Nov­el­ist Laura Bar­nett talks about the al­bum to her lat­est work

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - James McNair writes for Mojo mag­a­zine and The In­de­pen­dent.

Sci-fi and fan­tasy writers aside, per­haps, one qual­ity much-prized by nov­el­ists is be­liev­abil­ity; that verisimil­i­tude of plot, dia­logue and cir­cum­stance that can give char­ac­ters real sub­stance. Laura Bar­nett’s lengthy new novel about fic­tional English singer-song­writer Cass Wheeler rings wholly true – no mean feat con­sid­er­ing the rather be­smirched rep­u­ta­tion of the “rock novel” genre.

“Ini­tially, there was a lot of fear in me,” says Bar­nett of Great­est Hits, the fol­low-up to her best­selling 2015 de­but, The Ver­sions of Us. “There is this idea that you can’t write a good novel about rock mu­sic, but in the end I ap­proached this book the way that I would any other novel. I knew that if I had a se­cure foun­da­tion of mu­sic in­dus­try re­search I could con­cen­trate on the char­ac­ters and hope­fully cre­ate some­thing with broad ap­peal.”

The in­ge­nious struc­ture of Bar­nett’s sec­ond novel has its own mo­men­tum. When it opens, Cass Wheeler (“I kind of imag­ined her as the English Joni Mitchell”, says Bar­nett) is in her six­ties look­ing back on her life. Hav­ing been out of the lime­light for many years, she has been tasked with com­pil­ing a great­est hits al­bum to ac­com­pany a new LP she has made, and so we fol­low her over the course of one day as she ru­mi­nates upon her se­lec­tions ahead of a lis­ten­ing party tak­ing place at her coun­try pile that evening.

What’s re­ally clever, though, is that the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal lyrics of each of the 16 songs Cass chooses for her great­est hits set in­ter­mit­tently pref­ace dif­fer­ent sec­tions of the book. This de­vice gives Bar­nett a nat­u­ral jump­ing-off point for back­story, each sub­se­quent chap­ter re­veal­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of its pro­ceed­ing lyrics, and more of­ten than not pack­ing real emo­tional punch.

As the au­thor un­wraps Cass’s life layer by mas­ter­ful layer, Wheeler be­comes real; a woman whom we re­ally care about, and whose mo­ti­va­tions and life-de­ci­sions we fully un­der­stand.

All of this would have been im­pres­sive enough, but it was while driv­ing on the M6 mo­tor­way to Scot­land, Bar­nett says, that she hit upon an idea that would give Great­est Hits an­other di­men­sion. “I sud­denly thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amaz­ing if this novel had a sound­track?’,” she says.

To that end, Bar­nett got in touch with English singer-song­writer Kathryn Wil­liams, ask­ing her if she might be willing to at­tempt the near-im­pos­si­ble, namely to bring the 16 fic­tional hits Cass Wheeler had writ­ten over the course of four or five decades into the real world.

“Laura had heard me talk­ing about my Sylvia Plath Hy­poxia project, where I wrote songs in­spired by Plath’s The Bell Jar,” says Wil­liams, “so she knew I had some kind of rel­e­vant ex­pe­ri­ence. Hy­poxia was re­ally hard and I’d only just re­cov­ered from it, but Laura was so lovely that I could hear my voice say­ing ‘Yes’. It was prob­a­bly only when I driv­ing to her house in Lon­don at mid­night af­ter a gig to meet her for the first time that I re­alised what I’d agreed to was kind of ter­ri­fy­ing.”

All the same, Bar­nett and Wil­liams sat down with the lyric of Com­mon Ground in front of them the next morn­ing. This early Cass Wheeler song, the reader of Great­est Hits comes to un­der­stand, was writ­ten about Cass’s rather dys­func­tional mother Mar­garet walk­ing out on Cass and her vicar fa­ther Francis for an­other man, when Cass was still a child.

“So I picked up my gui­tar and that first song came out”, says Wil­liams. “It was so nerve-wrack­ing. Af­ter I fin­ished singing I looked up and Laura had tears in her eyes and then I had tears in my eyes. She said it was like a char­ac­ter that had lived in her head for so long com­ing to life in front of her.”

Wil­liams went on to write or co-write the mu­sic for the other 15 Cass Wheeler songs out­lined in Bar­nett’s novel. Work­ing with Romeo and Michele Sto­dart of The Magic Num­bers, among oth­ers, she recorded and mixed Great­est Hits the al­bum at a gal­lop, fin­ish­ing it in two weeks. When she and Romeo Sto­dart came up with a pi­ano ar­range­ment for Edge of the World, an­other key song from the book, Bar­nett liked it so much that she went back to amend the lat­est draft of her novel ac­cord­ingly, as it had Cass Wheeler writ­ing the song on her Martin acous­tic gui­tar.

Touch­ingly, the book also has a small homage to Wil­liams which Bar­nett added at the 11th hour. On page 293, Cass Wheeler’s late-pe­riod record pro­ducer Cal­lum men­tions see­ing Wil­liams per­form at The Union Chapel in Is­ling­ton, Lon­don, and won­ders if they might get her and Cass Wheeler on the same bill.

Bar­nett is a former free­lance arts jour­nal­ist who is mar­ried to rock mu­si­cian Colin MacIn­tyre of the Mull His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety. But she was sure to aug­ment her good work­ing-knowl­edge of rock mu­sic and the mu­sic in­dus­try with plenty of good old-fash­ioned re­search.

“I spent about five months read­ing bi­ogra­phies of ev­ery­one from Joni Mitchell to Sandy Denny to Chrissie Hynde,” she says, “and I also spoke with PR Andy Prevezer (chief UK press rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Fleet­wood Mac, Neil Young, etc) to ask what a big rock band tour looks like from the in­side.”

Such dili­gence en­sures that ev­ery char­ac­ter in Great­est Hits is beau­ti­fully-drawn. Among them are Ivor, the gui­tarist who be­comes Cass’s

co-writer and hus­band, but can’t han­dle liv­ing in her shadow, and Larry, the hand­some and well-in­ten­tioned sculp­tor whom Cass meets late in life, when she’s bat­tling the trust is­sues en­gen­dered by all that has hap­pened to her.

Cass Wheeler cer­tainly emerges as a unique and com­pelling char­ac­ter, but is she also partly a com­pos­ite of real-life mu­si­cians, I ask Bar­nett? Isn’t there some­thing of the Ste­vie Nicks and Lind­sey Buck­ing­ham about Cass and Ivor’s dys­func­tional re­la­tion­ship, for ex­am­ple?

“Ha! You’re very per­cep­tive,” says the au­thor. “Cass and Ivor were not in­spired by those peo­ple di­rectly, but when you are try­ing to cre­ate a story with ve­rac­ity, you’re partly con­sid­er­ing real events that have hap­pened to real peo­ple. There are shades of Ste­vie and Lind­sey in that re­la­tion­ship, but there are also shades of any cre­ative part­ner­ship where two peo­ple are jostling for oxy­gen in­side the echo-cham­ber of fame.”

There is also a point in the book where Cass’s child­hood friend Irene meets up with her again in later life. Af­ter Cass has con­fessed all, Irene says she had imag­ined Cass’s life be­ing hap­pier and more glam­orous than it ac­tu­ally is. So is

Great­est Hits partly a de­bunk­ing of star­dom? “Yes, it ab­so­lutely is,” says Bar­nett. “When I was free­lance arts jour­nal­ists I used to do a weekly col­umn in The Guardian called Por­trait of the

Artist. I spoke to some re­ally big names, and it was re­mark­able how can­did many of them were about life in­side the bub­ble.

“The women artists es­pe­cially were of­ten strug­gling with their re­la­tion­ships, partly be­cause they were not ex­pected to be out there be­ing high-earn­ers. I’d say, ‘What have you sac­ri­ficed for your art?’, and they’d say: ‘Friend­ships. Re­la­tion­ships. Not hav­ing a fam­ily. Ev­ery­thing.’ Fame was a huge bur­den for them as well as a joy, and I def­i­nitely wanted to get that across in the novel through Cass.” Great­est Hits, the novel by Laura Bar­nett, is pub­lished by Wei­den­field & Ni­col­son.

‘ There are shades of Ste­vie (Nicks) and Lind­sey (Buck­ing­ham)... but there are also shades of any cre­ative part­ner­ship where two peo­ple are jostling for oxy­gen in­side the echo-cham­ber of fame Laura Bar­nett au­thor, Great­est Hits

Cour­tesy Chris Dono­van

Kathryn Wil­liams and Laura Bar­nett. Au­thor Laura Bar­nett and mu­si­cian Kathryn Wil­liams tell James McNair how they brought fic­tional ‘rock leg­end’ Cass Wheeler to real-life through her own Great­est Hits al­bum

Songs From The Novel Great­est Hits

Kathryn Wil­liams One Lit­tle In­dian, Dh47

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