Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tuesday Tune: Songs About Books by Carey Wallace

If ever there were songs tailor-made for the Tuesday Tune feature here at the blog, Carey Wallace's EP Songs About Books is it.  The five tracks are exactly what the title says they are: songs inspired by books Wallace has read over the years, ranging from Wise Blood to Ender's Game.

You can get the CD at Amazon, iTunes, and Bandcamp for a minimal cost, or you can go to the Songs About Books website and snag the tracks for free.  If you pay for the music at iTunes or Bandcamp, you get the added feel-good factor because all proceeds benefit African women and children through Fount of Mercy.  Another way to get the CD is to email Wallace and she'll work out a artisan's trade deal with you.  Make no mistake, this is a very unique music collection.

(By the way, I'd strongly recommend you get your hands on the CD version of Songs About Books.  The packaging is a work of art, filled with liner notes and vintage photos of readers with books--like the one on the cover art--which come from Wallace's private collection.)

Though Carey Wallace is not a professional singer--she's a writer whose novel The Blind Contessa's New Machine came out in paperback earlier this year--there's an undeniable earnestness to her voice which burrows deep into her lyrics.  At times, she reminds me of Liz Phair; at other times, she reminds me of a debutante from 1911 who has gathered the family in the parlor to sing ballads for their evening's entertainment.  (Both of those are compliments, by the way.)

Carey has partnered with her brother Mark and father Rick to record music that ranges from lullabies to folk-rock.  It's a diverse line-up which is sure to appeal to a wide audience of ears.  From the first bass guitar chords of the opening song "Wise Blood," you know you're in good hands.
Wise blood knows how to walk the way the wind blows
Wise blood hears grace whisper right behind

My favorite track is "Heavenly" (inspired by Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth), which you can hear near the start of this trailer for Songs About Books:

Carey was kind enough to answer some questions about the project via email.  Here's our interview:

Tell me about how the idea for the EP was hatched.
The EP was a way for me to make something creative in the midst of promoting a book.  Often book promotion brings all other creative work to a grinding halt.  This CD was my attempt to keep making things and doing creative work even while trying to let people know about The Blind Contessa's New Machine.  And it was also a way for me to say something I believe deeply: that no writer works alone.   All of us owe a huge debt to a large community of writers and readers throughout the world and throughout history.  Making an EP of Songs About Books was a way to celebrate them, and not just my own work.

When did you first start writing the songs?
I first started writing the songs when a good friend loaned me his copy of Ender's Game just before The Blind Contessa's New Machine came out in hardcover.  I started writing a lullaby for Ender on the train on the way home, and that gave me the idea for writing other songs about books.

Were you reading these books and heard the songs in your head, or did you come up with the idea for a conceptual album first and then go back to pick the stories to write about?
Writing fiction is a very deliberate process for me: I put in the time every day, no matter what.  Songwriting is almost the opposite: the songs come unbidden, based on what's happening in my world.  So the answer is: some of both.  "Ender's Lullaby" arrived on it's own, but after that I began to read books in the hope they might set off songs in my mind, which some of them did.  And in one case, "Heavenly," I began to write a song about what it was like to return to my own hometown after a long absence, and then added the details of Sweet Bird of Youth, because they seemed to dovetail with the themes that had already emerged in the nascent song.

I loved the CD package and especially the vintage photos.  These came from your personal collection, right?  How long have you been collecting photos like these?
I've been collecting these old photos for over a decade.  I first ran across them at antique stores, and somewhat shamefacedly couldn't stop myself from buying them--but also couldn't explain to anyone why I had, other than the even more nonsensical statement that I had fallen in love with the people in the pictures.  Later, the father of one of my creative writing students turned out to be a collector of real photo postcards, and helped me to focus my collection on them, rather than the vast category of all print. Over the years, the habit I couldn't originally explain has become a potent part of my own art: I've used the images in feather-boxes I make for solo art shows, and they're the foundation for the cover design for all the albums my brother and I have put out.  They're also wonderful images to spark my imagination as a writer: full of detail, but containing almost no facts, so your mind has lots of information, but also incredible freedom to interpret it. 

Who are some of your musical influences?
I listened exclusively to my parents' record collection as a child, and was allowed only minimal doses of "rock and roll"--so I'm incredibly familiar with the classic musicals (if you start singing Oklahoma at any point, my brother will continue singing all the songs through to the end), James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkle, and The Beatles.  These days I listen to an enormous amount of Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and gospel, along the lines of The Blind Boys of Alabama, Mavis Staples, Iris DeMent, and Nina Hagen.

What other albums have you and your brother recorded and released?
My brother and I have released about 80 other songs together as The Wallace Bros, and almost all of them are available for free download at www.wallacebros.org. Our first five albums came out under the title Popular Songs That Will Live Forever. Volume 1 was Lullabies, because Mark originally said that was all he was interested in as a songwriter. For Volume 2 we got a Casiotone keyboard with 16 drumbeats, so we called it Hip Hop. On Volume 3 I began to channel the voice of a 1920's backwoods preacher's wife, so it's a mostly a capella and fiddle record of Gospel tunes. Volume 4 is Country and Western, and Volume 5 is Rock and Roll. Our most recent record is called "Turning Night Into Day", and we record a Valentine's Single for our fans every year. You can hear the most recent ones here and here.

What was the reaction from your brother when you said you wanted to record this CD?
My brother was excited, because he loved the songs. You might think this would be a given since he's my brother, but in fact he's always been my most vocal critic, which is something I really value. If he likes something, I know he really likes it, because when he doesn't, he doesn't have any compunction about telling me. He was a more than full partner in this project, in everything from the arrangements to the packaging. I like to say that I write the songs, but he makes the music. I could never have done it without him.

Tell me a little more about Fount of Mercy and why you chose it as the beneficiary of profits from the CD.
Fount of Mercy is an organization dedicated to partnering with existing grass-roots organizations in Uganda to serve vulnerable women and children.  Many of my friends have been involved with global aid work, and I've heard all kinds of terrible stories of Americans doling out aid that has nothing to do with local needs: providing motorcycles in areas where gasoline is not readily available, in one simple example--or imposing western expectations in places where they move beyond absurd into dangerous.  Fount of Mercy is distinctive in partnering with organizations that Africans have already founded to meet their own needs.  I know and respect the American leaders, and am certain that they're using the funds in ways that are sensitive and respectful--and meet genuine needs.

Are there any more "Songs From Books" in your future?
I'm not sure! But in the meantime, if any of your readers would like to get a copy, they can find free downloads at my site, or get a hard copy by trading me for something they've made. So far I've received beautiful paintings, ceramics, cookies, translated poetry, short stories--even a container of homemade marinara sauce. I'd love to trade with any of your readers. They can just contact me at my email: theblindcontessa@gmail.com

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for pointing me in this direction, David. Definitely worth it! The music is great.