SongWriter is a podcast of stories and “answer songs” featuring David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Gauthier, Roxane Gay, and Amanda Shires.
Grammy-nominated songwriter Tift Meritt, wrote a song in response to bestselling author Jonathen Lethem’s novel, The Arrest. Below is an edited version of my conversation with Tift and Jonathan about songwriting, pandemic-parenting, and Tift’s song “Asylum in a Mad, Mad World.”
Ben Arthur: Being a parent in the middle of all this is so hard. We used to have rules about screentime…
Tift Merritt: We don’t anymore! [My daughter] loves the worst YouTube things, and yesterday she got on a Vietnamese series, and I was like, ‘It’s not even in English!’ And she said, ‘What’s so great about English?’
BA: Jonathan, though you’re known primarily as a writer of fiction and a journalist, you’ve also co-written a bunch of songs with me, and contributed lyrics to songs by They Might Be Giants and The Silos. How are these art forms related for you?
Jonathan Lethem: These things always seemed to me to be sort of alchemically connected. And they all lived in my imagination in a similar way. I’ve also had the luck of hanging out with a lot of really great musicians….I would just seek every opportunity to collaborate, and try to inspire musicians to incorporate my language.
TM: Creative forms have limitations but the mission is the same. It’s funny, when I was young I wanted to write big, thick novels. But I found short form – really saying something in a handful of sentences – that energy was what I was really drawn to. There’s music in prose and there’s prose in music. And there’s architecture in a chorus and a melody. The more that you can look around you and find ways that something that hasn’t been said is being brought into being and be in conversation with that. I mean, you certainly don’t want to be doing this all by yourself. It’s everything to find art, and artists, to be on the quest with.
BA: The book that inspired Tift’s new song is called The Arrest, about a small community dealing with the sudden global collapse of technology.
JL: The Arrest is a kind of allegorical, near-future, post-collapse story. It’s disguised as a kind of dystopian or apocalyptic tale, but in some ways it’s really a pastoral. It’s set in a small town in Maine, and a lot of what’s going on there is actually pretty mellow.
TM: I think one of my favorite questions that this book asks is, ‘Hasn’t the breakdown already happened?’ Aren’t we already lost and crazy, and living in a situation that is wrong?
JL: That’s better than 99% of the reviews the book has gotten! You nailed it. In one sense the book really fits what we’re all going through, and in another, here we are on Zoom. The pandemic has both placed us in our bodies and our homes and got us making sourdough and farming in our back yard. But at the same time it has also thrust us constantly into virtuality.
BA: Tift, your song reacts in part to Jonathan’s book, but is also reflects research you’ve been doing about a former asylum in your hometown, and especially about a Trump-like figure who ran it. In researching that past, what have you learned about this moment in time?
TM: I really think our collective Jungian shadow created Donald Trump. We need to go to our fringes and listen, and learn about who we are. Because it’s really a reflection of who we are when we act this way. It’s not a reflection of something being wrong with someone else.