Q&A - Tallulah Brown (Songlines)

This summer at the Edinburgh Fringe, writer Tallulah Brown's Songlines will debut. Songlines captures the trials of growing up and the power of music in that process, and features Brown's band TRILLS on stage throughout the show, to emphasise the importance of music to the story. 

I spoke to Tallulah Brown about the rise of gig theatre, the process of writing for the stage, and what audiences can expect from Songlines.

Tallulah Brown
Can you describe Songlines in your own words, and tell us about how it came into being?
Songlines is an all-squirming teenage love story. Stevie moves to Suffolk and meets Stan. Stevie’s cool and Stan’s a bit of a geek, and the play follows them falling in love before falling out. They meet again a year later at a gig in Norwich and as the songs play the audience are told the story of what happened. It’s about that time in your teenage life where you’re striking out from your parents, forming your own identity, trying it on with the opposite sex, often to disastrous consequences!

The music by contrast is kind of mystical. Sometimes profound, sometimes heartbreaking. It’s less of an underscore and more of a soundtrack. From the start myself and the director George [Chilcott] wanted to have my band TRILLS play during the play. If you have the band on stage what do you gain from having them off stage, or even having pre-recorded songs? At times the actors speak into microphones. They’re telling their story and it almost sounds like stand up, very confessional, very personal. Aged 17, music can be such an escape, both these characters hide in music and so playing it live made sense. Those teenage years can feel like hell on earth but they make you the person you are. The songs come through like proof that something that seems excruciating can become beautiful.

Gig theatre is gaining popularity. In fact, it seems as if recently audiences have been craving theatre which breaks conventions and acts as more of an experience than something to just be observed from a distance. Do you have any idea why this might be?
We’re an audience who has to leave the comfort of their Netflix accounts on their sofas in order to go to the theatre, switch off phones and sit in a room with strangers to watch a play. That is why theatre is badass, the strictness of it. But it can seem a bit old fashioned, or a big ask! What I like about merging the genres is that I think there’s a coming together at a gig, a sort of mutual adoration, that feeling when you look around and the whole audience is swaying or nodding. I wish that happened in theatre more, people nodding along! Audiences are expecting more and more from theatre and part of writing this play was trying to break with that convention of ‘gig’ or ‘theatre’ or even ‘gig theatre’ and make something original, I couldn’t have done that without my band TRILLS.

Is there a difference between writing for a band and writing for the stage?
With the band we often use one narrative, so we make up a story all together. We found that was really helpful with writing a song with the four of us. The songwriting then feels personal to all of us and not just one of us coming to the other three with a scenario. By contrast in writing the play it was me coming to the girls and saying this happens in this scene - what do you think we should do next?

And what is the song writing process like?
We hole up in Margate for usually one weekend a month and we work with our producer Johan Hugo, we’re pretty rigorous with our schedule as we don’t get much time together and so we trrrrryyyy and finish a song every weekend, which sometimes works, sometimes not. There’s four of us in the band and then Johan, our Swedish maestro. Between us we play guitar, bass, drum pad, keys and violin. Having had some success in the film trailer world meant we could afford to make and release our own music without signing to a label. The empowering thing about that is that we’re all privy to every decision that’s made, every creative sign off, (three very active whatsapp groups!).

The play ‘captures the trials of growing up and the power of music in that process’. What impact did music have on you when you were growing up?
I had a very desert island discs approach to music growing up where I would play one song over and over and over. Perhaps that was more to do with CDs where the most tech-y thing they could do was rewind to play a song from the beginning. The songs that grew me up were Ani Difranco’s You had Time and James Taylor’s Handyman, my mum was a big James Taylor fan and we’d sing them on the guitar together. Mum plays by ear and so she could learn songs immediately, I’d ask her to work out songs for me so I could then play them to my friends at school. Nina Simone’s In the Morning, Regina Spektor (and everything she wrote) Aimee Mann’s Save Me. When Aimee Mann and Paul Thomas Anderson made Magnolia that had a huge impact on me because the songs came before the narrative so he directed the film around her songs. That film has this amazing moment where all the characters sing along to the same song. Oh my gee that moment blew my mind and still continues to blow my mind. It definitely planted a seed somewhere in my head. 

Music can be a very powerful nostalgic thing. Do you think that there is a particular sound which encapsulates the moment we’re all currently living in?
We’re very track selective - Spotify makes it so easy to pick and choose favourite tracks from artists. This is changing the way artists write music, the way labels want to release music and has a knock on effect to the live music scene. Small music venues have been hit hard because people don’t tend to go to gigs in order to find new music, they go to see their favourite band. I think our generation will be known for that, for artists being encouraged to leave the album behind and work towards tracks. That's what I've loved about writing the music for Songlines because it feels like we've brought back the cohesion of an album. 

Why, in your own words, should audiences come and see Songlines in Edinburgh? 
It’s a funny, sometimes sad, bittersweet teen love story set to an entirely original soundtrack. It’s the casual, painful circling of boys and girls at that age. It's TRILLS songs put next to scenes that feel very truthful to the head-fuckery of being that age. It's two people desperately trying to keep hold of each other but somehow letting each other slip away. It’s going to make you laugh, make you cry and make you cringe! (But mostly make you laugh!)