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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 1 March 2021

Do novelists make good songwriters?

The offspring of famous musicians are turning to prize-winning novelists to write their lyrics.

Pity the offspring of famous rock stars who decide to follow the family business. Sean and Julian Lennon have given it a go but have never come close to matching their father's exploits. The least said about Lisa Marie Presley's music "career", the better. But Harper "son of Paul" Simon has come up with a pretty clever way of circumventing such pressures. His lilting voice is clearly reminiscent of his father's, but it also has a cool, Elliott Smith-esque sound. Even he, though, has admitted he finds the writing of lyrics "difficult". The solution? Ask a Booker Prize-winning novelist to pen them for you.

And so the second track on Harper Simon's rather lovely debut album is credited to one Ben Okri. It's a fascinating prospect: he is the magical realist author of The Famished Road, a novel in which the prose was so poetic and beautiful it also inspired one of Radiohead's career highs, Street Spirit (Fade Out). The results? Well, Wishes and Stars probably won't win the Ivor Novello Award for songwriting with lines like "I'm as simple as a bee, as a melody in C". But it is a rather touching tune - Okri getting to the heart of what it is to be the son of a rock star in a way in which Simon may have struggled to nail himself. The centrepiece of the song has Simon plaintively cooing: "I'm not too certain about many things, I'm not too sure who I am, I ain't got no mother and I ain't got no father, I ain't got no girlfriend to hold my hand." And the refrain, "there are more wishes than stars", is archetypal Okri.

The backstory to this collaboration is interesting too: Simon asked his friend Okri if he'd be interested in writing a poem that could be adapted for song. Okri agreed, but overwrote Wishes and Stars to such an extent that Simon had to edit it quite severely. We'll never know whether "simple as a bee, melody in C" was one of his lines or Okri's (we're presuming the former), but the project was so fruitful they've since repeated the exercise for another track, Back in My Arms.

Their positive experience is very much the exception. History suggests that novelists do not make good songwriters. Last year, Nick Hornby teamed up with Ben Folds for Picture Window. It was a collaboration waiting to happen - the High Fidelity novelist is basically in thrall to American college rock and the two had previously worked on a song for William Shatner - but it sounded exactly how you'd expect something written by a novelist to sound: off-puttingly wordy.

Still, you can forgive one song here and there as the folly of an uninspired musician and a writer with delusions of being in a band. After all, most male authors of a certain age are wannabe rock stars. But a whole album? That was the idea behind One Ring Zero's LP, As Smart as We Are. Not household names, true, but somehow the New York band managed to persuade some of literature's biggest hitters - Paul Auster, Margaret Atwood, Dave Eggers, Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Lethem, among many others - to provide lyrics for their new record. Unfortunately, it only caused the tiniest of ripples in the consciousness of the music-buying public. The problem? The music was terrible, an uneasy mix of folk, klezmer and music hall that laboured under the conceit of the words.

The experience didn't put Lethem off though. The author of the bestselling The Fortress of Solitude and, more recently, Chronic City, went on to form the band I'm Not Jim with Walter Salas-Humara from cult alternative country band The Silos. Nice idea, but once again the songs were slightly pedestrian. So if musicians are still set on employing their literary heroes, perhaps they're best off following the recent example of another Booker Prize winner, Michael Ondaatje. Rather than write entire songs for the Canadian alternative country songwriter Justin Rutledge, the writer of The English Patient acted like a benevolent, professorial editor, teasing better phrases out of him or swapping lines around. There's a phrase in the current single Be A Man - "I am a pause in a storm on a dark stair whenever your name is spoken" - which comes directly from Ondaatje's pen, but fits perfectly within the confines of Rutledge's reflective music.

This, and the happy partnership of Simon and Okri, proves that sometimes writers can be the perfect solution to songwriting conundrums. Perhaps only Booker Prize-winning authors, though. We look forward to Hilary Mantel's collaboration with Keane. Surely it's just a matter of time...

Published: May 20, 2010 04:00 AM

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