Rock Lit is where Hive discusses the intersection of literature and music.
Torquil Campbell, frontman for indie rock band Stars and member of Memphis and Broken Social Scene, has an extensive history with writing and literature. The musician, who has a former career as an actor, majored in Caribbean poetry in college and has referenced dozens of novels, poems and plays in his songwriting — so many he can barely remember them all. Writers like Patricia Highsmith, best known for her novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Graham Greene have made their way into Campbell’s songs, creating a deep-rooted bond between his music and the literature he’s read. Since the release of the band’s 2003 debut, Heart, he’s used the back and forth dialogue between him and singer Amy Millan to tell or adapt stories, and on Stars’ latest album, The North, Campbell draws on a variety of inspirations including a Canadian play he saw last winter. Here, Campbell recounts his background with reading, his favorite pieces of literature and the connection between the written word and the sung lyric.
What was your entry point into literature?
I remember a lot of The Wind in the Willows, which I’m actually reading to my daughter right now. It’s an English book about animals in the woods, and that was a big book for me when I was a kid. My theatrical people, they were actors, so I was exposed to a lot of Shakespeare … And I remember having this book about psychic phenomenon that used to freak me out a lot. I used to sit and freak myself out with it, about doppelgangers and stuff. I’ve always had a bit of a macabre taste in literature.
It seems unusual that a child’s entry point into reading would be Shakespeare.
I remember being two or three, and I was learning bits of Shakespeare just because it was something my parents had around all the time. Because I was exposed to it. And really, Shakespeare is great for kids because if you leave behind the meaning, the words are incredibly exciting and there’s a lot of physicality in the sound of the words. It’s fun to say. People get too worried about what a kid is understanding when they’re reading, but I don’t think that’s really that important. They have the physical experience and the excitement of words.
Has that experienced with Shakespeare affected what you do now?
Probably. I was an actor for a long time. I played Romeo, and I played Henry V. I was in a lot of Shakespeare plays, so that was really my language for a long time. That was what I did for a living, and that was what my specialty was. I don’t know if it creeps into my pop music all that much except that I’ve definitely been accused of over-pronunciation. Which is probably true.
Has any other writing come to affect your music?
I’ve always been drawn to mystery books, to murder books. And that you can definitely see in my songs. There’s a lot of songs about people being killed or killing someone or plotting to kill someone or being found out from having killed someone. There’s a lot of crime in my songwriting.
Is there a specific book that’s made it’s way into a specific song?
Oh God, dozens and dozens and dozens. There’s just so many. I can’t even begin to think of them. Almost every song begins in a way with an idea that comes from a story either in a film or a play or a book or a painting. “Liar,” from our first record, was definitely inspired by Patricia Highsmith. And there’s a lot of songs in our catalogue that are inspired by Patricia Highsmith: “The Vanishing,” “Barricade.” She’s a big one for me, because she always wrote crime stories from the point of view of the criminal. There’s no mystery in it. The only mystery is how people can do these things. I’m really fascinated by that idea of how people get to that place in their lives where they do extreme things, even if it’s not killing someone.
Are there any songs on your new album that have a specific literary influence?
The song “The North” I wrote this winter after seeing a play called Snowman, which is a Canadian play. That was an inspiration. They really are all inspired by ideas from narrative that I got from being exposed to books and plays. The whole idea of Stars is based on dialogue, based on the idea that you could make songs that are like films or plays. That if you have two voices you have two points of view, and so you don’t just have to tell a linear narrative, you can tell a narrative and flip it around and tell it from the other side. That’s something that we’ve employed a lot in our songwriting. So we don’t really do confessional songs; we’re a storytelling band. We write songs about your life. That’s why it creeps in so much, because we’re a band that tells stories.
Are there any writers that you feel do dialogue really well and have inspired the dialogue in Stars’ music?
There’s so many! Chekhov does great dialogue in his short stories. And you know who was a big influence on me in terms of the sort of writing that’s inspired what I’ve been doing over the last few years, is Raymond Carver. He’s a great short story writer and he writes these very terse, very small stories that are largely dialogue-based. It’s what he doesn’t write – he’s a big disciple of Ernest Hemingway and what he doesn’t write that matters. In a song like “The Very Thing” from our first record where it seems like something has been left out and what’s been left out is the tragedy of what’s happened. Two people’s failure to communicate. Raymond Carver is amazing at creating those moments. And Grahame Green too. He’s probably my biggest writer just in terms of how he sees the world and the idea that everybody is fallen, that everybody is wanting grace and failing to get it almost all the time.
Have you ever lifted a line directly out of a book and put it in a song?
Oh yeah. I’m sure I have. Lots and lots, probably. Or if not directly out of it, then the gist of it. We had this phrase we used to write on everything — it was on all our records for years — which was “Luxe, calme et volupté” from Baudelaire, which means “Light, calm and voluptuous.” We had that as our motto for years. It was the kind of music we wanted to make. For a long time before the band even existed, I would write that on things. My arm, pieces of paper, other kids’ binders at school. It was my coat of arms. My mind always goes blank whenever someone asks me this, but I’m sure I’ve stolen lots of things.
Have you ever tried your hand at writing fiction?
I have tried my hand, yep. It’s a pretty weak hand. I have a little shed I go in. I’m writing a terrible script at the moment. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell says: it takes ten years to get good at anything. I’ve probably spent like six months doing it. When I’m 48, maybe I’ll be able to have something worth reading to somebody.
Is there a connection between the power of music and the power of literature?
The reason I loved F. Scott Fitzgerald so much, and I loved Tender Is the Night and I loved The Great Gatsby, is because he had so many great hooks. He would put images in there that were just simply beautiful. They were just there to be beautiful, and I love that idea that in being beautiful you can do something quite political and quite revolutionary. You can take a stand. Which is to say, life, no matter how grim and ugly, is beautiful. In me saying it, in me singing it, it becomes something special. You create the world in speaking it. That continues to be a big thing for me.
Is there a piece of writing you would recommend to someone who is a fan of your music?
I could list a hundred. What’s the one? Well, you could read Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. And anything by Patricia Highsmith. That’s a crucial one too. And Raymond Carver. A New Path To the Waterfall, which is a book of poems by him. Those three things are, for me, the Rosetta stone of what my writing is.
You said before that you get fixated on short phrases like that Baudelaire line. Is there any particular phrase you’re stuck on right now?
I’ve been writing my wife’s name on my arm a lot. I find it really helps when you go out into the world. Just to remind you what it’s all about and why you’re here.
The North is out now on ATO Records. Stream The North below: