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Novel Soundtrack: A Writers' Playlist

Updated: Nov 9, 2018

I can't write without music. I know a lot of authors prefer quiet when they're working and, don't get me wrong, when I'm editing I like to do that in silence, but when I'm writing, when I'm creating, I need music (in fact, as I write this blog, I'm listening to Clint Mansell's soundtrack to the San Junipero episode of Black Mirror).

So, when I'm 'soundtracking' my books, what do I listen to? Below is a sample playlist – and I have many – that accompanies me when I'm at the keyboard. It's important to note that music doesn't play a 'background' role in my writing; it's not there as aural wallpaper, it informs my ideas, it inspires characters and plot points and, in short, it helps my writing live. So sit back, put your headphones on and hit play. We're going to take a trip...

To kick things off, it's 1997, but a future alternative 1997. Society has broken down and only a man named Snake Plissken can save the President from the maximum security prison that is New York City. John Carpenter's Theme from Escape from New York is the perfect playlist opener. From its heart-thump synthesised drum rhythm to its repetitive, computerised orchestral strings that build and fade throughout, nobody's better at creating music that at once sounds futuristic, yet unmistakeably embedded in the electronic machine music of the late 70s and early 80s.

From there we move on to Auto Rock, taken from the 2006 album Mr Beast, by Scottish band Mogwai. I find Mogwai's music great to write to; it has so much emotional depth and melodic intricacy that you never tire of trying to unpick the meaning in their wall of sound. I listened to Mr Beast at lot, and Auto Rock in particular, when I was writing Archie's Mirror. There's a moment in that book when Archie and his strange party of companions are making a journey across the mysterious and dangerous Land Beyond, and this track really fitted the beat of the montage scene that was cutting together in my mind.

Next there's Whitewater by Let's Eat Grandma (how about that name for all you punctuation and grammar fans out there?). Let's Eat Grandma are a ridiculously talented pair of 19 year olds and their output is hard to categorise – but they like to refer to it as sludge-pop. Whitewater is the opening track of their second LP, I'm All Ears, and sounds like the theme to an, as yet unmade, Blade Runner short. Which leads us on nicely to...

...2049, Hans Zimmer's opener to the Blade Runner sequel. I know a few purists out there are probably crying foul that I should have gone for Vangelis's original, but I love the way that Zimmer takes samples and elements of that brilliant score to create something unique and new.

By the mid-point, the playlist takes an unexpected change in direction. After all the instrumental and soundtrack stuff, it's time to add some lyrics in the form of the closing track to Spiritualized's classic, Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating In Space. Cop Shoot Cop begins with a loopy, bass-y, piano refrain that fades pretty quickly before coming back in louder and stronger. This hypnotic vibe continues until the whole thing breaks down into a gloriously chaotic racket about halfway through, before regaining its sanity towards the end. It's fabulously evocative, endlessly inventive, and comes in at a, not inconsiderable, 17 minutes. It's a ride for which you really have to strap yourself in.

Pitter Patter is taken from DJ Shadow's album The Mountain Will Fall and is a chillingly haunting tune backed by the strangest collection of bleeps and gated samples that it makes your brain spin. By rights it shouldn't work at all, but it does...beautifully.

No playlist of mine is ever truly complete without a something from Prestwich's favourite adopted son, Mark E Smith, and his mighty Fall. Blindness is a track that takes no prisoners. Beginning with a thumping drum-beat and probably the greatest rumbling bassline of all time, Blindness sees Smith at his savant street-poet best, lamenting the blind man he sees and talking about 'cavalry...and Calvary'. It's a stone cold classic.

Heading into the final act, Black Screen from LCD Soundsytem's American Dream LP builds over some 12 minutes of drums, guitar and electronic beats. It's a song that's full of potency, a song that you know is leading you somewhere (you just don't know where), and once you arrive you don't know whether you'll be laughing or crying.

With its looped Zombies sample (from She's Not There) and lyrics from Bessie Smith's St Louis Blues, About Her is a mash-up of old blues and classic 60s psychedelia, given a contemporary shuffle by Malcolm McClaren. Perhaps best known for heralding the beginning of the end of Tarantino's Kill Bill Volume Two, it plays a similar role in our soundtrack as it leads us into...

...Song To The Siren, by This Mortal Coil. Who doesn't like, on occasion, to walk out of the movie theatre with a tear in your eye? As we hit the end of this playlist, this writers' soundtrack, this song doesn't so much tug at your heartstrings, as bend them completely out of shape. Originally written by Tim Buckley, This Mortal Coil's version is probably the most famous, marrying Elizabeth Fraser's vocals to a strange and discordant melodic backing that transports the listener to somewhere mysterious and new.

So that's my writers' playlist.

Ten songs coming in at just over an hour. Ten songs that inspire in me creativity and ten songs that lift me from wherever I am and take me to where I need to be. You may agree with this list, but more likely you won't - and in those cases I'd love to hear your alternatives.

Keep on writing. Keep on listening. And most importantly...remember to play loud!

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