Festival Blog contributor Ellia Bisker is a writer and performer who fronts NYC-based indie rock band Sweet Soubrette.
The Bushwick Book Club is a monthly literary event in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where songwriters perform songs they’ve written in response to an assigned book. We don’t otherwise discuss the book. There’s an audience. It’s not really a book club. It’s a show.
But secretly, it’s not even a show. Secretly, it’s an approach to art making, a way for those of us participating to trick ourselves into creating new work. For me, as a songwriter and performer developing a body of material, it has become an integral part of my creative practice, a way to keep loose, a lab for testing new ideas.
I’ve done twenty book club shows during the last few years, and now my process is pretty consistent. As I read the book, whenever something jumps out at me, I dog-ear the page. After I’m done, I go back through the book and write down the things on the dog-eared pages that catch my eye. I do this by hand. Then I sit on my couch with my laptop and my ukulele and ponder what I wrote down and type a few lines and play a couple of chords. When I sit down on the couch, there is no song. I have absolutely no idea how a song is going to happen. But I’m certain that it will—that on Thursday night there will be a song. It’s a moment of complete ignorance and complete trust. Then there comes another moment when I realize there’s a song where there wasn’t one before. I’ve learned to sit and wait patiently for that magic to happen.
I’ve been a participant almost since the book club began in 2009, and recently I have been co-hosting shows with Susan Hwang, who created the series because she had been writing songs based on the George Romero Night of the Living Dead movies and wanted to create an event around new music written in response to a narrative. She came up with the idea of writing songs about books. It turns out that the Bushwick Book Club combines a number of elements that are brilliantly helpful when it comes to making art. You don’t have to create a songwriting book club show to access these creative tools, but the Bushwick Book Club provides a great example of what works.
1. Assignments: The book club assignment is to write a song in response to the book. That’s it. This is the perfect kind of assignment, right in the sweet spot between too narrow and too broad; the book provides parameters, but there are no other constraints, so there’s a lot of room to play. Some songs end up being about something really specific, like a line of dialogue or a particular character; others relate the songwriter’s feelings about the book, or something about it that bothered her, or something only tangentially related that the book happened to make the songwriter think of. Part of the assignment is to create the assignment, like designing your own puzzle to solve, or your own labyrinth to escape from.
2. Deadlines: Your song has to be finished by the show. No extension is possible because the show is happening and you are in it. Some people habitually finish their songs on the subway en route to the venue. But even with advance planning, the beauty of the deadline is that it forces you to kill your inner editor, the one that makes you second-guess yourself and question whether what you’re making is any good. It doesn’t have to be good. It just has to be finished. After it’s finished, it might be good, but that’s the icing on the song-cake.
3. Community: The ten or so songwriters who perform in the Bushwick Book Club each month vary from show to show, but a couple dozen usual suspects regularly cycle through. The monthly event has also become a social gathering, since you’re performing for your friends. General public notwithstanding, it’s like a salon—a circle of people who are interested in checking out each other’s work. It’s extremely motivating to know there are people who want to see what you’ve come up with, especially when you’re trying something new.
4. Peer Pressure: This goes along with the community thing—you can’t bag out, because you know your friends are working on their songs. A social contract is involved. You have to write something.
5. Low Stakes: The venue where the shows take place, Goodbye Blue Monday, is dedicated to letting musicians experiment and try out untested new ideas. That attitude has gotten baked into the book club—it’s a safe space to try something new, have fun, throw stuff against the wall. Was it good? Great. Was it bad? There’s always next month. Of course you show up and you want to be awesome, but that isn’t really the point—the point is to write more songs. Taking the pressure off allows artists to depart from their habits, take risks, and surprise themselves when the experiment is successful.
6. Material to Engage With: This is where I think the Bushwick Book Club does something especially unique. I know of other assignment-based art-making series, where the assignment is to create a work in response to a word or a theme, but having a whole book as the basis for the assignment means having to grapple with and deeply engage with another’s creative work. It forces your brain to make the kinds of connections that make art happen. You have to think about what’s going on in what you’ve read, what speaks to you, what bothers you. You can’t be passive. One interesting thing I’ve discovered is that it makes absolutely no difference, in terms of whether the songs are good, if you like the book or not. We’ve had shows when nobody liked the book but the songs were brilliant. Also, at times, writing the song has made me feel differently about the book and gain a greater appreciation for it. Madame Bovary was like that—I was much more sympathetic to Emma after I wrote a song about her.
Outside of the Bushwick Book Club, I have a band called Sweet Soubrette that’s a serious project I write songs for, and most of the other songwriters have musical projects they’re serious about too. But the book club makes you write songs on purpose, not just when you’re feeling poetically inspired, which is a good way to develop discipline and keep your creative juices flowing. And I’m not the only person who has written a song for the book club that ended up making its way into the serious project repertoire. When we wrote about Anais Nin’s Henry and June, a book I didn’t particularly enjoy, the song I came up with ended up being one of my strongest ever. I’m about to release it as a single called “What’s My Desire.”
Every month I’m surprised all over again by how vastly different ten songs about the same book can be. Each songwriter responds to something different in the material, and everyone has their own style, their own preoccupations, their individual take on songwriting, instrumentation, structure. At a single show we’ll get one guy with an electric guitar and beats looped on his iPhone, and someone else howling into the mic with bass and drums behind her, and then there will be a beautiful piano piece, a musical theater-style number, someone playing folky acoustic guitar, and on. Funny songs, moving songs, catchy songs, weird songs. It’s been an amazing reminder that there are no wrong approaches or wrong answers when it comes to creative work.
–Ellia Bisker (check out her music at www.sweetsoubrette.com)
The Bushwick Book Club has taken on: Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver, Flatland by Edwin Abbot Abbot, James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, Watchmen by Alan Moore, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July, The Bible, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, My Life and Other Unfinished Business by Dolly Parton, Green Porno by Isabella Rossellini, Dune by Frank Herbert, The diaries of Anais Nin, Encyclopedia volume “Q,” The works of Dr. Seuss, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Thesaurus, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, The works of Dorothy Parker, The Americans by Robert Frank. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, Flow My Tears the Policeman Said by Phillip K. Dick. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, Life by Keith Richards, Feynman by Jim Ottaviani, Despair by Vladimir Nabokov, The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Flatscreen by Adam Wilson, A Bad Idea I’m About To Do by Chris Gethard, A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.