And I still believe that everyone,
Can find a song for every time they’ve lost
and every time they’ve won
— Frank Turner, I Still Believe
I know I’m not alone when I say I rely on music not only to help me express my feelings, but also to avoid doing so. As a result, it tends to play an important part in my writing process, because I need it to evoke the moods I need for characters and to get a handle on who they are as people.
It’s important to my own life, though. It charts my friendships as they rise and fall — marks my good days and my bad days, helps me say the things I don’t otherwise know how to say. Sometimes I’ll hear a line, and it’ll resonate so perfectly with whatever I feel that I just have to listen to it over and over again.
Let me tell you about a guy I used to know. I’m going to refer to him as Alec. It’s not his real name, because this is a very public forum and I don’t make a habit of talking about people I know in any detail, and this post is unusual because I don’t usually talk about things quite as personal unless there’s some reason you guys might need to know. But I’m illustrating a point.
Throughout this post, there will be lyrics from the songs I’m using, but they’re only a small part of the song, and you should listen to the whole thing to get a clear idea of the mood. :) If you want to, that is.
I met Alec in 2011, though we’d had mutual connections before that. It was one of those friendships that originates through unusual circumstances (a service station in France and a pair of crutches, I believe) and quickly results in something that’s way too intense for everybody involved, but maybe involves Torchwood marathons.
He was a singer-songwriter; I was a musician … from the very beginning, songs were involved in every moment of our friendship. I learned that he once broke up with a girlfriend by sending her the song I Don’t Love You by My Chemical Romance. It made me feel infinitely less guilty about anything I did after that, because seriously, that is unpleasant. Who even does that?
But I was young and ridiculously easy to flatter, and because he reminded me of somebody I cared a lot about, I began to think I might have feelings for him. I tried to drop hints. I wasn’t very subtle. I sent him the song A Decent Cup Of Tea by Frank Turner.
And I slip this information
Into all our conversations
But she never seems to listen
And she never seems to see.
It turned out that our awkward maybe-feelings were mutual, and for a little while, it seemed like something was going to happen between us, which would have been bad for a number of reasons.
It didn’t take long, though, for our friendship to become something a lot more like Tap At My Window by Laura Marling instead. Like I said, I was fairly young at this point — changeable, confused, and easily influenced. Even so, I quickly clocked that actually, Alec and I was never going to work out in any way, shape or form. I mean, the idiotic fifteen-year-old part of me that turned towards affection like a flower to sunlight figured it would, but the rest of me firmly said, “No.”
As did I. He wasn’t very good at listening to things like that.
He taps at my window,
Willing that I’ll let him in.
I don’t think I will though
My heart’s taken I won’t tell him again.
I made it pretty clear that I didn’t want any sort of romantic relationship, but that didn’t mean his feelings went away. Unfortunately, neither did his complete inability to understand the concept of boundaries or personal space, and I began to feel kind of uncomfortable.
Our friendship endured for quite a long time, even if there were moments where I wasn’t too happy, but as my understanding of our friendship and the emotional manipulation that had been involved in it grew, as well as the slightly dubious consent issues, I couldn’t ignore what had happened earlier on. It was autumn of 2013, and this bitterness and anger was getting to be a bit too much.
And then a song came on when I had my Spotify on shuffle that completely blew me away because it seemed to reflect the strength of those emotions, all the fury and resentment I was feeling, and I knew I couldn’t live with that hanging over me any more. That song was Song In This Book by The Jane Austen Argument.
I don’t know how you justify your predatory nature to all other folk
It seems to me that it’s much easier to be the masked rider than the wheels or the spokes
I can’t forgive and I can’t forget I just relive and occasionally regret
It was because of this song that I finally found the courage to cut off our friendship completely, which actually involved me flipping out and then Alec never replied to my messages
because he’s an absolute coward and we haven’t spoken since December. There was a line in the song which said, “But I’ll propose a toast to you anyway, cos ten months later, I’m OK!” and that made me realise that I wasn’t okay but I could be, and maybe letting go of that anger could help.
It took me two years. A bit longer. But I’d say I’m doing okay.
There are so many other songs that highlight how I feel about him — a song by Emily Barker & The Red Clay Halo with the line, “thank you for the good times, damn you for the bad“, for example. These three serve to chart the progress right from the summer of 2011 until the end of 2013, and they also serve to help me explain the main thing which was the point of this post.
When I’m writing, I try and chart the relationships of my characters through songs. I make playlists for individual characters, but I’m also in the process of putting together playlists for the specific relationships within the novels. The song Skulls by Bastille works perfectly for two characters in the Death and Fairies series:
When all of our friends are dead and just a memory,
we’ll lie side by side, it’s always been just you and me
Tracking the development of relationships like this serves to help me pinpoint the central focal points of how they feel about each other — if there’s a lyric that stands out and makes me think it’s about them, I need to know why. The lines above work because these two characters are immortal, and a large part of their relationship is a sort of desperation to find somebody who isn’t going to die of old age while they’re perpetually youthful. It helps me to bear that in mind when I’m writing.
And I also use music to define my characters. I know that Mel from later in the series likes Muse. I know that Alys likes traditional folk songs. Their playlists reflect their taste as well as my own, and I try and think about the environment they come from. My playlist for The Quiet Ones has a lot of angry, rebellious music, but it’s also primarily modern. There’s a lot of Frank Turner on there. I figured it was a safe bet for a novel about university students. Whereas many of the Death and Fairies character playlists are more varied, as a lot of the characters are immortal or long-lived, and their taste would be broader.
So I pay attention to that as much as whether the song seems to be about them. It’ll be on a playlist for one of two reasons: it fits the character or relationship perfectly, or it seems like something they would choose to listen to. Music reminds me that they’re people in the way that I’m a person — I have music taste, likes and dislikes, and sometimes I hear a lyric and it perfectly sums up how I feel about somebody else in my life.
I’m working on transferring my playlists to something that’s shareable, but given that a lot of the songs I include are unavailable on YouTube or Soundcloud, it’s limited to Spotify. If you have an account, you can follow me as I build a collection of songs to sum up all those characters and feelings.
Do you use music to make sense of your life and your feelings and, if you write, your characters? Let me know — I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments. And if you have the opportunity, please check out the songs I mentioned here. They’re good songs — The Jane Austen Argument is a band that definitely needs more attention.