Divide and rule with the genre benders

Most artists find success by carving out a niche in one medium. Others won't be pigeonholed so easily. By Andrew G Marshall
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The Independent Culture
Is it a book, is a it CD, a music video, a film, a website or a postcard? No, it's Luke Sutherland. With the media breaking down into ever more niche markets, it is harder for new artists to achieve mainstream success; however, if they can work a variety of different media there is more chance of being heard. Sutherland, 28, is a prime example, considering himself both a musician and a writer. His band, Long Fin Killie, is a cult success, with John Peel placing one of its tracks in his top 10 favourite songs of the year. Now he has written Jelly Roll, a muscular novel about men in crisis set against the backdrop of a jazz band touring Scotland. The book is scheduled to become a film next year.

"I've been writing for longer than I've been playing," Sutherland says. "I was in bands from the age of 18 and sending stories to magazines, but the music took off first. I started writing Jelly Roll in 1990 but had to put it away until Long Fin Killie had a van accident touring Sweden. I was thrown out of a window and broke a collarbone and shoulder blade and had a partially collapsed lung. Recuperating last year, I finished the novel."

"Books and music help each other along. I'm surprised that more of this has not happened. The only other person I know of who has had both out at the same time is Nick Cave. Although I always felt I had stories to tell, I could never find the voice. Until, on my way to a lecture as a student, I went into the university bookshop and flicked through a short story by Janice Galloway, a Scottish writer, and the language blew me away. When I listen to songs, I lock into the sound of the music, not the lyrics, and reading this book I found myself responding to the rhythm of the words rather than the story. It was a quietly life-affirming moment."

Sutherland is difficult to categorise. "I'm adopted, my parents were white, and I have Afro-American ancestry. I was born in London, moved to Humberside and then to the Orkney Islands. I've also lived on the Borders and then Perthshire. I don't feel I belong anywhere, but I get a kick out of that."

Another artist making waves on more than one front is Jamie Di Salvio, who started as a film-maker and DJ but now, as Bran Van 3000, has a Top 40 single, "Drinking in LA", and is touring Europe with Massive Attack. "While others are virtuoso musicians because of a particular love for the cello, I do music as a way of exploring my creativity," says Di Salvio. "All my media have a common denominator; they are all attempts at getting to know myself better. In many ways the different areas complement each other; the songs I have written are narrative based because I have been working on film scripts. I'm also playing with notions for a graphic novel."

Di Salvio decided to take the plunge into music during a stint in New York, where he was directing a jazz video: "It gave me $10,000 in cash and I hopped on the subway down to 42nd Street and bought some studio equipment." The result is the CD Glee, whose style ranges from trip hop to ZZ Top: "I impose no walls on media and none on musical genres either." Jamie Di Salvio, who is the same age as Sutherland, believes his generation does not recognise boundaries: "If I'd been around in the Fifties I'd never have been able to make a record. I'm not a singer or a player, so I wouldn't have performed in night-clubs and an A&R person would not have signed me, so technology has allowed me to make a record. There are people who have done great things by focusing on one thing their whole life and finally painting the Sistine Chapel, or whatever their medium, but my medium is all media."

It is easy to forget how we used to pigeonhole creative people. When Jane Asher wrote her first cake book no one was interested. "In those days actresses did not write; it was not the done thing," says Asher. "Nobody liked my ideas - they thought there were plenty of cake books. It was a real struggle to get it published; it took seven or eight attempts. How things have changed - actresses are always being asked to write something because they know a name will sell." Jane Asher is now a novelist too. Her second, The Question, is a well-plotted story of betrayal and revenge.

When Sutherland is asked whether he wants to be both a musician and a writer, he makes a face. "I have an instinctive reaction against someone being known for one thing and branching out into something else, with the assumption that the something else will be of less artistic merit - not a first choice." He is honest enough to admit that he can be prejudiced against other multi-talented artists "It's good as long as the quality is maintained. I must admit when I hear that a comedian like David Baddiel has written a book, I'm guilty of thinking they are just trying to make more money."

As a consumer, Jamie Di Salvio does not care about the background of the performers: "William S Burroughs was not a musician but I like his records, and there are moments now where non-musicians are starting to reach your heart with their records. I have the wild card. Although other people have studied jazz standards at Berkeley, where is the song that is getting my soul?"

Although the costs of creating might have been brought down by new technology, marketing budgets have needed to rise dramatically in order to attract our attention. So it makes sense to find artists who can succeed across different media and spread the costs. Sutherland's book carries an ad for his new music project, Bows, and the record company is promoting the book on its website. "Excellence itself does not necessarily find an audience. Things which help get a book out to a wider public are increasingly important," says John Sadler, publisher of Anchor Books, Transworld's new literary publishing list. However he believes Sutherland is unique: "Lyrics are a short event and to go from that to a narrative book is a huge jump. Although technical barriers to film and music have been swept away - the equipment is accessible and easy to use - writing a book is the same as it was 100 years ago."

Jelly Roll is being hyped as having more sex than A White Merc with Fins, more drugs than Trainspotting and more rock'n'roll than The Commitments. With the children of the multimedia age reaching adulthood, Sutherland could well be the vanguard of a new wave of artists who simply defy categorisation. The trend will be accentuated when the new breed of Ultra-Super bookstores arrives here from the US. They stock not just books, but CDs, CD-Roms and tie-in theme merchandise from films and videos - along with food and coffee. So soon we'll be able to buy the latest products from Luke Sutherland and Bran Van 2000 under one roof, while refreshing ourselves with one of Jane Asher's cakes.

`Jelly Roll' by Luke Sutherland is published by Anchor at pounds 6.99, and his musical project, Bows, releases its CD in the autumn. `The Question' by Jane Asher is published by HarperCollins at pounds 16.99. Bran Van 3000's CD, `Glee', is out on 15 June on Capitol