“What have you been reading?” Award-winning American playwright Julia Jordan laughs. We’re discussing her latest project, new rock musical Murder Ballad – for which she wrote the book and lyrics, with music from indie singer-songwriter Juliana Nash – and I’ve observed that violence seem to be a preoccupation of her work. From the grief-tinged tales of Walk Two Moons (2005) to the cornfield murder at the heart of Dark Yellow(2006), the extinction of life hangs over her plays.
Jordan concedes a fascination not only with death, but with crime in general. Focusing on New York Upper West Sider Sara, whose actions drive the story, Murder Ballad is rooted in the stories of real-life murders of passion that Jordan observes are now so popular on American television. And from authors like Agatha Christie to Patricia Highsmith, she argues that female writers have a particularly close relationship with violence.
“I think there’s something in us that is brought up to be afraid. Women have to be on their guard and protective. And it’s true – it’s out there, it’s real. It’s something that we’re constantly being told about. We have a fascination with what it is, with could it really happen, and how. And who are the people who do it?”
Jordan believes that this is inflected in crime prose in a way that distinguishes female from male writers, with the notable exception of novelists such as James Ellroy, whose works include The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. “He has, as some men do, another insight,” she argues, “because his mother was murdered.” As a result, “he has something that women have, in that he sees from both sides. He has a way into the victim.”
Writing about murder also offers Jordan a way to lay bare the true nature of people when placed in extreme situations, while indulging her interest in the lurid. “It’s about asking, how far would you go? And the further the story can go, the more dramatic it is, and the more fun it is to write on a really prurient, visceral level – which I kind of love,” she confesses.
Murder Ballad’s name invokes a centuries-old verse form. This sub-genre of the traditional ballad is folky and anecdotal, its tales of murderous events constantly evolving to reflect different people, places and times. It was thanks to Kylie Minogue that Jordan first became aware of it – specifically the video for her haunting duet with Nick Cave, Where the Wild Roses Grow, from his 1996 studio album Murder Ballads.
“I was living in England at the time, I saw that video and it just struck me,” she recalls. “And then I started hearing murder ballads everywhere,” she laughs. “You know, you realise that ‘Copacabana’ is a murder ballad, that ‘Hey Joe’ is a murder ballad.” Much like the original verses, these songs “are part of our lives. They go right by our ear and we sing along, without always listening to what’s really going on.”
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