On Writing & Music
The soundtrack of our lives
I’m working on something new, which means making a new playlist. I’ll share more about the project when I can—I don’t want to scare the ideas away by talking about them too soon—but here are some of the artists I’m listening to: Andy Shauf, Sharon Van Etten, Nina Simone, Bright Eyes, Ezra Furman, Marianne Faithfull.
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If you’ve read You Could Make This Place Beautiful, you know I’m almost always listening to music, including when I write, so my books have their own soundtracks. I know some writers prefer instrumental music for writing; it’s distracting to listen to others’ words while trying to write their own. But music with lyrics seems to occupy some part of my brain that allows me to focus elsewhere. It pats my head so I can rub my belly.
The oldest poems in my first book, Lamp of the Body, are from the late 1990s; the last ones were added to the manuscript in the summer of 2003. What was I listening to back then? Death Cab For Cutie’s We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes. Superchunk’s Here’s to Shutting Up. Cat Power’s Moon Pix and The Covers Record. Elliott Smith’s Either/Or and Figure 8. Castaways and Cutouts by The Decemberists. Rabbit Songs by Hem. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out by Yo La Tengo. Excuses for Travelers by Mojave 3. The Instigator by Rhett Miller.
When I was writing the poems for The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, I listened to Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood on obsessive repeat. On short breaks from that record, I’d turn to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco, Funeral by Arcade Fire, Saltbreakers by Laura Veirs, and You Forgot It In People by Broken Social Scene.
The hawk-and-girl poems from Good Bones had their own soundtrack, which I might call “Sad Americana” if I had to title it. I steeped my mind in songs from Bon Iver’s first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, Iron & Wine’s The Creek Drank the Cradle, and Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator) and Soul Journey. I remember listening to a specific playlist on my iPod when I was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts on a residency in November 2011, singing along quietly to “Creature Fear” and “Over the Mountain” and “Miss Ohio” as I walked the grounds, watching the horses graze, and found a secluded spot to write. These songs make up the weather of Good Bones, the light and season of them—golden, but turning. Rusting the way autumn rusts.
The playlist I made for Goldenrod is full of songs I love, and many of them feel like spring and summer to me: “Side of the Road” by Lucinda Williams, “Fire” by Waxahatchee, “America” by Laura Veirs. Brighter, full of grass and flowers and fresh air, but not uncomplicated.
And now? Each new project gets its own playlist, but I also have a general playlist called, simply, “Writing.” It’s in flux—I continue to add new songs and delete some older ones, but I want to share some of the keepers with you: “Easy to Be Around” by Diane Cluck, “Bluebird of Happiness” by Mojave 3, “Sea Anemone” by Jets to Brazil, “Magic Hour” by Fruit Bats, “Blonde on Blonde” by Nada Surf, “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” by Judee Sill, “The Crane Wife 3” by The Decemberists, “Greetings from the Sugar Lick” by The Spinanes.
Like my books, certain times in my life have soundtracks, too.
When my daughter Violet was born, I took a CD I’d burned for the occasion to the hospital. (And scrawled Welcome, Pickle!—what I’d called her throughout the pregnancy—in black Sharpie on the Memorex disc.) I made an iPhone playlist for Rhett. Of the songs for my children, I remember Ray Lamontagne’s “You Are the Best Thing,” Wilco’s “My Darling,” and World Party’s “Sunshine” in particular.
And I remember choosing songs for my wedding: Cat Power’s cover of “Sea of Love,” the Beatles’ “In My Life,” and the Magnetic Fields’ “Strange Powers,” despite the line about there being as many stars in the sky as whores in Thailand. I doubt my grandparents were paying attention.
When I got divorced, I made a playlist called “Hope.” I needed it. Hope sounded like “This Year” by The Mountain Goats, “That Teenage Feeling” by Neko Case, “Do It Again” by Nada Surf, and “Now or Never Now” by Metric. I also made one called “Lexapro for the Ears,” which is all 80s music that makes me want to dance and sing along. I weaned myself off the actual Lexapro in 2019 but kept the full dose of New Wave. In 2020 I made a playlist for Keep Moving, too—plenty of songs that reminded me to press on and keep my chin up. Maybe I still need that playlist? Maybe we all still need that playlist.
What are you listening to these days? What’s your best writing music? I’m opening comments to all for this post if you want to share a recommendation.
Happy writing (& listening)—