There is a story the bees used to tell, which makes it hard to disbelieve…
Writers enjoy new ways to engage audiences, fresh ways of working that can sometimes take advantage of all the ways of communicating that have sprung up over the last decade. But communicating is the operative word. That’s what we do: we tell stories and communicate. Joanne Harris is one of the best at that, and she’s managed to turn Twitter into an art form with her #storytime stories. For those who don’t know, these are stories told live in 140-character segments. They continue the traditional art of storytelling (and often uses folklore and the oral story tradition as its base) in a digital age. They’re dark fairytales, sometimes allegories, and they’ve proved so popular that there will be a book containing many of them in about 12 months, with illustrations by Charles Vess.
And why not? After all, everyone loves a story.
But she’s gone further than that with Storytime Live, mixing these stories with music from her band of 30 years (husband Kevin Harris on drums, percussion and vocals; Paul Marshall on keyboards, guitar, and vocals, and Matt Cundy drafted in to cover Joanne’s usual bass slot and effects, while Joanne handles the stories, flute, and vocals), along with song and visuals. It’s a multi-media experiment, a great leap into the unknown. There have been a few performances, and the effect is utterly magical. It’s as intimate as sitting in your living room and also completely immersive. Joanne was gracious enough to answer some questions about this new venture.
picture by Claire Shovelton
Joanne Harris: We tend to associate storytelling with children. I don’t think that’s the way it was always seen. These are alternative traditional stories; they’re all new. I didn’t want to start them with ‘Once upon a time’ because that’s done so often, so I came up with my own beginning.
What made you want to expand into something live, with music?
JH: I think it comes down to the oral storytelling tradition. Music and stories are very close together in the folkloric tradition of the British Isles. I thought it would be quite nice to give it that other dimension. Besides, I’ve been in this band for a long time and we’ve had a lot of different projects. Plenty of them have been on the verge of theatre in one way or another. It seemed a very natural progression to make, so I thought we’ll try it and see what comes of it. It actually works pretty well. There was some resistance from our keyboard player who felt it would be like a kids’ programme like Jackanory. But eventually it turned out to be something none of us expected and it continues to build. It’s very much its infancy.
The nature of the performance places you very much front and centre.
JH: I hadn’t expected that, I wasn’t used to that. It’s been a bit of a learning curve for me. We did think about me playing bass and flute and singing and telling the stories, but that would be too much. It’s hard enough to get me to sing and play bass at the same times; that very rarely happens. Instead we brought in Matt, who does a very good job. He’s on a learning curve, too. He’s much younger than the rest of us, he doesn’t have the sort of history we had. But he’s full of ideas, he’s very different to me in style and he’s brought a lot of new things to the table. He’s given a whole new dynamic to the bassline.
How do you work out the arrangements, the music to use, and the balance between the different elements of story, music, and song?
JH: I’ll send Paul the story and the song lyrics that go with them first and he’ll see what suggests itself. Then he comes with a rough version of something musically. He’ll have some of his keyboard parts down, then we bring it into the practice room and play around with it, and it evolves a shape. In some ways it’s a little easier, because the story is there and the feel is there. With songs it can be a challenge for an audience to process the music they don’t know, but with Storytime Live they’re fed different versions of the musical themes throughout the story and when they listen to the song it’s not unfamiliar any more.
How did it feel the first time you performed Storytime Live in front of an audience?
JH: It was very daunting. This isn’t a familiar role to me and not one I was made for. When we’ve performed as a band before I’ve tended to sit at the back and play bass, and occasionally pop forward and play flute. That’s fine. We never had a front person as such and now I am one. I’m getting used to it little by little.
How full-on do you want to be with this? What are the plans?
JH: I yet have to learn this. What I had in mind initially was once the book is out, the band could do some festivals and tour, and it would be different from the usual author appearances and reading from the book; it would add a different dimension to all that. It would partly show the way the book evolved and what I’ve brought from the oral tradition and folklore and music to put into this. So far we’re practicing and building the show. Hopefully we’ll be recording a CD; people have asked about that whenever we’ve played. And I hope at some point I’ll be able to put something online that isn’t a bad live recording of our first gig. Yes, we’re still making it up as we go along but that’s part of the fun. Things change all the time.
Is it as enjoyable and fulfilling as you’d hoped?
JH: It’s daunting and hard work, much harder than appearing and just reading from my book, but it’s great fun and rewarding. For a start, it’s good for a writer who works in isolation to be able to do something creative with other people and I’ve found various outlets. But this feels like a project close to home and my heart and I hopefully have some control over it. It’s time-consuming, hard work, and a little bit terrifying, but mostly lots of fun.
But you get to combine two of your passions, stories and music.
JH: Exactly! What’s not to love? It’s combining lots of things I love doing in one package. and I get to work with my husband and the band I’ve been in since I was 16. We haven’t done much live performance in the past, but maybe we’re correcting that. At 16 I thought music was where I was heading. It’s taken a little while, but…
picture by Jonathan Jacobs
Combining these things seems like a natural extension of what you do, certainly in this context.
JH: I’m surprised writers don’t do this more, working with musicians. I know some have, but as far as I’m aware, none of them have written their own material. I know a lot of authors who play in bands, but they don’t often combine it with their books. It’s a great outlet and writing isn’t so far from music. If I had unlimited resources for Storytime Live I’d love to have more visual stuff and ideally dancers and fire eaters and jugglers. I’d like to take this to a more theatrical level, but given the resources…it would need a big venue. And it would be a big commitment of time.
To learn more about #storytime, go here. And for video of the Storytime Band’s first show, click here. You can follow Joanne Harris on Twitter @JoanneChocolat to experience #storytime for yourself (and you should).