My Year of Dickens, an interview with Victoria Keating

One of the few nice consequences of the pandemic was a chance to properly get to know my neighbour, singer songwriter Victoria Keating, without the stiff formalities of nodding hello on the morning commute. As she moved in just prior to lockdown I had the privilege of getting to know her in a strange isolation: we were meeting no family or friends and jumped at the chance to chat across the garden fence.

As the country began to emerge from lockdown, I sat down to chat with Victoria about her inspirations and her creative process, and how a year spent immersed in the works of Dickens inspired both a new song, and the title for her lockdown project: Little Rooms, Big Music.

Tell me about your year spent reading Dickens

My year of reading Dickens came about through a lifelong love of books and reading. I had read Hard Times at 14 and didn’t like it at the time, but over the intervening years found out more and more about Dickens the man. Despite his flaws, most notably his cruelty to his wife and children, he suffered from OCD (like me), he published periodically and episodically, and he worked ferociously hard and was very prolific. I think of Dickens as the soap opera of his time: he had a huge readership, and was scorned by high culture as mass market. I love his accessibility, the warmth of his heart and social conscience which shows in his writing, and I love the dialogue.

He kept returning to his childhood experience of eviction, and his father’s having to go into a workhouse when Dickens was around 12, and Dickens himself having to work from a young age.

Dickens’ readership came from all facets of society, and people would eagerly await the next instalment, and today we don’t wait for anything- we have instant access to the next episode of whatever we want.

I was given a Kindle as a gift on holiday from Dec (musician Declan Sinnott) who downloaded the complete works of Dickens for me, and began to read…

I began with A Tale of Two Cities, with what is surely the most famous opening line in literature –“it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, then moved on to Great Expectations. Miss Havisham ended up informing a project I was working on at the time – the Madrugada (a ‘Cork Odyssey’ to the words of Mick Lynch, frontman of punk band Stump and puppeteer).

My favourite of all of Dickens’ works is David Copperfield, which was Dickens’ own favourite too.

During my reading, I began collecting and listing all the words I liked the sound of that had fallen out of everyday usage, such as ‘reticule’ ‘verily’ ‘hustings’ and ‘waggish’, and decided to begin to build a song around them. Over time I decided to call this ‘Household Words’ after Dickens’ publishing house, but also because the words themselves are not in common usage anymore.

As with Shakespeare, Dickens was meant to be read aloud, and by using his words as inspiration in my writing I am in a small way continuing this tradition.

Household Words is a song, and possibly the new album title. I started writing it at the beginning of lockdown, but found that I didn’t want to write for a while. It can be painful, as it taps into a space that is both really exhilarating and really dangerous and raw. I get carried away, and it detaches me from reality, but it is a space that I really love. I thought that Household, in the sense of the space we inhabit in our own little worlds really came to the forefront in lockdown with cocooning and having to stay at home, and made us view households in a way we perhaps hadn’t before.

The idea came to me last year, and has been in the back of my mind, percolating. Lockdown gave the writing the kickstart it needed. I read Marian Keyes’ Grown Ups at the beginning of the lockdown, and her love of words, dialogue and family was a great inspiration to start writing again.

I was sorry to finish Dickens, and I’ll be returning to read his short stories next.

When you’re writing, what do you need to achieve a flow state?

Trust. To trust that it’s going to bring me to that place. When you’re there it feels like meditation, like you’re in a place where nothing can harm you, and all is right with the world. It happens in performance, in rehearsal, and during writing, and it’s magical. It’s like being in a forcefield. You can’t do anything wrong, but you’re also allowing yourself the freedom to fail, because freedom to fail is so important.

‘It’s only in uncertainty that we’re naked and alive’ Peter Gabriel

 

I don’t think we talk about freedom to fail as an element of creativity enough…

There’s this idea, particularly among teens and young twenties, that things have to be perfect. Like digitally enhanced images on social media, things that you can and can’t say, but I like the idea that there’s always freedom to fail. This becomes like a safety net under you: you can make mistakes. But at the moment, you’re being openly tried by social media in terms of your beliefs or what you say. I was thinking recently about John Lennon in America saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, and it makes me tired. There’s more to life than black and white, there are beautiful shades of grey and microtones between notes where there’s so much beauty, and we just don’t see it.

‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’ Leonard Cohen

To be empathetic is vital, and I think Dicken’s great empathy shines through in his work, if not in his personal life. His personal flaws don’t detract from his work. It’s important to be disappointed by your heroes, because the idea of ‘hero’ is so unnatural anyway, it is a snapshot of a particular moment. The interest comes with the complete package of a person or a life, the whole authentic package, warts and all, failure and success.

I’m learning to embrace my flaws as I age, and I refuse to be held back by expectations and the supposed ‘flaws’ of aging. I am proud of who I am and where I am.

When you’re writing, how do you know when to stop?

You don’t! That’s the problem. I think you allow yourself the idea that they’re never actually finished. The way they are recorded is s snapshot of a song, and when you play it live, you can breathe new life into it with a different rhythm or melody or a slight tweak. I like the idea that songs are like rivers. They can keep on slowing, they don’t stay in a rigid format. When I sing with Christy (Moore) there’s no set list, and it’s so exciting. You run onto the stage, and you feel like you could fall at any moment because you don’t know what’s coming next. I love that space, it’s very creative and very challenging.

Tell me about the single

The new single is called Little rooms, and it’s recorded and ready to go.

I started writing it about two years ago, finished it last year, and sang it in Vicar Street. I want to release it in light of the current situation- we all live in little rooms, whether that is in our heads, or in our perception of ourselves, or our physical spaces. I feel as though the boxes on zoom calls embody this too. ‘The little rooms we live in, they hold us up like words’ If we come together and celebrate as a community, we’ll be stronger for it.

What are you most proud of writing?

It’s a song called ‘all because I could not sleep’, and it’s about anybody who suffers from insomnia for whatever reason. I couldn’t sleep, and I used to think monsters were coming up the stairs. I’d wait to hear my parents go to bed and call goodnight, then realise I was the only person awake again. I was a worrier and suffered from OCD, and the song is all about that experience, and I love the song and the melody

The last words of the song are ‘and still be wide awake in case my heart should break and shatter in a million pieces’, but I love the song and how it flows with the melody.

I wrote poems from the age of about 7, but I didn’t start singing in public until I was about 21 or 22;  I married into a musical family, and they’d do pub gigs every weekend, and went gigging as a family band. I sang with them, and it was an Experience, but I really liked it. Next, I joined a bob Dylan tribute band, which I loved, and I’d trace Bob Dylan’s lyrics directly to Dickens too. The words come to life when they’re read out loud- the speaking of the words out loud and the communal experience translate to song writing. The words need to be spoken into life.

P J Harvey said  ‘I don’t really concern myself too much with what others make of my music’– this idea that you can be an auteur in your own world and have autonomy over your own creative process, and not be shackled to any particular genre. It is so important to be yourself, have your own voice and be your own voice. I love being 50, I have decades of experience behind me that show me that I do have worth and value, and I feel that now is the time. Ageing is so liberating and empowering, and is a force that comes from inside. ‘Confidence is a habit not a trait’. I like myself more and more, and sometimes I even love myself.

Thanks so much to Victoria for taking the time to speak to me. I find it fascinating when, with the benefit of hindsight, you can see the threads of inspiration running through an artist’s work and career, and the traditions that are continued in varying forms across generations.

In Dickens’ own lifetime he had significant influence on music, writing the libretto for an operetta and befriending Arthur Sullivan. Dickens’ works have been direct inspirations for songs, musicals and more recently TV adaptations, and continue to influence both our own culture and our impressions of the Victorian era.

It was a privilege to speak to Victoria and see how Dickens has inspired her, and her work.

You can hear more from Victoria in this recent episode of MacCast, where she is interviewed alongside Declan Sinnott.

Join Victoria every Friday at 8pm for her Facebook Live project Little Rooms, Big Music

Follow Victoria on Instagram @victoriakeatingmusic or on Facebook: Victoria Keating Music

 

Interview by Marianne Chala

 

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