One year ago, I reviewed Chicago author Maryse Meijer’s raw and jaw-dropping short story collection, Heartbreaker. It’s been making waves ever since it was published. One such wave is being made by Kenny Childers, a musician in an indie-rock band named Gentleman Caller. After reading Heartbreaker, Childers felt the world needed to not only read this collection but also to hear it. As is his way, Childers sat down and wrote an entire album of songs. This one, however, turned out a little bit differently than Gentleman Caller’s previous five albums. Childers wrote one song for each story in Heartbreaker, drawing inspiration from the characters and their movements through their world. Now he’s trying to get the album pressed into vinyl.
The project is raising money on Indiegogo. If you’re as excited by the idea of listening to Meijer’s collection spinning on a needle as I am, you’re welcome to help out by donating or sharing. After we got wind that this was in the works, I was able to talk to Meijer and Childers about the project, their different writing styles, and their shared love of vinyl.
Sara Cutaia: Kenny, how did you come by Maryse’s story collection, Heartbreaker, and what about it inspired this album?
Kenny Childers: My good friend Heidi Gluck (fabulous musician!) happened upon the book out in Kansas. She was so excited about it and knew I’d love it. She went to the trouble of actually taking pictures of every single page of “Love, Lucy” and “The Fire” and sending them to me. It was the best book of shorts I had read since I read Carver for the first time as a youngster. It freaked me out and I read the last two paragraphs of “Love, Lucy” about fifty times in a row.
I was so taken with the book that I posted about it a few times, and tweeted out a picture of the last paragraph from our band account. Through the magic of the internet, Maryse saw it and emailed us, and I about fell out of a third story window. We hit it off immediately. She was so incredibly kind and grateful, and I felt like I was talking to an absolute superhero.
SC: Maryse, when you heard the first song/album, did it capture the tone you were trying to convey with Heartbreaker? Both as a whole and with each story? Was there anything new you found out about your own stories through the songs?
Maryse Meijer: One of the first songs I heard was “No One’s Daughter.” In the demo version it’s totally stripped down, just Kenny and the guitar. I remember getting chills as I listened—it was so haunting and so sad and so strong. Pretty much exactly the mood I was going for with the story. I liked that song so much I urged Kenny to name the album after it, which he did, wise man that he is.
Something that’s shocked me about Kenny’s songs on this album is how he has been able to get at a mood/idea/meaning that I didn’t make explicit in the stories, but that was definitely there. For example, there’s a song based on “Home” that’s called “Chase Me,” with the line “I am so glad/You are mine…the rest gets stuck inside me/but I’m so glad/you’re mine.” And another line, “She travels light/she’s left me here to die.” Those lines captured the perspective of the male character in the story, whose POV is never given. But Kenny seemed to know what was inside him, getting at something I couldn’t say in the story but felt so strongly. I could give many more examples of lines in the songs that do this same thing. It’s kind of a relief, actually, to have someone else say the things that, for one reason or another, I couldn’t—to have made explicit feelings and ideas I had to kind of bury in the writing. And the longing and the frustration and the panic and the danger and even the humor of the stories is in this album, but it’s all been transformed into something extra.
And, also, the music has absolutely made me think about the stories in a different way. I love how “The Fire” takes a character who I think is kind of a loser and makes him into a rocked-out hero, which is how he sees himself. And rightly so, it turns out. “Sweetheart” has such a happy sound, reminding me of the tenderness in the story it inspired—a tenderness which I had lost track of.
At the same time, I want to make it clear that I don’t see this album as a soundtrack to the book. I never could have written any of this music myself (or, rather, imagined it, as I can’t write music at all), nor does it sound like music I listened to while writing the stories. Kenny heard into and around and behind and under this book, and that’s thrilling, but he’s also telling his own stories here, and musically this is completely his baby. It’s a reflection of his genius and his talents and his sensitivities and his perspectives. I think that’s what makes it such an exciting project for me—for a few months I kind of forgot that the album was inspired by my work. I started listening to it as simply a really good album. When I heard the final mixes and we started talking about the final stages of the process it hit me again that, wow, this is both absolutely connected to Heartbreaker. But is also pure Kenny, someone whom I’ve come to know really well, someone who I count as a good friend. Both personally and professionally, I’m just incredibly humbled and flattered by and grateful for this music.
SC: Was there any type of collaboration that went on between the two of you?
KC: Maryse and I have actually written a couple of songs together, and though she will totally disagree, it went really well! We work in very different ways. I’m kinda like a firehose when I’m working, and she treats her work far more carefully, which I admire. If we actually sat in a room and tried to work together on a piece, she’d definitely murder me. Which would be fine. I’d still do it.
MM: Kenny is very generous, but I am objectively terrible at writing lyrics. Kenny would send me a line and I was supposed to reply with one of my own, and I just could not do it. It was rather humiliating. My impulse in writing a story is to tell the very minimum I need to to get the idea across—that’s where the editing comes in—but with song writing I have the opposite impulse. I tend to write way too much, to be too explicit. I don’t have a sense of how to shape a story inside of a song, but that’s what Kenny is so good at. And he’s sent me songs immediately after writing them and it’s insulting, really, how finished they are and how good they are.
KC: Someday I’m going to talk Maryse into writing and recording a record. She can sing too! But I think this illustrates in a nutshell how hard she works. She wouldn’t stop until she was absolutely certain something was really good. I wish I had some of that. I write plenty of crap, and sometimes I have no idea if stuff is any good or not. I could use an editor.
SC: You’re both writers, but in different genres. How do you approach your writing process?
MM: Kenny never revises, and I revise all the time. So that’s something I can’t really wrap my mind around, how he works. He writes constantly, and his production—both in terms of the work he does for himself and the songs he writes for other artists—is astonishing. I sit down without knowing what I’m going to write about. I follow a mood or an image or a feeling and see what happens. Then I go back and chip away at what I’ve got until it feels like I’ve distilled that initial inspiration into something that makes sense.
KC: Ha, guess I answered this one in the previous question, but yes, Maryse and I approach things so differently. I make, make, make and see if anything is there. If not, I usually just toss it all in the trash and forget about it. Her creation process is absolutely fascinating to me. She has talked about how she creates these worlds…how the ideas are sometimes born out of a paracosm between her and her twin. She seems to have invented an entire alternate universe of place, time, and beings before she puts the pen down. David Lynch talks about creating worlds, and then seeing what happens in them. I can’t speak for her, but what she does sort of feels like that. I want to be able to do that, honestly. I’m pretty jealous. I just feel something burning out from my body and mind, until it seems like my eyelashes are singeing, and then it explodes and it’s over.
MM: We should mention that when I discovered Kenny’s music, he was writing and performing as Princess Jesus for his darkwave band Sky So Dark. Princess is a bit like David Bowie, if Bowie had been abducted by some meth dealers and left in Appalachia for a few years. For a while I didn’t know what Kenny really looked like, I just knew what Princess looked like—makeup all over his face and lace dresses—and I remember thinking, oh, good, I can trust this person. He knows how to be someone else. Which is my main preoccupation—wanting to be other people. Hence the paracosm with my twin sister. When we started writing to each other we spent most of our time trading obsessions and talking about all the movies, music, and books we loved. I told him about my fascination with Alexander McQueen (who I was writing about at the time) and Isabella Blow, and he wrote a couple of amazing songs about them, probably the very next day. And that fascination with other lives, the way Kenny metabolizes his influences so immediately, is also something that I think we share in terms of how we use things in our work.
KC: Oh yeah. I sometimes forget that Maryse really only knew me as a cross dressing ghoul in warpaint for a good six months.
SC: Kenny, how did you approach writing songs based off of short fictional stories? Do you try to incorporate the entire story or just bits and pieces?
KC: I actually have always written songs about stories I’ve read, situations I’ve read about, and especially films. I take notes like such a nerd when I watch films. I don’t necessarily write about them intellectually. I write about them according to how they make me feel. I do adopt many details, but the songs are impressions that the stories leave on me. I couldn’t possibly incorporate the entire story, so I take the feeling that the story leaves me with, and then get inside a particular scene and character that I identify with in some way. I honestly don’t think one way or another about whether I’m accurately reflecting the story itself. I take the spark and just let it burn wherever it likes.
The thing about Heartbreaker, though, is that it is a collection of stories that already feels like a record to me. It has an atmosphere that carries from beginning to end, in the same way so many of my favorite records do. Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures,” for example. Each one is a separate story, but there is a rhythm to them all and a sense of overall place that becomes more and more familiar as you read through the collection.
SC: Are there any specific things you both consider in terms of what you want an audience to take away when you sit down to write? Or, conversely, is there a singular, personal concern you consider first?
MM: I think it varies, what you want someone to get from your work, depending on what the work is, but I’m almost always anxious that a reader be able to get into the world of a narrative with me, the way I do to have an experience that is, first and foremost, emotional. But even that wish comes later. When I actually sit down to write I am writing for my own pleasure—to give myself that experience of watching something unfold and of being inside someone else’s story. I want to see where the writing takes me.
That makes it all sound a bit masturbatory, but I think before you can write for anyone else you have to write for yourself, towards your desire, towards your own surprise and satisfaction.
KC: I will only think about specific people. “Would my friend Jorma like this song?” I can’t think past that. Or, anyway, it’s not very interesting to me to do that. I’ve written songs since I was a little kid. Until I started writing, I was a mess of a kid. It’s where I get a sense of relief. It sort of feels like I’m a tea kettle, the burner gets turned on almost every day, and the songs are valve that release the steam. I don’t know that I answered this question. I suppose the singular concern is my body screaming “WRITE OR DIE MOTHERFUCKER!”
SC: How often do you each find yourselves coming to other mediums of art—songs, literature, etc.—when you’re looking for inspiration?
MM: More or less constantly. Which I think is very common for writers these days. Almost everyone I know writes to music, makes playlists for stories and novels, or has that soundtrack in their ear. Moonface’s “Yesterday’s Fire” directly inspired one of the stories in Heartbreaker, and many more songs impressed themselves on the work in ways that are hard to describe. “Lithonia,” a song by Chicago artist Circuit des Yeaux, instantly made me want to sit down and write a story that became the centerpiece for my new story collection. A line from a PJ Harvey song became the title for another project I just finished.
For me, atmosphere is so important. And music brings atmosphere. You don’t have to go looking for inspiration in music. It’s there as soon as you turn it on. It’s maybe too powerful, really, because it’s so immediate. So you have to be careful about it, respectful of it, and aware of how it’s working on you as an artist.
KC: As a songwriter, I got bored with writing personal narrative songs a long time ago. You’ve only lived so much life. I tend to write more often from films that blow my mind than literature, but I definitely go to both mediums, and I write from the feeling that I get from the film or the story. Often, it’s triggered by a line, but it can also be triggered by the way something looks. I have to put books down and pause movies all the time so I can go record an idea. I’m far more inclined to be inspired by film and literature than I am by a song, oddly. Those mediums are more of a mystery to me. When I hear a song, I just analyze what decisions they made to make it. I’ve seen behind the curtain I guess. But I find that film and literature (and things people say in passing) will give me a new entrance into myself. When I go back and listen sometimes, I realize how much I’ve just written about my honest-to-god life, and it weirds me out.
SC: The Indiegogo fundraiser is very cool, but I’m curious as to why vinyl? Why not a digital album?
MM: For me, the physical object is so important. I would have been really bummed if Kenny hadn’t wanted to shoot for vinyl. It’s expensive and a pain in the butt in so many ways, but just as I don’t like ebooks, I’m not into music on computers. There’s something about the physical object that slows you down, invites ritual, and shapes the content in ineffable ways. Digital arts exist in two dimensions. They always seem ready not to exist, if that makes any sense. At least it’s always felt that way to me.
The way a physical object engages the senses is important and so rich. Also, vinyl is fancy. There’s a vanity to it. I’m all for that.
KC: God, everything Maryse just said. I’ve released things digitally before—just because there was no way to actually break even—and it feels very similar to not releasing anything at all. I find that listening to things on vinyl engages you in a way that a computer does not. First of all, it’s more communal. You’re not sitting there with headphones. Maybe others are listening too. You have to get up and flip the record, and the way that feels is incredible. Like you’re part of it. You participate in the listening experience in a way that you cannot on your phone or whatever.
Back to him again, but I love David Lynch’s rant on watching movies on a phone, which I think is a great parallel here. “Now if you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you’ve experienced it, but you’ll be cheated. It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking phone.” I just love that so much.
Learn more and support the project here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/gentleman-caller-lp-6-a-tribute-to-heartbreaker#/
Heartbreaker by Maryse Meijer
Published July 16, 2016
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