I was chatting to the other 26 folk about the 26 Under A Northern Sky project, themed round Nick Drake songs, and it got me thinking about my own relationship with music. It also helped that Kieron Gillen’s latest instalment of music-themed fantasy Phonogram, Immaterial Girl, is out in the summer, and he’s spoken about writing and playlists in The Wicked And The Divine. So brace yourselves for a ramble of my own.
I’m a very musical person. I’ve been bashing out tunes on the piano since I was a nipper (and I’m a rusty grade 5), and the current instrument collection consists of an acoustic guitar, a very cheap bass, two keyboards, a Monotron and my beloved DX-7, dating from the year I was born, before such helpful things as solid MIDI standards and programming interfaces that didn’t require advanced maths knowledge. In my student days I DJed at grubby goth and rock clubs, where over-enthusiastic goth two-steps would make the CDs jump and Sisters of Mercy was a staple. I’ve also got more prog and 80s vinyl records than I know how to deal with, a serious Eurovision music habit, and a Spotify subscription.
Ethics of streaming services aside, I use them pretty heavily when writing these days. If I need something with little or no lyrics for concentration, I put on a lengthy prog album- and it was prog that jumpstarted attempting a novel in the first place- or some synthwave, which is retro 80s-style music, equally good for driving around a neon-lit city at night or writing something set in the 80s like I do. (There’s a playlist in the sidebar, if you fancy it.) But I listened to a lot of different things when I did the first draft, and much of it runs through the writing- really, music is tied up with the setting and the characters to the point where I can’t unstick them.
The second chapter takes place in a nightclub that still exists in Edinburgh. Back in 1982 it was called Coasters, and hosted everything from roller discos to remember-when-they-were-good rock gods U2. It also hosted a great deal of punk and New Wave acts like The Skids, The Rezillos, Sham 69 and Bow Wow Wow. If I’d been a teenager in the 80s, I’d have lived there; it’d certainly distract from all the grim politics that came along with the decade. The Edinburgh Gig Archive has some lovely memorabilia from the time, including this pic of Bow Wow Wow’s Annabella Lwin, who with some bending of dates is performing the night my protagonist turns up.
There’s something pleasing about the grimly inevitable fight that ensues being soundtracked by driving Burundi drums and shrieking teenagers. If it hadn’t been that, it would almost certainly have been a punk act. It’s angry music; it’s kicking out at society because everything is wrong. There was only ever one genre of music Rael would listen to. The New Wave stuff I leave to my rule-breaking selkie Cavan, who seems to spend a lot of time hanging around nightclubs for human company; and the goth music is reserved for my kelpie. It turns out she’s fairly mopey about her lot in life, and when you’re pale-skinned and dark-haired, you can sling on a pair of DMs and too much eyeliner and sneak into covens of goths fairly easily to avoid anyone chasing you. I think Mor actually fancies herself as a bit of a Siouxsie Sioux.
While I was writing, certain tracks would bubble up from playlists and get stuck. Often it was just a case of the music fitting a scene so well, but sometimes it was the lyrics that seemed appropriate. Take Into The Valley by the Skids; a bouncy punk track on the surface, but with pretty dark lyrics, allegedly about recruiting young men into the army:
Out of concealment
Blank and stark eyed
Why so uncertain
This culture deceives
Which is so very apt to a bit of backstory, but I can’t tell you because it’s hugely spoilerrific. Likewise with Atmosphere by Joy Division, which came on the radio the other day and instantly reminded me of the last few chapters. ‘Hunting by the rivers, through the streets every corner/Abandoned too soon, set down with due care’. I kind of tear up when I hear it, not just because it’s Ian Curtis’s musical farewell. So yes, music is always in my writing, and that’s partly what makes it so enjoyable.
Given all that, here’s a big old playlist of (mostly) 80s novel-themed music that’ll while away a few hours. Can’t promise it’s upbeat but hey, I write dark stuff. Closet goth, me.