Extras: What Music Means to My Writing Process
Headland 'Extras' are bonus content to complement the work in our issues. Often, they give a bit of extra insight into a story, but in Issue 18, it was a detail in an author's bio that made us want to know more—Heidi North's bio notes that 'U2 used a poem from her second collection We are tiny beneath the light (2019) in their Australasian tour.' Below, Heidi discusses the connections between music and her writing...
My relationship with music has always been obsessive. Despite many attempts, the secrets of music have always eluded me. I played piano, badly, for years. I could never, despite lessons, learn to sing.
When I was a teenager, before I could afford CDs and when music streaming services were a fanciful dream, I would listen to favourite songs on tapes, the songs recorded from the radio. Pausing and rewinding the tape every few seconds to note down the song lyrics. Then, when the lyrics were painstakingly recorded—likely misheard, but scribbled down—I would shut myself in my small wardrobe (to be far away from my family with my tuneless voice) and sing.
I wanted to know, from the inside, the intense and exquisite feelings different songs engendered in me; catch hold of the feelings offered up by each song and fly. Even if I was just alone in the dark.
I was careless with other arts; they came relatively easy to me. I could—passably at least—paint, hold a rhythm in a leotard, point a camera, march onto the stage and revel in the floodlit glow. I won my first writing prize at 14. So I knew in other arts that even if I wasn’t wildly gifted, I was competent.
But not music. And believe me, I tried. Aged five I begged my father, who is musically gifted, to teach me to play the piano like him. I still remember my frustration that under my fingers, the piano was nothing more than a wooden box, the thing wouldn’t do what I wanted, what I knew it could. Growing up, I stopped kicking the piano in hot tearful rages, but the frustration never changed. Despite the years of piano lessons, I could still barely read music. The sounds I made thunking and plodding. Despite singing lessons over the years, all I ever managed was a thin note fit for the chorus only. Everything about music was hard for me. The feeling of flight only happened when I listened. And usually when I listened to a song over and over (and over) again. (I’m so sorry to my family because this obsession was broadcast from my tape deck, in a pre-earbuds era. At least once, tapes went mysteriously ‘missing’ when I’d overused them.)
When I studied film at University, I couldn’t watch films without seeing the cuts; when I read novels it can be hard not to have a part of my brain taking notes on the mechanics. But music never revealed its secrets to me; my rational mind has never reached it. And maybe that’s why music’s thrall—specifically the urge, the need, to listen to a song on repeat—carried on, past my teenage years and became such a vital part of my creative process as I solidified into becoming a writer. Music allows me to fall into and hold a particular mood, slip on a secret skin.
My first poetry book was born out of a song—The National’s ‘England’. There is a line in that song that caught the breath in my throat one day: You must be somewhere in London / you must be loving your life in the rain. That line fired a shot to my brain that said ‘it’s time to collate your poems into a book.’ I’d returned from London three years earlier, and I collected up my writings of the last ten years and focused them around that idea of writing to my former self. The original title of my collection was Things I wanted to tell you. It was later discarded in favour of the more fitting, Possibility of flight as the book morphed into shape. ‘Things I wanted to tell you’ is a line of one of my poems from that collection, written not, as readers sometimes assume, to someone dead, but to a part of myself now gone.
It’s a carnivorous silence.
The women hold their hands
to the Rock and Roll
of grief. There were still
so many things
I wanted to tell you.
Possibility of Flight, Mākaro Press (2015)
For my second poetry book, We are tiny beneath the light, I found the title immediately, but I couldn’t, for a long time, find its song. Which worried me. I knew something was missing and I was having trouble finishing the book without it.
Then I heard Rag n’ Bone Man’s, ‘Bitter End’. The haunting, bittersweet tune a soothing accompaniment to a book about a relationship break down, my own loss and subsequent redemption. ‘Sweet love / my oldest friend / have we come to / the bitter end.
While I sat on my lounge floor and shuffled poems around, carefully discarding ones that weren’t truly part of the story, I listened to that song so long it was not words but the heartbeat in the background. And yet. It always felt as if something wasn’t quite right. A few other songs flitted through, but none quite caught me. It turned out the song for that book was waiting to find me.
Given my relationship with music and writing, it felt fitting that the band U2 unexpectedly plucked a poem from that book to use in their Australasian Joshua Tree tour. It was by perfect chance that the concert was just days before the book’s official launch, and while U2 couldn’t have known this either, the poem they selected was the genesis for the book.
Winter, Piha Beach, two years on
Our feet punch bruises in the black sand
and I am back in the burn of childhood summers
the circle of sentinel gulls
their grey wings tipped to catch the light
warn me back
but I go down to the white foam edge
bluebottles boated with their pretty poison
yield to the sharp edge of my stick
I go down to the place
where the wind kicks holes through my heart
and there is a child down there
too close to the ribbony horizon line
holding his blue kite
towards the updraft
still smiling as it lurches
against the wide white blaze of sky –
and I smile and laugh and I take my daughter’s hand
and together we run with him
because how can I tell them
all the brutal things are yet to come
We are tiny beneath the light, The Cuba Press (2019)
I’ve written about the deep pleasure and surprise it was to have U2 pick a song for me and to gift me tickets to their Auckland concert alongside a backstage pass to the family and friends lounge here: ‘When one of the biggest bands in the world bought my tiny poem’. How it pleased my layperson-music-loving soul. It was with such joy that I saw music and writing intersect on the big screen. My tiny poem becoming a giant, scrolling over the largest screen I’ve ever seen in my life.
But that’s another story. This story is about how the book chose a song, and not the other way around. How U2, that classic band that’s accompanied me in various ways most of my life, once again swelled up and guided me towards a song.
The song wasn’t, which might be a surprise, a U2 song. It was the supporting act, Noel Gallagher, formerly half of Oasis. At fifteen, my bestie and I got violently drunk on homemade Baileys (only 15-year-olds would think anything involving large quantities of cream a good thing to mix with whiskey and drink in large quantities) and listened to this particular song on repeat as if it might save us. It was ‘Wonderwall’.
Just maybe / you gonna be the one who saves me / and after all / you’re my wonderwall
We are tiny beneath the light was hard to write. Terrifying to publish. I got by thinking no one would really ever read it. But instead, I got one of the poems from it magnified on the largest screen the world has ever seen. The book was my Wonderwall. Writing about my painful marriage break up, the shame and the fear, breaking through to the shards of light. It was standing on the abyss and publishing it anyway. The book set me free.
I can only hope that my writing will work on someone, even just one person, the way that music works on me—providing a portal to another place. I hope it gives someone that gift of flight.