Those aware of Hannah McPhillimy‘s musical talents will surely understand our excitement with any and every project she is involved in. Considering the lyrical qualities her songs possess it should also be no surprise that she has collaborated with author Jan Carson. Last year Carson released her debut novel ‘Malcolm Orange Disappears’ and she since then has brought McPhillimy on board to collaborate and pen some music to accompany the story. On Wednesday night in No Alibis bookstore both writer and songwriter will launch the EP of music that accompanies Carson’s novel with an evening of words and music. Furthermore, all proceeds of the night will go to the Alzheimer’s Society, in a nod to the novel’s themes of ageing and rediscovery.
Aaron Cunningham spoke to Hannah and Jan about the project and what to expect from the special launch on Wednesday night.
► First off Jan, can you tell me a little bit about your novel Malcolm Orange Disappears?
Jan Carson: Malcolm Orange is a magic realist novel set in Portland, Oregon where I lived for around 4 years from 2005 onwards. It focuses in on Malcolm Orange a young boy whose father has just abandoned the family, forcing his mother to take the first job she can get in a retirement village. Malcolm, his mother and younger brother move into the retirement village just as Malcolm begins to physically disappear. The elderly residents of the retirement chalets go on a quest with Malcolm to help him from disappearing entirely and in the process share their various stories of how they’ve ended up living together in Portland.
► How did the two of you come to work together?
Jan: Hannah and I have been friends for a number of years and I’ve always been a huge fan of her music and songwriting. Hannah got to read an early draft of the manuscript and we talked about collaborating and maybe trying to write some songs based on the characters. Over the course of about six months the project began to take shape and Hannah wrote some really beautiful songs which capture the heart of the novel.
► You’ve both worked together before, including a trip to Brussels. How was that experience?
Jan: We were fortunate enough to get to go and perform Disappear Here at the Northern Irish Bureau in Brussels in February of this year. Arts Council NI kindly set this up. It was a fabulous opportunity to travel together and the songs and readings went down incredibly well with the audience in Brussels. Seeing different people react to the performance has been one of the best things about the collaboration. It’s also great to have a fellow artist to travel with. As a writer I’m usually on the road to readings by myself and it’s much more fun with another person for company.
► Was there always a plan for music to be created to accompany the book, considering the theme of the novel’s Peoples’ Committee?
Jan: Not really. It was actually only after we settled on the idea of the Disappear Here project, that I realised just how big a role music plays in the novel.
► How did the songs come together?
Hannah McPhillimy: Jan gave me free reign in terms of writing songs about whatever part of the book I wanted – which had the strange effect of being initially liberating & then totally paralysing! I did not want to completely make a hash of her wonderful work! The process started very slowly as I read the manuscript over a period of 2-3 months, highlighting any parts of the novel I thought had the potential to be developed into a fully fledged song. When I finished the book more of the text was yellow than white and I had far too many options. I do not particularly recommend this method for extracting song ideas when someone is as good a writer as Jan!
In the end, it was the looming deadline, the thought of standing on stage with zero material and a few batting of ideas around with Jan that helped me distil the options into three main ideas and with 2 days to go until the launch I finished the last of my original songs. I was more than a little relieved.
► Do you think these songs will make their way into your regular sets?
Hannah: They have already snuck into my live sets now and again. I am quite fond of ‘Sinking’, which focuses on 3 particularly colourful personalities from the novel – blind Cunningham Holt who is convinced the end of the world is nigh, closet lesbian Emily Fox and the children of Jefferson of Oklahoma who are born with giant, feathered wings. It is really about how shame & ignorance keeps us from each other and my ode to anyone who feels a little on the outside. Lizzy Donaghy has also been a star, writing some truly beautiful cello parts to go along with the songs, so it’s my pleasure to share them with a wider audience when she’s part of the band.
► With the music and the novel was there always a plan to do a launch for both together?
Jan: In terms of the launch, the novel itself was launched way back in June of last year and the Disappear Here material was only completed after this. Hannah has recently recorded the songs she wrote for the project and it’s fantastic to be able to launch the music properly this week.
► You’ve chosen to donate the proceeds from the night to the Alzheimer’s Society, how did that come about and why the Alzheimer’s Society?
Jan: As part of my day job as Outreach Officer at the Ulster Hall I host a weekly singing group for people with Dementia called Singing for the Brain. It’s an amazing project which offers respite to carers and a couple of hours of fun, community and good music to people living with Dementia. The Alzheimer’s Society run this project and lots of other fantastic projects supporting people living with Dementia and their carers. As soon as we started hosting Singing for the Brain I was struck by the similarities between the group and The People’s Committee for Remembering Songs, (a group of older people who live in the retirement village in Malcolm Orange Disappears and meet twice weekly to sing together). There are so many references to older people in the novel it seemed quite natural that the proceeds would go to the Alzheimer’s Society.
Hannah: For me, the Alzheimer’s Society is the perfect match for this project. Jan’s novel (I think) is really about people rediscovering who they always were, even when everybody else forgets or rewrites or assumes what that is. The Alzheimer’s Society do sterling work in facilitating carers and family members to draw out the personality and passions and joy that are still present in their loved ones, but have sadly been very obscured. Having watched my own Granny’s decline due to the disease, this is something I feel I have had to learn and be challenged about and I am so grateful the Alzheimer’s Society for carrying out this difficult but incredibly significant work.
► What do you both have planned for Wednesday night?
Jan: Wednesday night will be an hour of beautiful music from Hannah and our fabulous cellist Lizzy Donaghy interspersed with themed readings from Malcolm Orange Disappears.
► And there’s a few extras with the ticket price?
Jan: Yes we have lovely Malcolm Orange tote bags, downloads of the music recorded as part of Disappear Here and a brand new spin off short story which comes in a booklet with a print from local artist Orla McAdam for every attendee.
Disappear Hear: An Evening of Words and Music with Hannah McPhillimy and Jan Carson in support of the Alzheimer’s Society
Tickets are available now from http://www.noalibis.com