Best-selling author Alex North shares the songs he listens to while writing and others that inspire his work in between chapters.
I use music to help with my writing all the time, but like a lot of authors, I find it almost impossible to write while listening to lyrics. Attempting to come up with my own words is hard enough; having other people’s words playing in the background is just too distracting. In addition, the danger of lyrics sneaking into my work is a small but persistent worry. Copyright issues aside, nobody wants to read a pathologist accidentally quoting Rage Against the Machine during a particularly sensitive autopsy scene.
That said, I deal with words for a living, and lyrics are important to me, so I do listen to songs while I’m writing. I put them on during five-minute breaks between blocks of work, then while I’m actively typing, I tend to listen to instrumentals. The list below is a mix of both. These aren’t my 10 favourite pieces of music by any means, but they’re a selection from the tracks I’ve used while writing over the years, both in general and also specifically in terms of The Shadows.
And with each one, I’ll try to explain why.
Radiohead — “Optimistic”
Most of this list could be in any order, but this is always the first song I listen to when I sit down at my computer. Realistically, writing a book is not an arduous activity: Whatever metaphors authors employ, it is not actually like climbing a mountain. But writing absolutely brings you face to face with your insecurities, your limitations, your feelings of being an imposter. The lyric here — “You can try the best you can / The best you can is good enough” — provides the encouragement I need to get going. I still don’t believe the latter, but I do believe the former is all you’ve really got.
Max Richter — “On the Nature of Daylight”
So many of the instrumental pieces I listen to while writing come from films, and this is no exception. It’s used in Arrival (a wonderful film, which is based on one of my favourite short stories: “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang). But even without its association with the events in the film, I find it an evocative and emotional piece of music. To me, it says this: Life is going to be full of pain, but it will also contain moments of absolute beauty, and that’s what makes the pain worthwhile in the end.
Donovan — “Hurdy Gurdy Man”
Purely because of its use in David Fincher’s Zodiac, which is one of the greatest serial killer films ever made. I have no idea what the contemporary reception to this song was (I’m guessing it was seen as quite innocuous at the time), but all it conveys to me in the present day is absolute gibbering horror. The world is off-kilter and tilted and wrong — and now here is this strange, alien figure arriving to disturb everything even more. Honestly, listening to this leaves me feeling even more uneasy than listening to Slayer.
Four Tet — “My Angel Rocks Back and Forth”
Personal reasons for this one. But despite the undercurrent of plaintive sadness throughout, it is very pretty, isn’t it?
Peter Gabriel — “Digging in the Dirt”
This song has been a constant source of inspiration for me ever since I first saw the video as a teenager. While that video remains superb (the wasps in the jar; the messages growing in the earth; really, don’t get me started), the song on its own still resonates heavily. It’s about how the effects of past trauma remain relevant in the present — and can blare as suddenly and dramatically into life as the music sometimes does. But the quiet of the chorus lands even harder: “I’m digging in the dirt / To find the places I got hurt.” Well, aren’t we all.
Michael Nyman — “The Heart Asks Pleasure First”
An obvious choice, I suppose, this one. It’s very famously from The Piano, but in this case it’s a film I’ve never actually seen. I love the repetition, the push and pull between contemplation and anger, and the sense that the music seems to be pleading with you to understand something, demanding that you do, and then almost drifting off as though it never really expected you to. There are no words, but you hear them all anyway.
The Moody Blues — “Nights in White Satin”
My parents used to play The Moody Blues during car trips to the coast for childhood holidays, so it has nostalgia value, but there’s another reason for this choice. Like so many others, it comes down to a movie: an extremely traumatizing Australian horror film called Hounds of Love, which contains a scene that unconditionally spoils this song forever. But even without that, the ebb and flow of emotion here is so torrid, desperate, and creepy that it always leaves me a little shaken at the end. Which is perfect.
John Murphy — “In the House, in a Heartbeat”
This is an instrumental piece used in the film 28 Days Later. I have no other reason for including it than that it’s the perfect accompaniment to writing a scene with escalating tension that builds toward a terrible and terrifying climax. If I were a betting man, I’d wager a number of other thriller authors have this piece on their own personal playlists. We’d all like our writing to be good enough to warrant a soundtrack like this.
Sufjan Stevens — “Should Have Known Better”
It almost feels wrong to include this one — it’s such a deeply personal song about Stevens’s relationship with his mother, who abandoned him as an infant. But there is a wonderful amount of (casual, realistic) detail and melancholy introspection in the first half of the song and then it gives way to something brighter and cautiously joyful. The music and the lyrics are beautiful, and the combined effect is profound and perfect: There is pain, but there is also hope. And while I know I’ll never achieve anything as good as this with my own writing, that feeling is always a big part of what I aim for.
Marco Beltrami — “7,573′”
With my first choice, I said that writing a book is not like climbing a mountain, and yet my final choice is the piece of music from the end of the amazing documentary Free Solo, which follows the climber Alex Honnold as he completes his ropeless ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. It’s an astonishing and awe-inspiring feat, and the music is appropriate for the occasion — rousing and celebratory, and then quietly reflective. I mean, let’s be serious for a moment: Writing a book is nothing like climbing a mountain. But sometimes it can help to think of it like that at the end of a difficult day.