Do you ever read a book and think, wow, there should really be a theme song for this novel? Well, wonder no more, The Bookshop Band is here! This trio are making music out of great books — and doing it beautifully. But how do you boil down a 600 page novel into a three-minute song? We asked Ben Please, one of the members of The Bookshop Band, to give us a little insight into their process.
OK, this is a big question, but could you tell us a little about the process of translating books into songs?
Most of the books we write songs inspired by are handed to us by our local bookshop, Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights, in Bath. With the book, we get given the date on which the author will be coming in to talk. Armed with this deadline and the text, we then share the book round so we can read it, in time for a writing session a day or two before the event (and sometimes on the event day itself!). The session I imagine is a little like a book group, but where the output is a song or two. There is no set formula for how the book inspires the song – it could be the overall narrative, but more often than not it is an element; a character, a scene, a moment, a colour, a feeling etc… anything that we feel has resonated with us enough to inspire us to write a song. We find there is always something in a book that will stir a strong enough emotion in us to write a song.
What is the hardest thing about writing musical narrative?
I’m not sure our songs could be called a musical narrative in themselves. The inspiration certainly comes from the narrative and language of a book, but the songs take all sorts of shapes – mainly due to the huge spectrum of types of books that they come from, and the many ways in which a book can inspire you to write a song. But the hardest thing for us about the process is probably just trying to read the books in time – we’re all very slow readers! Once you’ve read the book, there’s inspiration for countless songs really, depending on the reader, so we find the actual songwriting exciting. Not easy, but it has it’s own momentum then, so you just let the songwriting process carry you through.
What is your favourite book-to-song translation that you’ve done so far?
One of the songs where we did take the narrative of the whole book and try and fit it to song was Mark Hodder’s steam punk novel ‘Burton and Swinburne and the Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack’. We actually wrote three songs on this book. It’s a really great yarn, in Victorian style, except in this book, Queen Victoria has been accidentally shot and so it’s Albertian times now. All three songs came out like a musical, and one was called ‘The Ballad of Edward Oxford and Spring Heeled Jack‘. Really good fun to sing, especially as we wrote it for one of Mr Bs book customers to play at their Steam-Punk inspired Jubilee tea party.
What book would you love to translate into song?
We’d love to do some more children’s books. We all have fond memories of our first books, and they are always so visual. We’ve started being asked to come and do what we do in school assemblies and it’d be great to do some dedicated children / teen fiction stories. If i had to pick one right now it’d be Ferdinand the Bull, by Muno Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson.
Do you start singing songs in your head while you read now?
Ha! Sometimes. Mostly not till after, as it’s nice just to read the book and just get lost in it, but sometimes they might spring up. When I was reading Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry I started humming the tune that we used in our song ‘How Not To Woo A Woman’.
What does the future look like for The Bookshop Band?
We’re just about to go into the studio to record the next two or three albums – we have 31 new songs to record, on top of the first four albums we did in our first year. (It’s all those deadlines from Mr Bs that makes us write so much). And then, from April, we’ll be off touring the UK and beyond. We actually start in Paris at Shakespeare and Co, and then go to Ireland for a ten day tour there, and then it’s off round all corners of the UK for the rest of the year. You can keep track at www.thebookshopband.co.uk (I’ll be adding the dates up there in the next couple of weeks).
Do you have any advice for aspiring songwriters?
Writing songs in The Bookshop Band has been a revelation for us as songwriters. We have all spent, and continue to spend, time in bands writing songs, where there are no deadlines or constraints, and songwriting can take forever. I used to constantly double guess everything I did, wondering if it was any good or not. In The Bookshop Band, there is no time to worry about that. No time to second guess. No time to wonder if we could have written something better. You get an idea, you run with it, you finish the song and then perform it at 7pm that day, and then that is done. It’s out in the world and you can write another one. And far from being stressful, the process has always been really stress free, and dare I say it, fun.