Music Inspired By Literature: A Conversation with Méabh Stanford


Indie pop singer-songwriter Méabh Stanford creates music that bookworms will appreciate. Drawing inspiration from literature and tying it to real-life experiences, her music reflects the intricacies of human interactions and the influence media has upon them.

Singer-songwriter Méabh Standford

I recently had the chance to meet (via the internet) singer-songwriter Méabh Stanford. Méabh is 16 and a full-time student, but has already begun to build her career as an indie pop artist with five years of stage experience and her first EP album, make it be me.

What initially got me excited about Méabh’s music is that she writes songs inspired by literature! She’s widely read, and draws on anything from ancient mythology, to Shakespeare, to modern literary classics. I’ve been enjoying the rich sound and smart lyrics of make it be me this past fall. It’s an album that rewards repeat listens—each time I go through the tracks I pick up on new wordplays or appreciate the arrangement more. Méabh Stanford’s music is perfect for bookworms or anyone who appreciates the power of story across different mediums. (And I know since you’re reading this blog that includes you!)

I interviewed Méabh Stanford because I thought a conversation would be the best way to introduce her to our Tea and Ink Society. I highly recommend you give her album a listen (it’s free) and follow her on social media to keep up with her future musical endeavours—which I have no doubt will be spectacular! (By the way, her name is pronounced like “mayv”—it rhymes with wave!)

Méabh Stanford On Capturing Human Emotion Through Storytelling and Song

Elsie: Thanks for chatting with me!

Méabh Stanford: Of course!

Elsie: First of all, I want to say that I love the fact that you incorporate literature in your songs. I love it when different artistic works or mediums “cross pollinate,” so to speak!

Méabh: Thank you! It’s definitely fun to write with literature in mind and make all those small references.

Elsie: Yes! Any time you listen to a song it’s a discovery, but especially when there’s references to pick up on, it makes it really fun!

I’m thinking of some examples of art forms interacting…One of my favourite classical pieces, “Clair de lune” by Claude Debussy, was inspired by a poem of the same name by Paul Verlaine. And there’s paintings that are inspired by books, or plays, or poems. John Everett Millais’s famous Ophelia painting comes to mind, or the countless paintings inspired by characters and stories from the Bible. And of course, all the movies and TV shows we have today that are inspired by novels!

Méabh: Oh, I love Clair de lune so much! I didn’t know that about it, that’s very cool!

Elsie: There are so many different songs and paintings and books, etc. that draw on each other. It’s like ongoing conversations. And I love that you’re drawing on multiple storytelling mediums in your song “Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina” because you’re referencing Tolstoy’s work AND the film adaptation!

Méabh: Yes, I love the film so much—I think even if it was an original work instead of based on Tolstoy I would still be just as moved by it.

Elsie: I actually haven’t seen it, but listening to your song and reading through the lyric dissection on your blog made me really want to watch it! I read the novel a couple of years ago, but haven’t seen a single film version, ever. 

Maybe you could do a song on the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice???

Méabh: That’s one of my favorite movies!

Elsie: So have you always been inspired by literature when creating your music, or is that a more recent development?

Méabh: I think I have always drawn upon literature. For example, one of the earliest songs I wrote, “i can still hope” is inspired by Romeo and Juliet. And even before that, I was making mythological references, too. (The Classical world is one of my biggest interests.)

Elsie: That’s awesome! I’m reading the Iliad right now. A lot of high drama there!

Méabh: Indeed! For Latin I recently had to translate passages of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Elsie: I think the music world needs artists like you. All too often I turn off the radio because I’m completely unimpressed by the lack of depth in most song lyrics.

Méabh: Absolutely, so many songs nowadays feel so vapid. It’s all so formulaic—I haven’t listened to the radio in years!

Elsie: I wonder if there can be some distinction between “art” and “entertainment.” Because a typical radio hit might be catchy and something to zone out to, perhaps, while you’re doing something else like driving or jogging, but ultimately it’s easily forgotten and probably won’t make you *think* much…or recognize beauty…or remember pain.  

I don’t think I’m phrasing it the best way, but I also see the distinction when it comes to books…buzzy bestsellers that are good for quick entertainment, vs. lasting works that continue to speak to people for generations.  

Méabh: That’s definitely something to ponder. The same can probably be said about the film industry, especially with the way Marvel has been saturating the market. I love to watch Marvel movies, but I can recognize that they aren’t necessarily works of “art.” 

Elsie: Of course, some bestsellers will gain that status and become classics, but so many just fade after a few years because they don’t have that quality of being art.

Méabh: Yes! I work at a beach town bookstore, and it’s always interesting to see which books sell the most, and whether those books are impactful or if they are just easy beach reads. Both of which are important and serve a purpose, but the former sells significantly less.

Elsie: Yes, totally agree! About the film industry and different types of media serving a purpose. A Marvel movie or a beach read certainly have their use for individuals and society and what they’re doing in their industries, but I think we as the viewers/readers/listeners have to balance lighter fare with richer.

Méabh: 100% agree.

Elsie: So I’m curious to know, what is the songwriting process like for you? Obviously there’s a lot that goes on between the initial germ of an idea and the finished song!

Méabh: I usually start with a phrase or word in mind that I want to expand upon, and then write lyrics. I almost always write lyrics before tackling the musical component of a song—melodies, harmonies, chords, etc. And then there are the times where I have interacted with a piece of media and it impacted me enough for me to continue my journey with it through songwriting.

Elsie: Do you mind sharing an example of a word or phrase that led to a song?

Méabh: Most recently, a lesson in Art History class led to a song! We learned the term “isocephalism,” which is depicting everyone’s head at the same level, even if, for example, one figure is sitting and another is standing. We were looking at this technique in friezes on the Parthenon, and it led me to writing a satirical song about people with god complexes. 

Elsie: I bet you have so many songs in the works…how did you narrow it down for make it be me? Is there a particular theme tying it all together that led you to pick those particular songs for your EP?

Méabh: I chose songs that all were inspired by media! “Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina” is obviously Anna Karenina, and “oh, Hyacinth” part 1 and 2 are inspired by the myth of Apollo and Hyacinth. “I can still hope,” “i still remember,” and “glory days” are all products of Romeo and Juliet, The Kite Runner, and Slaughterhouse Five, respectively.

Elsie: What other stories or characters do you resonate with that might make it into future albums?

Méabh: I’m sitting on songs inspired by Dead Poets Society and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest!

Elsie: Nice! We will keep an eye out for those!

What’s next for you in your music career? Are you working on your next album already, or are you just planning to promote make it be me in different venues?

Méabh: Right now, I’m focused on promoting make it be me! After that, I definitely want to do a collaborative project with my friends. They are all such talented musicians, and I would love to see what it would be like to cowrite a song as up until now I’ve only written by myself. 

Elsie: Okay, neat! And you might not get that opportunity later as people get older and move away. It would be special to capture that while you can.

Méabh: Exactly!

Elsie: What are some of the most helpful or practical ways for people to support you and your music?

Méabh: Promoting on social media, whether that just be interacting with posts or reposting, and good old word of mouth! In this industry the most important thing you can do is just try to get people to know that your music is out there.

Elsie: Okay, good. I know there will be a lot of Tea and Ink readers who will be interested!

So, for our bookish community we sometimes ask this: What’s a book you’re currently reading? What’s a book you just finished? and What’s a book you want to start?

Méabh: A book I just finished is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. That was one of the heaviest books I’ve ever read but well worth it. I’m currently reading The Stonewall Reader, which is a collection from the New York Public Library of different writings leading up to, during, and after the Stonewall Riots. The book I want to read next is The Goldfinch!

Elsie: And one final question: What do you hope listeners will take away from your music?

Méabh: I hope that they realize just how universal emotions can be, even when interacting with a piece of media that you wouldn’t expect to relate to, like an ancient Greek myth or a book about PTSD after fighting in WWII; also that continuing to interact with different kinds of media can help you understand humanity better and help you to become more emotionally literate. 

Elsie: Thank you, I love that. I was looking up a quote from Henry James that ties back into what we were discussing earlier about the ongoing conversations in media. He says “Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints.”

Thank you for inviting us into those conversations with your music!

Méabh: Absolutely! Thank you so much for chatting with me!

What questions would you ask Méabh Stanford? Leave a comment below!
Indie-pop musician Méabh Standford

About Méabh Stanford’s Album make it be me:

The EP’s opening song, “Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina,” is based on the dramatic screen interpretation of the novel. Méabh was enchanted by the way the author and directors took the mundane and inserted dramatics and pain and love into the story. She wanted to know what it would feel like to be one of those characters, who seem to live for each other, who abandon all reason in the name of love. Of course, it’s all unrealistic. But that doesn’t make it any less romantic or beautiful and she wanted to capture that feeling.

The second and sixth tracks, “oh, Hyacinth, parts one and two,” revolve around the heartbreaking Greek myth of Apollo and Hyacinth. These songs are from the perspective of Apollo and follow the story of their short but intense relationship.

Track three, “i can still hope” is a playful twist on the play Romeo and Juliet in which Juliet longs for Romeo to notice her.

Track four, “glory days,” is a folk-pop anti-war anthem based on the point of view of Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse-Five.

“Finally, track five, “i still remember,” was inspired by the novel The Kite Runner. It is written from the perspective of Amir, the main character. It explores themes of guilt, haunting, and the desire to run away from your mistakes, even if it includes running away from the beautiful memories too.

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Music Inspired By Literature: A Conversation with Méabh Stanford

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  1. it marvelous and highly creative to create such a medium. even though i could not hear the music of the novel pride and prejudice but i thought and felt while i was teaching and reading it. honestly, it is an answer to many questions that have been lurking in my mind. Thanks.

  2. Wow, what a fascinating interview! Meabh, I look forward to listening to your music. As an author, artist and musician, one of my very favorite things is seeing the arts interact with one another. Question for you: what are some of your favorite Greek myths and/or classic books, and why?

  3. Thank you for your support! My favorite Greek myth is probably the myth of Perseus as he is one of the sole heroes who gets a happy ending. I love seeing all he gods on his side, which is rare for a Greek hero. My favorite classic books that I’ve read so far are The Secret History (more of a modern classic!) and The Scarlet Letter! I love The Secret History for its satire and subject matter, and The Scarlet Letter is just so indescribably beautiful. Thank you for the question and I hope you enjoy listening!

  4. Music inspired by literature has been a staple of the musical world for centuries. From classical pieces based on literary works to popular songs referencing characters and storylines, music inspired by literature has been created as a means to explore, interpret, and commemorate great works of literature.

    Classical music is often inspired by famous literary works. For example, Felix Mendelssohn wrote a symphony based on Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; Sergei Prokofiev wrote an opera based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace; and Benjamin Britten wrote an opera based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Each of these compositions was written as an interpretation of the original stories, not merely as a literal translation – this type of interpretation allows for composers to explore the deeper themes and messages in the literature.

    Popular music has also seen its fair share of references to literature over the years. Songs like “London Calling” by The Clash reference Orwell’s 1984; “The Wanderer” by Dion DiMucci references lines from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno; and “Dear Prudence” by The Beatles references JRR Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings series. In each case, these songs use allusions to great works of literature in order to convey their own ideas and feelings – essentially using literature as a language with which they can express themselves musically.

    In conclusion, music inspired by literature is more than just translations or interpretations – it is a way to use words and stories to craft unique musical composition that showcase greater meaning than just that found in the original text. It allows different mediums to interact with one another, creating something truly beautiful that celebrates both music and literature together.

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