Though peevish poets have been known to argue that lyrics are merely poems set to music, one need only recall Jewel‘s book of verse to realize that what plays on the radio won’t necessarily play on the page. Arab Strap‘s Aidan Moffat doesn’t consider himself a writer — he’s been working on a novel at the leisurely pace of 1.2 pages a year — but we’re happy to say the narrative tone of his lyrics rightly foretold a knack for storytelling. His short story “The Donaldson Boy” appears on the audio anthology The Year of Open Doors, a collection of modern Scottish writing out from Chemikal Underground.
eMusic’s Jess Sauer asked Moffat some questions about his foray into the world of fiction.
You are obviously very well known for your music, but you’ve also released a prose and poetry album and write an advice column for The Quietus. Do you think of yourself mostly as a musician, or do you consider yourself more of writer whose writing takes different forms?
I consider myself a songwriter and clumsy musician rather than any kind of writer because that’s the core and bulk of what I do. I don’t think I’ve had a substantial enough output in any other medium to qualify as anything else yet. I don’t do the advice column anymore and I genuinely miss it, it was great fun. But it seems that the Quietus readers weren’t as sexually and emotionally inhibited as we’d hoped they’d be.
What comes first to you: words or music? If the former, does writing stories feel like an intuitive extension of writing songs?
There’s no exact way anything happens, sometimes it begins with a phrase or a melody or both. But the songs I write tend to be of the ballad, storytelling type, so writing a story doesn’t feel too different. There are technical differences and limitations to each medium, obviously, but it doesn’t take much of an adjustment. A lot of the early Arab Strap songs were spoken monologues anyway, so I’m used to that style of delivery.
By the same token, when you’re writing, do you usually start with the idea or the medium? Do you imagine a character or a story first, then decide whether it would be better as a song or story, or do you sit down and say “I’m going to write a song now” and go from there?
The lead character — the hero! — in everything I write is always me, or at least mostly me. Even in the “Donaldson Boy” story, the elderly female narrator is little more than a thinly veiled Aidan Moffat, curtain-twitcher extraordinaire, and it was based on a very brief period a few years ago when I lived in the town where it’s set. All my stuff is autobiographical and rarely fictitious, although the odd embellishment for poetic or dramatic effect is always allowed. Sometimes an idea can work in many formats, though. I wrote some lyrics for an Arab Strap remix years ago and I recently turned it into a script for a short (and virtually silent) film. I’ve no idea what to do with it, I only really did it for fun and practice, but I’m quite fond of it. My teenage dream was to be a filmmaker but I never did get the qualifications required — I was expelled from school when I was in my last year — so I think that storytelling aspiration has bled into my songs and the occasional attempt at literature.
Would you consider any of your songs stories that could be read in and of themselves, or do they feel inextricable from the music?
I’m not at all sure. I was never too keen on separating the words from the music in the past, but as I’ve gotten older and more confident then I’ve started to think it might work in some cases. I started a book of Arab Strap poems, in which I was slightly re-writing the songs so they could work on the page, and I got as far as about five of them and then I just gave up. I didn’t really see the point — anyone interested in these words would probably already have the records, so why would they want to read them in a different format? The only real reason to do it would be to try and reach a new poetry audience, and I’m not that confident that the Arab Strap lyrics are strong enough on their own, so at the end of the day I’d rather people just listened to the records. But you never know, I may well dig the file out of my hard-drive one day and give it another go.
Do you feel like the first-person narrative mode of most songwriting is particularly good training for fiction writing? Has writing songs from different perspectives made writing stories from different perspectives easier, or do both seem like the same challenge?
Well, as I said earlier, I feel that the only perspective I write from is my own, and that’s because it’s the only perspective I feel I can truly know and make believable. I imagine most writers in any medium feel like this, it’s not so much a different perspective as effective disguises of varying success. I’ve yet to venture into proper fiction writing, but even if I do then I’m sure that all the characters, places and events will be 90 percent based on my real life.
Your story is recorded differently than the others, with the exception of Sophie Cooke’s, which is meant to mimic a rawer recording. Your reading’s audio almost sounds like a voicemail’s, and I wondered whether this was a conscious decision — the telephone sound mimicking the epistolary nature of the story, as well as referencing the mobile phone and voicemails in it. Was that the case, or was it recorded differently out of necessity?
I recorded mine on a Dictaphone tape and sped it up to sound like a caricature of the old woman’s voice. The idea was that it should sound like a recorded confession that had been posted to the local police station in cassette form. Somewhere in the story I reference the letter format, so in the recording I changed it to “tape” or “cassette,” I can’t remember which — to be honest, I haven’t listened to it since it was recorded. I never really listen to recordings once they’ve been released, there’s no point by then and it’s time to move on.
I know that “The Donaldson Boy” was also published in Vice Magazine. Did you write the story on either Vice or The Year of Open Doors ‘requests, or had you written this before? Do you have a regular writing practice separate from your music?
I wrote it in true cathartic style when I was still living in West Kilbride, the town where it’s set, and it was inspired by the same event in the story, i.e. I saw one of the neds ‘cars in the car park with a number in the window and had to fight the urge to send an abusive message. It was just for fun and therapy, and I only ever intended to show it to my girlfriend. But it grew and grew and then I decided I liked it — by this time I was back in Glasgow, of course — and then uploaded it to my page on the Vice magazine website. I was writing a column for them at the time and decided that one week I’d post a story instead of the usual ramblings. I do practice writing in different styles, yes — like the attempt at screenwriting I mentioned earlier — but very little of it is seen by anyone else. I only show it to people when I’m happy, and sometimes that takes a very long time.
Do you have any plans for a story collection or novel in the future? If so, would it be more likely to be an album or a book?
I’ve been trying to write a novel for years but have now made peace with the fact I’ll never finish it — 14 pages in 12 years, and I don’t even like most of them! I’ve got a proper musical album coming out next year (with Bill Wells) and then I might try another album of stories. I’ve been writing some children’s stories and was planning to do a book with genius comics artist Frank Quitely, but we met with an agent and it didn’t work out. So then I thought I should just stick to working in the medium and industry I know well, so hopefully I’m going to do a spoken-word kids ‘album and Quitely will illustrate the nice hardback book that will come with it, if our schedules permit. I’ve even asked my old Strap-mate, Malcolm Middleton, to provide some music for it — he agreed to it in the pub, which I consider to be contractually binding. Beyond that, I’ve got a few stories here but not enough for a book yet, and I was just thinking about this yesterday. I really should put some effort into pulling a wee book together, but time’s against me just now so it may take a while — I’m an expert at starting things but a rank amateur when it comes to finishing them.