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Writer Neil Gaiman debuts his first music album with an Australian string quartet

Writer Neil Gaiman (center) makes music with FourPlay (L-R: Peter Hollo, Shenton Gregory aka Shenzo Gregorio, Lara Goodridge and Tim Hollo)
Chris Frape
/
Riot Act Media
Writer Neil Gaiman (center) makes music with FourPlay (L-R: Peter Hollo, Shenton Gregory aka Shenzo Gregorio, Lara Goodridge and Tim Hollo)

From The Sandman and Lucifer to Good Omens, Neil Gaiman has written novels and comics that have been adapted into plays, TV series and films. Now, he's setting his sights on music.

For his debut studio album Signs of Life, the British author joins Australia's FourPlay String Quartet in an eclectic blend of classical and indie rock tunes with poetry and prose.

"I loved them. I loved the imagination. I loved the wit," Gaiman tells NPR's Morning Edition, recalling his first collaboration with the quartet in a 2010 Sydney Opera House reading of his novella The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains.

Their new collaboration released Friday is a meeting of unconventional minds between Gaiman — whose writing is often so idiosyncratic it's impossible to pin down — and FourPlay, an indie rock band of sorts that happens to be playing the traditional string quartet instruments of two violins, a viola and a cello. The musicians got their start performing covers by artists as varied as Radiohead, Metallica and Leonard Cohen.

For a tour that brought them to Carnegie Hall, Gaiman and FourPlay crafted an original song about Joan of Arc, where the historical figure was figuratively brought back from the dead to cause all kinds of problems.

"I'm hoping she ignored my English accent in her work/ Because it's really hard to hang around with saints," Gaiman lyricizes in The Problem with Saints.

With that song under their belts, "there was kind of no stopping us," Gaiman says. "Somewhere in there, we decided to just start creating and make more music. And we've been doing that ever since."

Tracking time and space

The album's first track, Clock, features what sounds like a ticking timepiece and Gaiman reading Shakespeare's Sonnet 12. The poetry laments the frailty of beauty, beginning with "When I do count the clock that tells the time/ And see the brave day sunk in hideous night."

FourPlay originally improvised wordless vocals with music set to a metronome at 60 beats per minute to emulate the passage of time, over which the musicians played repeated, or ostinato, cross-rhythms and a slow-moving bassline.

Originally, Gaiman and FourPlay explored crafting works around a celestial zodiac theme, but with traditional astrological signs replaced by new objects and words to represent aspects of life. One of those "signs" was a Möbius strip.

As a child, Gaiman learned to create this nonorientable band from his grandfather. And the song Möbius Strip features Gaiman providing instructions for creating a listener's own version.

"That Möbius strip idea just took me back to the point where now I'm a grandfather and I have grandkids. And that's the kind of thing that I love being able to do with them," Gaiman says. "It felt like a perfect metaphor for the shape of a life [where] you are always traveling this Möbius strip."

In tracks like Song of the Song, it was Gaiman who had to adjust his own reading rhythms to match the music.

"It would be something that normally I would find terrifying. The risk of wandering into William Shatnerian pronouncement of lyrics or whatever — you just sort of don't want to go there," Gaiman said, referring to recordings made in the 1960s and 70s by the actor best known for playing Captain Kirk in the Star Trek franchise.

Expanding his range to 'mad things'

"The joy of getting to do this stuff with FourPlay is we got to do everything. So we got to do stuff like that where what I'm saying has to absolutely line up with what they're playing," Gaiman says. "And then there are mad things like Bloody Sunrise, where I wrote a very silly song about a lonely, heartbroken vampire."

A major outlier on the debut album, Bloody Sunrise was released as an early single days before Halloween. Actress Talia Benatar plays a vampiress in an accompanying music video and FourPlay's violinist Lara Goodridge joins Gaiman on vocals.

Another single, In Transit, is a tribute to the English astronomer Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, who proved Einstein's theory of relativity by observing stars during a solar eclipse. The song is divided into two parts, evolving from strains that portray a more reserved public figure and exploding into a reflection of a multilayered and unrestrained private life.

Music-filled omens

Gaiman says he's just getting started with music. For the upcoming second season of the TV adaptation of a 1990 novel Good Omens, written with Terry Pratchett, Gaiman describes an "absolutely fascinating" process of working various songs and music into new episodes.

"Music is so incredibly powerful," he adds when considering possible musical treatments for his novels. "I'd love to take something, whether it be Coraline or The Ocean at the End of the Lane or something completely new, and create something that you can experience that's musical."

<em>Signs of Life</em> is an eclectic mix of classical and indie rock music, song and poetry united by the artists' embrace of the unconventional (cover art by Shaun Tan).
/ Riot Act Media
/
Riot Act Media
Signs of Life is an eclectic mix of classical and indie rock music, song and poetry united by the artists' embrace of the unconventional (cover art by Shaun Tan).

Gaiman also says he hopes to write a play from scratch, rather than adapt one of his existing works for the stage, although regardless of format — "whether it would be novels or comic books or film and television or plays or shadow puppets" — Gaiman says his job remains the same.

"I'm a storyteller and I'm still not bored of it, not sick of it, and not ready to go off and get a real job yet."

Mansee Khurana and Barry Gordemer produced and edited the audio version of this story. Jan Johnson edited the digital version.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Olivia Hampton