Writers on Music: Gayle Brandeis

gayle brandeis

Gayle Brandeis is the author of the novel The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether
Prize. Her latest novel, Self Storage, will be published
January 2007.

1.  Is there a connection between writing and music?
If so what is it?

I recently played Annie Oakley in a local production of Annie
Get Your Gun
. This was a very unexpected adventure—I
took my daughter to the audition, the director convinced me to audition,
too, and somehow I ended up with the lead role. I had never sung
or acted before in my life, so this was quite a transformative experience.
In learning to sing, I found that there were so many parallels with
the writing process—so much of it (acting, too) is about letting
go in order to let the notes, the words, through. So much of it
is about being fully present in that moment of expression. I think
there are connections between all forms of art—they all attempt
to capture and express something that is otherwise wordless, formless.
Writing and music seem especially wedded in that way (although music
has the luxury of not always having to use words).


2.  How do you feel music affects your writing in
particular?

I'm not sure about in particular, but in general, music tends to
trigger emotion on a very deep level for me, and that is what I
want to access when I write. I suppose music does help keep me connected
to that well of feeling. When I write, I want to give voice to the
sorts of memories and sensations that music evokes.


3.  Are there any musicians that you feel have had a
profound effect on your writing?

Talking Heads changed my life in high school. I heard them for
the first time during a yearbook meeting (a music-related sidebar:
Liz Phair was the photography editor on staff), and I was blown
away. I loved their combination of playfulness and intelligence
and strangeness, and I think their example left its stamp on my
own work.

Prince helped me access my raunchy self in high school, and that
influenced my writing, as well. I've also been inspired by musicians
who have wed their art with social conscience, like Ani DiFranco
and Tracy Chapman.

4.  Do you listen to music while you write?  And
if so
what and who do you listen to? 

I have a hard time listening to music while I write, especially
if the music has lyrics—the words from the song fill my brain
and make it hard for me to squeeze any other words in or out. My
husband is in two bands, and they sometimes rehearse at our house.
For a while, I couldn't write while they played—there was
just too much sound reverberating through the walls (and my husband
plays pedal steel guitar, which creates a frequency that seems to
cancel out thought for me, kind of like a dog whistle)—but
I've become so familiar with their music, I can tune it out now
if I have to get some work done.


5. What sort of music do you listen to outside of
writing time?

Well, I do listen to my husband's bands a lot (which I very much
enjoy, despite the dog whistle/tuning out comments above).
Bucksworth
is a roots rock/alt country band with fabulous song
writing and some really soulful grooves, and Old
Brown Shoe
is a two-guitars-and-stand-up-bass trio featuring
brothers' duets from the 30's and 40's. Aside from that, I seem
to live on a steady diet of Cake, Beck, Suzanne Vega, Talking Heads,
Lila Downs, and Prince, with a liberal helping of 70's disco and
show tunes.


6.  What's in your CD player right now?

Senses Working Overtime is in my car's CD player—it's
an 80's compilation CD from Starbucks, of all places (evil corporation,
I know—I try to frequent indies most of the time). I heard
it playing and had to buy it; it's a great mix of bands I loved
in high school—Talking Heads (surprise!), New Order, The Cure,
Echo and the Bunnymen, etc. The tracks bring back all sorts of memories
as I drive around.


7. What are some recent concerts you've been to?

Mostly, I've been to a lot of Bucksworth gigs. They often play
with other LA-area bands, such as Hobo Jazz, Artichoke, Rancho Deluxe,
and the Scandelles—which happens to be our friends' teenage
daughters' band—so I've been exposed to some great local music.
Bucksworth was invited to be part of a national stunt/music tour
that starts this fall, and they'll be playing with people like Kanye
West and Lyle Lovett, which will be a trip. The last big name concert
I attended was David Byrne—he played the Hollywood Bowl last
year with Si Se, Arcade Fire and The Extra Action Marching Band.
An amazing show. When he sang my favorite song in the world, "This
Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)," I sobbed and sobbed.

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