Brian Beattie is not the biggest fan of musicals. The long-time Austin musician (Glass Eye) and producer (Okkervil River, Shearwater, many more) had the same problem many have with them: the whole people-bursting-into-song thing.
“What you don’t want to have happen is a song starts and all you can think is, ‘Ugh, here we go again,’” Beattie says. “You want to be convinced to go with it.”
In dogged pursuit of this goal, and a few others, Beattie wrote and published “Ivy and the Wicker Suitcase,” what he calls an Illustrated Earmovie Musical, a “74-minute musical audio-drama on disc.”
A combination of a Little Golden Book, a radio play, one of those Disney Buena Vista read-along book-and-record sets and a large hunk of musical theater, the new project features roles that are played by a plethora of Austin music lifers, including Daniel Johnston, Bill “Smog” Callahan, Will Sheff of Okkervil River, Beattie’s fellow Glass Eye member Kathy McCarty, James Hand and a young lady named Grace London as Ivy Wire, the main character.
Beattie’s wife, visual artist Valerie Fowler, illustrated the small, square volume with detailed, intricate pieces that seem almost gothy (rather than Gothic) in spots.
Beattie said the germ of the idea came to him while he was recording Roky Erikson’s vocals for “True Love Cast Out All Evil,” the 2010 album Erickson made with Okkervil River. (Beattie has produced a number of Okkervil albums.)
“Anytime you hang around with someone like (Erickson), there is this kind of mystical artistic atmosphere,” Beattie says. “You get a lot of ideas.”
But by 2008, the idea of a musical really took hold. “By that time, it was clear the country was headed toward a depression,” Beattie says. “And my own career was in the pits.”
Like many folks, Beattie felt equal parts attraction and repulsion to musicals. But he decided to sit down and figure out what made them work, mostly by watching a lot of Great Depression-era musicals, everything from “Gold Diggers of 1933” to the “Wizard of Oz.”
He quickly found that yes, the plots were sometimes awfully thin but, as Beattie puts it, “some of those songs are so well-written it’s like they’ve always existed.”
Beattie was also a long-term fan of radio plays and dramatists. “I listened to Jean Shepherd all the time,” Beattie says. “That guy was amazing, so solidly Midwestern and yet so Beatnik.”
Beattie knew he wanted to set the story in the 1930s and set it in Austin. His first pass at the story involved a little boy who was into spelunking.
Then he went to a Zilker Elementary School talent show and saw a girl named Grace London sing.
“I don’t know how many elementary school talent shows you’ve been to, but they’re mostly a group of 200 grown-ups kind of biding their time,” Beattie says. “Then this kid comes out and starts singing, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up.” The 11-year old London got a standing ovation.
Beattie changed his protagonist to a girl who plays guitar, which solved the problem of the protagonist breaking into song. “She is something like Dorothy from ‘Wizard of Oz’ mixed with Scout from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”
Slowly, over the course of several years, between working on actual money-making projects, Beattie put together the book and the music, getting Johnston to play the Lord of the Underworld and Callahan (“two guys whose songwriting I just worshiped,” Beattie says) to play, well, God, essentially, in a story about a young girl’s adventures in their realms.
He first thought of it as a graphic novel set with a musical score. “I was trying to figure out who could draw the thing and Valerie said, ‘uh, I could do it,’” Beattie says. This changed from a comic book cartoon style to that of a classic children’s book.
In 2011, with 14 of the 16 songs recorded with a variety of local musicians, and the illustration nearly completed, Beattie still had to wrap up the incidental music, finish the dialogue and foley work, mix and master the things and, oh yeah, pay everyone. So he ran a Kickstarter campaign, generating more than $16,000 of a projected $10,000.
“I wanted to pay people, and I ended up paying everyone,” Beattie says. “Except for Will Sheff, that guy owed me.” Beattie owns almost the entire project, with London also owning a hunk. “It would have been impossible without her.”
With binding done in San Antonio, “Ivy and the Wicker Suitcase” is a pure Texas product, one with which Beattie seems very happy.
“It’s a book! It’s a record! It’s a movie for your ears!,” he says. “It’s a children’s book for grown-ups, an epic myth for kids, and a Depression-era musical for the New Depression!”
Brian Beattie and Valerie Fowler host the official release party for “Ivy and the Wicker Suitcase” with music by Kathy McCarty and Grace London 5 p.m. Saturday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.