Songs can be gateways into worlds or other ways of being. Sometimes they're poignant, beautiful reflections. Sometimes they're incessantly optimistic pick-me-ups, challenges to be happy. And, at other times they're those weird dance tracks that say the same phrase over and over, a sort of music reductivism for the emotionally challenged.
When writing my debut novel, You Belong Here, I sometimes went into musical memory, and at other times heard songs that hit me, made me question what it was I was trying to say, and why. Sometimes, I'd feel inexplicably warm feelings towards songs that were, for lack of a better phrase, ‘a bit pants.’
Music is like that, I think. As human beings, we want to feel things. It's an invitation for the shy, encouragement for the distant or disassociated. In music we are heroes, losers, happy, sad, and all points in-between.
Every Woman In The World – Air Supply
I am the imperfect melding of an analytical dad and a ceaselessly romantic mother, so have some odd character quirks. The first is my fully-formed dream of finding my love from about aged four. By five, my favourite song was ‘Every Woman In The World’ by Air Supply, although I thought the chorus went:
‘You’re every woman in the world to me,
You’re as fat as me,
You might be-ality.’
I’d like to say the song seems crap now, but to do this would be to deny my natural being, my capacity for love, longing, and schmaltz…and that love of schmaltz is as real as my joy when reading Richard Brautigan, or walking the Kunst Gallery in Zurich. For, while I've always been able to appreciate beauty and excellence, I'm just as comfortable when being a total cheese ball.
I fell in love hard for the first time with Kelly Brazier; so hard, in fact, that she bowled me first ball in cricket. By year seven, it was Natalie (I used to sing Steve Winwood’s ‘Valerie,’ replacing that name with hers.) Soon after came less worthy but equally intoxicating people. They were all surface but no substance, as can be seen by their songs, ‘(Everything I do) I Do It For You’ by Bryan Adams, and ‘Unchained Melody' by the Righteous Brothers. Just slow dance sludge, a lazy longing, as if by choosing LOVE, all-caps, I could woo our unions into reality.
When I finally met the love of my life, I felt as though I was Air Supply, no longer longing but living that joy, those feelings, seeing her face in my mind as the two Russells (Graham and Hitchcock) collectively lost their shit over love and its incredible awesomeness.
It's inevitable that in a family so fuelled by love, and the dream of love, the characters in You Belong Here would be similarly defined. Emily perhaps bears the greatest brunt, with Jay a close second, but in truth, my book is intentionally a family love story; a way in which to love and to explore love, as it felt for every member of the Slater family.
The Man You Are In Me – Janis Ian
It is a truth universally acknowledged that it’s near impossible to write convincing female characters without inhabiting the world: their hopes, fears, and obsessions.
The closest I ever got, what with the penis and all, was listening to Janis Ian as a boy, charting my Mum’s emotions as she moved from track to track. While some of Ian’s songs, like ‘Stars’ and ‘At Seventeen’ are neutron blasts of ‘ouch,' ‘The Man You Are in Me,' is something else, the tracking of all her lover is and could be. The way, when with her, that he opens up, and shows his secrets.
It may be that Janis is way off, that Jen and Emily need less Janis and more Joni and yet it's hard to debate Ian's intent. It's as if every song is a chance for her to confess, or admit something she's otherwise too scared to discuss. To me, she was a gateway into women's worlds, and an inspiration to be sad, vulnerable, brave, angry, or whatever else my characters needed.
I gave Jen and Emily similar free reign to feel and confess, and I hope this means they're more real, more fully-fleshed than the majority of female characters, as written by male authors.
I Don’t Want To Talk About It – Rod Stewart
I hated this song as a kid. I guess that’s because unlike Janis’s songs of hope, this was about loss and sadness, feelings I would get to know much better in my later years. At the time, though, he could just as well have been singing about mortgages.
Jay, I imagine would also hate this song, but for different reasons, namely that it sounds like a cat drowning. Alex would say he hated it but would secretly love it, and Emily would throw the cassette out of a moving car.
While singing this song, my Dad would often put on an exaggerated voice, eke out every last ounce of emotion. It was funny at the time, and indeed, my Dad is still one of the more hilarious men I've met, from acting ‘weird' in the middle of a crowded shopping strip, to putting on outrageous French accents whenever he calls me.
The song itself is less funny and proved sadder once I'd written Jen and Steven's journey in You Belong Here. Rod, thankfully, becomes so cheesy in his later years that you could grill him on a piece of toast with cracked pepper. All things said this is still a decent track, though, not least for some killer string/guitar duets towards the end of the song.
Drop the Pilot – Joan Armatrading
So my parents split up, and it would be easy to read too much into that in relation to You Belong Here. But to me, their split proved more a kick than a gut punch, and I'd never been more active. This burst comes out somewhat in Alex and his cricket, his riding, and running, but also in Jay and his manic energy.
When something breaks, you start looking to fix the problem. But divorce is not a bullet, it's a bomb, and the shrapnel hits everyone. For a while, it's all incredibly sad. And yet, it’s also that kick. When your father’s gone, and everyone’s stealing the best food from the shopping, you'd better be quick or you'll be stuck with the tzatziki.
Laurie Steed is a writer and editor from Perth, Western Australia. His fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and has appeared in Best Australian Stories, Award Winning Australian Writing, The Age, Meanjin, Island, Westerly, and elsewhere. He lives in Perth with his wife and two young sons. To find out more about Laurie and You Belong Here please click here.