SongWriter is a podcast of stories and “answer songs” featuring Amanda Shires, Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Gauthier, Roxane Gay, Toshi Reagon, and Michael Ian Black.
Songwriters Polly Samson and David Gilmour wrote a song in response to Polly’s bestselling novel, A Theater for Dreamers. Below is an edited version of my conversation with Polly and David about their work.
Ben Arthur: David, you’ve been collaborating with Polly for more than 25 years, ever since she began writing lyrics for Pink Floyd on The Division Bell. Was writing your recent release, “Yes, I Have Ghosts,” different because the song was related to her novel, or is it more or less the same?
David Gilmour: It was really just another collaboration. It’s such a treat to just quietly sit at home and go through these things together, and bounce ideas…for all these years it’s been an absolute joy. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what we have done together, and what she has done for me.
BA: Polly, you were inspired to write “Yes, I Have Ghosts” when you heard one of your characters, Charmian Clift, actually speak that line in your mind. How did that come about?
Polly Samson: This novel is written from the point of view of a character called Erika, who’s 18 years-old, so a lot of the time I walk around as this character, trying to see everything through her eyes. We were in the cemetery and I was having – I suppose it’s a sort of play-through of what I am going to write – and I had Erika turn to Charmian and say “Do you believe in ghosts?” And it was a voice in my ear that said, “Yes I have ghosts, not all of them dead.” And it just made the hairs prickle on the back of my neck.
BA: And what did that mean to you?
PS: All of us have these hauntings by people who are not dead. It’s those rifts where you haven’t wanted someone to disappear and they have. I think that happens when you’ve had your heart broken, and a relationship has ended. I just thought, everyone’s got this. Everyone is haunted by someone and they’re not dead. I can remember telling David, “I’ve got this line, and I can’t wait to write this lyric!”
BA: Leonard Cohen lived on Hydra during the period when the novel is set, and he is one of the characters in the book. Listening to “Yes I Have Ghosts” I could imagine drawing a number of connections between the song and Leonard Cohen’s work – David sings in a Cohen-esque baritone, the song is in ¾, like “Bird on a Wire” and “Hallelujah” – was any of that an intentional reference, or is my mind making connections where they aren’t?
DG: I’m finding that my lower register, singing-wise, suits me better these days – you know, I’m not the young nightingale I was once. So you have to play to your strengths. As you mention, the ¾ thing, I would say as many of the songs that I have written over the years are in ¾ as Leonard’s were. There’s something about the ¾ time signature that appeals to my heart.
BA: The song is not only a collaboration between you two, but also with your daughter Romany, who plays harp and sings. How did she end up working with you?
DG: We went into lockdown and we hadn’t nailed it yet, and so we begged Romany to come in and have a go at it. Her voice and mine do seem to merge beautifully together. It makes such a difference, it gives it such a lift. The harp on it was recorded in this room on a day much more windy than today. I don’t know if you’ve heard any of the wind but this barn rattles. When you solo the sound of the harp on the track, it’s awful. I have got to get her to do it again before it comes out on some album or another.
You can hear Polly Samson read an excerpt from A Theater for Dreamers and the song that Polly and David Gilmour wrote in response on the newest episode of SongWriter. You can also hear a song Ben Arthur in response to the book called “The Beauty, the Sound” and you can follow him @MyHeart on Twitter.
Photo by Sarah M Lee.