Novelist Laura Barnett And Musician Kathryn Williams On Their 'Greatest Hits' Laura Barnett wrote a novel about an aging singer-songwriter sizing up her life in 16 tracks. Then she approached musician Kathryn Williams, who created the book's original soundtrack.
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This 'Greatest Hits' Album Is Real. Its Artist Is Fiction

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This 'Greatest Hits' Album Is Real. Its Artist Is Fiction

This 'Greatest Hits' Album Is Real. Its Artist Is Fiction

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Cass Wheeler has hit her 60s, a musical star who burst into fame in the 1970s. Here's one of her first big hits, "Common Ground."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMMON GROUND")

KATHRYN WILLIAMS: (As Cass Wheeler, singing) It was early morning when she left. And the city under gray sky was dim, sleeping.

SIMON: Written and sung by Cass Wheeler, recorded June 1971 in London. Remember?

No, you don't. Cass Wheeler is a creation of Laura Barnett, the journalist and novelist, and Kathryn Williams. Barnett has fashioned a novel around a singer-songwriter who looks back at her life as she slides into her 65th birthday and prepares an album of her greatest hits that she associates with some of the hits and hardships of her life. The novel and album are both called "Greatest Hits."

And Laura Barnett and Kathryn Williams join us now from the BBC in Exeter. Thank you both so much for being with us.

LAURA BARNETT: Thank you so much for having us.

SIMON: So who is the chicken, and who is the egg?

BARNETT: That's a very good question.

WILLIAMS: I'm the egg.

BARNETT: I feel like I'm the chicken, definitely.

SIMON: And you are?

BARNETT: I'm Laura.

SIMON: Right, the novelist.

BARNETT: The novelist, yeah. Novelist/chicken - professional chicken.

SIMON: All right. And where does Cass Wheeler come from in your mind?

BARNETT: I had in mind what we might call a long-view novel, a novel that takes the character in their later years and has them look back over the arc of their life, from birth onwards, really. And the idea of wanting to do that for a woman in her 60s converged in my head with the idea of wanting to write about a female musician. I think it was around the time that Kate Bush announced her comeback. And I think the two things converged.

So although Cass is entirely fictional, she certainly has roots in a kind of real-life inspiration from women like Kate Bush, Sandy Denny, Joni Mitchell, the amazing pioneers of women in music.

SIMON: As you were working on the book, who would say, we need a song here?

BARNETT: Well, actually, I had pretty much finished the first draft of the novel before approaching Kathryn. And, actually, we worked in quite a unique way. This is the first time that we know of that this has ever been done - that, A, a novelist has collaborated with a songwriter to create an original soundtrack for a fictional songwriter. So we didn't really have a blueprint, and we worked it out for ourselves.

But as I say, I approached Kathryn when I was already more or less done with the book, so I'd figured out where the songs were going to come and the material that Kath was going to draw on from her life.

As we say, she's an autobiographical songwriter. So we actually decided quite early on that Kath wouldn't read the whole novel because she didn't want to have all the kind of hindsight and foresight that the character wouldn't have had. She sort of wanted to live the moment with Cass.

SIMON: Let's hear another song, if we could. This one, "Don't Step On The Cracks."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STEP ON THE CRACKS")

WILLIAMS: (As Cass Wheeler, singing) Don't step on the cracks, you said, that sat by those nights (ph).

SIMON: Laura Barnett, what prompted this song from Cass Wheeler in your narrative?

BARNETT: This is a very key song, actually. I'm really glad you chose to play it. It comes out of an experience that is a real kind of turning point, keystone in the novel. When Cass is 21 years old, it's the winter of 1971. She's a young woman in an astrakhan coat walking along a street in central London, having just had a meeting with a record label who are wanting to sign her as a solo act.

And you'd think that would be wonderful news, and it is, in a way. But she is faced with a dilemma where she has formed a band with her partner in life and in music, Ivor Tait. And the record label don't want to sign the band; they want to sign her. So it's really about a woman deciding to strike out on her own in life and in music and in art.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T STEP ON THE CRACKS")

WILLIAMS: (As Cass Wheeler, singing) And fallen too far to make up from the start. I told you I wouldn't, but then that's a lie (ph).

SIMON: Kathryn Williams, when you sing, are you Cass or yourself?

WILLIAMS: I'm definitely Cass in my mind because I write as her. I mean, it is quite amusing, writing songs for a fictional songwriter who's much more successful than me (laughter). But, yes, so I'm writing, I'm singing as her. Obviously, you know, I'm not going to put a voice on and not sing with my own voice, but I'm sort of going through and trying to sort of think as her.

SIMON: Some of the most difficult sections have to do with parenthood and motherhood. Is there an irreconcilable division between her interest as an artist and her interest in being the best possible parent?

BARNETT: Yeah. I wish there could've been a story in which Cass' success was entirely supported by her husband, either by her family, and no sacrifices were made in terms of her status as a mother. But that didn't seem realistic to me.

I found this incredible thing that most of these women had in common, which was that they had made some sort of sacrifice in terms of motherhood, whether it was Joni Mitchell famously giving up a child in order to pursue - to move down to the U.S. and pursue her career, or Kate Bush withdrawing from music for decades, as I mentioned, essentially, as she said it, to raise her son, as I understand it. So it seemed impossible, really, to write this without exploring that.

I don't think they are irreconcilable. I hope increasingly now women are able to combine the two, and men, too. But I think of that era. It was so unusual for a woman to step out for herself in that way.

SIMON: Let's hear from another song, if we could, "When Morning Comes."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN MORNING COMES")

WILLIAMS: (As Cass Wheeler, singing) I spent so many nights, love, restless and alone, sleepless in my own bed, willing for the dawn (ph).

SIMON: I think this is my favorite song.

WILLIAMS: Me too.

BARNETT: Me too.

SIMON: All right.

BARNETT: We're all in agreement.

SIMON: Good. Well, and, of course, it coincides happily with the fact that Cass meets a man from Chicago, right?

BARNETT: Indeed. She first realizes that this could be something special. He's a sculptor named Larry.

WILLIAMS: We love Larry.

BARNETT: We love Larry. We do.

WILLIAMS: We have hard crush on Larry.

BARNETT: We do. We love Larry, yeah.

SIMON: So what happens if the two of you were on tour together and the crowd begins to chant that they want a new Cass Wheeler song?

WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah. That's a weird one. Well, I had a really fun idea that we could start putting, like, Cass Wheeler albums in sort of old record shops and charity shops and build up this sort of completely fake Wikipedia thing and see if she did enter into the history of people like, oh, if you've never heard of her...

BARNETT: You know, just keep digging through the vinyl, listeners. You never know. You might find a Cass Wheeler album in there.

SIMON: (Laughter) Laura Barnett - she's written the novel. Kathryn Williams - the songs for "Greatest Hits." Thank you both so much for being with us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

BARNETT: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN MORNING COMES")

WILLIAMS: (As Cass Wheeler, singing) When morning comes, I will reach for you. When morning comes, I'll call you (ph).

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