From Wuthering Heights to Paranoid Android, there’s no shortage of songs inspired by works of fiction.
But how about making an entire record based on a fictional album that’s described in a novel?
That’s what Perry Serpa has done with Wherefore Art Thou? – a collection of unorthodox, literate indie songs built around clues scattered throughout Nick Hornby’s 2009 book, Juliet, Naked.
The story revolved around Annie – a woman approaching middle age in an English seaside town, who becomes convinced she’s stuck in a rut.
Her 15-year relationship is overshadowed by her partner’s obsession with an American singer-songwriter called Tucker Crowe who, after releasing a “legendary break-up album” in 1986, walks off stage and is never seen again.
The plot kicks into action when Annie chances upon a never-before-heard CD of demos from the star; and tracks him down.
But that original album, Juliet, is written about with such clarity that Serpa felt compelled to bring it to life.
“I loved the idea of there being this classic album described in pretty fine detail,” he says. “It just kind of took me.”
“He’s a very smart songwriter and I think he’s done very well,” says Hornby. “It sounds like an early Elvis Costello album to me, once Elvis had started filling out his sound a bit”.
Certainly, the songs have that same world-weary, baroque quality that Costello brought to his 1982 classic Imperial Bedroom; but starting the album must have been a daunting task.
In the book, Hornby describes Juliet as being influenced by “Dylan and Leonard Cohen, of course, but also Dylan Thomas, Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, Shelley, The Book of Job, Camus, Pinter, Beckett and early Dolly Parton”. Oh, and it was nominated for two Grammys. So no pressure.
“I started working very slowly on it,” admits Serpa, who “let the music percolate” over seven years while working with cult indie band The Sharp Things.
He took both song titles and lyrics (like Better Man’s “luck is a disease, I don’t want it near me“) from the source material; although eagle-eyed readers will note that he names his record after Hornby’s equally-fictional tribute album, on which members of REM and Coldplay covered Crowe’s “originals”.
Nonetheless, Serpa eventually found himself sympathising with the character of Crowe – a washed-up musician who disowns his biggest album as “the sound of someone having his fingernails pulled out”.
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“I’ve been there,” says Serpa. “I’m a 52-year-old guy who’s been making music for most of my life. I’ve totally gone through all the ups and downs of saying, ‘I’ve got to stop this foolishness,’ then realising it was foolish to attach ambition to music in the first place.
“But also all the personal stuff that Nick was trying to get across about Tucker – the hopelessness, going through a divorce and going through all sorts of ups and downs. A lot of it is me.”
Serpa didn’t go fully method – that would have required him to attack his guitarist “with an oxy-acetylene torch” during the recording sessions – but he admits the lines between Crowe and himself blurred.
“After a while, doing this thing actually felt less like an exercise and more of an opportunity to write another album about me,” he laughs.
“It felt like unsolicited co-writing with Mr Hornby. It was a fun and very solitary process for the most part.”
High Fidelity mystery
Coincidentally, while Serpa worked on his record, “Mr Hornby” was completing a film adaptation of Juliet, Naked, starring Rose Byrne, Chris O’Dowd and Ethan Hawke – and both are out in the next couple of weeks.
“It’s quite strange that these things have both happened at once,” says Hornby, “but one of the joys about writing books is seeing talented people doing fun stuff with them”.
The film has its own soundtrack, capably sung by Hawke; but it spends more time scoring the action on screen than recreating Crowe’s fabled Juliet album.
“I’m proud of those songs as well,” says the author ,”because we wrote to our favourite musicians and asked them to contribute.
“My big triumph was persuading Ryan Adams to write something. I’m a huge Ryan Adams fan, so when you log on to your email and see there’s a song no-one else has heard by one of your favourite artists, it’s really thrilling.”
So does he share the obsessive nature of Juliet, Naked’s antagonist Duncan – who thirsts after unreleased recordings and concert bootlegs from his musical hero?
“Not really!” he says. “In fact, I’ve always been amused by my friends’ dedication to awful Bob Dylan recordings.
“I love Bob Dylan,” he adds. “He’s made 10 of the greatest albums ever. But because I don’t listen to nine volumes of [bootleg box set] The Basement Tapes, my friends have got it into their heads that I don’t like him – which always makes me laugh.”
The author is keen to support National Album Day, which takes place on 13 October although, he admits, “my kids are never going to listen to an album”.
And he says he’s recently started educating himself in jazz, having realised that if a band’s “got guitars and bass and drums in it, the chances are I’ve heard something like it before”.
“I just suddenly felt the need to start listening to something that wasn’t what I always listened to,” he continues, saying his route into the sometimes-impenetrable genre was pianist Horace Silver “partly because his song Song For My Father is the beginning of Ricky Don’t Lose That Number by Steely Dan.”
“I started to find soloists I really liked, and if you can follow the thread of a solo, it wasn’t so different to listening to Clapton, which I did as a teenager.”
Once Juliet, Naked comes out in November, the author will finish production on a new TV series, State Of The Union, which stars Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd as a couple having marriage counselling.
But he’s not involved in the new TV adaptation of High Fidelity. In fact, he says the first he heard about it was when Deadline Hollywood broke the story earlier this year.
“I can never quite believe that people are so rude as to not tell you,” he says. “But we’re talking about Hollywood people – so if they’re not contractually obliged to do something, then they won’t do it.”
And what about Serpa. Can he see himself turning another of Hornby’s books into an album, or even a musical?
“I don’t know,” he says. “High Fidelity is already spoken for; and you can’t beat Badly Drawn Boy’s [soundtrack] for About A Boy.
“But Funny Girl was the last Nick Hornby book I read, and that did conjure up music in my head. There’s a certain swinging 60s thing I feel I could write around.
“So the short answer is yes.”
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