Interview: Perry Serpa
Edwin Arnaudin: When did you first read Juliet, Naked, and what was your initial reaction to it?
Perry Serpa: I read the book pretty soon after it came out. I believe that would have been about 2009, some time. I was already a fan of Hornby's work — I loved High Fidelity, Songbook, A Long Way Down, etc. — so I was pretty psyched to read it. One of the things I love most about his books is that they tend to be big stories about normal lives, which means that, as a person leading a relatively simple, non-extravagant existence, you could easily relate to them. But, he always brings in the slight left turn that leads to the conflict, the epiphany and, eventually, the redemption for the main characters in the novels. Unless we live under a rock, we all have those left turns. For example, in About A Boy, we could point to Will's realization, helped along by Marcus, that he could no longer sustain being an island. In How To Be Good, there's a couple, David and Katie, who find separate paths to their "goodness," and eventually, their happiness together.
With Juliet, Naked, Tucker Crowe, an ex-rockstar who had been languishing in post-swan song obscurity for decades, pretty much hiding behind his own legend, is lured back to human connection by Annie, the girlfriend of total Tucker Crowe sycophant, Duncan. Annie, who couldn't really give a shit about his music, is intrigued by who Tucker is in the here and now. Being a music person who's worked and lived for years around other music people, I felt a connection with all three of those characters. Then, there was the fact that Nick provides details of said swan song album (Juliet), one that I just felt I had to hear so much that I decided to write it.
EA: When did you start thinking about creating Tucker Crowe’s songs and what spurred you to seriously go forward with this project?
PS: There's more to the story of Juliet, Naked than the record itself, even though the novel's namesake springboards from a found demo of the original release with all its bells and whistles. But, the fact that I was sort of in between records with my band The Sharp Things, and that I had just read a book that presented details of an album we have yet to hear — complete with really disparate influences, scattered couplets, a full sequence of titles and even a fictional tribute record — was like a call to arms for me. As I said, I started wondering what these songs really would sound like. I wondered if Nick had some idea of it, too — if there was music in his head that I could, without solicitation or even actual connection, tap into. It was guerrilla songwriting; it was an exercise.
EA: How did you approach fleshing out these fictitious songs? What breadcrumbs did Nick Hornby leave you on a lyrical and sonic level and how did you fill in the blanks?
PS: I think starting from the start, there was "And You Are?" It's the kick-off song of the album. On mine, Scott McCaughey from the Minus 5 sings it. It's one of the only songs that Nick gives us a couplet for in the novel. It goes: "They said that talking to you was like chewing barbed wire with a mouth ulcer..." — which is kinda hysterical. I actually thought that that was Nick kinda poking fun at Tucker's heart-on-the-sleeve histrionics. I just followed it up, both lyrically and musically. It has a kinda filled in, "Like A Rolling Stone" feel which was appropriate as [Bob] Dylan was offered as one of those influences. There were a bunch of other things, too. The incendiary guitar solo at the end of "You and Your Perfect Life," which you can hear on Wherefore Art Thou?, a couplet in "The Better Man," etc. If he offered a lyric, I used it. I was as to-the-letter that I could be. I followed the novel.
EA: What criteria did you use in choosing your collaborators for Wherefore Art Thou? Was it important that they were familiar with the source material to some degree?
PS: Well, really this where I consider the album to really be sort of a failure. Wherefore Art Thou? was the name that Nick gave to the fictional tribute record, so in essence, that's what I was writing: a fictional tribute album of a fictional original album from a novel named after that album's demos. Ha! In doing that, the endeavor was all about bringing in the musicians he name checks for that tribute record. I did succeed with Scott as the Minus 5 were mentioned in the book, but I tried and failed to get Coldplay. Sadly, Jeff Buckley is no longer with us, and there were others. I just kinda gave up that part of it and started to ask folks who would be right for the songs. If they were Hornby fans, all the better! That was why I went to Aja Warren, Ed Rogers, Don Piper and Laura Cantrell — I knew they'd get it. I was right about that.
EA: What were your thoughts when you learned that the minds behind the Juliet, Naked film adaptation were doing a similar project? How far along was Wherefore Art Thou? at that point and did the news alter your approach (including your determination) in any way?
PS: The funny thing about this is that the folks who were behind the making of the film, namely director Jesse Peretz and the film composer, Nathan Larson, are old friends of mine. I was almost done writing the songs — I'd say 90% there when I found out about the film. My first impulse was, of course, to share it with them. What an amazing coincidence that three guys who know each were simultaneous working around the same story! I called Nathan and said, "I've been working on these songs for the past several years!" And he, being a mensch, flipped out (in a good way). They decided to take the music end of things in a different direction, but I like what they did and I hope they like what I did.
To answer your question about determination, I was set on finally finishing the damn record before I knew there was a movie in the works, for sure. Soon after I had heard about it, I premiered Scott's track with Consequence of Sound, which finally really got the support and attention of Nick. I had been sending him my demos over time, to which he would always simply say, "Good luck with it!" I figured, "OK. No cease and desist. I'll just keep going." By the time I realized the film was coming, I had five songs in the can and five more in various stages of development. I just had to fill in the blanks, mix and master.
EA: By looping in such artists as Ryan Adams, Robyn Hitchcock, and Conor Oberst to write Crowe’s songs, which were then performed by Ethan Hawke and a band, the filmmakers obviously took a different route than you did. What do you think of their method and the results?
PS: I have two honest feeling about this. Firstly, the fact that they indeed handled the music part of this in different way, leaves an unfulfilled curiosity with me. I still wonder what another full version of Juliet would have sounded like, especially with those three incredible songwriters at hand — not to mention Nathan, who is a true genius and a friend whom I respect immensely. The other thing is that, in the end, there's only one Juliet that folks can hear in full, and it's mine.
EA: What do you think of the movie?
PS: I had every intention of seeing the film, but my dad passed away the very day it came out here and that put a serious damper on my social plans. By the time we had the luxury of prioritizing it, the film was out of the theaters.
EA: What were your feelings about sharing Wherefore Art Thou? with Hornby? Was it important for you to do that?
PS: It was really important! I think it was the most important thing. Even though it was unsolicited, I feel like, in a lot of ways, it was a collaboration — existentially for sure. Wherefore Art Thou? would not exist, of course, if it weren't for Juliet, Naked. But, beyond that, and getting into the details, it was 10 diving boards courtesy of Nick Hornby, over a pool into which I'd jump everyday in some way, shape or form for the better part of a decade until I was done swimming.
EA: How long after you sent it to him did he reply, and what was your reaction to his response?
PS: My original intention was to deliver it to him on his 60th birthday, which was in April of last year. That was my original deadline for the project. Of course, I missed it. [Editor’s note: Hornby’s full response was, “Magnificent. I love every song, words and music. I’m happy to think that my book has somehow produced work this good. It works completely on its own terms, and sounds complete in a way that very few albums do anymore.”] From there, I dunno. I honestly didn't have too much ambition for it beyond just getting it done. One of the things I wanted to do is to have a portion of the proceeds of the record sales benefit Nick's non profit, Ambitious About Autism. So, I'm happy that's one by product of all of this.
EA: Considering your connections with those who crated them, is there the potential for some book and/or movie tie-in events/undertakings?
PS: As for the book tie-ins, that would be up to Nick and Penguin Books, and we haven't broached the subject, but maybe. And I haven't discussed anything with the folks behind the film, either, aside from just sending them the music.
EA: Now that it’s out, what are your plans for sharing the album? Are you touring in support of it?
PS: The vinyl version of the album is set to come out on Record Store Day Black Friday (Nov. 23) here in the states, and we're likely to do a CD release in the UK and EU over the next few months as well. Aside from that, I've just been thinking about the live show thing recently. I wasn't really planning on playing it out, but everyone who's listened to the record is asking me if I am. I think that's something folks just ask anyway, but now I'm thinking that I should do at least a few select things with a band. And it would be fun to have some of the guests on the record — and some other folks — come and join us. Could be a party!