mardi, novembre 28, 2006

Girls Aloud interview

Girls Aloud: 'We're not little kittens'

Girls Aloud confounded critics with a string of Top 10 hits.

James McNair talks to them about songwriting, sexy shoots and celeb boyfriends.

They came out of reality TV, but Girls Aloud have confounded their critics with a string of Top 10 hits. James McNair talks to them about songwriting, sexy shoots and celebrity boyfriends.

Love them or loathe them, pop stars hot-housed on reality TV shows continue to appear. Whoever wins The X Factor this year, however, would do well to emulate the success of Girls Aloud. Created on ITV's Popstars: The Rivals in November 2002, the group were a reminder that team selection can be as important as the music where lucrative pop is concerned. In cherry-picking a redhead from Runcorn, two blondes from Ascot and Derry, and two similarly pretty brunettes from Newcastle and Bradford, Popstars' creators were mindful of the "catch-all" template that proved so fruitful for the Spice Girls. Give every boy his "type" and every young girl a look they might aspire to, runs the theory, and you've one hand on the prize.

Such savvy groundwork - together with some decent songwriting - was undoubtedly a factor in Girls Aloud scoring a Christmas No 1 with their debut single "Sound of the Underground". Three studio albums followed between May 2003 and December 2005, and now, less than four years since the band's inception, Cheryl Cole, Nadine Coyle, Sarah Harding, Nicola Roberts and Kimberley Walsh have released a greatest hits package, The Sound Of Girls Aloud.

While a "best of" CD seems decidedly premature, career years are as dog ones in pop's fickle universe. Besides, as Cole points out, Girls Aloud have packed a lot in thus far. Their 13 consecutive Top 10 hits, for example, constitute a feat unsurpassed by any other girl group. Such are the indignities, some moan, that the reality TV-moulded Girls Aloud have wrought upon Diana Ross and the Supremes, and, erm, Bananarama.

Today, I meet Cheryl Cole (née Tweedy) and bandmate Walsh at Highgate Studios in north London. Cole - pink tracksuit, hotel-issue slippers, occasional use of the "F" word - is the most vocal, while Walsh - mustard Sixties-style coat, black jeans, homely Lancashire accent - comes on like a younger, shyer Melanie Sykes. Both girls are poised on high stools with legs crossed, their sparkling eye make-up clearly the work of trained professionals. They are aware of their beauty, and to meet their gaze is to be temporarily disarmed.

Cole is quick to defend the reality format that spawned Girls Aloud, pointing out that for every hopeless fantasist that sees such programmes as a fast track to wealth and fame, there is a hardworking "diamond in the rough" for whom such shows are a lifeline. "It's definitely a great opportunity," agrees Walsh, "but I was naïve about how gruelling it would be. The first two weeks of the band, we slept about three hours a night and even today, we were up at quarter to six."

"Tomorrow it's 4am," adds Cole. "We've got to get ready to lead the Harrods Christmas parade. I'm not complaining or anything; the Spice Girls had to work twice as hard as we do because they did America and the whole shebang in no time. When I was sitting next to Victoria [Beckham] at the World Cup, she was like, 'Are you sure it's all right for you to be here? Shouldn't you be doing a gig or something?'

"Another time she said, 'We were just like you lot, Cheryl: five random girls auditioned and thrown together.' The only difference was that the Spice Girls were groomed and media-trained before they came out, and we had to do all that in the spotlight. It was like selling your soul to the devil."

And what of Girls Aloud's comparative longevity? How have they survived in a market where careers last about as long as a Popsicle? "I think it's a mixture of things," says Walsh. "It's partly the quality of the songs, and the fantastic relationship we have with our producer Brian Higgins and his main songwriter, Miranda [Cooper]. We connect with our material and we always try to bring something fresh to our performances. People have to be wowed by your new look and your new sound, otherwise they're not willing to buy the records." "We've always had a bit of an edge, too," adds Cole. "We're not little kittens who just sit there and purr. We have strong opinions."

Credibility, one realises, is the commodity that most manufactured pop acts would give their eye teeth for. The boy band that plays its own instruments; the girl group that writes its own songs - both gain a slighter higher rung on the ladder of authenticity. For Girls Aloud, though, being poptastically successful seems to be enough. Though they and their band mates have dabbled in co-writing, both Cole and Walsh are comfortable with the fact that their job is primarily to sell what others have crafted. But don't dare belittle their half of that quid pro quo. "It would be a shame if someone like our producer Brian Higgins went unnoticed," says Cole. "He can't sing a note and he definitely couldn't front 'Love Machine' or 'Biology'. Those songs would never have come to light if it hadn't been for us."

"It infuriates Brian when people say bad things about us not writing our own songs," adds Walsh. "He's like, 'I couldn't have this kind of success without you and the whole team of people around us.' The way we look, the way we are as people - all of that inspires Brian to write. We just sing bits and pieces of the songs and he builds the music around us. Our vocal performances are a big part of the song, though."

What about choosing the songs they record - do they have much say there? "The songs go to our A&R man," says Cole. "He chooses his favourites and then it's kind of up to us to pick from them. But we're not naïve about the process, and we don't always know what's best for us. We hated 'Love Machine' when we first heard it, but then it was a huge hit and we were forced to eat humble pie.

"That's why you have a record company and a manager," Cole continues. "You have to let them do their job. Look what happened with the Spice Girls when they sacked [manager] Simon Fuller. It all went tits-up."

Jokes about how fetching such an eventuality might look aside, things have yet to go "tits-up" for Girls Aloud. Even E4's fly-on-the-wall documentary Girls Aloud: Off the Record seems to have worked in their favour - and this despite Cole's regular mini-tantrums. Some of her outbursts are archived at; one of the best sees her flip out when faced with the challenge of climbing a steep hill in stiletto heels. "Does anyone actually care that we're going to be at the highest point in Greece?" asks Cole, arms outstretched imploringly. "It smells of shit here."

"I watch it and go, 'That's Cheryl - that's how she is'," smiles Walsh. "But other people go, 'My God! She's a real moaner!' Cheryl just talks everything that she's thinking, but if you don't know her you're not in a position to judge her. The best thing about doing that show was that we've got six months of our lives logged for when we're older, and I know we're going to appreciate that. We went to Australia. Who knows if that will ever happen again?"

"People said I was complaining all the time," laughs Cole, "but a lot of it was the way they edited the footage. They make it look like you can only be bothered to climb five steps when you've actually climbed 5,000."

Despite reality TV's double-edged sword, Girls Aloud clearly have the people's vote - and that of some of their fellow pop stars. Arctic Monkeys have covered "Love Machine", Lily Allen has said she'd like to look like Cole, and the girl group's appearance in the forthcoming Oasis documentary Lord Don't Slow Me Down should help their visibility in 2007.

The cameo came about when the girls stumbled across the Gallagher brothers while working at the same studio, Cole's less forward band mates goading her to make the introductions. "Noel went, 'Our kid! Come on out - it's Girls Aloud!'" laughs Walsh. "We had our photo taken with them - it meant a lot to me coming from their neck of the woods." Given that Liam Gallagher is married to Nicole Appleton, one quarter of rival girl band All Saints, this is all very intriguing, of course. Who knows - perhaps the Girls Aloud footage will end up on the cutting-room floor.

Still, what of their own relationships? With Cheryl married to Ashley Cole, Nadine dating Desperate Housewives actor Jesse Metcalfe, and Kimberley seeing Triple 8 singer Justin Scott, the reportedly single Sarah Harding must feel a certain pressure to bag a celebrity of her own? "It's not really like that," says Cole. "It's more about trust and finding someone who likes you for yourself, not being in Girls Aloud, someone who supports what you do, but isn't intimidated by it." Like Ashley? "Exactly!"

What's his favourite Girls Aloud song? "When he joined Chelsea he had to sing a song to the other players as a kind of team-bonding thing, and I printed him out the lyrics for 'The Sound of the Underground'. He didn't go for it, but I know he really likes that song."

From the twanging, almost Monkees-like pop of "Love Machine", to the fabulously melodramatic, cod R&B-imbued "Biology", Girls Aloud have "fronted" (to use Cole's term) some great pop tunes. Not (quite) for nothing has their producer Brian Higgins been called a Phil Spector for the 21st century. Still, as Higgins and his Xenomania production house team also pen tunes for Sugababes and others, and competition for the cream of their crop is fierce, Girls Aloud's greatest hits collection is peppered with cover-versions.

Last Christmas, your scribe found himself in the somewhat embarrassing position of being genuinely moved by their take on The Pretenders' "I'll Stand By You", though, in my defence, I'd have to cite its limpet-like adherence to the arrangement of the fine, Chrissie Hynde-penned original. Make no mistake about it: Girls Aloud can carry a tune.

Throughout today's interview, one of Cole and Walsh's PR bods has been perching on a nearby stool, a lifeguard ready to wade in if necessary. Recent spats with Boy George and aforementioned rivals All Saints - together with persistent, but untrue rumours that Harding is leaving Girls Aloud - have led to a line of questioning that the group would rather avoid. Much more pressing, it seems, is plugging "I Think We're Alone Now", a cover of the Eighties Tiffany hit with which Girls Aloud hope to secure this year's Christmas No 1. "The higher it gets, the better the album will sell," says Walsh, "and ultimately that's what we're trying to promote."

The girls have filmed a video for said song in which the storyline sees them attempt a heist at a Los Angeles casino. It's being billed as a "fans' choice" video, since customers of 3 Mobile can download three different denouements: "shocking", "funny" and "sexy". No prizes for guessing which will prove most popular.

Of course, only a fool would deny that the girls' sex appeal - as milked in promotional videos, calendars and regular shoots for FHM and the like - is a huge factor in shifting their CDs. As in 2005, this year the aforementioned magazine featured all five Girls Aloud members in its "100 Sexiest Woman" list, but on the surface at least, Cole (sixth, down from second), and Walsh (66th, down from 44th) seem unaffected by any tensions these ridiculously arbitrary rankings might spark.

Boy George, on the other hand, is currently a source of great irritation, largely because the singer recently called Girls Aloud and their music "vile". "I knew George didn't like us from the moment he walked in the room," says Walsh, choosing her words carefully, but her ever-feisty band mate is more colourful. "While we were playing our arena tour Boy George was sweeping shit off the New York streets," says Cole, her silver-painted eyelashes sparkling. "He's bitter that he's not succeeding and we are."

Download the 'fans' choice' video for 'I Think We're Alone Now' via 3 Music until 15 November (

© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited

lundi, novembre 20, 2006

Beatles still alive

Roll Over, Brian Epstein: The Beatles Get Mashed

Frank Herrmann

George Martin with Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr in 1967.

By JON PARELES, Published: November 19, 2006

THE latest Beatles collection, “Love” (Capitol), isn’t a retrospective: it’s a recombination. After the innumerable reissues, archival gleanings and rescued live recordings that have made the Beatles catalog an endlessly milked cash cow for EMI Records and the Beatles’ own Apple Corps, the “Love” CD and its surround-sound DVD mix, both due for release on Tuesday, are different. Instead of simply collecting Beatles tracks, “Love” actively manipulates them.

Songs are edited together, dismantled, reconstructed from unused takes, overlapped, mined for guitar licks or orchestral bits, segued into free-form montages, even run in reverse. The result is both familiar and disorienting. “Love” is part of that snowballing 21st-century phenomenon, the mash-up.

It’s an authorized one, approved by the Beatles and their families and made by George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, and Giles Martin, his son. They assembled this music for the Cirque du Soleil production “Love,” now running in Las Vegas. The tone is admiring verging on reverent.

Mash-ups can mock their sources; “Love” emphatically does not. Nor does it venture outside the Beatles’ own catalog. All the music is from the Beatles, 1963-70, except for a new string arrangement by George Martin, which is overdubbed onto the bittersweet, acoustic-guitar version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that appeared on “Anthology 3,” part of the “Anthology” series of alternate takes.

For people who have been hearing Beatles albums since they were first released, “Love” is a memory test, a jolt to the ingrained experience of the music. Did it always sound that way? Wasn’t that guitar solo in a different song? All mash-ups do that to some extent, but the déjà entendu effect is exponentially stronger with material like Beatles songs that millions of listeners have memorized from end to end. The effect, as it was with the “Anthology” albums, is not to devalue or dethrone the well-known versions, but to illuminate them.

Giles Martin said in an interview that he was tempted to have the album packaging read, “No original Beatles recordings were harmed in the making of these tracks.” It’s a nervous joke. By reshuffling Beatles nuggets even this much, the Martins have breached the hermetic domain in which the Beatles have tried to keep their music.

The Beatles’ EMI recordings aren’t available on iTunes, and Apple Corps turns down most requests to use the Beatles’ catalog in other contexts. When Danger Mouse made “The Grey Album,” his razzle-dazzle combination of the raps from Jay-Z’s “Black Album” with microsliced samples from “The Beatles” (a k a “The White Album”) in 2004, he immediately got a cease-and-desist letter from EMI Records, which instead could have capitalized on a new surge of interest in a 1968 oldie. (The album circulated anyway as a widespread free download.)

Like any other recordings the Beatles’ songs have been fodder for unauthorized mash-ups. But officially, they have been treated like sacred texts, to be kept inviolate. “Love” doesn’t open the door to Beatles recycling (which was going on anyway) as much as it recognizes the inevitable.

“Love” was made for Cirque du Soleil, which, astonishingly, persuaded the surviving Beatles and family members not only to let Beatles songs be used as the soundtrack for a big Las Vegas production but also to allow them to be rejiggered. Cirque du Soleil’s needs clearly affected the programming of the album — of course the Beatles’ circus song, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” is included — but “Love” was also a good pretext to sift through the tapes one more time.

The Martins searched the Beatles catalog for coincidences of key and tempo, for bits of songs that could be turned into connectors or musical puns. Vocals from “Nowhere Man” drift in above the keyboard and cello of “Blue Jay Way”; the guitar introduction to “Blackbird” leads into “Yesterday” instead.

It’s an album of connoisseurship, revealing the inspired details tucked into so many Beatles songs. (Paul McCartney’s bass line in “Something” emerges, with the rhythm guitar track removed, as a true countermelody.) It’s a sonic close-up too.

Because “Love” was made from early generations of the Beatles’ original, unprocessed studio master tapes, the timbres of voices, fingers on strings and drumsticks on skins are more immediate than they have been on other digitized Beatles releases. Which ought to raise the pressure on EMI to release better remastered CD’s of the original Beatles albums.

Some of the juxtapositions are revealing, pointing to threads that run through the Beatles’ music. “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Within You Without You” were both in the same key, so the rhythm track of the first can fit the melody of the second. But both were also Beatles songs that matched mystical reflections to the drone of Indian raga. Other combinations are merely clever, a matter of trivial coincidence. A few are cutesy and annoying.

The “Love” version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” imagines the song being constructed: first John Lennon singing it by himself with acoustic guitar, then the other band members joining in one by one as a rhythm section, then layers of backup voices, of electric guitars, of horns and electronics, but with Lennon’s voice always vulnerable at the core. It’s touching and fascinating, like a time-lapse version of the Beatles at work. And then, unfortunately, the production goes off the rails, piling on bits of other, unnecessary songs.

“Love” isn’t the last word on the Beatles catalog — or at least it shouldn’t be. There’s far more material in the group’s archives than a single collection can encompass, especially if the point is not only preservation but extrapolation. The Beatles in their heyday held their music to extraordinarily high standards, but they weren’t rigid or exclusionary about what went into it, whether it was Bach or the Beach Boys.

They were playing in every sense of the word — even doing their own premonitory mash-ups in songs like “Revolution No. 9” and “I Am the Walrus” — and with “Love,” some of that old playfulness returns. Back in the 1960s the Beatles were pop’s vanguard; now, in this guarded way, they have joined the cut-and-paste present. Their originals stand up, but it wouldn’t hurt their legacy one bit to let some outsiders play with them too.

jeudi, novembre 16, 2006

Poets and Music

This be the verse

Don't ask the latest wave of singer-songwriters which albums they've been listening to - they're more inspired by books than music. Laura Barton talks to the new poets of pop

The Guardian

James Yorkston, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Joanna Newsom, Josh Ritter
Poets' corner ... (clockwise from top left) James Yorkston, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Joanna Newsom, and Josh Ritter.
Photograph: Graeme Robertson

Earlier this year, Southern Records published the lyrics of a little-known singer-songwriter called William Elliott Whitmore, binding them together as a 16-page songbook entirely devoid of accompanying notes or guitar tablature. Taken from Whitmore's three albums, they are songs of buzzards and blackbirds, gallows, graves, gravel roads, full of lines like "the morning glories and the Queen Anne's lace are baptised by the wind", and "the crow is calling and I hear him well up in the red bud tree". "Is there anything more elemental?" waxes Southern Records' James McArdle in its introduction. "Poetry on a banjo." "It's rare," added Jon Resh, the songbook's designer, "that any lyrics, sans music, make for such good reading as his."

In 2005, sales of poetry in Britain drifted to 890,220 books - said to be the worst figure in some time. By contrast, we bought 45,772,541 novels. In the same year, a survey conducted by Book Marketing/TMS found that of the 63% of Britons aged between 12 and 74 who bought any kind of book, 34% purchased fiction, and just 1% chose poetry. The publishing industry was aghast and set about dreaming up harebrained schemes such as texting verse to mobile phones to bolster our poetic sensibilities. But is there really great cause for panic? Might it be that today we are finding our poetry elsewhere, away from the printed page?

From Dylan to Eminem, the case has been thoroughly argued that the new poets of popular culture reside in rock'n'roll. Now, however, we have entered a golden age of rock lyricism, and precisely as those poetry sales dwindle, songwriters are filling the gap, drawing their influences as much from literature as from other musicians: Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Bill Callahan (who records as Smog), John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, Josh Ritter, Joanna Newsom, James Yorkston, M Ward. A glut of albums have arrived from these songwriters in recent weeks, and all feature songs that are as satisfying and fascinating lyrically as they are melodically, and offer words that easily stand alone.

Poetry and music have weathered a long and tortuous relationship. Until the 16th century they made happy bedfellows, and a poet and a composer was frequently the same thing - the majority of poetry was created to be sung or chanted. Thereafter the relationship largely fizzled out. It was rekindled, arguably, with the arrival of rock'n'roll.

"Rock'n'roll is characterised by driving and simple but not necessarily easy rhythms, and the words hover between the rhythms," says Christopher Ricks, Oxford University's professor of poetry, who has written about Bob Dylan's importance as a poet. "The question is, what do these wonderful simplicities of rhythm do to the words? Just because in the art of song, words are joined by music and melody, that doesn't mean they are less important. It's a bit like saying oxygen isn't as important in water because it's a compound."

But is it possible to describe a songwriter as "poetical"? After all, like "literary", it's an ambiguous term. "One way to address the dilemma of resolving what is and what is not poetry is to subscribe to what [Leonard] Cohen says: poetry is a verdict rather than an intention," observes David Boucher, author of Dylan & Cohen, Poets of Rock and Roll. But even that is fraught with subjectivity. "To call something poetic, or artistic, is deliberately to invoke this positive sense of approval," Boucher says. "The positive is not of course universal, and for some, poetry and the label poetry may be tainted by unpleasant associations with school and the 'high' culture of the establishment."

Indeed, poetry - in the book sense - has a bad reputation among even the most literary songwriters. "I see a huge gulf between poetry and song lyrics," insists Bill Callahan. "Poetry is so often an internal and individual thing. Music is a social art that speaks to the body more than the mind. Even if you choose to listen to music alone, you are still a part of a living thing. Poetry is about separating yourself out from the masses. It's about not being a social animal. I dislike poetry!"

Poetry can certainly be off-putting. To the uninitiated, it can appear as intimidating as stepping onto a dancefloor without the requisite moves; the difference is that to many, observing the onomatopoeia seems a whole lot less enticing than doing the mashed potato or learning how to pony like Bony Maroney.

"The greatest disservice that a poem can do is to act as a wall between the writer and the reader, or the performer and the audience," says Josh Ritter. "That is what I believe is happening to poetry these days. Somehow, poetry has been turned into a lock-box which we can only write or read after we've gone to graduate school. People seem worried that poetry isn't selling. If you have nothing useful to sell, people aren't gonna buy it. Poetry is supposed to be useful. It's supposed to help us with our lives. Writing is supposed to be generous."

Callahan's lyrics are characterised by their strong narratives, from the tale of a river guard watching over prisoners swimming, to the youthful adventure of finding "skin mags in the brambles". It is not surprising, then, that Callahan finds motivation in other forms of literature. "Prose is a different story," he declares. "I read a lot of prose but I don't see any direct influence on my songs. I can read anything as long as it rings long and true. It's more inspiration than influence. If I get up in the morning and read for an hour, instead of watching TV, it tends to make me write stuff. It tightens your brain and makes you shoot out some words of your own."

While Callahan denies direct literary inspiration, other songwriters are more forthcoming: M Ward tells me of stealing lines of Emily Dickinson; Josh Ritter based much of his last album, The Animal Years, on the writings of Mark Twain; the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle wrote a whole collection of songs inspired by Don DeLillo's habit of comparing the sun to an "orange ball", and composed a group of songs featuring the same characters, inspired by the Dream Songs sequence of the poet John Berryman. Joanna Newsom readily admits to a little literary theft on her latest record: "I filched two characters that in my head had life to them, were so finely drawn that they became archetypal: Jason Compson in The Sound and the Fury, running with his hands in his pockets, foreshadowing greed and repression - he became a touchstone; and similarly in the song Emily there's a reference to Lolita. Not directly to the character but to the heavy, languorous energy, that listlessness and decadence, the rangy long limbs of her adolescence. He's giving her candy and fancy dresses to fill the hole he's creating in her heart."

Naturally, the process of songwriting is different from writing poetry or prose. M Ward generally starts with the music. So does Newsom: "It starts with a melody," she says, "but I hate arbitrariness in lyrics. I've never chosen a word just because it sounds good. It's important that each line has musical value, which in my mind is similar to poetical value. There has to be correlation between instrument activity and word activity." Callahan goes in backwards: "I can't write the music first," he says. "I write a block of words that holds together, for me, without music. But I am also hearing the music in a ghostly way as I write the words."

For Ritter much of it is about wordplay: "I make up things off the top of my head," he says. "I like them best when they rhyme. I'm pretty unapologetic about that part. A rhyme grounds the thought being expressed in a bedrock. It gives the game rules by which to play. When you do a crossword, you have boxes of white and black to go by. Songs are the same way." Darnielle tends to go in both guns blazing: "The songs tend to be written with the guitar, hands going back and forth, scatting almost," he says. "Blurting out sounds to find where a melodic line is, finding out what the line length is. And then writing a line or two, but improvising words to see how they fit in. Maybe just a phrase." It is different, he says, to other forms of writing. "Poetry I sit down and write."

Many of these songwriters have aspirations to experiment in other genres of writing. Darnielle's other passion is writing poetry. The son of an English tutor, and a former literature student, he knows his stuff: "Gentlemen used to read poetry, women too, but it was a kind of a gentlemanly pursuit. My professor, Robert Mezey, is always insisting - and it seems like a romanticised past - that any educated person, set to it, would be able to give you four lines of pentameter as part of their education. Now, this is not the case." The reason, he suspects, is the rise in electronic media. "You base a lot more now on seeing and hearing than on reading," he says.

There is also a lot of bad poetry about these days, which he thinks is another factor. "The disappearance of objective criteria on which to judge poems sort of opens the floodgates for a lot of bad poetry," Darnielle explains, sitting cross-legged on the edge of his hotel bed and frowning a little. "And when a market becomes flooded with stuff that's poor, then the customers go away. And bad poetry - there can't ever have been so much as there is present today." It's Walt Whitman's fault, he says. "I would blame my own country, especially uncle Walt, for this. Uncle Walt is the supreme egotist. Everything exists in his world with respect to his own gaze and presence. By his relation to it." He draws his mouth into a line of thin resignation. "Because it's a complex issue to discuss, beyond most of us including me, people just throw up their hands and go, 'Well, I don't understand it but it must be good!'"

Still, he believes human beings have an inherent need for poetry. He quotes William Carlos Williams' poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower: "It is difficult to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there." He shrugs. "I think that's why rap is popular. There's not a rock writer as good as Ghostface [Killah]. He's just shocking. And David LaDude. Oh boy." And even so, Darnielle believes, rap is past its lyrical peak.

Darnielle still writes poetry. "I like bizarre images, collages. I really like the sounds of words," he says with relish. Would he hinge a whole poem or song around one particular word? "Oh yeah, I'll bite down on one," he grins broadly and displays a fine set of teeth. "If there's a word I want to play up. People have words they say well." And what are his? "It's been observed that I say window, hair and water a lot. Fire is a nice one always. Monkey is an outstanding word but you have to go light on it. You can run it into the ground."

Newsom, meanwhile, who dropped out of college where she was studying poetry-reading and short-story writing to pursue music, sees her new album as at least a sidestep towards prose. "They're long songs, and in a lot of ways I was thinking of them as short stories," she says.

Ritter plans to write novels alongside his music, and Callahan too has his eye on writing prose: "I'm working on an epistolary novelette," he says soberly. Already, however, he is finding the new creative form something of a challenge: "It is more difficult than songwriting. The horizon is so wide and it's so quiet - there is no music!"

Post-War by M Ward and Get Lonely by the Mountain Goats are out now on 4AD. Ys by Joanna Newsom is released on November 6 on Drag City. Josh Ritter plays Whitehaven Civic Hall on November 16, then tours.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006