Between the Lines: The Deliberate Disappearance of My Friend, Jack Hartnett

Dispatches from the rehearsal room of Bullet Heart Club's new show, The Deliberate Disappearance of my Friend, Jack Hartnett

This Friday sees the premiere of The Deliberate Disappearance of my Friend, Jack Hartnett, Bullet Heart Club’s much darker successor to their debut show Daffodils. It's a difficult show to introduce because it’s predicated on an unravelling mystery, and to describe the plot would be to spoil the fun. Unlike its predecessor, Jack ain’t no heart-wrenching love story. It's a noir for the Google age, an underdog tale with a discomforting twist. Starring a sneering Todd Emerson and live music (sometimes ominous, sometimes yearning, all original) by Abe Kunin, it's a show that'll take you by the hand and leave you feeling bruised.

Ahead of their opening, we invited Abe to speak a little about the process of collaborating on a show of this nature - and the careful balance that needs to be struck when you're trying to serve a story while remaining true to your musical voice.

Rochelle and I met two years ago through a random call or email (I forget which), when Lisa Crawley (then indisposed on tour) suggested she use me to help facilitate the music in her draft of Daffodils. Over the next year or so, through development workshops and readings, we generated a strong creative trust and working dynamic which continues to this day.

Being asked to write the music to the follow-up for Daffodils was a double-edged sword. It was a wonderful, humbling opportunity, but one that meant being compared – whether consciously or not – to its music. You’re not going to write a better song than ‘Anchor Me’.

But the more differently you do things, the harder it gets to compare. That attitude has prevailed through the whole development of the show. We want it to be as different as possible. There are common elements which will probably go on to become signature aspects of Bullet Heart Club productions, but overall I think we’ve created a unique and intense show, which will probably surprise people regardless of what expectations they may bring in with them.

Having my songs written into a show, or - to some extent - having a show written around my songs, has been an interesting duality where you’re trying to be loyal to the bigger picture while still protecting the music itself. It’s a kind of mobius strip where the songs have to work within the show, but the show is the music. If you start tugging the threads too hard...

Much of the musical DNA of The Deliberate Disappearance of my Friend Jack Hartnett has been written by me, as me. That aforementioned duality is key here: in the show, the characters perform these songs with direct reference to their situation and mentality. Fortunately, the two leads are fairly emotionally dramatic males, so we have some common ground to kick off from.

The intentions echoed in ‘Light’ are central to the heart of The Deliberate Disappearance. From a personal angle, it’s about wishing for outcomes so much you strangle their chance to grow, and having to relinquish that desire for control. With this new double life the music has taken on – written from personal experience but given to a different character and a different situation – the lyrics need to be looked at both through my own eyes as a writer and through the eyes of the protagonist. Once I had the core musical idea, certain verses and lines were definitely influenced by the characters and what they might have felt. In turn, it let me be more honest and open in the writing I may have from my own perspective alone. Someone else’s truth might be more poignant than your own. I don’t know.

Searching so hard for something of meaning
You can’t feel the light caress your face
something to die for or to believe in
If not a bite then at least a taste

The first verse has always been the same. I wrote it in a time of (more overt than usual) existential crises and complete self-doubt. Although mostly desperate for hope, I wanted to acknowledge that for all our narcissistic aspirations, we can miss the beauty of life contained in the simplest of things. There’s maybe a homage to Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ in the last line. Some of the sentiments are definitely parallel.

Give in to the lines, tracing the sky’s face
Into the night, harbouring you
Beneath the surface lies the sum of all things
Believe in the words that you know are true

Coming back to the dual planes of existence these songs now inhabit, I think the choruses have been improved through context. The first two lines are okay. ‘Highway’ was bureaucratically morphed to ‘sky’s face’, because the character isn’t travelling a road at the time when he sings it. My girlfriend Junelle can take credit for the surrogate line, I was stuck on it for a while. All things considered, it’s probably better, but the romantic idea of the highway is such a part of the road-song archetype it had to stay somewhere, if only as a metaphor in the second chorus.

I thought the last line was a bit throwaway, but the show has given it legs. Within the subject’s philosophy and trajectory, a vehement belief in what drives you, perhaps even to a fault, is vital.

Says she’s a big girl no need to be gentle
But baby I do even more than you know
Its not a tell or a touch sentimental
I just see us falling like cards in a row

This is one of the two verses that didn’t make it in the end. I won’t go into them too much, but suffice to say they were sacrificed on the pyre of ‘serving the work’. Now they’re gone, I don’t miss them. There’s been a distillation in the song that makes it stronger. As a standalone recording, it could be a bit longer, but for the show, succinctness and a journey within that time is the most effective in terms of pacing.

The gambling/house of cards ideas kind of stuck with me though. It might be a bit of a Kenny Rogers thing (for lack of a more cool and obscure reference). Meshed with ideas about the highway as a risky transformative device, I think it’s thickened the ideas of the song.

 Days into days faces bleed into faces
See would-be years peeling away from my side
Human constellations swing by my field of vision
In the autumn of their youth their light crystallised

I recently read an interview with Paul Simon where he talked about starting lyrically straightforward, and then stretching out as the song progresses. I noticed this is a device he employs pretty often. It seems to be about establishing trust with the listener that you aren’t going to be overly pretentious decorative off the bat, and will give them some foundation. Maybe this means you can try open up a bit as you go in return.

This verse was put together specifically with the scene in mind, but some of the content stems from older thoughts I’d written down while travelling a few years ago.

When my cards last fall and they’re all in a row
Will the life I dreamed be the life that I own
Or will I hear its cry when a cold wind blows
When my cards fall down and they’re all in a row

This is the bridge. I told myself at the beginning of working on the show that I’d write some bridges. It generated much better forms than I might have made with the ‘death of songwriting craft cut and paste grid’ of Ableton and co, which I am usually pretty guilty of propagating.

There’s an ongoing argument I have with myself and anyone who’ll engage with me about the dichotomy between musical truth and lyrical truth. I believe in both, but I think only one necessarily has to exist in a given moment to make a song ‘true’. Musical truth could be the pure beauty of the sound and composition. Imbued with the deepest sense of subtlety and nuance, technique devoid of ego, channelling emotions that don’t even have names, etc. etc.

Lyrical truth could be the poetry of the words, the purity of the thought, or the literal brutality of them. There are many cases where one of these truths helps realise the other. I’m definitely not speaking on truth in the sense of the factually correct, but maybe the artistically resonant.

Without claiming success in either of these creative aspirations, I think the musical truth of this section is stronger than its written counterpart. There are some unusual harmonic movements and tonal changes, resolving in (sort of) a new key for the final chorus. Changing key without sounding cheesy is harder than you might reckon. When it arrives there, it doesn’t really feel like a change, which made me feel the section worked. From a lyrical perspective, its pretty self explanatory. As an aside, I did get to revisit the gambling allegory, and in this new place it probably has more weight.

Give in to the lines, tracing the highway
Into the night, burying you
Beneath the surface, lies the soul in all things
These are the words, you know to be true

In the last (and in the new form, only 2nd) chorus the highway thing happened. The ‘lines’ hopefully convey a bit of that Lynchian ‘Lost Highway’ idea. The second line has shifted too. There’s a kind of Kervorkian benevolence, that the night is now burying you. I find the idea comforting in some way.

The third line has taken on an organic feeling as a sum has become a soul. Maybe there’s something in the mathematical beauty of the world, but I was more just thinking about peeling back layers. Which is probably a good segue to bring the show itself back into central focus. It’s a hard one to talk about without spoiling, but if this song holds its heart, the many, sometimes impenetrable layers to people is its foil.

The Deliberate Disappearance of my Friend, Jack Hartnett
plays at Q Theatre Loft from July 24 - August 8
Tickets from Q Theatre

Between the Lines is a series where songwriters take us into the writing room
Read (and listen) to the rest of the series here

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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