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Rachel Kushner is a critically-acclaimed author whose novel The Flame Throwers was recently a finalist for the National Book Award. She focused her Guest DJ set on songs she’s “listened to thousands of times”, from the glam of Roxy music to the soulful sounds of Robert Flack. She also shares a composition that inspired part of her novel Telex from Cuba.
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1. Roxy Music - In Every Dream A Heartache
2. Roberta Flack - Reverend Lee
3. Gun Club - My Man Is Gone Now
4. The Movies - Secretariat
5. Carlos D'alessio - Theme From India Song
EJL: Hi, I’m Eric J Lawrence and I’m here with critically-acclaimed author Rachel Kushner, a National Book Award finalist for her novel The Flame Throwers. Today, we're going to talk about some songs that have inspired her over the years as part of KCRW's Guest DJ Project. Rachel, thanks so much for joining us.
RK: Thanks for having me.
EJL: So, what's the first track you got for us?
RK: Yeah, the first track is a song by Roxy Music called “If There Is Something”.
I love this song, but it was a very hard decision to make.
I knew that I wanted to have a Roxy Music song for you as a selection, but there are so many great ones. The first five albums by Roxy Music -- their eponymous record Roxy Music, Stranded, For Your Pleasure, Country Life and Siren -- they are all masterpieces. Finally I decided that it was going to be "If There Is Something", which it's a really haunting song, and I think it's partly because the way it's structured.
It begins with this kinda honky tonk sound, like a little bit dopey, corny, Bryan Ferry doing a shtick and then it has its first transition and it just kinda gives me chills.
It takes the song immediately in like a left turn, into a field of just minor, minor key darkness. You think its going to end on that note and then it has a third transition.
It's less for me about the actual lyrics of the song -- I mean people have all kinds of theories about this song -- and more just about the sheer sound of it.
Roxy Music, at that time, had Brian Eno in the band and Phil Manzanera, who played guitar.
It was just a full glam, art rock, extravaganza and it reminded me of being in my 20’s and I guess choosing life and experience over anything else. All I cared about was experience and Roxy Music was the band that, it’s almost like a time capsule for me especially this song.
Song: Roxy Music -- “If There Is Something”.
EJL: So what's the next track you got for us?
RK: So the next track I have for you is "Revered Lee" by the great Roberta Flack.
One of my criteria for picking all these songs was, what songs have I listened to thousands of times in my life. I'll do that with a song just over and over again.
It’s a song also, for me, that I find instructive in terms of writing and making art.
This is something that sunk in over years of listening to it, because she did not write this song, but the way she sings it… the way she sings it is what breathes life into that song and makes it into real art.
She just gives it so much soul. It has all these great lines, you know, "Lord please don’t test me, not down there where she touched me.”
It’s about a dream that the reverend has that this girl comes to him and taunts him with her young bursting sexuality. It’s just a great, great song.
EJL: How does music play into your fiction?
RK: When I want to think in a certain way, you know, about life as being a little something more than your daily prosaic habitual routine as something more poignant, I can play a song and kinda get elevated or taken to that space. So, sometimes, I take a break and I'll just lie on the floor and listen to music. Music for me takes 100% concentration and I let music be the full experience that it demands, and then I go back and I write. So it's a part of writing even if I don’t do it simultaneously.
Song: Roberta Flack – Reverend Lee
EJL: That was Roberta Flack with a track from her 1970 album “Chapter Two”. "Revered Lee" as selected by our guest Rachel Kushner. Well, what's the next song you got for us?
RK: So the next song I chose is by the Gun Club, from their record “The Las Vegas Story”, and it's called "My Man Is Gone Now".
I feel like such a teen girl talking about them because I was obsessed with Jeffrey Lee Pierce. I thought that when you grow up, what you do is you just try and find a boyfriend like that, which would have been the worst possible choice in boyfriends but, he had a kinda larger than life very romantic swagger to him.
I collected every tiny minor side project that he ever did in vinyl and I still have all those records. But this one is just so gorgeous and strange and it has all these layers and depth to it and the piano is very beautiful. It showcases his voice, which is something unique, yet Jeffrey Lee is kind of an American tragedy. He died on the Fourth of July.
Song: Gun Club -- "My Man Is Gone Now”
EJL: That was the Gun Club with "My Man Is Gone Now" featuring the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce and selected by our guest Rachel Kushner. So what's the next song you got for us?
RK: Yeah, the next song I choose is "Secretatiat" by a great, storied LA band called The Movies. It's from their album “In One Era Out the Other”. I don't think they exist anymore, they broke up a few years ago. They were playing around Los Angeles in the early auts and I learned about them through my then boyfriend and now husband who was friends with the band.
When I first heard it I was really blown away. The singer’s name is Tim James, he has the most amazing voice. It's like a combination of these qualities in various singers that I really love. He sounds sometimes like Lawrence from the band Felt, a great English band. Sometimes he sounds like JJ Bernal from The Stranglers and then he has a little bit of Ian Curtis from Joy Division. Every song on “In One Era Out the Other” could have been a hit, they're all just really beautiful songs, but this one "Secretatiat" is my favorite.
Song: The Movies – Secretariat
EJL: That was The Movies with "Secretatiat" as selected by our guest Rachel Kushner. What's the last track you got for us?
RK: The Theme to a film called “India Song” that was written and directed by the great late French novelist Marguerite Duras.
It was composed some named Carlos D'Alessio, but I really don't know anything about him. I only learned his name by trying to find a version of the song that was playing during the film and I was so enchanted by this film and the song that I spent years trying to track down a copy of the record.
Now you can just look it up and it's on YouTube, but even three years ago that was not at all the case. All I could come up with in searching for this song, was somebody on a listserv has posted a thirty second piece of music as an MP3 that I managed to download and would play it. I'd just made a loop of it, and I would play it and play it and play it.
I saw the movie in Los Angeles at the Red Cat Theater it was scheduled to begin at 8 pm on an incredibly rainy night and I was really undecided about whether to leave the house and go see the movie. And at the last minute I just threw on a rain coat and I went in my pajamas. I sat in the back of the Red Cat and I was so blown away by this film. I love Marguerite Duras and I like her films -- they aren’t to everyone's taste, not a lot happens.
The music was amazing and sat in the back and I just wrote dialogue. I mean I paid close attention, but I was writing the entire time and everything that I wrote that night in the movie theater ended up in my book Telex from Cuba and it was kinda like a key turning point for me in inspiration and the song I guess symbolizes that for me.
Song: Carlos D’Alessia – “The theme to the film India Song"
EJL: So here's Carlos D'Alessio in "The theme to the film India Song"
EJL: Rachel, thank you so much for coming down and joining us at KCRW.com
RK: Thanks for having me it was a real pleasure.