In Conversation with Mathias Kom of The Burning Hell
Last autumn, just as early review copies of Under Fortunate Stars were making their way into the world, a secret music project was unfolding.
In the book universe, there are many stories, films and folk songs that memorialize the lives of the Fortunate Five, the five historical heroes who saved humanity by brokering a peace treaty with the alien Felen. But one particular folk song, "The Flight of the Jonah," makes a couple of important appearances in the narrative. And as part of the book launch for Under Fortunate Stars, I decided I wanted to create this song for real and release it as a music single.
A couple of months previously, I'd reached out about a potential musical collaboration to Mathias Kom — the lead singer and songwriter behind The Burning Hell, a Canadian indie folk-rock band that I've counted among my faves for well over a decade. I've seen Mathias and his band play live in four countries, and when it comes to the creative vibe and sound that this project needed, I knew Mathias was the perfect songwriter to pull it off.
Mathias read the book and loved it, and he came to the project with a deep understanding of the characters and the themes. Over a few weeks, he wrote and arranged a brilliant, stuck-in-your-head-catchy piece of music. We co-wrote and workshopped together on the lyrics, and then he sang and recorded the piece in studio with the band. (Alas, I did not actually sing on the recorded track, but I really hope one day we can sing it live together!)
The final product was an absolute triumph. Mathias captured exactly what I hoped for: a folk song that feels timeless with a sprinkling of space-y sounds, a melody that rivals "The Wellerman" for repeated singalongs, and lyrics that capture the heroic tale of the Fortunate Five and their legendary flight.
(If you haven't heard the song yet, you can find it on Spotify or on your music platform of choice! It's basically spoiler-free for the book, since it tells the fantastical version of events that are an intrinsic part of the book's lore.)
This autumn, a year after we embarked on this project, Mathias and I had a delightful correspondence about the making of "The Flight of the Jonah," our writing process, our love for music, our inspirations, and more. So grab a warm drink, settle in and join us as we interview each other about our creative journeys!
MATHIAS: Ren, can you tell me a little about the genesis of Under Fortunate Stars?
REN: I've been fascinated by time travel stories ever since I first made contact with the world of speculative fiction. (I'm pretty sure the first piece of sci-fi media that I ever encountered was The Flight of the Navigator, which was formative to say the least!) Time travel can create such an interesting playground for exploring questions about causality, destiny, and all sorts of juicy, mindbending themes – but on a narrative level, I’m interested in the way time travel would interact with questions about the historical record and collective memory, and the stories we preserve and pass down through history. A central question in this book is, “What if you could meet your historical heroes, but you had to confront the reality of them as complicated, imperfect people, rather than heroic paragons of human virtue?”
Under Fortunate Stars is a story about accidental time travel in space, but it’s also about the perils of actually meeting your heroes. Uma, a lifelong history nerd, gets to meet the “Fortunate Five,” a legendary starship crew who stopped an interstellar war. Their biographies have always intrigued her, and she thinks she knows a lot about them – but she ends up discovering that some things about their lives and their choices are not exactly as history recorded them.
MATHIAS: How and why did you decide to include a fictional folk song and reach out to me to compose it?
REN: In-universe, there would be loads of different books, folk songs, documentaries and dramas about the Five and their voyage. Folk songs are referenced and sung by different characters during the events of the book, and are sometimes used as a symbol of hope and collective memory. But one particular folk song is also referred to by some characters as a means of recalling the list of players in this historical event – an event they probably haven’t thought about very much since history classes at school. They bring the “facts” of the story back to mind by singing the folk song to themselves.
The thing is, folk songs are rarely concerned with being accurate or realistic. Even if they’re inspired by events that really happened, they’re stories we tell each other: stories that need engaging characters, fantastical situations and, often, larger-than-life representations of the historical elements they're drawing on. It just made a lot of sense to me that such grandiose songs about the Five would be prevalent in this universe. We have this small group of unlikely heroes – whose real identities were not entirely clear in the historical record – who stopped an interstellar war and saved humanity. What an incredible thing for people to sing and tell stories about through the ensuing generations!
When I thought about co-writing and recording a song to accompany the book launch, I immediately thought of a collaboration with The Burning Hell – because your style of songwriting (especially my favourite songs of yours) fit perfectly into this pattern: telling a fantastical story and presenting it to the audience in a narrative form. It’s very much “Here it is, here’s a version of this thing that happened, believe it or not, maybe it’s true and maybe it’s not, but this is the tale as I’m telling it. And also, it’s musically catchy as hell, so good luck getting it out of your head!”
REN: I'm curious, did the structure and tone of any particular type of folk songs influence the way you weave the stories into your own songs? And do you have to consciously think about those structures when you sit down to write, or is it just something that’s already innately baked in, something that’s deep down in your musician-brain?
MATHIAS: I did my PhD in ethnomusicology at Memorial University in Newfoundland, and spending so much time in a place that's been shaped by Irish, Scottish, and English folk song traditions - and maybe even more importantly, the collection and documentation of those folk songs - has had a huge influence on my own writing. And I don't want to lump all those songs into some generalized, amorphous song-stew, but two things that many of them have in common are strophic form (all stanzas or verses use the same music) and a general preoccupation with death.
Think about a classic like "Barbara Allen," for example - it's compelling because it's got one simple, repeating form, which has a catchy enough melody but really makes you focus on the story being told. And the story itself is dark and strange and contains some beautiful imagery, but it's also fundamentally just about a couple of young people misunderstanding each other and behaving badly and then dying tragically. People have been singing that song since at least the 1660s, so even though it may not have a million hooks or a team of highly-paid songwriters in Sweden behind it, it's obviously a hit.
But keeping the form of a folk song as simple as possible also puts a lot of pressure on the words: they have to be all killer and no filler. Every line and even every syllable counts. And it really helps to have a solid-gold lyric that you can repeat a million times at the end of your verses, whether it's "the answer is blowing in the wind" or just the name "Barbara Allen." So while a classic strophic form is great for storytelling, it's not always easy to pull it off.
When I'm writing, I don't usually think consciously about form, and I let the song come out however it wants to. Sometimes this involves intros, verses, pre-choruses, choruses, bridges, key changes, wild diversions, and so on, but for the densest storys-songs I tend to naturally gravitate towards strophic form or at the most a simple verse-chorus structure.
REN: What ingredients do you think are essential to making a song feel like something timeless and endlessly singable? (I definitely think you accomplished that with the song that we made together, and with a lot of your previous discography too!)
MATHIAS: Having just said that I don't think about form when I'm writing, I'll contradict myself now and point out that for "The Flight of the Jonah" I absolutely did. I wanted to centre the main story in the strophic density of classic old folk song traditions, because there's really a lot of key information that needs to come across in the story. But I also knew it needed a 'lift' in the form of a catchy, repeating chorus that would be believable as something remembered across multiple generations. And timelessness: what an interesting concept in this case! I guess that even in the distant future the same elements will make some songs timeless and others forgettable: does the story speak to universal experiences (love, death) or historical myths? Is the melody simple enough to be singable by anyone but complex enough to make it stand out?
Typically the harder I try to construct something intentionally the worse it turns out, and I definitely had a phase with this project where I was trying too hard and everything I wrote sounded forced. Then one morning I just woke up with a version of what became the chorus melody running through my head, and that was what unlocked the rest of it. I think a lot of times songs already exist in a hidden, locked box somewhere deep in your brain, and "songwriting" is really just the process of finding the key to open it. That sounds extremely cheesy, but maybe you know what I mean.
MATHIAS: Thinking about the creative process is so interesting, and having never written a novel I wonder how it differs for you. Can you talk about the nuts and bolts of how you actually wrote Under Fortunate Stars? Did you do a lot of planning, note-card writing, bulletin-board filling and so on?
REN: In terms of my writing process, I'm a discovery writer through and through. I don't usually plan much beyond broad strokes when I first start something new. I originally started that story as a chaotic NaNoWriMo project, and I ended up coming back to it a couple years later and rewriting it into the book that became UFS. While I don’t plan a lot, I do always know the main character arcs before I start writing. I also know the inciting incident, the ending I'm writing to, and the story's big themes. Then I just take off from there, and see where the story goes.
I do use both cue-cards and bulletin boards (I'm very analog when it comes to writing tools!) but those usually come in at a later point in the process – not for planning, but when I'm untangling what I've already drafted. I draft out of order, because my creative brain doesn't ever seem to want to work in a linear fashion. My story structures themselves also tend to be non-linear, so maybe my writer-mind just lends itself to working that way. That thing you said about finding keys to unlock something that was in there all along definitely resonates with me, because even when I was pretty far into the draft, it felt like I was still unlocking surprising new pieces of the story. I had already set those pieces in motion with other parts of the plot, but they hadn't quite revealed themselves yet.
MATHIAS: Did you 'force' yourself to write according to a schedule? Did you encounter any stumbling blocks or wander through any creative wastelands?
REN: Writing around a full-time job, as I did for most of this book, does necessitate a bit of a schedule. You really need to protect that writing time and carve out blocks of your day to work in. However, I'm also very much of the mindset that 'writing time' can mean a lot more than just 'getting words on the page.' Sometimes it can be listening to a playlist or other media that's inspiring, sometimes it's noodling with an edit, and sometimes it's typing frenetically because you've got a great scene idea. But all of it is valuable to the end result.
As far as creative wastelands, the hardest part for Under Fortunate Stars was the last revision I did before querying my manuscript to agents. That revision took an intense several months. The draft I was working with came in at almost 200,000 words, and I had to cut about a third of that text before the book was ready to submit. So I had to do a lot of rearranging and re-fitting to tighten the story and the plot, all without losing the emotional through-lines.
MATHIAS: I'm also very curious specifically about character development: the narrative and central concept is very compelling, but I also feel like I'd happily read about the central characters doing just about anything. While you were writing, did you feel like it was primarily the story or the characters themselves that were pulling you along?
REN: I'm always so delighted when readers connect with the characters, that makes me happiest of all! UFS has a twisty, jigsaw-like plot, but the story has always been driven by the characters. The major character arcs haven’t changed much since the beginning, even as the plot and the backdrop of the story went through some major shifts. Their individual journeys, the relationships they have with each other, the lessons they learn, those have always stayed very consistent, and their arcs are at the heart of the book.
I, too, would happily write about the central characters doing just about anything, and I did! I wrote thousands of words of exploratory character stuff, just scenes and snippets that were never going to be in the book, exploring their back stories and writing out different situations with the characters. I found this was a really useful process for fleshing out characters and making them feel as real as possible: writing random scenes from their past, thinking about events that shaped their childhoods, or even just writing out a little conversation they had one day while eating breakfast. There were lots of times where writing those scenes illuminated something about a character's quirks or beliefs that did end up influencing their arc in the book, even if that exact scene wasn't in there!
REN: Speaking of having bits of character stories that don’t make it into the final piece, I’d love to know if you do this with the original characters that you write about in your songs. Many of them feel like their tales could easily spool out into a short story or even a novel! Have you ever had to cut something from a song that still lives on in your head as this apocryphal back story for a character? Do you always know more details about your song worlds that don’t make it into the lyrics?
MATHIAS: I've noticed that the songs that take me the longest to finish tend to be the ones that don't make the final cut for a release, whereas the ones that emerge quickly are usually the best. Maybe it's because they're the rawest product of my subconscious mind, and maybe also because something important gets lost in the process of endless fiddling and editing. I imagine this is exactly the opposite of novel-writing, where editing can bring out crucial qualities in characters and story arcs in the process of trimming the fat. What it means for me in terms of my characters and their stories, though, is that they generally live only within the bounds of their songs. I might cut out a stanza or two but their lives start and stop with the first and last notes.
But I've often thought of writing sequels for certain songs to see what might happen to a character if they were given more time in the world; for example, what if the stranger in "The Stranger" didn't die of his gunshot wound? Could he somehow take revenge on the evil ring of priests that conspired to murder him? I've never actually tried this with any of these songs or characters though, mostly because there always seem to be new ones I want to write about.
REN: Your albums tend to have strong themes and tell an overarching story when the songs are taken all together. Do you want to talk a little bit about your new record, Garbage Island, and how you approach crafting an album that fits together like a story? You essentially have this arrangement of scenes and beats that need to form a cohesive whole and evoke an emotional arc for the listener, and that feels like it has a lot in common with novel-writing!
MATHIAS: I've always loved concept albums. Whether it's really overwrought rock operas like Kilroy Was Here by Styx, extremely intentionally-crafted albums like PJ Harvey's Let England Shake, or more loosely-tied stuff like the professional wrestling-related songs on the Mountain Goats' Beat the Champ, I really appreciate it when songwriters put some thought into why certain songs go together to create a whole. I've often gravitated towards doing this myself mostly because I tend to write songs in batches. I'll go away for a couple of weeks and emerge with a collection of work that, usually unintentionally, somehow fits together by virtue of all emerging from my subconscious at the same time. In the course of developing the songs later, I often notice themes or recurring motifs, and sometimes I'll tweak some lyrics here and there to make the collection more cohesive.
Very occasionally, the concept comes first, as was the case for Never Work, an album of labour songs for the gig economy. Garbage Island was both intentionally and accidentally conceptual: a few of the songs were originally released a couple of years ago on a very limited edition EP called Birdwatching on Garbage Island, which always felt sort of unfinished, or at least like a world I wanted to revisit. So I started writing the rest of Garbage Island with that in mind, and really the only prompt was me asking myself what sort of events might lead to this future Garbage Island, and was the island a dystopia, a utopia, or something else? I wrote the rest of the songs in a week or two at a friend's cabin in Nova Scotia, and although what emerged wasn't exactly a clear narrative, I knew that if I arranged the songs in the right way they could work together really well.
Once I had a general order in mind, I talked to Ariel and Jake about it and our approach to recording and producing the record was to start the album with the most 'conventional' songs and sounds, like "No Peace" and "Birdwatching," and gradually introduce more natural sounds (birds, waves, wind) as well as soundscapes and instruments made out of actual garbage as the album progressed. This lets things sonically fall apart a little bit to give a sense of decay and collapse as the protagonists make their way to Garbage Island. On the LP version, Side A is all about society collapsing, and ends with "Minor Characters," about two people running away from the remains of civilization before it falls apart completely. Side B starts with these two characters at sea in "All I Need" and "Swan Boat" before they eventually find Garbage Island, and the whole thing ends with what I think is a kind of hopeful song, "The End of the End of the World," which suggests that things might not be bleak forever.
It's always very important to me that songs follow each other appropriately, and sequencing is an art form all of its own. Some writers might fill in the blanks of a story with a song about this or that, but I usually write them all first and then figure out how they fit together. Of course, these days all the effort that goes into crafting a narrative journey across a collection of songs is stymied by the fact that most people listen to songs one at a time on a streaming service, but I hope that for those that still listen in order the effort pays off, really taking you somewhere across the span of the record.
MATHIAS: In terms of exploring the connections between song and novel-writing, I wonder about how one might influence the other. The books I've read - especially the SF and fantasy - have definitely influenced my songwriting at least as much, and maybe even more, than the music I've connected with. Does the music you listen to influence your writing at all?
REN: This is a great question! Yes, I think the music I listen to does have some influence on my writing, though that’s probably more true on a scene level and on the tone of a particular part of the book than in overall themes or plot elements. One of the things I do while drafting and then editing is that I pick a certain song for a scene or a chunk of the book, and I'll literally listen to that song on repeat every time I come back to work on the scene. That creates a kind of shortcut to the scene's vibe in my head, to help me get back into the right place quickly!
As far as songs (and the stories contained within) directly influencing fictional settings and situations that pop into my head, that’s something I do experience sometimes – usually when songs have a story in them that’s somewhat vague or obscure, but that still hints at a larger narrative. A fun thing I do sometimes is think of two totally unrelated songs by different artists as potential call-and-answers to each other, imagining ways they might take place in the same universe. (Here’s one such duo I wrote about way back in 2015!)
MATHIAS: Are you attracted to the same sorts of things in music that you are in books?
REN: My musical tastes are varied, but they generally run in two directions: on one hand, songs that have a great sound/vibe/melody/beat, where I don't really listen all that much to the lyrics if there are any, and on the other hand, the songs that tell a story, ones I appreciate most on a lyrical level. Of course, some songs do both things, and those tend to have the most staying power in my playlists! Am I attracted to the same things in music and books…hmm. I guess in some ways. I'm drawn to strong emotional resonance, and to characters that make me want to know more about them, so there is some common ground between what attracts me in both!
MATHIAS: I'm well aware that 'influence' questions can be annoying, so I'll try to phrase this in a fun way: if you were stranded on Garbage Island, and you discovered a few old paperbacks buried in the microplastic sand, which are the three you'd be happiest to find? To put it another way, which are the three novels you could most easily read over and over again, and what is it about these books that makes them so appealing?
REN: Oooh! Well, from a nostalgic point of view, I would first of all choose two novels that influenced me as a writer:The Starlight Crystal by Christopher Pike, and Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds. The Starlight Crystal is a beautiful, short time travel novel that I read when I was 13 or 14 (and several times after that) and so many of the moments in it still haunt me and my writerly brain. It also brings up memories of finding refuge in stories when real life feels heavy and incomprehensible, so that feels appropriate. Chasm City is a masterclass in layered, twisty plot surprises and intricate worldbuilding, and craft skills that made me want to achieve those kinds of things as a space opera writer. I actually haven't re-read it in a pretty long time, so I'd love to revisit it again.
And for the third book I find, since Garbage Island is probably in an alternate universe, I would dig a little further through the sand and discover that one of my favourite unpublished novels had actually been published already in this universe. Stunning cover and all! I've been lucky enough to read so many incredible as-yet-unpublished works by writers I admire, and I think finding something like that buried there would give me a lot of hope about the future of that strange world!
REN: What about you, Mathias? If you were to dig up a little mp3 player on that beach (it's going to be a classic very early model that only holds a handful of songs, but also mysteriously has a powerful solar battery) what songs would be on it? Why would you choose those particular tunes to listen to on repeat?
MATHIAS: This is a great question to think about, since it's more than just "name your favourite songs" - I'm really trying to dream the perfect soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic life on a plastic beach. I'm grateful that you didn't say "choose three songs" or give me some other limitation like that, but for the sake of my own sanity I've self-imposed my own limit of a dozen:
Talking Heads - Life During Wartime (the live version from Stop Making Sense)
Some of these are my favourite beach-related songs, while others are reliable feel-good tunes that would pick me up on a bad day at the end of the world, like 'Foggy Notion,' 'Carey,' and 'Good Vibrations.' Some, like the songs by Björk and Silver Jews, contain bits of my favourite lyrics. A few are songs I just absolutely couldn't exist without, like 'Life During Wartime' and 'Andrea.' Finally, Nina Simone's version of 'Feeling Good' is what I imagine to be the unofficial anthem of Garbage Island.
REN: And if you could bury a recording of just one Burning Hell song for a wandering post-apocalyptic traveller to find… what one song of yours would you want to be found in the future? What would you hope they would feel when they listen?
MATHIAS: I would be too shy to bury my own music for future wanderers, but if I had to choose one, I'd go with "The End of the End of the World," and I'd like to think they'd feel something of the hope I felt when I wrote it. The end of the world can't last forever One day this will all be behind us, you'll see We'll be baby birds in a nest, we'll be ferns unfurled At the end of the end of the world...🎶
▶️ Listen to "The Flight of the Jonah"
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