Weird Writing Music (the best kind)

When I was a music journalist for the Chicago Sun-Times, I couldn’t imagine writing without a band blasting in the background. Sometimes I would write in the style of whatever music I was listening to:

  • Dead Kennedys = harsh critique
  • Mozart = precise and delicate
  • David Bowie = wordy and magical

Feel sorry for the bands who caught me on a Slayer day.

But since writing a novel, I’m surprised to find I write in silence. The way I craft demands the full attention of my little brain, and I can’t do two things at the same time. Walk AND chew gum? Please. The gum will end up in your hair. And you know, I’m trying to avoid being a klutzy writer in general.

Still, I sometimes have to block out noisy coffee drinkers, babies, barking dogs, LIFE. Here’s what I use to help the process without becoming overwhelmed. These albums are amazing, and stand on their own with or without my attention, or yours.

  • Bach, “Cello Suites” (Maria Kliegel). Music without words is SO helpful, and this album is gorgeous and perfect for all moods. Maria Kliegal’s interpretation is stunning. I crave this album like I crave chocolate – I consume it for days on end. Best for writing a scene that shows a charater becoming inspired and/or figuring out something in a pivotal moment.
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Green River.” This title song rules forever. I always feel like I’m in the ‘Nam, which reminds me that whatever problem I’m having on the page isn’t as bad as I think it is.
  • Tyrannosaurus Rex, “A Beard of Stars.” The ethereal quality of this album makes me feel like I’ve dipped into a daydream, which is good if I’m stuck and not being very creative. Sometimes I write to this, and find strange words and concepts have snuck in the backdoor. My weird subconscious brain loves Marc Bolen as we ride a Great Horse By the Light of the Magical Moon.
  • Miles Davis with Gil Evans, “Miles Ahead.” I always feel like I’m on a sailboat, drinking a martini, wearing white shorts and a scarf and sunglasses. Sometimes it helps to be anywhere but in front of the computer. Reminds me there’s life beyond the silver box on the desk in front of me.
  • Brian Jonestown Massacre, “Take It From the Man!” or anything, really. These guys are always trip-rocking, and the tambourine always wakes me up. Good for sleepy rainy days in Seattle, and for writing group scenes with lots of people and lots of things going on.
  • Nick Drake, “Bryter Layter.” Makes me fall in love with whatever I’m writing. Very warm and cozy feelings that make every story feel careful and protected.
  • Vic Chesnutt, “West of Rome,” or others. Vic is so chill but also funny. Wry and dry and I tend to write more tersely with this, in the best way possible.
  • Bob Dylan, “Blood on the Tracks.” Some great words here, of course, and also driving, repeating melodies that don’t require too much brain drain to hear. I get caught in the Dylan loop of lyrics/chorus/repeat. Sometimes it helps me find the driving, repeating rhythm I need in my own work.
  • Joni Mitchell, “Blue” or “Court and Spark.” Joni feels like an old friend who loves to tell you her secrets. And you like to listen, but you feel like you might not catch everything until later, as you’re falling asleep. And then you write in the middle of the night and everything sounds precious and amazing and weirdly high-pitched.
  • Plush, “More You Becomes You.” This is a really special album to me. Have you heard of it? Of course you haven’t! It’s a band out of Chicago on a great indie label called Drag City. Most of the albums Drag City puts our are 100% pure gold, and this is no exception. This guy is amazing, and I’m so glad I pulled this album out of the record store racks when I did. Plush pushes my brain in directions I didn’t know it could go. I try to follow his melodies, but am surprised every time. Completely inspiring, and gorgeous. Give it time, it will grow on you like the most amazing, beautiful weed to invade your brain.

P.S. I’m listening to Joni as I write this.

P.P.S. Nothing on this list is new. I’m old.