is a podcast that turns stories into songs, featuring David Gilmour, Joyce Carol Oates, Steve Earle, Roxane Gay, Amanda Shires, Susan Orlean and Katie Melua. You can hear an exclusive preview of next week’s episode featuring Jonathan Franzen and Wussy, only at Paste.
Occasional provocateur and bestselling author Jonathan Franzen can’t imagine listening to music while he writes, but not because he dislikes music.
“I can’t do anything else when I’m listening to music,” Franzen says. “I think it’s because I’m actually very susceptible to it. And because it affects me so much, it finds its way into the work.”
Crossroads, Jonathan’s newest novel, takes place in the 1970s. The characters are deeply involved not just in the music of the time, but in the politics and drugs, as well. Franzen was never a big fan of marijuana, but—in the interest of research—he decided he should give it another try, even after a disastrous foray in the ‘90s.
“It had gotten literally 10 times stronger, so six tokes and I was psychotic, I was blacking out,” Franzen says. “I went back to my apartment and I was, like, ‘Please, please let this be over!”
For the new episode of SongWriter, Franzen chose Midwest-based indie band Wussy. He was thrilled when the band agreed to write a song in response to Crossroads.
“To have a band that I have this intense relationship with even notice me, even know of my existence, is just, like … I didn’t know what to do with that!” Franzen says. “The shittiest garage band down on the corner is cooler than a well-published author. It’s just a simple fact: Music is cool. And fiction is not cool in that same way.”
For their part, Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker from Wussy were shocked to find out that Franzen was such a big fan.
“When you come from where we come from, you don’t really expect anything,” Cleaver says. “I was in a band called The Ass Ponys. Why would you ever think you would go anywhere with a fucking name like that? And then Wussy. I’m batting zero for band names.”
The song they wrote, “All My Life,” is an aching and tender duet. They recorded the song at home, which was a new process for Walker and Cleaver. The band recently lost pedal steel and guitar player John Erhardt, who died in May of 2020, and are still struggling to reorient themselves.
“John was sort of our ballast, emotionally and musically,” Walker says. “He was one of my dearest friends that I’ll ever have. And what he did for us in friendship, he also did musically. He elevated our sound.”
Ben Arthur (@MyHeart on Twitter) is the creator and host of SongWriter. His latest song, “Persistent Ghosts,” is about traumatic memory.