The novel tells the story of Cass Wheeler, a fictional singer who enjoyed huge success from the early seventies, only to retire mysteriously at the height of her fame. Two decades later, she is spending a single day in her recording studio, picking out tracks for a very personal Greatest Hits album. Each chapter of Greatest Hits opens with one of these songs and takes the reader back through Cass’s life, from her childhood, through her earliest days as a singer, to the terrible crisis that caused her to flee her own life.
I’ve worked with the amazing singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams – a woman who spins musical magic out of thin air – to bring Cass’s songs to life. The sixteen tracks in the book, with music by Kath and lyrics by us both, are contained on Kath’s album Songs from the Novel Greatest Hits, released by her label One Little Indian.
At the heart of the novel is my fascination with the pleasures and sacrifices demanded by living a truly creative life – particularly for women – and with the process of writing and performing music.
It was clear to me from the start that I wanted Cass’s songs to have an existence beyond the page. Working with Kath to achieve this has been without a doubt the most challenging, emotional and fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.
I’ve been a fan of Kath’s music for years, and got in touch with her after hearing her discussing her 2015 album Hypoxia – inspired by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar – on Cerys Matthews’s show on BBC6 Music. From the first morning we spent writing together in my study, I felt an intense creative connection with Kath. Since then, we have laughed, we have cried, and I have sung in public for the first time in decades . . . .
Working with Kath has got me really excited, too, about the possibilities posed by bringing together literature and music. Over the 12 years I’ve spent as an arts journalist, I’ve written about countless crossover projects fusing different art forms and genres – film and theatre; film and music; classical music and pop. But literature has always seemed a case apart – perhaps because reading has historically been such a solitary, private experience. And it still is, for the most part – but new technologies and the explosion of live literature events are opening up the reading experience, and offering us new and exciting ways to experience fictional worlds.
With Greatest Hits, my hope is that readers – and listeners – will have the opportunity to expand their understanding of the novel’s characters, and its songs. Each work stands alone, but it is in experiencing them together that readers will get the fullest chance to inhabit both the world of the novel, and the beautiful, fragile, shimmering world of song.
The novel is available in hardback, ebook and audiobook from all good bookshops – including Waterstones and many wonderful independents – and online at Amazon, Audible and elsewhere. You can buy the album on vinyl or CD along with the book in many of these bookshops, in a special bundle on Amazon, in all good record shops, or directly from One Little Indian.
Here’s some more info about Kath. If you don’t already know her music, please go and listen (here’s her profile on Spotify). She’s just amazing.
Mercury nominated and critically acclaimed folk artist Kathryn Williams doesn’t stick to a tried and tested formula when she writes a new album. 2015 saw the celebrated musician release Hypoxia – an album inspired by Slyvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Plath’s life and work, while 2016 saw her push boundaries with her album of re-imagined jazz standards, Resonator.
Williams released her debut album Dog Leap Stairs, which she recorded for just £80, in 1999. She told one interviewer that she wanted to have a career that lasted long enough for her to develop her craft and move through different phases. Eighteen years later, she’s certainly achieved that. Little Black Numbers (2000) earned a well-deserved Mercury Prize nomination and led to two albums for EastWest: Old Low Light (2002) and the wonderful covers album Relations (2004). After three albums on her own Caw label, she moved to One Little Indian with The Quickening (2010). She went on to release Crown Electric (2013), Hypoxia (2015) and Resonator (2016) on the label.
Kathryn isn’t new to unique collaborations. The prolific musician has previously worked and toured with Ed Harcourt, John Martyn, Chris Difford (Squeeze), Bombay Bicycle Club, David Gray, Ray Lamontagne, and made two further albums as a member of bands The Crayonettes and The Pond. Now she has teamed up with author Laura Barnett to create something totally distinctive and inspiring.