Music For Writers, Part II


In Part II of our two-part series, we continue to examine songs that are particularly helpful when it comes to writing.  Specifically, writing scenes.  It could be a scene in a novel, dialogue for a play, a piece of creative nonfiction, a screenplay, a letter to a friend recounting something important in your life – but the idea is that you’re trying to capture a mood, a feeling, a tone.  Oftentimes when I write, I run the scene through my head like a movie and I think – what song would be playing here?


The Underdog – Spoon

Every writing session, for me at least, includes a healthy dose of vacansopapurosophobia (that might not be a real thing).  There’s something undeniably daunting and exciting about a blank page, and to swing yourself over to the correct side of that teeter-totter you need to get irrationally cocky.  This song is a perfect blend of catchy instrumentals and good old fashioned generation-bashing lyrics.

Half Asleep – School Of Seven Bells

Once you’re off and writing, you need someplace to go.  For me, the best mental state for creativity is when you’re, wait for it, half asleep.  Out of reality enough to silence a little of your internal critic, still aware enough to be sharp and playful.  The awesomely-named School Of Seven Bells has music that fits that state like a glove.  This whole album is solid; I picked this song because the chorus is triumphant.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8, ‘Pathetique’ – Hiromi

This is a cooler, a comedown song.  It takes some context.  If you know Hiromi, you know she plays at a million miles a minute, notes cascading out of the piano like a runaway train.  The last time I saw her live, she played three such songs in a row, and the whole place was almost out of breath, overloaded.  Then she started this number.  The downshift, the elegance, the smooth playfulness… it was pure pleasure.  My brother and I looked at each other with huge, impossible grins.  Right at 0:31 where it goes from classical to jazz, I could have melted.  I’ll always remember that moment, and I’ll always use this song to go to that place.

Burden of Tomorrow – The Tallest Man On Earth

This guy has some of the most evocative lyrics outside of a Waits/Dylan song.  This simple song has deceptively complex guitar work, and while Kristian Matsson’s voice isn’t for everyone, I’m a big fan.  And the lyrics…

Ah, but rumor has it that I wasn’t born,
I just walked in one frosty morn,
Into the vision of some vacant mind.

Oh once I held a pony by its flagging mane,
And once I called the shadow in the turning game
But I will fight this stranger that you should fear
So I won’t be your burden of tomorrow dear

Talk about evocative… for me, these are the kind of lyrics that suggest rather than declare.  In my mind, that’s what the best writing does as well.

Heysátan – Sigur Rós

This song is all about the mood it conjures.  It’s just intensely, achingly beautiful.  Love and tragedy supervene on this song.  This is a big gun to pull out, and I don’t do it often or lightly, but when a scene demands that level of grief, romance, and depth, this is where I go.

The Hungry Rock/The Sleuce Gate/Evening Comes Early (Reels) – John Doyle

Sometimes you hit a wall.  You’re trying to form a thought, to make it coherent, or to find the perfect word.  Whatever the situation, when the gate is down, the lights are flashing, but the train isn’t coming – use this.  It’s a musical palate cleanser; just close your eyes, put on headphones, and pay attention.  You could let this song wash over you in the background as you did something else, but you’d be missing the true pleasure here.  If you honestly focus on it, follow the winding, up-and-down guitar line, and stay with it, you’ll see what I mean.  The rhythm of the notes, the punctuation of the musical sentences, the subtle changes in a repeated phrase… you’ll come out of it refreshed and ready to write.

I’m Still Here – Tom Waits

Truthfully, you could make an entire list of Music for Writing of just Tom Waits songs.  Here’s one that will quietly break your heart with little fanfare.  If you can inject even a tenth of the pathos of this song into your writing, you’re on the right track.

Operation Ground and Pound – DragonForce

Doing a quick 180, this one is fairly self-explanatory.  At some point, you’re going to want to write a fantasy novel, and at some point in that novel, you’re going to want your main character to have an epic sword fight with twenty demons while his dragon-army battles evil wizards all around him while the moon is slowly exploding above them, well, you’ll probably want to write that scene while you listen to this song.

Hora Ca la Usari – Taraf de Haïdouks

The one will drive the point home.  Sometimes you just need to blast on through it, the frenetic, almost hypnotic beat and half chanted, half shouted words will get the job done.

Desoto – Jeremiah McLane

A song featuring accordion and concertina shouldn’t be this lovely.  As far as writing goes, this is the perfect late-night journey song.  It’s dark out, no one is around, and you’re creating worlds in your head.  That’s kind of absurd, and you have to laugh at it a little even though you have to embrace it completely.  It’s absurd, but it’s a good thing.  It’s joyful.  This song captures that.


Pop Music Vol. 1

Rather than go for my Music for the Elderly playlist which John referenced to last week, I’ve decided to derive my first entry from my recent desire to listen to pop gems that I’ve discovered over the years. I figured it best to go where my current musical mood took me. Sometimes there’s nothing better than a catchy song that sticks with you. I mean who doesn’t like handclaps, cowbells and glockenspiels? Since some of these have been in my heavy rotation pile for quite some time, I might have played them for you at some point or another, but I still thought them worth sharing again. Without further ado:

Miracle Drug – A.C. Newman

A.C. Newman (AKA Carl Newman of New Pornographers fame) of crafting a perfect pop gem with the first track of his album The Slow Wonder. Other tracks to listen to include Secretarial and Come Crash

Promises – The Morning Benders

This SF band recently changed their name to Pop, Etc. Their debut album Big Echo was one of my favorites of 2010

Lolita – Throw Me the Statue

The moniker of multi-instrumentalist Scott Reitherman who has moved all over the country but settled in Seattle just before Moonbeams was released. His music can be at times hit or miss, but this song is fantastic.

No One Does it Like You – Department of Eagles

Department of Eagles is project of two college roommates, one of whom ended up playing with Grizzly Bear. Originally inspired by Van Dyke Parks and Paul McCartney, this work isn’t too far off from the bands that the two eventually joined. I really dig the production on this one.

Golden Retriever – Super Furry Animals

Welsh band Super Furry Animals are known for super catchy and very clever jams as well as playing in full spacesuits. One of my favorite tracks is Herman Love Pauline is written about Albert Eistein’s parents. Listen closely to the lyrics as they could equally describe the dog of the same name or a bank robber.

Who Are You? – Kathryn Calder

Kathryn Calder is the niece of Carl Newman (A.C. Newman mentioned above). I had the pleasure of playing a string of West Coast dates with her and her band for the release of her album Bright and Vivid. She’s got an amazing voice and I highly recommend checking out the whole record.
Emma Blowgun’s Last Stand – Beulah

Beulah was an indie-pop seven piece band that broke up in the early 2000’s because of the strain of trying to stay afloat with a group of that size. I’ve been a big fan of them ever since I stumbled into a few of their records in the KWCW library.

Some Constellation – Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin

Speaking of KWCW, SSYLBY came out with their debut album when I was a music director there. They might be the coolest act to come out of Springfield, Missouri.

Songy Darko – Headlights

Sharing the same label as SSLYBY, Headlights first record Kill Them With Kindness was quite entertaining. I haven’t paid much attention to them since then, but they put on a great show when I saw them in NYC back in 2006.

Left Side Clouded – The Sea and Cake


Blue Bird – The Rosebuds

The Rosebuds are a husband and wife duo from NC. I was introduced to them when I was working at Suicide Squeeze records.
Oh Fine – The French Kicks

This song never gets old. Again this band is one that I stopped following awhile back because they’re quite hit or miss, but this song is great!
You’re So Pretty – Field Music

I highly recommend you guys listen to more of this band. They’re most recent album Plumb has a Steely Dan vibe to it and they are exceptional songwriters.

Music for Hosting Ol’ Friends

For this week’s playlist, I wanted to continue the trend that Indy started with Week 1 – that is, a functional playlist. Filtering all those musical gems that you’ve unearthed over the last few months into a cohesive playlist that doesn’t just sound like your ‘My Top Rated’-on-shuffle-mode can be a difficult task. For me, it helps to have some activity or setting in mind while building a playlist. This is why I’ve recently been so smitten with music app Songza, as they specifically focus on this aspect of music enjoyment. To that end, you can use the app to build a custom playlist based on your choice of activity – activities that range from coding, to cooking, to baby-making. To my knowledge, Songza does not have a playlist for hosting old friends (and no, this is not a playlist for entertaining the elderly – Keith’s working on that playlist for another week), so this will fill a clear need during the holiday season, when we see folks that we may not have seen in a while. This playlist will tell assure them that you have maintained a healthy appreciation for good tunes, or at least have a friend that made you a dynamite playlist. Hope you enjoy:


Til I Met Thee – Cody Chesnutt

Scene: Your company has arrived, has wine glass(es) in hand and is ready to start helping out in food preparations. This song will get your feet moving; before long you will be chopping onions and mincing garlic to the beat. So this is definitely my jam of late. This is the guitarist from The Roots, famous for his singing on The Seed 2.0. The outro is powerful.

Keep on Pushing – The Impressions

I’m ashamed to admit that I just discovered these guys, although some of their hits like It’s All Right and People Get Ready are familiar. This is the group that gave Curtis Mayfield his start, before he went solo in the early ’70s.  The harmonies on this song will even make those sizzling onions sing along.

Don’t Leave Me – Regina Spektor

This is my favorite track off her new record. This upbeat track will maintain a lively feel in the kitchen as you continue final food preparations.

Valerie – ’68 version – Amy Winehouse

Now that the pasta is boiling, or your projects are otherwise on auto-pilot, the music relaxes a bit. This cover is absolutely beautiful. The laidback strummy sound on the guitar is a perfect complement to Amy’s free, expressive style. This comes off a wildly underappreciated posthumous compilation album, Lioness – Hidden Treasures. I like this stuff way more than her mainstream LP’s.

Heartbreaker – The Walkmen

These guys are one of my recent faves. Singer Walter Martin has a distinctive voice, which I happen to like a lot. Cool story here is that these guys have been playing together since the 5th grade.

Love the Way You Walk Away – Blitzen Trapper

While I’ve not been blown away by their stuff generally, I think this song is just great.

Roscoe – Midlake

I think this is one of a couple songs from this playlist that I Shazam’ed off KEXP’s morning show with John, which is consistently solid. Also, SoundHound > Shazam. It has real-time lyrics, and you can sing/hum the song if you can’t play the real thing! I just couldn’t use SoundHound in verb-form…

Changes – Sandro Perri

Those that know me and my jammy tendencies will understand why I’m in love with this tune, starting at 3:40 (but the whole song is lovely). And not to neglect the whole hosting/cooking dialogue…this track and the next are the transition points – transporting food to table and getting settled down to eat.

Alvear Orilla/Estancia Santa Maria – Chango Spasiuk

Arguably the most talented accordion player in the world, Chango’s style blends obvious technical skill with great songwriting craft.

Midnight in Harlem – Tedeschi Trucks Band

Talented singer (and infamous cougar) Susan Tedeschi teams up with hubby Derek Trucks on the most epic track from their recent record, Revelator (recommended). Classy background music for mastication.

Smoke Ring Halo – The Wood Brothers

I’ve been digging on these guys for a while, but I still can’t get enough of their sound. Listen for the mounting, swelling organ near the end which is effective as a crescendo.

The Good Life – Railroad Earth

You’ll notice by this point that the playlist has taken a country/bluegrass/americana turn. A song celebrating life, appropriately wedged in the space where you’re in the midst of great drink/eats/and guests. The bass line in this song is fun.

Poor Fool –Justin Townes Earle

This song is just downright pleasant. Steve Earle gave his son Townes Van Zandt’s name as a middle name. Justin makes pretty good music in his own right.

What It Is – Mark Knopfler

The opening track off of another under-appreciated album, Sailing to Philadelphia (on which the elegant title track features James Taylor!). This lively gem will help avert food coma, and reinvigorate your company for the next stage of the party, whatever that may be…

Music for Writers, Part I


Sometimes it’s not enough to put pen to paper; sometimes you have to give the creative state a little nudge in the right direction.  These are songs that I’ve gone back to with that in mind.  I usually write without any distractions, but when I hit a wall, I listen to one of these songs to help me with the mood.

I’ve split this into two parts, and I had to exclude some songs because while Spotify has a lot of songs, they don’t have all the songs, so in this case you’re missing out on some Chocolate Genius Incorporated and Nujabes.


Track 1: Aceyalone / The Way It Was – use this one to get pumped up about starting in the first place; good writing should be coming straight out of the oven, hot and playful.

Track 2: Alex Clare / Damn Your Eyes – this cover of an Etta James song has a deliberate cadence and sparseness that make it perfect for writing certain kinds of passion and anger.

Track 3: Darren Korb / Build That Wall (Zia’s Theme) – this is a song from the criminally underexposed video game Bastion.  This song in particular is simple and haunting.  There’s something a little menacing about the lyrics, too.

Track 4: The Be Good Tanyas / Ship Out On The Sea – this one is warm, harmonious, even lovely.  It’s upbeat enough to not be lethargic, and it really evokes a kind of relationship that’s more platonic than romantic.

Track 5: Brandon Vance & Mark Minkler / Song For Taryn – expansive, lush… there’s something about the piano/fiddle combination that just evokes rolling green hills and scattered wildflowers.

Track 6: Corinne Bailey Rae / No Lovechild – this one is very intimate, even playful at the end.  For me this one evokes happiness and joy.  The way it builds up is perfect in a narrative sense, too… you can see how it leads somewhere.

Track 7: Cults / Go Outside – So part of the way I write scenes is to imagine them from different angles.  I’ll rehash things in different terms to see what’s really important.  In this case, I look at a bunch of scenes from the book as quick cuts of a movie trailer with this song playing in the background.  No dialogue, just a couple seconds of each scene and this song and ask myself: what story am I telling?

Track 8: Lake Street Dive / My Heart’s In the Right Place – Lake Street Dive is my current obsession.  Partly because as a pop/jazz quartet they’re just right in the middle of my wheelhouse, and partly because of this (3:30 to 3:40…and all of it) and this and basically Rachael Price’s voice in general.  This song in particular I actually use as anti-writing… it just takes me away from the current problem for a moment.  It’s a great song to just close your eyes and sink into.

Track 9: Megafaun / Kill The Horns – there’s something about the way this song is broken into discreet parts that makes it great to write dialogue to.  There’s a cadence to it that sounds almost conversational.

Track 10: Popular Computer / Lointain (Robotaki Remix) – this one is pure “let’s get this shit done” music.  And boy does it do a great job.  I’ve thought about putting a piece of tape over my macbook’s camera because I don’t want whatever government agency controls it to see me chair-dancing to this song.

Anyway, that’s Part I of the list.  If y’all dig it, I’ll get to work on Part II.