For as long as I can remember I’ve been telling musicians, “I’m a fiction writer.” And for just as many years I’ve been telling other writers, “I’m a music critic.” As a writer, it’s not unusual to cultivate a handful of different identities but it feels strange when these identities begin to reorganize themselves. I know far more people in the music industry than I do in publishing. Yet I aspire to be a novelist, a taleteller, and with the publication of my first novel, Us Conductors, this label automatically and unexpectedly seems privileged above the other.
Music’s where I come from. Or at least it’s where I accidentally come from. I started reviewing albums while studying English at McGill. Soon I had launched a blog called Said the Gramophone which opened doors at publications like The Believer and The National Post. Throughout it all I was still writing fiction – short stories about whispering objects, magical animals, melancholy gods. But the 22-year-old who idolized Salman Rushdie and F. Scott Fitzgerald was soon covering Montreal loft concerts for magazines that wouldn’t give his fables a second look.
Ten years later, the music-writing life has become second nature. I know the protocol of set times and guest lists, the cycles of new bands and old bands and labels and tours. I know how to coil a guitar cord. I never learned much about Montreal’s poets or Canada’s independent presses, but I’ve helped at music festivals and battles of the bands.
Yet I adore fiction. For all my album reviews and band bios, my heart remains faithful to stories. I love the way a novel is a rollicking yarn and also a parade of images. I love the way these convoluted lies can feel so true, can feel truer than the truth. I could spend whole lifetimes in the prose of Michael Ondaatje or Tim O’Brien, where similes move like sunsets on the horizon.
Us Conductors, in its way, is at the intersection of both these loves: music journalism and fiction. It’s a story, but it’s a story full of music. And Montreal’s vibrant music scene was the ecosystem that fostered the book’s creation. When I consider its artistic influences my mind veers to Arcade Fire’s album Funeral and Wolf Parade’s Apologies for the Queen Mary before the works of any writers.
The strange thing is now that I’ve published a novel, one identity seems to trump the others. I’m a novelist, before I’m a music journalist. By publishing Us Conductors, I seem to have switched clans. It’s a choice – a proud, deliberate choice! – and I feel lucky to be joining the family of authors. But I’m also still learning the secret passwords of the fiction-writing world, still figuring out the way power flows and the way it doesn’t.
I’ll admit my relief, last week, when I slipped into the back of Casa del Popolo for a music gig by some friends. I recognized everyone in the room; I knew when to applaud, and how loud. I felt like the old, familiar version of myself. It’s a version that’s nearly worn through, one I’m ready to slough off – almost, in a few moments, just a few moments more, soon.
Sean Michaels is the author of the novel Us Conductors. His music journalism has appeared in The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, The Believer, Rolling Stone, McSweeney’s and Pitchfork. He is the recipient of two national magazine awards and founded the peculiar music blog Said the Gramophone in 2003.
Graphic (top) by Crystal Chan.