Music & Me: Jessica Traynor
What are your earliest musical memories?
I had a little portable tape recorder that my mum used to play me tapes on to help me fall asleep. I think I must have been four or five at the time? And the choices were Puff the Magic Dragon or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. What a mad combo! I loved them both, but the swirling violins at the end of the summer movement in The Four Seasons used to fill me with a real sense of dread – beautiful music, but so intense it could be unnerving. If I didn’t get to sleep by that part, there was no chance. And Puff the Magic Dragon would sometimes make me cry.
Who or what were your musical influences growing up and why?
On our summer holidays we’d drive down to Wexford, and we had these mix tapes taped from my parents’ old records, with lots of Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Al Stewart, and early Elton John. So a kind of mixture of dense allegory and big dramatic narrative. I remember being so in love with Leonard Cohen’s ‘Who By Fire’, which seemed to blend the symbolism and mystery of a courtly romance with something more contemporary and urgent, and Neil Young’s ‘After the Gold Rush’ for the same reason. And then songs like Al Stewart’s ‘Roads to Moscow’, the eight-minute saga of a Russian soldier in the second World War. I didn’t understand the references, but I always remember the line ‘Two broken Tigers on fire in the night flicker their souls to the wind’. I definitely think this music and its sense of the dramatic informed my poetic sensibilities.
Then when I was a teenager, I was into all kinds of alternative music – a lot of grunge and punk and industrial. I’ve always loved female singers and PJ Harvey would be a huge influence. Other bands I loved when I was a teenager would have been The Smashing Pumpkins, Tool, Soundgarden, Throwing Muses, The Screaming Trees, Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age, Babes in Toyland, Mazzy Star, Queen Adreena, Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, Sleater Kinney, The Cure, Bat for Lashes. I think it was the sense of the dramatic in this music that appealed to me, how it dealt with anger and sex and lust and humour and self-definition, which is so important in your teenage years.
Does music influence your writing?
I think my writing is probably most influenced by PJ Harvey. She’s a great storyteller and inhabits all of these different personae – especially in albums like ‘Is This Desire?’ which sublimates this intensely sexual drive through the prisms of all of these different narratives. It was really important for me, in my formative years, to hear a woman singing about desire in a way that was achingly intense, but also private. I try to find that balance in my work.
Do you listen to music while writing, editing, etc.?
When I’m on my own in my own space, yes. It would generally be something a little quieter and more atmospheric like Agnes Obel, Mazzy Star, Mark Lanegan (Field Songs especially) or Chelsea Wolfe (Unknown Rooms, the acoustic album, rather than the doomier stuff), Aldous Harding, Cat Power or Feist.
Is there one particular novel or piece of writing you wrote that was directly influenced by a piece of music?
I don’t think anything I’ve written has been directly influenced, but I do think that those early years spent listening to the folk-influenced music of the 70s were very formative and helped shape my love of allegory, of work that somehow lives between one time and another. And again, that sense that an artist can and should take on many faces – artists like Bowie and Nick Cave and PJ Harvey – has been hugely important to me.
What music are you listening to at the moment?
Anna Calvi’s new album is fantastic, and I’ve got Another Sky lined up next – what I’ve heard sounds like Sandy Denny singing prog, what’s not to like? I’ve also been listening to Zola Jesus, Young Fathers, the latest Fever Ray album (‘This Country’, with its brilliant line ‘This country makes it hard to fuck’ was my Repeal the Eighth anthem). St. Vincent and Chelsea Wolfe are often in the mix, and I go back to Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown a lot, a folk concept album that retells the Orpheus and Euridice story – there’s a live version happening in the National Theatre in London this winter and I’m gutted to be missing it. ‘Build the Wall’ is a scarily prescient anthem for our times.
Musically, what’s your guilty pleasure (or is there such a thing)?
I think there’s no such thing, but I guess musical outliers for me in terms of my usual taste would be Grimes (what’s wrong with really excellent pop?) and Kendrick Lamar and Run the Jewels. The latter are really excellent, but the misogyny thing in rap gets wearing and Killer Mike recently went on an anti-gun control rant. Disappointing in a band I turned to for funny, edgy, angry commentary on the political status quo in the States.
Other than that, Type O Negative for sheer cheesy Halloween-flavoured nonsense. Crosby Stills and Nash for long drive sing-alongs!
Jessica Traynor’s latest poetry collection, THE QUICK, is on sale now.
Derek Flynn runs Writing.ie's SongBook blog, and is an Irish writer and musician. He has a Masters in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. He’s been published in a number of publications, including The Irish Times, and his fiction was featured in 'Surge', an anthology of new Irish writing published by O’ Brien Press with the aim of showcasing “the very best of the next generation of Irish authors”. Online he can be found at his writing/music blog – ‘Rant, with Occasional Music’ – and on Twitter as @derekf03