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This 'Greatest Hits' Album Is Real. Its Artist Is Fiction

Nearly a half-century ago, in the summer of 1971, the young singer-songwriter Cass Wheeler entered a studio in London to record "Common Ground." A wistful acoustic-guitar and piano-driven tune about her mother leaving to forge "a life to start living new," it was the first song she was proud to have written.

Now, in her 60s, Cass has assembled a compilation of meaningful songs from throughout her long career. She knew that "Common Ground" had to be the leadoff track.

The song and the album are real. Alas, Cass Wheeler is not.

Cass is a creation of Laura Barnett, a journalist and novelist, and Kathryn Williams, a musician and fellow Brit. Bennett has fashioned a novel about a singer-songwriter who looks back at her life — and prepares an album of her greatest hits, which she associates with her highlights and hardships. And Williams, embodying the fictional character Cass, has written and recorded the soundtrack to the novel.

Laura Barnett's book is called Greatest Hits, and is now out in the United States; Kathryn Williams' album is Songs from the Novel Greatest Hits. As for Cass, her recording career is on hiatus, but her legacy may live on.

"I had a really fun idea that we could start putting Cass Wheeler albums in old record shops and charity shops and build up this completely fake Wikipedia thing, and see if she did enter into the history of people, like, 'Oh, have you never heard of her?'" Williams says in a joint interview.

"Keep flicking through the vinyl, listeners," Barnett says. "You never know, you might find a Cass Wheeler album in there."

Interview Highlights

On developing the idea behind the novel

Barnett: I had in mind what we might call a long-view novel — a novel that takes a character in their later years, and has them look back over the arc of their life, from birth onwards, really. And the idea of wanting to do that for a woman in her '60s converged in my head with the idea of wanting to write about a female musician. I think it was around the time that Kate Bush announced her comeback. And I think the two things converged. And although Cass is entirely fictional, she certainly has roots in a kind of real-life inspiration from women like Kate Bush, Sandy Denny, Joni Mitchell — the amazing pioneers of women in music.

On the process of collaboration

Barnett: Well actually, I had pretty much finished the first draft of the novel before approaching Kathryn. And actually, we worked in quite a unique way. This is the first time that we know of that this has ever been done — that a novelist has collaborated with a songwriter to create an original soundtrack for a fictional songwriter. So we didn't really have a blueprint, and we worked it out for ourselves. But as I say, I approached Kathryn when I was already more-or-less done with the book. So I'd figured out from where the songs were going to come, and the material that Cass was going to draw on from her life. As we say, [Cass is] an autobiographical songwriter.

So we actually decided, quite early on, that Kath wouldn't read the whole novel, because she didn't want to have all the hindsight and foresight that the character wouldn't have had. She wanted to live the moments with Kath.

On "Don't Step on the Cracks"

Barnett: This is a very key song, actually. ... It comes out of an experience that is a real turning point, keystone in the novel when Cass is 21 years old. It's the winter of 1971. She's a young woman in an astrakhan coat walking along a street in central London having just had a meeting with a record label who [is] wanting to sign her as a solo act. And you'd think that would be wonderful news, and it is in a way. But she is faced with a dilemma where she has formed a band with her partner in life and in music, Ivor Tait. And the record label don't want to sign the band — they want to sign her. So it's really about a woman deciding to strike out in life, and in music, and in art.

On how Williams embodied Cass when recording

Williams: I'm definitely Cass in my mind, 'cause I write as her. I mean, it is quite amusing writing songs for a fictional songwriter who's much more successful than me. But yeah, so I'm writing and singing as her. Obviously, I'm not going to put a voice on and not sing with my own voice. But I'm going through, and trying to think as her.

On the tensions between Cass' motherhood and career ambitions

Barnett: I wish there could have been a story in which Cass' success was entirely supported by her husband Ivor, by her family, and no sacrifices were made in terms of her status as a mother. But that didn't seem realistic to me. I found this incredible thing that most of these women had in common, which was that they made some sort of sacrifice in terms of motherhood — whether it was Joni Mitchell famously giving up her child [for adoption] in order to move down to the U.S. and pursue her career, or Kate Bush withdrawing from music for decades ... essentially, as she said it, to raise her son, as I understand it. So it seemed impossible, really, to write this this without exploring that. I don't think they are irreconcilable. I hope increasingly now, women are able to combine the two — and men too. But I think of that era, it was so unusual for a woman to step out that way. What do you think, Kath?

Williams: Well, as a songwriter in a different time and era, to me — I mean, I've been in the business for 20 years, and I've got two children, and there's never a balance. You just try to deal with the guilt of both sides, and make the best out of everything.

Peter Breslow and Caitlyn Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.