Soundtrack of my life: Tracy Farr

17:00, Aug 30 2014
Tracy Farr
NATURAL DIRECTION: When Tracy Farr came to write her first novel, it was only natural that the central character was a musician.

Tracy Farr is an Australia-born writer who has lived in Wellington since 1996. Longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, her debut novel was published last year; the fictional biography of Dame Lena Gaunt: musician, octogenarian, junkie. 

I got my first guitar when I was nine. I wanted to be Judith Durham from The Seekers, or Olivia Newton-John, or Karen Carpenter if she swapped her drums for a classical guitar.

The 70s were Sweet, Suzi Quatro, Rod Stewart, Elvis movies on TV on Saturday afternoons, ABBA. Punk passed me by - although like so much music, I'd find my way back to it years later - while I listened to Elton John and Kiki Dee, Sherbet and Queen and John Paul Young.

Until well into my 20s, I rarely bought records. I'd tape songs from the radio and TV on to the cheapest C120 cassettes I could buy, and play them until they stretched beyond listenability (not long).

My mum bought records, though, and I hijacked those, worked out the chords, sang loud and proud: Fleetwood Mac and Rumours, Neil Diamond's Hot August Night, Kris Kristofferson's Spooky Lady's Sideshow, Linda Ronstadt's Simple Dreams, Heart's Little Queen.

The 80s brought university and boys, the Stones, Beatles, Velvets; Cohen, Cash and Dylan; James Brown, Jonathan Richman, Motown classics and Elvis, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Captain Beefheart.


Mostly I listened back to the past, filled in musical gaps.

In the 90s I left Australia, moved to Canada. My listening shifted, too, to PJ Harvey (Dry, Rid of Me, and 4-Track Demos), Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh, Breeders, Belly, Nirvana, Portishead, Pulp.

I worked back through more of the music I'd missed: Pixies, Sonic Youth, John Cale, Patti Smith, Birthday Party and Bad Seeds, The Scientists, The Triffids, The Saints. I wrote a lot of bad songs (mostly PJ and Kristin rip-offs), and a lot of not-so-great fiction, building my writing muscles.

When I moved to Wellington in 1996, I stopped writing songs, but stuck with fiction.

When I came to write my first novel, the first note I ever wrote about the central character was that she was a musician. I found her musical instrument (and her voice, and so much more) in my Vancouver soundtrack of the 90s: she plays the theremin, an instrument I first saw played live - mesmerising, astonishing - when Pere Ubu toured their 1995 album, Ray Gun Suitcase.

Tracy Farr's debut novel The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt (Fremantle Press) tells the story of theremin player Lena as she looks back over her remarkable life. As part of the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival, Tracy Farr joins theremin player John Crisstoffels on stage today at 10am at The Physics Room in Christchurch for a session entitled The Novel and The Theremin. 

Sunday Star Times