Laura Barnett and Katheryn Williams: writing their own rules

It is a welcome return for Laura Barnett and Katheryn Williams as they jointly promote Laura’s latest novel Greatest Hits. The book by the bestselling author of The Versions of Us, is accompanied by an album of songs, written and performed by award-winning, multi-album selling Katheryn Williams, that inspire and inform the main character’s journey.

Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments

Introduced by Dave Windass, author and artist sit down to discuss Greatest Hits book and album released in June this year:

Greatest Hits tells the story of Cass Williams, a fictional musical artist who enjoyed huge success from the early ‘70s, 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.

 A keen reader of biographies of female singers, Jonie Mitchell, Chrissie Hynde, Stevie Nicks… Laura said,’Why not combine them two, why not have art forms colliding together?’  A novel with a soundtrack combining reading, literature and music her three greatest passions. Laura was halfway through the draft of Greatest Hits and she had no idea as to how this might work, whether her publishers would agree, who would provide the music or how. Her own musical ambitions had peaked, with a questionably talented all-girl punk band called Talulah.

The collaboration between author and artist began on a motorway after Laura heard Katheryn on Cery’s show on 6Music. As she listened, Laura immediately knew she wanted to work with the Newcastle singer/songwriter. The two met and importantly hit it off – the friendship between the two is genuine and clear to see. Laura nervously presented some ideas of lyrics, a few lines that appeared at the beginning of each chapter. Katheryn could see the shape of songs emerging from the words on the page. ‘Do whatever you want with them,’ Laura had said’ We had to trust each other in order to work together without putting up walls creatively,’ she explains. There in Katheryn’s writing room the two women said:

‘Let’s jump off the cliff’

As described above, the novel is set over one day, as the singer Cass Williams attempts to make peace with her past, she has become, over the years closed off from the world, something of a hermit, a lifestyle that prompts fans to ask, ‘Whatever happened to Cass Williams?’

The first song in the book is ‘Common Ground’ and contains all the alchemy and magic listeners have come to expect from Katheryn. It is 1960 and a very young ten year old Cass  – then called Maria –  is about to learn of a terrible commotion at the vicarage when her father is shot… I note how the strings on the guitar overlaying the sound of Laura’s voice reading an extract to a rapt library, would work well on radio. Acoustic, unstripped you might say, ‘We have no common ground my love’ Katherine sings light, breathy, heart-achingly cruel. It is as if the song has crept unseen, from out of the pages and into the night.

Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments

Talking a bit about her approach to writing this book, Laura jokes in a way most fiction writers will recognise, ‘I spend all my time making imaginary friends in my head, and talking to them. It’s a kind of madness you know.’ Laura was very determined to have this cross discipline exchange it was important to her to find the right artist and a way to tell the story. Thinking about other fictionalised accounts of the music industry, she asked herself,’Why is everyone so terrified of writing the book version of Spinal Tap… and how can I avoid doing that?’  What she hopes she has written, what she was aiming for is, a plausible, real, telling human story that transcends all the music clichés.

Greatest Hits is both words and music so turning to Katheryn, interviewer Dave Windass enquires about the art of writing to character. Katheryn notably wrote to character on her album Hypoxia inspired by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar which enjoyed considerable success. ‘The difference is that Laura is alive Cass isn’t it.’ Katheryn talks about being more collaboratively aware, in order to understand how Cass would write.

‘Cass is in her 70’s,’ Katheryn points out ‘Way older than you,’ Laura chips in. Despite the age difference Katheryn is able to bring her considerable experience of the music industry to bear. ‘I’ve seen the music scene change, the arc of labels, the digitisation of music, the dwindling money…  making choices and being a woman in the industry…’

Also on the album are Romeo and Michele Stodart from the Magic Numbers. ‘I chose Romeo to produce the album, because he had more records than me,’ Katheryn explains. With art imitating life and vice versa there is a character in the book called Ivor who Cass co-writes with: similarly in the studio Katheryn has co-written with Romeo.

Introducing the second reading and song Laura sets the scene: It is 1970 Cass and Ivor are in an English Blues prog rock outfit on the van circuit tour when a call comes with an offer of a recording deal: problem is it is just for her, they want Cass Williams as a solo artist.  Katheryn plays ‘Don’t step on the tracks’ There  follows more appreciative applause.

The final song ‘When Morning Comes’ sees Cass aged 64 in May 2014. ‘Tonight I am awake love…’ Katheryn sings, words and music reaching in and breaking hearts all over again. Such a beautiful sounding song.

Asked about how a reader/listener should experience this the audience are advised to buy all formats including hardback, CD, vinyl, download version with extras… and write your own rules.