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Words and music: Grace O'Connell and Tony Dekker (part 1)

Brad Frenette

Words and Music pairs up a Canadian novelist or poet with a Canadian songwriter for a conversation about the art and process of writing.

With the release this spring of her debut novel, Magnified World, Grace O’Connell was welcomed to the CanLit landscape with open arms. The Toronto-based author was declared “a beautiful writer” by The Walrus, while fellow novelist Andrew Pyper stated the book showed “a distinctive authorial voice that’s already found itself.”

Songwriter Tony Dekker founded his band, Great Lake Swimmers, in 2003, and has released five studio albums since. Their 2009 record, Lost Channels, was shortlisted for the prestigious Polaris Prize, and their followup, New Wild Everywhere, was released earlier this year.

For this instalment of Words and Music, we paired the two writers together to exchange emails with each other. The result was a thoughtful discussion about first attempts, common themes between the forms and the importance of place in the creation process.

Part one of the conversation is below:

Grace O'Connell: Do you remember the first song you ever wrote? If so, how do you feel about it now?

Tony Dekker: Music and writing has always been fused together in my mind. In my case, on the guitar, it was fretting two strings and strumming them – a "power chord." There was enough power in that movable shape to set me on fire, imaginatively speaking, and I think at the time I was paying a lot more attention to the magic of it, the voice with music, than making any sort of statement or telling a story. So, phase one of my songwriting, in my early teens, was putting a lot of banal, everyday things into these melodies and plunking along with these weeny little chords.

Over time and through my teens I put together little bands ... I grew up in a really small farming community in southern Ontario and there really wasn’t much else to do. By the time I left home, I had finally reached some level of proficiency on my instrument, and that brings me to when I’d really consider my first real songs were made. I was studying literature when I left home and really soaked it all in, and songwriting was a vent. It was something I was compelled to do, despite my auspicious forays into academia. I switched to an acoustic guitar, learned all the open chords and wrote songs that made sense to me to play by myself.

As I finished school and moved to Toronto, more songs poured out, and ultimately a lot of them wound up on the first Great Lake Swimmers album. The song “Moving Pictures Silent Films” was in that first group of songs, and also “This is Not Like Home.” There was a lot of raw emotion there. As a performer, sometimes once you write a song and release it into the world, you are stuck with it, for one reason or another. But here I am, well over 10 years after that fact, and we still include those songs in our setlist. I’m still satisfied with that early material, especially because in some ways it’s like a document. I took great pains to record them in an unconventional way, so that makes that particular recording even more of a true record, as in, a document. Even then I felt like I had to build them to last, despite the fact that I believed nobody else would ever really hear them. I was relieved when I was able to repay the loan I took to make the first pressing of that record.

O'Connell: With lyrics, like poetry, so much rides on a small number of words. I find your songs so beautifully balanced – how do you pare down to the core of a song?

Dekker: Writing lyrics does require an economy of words, it’s true. One of my goals in writing songs is to make something that is melodic and interesting musically, but also to write lyrics that have deeper layers, that challenge and reward the listener when it gets analyzed a bit. Songs can also be like snippets of a conversation. I think it’s important to identify the kind of song that you’re writing in order to work with it. It requires a lot of deep listening and relies a lot on feel. I think that keeping an eye on both the larger meaning and the little details can also be a sort of key. Being able to zoom in and zoom out, and see things microscopically while at the same time reinforcing a larger theme. I think a lot of popular music out there really demotes lyrics to an afterthought.

O'Connell: How did you celebrate the first time you finished writing an album?

Dekker: I was so nervous when the CDs were finally pressed. I really had no idea what I was doing. I was kind of scared and a little blue, sad that the process was over, and yet filled with nervous excitement. I probably drank a beer.

Tell me a little about how you got started in writing. What are some of your earliest memories putting pen to paper? How has that stayed with you, or how have you outgrown it, or grown into it?


O'Connell: Aside from the many childhood stories of unicorns and dragons (and something about a wicked Rat King, if I recall correctly), my main start in writing came through poetry. Though I don't write much of it anymore, those early – and admittedly terrible – poems gave me a base to grow from, in terms of attention to word choice, a love of language and the power of imagery. They were also the vehicle through which I learned to take criticism and edits, in undergrad workshops. Poetry certainly isn't something I outgrew or graduated from; rather it's a sort of musculature for my writing process now. In a strange way, the economy and emotional impact of poetry is what taught me to write prose.

Dekker: What was the best advice that you’ve ever been given, artistically or otherwise? Did you follow it, or ignore it, or even partially use it? Did it encourage you to change your course in life or in your writing?

O'Connell: During my grad work, I had the pleasure of working with Lisa Moore, one of my favourite writers. She served as a mentor, and helped me cut out some unnecessary passages from an early version of Magnified World. She told me she had once been struggling with a story where she needed her character to go to the store, in order to hit a particular plot point, and she was having trouble getting him there. A friend said to her, "Then why don't you just start at the store?" I think that's the best advice a writer can get; to get out of his or her own way. Now I often look at a piece and think "Am I starting at the store? Or am I getting unnecessarily bogged down?"

Did anyone give you a specific piece of advice like that, that stayed with you?

Dekker: I always go back to a comment made by a sound tech at one of the first shows I played as a solo act. I had been playing my own songs, or songs that I had been working on, and he basically said, “I think you might have something here, you should play more shows like this, play as much as you can.” It was a random, nice thing to say, but I really took it to heart. It made me think of things in a larger sense, that by practicing the craft of it, even if you make mistakes or produce some half-formed ideas, you’re always honing things, and there are always positive things that come out of performances or sharing ideas with an audience.

When I think about that, it reminds me that writing is an exercise, and you get better at it the more you do it. Like training for a marathon or getting in shape, it’s a cumulative thing, and it takes time and the simple act of doing it over and over in order to get better at it. Sometimes I think it’s like that Benjamin Franklin experiment where he ties a key to a kite and flies it into a thunderstorm to gather an electrical charge. Or that songwriting is like fishing, where you bait the hook and put it in the water and essentially have to wait for that big flash of inspiration to come along. There’s no chance of catching it if your hook isn’t in the water, or if you don’t have your pen on the paper so to speak, making it an important daily ritual.

I like what you said about the impact of poetry in your writing, and how it provided a sort of strong base for your prose. A lot of my songs start out as poems, in some cases longer pieces than could realistically fit into song, and then get transformed as they are set to music. Scansion actually plays a big part in my songwriting, with particular attention to metre and rhyme.

Caption under the book jacket reads: Magnified World by Grace O'Connell

O'Connell: Do you feel like your writing has changed over time, or do you think everyone is sort of essentially just the writer they are from day one?

Dekker: That’s an interesting question, because there are just so many ways of writing. Maybe it’s that it takes a certain disposition to really follow a creative life. On the other hand, it takes discipline and focus to narrow in on an idea. You have to feel compelled to do it, you have to love it and want to nurture it. I find myself going back to a lot of the same themes, but always narrowing the focus, and looking at different facets of it. I feel like my songs over the course of five albums fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

O'Connell: I completely agree with that. I think of it as: you can't be a different writer than you are – I couldn't wake up one day and decide I'm going to write like Coetzee or Marquez or even Danielle Steel rather than like me – but you can definitely get better in the context of the writer you are. It's not always sequential improvement; it's more like an improved understanding of your own process as you write more and more, that discipline you mention.

Dekker: What makes you get up in the morning? Do you find unwritten pages intimidating?

O'Connell: What makes me get up in the morning is probably food. But that's not very literary. So I'm going to say the chance to surprise myself. I love the idea of writing something that you didn't even really craft – that just comes up and is this strange little gem of a sentence that you feel like you haven't earned, a little bit of knowledge that you don't even really know. The editing and re-writing comes later and refines those things (and all the less fantastic stuff), but there's that little gasp of a moment that is just the best part of the whole thing.

Dekker: I can totally relate to that. I really live for those flashes of inspiration that seem to come from the air, as if the writing was guided by an unseen hand. Some of my favourite songs are the ones that just pour out onto the page into a complete thought and require very little editing. It can also be satisfying to get to that fourth or fifth draft and finally pin down what you’re trying to say. It has to be just right in some cases to really achieve the right tone, and that can be something that takes a lot of revision.

As a writer of longer fiction, how do you stay disciplined? Do you have a method or a routine?

O'Connell: I fit my writing around my work (and my procrastination), like most people ... so far that's been working out OK. A bit of desperation for time can be a good thing. I had a job once where I would write at lunchtime, and I actually got a lot done. A time crunch can be the best to keep you at the keyboard when things are going well – because there might not be another chance to get into that space later.

I like to write at night – I love the idea of sitting in a pretty window, writing with the sun shining in, but I don't think I've ever actually done that. I'm usually curled up on my couch in the evening with my laptop (which is probably bad for my back), or sitting up in bed and scribbling down something I want to use the next day. I wrote most of Magnified World on a laptop where the C key didn't really work. Maybe I'll have a proper routine someday. There's a part of me that is theoretically really organized – I love spreadsheets and lists – but so far it's been pretty haphazard.

I imagine musicians often find themselves under stricter time constraints for writing than fiction authors. Does that add to the intimidating factor, in terms of material yet to be written? Aside from a time crunch, what do you find is the best motivation to write?

Dekker: The only real intimidating factor is when I have the idea but the overall feel isn’t quite right, and I’m still trying to land it before getting into the final mixing stages of the music. I find myself being extremely picky about every word and phrase right up until the bitter end. A big motivator for me, though, is bringing the songs into the studio and then working on the music with the band, arranging things musically, and watching the songs come to life in a different way. I write all of my songs for guitar and voice, and I figure that if they can stand up to that test, then they’re worth adding more musical layers to. I’m not a very big fan of songs that rely on bells and whistles. They have to have solid foundations, good bones.

How important is getting at that specific tone for you, especially in the dialogue of your characters? I guess what I’m trying to ask is, do you find it difficult to bridge the many moods of a piece of long fiction, or is there an overall tone or mood that you have in mind, that maybe you keep coming back to, over the course of the work? With songs, because of their brevity, it may be a little easier to really encapsulate a certain mood, but I couldn’t imagine piecing together all of the different moods of a story, in language, theme and tone.

O'Connell: Mood and tone were huge concerns for me in the novel, because it's got such a sad premise (losing a parent) that if I wasn't careful, it could just be too unceasingly dark and depressing. I wanted to look at how bizarre loss can be, as well as how painful, so I tried to be true to life and let Maggie be sarcastic and grumpy and even playful sometimes. She gets a bit of an enemy in one character, and I think most people find an enemy, an adversary, kind of invigorating, so those scenes got to be a bit livelier in tone, Maggie's dialogue got more direct, and there was just more dialogue in general.

In terms of a central mood, I see the book as one about searching, rather than one about mourning. I think those are two sides of the same coin, but one is the more active mode, and that's what I tried to stay close to. I guess every book and song and poem is about searching in some way.

But a novel is a forgiving form, compared to a song. I can't imagine having so much riding on a few lines – it may be easier to hone in on a tone and theme but I'm guessing there's virtually no margin for error either, which is amazing to me. I'm very much in awe of songwriters.