I was an early member of The Bushwick Book Club Seattle, before I moved to Ithaca, NY in 2011. Before Bushwick, I hadn’t done much writing about books at all, and my first few shows were quite a challenge. Now, more than a decade into my career, I lean heavily on literature to bring new ideas and freshness into my writing. (I used up my quota of whiskey-swilling country songs in about 2005.)
Ithaca, much like Seattle, is a literary town. The two major employers in the area are Cornell and Ithaca College, and during school sessions there are as many students as locals. There is also a lot of turn over – people constantly moving in-and-out and every spring free piles of books pop up like crocuses. There is also a huge book sale that takes place twice a year over the course of three weekends. By the last weekend, they are giving away books by the bagful — a quarter a bag. Between those two sources, I have several books that have become trusty inspiration when I sit down to write: an old volume of Scottish songs, some contemporary Irish poems, an ancient hymnal, and a book of Sylvia Plath poetry. I also found and toted home three volumes of Tolstoy, Niezche, and James Joyce, but those are currently serving as coasters. One can dream.
Auchengeich Mining Disaster | Live at Union Hall, Brooklyn NY
I approach writing from literature in several ways. Sometimes, I take pre-written poetry and set it to music without changing much. “The Auchengeich Mining Disaster” — a true story about a mining tragedy that took place in the 1950’s near Glasgow — is unattributed in the book, but generally believed to be written by Norman Buchan. I set the poem to music, and wrote the choruses. (The second chorus is based heavily on another Scottish song, “Butcher Boy”) My drummer Willie added the gongs to his drum kit to create the unique pots-and-pans sound heard in the video.
Lorelei | Live in Ithaca
Another example, from the opposite end of the writing spectrum, is the song “Lorelei.” I had originally started writing the song about my high school kayaking coach, who was jailed for sexual abuse of minors and is now coming up on parole. It was a lot to deal with in a song and sometimes you just don’t want to expose that much of yourself when you are onstage. So I brought the song to my friend Johnny Dowd, and together we changed the lyrics until they told a somewhat different story. I was lost on a chorus until I was reading through the Sylvia Plath book “The Colossus” one morning and read the poem “Lorelei”. The first line “It is not a night to drown in” tied everything together for me. The imagery — the river banks, the passenger vans, the icy rivers — stems directly from my experience kayaking, but it’s a more universal story now about those people that “take the body and leave the soul.” (And we all know them, don’t we.)
Anna Coogan is a songwriter currently residing in Ithaca, NY. She regularly performed with Bushwick before making the big move from Seattle to New York.
She is on tour right now and you can see her perform on January 9th at the Triple Door
For more info about Anna Coogan visit her website — http://annacoogan.com/