Pink Jean Mint Green is the newest album by fantastic musician and composer Andrew Shapiro, who makes a habit of writing songs inspired by literature. The album includes a song entitled “Bash Street Worlds,” written by the amazing Neil Gaiman.
MS: How did you start this project of working with your favorite authors to write music?
AS: Working with Neil was the first time I ever wrote a song where I didn’t write the lyrics myself. And I really liked it. So after having the experience with Neil I thought, well, what other authors do I like? And I thought it would be interesting to reach out and see if someone will take me up on the offer to write a song based on their lyrics.
MS: Bash Street Worlds is inspired by the UK comic The Beano, which both you and Neil Gaiman profess to love. But why write a song about it?
AS: I had had an idea to do a song about this for a number of years– sometimes it takes years between the original kernel of an idea for a song and then finishing…
I’ve had these books on my shelf for years. While they’re comic books they’re also “annuals” which means they’re bigger and thicker and hard cover and all. And I always thought that having them and having read them when I was younger was always something that made me “me.” I just thought the subject– reading these as an American was so great and would make a good story for a song. But I wasn’t really sure how to do it exactly.
MS: What was the work dynamic between you and Neil Gaiman?
AS: Pretty much all over email. I didn’t think I’d actually work with him. I sent him some of my music and he liked it and was really kind about it. So I thought I’d take a chance and see if he ever did lyrics. And he said he did and pointed me to his “8 in 8” project that he had done with Ben Folds and his wife Amanda Palmer. It was cool, the idea was to write and record eight songs in eight hours. I think they came really close to the goal but maybe it took a little longer? Anyway, he said that those lyrics were pretty much all his. And I really liked this one song called “Because the Origami” that was about parents trying all kinds of things/activities for their child to do to help his development (“Because the origami didn’t work, we bought you a pony”) and so I thought he’d be perfect to write lyrics for this song about the Beano and the Dandy comics. So I told him the idea and he liked it. A handful of months later we spoke on the phone and nailed down the concept and he asked me if there were any characters in particular from these comics that I really liked and so I told him that Desperate Dan and the Bash Street Kids were probably my favorite. And then when Neil finally sent them along it was amazing how dead on they were. He’s brilliant and I always felt very fortunate –and still do– to have the chance to work with him, someone whose work I had known and admired for years. It’s something where the stars just sort of aligned to make it happen.
MS: What do you hope listeners get out of this album?
AS: Of course that they enjoy hearing it and they have fun bobbing their head and such.
I was reading once that so much of the time, when people LOVE a song that the way they appreciate it is that they project themselves into the story. I hope people can hear the songs and feel that it’s a piece of music they feel is autobiographical.
MS: Pink Jean Mint Green has been described as ‘80s style synthpop. Why are you drawn to that genre?
AS: I grew up in the 80s and so there’s always going to be this huge nostalgia factor. This was music I loved growing up. Two of the strongest—if not THE strongest—musical influences I’ve had were when I was DJ-ing my 3rd grade holiday party with stuff like A-Ha and Duran Duran and Madonna, and my personal experience with Philip Glass. And when I finished my first album “Invisible Days” I got a review that said that I was someone who blended the 80s new wave sound with Philip Glass minimalism and I thought, that’s right. Very accurate. I didn’t really think of the music in those terms at all when I was making it. Sometimes one doesn’t really know what’s influential to the work until it’s completely finished. Then one can look back and say, oh, yeah, I guess that was an influence that was going on that I wasn’t consciously aware of at the time. It comes from a more unconscious place. Pet Shop Boys are awesome and actually it was their song “Rent” that inspired the title track on the album Pink Jean Mint Green. I sort of used that track as an outline and wrote my song directly on top of [it].
MS: You’ve written literature-inspired music in the past, most notably in the album 100 Houses: Gatsby Meets Caulfield. How did you choose which books to use for each album?
AS: The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye are, of course, as close to the concept of The Great American Novel as possible. And I read those books like pretty much anyone else for the first time in middle school/high school. But I think the thing that made me want to go in the direction of writing music about those books was the part of Catcher when Holden talks about visiting the Natural History Museum and seeing the Indian scene with the guy rowing the canoe. And how, no matter what, no matter how long it had been since you saw that scene the guy was in the exact same place in the stroke of his paddle. It hadn’t changed at all. The difference was that YOU had changed; maybe your parents had had an awful fight the morning of the class trip there that year. Or maybe you had seen one of those oil puddles with the little rainbows in it before going to the museum that time. So I thought, okay, I want to reread these novels; how about I read them consecutively once a year for a number of years? And so I did that.
And of course the novels are the same, but I was bringing something different to them every time I read them.
So that concept got me searching and I thought, well how can I talk about this in a way that makes sense? And so I’m a musician and composer and songwriter and that’s the way I’m going to do it rather than write a book about it or a play or make a painting or whatever. So I went through both books with a highlighter and highlighted all of the phrases and paragraphs that I particularly loved. And then after that I typed all of those phrases into my word processor and started moving them around and grouping them in some sort of way that made sense to me. And then I had a bunch of sets of quasi-lyrics that propelled me into thinking about a story for each set. After reading these and living inside of them for a while I began to think that the theme was about retribution –sort of like what I was talking about with “Teen Tour Girl” and “Atlanta.” And then I thought, well Holden Caulfield and Jay Gatsby—if they could, how would they do things differently if they could do them over again knowing what they knew? And then I thought, well, what would it be like if Jay Gatsby and Holden Caulfield were sitting down together at a table having a drink talking about how they’d do things differently? And so that’s what the 100 Houses album was about.
MS: How do you approach that intersection between books and music? Do you intentionally choose a piece of literature to write about, or does it happen more organically?
AS: At this point the only projects I’ve done in this vain are Bash Street Worlds about The Beano and Dandy comics, and 100 Houses about Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. Well, that and some music based on Rumi poetry. When I was a Philip Glass intern they were working on this video opera piece called Monsters of Grace by Philip and Robert Wilson. It was based upon Rumi poetry using a book called The Essential Rumi by Coleman Barks, a poet/writer at University of Georgia. So I started getting into Rumi –or as scholars say, Barks’s “pop” versions of Rumi’s poetry, and I used that as inspiration to write my own lyrics.
I think it would be great to write about a lawyer of the type that John Grisham writes about– which is why I’d love to get him to write some lyrics for me. Or about some teenagers on the cusp of Thatcherism in Birmingham (UK) which Jonathan Coe writes about with such brilliance and originality. Bret Easton Ellis is probably my favorite author and I’ve always thought his books have a musical soundtrack. So it would be really cool to dig into his world from a songwriting perspective. I guess if something really takes my breath away I’ll think about writing about it.
It just strikes me like lightening and I’ll feel like, yes, this is something I want to make music about. It’s not an intellectual thing. It’s an emotional one.
MS: What’s your favorite track in Pink Jean Mint Green?
AS: Right now I’m feeling that “Atlanta” hits the nail on the head the most.
MS: What was most unexpected about creating the album?
That I’d work with Neil Gaiman? That I wouldn’t’ve believed 15 years ago when the initial idea for the album first occurred to me. It takes a ton of patience to do something like this. Not as much when one is making a solo piano album.