I still remember the first popular song that made me feel alive. Fiercely, aggressively alive. And hungry. It was Lithium by Nirvana. Up until that moment, I'd meandered around the radio stations, bopping along to whatever my parents listened to. I knew what I hated, I knew what I could tolerate, I knew all the words to Prince songs, but nothing lit me up inside like Lithium. I turned the radio up loud and jumped on my bed, and then I began to latch, one by one, onto new songs and devour their albums. Friday in Love led me to The Cure. A boy I liked led me to ska. I cried to the Indigo Girls. Music became the soundtrack of my life, tracking my highs and lows.
And then, some time after college, I lost my ties to new music. The radio stations only played pop, I had jobs and responsibilities, I didn't have time or money for shows. I wore sensible blouses and pumps. Aside from picking up the new Weezer CD every year, I just lost touch. Looking back, it's hard to trace my feelings because they weren't tied to music. When I got pregnant with my first child, someone gave me The Postal Service CD, and then Californication by RHCP came out, and I listened to them so much that my baby learned to kick in time with Anthony Kiedis, but I wasn't actively seeking new music. A vital part of my emotional life just... dried up. I fell asleep.
As I got back into writing, I used music to help my creative process. For each book, I create a playlist of what the book *feels* like. Not songs that are on the topic of the book, but songs that taste like the book when I sing them with the windows down, barreling down country roads. When I hear that playlist, I'm back in that world, living with those characters. If I get blocked, I go for a drive or take a bath with that music, and it sets me back on track. I write to it, I edit to it, I cogitate to it. And that means that I need new music for every book, because once a song has been used, it's attached to that book forever.
This craving for new music has reignited the passion I felt the first time I heard Lithium. There is no triumph like falling in love with an album and seeing the band perform it live, shouting the lyrics at the top of your lungs. Since I became a writer in 2009, we've seen The Civil Wars, Manchester Orchestra, the Airborne Toxic Event, Mona, Gangstagrass. When I hear these songs, I'm not a worried, aging mom struggling to keep her shit together. I'm 18 again, filled with energy and longing and excitement, my body a live wire. The world feels full, the possibilities seem endless, and I feel refreshed and ready to tackle anything. Science corroborates it-- new music is as rewarding to the brain as sex or money. And it's good for the aging brain. And if it fuels your writing, all the better.
But how do you find new music, especially since you're not 19 and surrounded by college shows and blaring boomboxes? At first, I used Pandora, but it was frustrating. Their algorithms didn't predict my book or tastes, and I could only veto so many songs before I was forced to listen to something I hated. Then I found Spotify, where I pay $9.99 so that I can have all my playlists on my iPod for traveling. I find one song on Spotify that really exemplifies the books--often a song I already know. I pull up that band. And then I click the Related Artists tab. Boom! Dozens of artists doing similar work. I go down the line, checking out the top 5 tracks of each band, which are shown by how many times users have listened, and I add the ones I like to the playlist.
It only takes 20 seconds or less for me to know if a song is going to appeal. If I *really* like a song, I'll just let it play and forget I'm judging it. Sometimes I'll add entire albums. When a band/album stops working for me, I go right back to the original Related Artists tab using the back button. I keep going until I've got a few hours of songs. I'm not horribly picky or trying to write a musical soundtrack to match the highs and lows of the plot-- I just want songs that are atmospheric and fit the book as a whole. When I'm sick of the process, I consider it done, click Play, and start writing.
By the time I've finished a book, I've listened to the playlist hundreds of times. It becomes a world I inhabit, and that classical conditioning means I can immediately fall into the book and start writing. And then, if I can, I try to find the bands that really clicked and see them live. It's like living inside your book for an hour, being with a great and ferocious animal, feeling its heartbeat thump madly against your chest.
So if you're still listening to your college CDs, I double dog dare you to go out and find something new. Stretch your brain, hack your writing, give yourself a reason to look forward to folding laundry. When I think back to the years that I forgot about the joy of new music, I want to go slap myself and holler, "WAKE UP. STAY WOKE. YOU'RE SLEEPWALKING."
The sleeper has awakened, and she likes modern bluegrass. Who knew?
(p.s. You can hear all my book playlists here. Spotify is free to use. The $9.99 is so that I can store playlists on my iPod and iPad to listen while traveling.)