My first novel The Sunlit Night took six years to write. One of those years I spent alone on an island in the Norwegian Sea — companionship was at an all-time low. I used music to keep me moving and focused. The particular artists on this list lent a commiserating warble to my despair, and a celebratory beat to my triumphs. They gave me words to sing when I had none to write.
The island where I lived lay 95 miles above the Arctic Circle, so when winter fell, the sun vanished. It didn’t rise for months. To keep myself sane in the darkness, I committed to a daily dance schedule: I choreographed a 30-second dance to a different song each day, and performed it — to no one — each night, in a different part of the large community building where I lived alone. Ciara on the staircase; Robyn on the back porch, out in the blue-black snow. Their voices were particularly stirring when played against that incredible Nordic silence.
Whether you’re alone in the Arctic or camped out in a Brooklyn café, whether your writing process demands quiet, white noise, ocean sounds, or R&B, it’s important to nurture your vibe. Book-building is hard work; these artists will restore you, some through their tenderness and others through their vigor.
Laura and I "got started" around the same time, and in the six years it's taken me to write one book, she's released five full-length albums. I have followed her journey and her music obsessively: from her eerie and exquisite performance of “New Romantic” as a 17-year-old, to her current runaway success. Laura has the face of a seraph and the gravitas of a sorceress. Her presence is luminous and soothing, and when she chants that "birds are singing to calm us down," I feel reassured from on high.
I like to listen to Rachmaninoff while writing on overcast days, particularly the Preludes. They’re by turns stormy and mellow, lush and delicate, violent and sweet. Their lyricism and solemnness make them some of the most powerful music I know.
Ciara is the best gyrator. Her dancing
is pure athleticism, and her videos have taught me how to turn a construction
site into a dance floor (a book is both, mid-writing). It’s inspiring to watch
her decadent majesty run uninterrupted from classics like “Oh” to this spring’s
The Dirty Projectors wail out harmonies
and ascending melody lines that build until the day feels brighter. Their basic
aspiration is to soar. Even when singing about perseverance, they’re ecstatic:
“After all that we’ve been through, I know we’ll make it, I know the way.”
Robyn’s confetti leggings, pink platform
sneakers, furry sweater, and platinum pixie make everything better, every time.
The sight of her twirling in the disco lights, belting out “Call Your
Girlfriend,” or slamming her fists in the power-aerobic section of “Dancing On
My Own,” brings hope to the soul and a beat to the body.
"I'm gonna make a mistake, I'm gonna
do it on purpose." "Fast as you can." "And then we can do
anything we want." These are the dictates of a woman who dares. I find it
especially energizing to watch the video footage from her 2012 SXSW performance:
she’s wearing neon pink under black lace, she’s full of admiration for her
band, she’s pounding the piano and killing the audience with her giant blue
eyes, she’s completely focused, and she’s ferocious.
If I’m stuck, I spend a few minutes with
Gillian Welch. “Oh I wanna do right, but not right now.” She knows what it’s
like to start, and stop, and start, and stop. She sings of ambition and failure
with a wise, patient edge.
Both visually and musically, St.
Vincent's aesthetic is surrealist, thistly, and audacious. She’s an outright
rock star with a hyper-intellectual lyric sense. Her company makes me feel
electric even when I’m in the most lonely and unglamorous moments of writing.
James Blake's cover of Joni Mitchell's
"A Case of You" makes a powerful case for how much men and women can
share. Same goes for his cover of Feist’s “Limit to Your Love.” His own songs
are so breathtakingly vulnerable and seductive, I regularly turned to them when
I needed to reinvigorate my novel’s love story.
Lisa's warm voice famously accompanied Damien Rice on his album O, but her solo work is even sweeter and more nourishing to the solitary writer. She sings about distance, travel, and longing as effectively as Robert Hass writes of it: “Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances.” Hannigan is a graceful companion when there’s a long way to go.
Images: Courtesy of Bloomsbury; Getty Images (10)