All on its own, Kim Barnes' voice might reach out and cut you.
The Idaho author and Pulitzer Prize finalist reads from her memoir, Hungry for the World, with utter emotional precision, like she's trying to carve her past into something she and her listener can finally make sense of. Throw in the original live scoring of the Storybound podcast, and even the tiny pockets of air between your eardrums and earbuds feel like they're vibrating with psychological energy. Barnes' reflection on a tangled, abusive relationship arrives with the sounds of popping corks, imitation Christmas jingles and the lonesome exhale of a flute.
The 30-minute episode, one of nine in the first season of Storybound, is set to debut Dec. 3. It takes shape against the backdrop of compositions by Portland Americana act Pretty Gritty, which also concludes the program with their fitting original song "Running Scared." As with several of the nine local acts developing music to accompany the words of writers like Barnes, Mitch Albom and Lidia Yuknavitch, this process was a first for Pretty Gritty.
"There are moments that deserve silence and moments you can really drive the mood in," says songwriter-vocalist Sarah Wolff.
"I think of it almost like in school when you'd buy your textbooks to write in them and highlight," adds Pretty Gritty pedal steel and bass player Bryan Daste. "[The music] is like the highlighter telling you these are the important moments."
As musicians, Wolff and Daste tended to think about the project in terms of mood and motifs. Portland writer, producer and Storybound host Jude Brewer, who created the series with website Literary Hub and podcast producer-distributor Podglomerate, sees the relationship between literature and music as a conceptual evolution of the live reading.
"Without music, [Barnes' story] can be kind of tormenting," Brewer says. "It could feel like you weren't moving forward in the story. That's the great thing about beats or time signatures or chord progressions: There's something subtle in your mind telling you, 'I'm going to get past this moment.'"
Brewer has experimented with permutations of literature and music for years now, with Storybound growing out of his old podcast, Storytellers Telling Stories. Though Brewer still hand-picked all the musicians and will mix and master the episodes, the Portland writer has Lit Hub furnishing the podcast with names like Albom, and Podglomerate supporting him with distribution and production.
"The previous show was an experiment," Brewer says. "The sky's the limit with this one."
Curatorially speaking, Brewer has relished pairing bestselling writers with comparatively unknown local musicians. A full song caps each episode, implying an equal footing in artistry that Brewer says he'd like to see more podcasts strive for. You probably know Albom's Tuesdays With Morrie, but what about Maiah Wynne's songwriting?
Storybound lands somewhere between the current audiobook boom and a knowing throwback to the '30s radio drama. The voices are clear but the content immersive. Polite warning: Listeners shouldn't check their email and expect to keep up.
"To get so bold and try to multitask while we're consuming things…well, psychologically, that's problematic, even though I do it too," Brewer says. "It's nice that I'm spending my time working on something contributing to the idea that we should focus."
LISTEN: Subscribe to Storybound with any podcast app. Episodes begin running weekly Tuesday, Dec. 3.