TheOuisa Young is a famous novelist and memoirist. But after her fiancé, composer and pianist Robert Lockhart died in 2012 at the age of 52, writing the lyrics left much to be desired. She turned to singing, recorded an album, and then gave her first live performance in two years, at the age of 60.
The party took place in a room below the clock tower at St Pancras Station in London – ‘very high gothic and full of clockwork’. Guitarist Alex Mackenzie accompanied them. Together (under the name Birds of Britain) they put their lyrics on an album, You Gone Early – the same title as their memoir about life with Lockhart. The audience included a former boss, ex-boyfriend and singing teacher.
“I had the lyrics on a piece of paper. My arms trembled. The paper fluttered. I held the piano. I pretended to be different from me. I always pretended to be the one who did this.”
“Your whole body feels the transformation. Then comes that noise. Do you think, ‘I can do that?’” Stop! Singing is physical, mental and emotional. It is spiritual if you are so inclined. It really benefits all of you. And you are the machine.”
Music and singing take place in Young’s life. She is one of six children, and on family outings, she rocks the car with singing.
When she wanted to spend “a good, quiet and peaceful time” with her father – writer and politician Wayland Young – she caught him playing the piano. “It was a good time to go if all you had to do was lean on his jacket or something.” She would sometimes sit under the piano while playing. “I loved the body. The wing is such a magical beast.”
We are sitting at Young’s kitchen table in West London. Saying this, she looks into the next room filled with a Lockhart grand piano. Although she says her piano is “too bad,” she uses it to write her songs. “So he is like a living being to me.”
When Lockhart was diagnosed with cancer, he bought Young’s “Cheer Up Me” singing lessons. After his death, she used some of the money he left for her to make the album. She knows a lot of musicians and asks them for advice. “But you took one look at the music industry and ran away screaming. Especially for women. Especially for old people. And I said, OK, I forgot about that. I’ll do that and see where it takes me.”
Is it hard to divide your creative self between song and fantasy? “Sort of,” she says. A phrase will come and you’ll know right away if it belongs on the page or in the song.
Songwriting and singing turned her into a novelist. “I’m always looking for music in language in ways I wasn’t open to before,” she says. Her most recent novel, Twelve Months and a Day, builds the character in part through song. “I will continue to compose music and combine it with my writing,” she says.
All of this would have been impossible without those singing lessons – and unlikely when she was younger. “I don’t think I would have done that boldness To open my mouth and actually make a sound. I guess I was going to write songs and sing to myself very softly and thought, “It’s a pity I can’t do anything else for them.”
Singing is, “The life that ran away. I always have this idea, ‘What would my life be like if I decided to try it?’ This whole thing slammed the door. But I’ve never had the confidence.”
I have found it now. “I realized that if I just stand up and sing, it gives permission to everyone. What if I fool myself? Others can fool themselves too, that way you have more fun, you can create more things, connect with people. It’s human and warm.”
Louisa Young will be published Twelve Months and Day by Day 9June (Borough Press, £14.99). to me Support the Guardian and Watcher, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply.
Tell us: Has your life taken a new turn after 60?