Mat Osman’s The Ghost Theatre is an imaginative and immersive novel set in the theatre world of Elizabethan London.
The Observer wrote of the book:
“Superb. . . . The Ghost Theatre finds its way into the hidden corners of Elizabethan London, telling the story of a group of misfit actors. Beautifully written and completely convincing.”
If I’m writing then I’m listening to music; I use albums in the same way those fifties’ writers used whiskey, as lubricant, inspiration and relief. I play records before I write to get me into the right emotional mood, I listen on headphones while I write as a kind of flavour enhancer, and often I listen afterwards, in celebration. And there’s a definite sweet spot with the kind of music I actually do my writing to – if it’s too bland then it might as well not be there, but if it’s too forceful it wrenches me from the moment. Also, anything with lyrics is a ‘no’. So, in no particular order, here are the records that I played the most while I was writing The Ghost Theatre.
Throwing Muses – Counting Backwards
A huge part of one of the main characters, Shay, comes from reading Kristen Hersh’s wonderful autobiography. She describes how she doesn’t remember a moment of her early gigs. She would step onto stage and then perform in a kind of trance. Afterwards she’d have to ask her friends what she’d played and what she’d said. That idea – that there is some part of us that takes over when we perform – totally informed Shay’s sooth-saying sessions. And I love the sense that in this track Kristen is counting us down into oblivion, like a hypnotist.
Sex Pistols – Bodies
The book’s earliest gestation was in an idea I had to write the story of The Sex Pistols but set further back in history – Victorian or Elizabethan times – but I could never make it work. It was only when I read about children being kidnapped to perform on the stage of the Blackfriars Theatre that I had my stand-ins for Pistols: these kids who were as famous as royalty and as powerless as beggars. For years Suede used Bodies by The Sex Pistols as the final track before we came on and I did the same thing before my writing sessions. It’s a blast of pure, negating energy.
Steel Pulse – Handsworth Revolution
The flipside to the Sex Pistols, a different kind of English rebel music. Growing up in a non-musical household I missed out on much that wasn’t purely mainstream. It was only later, through the music press and the John Peel radio show, that I started to hear the music of Steel Pulse and Misty in Roots. Handsworth Revolution is a glorious thing, bittersweet and loping, and for some reason it always reminds of that quote from the bible about ‘Out of the strong came forth sweetness’. I had the cover propped up next to me while I wrote because I loved the feeling of it; the children and colours and palm trees bursting through grey urban Britain.
The Fall – Jerusalem
I’ve always loved The Fall’s I Am Kurious Oranj soundtrack (if you don’t know Big New Prinz then you’re in for a treat) which he composed for a Michael Clark ballet and this is where a couple of my obsessions meet. It’s a mix of tradition and vitriol, of aggression and poetry, and it totally captures the snotty energy that I wanted the Ghost Theatre players to have. The plays that they performed were satiric, sexual things and I have an idea Mark E Smith would have loved them.
Prefab Sprout – The Best Jewel Thief in the World
Sometimes, as with the last couple of tracks, music is a conscious inspiration but sometimes it’s more nebulous than that. I know I already loved The Best Jewel Thief in the World before I started writing The Ghost Theatre but it was only after I’d finished a first draft that I realised how beautifully this song fitted over the rooftop chase that starts the book. ‘The rooftops are for dreamers,’ sings MacAloon and in the book much of the action takes place in the high places of the city. Characters love, fight, spy and in one case die exploring the Elizabethan city’s skyline.
Mick Jagger – Memo To Turner
The film Performance was a major influence of the book and I’ve alway liked the soundtrack – it’s such an odd mix of R&B, pastoral psychedelia and ominous electronics, but the jewel in its crown is this single, which, to me, is as good and wild and raw as anything the Stones ever recorded. The band are amazing: it’s Ry Cooder on slide guitar, Randy Newman on keyboards and Gram Parsons on drums. I’d have loved to have sat in on that session.
Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders – Promises
In early 2021 me and my wife were driving back into London when a piece of music came on the radio. It was this beautiful, liquid thing, gentle as water, and we had to slow down just to hear it properly. Over the next 45 minutes it grew and morphed, sprouting strings, garlanding itself with mournful tenor saxophone and wordless vocalisations, and the two of us kept saying ‘what the hell is this?’ It was the just-released Promises album and Gilles Peterson had decided to play it in full. It’s become my go-to writing music – the way it swells and recedes, with motifs repeating and transforming, seems to have a narrative drive of its own.
Four Tet – Morning Side
This is perhaps my favourite music to start writing to. It has this lovely soft insistence to it and I love the way it builds and breaks down to pure electronics yet all the while those beautiful Lata Mangeshkar vocals are drifting like clouds over the top of it. And there’s definite appeal in the fact that Lata Mangeshkar was best known as a Ghost Singer – a vocalist whose words are only heard in the mouths of characters on screen. I love to write to tracks in another language – you get to soak up the rhythms and poetry of the human voice without its meaning snagging on you. Which brings me to…
Arooj Aftab – Mohabbat
It’s a problem trying to find tracks that evoke the Elizabethan age without resorting to folk music, which a) I’m not a huge fan of and b) is so lyrically led as to be impossible as a soundtrack. More and more I found myself listening for things that had the texture and palette of folk but came from other cultures. Arooj Aftab’s melange of classical Hindustani music, jazz and folk was never far from my turntable while I was writing The Ghost Theatre. It’s a smoky, dreamy soundscape that feels suffused with loss.
The Chromatics – Into The Black (Instrumental)
I love Johnny Jewel. That blissed-out, LA-at-4am, back-of-a-cab comedown vibe is right up my alley, but it’s also fabulous music for writing to (if you use the instrumental versions). Over the years the wordless version of Kill For Love has become my walking-around-a-city-at-night soundtrack. Whenever I play it at home it instills a feeling of movement, of journey, and many of the scenes of Nonesuch and Shay wandering the Tudor city’s streets started out with this playing on the stereo – it brings such a sense of propulsion.
The Byrds – Everybody’s Been Burned
There’s a mood that I often want to invoke – a kind of elegiac sadness – and there’s no better song for it than this. Certain tracks act like a drug on me and though I’ve heard this tune thousands of times, its mix of the stately and the sensual catches on me every time. David’s Crosby’s voice here is beautiful too; I can remember first hearing this when I was young and assuming it was a woman singing. The very best music has a way of containing incompatible emotions within it, in a way that I find hard to replicate in writing, but it’s what I’m always striving towards. If I can capture even a fraction of the unique feeling alive in this track then I know I’ve done a good day’s work.
Mat Osman is a musician, songwriter, bassist, and founding member of the British band Suede, as well as a composer for film and television. His writing about art and travel has appeared in the Guardian, Independent, and Observer and more. He is the author of the novel The Ruins and he lives in the UK.