Nick Hornby on Setlists For Young Voices and Championing Youth Literacy | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Monday, November 18th, 2019  

Nick Hornby on Setlists For Young Voices and Championing Youth Literacy

The Literary Icon Discusses His Charity Auction, Hollywood Adaptations, Current Music, and Disliking Kid A

Apr 30, 2019 Photography by Parisa Taghizadeh Web Exclusive
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Whatever else may be amiss in the world today we can take comfort that award-winning author Nick Hornby, with the help of fellow novelists Dave Eggers and Pulitzer-prize winner Michael Chabon, have pulled their rolodexes of musicians together for Setlists For Young Voicesa fundraiser for Hornby's East London literacy program Ministry of Stories. There's still time for you to bid on your favorite band-autographed setlist (the auction ends May 2) and help raise $50,000 for the charity, part of which will go towards taking young writers to the International Youth Congress of Young Voices.

These authors are no strangers to music, they're the literocki. Hornby wrote the music-themed novels High Fidelity and Juliet, Naked, as well as About a Boy (all were adapted into Hollywood films), and also wrote the screenplays for An Education, Wild, and Brooklyn. Chabon is known for his acclaimed novels The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Wonder Boys, but also collaborated with Mark Ronson and wrote lyrics for Ronson's hit album Uptown Special. Eggers penned A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and A Hologram for the King, as well as founding McSweeney's. In the lead up to the last election Eggers, who believes strongly in art's power to make a difference, joined forces with Noise Pop founder Jordan Kurland and released 30 Days, 30 Songs. The project offered a protest song for every day in the last month before the election by bands like R.E.M., Death Cab for Cutie, and Aimee Mann, to energize people to get out and vote for a Trump Free America. They may have lost that battle but the fight continues for the hearts and minds of a younger generation.

Ministry of Stories offers programs that unlock the imagination: from after-school programs to creative writing, writing for radio, even songwriting. It aims to give kids (between the ages of 8 and 18) from socially deprived areas access to opportunities they would never ordinarily have. Hornby got the idea from 826 Valenciaan organization co-founded by tireless literacy warrior Eggerswhich helps underprivileged kids learn English and creative writing skills not easily accessible at public schools. It began in the Mission district of San Francisco in 2002, and now has eight chapters across America.

Setlists for Young Voices features autographed setlists by R.E.M., Mitski, Wilco, Janelle Monáe, Sigur Rós, Better Oblivion Community Center, Death Cab for Cutie, Jim James, Patti Smith, The Who, Toro y Moi, Rush, The Pretenders, Nine Inch Nails, Steely Dan, and many more.

We speak to Hornby about his favorite setlists from the auction, the challenges of running a charity, what music he's listening to these days, and if he'll ever be able to live down his album review of Kid A.

Celine Teo-Blockey (Under the Radar): Hello Nick, so whose idea was it to use setlists was it yours or Dave's?

Nick Hornby: It was mine. I don't know why I thought of it but I knew it was just the sort of thing that fans love and would pay money for, and I know between me and Dave we know a few musicians and we roped in Michael Chabon and he knows a lot as well. So the setlists that are up there are through the contacts of the three of us. I've done so much charity stuff over the last 20 years and what's great about it is that it's really not a big ask of the musicians. You're not asking them to turn up anywhere, write anyone a song, or record anything. You're just saying, "Can you pick up a piece of paper [laughs] that's on the stage at the end of the evening and sign it? Most of them who could get it together were happy to do that.

Are you familiar with the music of all of the bands involved?

There are a few at the end of the auction that I'm not familiar withit was I think at the end of a San Francisco Festival more recentlybut yes, most of them.

It was at Noise Pop Festival.

That's right.

Do you have any guesses as to who will bring in the highest bid?

Well, I can see from what is going on already it's either going to be R.E.M. or Rush. When I told Dave the idea, he said "oh good, I'll get on it" and he sent me the photo of an R.E.M. 1989 setlist, and I said, "Oh, you always have to do a little bit better than everybody else." [Laughs] It's like, "Wow, he's blown us all out of the water!" Who has setlists from 1989 that they can access?

Do you have a personal favorite from that list?

The people who I really love who I asked were Low Cut Connie and I bid on that; Prefab Sprout, although they don't really exist very much anymore so it was lovely to get one of theirs; and I love the Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne recordbut love them both individually as wellso I was excited to get them. A friend of mine is in The Pretenders so he got a couple for me.

You didn't mention Patti Smith and I know you're a big fan.

Oh, of course.

I heard an interview when you said that Ministry of Stories has had wobbly momentswhat are the challenges of running a charity? 

We were quite successful quite quickly and there was a point when I thought, "I just don't know enough about running a charity." There were a few writers on the board at that time and mostly we've replaced ourselves with people who are much more organized, much more aware of the law, to put it on a proper footingand that transition was a tricky moment to negotiate.

Why was it tricky?

Well, I was on the Chair of Trustees and you'd never met anyone less equipped than me. [Laughs] When you start there's nobody else so you're roping anyone you can find. As the outfit becomes more professional and fully grounded then you can start to look around and think "who can do this job better than me?" But I'm still the co-founder and very much involved with it. I'm doing things like this-which is the best use of my time actually.

Could you tell us a bit about The International Congress of Youth Voices that's bringing together teen writers and activistsa worthy pursuit in these dark days of social and political upheaval?

Yeah. It's a pretty incredible thing that lots of these young teenagers, many from socially deprived backgrounds, suddenly have the funding to go meet people elsewhere in the world and speak. All of the kids who go to Ministry of Stories come from quite a deprived area of East London; which is also a very fashionable area. It's a funny mix but a good mix for us because we have access to a lot of professional talent who can come in and work with our kids. Their parents were there before the area got trendy but they're not moving anywhere, any time soon. They're all in social housing. So there's this rather brilliant mixwe can find these kids and get them to do things that they'd never have the opportunity to do otherwise. And that's something that obviously makes us feel proud of the Ministry. And it's the same with all the other associated Youth Writing organizations all over the world that 826 has helped to start. If you look at the youth writing websites and see the associated schools it's really quite incredible.

What is the relationship you thinkof art to individuals and society? Many of your stories grapple with what it means to do the right thing, be a good person in society. In this moment where it seems an inflection point, we're taking steps backward. Do you think with art we can course correct?

Probably not. Actually, I'm not really interested in writing anything that has any kind of message. I think once it can be reduced to a message why not write the message? Don't write the book. But of course any voice at the moment that tries to speak the truth about how people are, how the world iswe're living in a time where quite obviously people are doing the opposite of that.

As in people are not speaking the truth or not looking for it?

Well both!

Well then at the very least we need the distraction that art provides?

We certainly need the distraction. I think there's an enormous appetiteit's probably never been greaterpeople want music, and they want words, and they want TV. We consume a lot more art than we have ever done before.

What do you think of this business of disentangling the genius of our musical heroes with their legacy of misdeeds and bad behavior? From lower level crimesfor example someone such as Kid Rock who supports a strong man presidentto the more sinister, the allegations against Michael Jackson?

YeahI think it's probably got to be up to the individual. It's important to know what they've done but after that, it's up to you if you want to keep listening to them or not. I think that over the centuries there's been a lot of artist who've behaved very, very badly but in the end the art outlasts the crimes. Whether that's a good or bad thing I don't know? But it does.

What music or who are you listening to these days?

I've been listening to—I don't know how you say her name, it's I think as if you're saying the title of the Flannery O'Connor novel with a Southern accent—Weyes Blood, I really like that. I love the new Jenny Lewis album. I've been listening to Wynton Marsalis' soundtrack for the new movie that's coming out about Buddy Bolden who was the inventor of jazz but never recorded; it's a sort of imagining what the music might have sounded like. It's pretty cool. Also I loved the Andrew Bird album.

And how do you consume your music-on vinyl, tape or streaming services?

I use Spotify. What I tend to do is listen to everything and if I really like something I buy the vinyl.

Do you ever make mixtapes for your car anymore?

No. It's all Spotify. I know it's not great for the artist, but as a consumer—we're now at that stage where almost every piece of recorded music ever made is available in the box, in the corner of our room; if you love music that's an extraordinary thing to have access to.

When I was growing up I had to get to HMV, listen to an album over the headphones, then pay $20 to get my CD. Now, everything is available to kids for free and that's reflected in the music they're making which is so eclectic.

If you've got an inquisitive kid—it's an extraordinary thing.

Do you think you will ever be able to live down your negative review of Radiohead's Kid A

[Laughs]

The review contained a great line: "It's hard to be yourself when everybody else is trying to be you," but now almost 20 years laterdo you still stand by every word? A lot of Radiohead fans came down very hard on you at the time.

I have not listened to the album since I wrote about it. I know that I won't. There's nothing there for me. I understand that I upset people but it just makes me laugh really. You know, someone doesn't like a record that you like [laughs]—there are worse problems in the world.

In their defense it's not my preferred Radiohead album but over the years listening to it, I've come to like Kid A.

There's so much music to listen to that I don't see why I should try and make myself like something that I didn't like when I listened to it a lot. Just recently, I've been discovering—I never listened to jazz before the last four or five years-and the idea of not listening to everything that Duke Ellington or Miles Davis made because I'm trying to listen to Kid A for the 300th time, it doesn't really interest me.

Fair enough. You've written lyrics with Ben Folds and on the song "Things You Think" with Pomplamoose, you sort of read some of the lyrics, I'm curiouscan you sing? Do you have a karaoke favorite on standby-one that's not a Gunners song?

[Laughs] Yeah I can sing okay. I do a very good version of "Sin City" by Graham Parsons with a phone when we're on holiday. We practice every year. [Laughs] I sing once a year.

You've got a new TV series State of the Union which premiered at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and is about a couple played by Chris O'Dowd and Rosamund Pike trying to keep their marriage together-when will we be able to watch it in America?

I think it will be available on streaming services in May. [It premieres May 6 on Sundance TV.]

And Chris O'Dowd was in Juliet, Naked too!

Yes, we had a year of each other!

I recently saw the film, which also stars Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawkeit's so good!

It's lovely isn't it? I mean it's got nothing to do with me. They did such a lovely job with it. I was quite happy with it.

My husband and I watched it again the next day before the Amazon rental for 24 hours was up! I was trying to figure out why I loved it as much as I did and why I found High Fidelity frustrating when I watched it all those years ago. So I tried watching it again and it was still frustrating. Do you think something got lost in translation when it shifted the story from North London to America?

I didn't mind that at all. I loved the movie. But to answer your question: it doesn't really worry me at all as long as I like the people who bought it—that's the one bit of control I have—and if I like those people and trust them, then they can do what they want. And the book stays the book no matter what happens. If it's a bad film I find people tend to forget it really quickly, like within a week, and it's gone. If they like the film they might seek out the book anyway. In my experience, books tend to last longer than movies.

www.youthwriting.org/bid

www.ministryofstories.org

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