Tom and Holly, Story and Song

Posted on January 20, 2012


Over on her site, Holly Phillips is discussing influences on her writing. She has a few things to say on the subject, but the main focus of her thinking on this occasion is Tom Waits’s amazing ability to draw the strange out of the everyday and overlooked.

In other words, he does what the magic realists do: distorts reality just enough that you have no choice but to see just how distorted your view of reality already is.

What a brilliant way of putting it. And, even if she doesn’t admit Waits’s influence as often as she should in interviews, I can 100% see that aspect of his influence in Holly’s writing. I bought her first collection, In The Palace Of Repose, at the 2006 World Fantasy Collection in Austin, and devoured most of it on the homebound flight. Delicate, allusionary, eliptical, heartfelt wonderful stories, every one. And strange, yes. Just enough strangeness to make you look hard at the world.

Me and Tom Waits? I’m not sure that I could list him as an influence. His tales of downbeat Americana, I’ve always viewed as exotica rather than something that connects with my heart and my way of creating. I do love his work, though (for the most part – well, does anyone love ALL of Waits’s work?).  And I especially love the way he creates stories, lives, worlds that leap to life in the listener’s imagination. I even love the Bastards disk in the Orphans set, the one that’s mostly rambling, diesel-drawly  spoken word stuff.

What surprises me a little is that, after citing this arch-storifier as an influence, Holly marks a clear distinction between song writing and story writing. Maybe it’s because I do both, and treat them as complementary activities, but I see them both simply as ways to tell stories. The stories are essentially the same, it’s just that the mechanism used to tell them is different. You choose the mechanism depending on the story. Some require a short and specified treatment, some require unpacking. Some automatically suggest music, or lines that can be repeated, chantlike, as a chorus. Others require richer, denser language. Sometimes you can take the same idea and try it both as a story and a song. Sometimes you just have to write a goddam musical.

What *is* music after all, but a complementary language?

Anyway, good news abounds. After two months of appreciating Bad As Me by osmosis (I always have to new Waits albums make their approach to me, never the other way around), I’ve finally decided that it’s right up there with his best. Even better, Prime Books are going to bringing out a new Holly Phillips collection later this year.

These things make the world a better place.

Posted in: Books, Music