The Pen Is Mightier Than the Guitar: An Interview with Lori Carson

Critics' darling Lori Carson has been offering her small and devoted fanbase quiet bliss with her emotionally-textured and intimate songs over the last two decades. But just recently, Carson turned to her other love of literature. With her first novel, she delves even further into a strange and still familiar world -- one that her haunting music has often explored.

Lori Carson spent the last three decades immersed in the life of song, sketching out the details of her most personal explorations in a series of chord progressions, overdubs, and musical meters. Her music introduced the world to a highly introspective and sensitive woman who seemed to be communicating a life’s worth of trouble and joy by way of the guitar. Carson’s first effort, 1990’s Shelter, was a shy entrance into a world dominated by excessive noise; hair bands were dying out, hip-hop was just cresting in the mainstream, and British dance music had started to expand beyond the borders of the UK. Shelter was brave, in that it forced Carson into a lone confessional space with only her guitar. At the time, female singer-songwriters brandishing guitars were far and few between, and the industry hadn’t much time for young women making big confessions in very small ways. Carson’s music defied those misconceptions. Her musings may have been secretly intimate and, therefore, easily ignored, but her no-nonsense storytelling approach and convincing sway with melody and inflection ushered those who did listen into her small, private world.

Anton Fier, founder of the Golden Palominos, took notice and invited the singer to appear on two of the band’s most inventive and forward-thinking albums, This is How it Feels and Pure. Both albums explored electronic textures in a rock-band set-up, with Carson’s breathy cooing and warm acoustic guitar giving a sensual shading to each of the seductive numbers she appeared on. Following her stint with the Palominos, Carson would return to recording solo, turning out quietly devastating works, like 1997’s Everything I Touch Runs Wild, recorded mostly in the calm privacy of her apartment. Wild, the album in which the artist was finally received with some attention outside of her cultishly small fanbase, borrowed some of the influences heard on her collaborations with the Palominos, along with some of their guest session players (most notably Bill Laswell). A string of albums would follow, exploring various reaches of folk, pop, and electronica, and Carson remained musically active whilst still keeping a low profile and on the margins of commercial success.

A few years back, the singer decided to put down the guitar and pick up the pen, turning her attention to another love – writing. Having studied creative writing during her college years and having worked a brief stint as a journalist prior to her career as a music artist, Carson channeled the stories she normally reserved for three-minute pop songs into a novel’s worth of personal history. The Original 1982, her first book, is the story of young woman’s initiation into the music industry and, thus, her adulthood. A story of possibilities never granted, The Original 1982 explores a “what if” scenario of another life, namely, motherhood for the protagonist, Lisa. In her trials and tribulations of parenting, Lisa finds herself caught in the revolving door of her precarious love life as men come and go -- including the father of her child, an elusive, charming, and successful musician of wavering loyalty who becomes the single entity of which the lives of she and her child are hinged upon. Ultimately, it is a story of opportunities gained in lieu of those lost, and Carson, as a new novelist, exhibits some impressive strengths, namely her ability to convincingly sketch out situational dramas that unfold in the ensuing action of any given scene.

Recently, Carson expressed her desires to pursue novel-writing full-time, forcing her beloved profession of music a place on the back-burner. This may be a disappointment to those who have loyally followed the artist’s development in music these last two decades. But Carson hasn’t abandoned music completely; all the musicality of nuanced emotion can be found in the distilled beauty of her delicate prose. The music world may be losing a voice of quietly impassioned grace, but the literary world has easily and fortunately gained one.

* * *

You had been pretty busy writing a book and recording an album (Another Year). I imagine the processes are different in that recording a song captures a moment of emotion in time, whereas writing a novel is about writing (or rewriting) someone’s history over the span of a story arc. Can you describe your process of writing the book -- what was the germinating seed for the idea for your story? And after more than 20 years as a music artist, why had you decided now would be the time to turn to writing fiction?

I wouldn't say writing the songs for Another Year kept me busy, exactly. Some of the songs on the record were written a few years prior to its release, and other songs (and the instrumental pieces) were written for various short film projects -- commercial films made by a company called Spring Creative (a production and branding company). This is the work that has been paying the bills. I write about five pieces/songs before one is accepted by spring, so I had all this music recorded that I quite liked and wanted to release.

I was already feeling, though, that after about 35 years of writing songs, it had gotten pretty stale for me. I wasn't interested in performing anymore. I'm sure that had something to do with it. But also it was just time for a change. Midlife crisis? I needed to feel challenged and inspired again.

I've always been a writer. I wrote stories as a girl. I'd studied creative writing and poetry in college. I worked briefly as a journalist for a local paper when I lived on the North Fork. In recent years, I'd taken a couple of fiction writing workshops. And of course I was keeping the blog.

One day it occurred to me that the reason I hadn't written anything long-form was because I didn't believe I could. I was telling myself that my expertise was in telling a story in three verses and a chorus, and it was holding me back. Once I realized it, I decided to write every day for a year and see what came of it. I started my novel in May of 2009 and exactly one year later I had the first draft of The Original 1982. Writing it gave me the same thrill that writing songs once had.

I don't think the two are so different. Songs have melody and that gives them a magical aspect. It's like the music is the method by which the content is ingested. With prose, there's no melody, obviously, but as for the words, they have rhythm, flow, a beginning middle, and end. Of course, it's different to have a story unfold over a couple of hundred pages, but it wasn't so different for me in terms of process. I just did it a lot more, and continuously, with the goal of writing something worthwhile every day that was connected to what I had written the day before. I didn't work with an outline, and wasn't sure where the story would go.

Reading the novel and listening to the album, it’s somewhat apparent that the themes overlap; one medium informs the other. Your personal history is invested in both of these projects…You’re a new novelist. What could you express through the written word that you could not express through music? And in what ways did music have the upper hand on personal expression?

Well, emotionally and intellectually, I think it all comes from the same place. The songs have a more self-soothing aspect, I suppose. Songs are immediate mood changers. I don't think writing them is that different from listening to them -- I heard somebody say that recently, and it struck me as true.

Writing fiction is more like going on a journey (as is reading it). You make a greater investment in terms of time and belief, and the rewards are pretty deep. I feel the potential for discovery is wide open. Maybe it's because I'm at the beginning of the process of learning, but the potential feels huge.

Your music throughout your career has been a bit of a balancing act. On one hand, you’ve been pretty guarded about your private life. On the other hand, you’ve admirably laid bare your battles with depression that have been honest and, moreover, believable. Even when writing through characters in your music and writing at one remove, you’ve expressed certain thoughts and feelings many people keep fiercely private and hidden (“Train”, “Whole Heart”, “Twisting My Words”, “Spinning World”). They are not disguised or dressed up with metaphor. You simply find poignancy in expressing what is matter-of-fact. If I may be so personal, can you talk about your experiences with depression and the creative modes of expression when dealing with those issues in your music?

I suppose writing about emotional difficulty is a way of controlling it. And at the same time healing it, because music is so healing. I've struggled with anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember, which is one reason why performing has always been uncomfortable. I think by putting my work out there in the world I'm seeking understanding and connection with others. Also writing makes the feelings manageable. The pain is released through the work.

The Original 1982 is a novel that deals with the ideas of possibility, processing and reprocessing pain until it becomes something else. For the character of Lisa, the possibility of her daughter Minnow existing means an opportunity to validate a choice she never made or couldn’t make. Minnow appears to be a projection of Lisa’s internalized scale, equally balanced by guilt and pride. I understand much of your personal history went into The Original 1982. Writing this book, in what ways did it make you evaluate the possibilities in your present-day life?

I think the book is about regret and acceptance, aging, love, the beauty of life. We all wonder about the ways our lives might have gone given different choices made. I wanted to write about the pain of disappointment and loss. That was my driving force. I know people will assume that I regret my own childlessness, but I don't really.

What-if's are universal. I chose to write this story for reasons that didn't have much to do with my not having children -- my father got sick and died, I was lonely, single for the first time in years, I'd relocated back to New York and felt disoriented. These were the specifics that had me in the right place, emotionally, to write the book.

You were involved in a writing group, I believe, when you began writing and preparing for this novel. What was the act of sharing your material with others during the developmental stages of your work like?

Hearing other writers talk about their process was the most helpful thing. I soaked up all the experience in that room. I received a lot of support and encouragement as I wrote at a snail's pace. Every week I came in moaning about the fact that I could write only a paragraph a day. But it adds up provided you keep writing.

In addition to writing the book and recording Another Year, you were also busy with a reunion show for the Golden Palominos, whom you recorded with nearly a decade back. What was the experience like reuniting and playing those songs once again onstage?

The experience reminded me that going back is often disappointing. It's like in The Original 1982, when Lisa reunites with her old boyfriend and realizes that it's not the same. Nostalgia is confusing. It makes you think that you can walk back into the past.

I have so much love and respect for Anton Fier and the work we did together. But I felt out of place fronting a rock band, singing songs from 15 years ago. Musically, my songs have gotten quieter and more atmospheric over the years, which suits my voice better.

I probably should have said no to the offer, but I felt like maybe Anton and I wouldn't have that many chances to work together again. We won't be alive forever -- another theme of my novel.

On your blog, you stated that you felt you were done with performing (onstage). Do you see yourself abandoning music completely in the future in order to devote your full-time to writing?

I'm writing full-time now, at work on a second novel. I've been a singer and songwriter since I was a kid and will never stop doing it -- at least for myself. But performing has never been comfortable, and I was never crazy about the touring life. I'm happy to let those things go.

I'm a homebody. I like living in New York, being here. Going to the park, museums, seeing friends, spending time with my animals, and doing my work. Never say never, but I believe my career in music is in the past, for the most part, while my work as a writer of fiction is just getting started.





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