agreed that if you start off by writing song lyrics (as many writers do, in unsuccessful teenage bands), your fictional prose, later on, will tend to be more direct and conversational. (You can tell Henry James never fronted a teenage punk outfit.) Singers get into the habit of hearing their words aloud, addressed directly to the audience in front of them. I think that habit gives a certain disciple and rhythm to the individual line. I will still, sometimes, end a chapter in iambic pentameter, internal rhymes and all. The reader seldom, if ever, notices it consciously, but at a subconscious level it satisfies. In fact, I remember a reader saying on her blog that her favourite lines in literature were from my novel Juno & Juliet. She didn’t know why she liked them so much. Then she quoted the lines. Sure enough, they were in iambic pentameter...”

Ferdia MacAnna

Ferdia MacAnna was lead singer and songwriter with first Rocky De Valera and the Gravediggers (1977-79 and 2005-2009) – who Dermot Bolger tells me are doing a comeback gig in Toners shortly – and The Rhythm Kings (1980-83 and 2013-2014). He has written three novels, including The Ship Inspector and Cartoon City. The Last of the High Kings was made into a Hollywood movie starring Gabriel Byrne, Jared Leto and Christina Ricci in 1996 and the book was republished in 2011 by New Island Books in their Modern Irish Classics series. His memoir, The Rocky Years (Hodder) was published in 2006 and his play Big Mom was produced at the Project Arts Centre in 1996.

“Nick Cave wrote a novel that was well received, if I remember,” MacAnna said. “Also Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers managed to traumatise entire generations. So, songwriting novelists aren’t exactly a new thing.

“That brings us to Bruce Dickenson, lead vocalist with Iron Maiden whose novels, featuring the adventures of a dodgy aristocrat named Lord Iffy Boatrace, occupy an artistic space somewhere to the south of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space and the poetry of William McGonagall.

“Now, Morrissey is going for it and that’s brilliant. More power to him. It seems to me that gifted iconic and supposedly ‘difficult’ songwriters such as Morrissey specialised in story songs anyway, songs that conveyed more than simple pop songs that settled for throwaway lyrics and shouty choruses. Instead, The Smiths and the Kinks and similar bands wrote songs that sought to tell a story, paint a portrait of society or reveal a character. Ray Davies did it with Lola and Waterloo Sunset, The Who with Tommy and Quadrophenia. Lou Reed created a world in Walk on the Wild Side and Street Hassle. In so many ways, these singer songwriters and bandleaders penned short stories set to music, beguiling snippets of reality that sometimes struck a commercial chord with the public almost despite themselves.

“I hope Morrissey’s novel divides opinion and infuriates the strait-laced Lit Crit crowd. He has always been himself and never accepted the mores of the music business. Let’s hope his novel really says something and sets all the pigeons fluttering. And if it is made into a movie, he and the Smiths may have already provided the perfect soundtrack. Listen as you read and maybe watch. Morrissey the ultimate artistic multi-tasker.”

Billy Roche

Billy Roche may be best known for his Wexford trilogy of plays (Poor Beast in the Rain, A Handful of Stars and Belfry) and his novel Tumbling Down but he first made his name in Wexford punk band, the Billy Roche Band, later the Roach Band, who had one hit in 1978 with the Shamrock Shuffle. Pierce Turner, that brilliant songwriter-storyteller, is his cousin. Original songs by Roche appear in his plays Amphibians and The Cavalcaders, which even features an excerpt from a Mass he has written. Roche played Josie, a member of the cobbler shop quartet in Cavalcaders, and had a memorable solo.

Music is a mainstay of his life and his theatre. “Music lifts people. You don’t have to fork out €14 for it. You can just turn on the radio.

“I believe the transition from song writing into prose or poetry or drama (or indeed any form of expression) is a natural enough one. After all, like the novelist or playwright or poet, the songwriter is obsessed with imagery and wordplay and rhythm and heartbeat, and they take with them an economy of emotion that – provided it is not taken too far – can be a short cut to the heart of any matter.

“Many of the subjects that I was writing about as a singer/songwriter became the themes that haunted my literary work as well – the mythology of the small town along with love in all its various disguises. My first novel Tumbling Down is a pop song in prose and my first stage play A Handful of Stars is a deliberate punk anthem of sorts. I will often turn to my guitar when I run into trouble – even a badly written song can throw up some little jewel of a phrase that will unlock the vault.

“I am working on a musical at the moment – well, have been for some time now– and one of the things I’ve discovered is that the emotion is often hidden in the counter melody, what, in prose terms, used to be known as subtext, once upon a time. Nowadays it’s all blah blah blah, the kiss and tell mentality. In opera parlance the tenor is singing and mundanely saying , ‘open the door and let me in’ while the orchestra is weeping, ’I’m lost without you!’

“Writers could do worse that to look towards the songsters for inspiration: Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows for instance or closer to home Sonny Condell’s exquisite Mariner’s Blues is a short story put to music – Warm pullovers on the floor/ and boots with sandy heels/ and drawings that you made of me/ while sailing out to sea ( Tir na nÓg album). I double-check that a director is musical before I agree to go there and I constantly rely on my own heartbeat to control the pace of whatever it is I’m working on. So, yes, it may sound primitive but music and drama go hand in hand for me: it goes all the way back to the Greeks and who can argue with that?”

There is the suggestion in one of his short stories from Tales from Rainwater Pond that a writer sometimes reaches a boundary that only music can cross.

“Words will never be as powerful as melody as it’s an abstract thing, it tells you how to feel. I do hark back to songs. Poor Beast in the Rain harks back to Jesamine by Marty Wilde, sung by The Casuals in 1968. What can you say when a girl doesn’t want to know? Georige practically apes that song.

Billy Roche and the Roach Band

Paul Muldoon and his 'three-car' garage band

Toasted Heretic's Galway and Los Angeles

Rocky de Valera and the Gravediggers

“I don’t sit down with a blank page. I’m surrounded by years and years of notes. As a musican I have certain chord progressions that I have never got round to using.”

Paul Muldoon

Paul Muldoon is lyricist for, and a member of, the Princeton-based music collective Wayside Shrines and occasionally appears with a spoken word music group, Rogue Oliphant. He also looks uncannily like the Canadian genius singer songwriter Ron Sexsmith – they’d make a great pair of disappointed cherubs. It would be fair to say, however, that he is better known as the author of 12 major collections of poetry, from New Weather in 1973 to this year’s One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, picking up a Pulitzer and pretty much every other major gong along the way. He served as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University from 1999 to 2004 and has taught at Princeton University since 1987, as well as being poetry editor of the New Yorker since 2007.

“Though we don’t hear so much about it these days,” Muldoon told me, “it used to be the mark of a great poet that she had a great ‘ear’. The term ‘ear’ refers to the ability to recognise, and respond to, the musicality of a line. If the difference between writing a song and writing a poem is that the song needs music to be most completely itself while the poem and its music are already inextricably bound up – so that, strictly speaking, a poem gains nothing in being set to music – it’s nonetheless the case that the two art forms are akin. It’s the recognition of that kinship that has so many songwriters hoping to be included in the ranks of the poets, so many poets fascinated by the possibility of experiencing the sheer alchemy of word and music combined.”

Brendan Graham

Brendan Graham’s biggest hit as a lyricist is the phenomenally successful You Raise Me Up, but his songs have also won the Eurovision Song Contest for Ireland twice, Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids and The Voice, in 1994 and 1996 respectively. Rolf Løvland, who wrote the music to You Raise Me Up, was inspired to ask Graham to write the lyrics after reading The Whitest Flower (Harper Collins, 1998 - and about to be reissued), Graham’s first novel, part of a bestselling trilogy along with The Element of Fire (Harper Collins, 2001) and The Brightest Day, The Darkest Night (Harper Collins, 2004). The series follows Ellen Rua O’Malley from Ireland’s Great Famine to Boston and the American Civil War. The character of Ellen grew out of a cycle of Famine songs Graham had written. His music publisher Warner Chappell brought him to HarperCollins, who commissioned the series he had never intended to write.

Con Houlihan once wrote, “Some of the best poetry being produced in this country today is in the form of song – Christy Moore and Brendan Graham and Jimmy McCarthy are touched by genius.” A fascinating figure, he told me in an Irish Times interview in 2007, Musical Midas in the Mayo Silence,his first band was the Moonshiners, who were resident at the Shamrock Club in London’s Elephant and Castle.

“For me,” said Graham, “the songs and books are intrinsically interlinked – they seem to feed off each other. Because, per se, I don’t write ‘pop songs’, often the subject matter of the songs and books are the same...set in history with the narrative important. The songs often have elemental and spiritual themes - The Voice, Winter, Fire & Snow, Crucán na bPáiste. So, the landscape of inspiration for both songs and books is often one of common ground – I don’t have to switch off one, to switch on to the other. In fact, when I had decided to ‘put aside’ writing songs, while writing my books, it didn’t work out that way. Because I was for long periods of time in that ‘space’ with the book...songs also flowed, of their own accord so I ended up with a clutch of songs at the end of each book.

“It isn’t ‘one or the other’ with me and in recent years I have been combining both narrative and song.

You need two things whether it be in a song...or a book – ‘It needs to keep your own interest...and it needs to keep the listener’s or reader’s interest’.

It has to be that thing that you can’t leave alone...and that thing that won’t leave you alone. It’s that ‘get-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-thing’ or ‘work-through-the-night’ thing.

The song writing helps in that subconsciously, in the book writing, you are inserting internal rhyming...putting a musical rhythm into the sentences – those kind of dynamics that drive a song. A book also, as much as a song, needs the ‘hook’ – a ‘get to the chorus...don’t bore us’ – that keeps the pages turning.

“Emotionally – depending on its subject matter – a book can floor you...drain you. A book too, because of its time demands can be an isolating experience...songs less so. Each of my books took about two years to write between the research, the writing and the editing. A song is like a butterfly – you can shake it off, set it free, if the song works...or, even if it doesn’t work. A book is a monkey on your back...a claw in your gut, until you finish it.”

Patrick McCabe

The author of The Butcher Boy, The Dead School and Breakfast on Pluto once played the organ with Paddy Hanrahan and the Oklahoma Showband. “Paddy insisted we played no more than two chords so as not to confuse the dancers,” recalled the author. When his play, Frank Pig Says Hello, was on at the Royal Court in London’s Sloane Square, Pat could be found most nights tinkling the ivories around the corner in the Irish Club in Eaton Sqaure, hosting an impromptu aftershow party. In recent years, he was co-organiser of the Flat Lake music festival in Monaghan. Music permeates his work. The Butcher Boy is named after a murder ballad.

A Guardian interview in 2003 entertainingly captures the spirit of his showband days.

“I was badly stuck for a keyboard player,” says Paddy Hanrahan, founder and leader of the band, “and I heard of this teacher in Longford who was teaching in St Michael’s at the time, who played keyboards, so I called in to see him. He thought I was the parent of some child he’d beaten. I knocked on the door and asked him did he play the keyboards and he said he did, so I said ‘Be ready at four o’clock, we’re going to Cork’.”

McCabe recalls that the music itself left quite a lot to be desired: “It was country and western mostly. When sung by Kenny Rogers they sounded great but when they were sung by us, with the rinky-dink piano, they were godawful.”

What interested McCabe most was the camaraderie of being on the road: “He was some character,” remembers Hanrahan, “coming home at night he’d be rabitting away, talking about nothing but still you’d have to listen. And the boys would be dead tired and would want to sleep. In the end they would tell Pat to shut the fuck up.”

Michael Donaghy

The Irish-American poet, whose work won the Whitbread and Forward prizes and the Geoffrey Faber and Cholmondeley awards among others, played the tin whistle, bodhrán and flute in a traditional Irish band in London called The Slip Jigolos as well as in the early line-up of Lammas, the jazz/traditional crossover band led by Tim Garland and poet Don Paterson. Previously, in his native New York, he founded the acclaimed Irish music ensemble Samradh Music, and music featured frequently in the themes and forms of his collections, such as Errata and Conjure. He died tragically young of a brain haemorrhage , inspiring David Wheatley to write in The Guardian: “The death of Michael Donaghy in 2004 at the age of 50 has been one of the most deeply felt losses to the poetry world in recent years. Not since Sylvia Plath almost half a century ago had an American poet living in Britain so decisively entered the bloodstream of his times.”

Brian Kennedy

The Belfast singer, who rose to prominence as one of Van Morrison’s backing singers, represented Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest, finishing tenth, sang his version of Brendan Graham’s You Raise Me Up at Georgre Best’s funeral and has released 13 albums to date. But he also has two novels to his name, The Arrival of Fergal Flynn (2004) and Roman Song (2005), both published by Hodder. The first is about a young gay man coming of age in 1980s Belfast – “a brave and impressive achievement” according to Dermot Bolger in the Sunday Tribune; the second, a sequel, sees Fergal pursuing an opera career in Rome.

Leonard Cohen

In 2011, Cohen received the Princess of Asturias Awards for literature, the same award won by John Banville in 2014. While the Canadian’s first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, came out in 1967, his literary career stretches back even further. His first poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, were published in 1956. His novel The Favourite Game, an autobiographical bildungsroman about a young man who discovers his identity through writing, was published in 1963 and his slim but striking and sexually graphic novel Beautiful Losers followe in 1966.

The Academy of American Poets declared: “Cohen’s successful blending of poetry, fiction, and music is made most clear in Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, published in 1993, which gathered more than 200 of Cohen’s poems … several novel excerpts, and almost 60 song lyrics... While it may seem to some that Leonard Cohen departed from the literary in pursuit of the musical, his fans continue to embrace him as a Renaissance man who straddles the elusive artistic borderlines.”

PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey is the only artist to have been awarded the Mercury Prize twice, for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and Let England Shake, in 2001 and 2011 respectively. In October, Bloomsbury Circus publishes The Hollow of the Hand, her poetry collaboration with Irish photographer Seamus Murphy. According to the publisher: “Between 2011 and 2014 PJ Harvey and Seamus Murphy set out on a series of journeys together to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington DC. Harvey collected words, Murphy collected pictures, and together they have created an extraordinary chronicle of our life and times. The Hollow of the Hand marks the first publication of Harvey’s powerful poetry, in conversation with Murphy’s indelible images. “

Lawrence Donegan

Lawrence Donegan was the bassist in The Bluebells, whose biggest hit was Young at Heart, and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, before becoming a journalist, including golf correspondent at The Guardian, and an author.

His four non-fiction books are Four Iron in the Soul (1998), the story of his year caddying for Ross Drummond, the 438th best golfer in the world at the time; California Dreaming: A Smooth-running, Low-mileage, Cut-price American Adventure (1999) about his time as a used-car salesman in the United States; No News at Throat Lake (2000), a wonderfully entertaining and perceptive account of working for a newspaper in Creeslough, Co Donegal; and Quiet Please (2004) about his experiences as a Ryder Cup steward. He is reported to be writing a novel based on the story of the Shergar kidnapping.

Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter has made eight albums, from his self-titled debut in 1999 to this year’s Sermon on the Rocks. Dennis Lehane wrote the intro for the deluxe edition of Hello Starling in 2010. The title of Ritter’s sixth album, So Runs the World Away, comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Ritter’s bestselling debut novel, Bright’s Passage, was published in 2011. He said of it: “It’s about a kind of sweet normal guy from West Virginia. He goes to the first World War and he comes back and he has an angel. And it’s about him and this angel escaping this wildfire for five days. It’s sort of this short little comedy”. Stephen King said it “shines with a kind of compressed lyricism that recalls Ray Bradbury in his prime”.

Gil Scott Heron

The American soul and jazz poet, musician, and spoken word performer, best-known for The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, wrote two novels, The Vulture and The Nigger Factory. The former relates relates the strange story of John Lee’s murder - telling it in the words of four men who knew him when he was just another kid working after school, hanging out, waiting for something to happen. Just who did kill John Lee and why? The Nigger Factory is a biting satire set on the campus of Sutton University, Virginia, whose failure to embrace the changing attitudes of the sixties has caused disaffection among the black students and revolution is nigh.

John Wesley Harding

Harding has released 17 albums, including 2009’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, but under his real name, Wesley Stace, has achieved equal success as a writer. His first novel, Misfortune (2005) was an international bestseller, nominated for the Guardian First Book Award, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. His 2005 album Songs of Misfortune comprises songs written for, or appearing in, the book.

His second novel, By George, was published in 2007. A third, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, was published by Jonathan Cape in 2010 and was one of the Wall Street Journal’s Top Ten Books of the Year. Other writings include chapbooks for some of his albums. His essay, Listerine: The Life and Opinions of Laurence Sterne, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Steve Earle

As well as 16 albums and the ubiquitous song, Galway Girl, the American singer songwriter released a short story collction in 2001, Doghouse Roses, whose themes and settings echoed his songs. He published his first novel, I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, in 2011, as well as an album of the same name, both entitled after a Hank Williams song. The novel is set in San Antonio, Texas in 1963, and tells the story of a defrocked doctor and morphine addict, who makes a living by performing illegal abortions and is haunted by the ghost of Hank Williams.

Kazuo Ishiguro

Hat-tip to Sinéad Gleeson for this one. “Earlier in my life I’d been a singer-songwriter until I turned to fiction,” revealed Ishiguro, who won the man Booker Prize for Remains of the Day, in a recent interview with the London Independent about his friendship and collaboration with jazz singer Stacey Kent, with whom he writes songs. Their working relationship began when he picked one of her songs on Desert Island Discs. Kazuo owns 14 guitars and his book of five stories, Nocturnes, is also themed around music.

He said of Kent: “In many ways, her approach as a singer is similar to my approach as a writer: when I hear her sing I feel she captures a sense of internality. It’s the thing that draws me to her as a novelist, as I’m used to working in the first person; listening to what someone is thinking to themselves, capturing the faltering hesitancy and little rushes of enthusiasm, and many great singers don’t do that.” 

Kristin Hersh

The American singer/songwriter made her name in the late 1980s as lead singer of Throwing Muses before going solo then forming 50 Foot Wave. “She is a brilliant writer,” said Sinéad Gleeson, “I know Paradoxical Undressing [first published in the US as Rat Girl] was a memoir but it was the most novelistic one I’ve come across in some time. She has a new book coming out in October about the late Vic Chesnutt.”

Willy Vlautin

Perhaps more than any other writer-musician, the two arts are both equally graced and balanced by Willy Vlautin, acclaimed novelist and performer with Richmond Fontaine and now the Delines. Given how intertwined the two sides to his career, it is smehow apt that it was a Paul Kelly song, based on Raymond Carver’s Too Much Water So Close to Home, that inspired him to start writing stories. He has published four novels: The Motel Life (2007), Northline (2008), the brilliant Lean on Pete (2010), and The Free (2014).

Nick Cave

Nick Cave published his first novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel in 1989 (“An explosion of linguistic brio and Gothic grotesquery, horrifying, funny and tragic’ Michel Faber wrote in the Guardian) and followed this up after a 20-year-gap with The Death of Bunny Munro, the story of a sex-obsessed door-to-door salesman and his relationship to his son. “Cave writes novels like he does lyrics, with strokes of blood and sulphur and lightning,” wrote playwright Neil LaBute. This year he brought out The Sick Bag Song, chronicling Cave’s journey with his band the Bad Seeds on a 22-day, North American tour. It is a highly personal account that blends memories, musings, poetry, lyrics, flights of fancy and road journal. And yes, it was written on sick bags.

Louise Wener

Louise Wener made her name with the band Sleeper. which recorded three albums, Smart, The It Girl, and Pleased to Meet You. After it broke up in 1998, she turned to writing and has written four novels: Goodnight Steve McQueen, The Big Blind (aka The Perfect Play), The Half Life of Stars and Worldwide Adventures In Love, and an autobiography, Different for Girls: My True-life Adventures in Pop (aka Just For One Day: Adventures in Britpop).

Colin Meloy

The lead singer of the Decembrists is a serious young man. One of his songs is about the Shankill Butchers. Together with Carson Ellis, his illustrator wife, he has published Wildwood, “a classic tale of adventure, magic, and danger, set in an alternate version of modern-day Portland, Oregon” aimed at younger readers.

Martin Doyle is assistant literary editor

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