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The Bookshop Band

The Bookshop Band interviewed by Lucy Binnersley.

Last month Paris welcomed The Bookshop Band during their first foray onto French soil. Armed with their instruments and pile of the books (or perhaps Kindle if they wanted to travel lighter) they hopped on the Eurostar to show the Parisian bookworms that the band’s approach of adapting novels into songs is not a novelty, but a engaging breath of fresh air through the dusty shelves of independent bookstores.

The Bookshop Band came into being through a collaboration between three musicians and an independent bookshop in Bath called Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights and having proved so successful they are now taking their music further afield. With a tour that included a stop-off at Shakespeare and Company, the UK based band cemented their growing popularity within the literary community.

Here are the band members Ben, Poppy and Beth to tell us more about the band and the creative journey from the intimate written word of the author to their inspired musical interpretation.

The bookshop band – literally a novel idea – could you tell us about how the band came into being?

It happened pretty organically really. The owner of Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, our local bookshop in Bath, asked us if we could play some relevant music at the start of each night in his new season of author events. Each night was themed on a different country related to the visiting author’s book, and the initial idea was to cover two relevant songs, but we were all songwriters, so we fancied the challenge of actually writing the songs for the night instead. The process was so rewarding from a songwriting angle, and everyone’s reaction so positive that we decided to continue writing in this way. The turn around between events can be quite quick and we often only get the books a week or two before the event (and not being professional speed readers) its often a reading challenge as well as a song writing challenge”).

You are now undertaking a 25-date tour, mainly consisting of bookstores and literary festivals. Do you think that your appeal to both bookworms and music fans is a innovative way to breathe new life into the struggling bookselling trade?

We never intended anything from the process apart from writing songs, but there has been a lovely reaction from the bookselling community, who I think see our concerts as a way to put something very different on in their bookshop for their customers and also to bring a new audience of music lovers into their bookshop. The book trade certainly seems to be facing lots of challenges, like the music industry too, but those bookshops that we have been to have all been such vibrant and interesting places, offering something unique to their customers. The challenges are breeding creative responses, and I suppose people see us as one of those responses. The nice thing is that rather than coming form the industry angle of setting out to deliberately find a solution to something, what we do is very much a customers or readers response to the books we are given.

You often perform the songs in front of the author. Does this ever make you feel nervous about showcasing your interpretation of their work?

Beth: I do get nervous, but it’s less about the interpretation of the work, and more about playing a new song, that we’ve only just written, in front of lots of people. It’s the whole situation, the intimacy.

Ben: Always, though I think having the deadlines of the performance in the bookshop in front of the author is what has enabled the songs to get written. It’s such a specific and tight deadline for a song – the people arrive at 7pm on a given date and it’s all finished by 7.15pm – that it means that we don’t have time to procrastinate about writing, or second guess whether something is any good or not. The pressure, in a weird way, forces us to not worry about it.

Poppy: I think performing the songs in front of the Author is terrifying but also one of the most rewarding experiences, as its an artistic response to another persons work of art, all be it a literary one. And when you have really got into a book and then get to perform the song you wrote about it to the books creator it can be a very connecting experience. It makes it quite different from a normal gig.

The author Rachel Joyce described your songs as bringing books to life in a way that is like “seeing your children do something without them knowing your watching”. Which book has been the naughtiest child to translate into song so far?

Beth: I was tasked with writing a song inspired by The Horologicon, by Mark Forsyth, which is essentially a dictionary of words that aren’t regularly used anymore. It had no story as such, but it was structured around the day in the life of a person working in an office, using words that weren’t know to many people, so it was always going to be a bit of a funny song. I turned it into a day in the life of The Bookshop Band instead!

Poppy: That’s a tricky question but I think for me when a book really gets to you it can be the hardest because there are so many parts that you want to write about, comment on or draw attention to that doing just one little song is quite a challenge. We recently read and wrote for a night with Kevin Maher and his new book The Fields which I completely devoured and thought was absolutely brilliant, and full of so many brilliant, difficult, funny and touching moments that I found it quite hard to come up with something I was happy with. But it seemed to go down well on the night. My only problem is I probably have a least 5 other song ideas that I’m dying to have a go at.

The children’s author Patrick Ness (‘A Monster Calls’) says that writing is a lonely process. Do you think/hope that your songs go some way to bridge the gap between authors and their audience?

Beth: I guess it doesn’t directly, but perhaps in some way it does. I think perhaps the songs make the audience feel like they are connected in a different way to the book or the author.

Ben: I don’t think our songs can ever claim to really bridge that gap, as that is really for the book to do, but it certainly introduces the books to new audiences. We always hold up the appropriate book and talk about how it inspired the song we’re about to sing, so the audience gets to focus on that book for the length of our introduction and song and get to hear our own response to that book. Hopefully then that might inspire people to read it themselves.

Poppy: I think that perhaps something it might do is allow the author to revisit their characters at a stage where they have normally let the book go out into the world to do its own thing. They then get to share in our experience of that world and those characters they created. Reading a book is a very intimate experience and releasing that experience into song can be like revealing something quite secret that the author might not always get to share with their readers.

Shakespeare and CompanyYou recently performed at the Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Co and have also written songs inspired by the Paula McLain novel “The Paris Wife”. How did you find the process of writing a song about Hemingway and 1920s Paris?

The theme of the Mr B’s evening which featured Paula’s book was ‘Adultery Night’, so initially we thought it could be quite a tricky subject to write songs about. I guess this was one of the reasons we turned to the book itself. I suppose we worked a little like a book group, in that we got together, talked about the book, and what parts of it we really liked, and then the output was a couple of songs. I was really caught up in the atmosphere of the book, 1920’s Paris sounded fascinating, I could almost hear the music of the period while reading, so it was virtually inevitable that we would want to capture some of that in one of the songs (Just a case of falling). Poppy had written some lyrics and ideas inspired by the relationship between Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, and how that relationship changed as Hemingway became more and more successful, and so we together brought out a song from this, titled in the same way as the book (The Paris Wife).

You have released four albums to novel inspired songs. What books are still on your reading list as ones that you would most like to write about?

Ben: If we could choose the books I think we’d never be able to hone it down to just one book to get started on, so we rely on the recommendations and deadlines from our local bookshop, Mr Bs. We’re just lucky that they are a great bookshop that always choose wonderful books. The next ones on our pile are The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng, and Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain. We do really want to do some children’s books too, as sometimes we get asked to play in schools, so we’ve asked for a few recommendations. But we’ll never be short of books to write about – we have a guestbook at our concerts in which people often write down the book they would most like to hear a song about. It’s probably one of the best reading lists ever.

Poppy: I’d love to write a song inspired by a Jeanette Winterson Novel, (when I get some time) Lighthousekeeping or The Passion perhaps.

You have to write your songs within the boundaries of to you he novel’s plot. Do you ever find that this limits the creation of your songs?

Ben: There are no rules really. It’s really important to all of us that the songs are real songs, that we get inspired to write them as you would with any other songs. So quite often the songs are actually quite personal, but they have been triggered by something within the book. There is SO much within a book, characters, plots, atmospheres, scenes, feelings, and you could of course go on. You don’t know what will inspire you, or resonate with you, but there is always something. Books certainly provide contexts and (for us) deadlines, but that doesn’t limit creativity, I think it fosters it. If I was faced with a blank canvas, unlimited budget, unlimited time, unlimited briefs, we wouldn’t have a clue where to start. Creativity for us comes out of limitations. You remove procrastination, second guessing yourself as to whether it’s good or not, and you just write what naturally wants to come out.

Beth: No, I think it enhances the creation of the songs. It’s all such amazing inspiration and means we are never short of a subject to write about.

Poppy: I feel that it gives you good creative parameters without confining you. There is so much to draw from a book you really can go to so many places with it. I write a lot anyway for my other project so am generally quite happy with a blank canvas but what it has done is helped me to write songs on subjects I may not have felt qualified to write about, the books take you on a journey and leaving you at the end feeling very connected with the characters, their lives and experiences and often the landscapes the story happens within.

Has being part of his project encouraged you to write any fiction yourselves?

Ben: Not immediately, as this takes up way to much time (!) but I’ve had a few ideas brimming for a while, and being part of The Bookshop Band, and meeting all the authors, and reading lots of books, it’s certainly re-ignited a little flame in my mind that I may want to realise some of these stories sometime. My dad and brother are both writers, and there have been lots of writers in the family, so I wouldn’t be surprised. I guess we are writing all the time, but just as songs.

Poppy: I’d never been to an author event before joining the bookshop band, it just wasn’t ever part of my world I suppose, however having always written poetry and songs and been very into words through that I’ve found all this reading very inspiring. Hearing the different authors talking about their writing processes has also been and real eye opener and sometimes to, my surprise, sounds quite similar( in the initial stages) to my song writing process, but they take that seed and turn it into an oak tree where as a song is more like a butterfly. I am a bit in awe to be honest, but have actually, on the journey back from Paris started writing something that’s defiantly not a song!!???

And lastly, you have to choose between writing a song about either Harry Potter, 50 Shades of Grey or Ulysees? Which book would you choose?

Poppy: I’ve not read any of the above but I would choose Ulysses after Holly’s (tumbleweed from Shakespeare and Co) description of it to me. I’m sure Harry Potter would be lovely to delve into, and 50 shades might be quite a laugh from what I hear but perhaps a slightly awkward song writing experience.

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