The music in the Tufa novels comes from three main sources: classic folk music, modern indie music, and me. By that, I mean that if I can’t find lyrics to quote from in the first two sources, then it falls back on me to create them.
I’m under no delusions about being a songwriter, and I don’t necessarily consider my little snippets of lyrics to be actual songs; rather, they’re hints of songs, or if it’s not too twee, song spells designed to conjure the song in the reader’s imagination.
That’s always worked for me, until I got to the fifth Tufa novel, Gather Her Round. Without revealing any spoilers, a song has to perform a very specific plot function, and no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find an existing song that did the job. And when I tried writing it myself, I realized I was way out of my depth.
So it was time to get professional help.
Enter the Lucky Nows, Jen Cass and Eric Janetsky.
I’ve known Jen for over ten years. She’s smart, gorgeous, a real hero (she’s an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney) and a brilliant songwriter. Her husband Eric is a Juvenile Justice Specialist (also a hero) as well as a terrific musician and songwriter. Together, they took on the task of giving me a song that would a) do the job the plot requires, and b) actually be a good song.
They came up with “Against the Black.” And they were kind enough to talk about their songwriting process.
How challenging was writing this song?
ERIC: “Against the Black” was not that difficult, really. Once we had the idea of how the song was going to be used and what it was going to be set against, it seemed to flow pretty effortlessly. Jen is such a great writer when it comes to lyrics that it was written as fast as she could put pen to paper. We agreed that it should be in a minor key and almost be similar to a dirge. A Celtic feel. I feel we accomplished that and we are very proud of the song.
JEN: I’d love to be able to weave you an elaborate tale of two dedicated songwriters burning the midnight oil to carefully and meticulously craft the perfect song for this pivotal moment of Gather Her Round, but the truth is…it very nearly wrote itself.
I remember talking to you about the moment in the book the song would appear, and asking a few follow up questions to gain a better understanding of the emotional impact of the moment.
That is always what I try to get right as a songwriter…knowing the plot is important…but knowing the raw, brutal, naked and unadorned emotion that drives the moment is everything.
Once I could feel it…I could write it.
I allowed myself to feel Duncan’s jealousy and rage. I allowed him his weakness and his purposeful inaction. I felt his love and fear and helplessness. I could feel his broken desperation.
Then I put on my best Mandalay and let the night winds tell the tale…
What was the division of labor (i.e., who wrote the lyrics, who the music, etc.)?
ERIC: Jen wrote the lyrics and we collaborated on the chords and structure of the song. We actually wrote the song while sitting at our dining room table. Not all of our songs follow this process. I have to honestly say that Jen’s lyrics really drove the song…the feel, the melody, the tempo.
JEN: In my heart of hearts I am a writer. I play guitar out of necessity, because we minstrels do. But ultimately, I’m telling a story, and everything I do is driven by the lyrics.
Eric is a musician’s musician. His story is told through the chords he chooses and the notes he plays so beautifully over them. He can make you FEEL without a writing a single word.
“Against The Black” works so beautifully because we each used our unique strengths to tell a story together.
Does that make any sense?
Without Eric’s musical story, the words would just be words.
Without me finding a way to tap in and truly feel both Duncan and Mandalay, Eric’s music would not speak the way it does.
It was also a labor of true and complete love, because I’ve known this world and these characters for a very long time…and I very clearly remember sitting in Nashville meeting you for the first time and sharing your hope that these characters – this place – the Tufa – would find their way into the light. I loved these books when they were not yet books. I loved these characters when they were struggling to be born. So, or course, I loved to write for them and venture into their world for a song.
It was an honor to be some small part of this gorgeous, dangerous, haunting, magical world for a brief and beautiful moment.
Now that you’ve read the book, what do think about your song in that context?
ERIC: I love the context that the song was used. It is used in a very pivotal point of the story where secrets are unearthed and it connects a lot of pieces together. I love that Mandalay is singing the song directly to [character name redacted, because spoilers–A.B.] and it invokes this rage inside of him. It was incorporated directly into the story and I was not expecting that. I originally thinking it would be used more as a “score.” I was excited that Mandalay actually sang the song and it was, in my opinion, a very crucial scene of the book.
JEN: Mandalay is my spirit animal, so it was an incredible feeling to see my words coming from her and onto the pages of an Alex Bledsoe book.
And I had the benefit of hearing Eric’s music, our music, playing through Janet and Mandalay in my head, so I could truly fall into the scene and feel it envelop me completely.
We are so very honored to have been asked to write for Gather Her Round, and hope that we’ve done justice to this poignant moment, and these brilliantly flawed characters, with the words and music we chose.
Thanks to Jen and Eric for taking the time to talk to me about their process, and of course tremendous gratitude for writing “Against the Black” for Gather Her Round. The song will be included on the Lucky Now’s forthcoming album. And above and beyond all that, thanks for being such great friends.