When I’m writing, I listen to music. I can barely type a word without it. Music helps me focus. Occasionally, I’ll use music to steer my emotional response towards a certain tone in my writing, but more usually, I simply need a soundscape filling the space in my head. I tend to avoid music with vocals – or rather, if there is someone singing, I prefer the vocal to blend tonally with the track.

I’ve returned to some records endlessly over the years. I’ve listened to Mogwai‘s Come On Die Young literally thousands of times. I’ve spent entire weeks working to the British Sea Power back catalogue on repeat – or Arcade FireArab Strap, Throwing Muses, The Antlers or Godspeed You Black Emperor.

All these bands have similar musical themes: they drone and fuzz, they soar and soothe – but ultimately, the music they create is cohesive, regular or continuous. Their albums tend to run without breaks or interruptions, creating sonic soundscapes. Call it post-rock – call it what you like – it works for me. It helps me tune out and focus on the story.

I develop different soundtracks for different projects. My 2008-2009 novel-length prose-poem Meat was soundtracked almost exclusively by Godspeed You Black Emperor’s 2-disc, 4-track epic album Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven!, while first novel The Visitors was heavy on Mogwai and British Sea Power (two of Flora’s favourite bands). As I moved from writing to editing and redrafting, the soundtrack changed, and I built a playlist that was energetic and snappy; exactly what I needed to fuel my 12-hour redrafting sessions.

Now I’ve started work on my second novel, the music has changed again. At the moment, if I listen to Mogwai or BSP – as much as I love them both – it takes me back into The Visitors. So I need something new, at least while I’m making the transition from one novel to another. Even as I’m feeling out a fresh vocabulary, I’m developing a different soundtrack. While working on Grisleymires, I’ve been listening to a lot of Beirut, Bat For Lashes, The Antlers and Super Furry Animals. Thanks to Last FM, I’ve discovered Portico Quartet, Hidden Orchestra and Bersarin Quartett, all whom play organic, slightly sinister trip-hoppy movie-type soundtracks. At the other end of the spectrum, childhood favourites Crowded House are also back on the stereo, though I’m not totally certain why, as they go against all the conditions I suggested above; but they just fit, and that’s fine. Most startling (to me) is that I found myself wanting the sound of wind chimes to work to, and downloaded an hour-long track of chimes and trees designed for meditation. I can’t see it lasting, but for now, it helps me into the world of my story.

Does anyone else need music to work? Who and what soundtracks your writing?

9 thoughts on “Soundscape

  1. You didn’t mention Marihiko Hara – a great artist to write to (and not nearly well enough known). You’d love Do Make Say Think, especially ‘Other Truths’. But if you’re going the Beirut direction with this book, I cannot recommend A Hawk And A Hacksaw enough (Zach Condon from Beirut is involved with them). Heliopause are in the Antlers area as well, worth checking out.

  2. Ah! I do love Marihiko Hara – I’m sure there are others I’ve forgotten, too. Will definitely check out Hawk & Hacksaw – I think my friends in madcap nu-folk troupe Dan Haywood’s New Hawks supported them last year. Heliopause sound good too. Do you have repeated favourites when writing, Iain, or does the music change?

  3. Different sorta writing, but when I was doing my thesis I listened to a lot of Rachels (Systems/Layers) Stars Of The Lid and some Labradford(mostly E Luxo So). I find I need to have some auditory input in order to focus, and these all have subtle builds and shifts that help me move on when the thinking slows. I listened to a lot of Peter Broderick too, which is a bit more songy, but is still the musical equivalent of being slowly pushed downstream while floating on your back. On the rare occasions I need to do this kind of focussed work now, I still reach for these faves. Do Make Say Think are very similar to these really, but for some reason I associate them with whisky and mood lighting rather than hard work, so might be a risky one to pick. Hawk and A Hacksaw would be much too brash for me I think (at least the recordings I have), though they are brilliant.

    Marihiko Hara. I shall investigate.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations, Jon – I’ll have a listen on Last FM next time I’m writing. Any association with whisky is NOT WRONG.

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