Eva Hibbs, Editor at Still Listening took the chance of the Bookshop band’s presence at Tandem Sunday #2 for a quick Still Listening style interview.
Back when we were firmly part of the EU, the parents of a Tandem founder caught Beth Porter and Ben playing their literature-inspired songs in Paris. And, as all those who connect over good books (and wine) do, the group stayed in touch. Two years later and we’re hosting the band for Tandem Sunday #2 at the lovely Silvie café in East Oxford.
Tonight marks the beginning of Beth & Ben’s Before I Crack tour. It’s the ninth album they’ve released this year – yes, ninth – & it is a 13-song response to books written about longing & developing. The least we could do was fill the room on their behalf.
We caught up with the couple about their lives touring as bookish musos & calling Scotland’s National Book Town home.
Would you guys like to introduce yourselves & talk a little bit about how The Bookshop Band came about?
BEN: I’m Ben, & this is Beth, & we write songs inspired by books. It happened because our local bookshop in Bath asked us to come & play some music at their author evenings. Originally, it was going to be covers, to spice up the ordinary author-talks-about-book-audience-ask-questions format, but we thought it would be quite fun to write some songs for the occasion. Very quickly that turned into writing something about the book & that’s what we’ve been doing for the last six years.
So the whole journey was sparked off by this opportunity in Bath?
BEN: For the first season, we were actually writing songs to a theme. The bookshop would put on nights inspired by particular countries, so we wrote songs inspired by popular folk stories from that place. It wasn’t till the first event of the second season – a night themed ‘Adultery’ in aid of The Paris Wife, a biography of Ernest Hemmingway’s first wife – that we weren’t really sure what to do. Then a girl we were travelling with told us she’d heard an adaptation of the book on Radio 4, & that inspired us. We thought: maybe we’ve got time to write a song inspired by the actual story.
Hemmingway’s to thank then?
BEN: Yep. Or his wife, Hadley Richardson.
How do you choose the books you’ll write about?
BEN: They’re curated by Mr B’s, so we end up reading books we would have never read before, across all sorts of different genres.
BETH: We’ve rarely chosen a book, & I think that helps because it widens the scopes & it gives us a deadline.
The bookshop you mention in Bath is the superbly named Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. Is touring a case of hopping from one crazy bookstore to another?
BEN: It’s a bit more eclectic than that this time round. There’s a couple of churches, house concerts. We’re playing at The Savoy Hotel tomorrow, so it’s a bit of a mash up.
BETH: Quite often it’s been bookshops we play at, though.
There’s City Lights bookshop in San Francisco that’s famous for being the home to the beatniks of the ‘50s, & Barter Books in Northumberland that’s known for uncovering the Keep Calm & Carry On poster, are there any bookstores from your travels that stick in your mind as being particularly special?
BEN: They’re all special. They’re so different because they physically can’t stock the same stuff in each shop, so they have to make a decision about what they want to stock. That way, you have this curation that happens in each that tells you a little about the people running it, the audience.
BETH: We’ve seen some magical places & met some great characters along the way. I would say The Albion Beatnik here in Oxford is particularly special, actually. & then there’s where we’ve just moved to in Scotland, Wigtown, which is a national town of books. It’s a magical place.
So you have quite the connection to the literary world now.
BETH: Definitely. We’ve been in the music world for so long. Partly in the folk world, or the indie rock, & it’s actually quite refreshing. One of the only musical events where we live is the Orkney Folk Festival, which is very much associated with books as well.
BEN: Normally you’d be playing in music venues. It can be a bit grime-y – things happen a bit late so it can be rushed. But the bookshop gigs are different. They start by seven & everyone, the band & the audience, all get a glass of wine halfway through –
Just one, though.
BEN: Yeah, just one. & by the end, you might have had two & it’s all done & dusted by nine. You can be in bed by nine thirty, & ordinarily you wouldn’t have even started yet.
BETH: I do feel a bit out of my depth sometimes, though, because somebody will start a conversation about something literary & I’ll think – ah, this isn’t my world.
But I’m sure the reason they want you there is because they appreciate having your perspective.
BEN: Absolutely. & there’s no reason why our perspective is worth anything particular, it’s just a reader’s perspective on it. Neither of us have studied literature, it’s just literally someone who’s read the book putting what inspired them into a song.
It must be refreshing from both sides.
BEN: I think so. All the songs are an emotional response so quite often we feel as if we’ve written quite a bizarre song that ricochets off the subject matter completely, but then you play the song to the author & they say something like: “Ah, that’s exactly what I was trying to get across.” It’s a very intense experience but it’s always positive, even if it’s emotional.
So it can be an emotional exchange, then?
BETH: Especially when it’s autobiographical.
I suppose there are dual elements to your response: firstly, the words you use & then the musical accompaniment.
BEN: Every time we write a song, it’s a new process. Because the writing happens so quickly, you don’t really have a chance to worry about it. Somehow, in some way, you have an idea & then just run with it & see what happens. So, that’s quite a refreshing process – to not have a process.
Was the lack of process a conscious decision?
BEN: No, we’re just slow readers. We’d only ever finish the book on the morning of the event.
BETH: It’s definitely a good way of doing it, though, because you do have to go with the first thing that comes into your head, go with that idea. You have to follow your subconscious to a certain extent. The important thing for me is that the writing happens really soon after finishing the book, because otherwise you forget that feeling.
BEN: Part of the beauty of it is reacting to something new, straight away. It can come in any form – parts of the story, a theme or even just a colour. It might reference & guide the lyrics or it might define the lyrics. They’re all so different, which is good, because there’s never way it should come out.
Catch The Bookshop Band on tour at one of these venues:
MARCH – 1st St Mary’s Church, Tetbury – 2nd Stroud Valley Artspace, Stroud – 4th The Royal Oak, Bath – 7th St James Wine Vaults, Bath – 8th Bookbarn International, Bristol – 9th Chapel Arts Centre, Bath – 11th Albion Beatnik Bookstore, Oxford – 16th Daunt Books, London – 19th Old Bank Books, Dumfries
JULY – 27th Port Elliot Festival, St Germans
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