We recently spoke with James Cook, author of the recently-released book Memory Songs. and formerly a singer-writer with the UK band Flamingoes. He first came to our attention via an article we read on Unbound, the crowdfunding publisher who has released his book. James' book is "more than a memoir, (and) stands as a testament to music’s power over the imagination" We asked James "Five Questions" about this unique book venture. Here's what he had to say.
Your book Memory Songs combines “autobiography with homage: meditations on major recording artists, all of whom had a direct or indirect influence on the nineties pop scene. Woven into this are explorations of some of your best-loved ‘memory songs’. Can you explain the creative process and what came first: the memory and story, the artist you had in mind, or the “memory song?”
The book was partly inspired by two essays, 'Eight Arms to Hold You,' by Hanif Kureishi (on the Beatles); and 'Hell of a Summer,'" by David Cavanagh (on the Triffids). Both pieces examine the intense relationship one has with music in one’s adolescence and twenties, and I wanted to attempt something similar. Also, the essays seemed to provide fresh insights into their subjects (not easy, if you’re writing about the Beatles), and made you want to go back to the records.
So, originally, the book was to be a series of interlinked essays about my favourite bands, and a particular song from each of them. But as I wrote, I felt there was also a story to tell about my own group, Flamingoes – a first-hand account of being a singer-songwriter during an unrepeatable cultural moment, the Britpop period. So the book became a memoir told through significant records, the ‘memory songs’ of the title. And that’s when it became really exciting, as that’s what interests me in non-fiction: hybridity, the blending of forms. That, and a rattling good read.
Speaking of influential artists, you mention your book has a timeline “that runs from the assassination of John Lennon in 1980 to Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994.” Those are two monumental losses in music; can you talk about your memories of those tragic events, and what effects they had on you?
When Lennon was shot I was still at school, and when Cobain killed himself I’d moved to London and was making records; so the two events feel like they were lifetimes apart, experienced by two different people. But there were definitely similarities between the two tragedies. Both felt shocking and unprecedented. And I was only just starting to investigate each artist when they died, so the deaths didn’t have the emotional impact they might have done. My mum, who lived through the sixties, was very upset when John Lennon died, and it was only recently, with the deaths of David Bowie and George Michael, that I understood why. When someone who was ‘there’ at so many of your pivotal moments while growing up dies, it feels like the passing of a valued friend, not some remote rock star.
Do you find any sort of relationship between songwriting and the longer form of a book, and if so, what kinds of things and how did the former help with Memory Songs?
I actually wrote short stories and a novel before I ever wrote a song – something I touch on in Memory Songs. But yes, there is a relationship. You’re dealing with characters and emotions in songwriting, which transfers to narrative non-fiction. And certain devices, like front-loading a tune with a hook are useful to know for chapter beginnings. Also, a song’s journey from first verse through the middle-eight, then back to a repeat of the first verse is similar to the essay form: Start from point A, go off on a tangent, then return to your introduction at the end. And the discipline to get something finished was definitely something I learned from writing songs. But a book takes a lot more stamina; in that respect it’s more like completing an album.
Your blog has a very funny “near-miss” encounter where Jimmy Page almost hears you play, a notion that seems to fill you with dread. Yet in your book, you promise to reveal “how to play ‘Black Dog’ properly.” So the question is: does Jimmy know and would he approve? I mean…what if you’re wrong? Could you ever recover?
Ha. Yes, the Jimmy Page incident. The instructions for playing ‘Black Dog’ appear in a jokey postscript. It came about as a result of watching too many bad YouTube tutorials. So I decided to work it out for myself. The part of the song I refer to is the tricky passage where the riff fights against the drums, which in retrospect is one of the oddest things ever to appear on a multiplatinum album. It’s a bit off; it doesn’t work, but kind of does. For me, though, it only adds to the song’s otherworldly quality. However, I may well have got it wrong. So Jimmy, if you’re reading, feel free to put me right . . .
Finally, we recently published an article on the perils of crowdfunding, particularly by artists, who aren’t always the best businessmen. Can you talk about Unbound, your experience with them and your attraction to this new concept, as well as any parallels you see with the evolution of the music business?
My experience with Unbound has been a very happy one. They’ve been nothing but professional, supportive, and friendly. I was attracted to them because they were putting books out there that a risk-averse mainstream publisher probably wouldn’t. But crowd-funding is hard work, which Unbound were very careful to stress in the workshop they run for all their writers. Raising the money yourself forces you to find your inner hustler, which, as you say, many writers are not good at doing. I think Unbound’s existence is, in part, a direct response to the state of publishing; which has definite parallels with the music industry.
In the music biz, there has been little investment in innovative artists for years – only in what will sell – ensuring there probably won’t be a new Kate Bush or David Bowie any time soon. Something similar has long been happening in publishing. But it will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years. The Good Immigrant, published by Unbound, was a big success – the kind of word-of-mouth hit that can’t be predicted, or bought by huge advertising budgets. All the major houses turned the book down; only Unbound had the wisdom to pick it up. So, who knows, maybe the majors will start crowd-funding imprints of their own. They have nothing to lose, after all.
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