Lyrics and literature in Symphony of Ghosts
Dan MacCormack’s debut album creatively interacts with the work of David Adams Richards
Halifax singer-songwriter Dan MacCormack dives into the literary world with an homage to novelist David Adams Richards. On his ten-track album Symphony of Ghosts, each song is based on or inspired by a different novel by Richards.
Atlantic Books Today recently sat down with MacCormack to talk about his creative undertaking.
Where did this fascination, or obsession, if you call it that, with David Adams Richards begin?
I had been a reader of David Adams Richards for a number of years and I got initially hooked on him when I read Mercy Among the Children. I’ve always been a fan of Atlantic books, and just eventually happened upon that book. In reading it I really recognized a lot of things, like character interactions and emotional responses to the world outside the community that the book was set in, and similarities between where I grew up outside of Sydney, Cape Breton. That’s what really drew me in, and I just started to find other books he had written and work my way through his catalogue.
How did that connection come about, between Symphony of Ghosts and his work?
I had probably read six or seven of David’s books and was reading For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down, and I was trying to capture a sentiment in a song I was working on at the time. I came across this quote spoken by a character, Jerry Bines, he says “we all know the end will come, you either face your hunters or run from them” and it perfectly captured what I was trying to write about in my song. So I decided to scrap that and take David’s direct quote and use it as a chorus for a new song, and I built the rest of the song around the character of Jerry Bines, telling his life story. After I did that, the whole idea of the album started to unfold in my mind and I started to consider how great it would be to approach other books in a similar kind of fashion or at least be able to interact with his work creatively.
Had you already read all of the books that you used for Symphony of Ghosts, or were there some you picked up for the project?
Right away I had an idea of which books would translate well so I went back and re-read those and worked on a couple songs, and I picked up some new ones that I hadn’t read. In the end, I ended up reading all of his books. I read them all twice. Once just to get an idea of which would be better suited for the approach I was taking, and the second time to take notes and figure out how I could approach each novel so I wasn’t using a common approach. For example, I wasn’t going to take a quote from another character and use it as a chorus again. So once I exhausted an approach conceptually, I moved on and developed another way to look at the book. I took into consideration things like representing different publishing periods, because he’s got such a long and creative history. I didn’t want to release an album where it was seven songs based on all of the newest books.
Additionally, I read support material. For one song, “Good Friday”, it’s about logging communities in New Brunswick; the book The Friends of Meager Fortune is the basis for the song and it takes place at a time when hand and horse logging is sort of being ousted by machines and so on, and David referenced this book called Lumberjacks by Don MacKay, which is about the lumber industry in Canada. So in doing the project I made sure to read those books as well. For one of the other songs I read War and Peace because it fit into the concept of what I was trying to do. I really wanted to make sure I covered all of that ground. Just to make sure this makes sense, that took five years to do. The writing of the album, reading and going through that process took five years and then recording took a year.
How do you define the connection between his work and your songs, as an interpretation or an inspiration or a bit of both?
Each track is specifically based on or inspired by one novel. But I think there’s a spectrum, with one end being ‘inspired by’ and one end being ‘based on’ and they all fall at different points within that spectrum. When I wrote “Good Friday”, it’s very much based on the life of these loggers and the logging camp and it talks about Good Friday, the mountain in the book where they’re working. So the song gets a little specific, but that’s pretty much as specific as it gets. I avoided using character names but I used a few place names. They happen to suit the context. And there’s the other end of the spectrum. I really didn’t want to go too far with the ‘inspired by’ side of things because then it gets a little wishy-washy. I really did want this to be an interaction with David’s work and not just me reading his book and then sitting down and writing any type of song without giving it much thought about how it connects to the book and then saying, ‘well since I read the book and wrote the song right after it’s therefore inspired by his work’. That was a real challenge and something that I was really conscious of over the course of those five years, really making sure that I captured the sentiments that I was taking from the books, but at the same time not get too specific and not get too general. And then walk the line by making it musical as well.
That’s a tall order. Were you nervous about presenting this to him?
Well yeah, it’s a tall order because it’s not like people weren’t going to necessarily be critical about it or look at it with a critical lens, so being a writer, I think you’re used to that lens. And I personally was very happy with what I had done. But I didn’t know him as a person at all and only really knew him through his work. So I had no real notion of what to expect in terms of a response from him at first.
So I was a little nervous. I felt good about my work and like I could move forward with it, but the fact that when we did actually meet that he was very supportive and has been constantly since he found out and the project came out, it definitely makes me feel a lot better about what I’ve done. It’s kind of a sense of accomplishment that comes along with finishing the record, having his blessing.
You’re known as a musician, how would you define your place in the literary world?
As a songwriter I’ve always been really influenced by writers and by words and I’ve always taken a lot of care and put a lot of effort into writing lyrics. There’s quite a process before I am willing to commit something to recording and it’s mostly to do with lyrics.
My wife Penelope Jackson is a book editor, and works in publishing and when we work creatively, for example on this project, all of my songs when I’m at a certain point, I take them to her and she’ll give me feedback or make edits, so that gives you an idea of what our process is, and what my process was for this album. Especially because I knew that it was going to be presented to – and interest would come from – the literary world. I really put a lot of effort into making sure that the details of lyrics were edited well. I’ve always been more influenced by writers than musicians.
Did you enjoy the experience of connecting those two worlds?
When I came up with the concept for the album, it started to unfold in my mind how great it would be to be able to have a real purpose behind exploring my love of David’s writing and to have this reason to be returning to his work, to read all of his work, to read it multiple times and really get into the characters. I really set this project up for myself in a way that allowed me to really enjoy the process.
Would you consider doing it again?
I personally think the project is a standalone creative period in my life. I was inspired and moved to write because of an author that I loved at a time in my life. But I really don’t know if that inspiration will strike again in the future. At its core, the project is a creative project and I really had no notion of possibly marketing it. I really was just focused on the creative aspect. So I can’t really say if that will come up again. I also have a lot of respect for David and his work in a way that I really don’t want to come off as this being a gimmick. And that was something I was conscious of while writing and while producing and really trying to keep focused on the reasons I was doing this and not allow any other kind of influence dictate the direction the project or songs were going to take.
The album has been dubbed “literary folk” which is a term I’ve never heard before.
I’m not really sure where the term came from. I don’t really know if it’s a genre or a description, but I’m happy with that. When I took the songs to a producer and they were deciding on a direction, there were notes that I made about each of the books and tone that I wanted to capture aside from just retelling a story or taking the inspiration and creating a song from it. I really wanted to make sure, for example, on Good Friday about the logging community that the production represented the sound of the deep woods in the middle of the wintertime. A lot of discussion happened about how to represent the tone of the elements of the novel that I was looking to translate.
I know that it’s a very specific idea but I also wanted it to be an album that people could listen to without needing a connection to the book in order to understand or to take away something from it. Throughout the writing process I was very conscious of this, like I was saying about not getting too specific in using character names. Then during production I worked with a local producer, Jason Michael MacIsaac from The Heavy Blinkers. He was the one that communicated a lot of musical ideas that kept a consistent thread throughout the whole CD musically.
In a lot of ways it was a very collaborative process where it’s David’s work, and then me as a songwriter and Jason as the producer and all of the musicians that were hired to play on the album.
Do you have a favourite track?
I don’t know if I could pick a favourite. I was really moved to hear on a couple of occasions David mention the track “Whisper in the Dark”, which is based on the book The River of the Broken Hearted which is a novel about, or inspired by, the life of David’s Grandmother and some of the trials and tribulations that she faced in her life. My song very much reflects some elements of that story that he commented on having sort of an extra meaning for him. He was getting to view his Grandmother’s life through me and my song that was inspired by the book he wrote based on that. So it was really neat to hear him talk specifically about what a song like that meant to him.
Do you have a favourite book by David Adams Richards?
I don’t know if I would necessarily have a favourite. I just really am looking forward to more work from him and reading more of his stuff in the future. At the performance we did together, Alexander MacLeod did an intro and said something along the lines that David’s work is kind of like one big book, one big huge novel and he just keeps adding to it. I just think that he’s incredibly prolific and I look forward to whatever book that he’s publishing next.