Pair Harmonize to the Beat
By David Perry
Writer Rick Moody and musician Tanya Donelly were sick of themselves. He, of reading his award-winning writing to adoring crowds, she of being in a state of self-awareness as a solo artist. They needed change and challenge. So they melded their considerable talents.
For more than an hour recently, they presented together as part of the Jack Kerouac Literary Festival. They discussed collaboration, community, the pairing of music and words and played a handful of songs. Donelly was full-throated and played electric guitar, while Moody strummed an acoustic and added harmonies.
Moody, whose five novels include “The Ice Storm” and “Garden State,” is a music fanatic whose latest work, “On Celestial Music and Other Adventures in Listening,” is a collection of essays on everyone from Wilco and Magnetic Fields to the essence of uncool. He quotes Kerouac early-on.
Prompted by emcee and Assoc. Prof. Michael Millner, Moody says he does not “regard music and literature as being different genres. When I listen and play music I remember that literature is just as musical in some ways.”
Moody said he tries “not to think at all” when writing song lyrics. “I love Jack Kerouac and he influenced my life’s work, and I am not a perfectionist, a two zillion draft guy.” Writing the music of a song “is absolutely the hardest thing I do as a musician,” he said. On the other hand, “I could fall off a log and lyrics would come out.”
He played in bands in college. But once he experienced success as a writer, Moody thought, “you were once a child and now you are a man. No more shall you dawdle in the world of music.”
But the solitude of writing and the comfort that came with success made him want to “get out and play with other people. When you get comfortable, you can be doomed to repeat,” he said.
Donelly said her series of collaborations with Moody and other writers has “made me feel like an amateur again, in the sense it makes me feel like I am doing something new.”
Donelly performed Throwing Muses’ “Honey Chain” and the duo performed their collaboration, “Meteor Shower,” based on a poem Moody penned after watching an “astounding” early-morning shower of stars. He sent it to Donelly and got it back six months later, infused with the feelings of her own youthful summers.
They played “Why So Sad?” based on a list of items at a yard sale, and “The Hungry Life,” the title cut of Donelly’s 2006 solo album.
To close, there was an a capella “I’ll Protect You,” a Moody composition adapted from an Episcopalian hymn.
“It was pretty cool,” said freshman Matt Barden afterward. “Two guitars and two voices and they do so much better than people with super high-tech stuff.”
Moody said after the program that he discovered Kerouac in a rare way, especially in the leafy Connecticut suburbs of the 1970s. His dad gave him a copy of “On the Road.”
“I was reading Hemingway at 11, “Catcher in the Rye” at 12, and my parents were trying to find things on the shelf to keep it going. So one day my father handed me ‘On the Road’ and said, ‘try this book.’
“It was funny, because my dad was in finance and was a Republican, not a Kerouac guy at all. But he wanted to reach me.”