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There is a beautiful moment when you find the perfect soundtrack to put on while you curl up with your latest book. Music can give us comfort, push us into new emotional territories, and help us really get the party started. Over the years, music has allowed queer people to speak in code, some more obvious than others (think Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover and Tutti Frutti), provide solace during trying times, and expand our understanding of the world around us. Queer musicians have been making waves for years, giving voices to each new generation. Music is able to speak in an emotional language; complementary, but distinct from prose. Let’s be honest: it’s much harder to find a book that makes you hyped up to go out to the club. But music, just like a great book, allows us to know that we are not alone.
This week, Lambda Literary explores the ways in which music and literature influence each other. These past few months, we have been speaking to musicians and writers, collecting stories about these close ties. Over the next few days, Lambda Literary will be sharing these stories with you.
We started by speaking to LGBT writers about their favorite music:
LaShonda Katrice Barnett
Barnett is the author of Jam on the Vine and the editor of I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on Their Craft, and Off the Record: Conversations with African American and Brazilian Women Musicians.
Performing songwriters distil thought and emotion with astonishing word economy, evoking mood in four minutes, a few verses; how many novels fail at this enterprise? I attempt plot-driven prose with dramatic, emotional content. While writing, my playlists sound like Advanced Craft syllabi. Songwriter Abbey Lincoln’s original lyrics are a great teacher for complexity in simplicity. And diction. Her counterpart in the acoustic world is Lucinda Williams (“Go find a jukebox and see what a quarter will do.”) Their lyrical ‘voices’ ring as distinctive as their singing voices. For metaphor, the masters — Cassandra Wilson (“Come have one little warm death with me tonight”) and Joni Mitchell (“was it hard to fold a hand you knew could win?”). Stylists par excellence Betty Carter and Anita O’Day keep my pen brave and remind me to have fun.
Classical tango soundtracks the nascent stages of a novel. I’m hooked on Piazzolla Bandoneon; moved by tunes like “Yira, Yira” which usher me into new worlds on the page and encourage a new syntactical rhythm.
Binnie is the author of Nevada.
I’ve written a monthly column for the hardcore punk paper of record (Maximum Rocknroll) for a few years now, but I don’t think I really got hardcore until Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit (G.L.O.S.S.) released their five-song demo earlier this year. It’s probably because hardcore is usually about straight white cis boy stuff, but G.L.O.S.S. songs are all anti-racist, anti-misogyny trans girl fury. They are the best and it is the most perfect eight minutes in the history of recorded music. One time I saw them play a show in a driveway.
Pauline Viardot-Garcia was one of 19th century opera’s great singers, also a composer, a voice teacher, and a pianist who regularly played four-handed with Chopin. She was the great love of Ivan Turgenev’s life, and he wrote libretti for operettas they collaborated on, which she had her students in Baden sing, for stage experience. In my new novel, The Queen of the Night, I sent my narrator to Baden to study with her. There’s one recording of her I’ve found playing Chopin’s “Nocturne Op 48, No 1 in C Minor,” at the age of 85. I can’t forget it.
A. Naomi Jackson
Jackson is the author of The Star Side of Bird Hill.
I love bassist, singer, and bandleader Meshell Ndegeocello because she is a consummate musician and boss. I grew up with Meshell’s music, from her first album, Plantation Lullabies in the early 1990s, to her most recent album for Nina Simone, Pour une âme souveraine. I’ve seen her in concert in New York City and France, and remember when “Beautiful” was my college answering machine message (I was that angsty). What I appreciate about Meshell is her prolific production, her ambitious vision for each album, her commitment to collaboration, and her ability to both have longevity and innovate at every turn.
I like Ruth Seeger, and Art Tatum, and Dalida, Callas, Prince, Sufjan whatever his name is, Britney, but since 1998 my favorite musician has been Kylie Minogue. NOT Kylie Jenner who has made noises about copyrighting the name “Kylie,” over my dead body. I have written two books inspired by Kylie Minogue, Action Kylie (a book of poetry) and also Impossible Princess (a book of stories), and worked on many collaborative projects in her honor with fellow fans from around the world. Now I’m running out of space so just listen to “Get Outta My Way” or “Tightrope,” and convert.
Marlow is the author of Two Augusts in a Row in a Row.
When I write I prefer music with few or no words: Arthur Russell playlist, John Adams’ “The Dharma at Big Sur,” Tavener’s “The Lamb,” Meredith Monk’s Impermanence, and 14th century sacred music. Songs with beautiful lyrics are catnip to me: Joanna Newsom’s “these are old blues. This is not my tune, but it’s mine to use,” Patti Smith’s “World turns cartwheels.” As I write my next book, Lou Reed’s Transformer takes me back to my lonely bedroom in 1972, with “Walk On The Wild Side” playing on a tiny transistor radio, proof that I was not the only one like me around.
When I’m not writing, Beyonce, M. Lamar, Men, Antony, William Basinski, Scott Matthew, Peaches, Alicia Mathewson, Joseph Keckler, Yoko Ono, and Fleet Foxes are on my queue.
I thought of two more: Isle of Klezbos, and the Karyn Kuhl Band.
Mathis is the author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.
It is impossible to choose my favorite song! So here’s a survey of the “Recently Played” list on my phone. Let’s see, here’s Rihanna’s “Only if For A Night,” which isn’t even a song, just a sample, because as a species, we writers are much in need of glamour. Three Wale songs, because good hip hop, like poetry, usually says what I mean but take too long to say. And there’s some of Etta James’ growling poppy blues because… well, I think growling and blues is enough of a reason. Which brings me finally to Ledisi’s version (absolutely NOT Beyonce’s) of Take My Hand Precious Lord. It is a song from which nothing is missing: pathos, triumph, wisdom, abjection, faith, transcendence. I weep every time.
Milks is the author of Kill Marguerite.
PJ Harvey taught me how to write. I return to Rid of Me and Dry again and again—spellbound by their abject desires, their big theatricality and push-pull dynamics, the layers of myth and fantasy. I wrote my erotic-horror story “Slug” listening to “Fountain” on repeat, the song’s grotesque, sluggy rhythm organizing the story’s pacing. Right now I’m reacquainting myself with “Hair,” which adopts the POV of treacherous Delilah, for a story involving hair as creeping power. I love her more recent albums, too: the freshness and reach of Let England Shake inspire me to grow (-ow-ow-ow) as an artist.
I write best while listening to unobtrusive background music. My musical favorites include the Cinemix movie music station on iTunes radio or my collection of Kamal Reiki whale songs and Ajad Reiki dolphin music. Somehow the unobtrusive rhythms soothe the inner critic in my head and allow my creative mind to focus on the page in front of me.
I am a jazz fan and was schooled in the avant-grade work of The Chicago Art Ensemble and Sun Ra. Recently I realized an identification with piano improvisers because we have a similar relationship to the keyboard. Now that I am very advanced as a writer with a broad palette I feel that I am improvising when I write. It comes from my unconscious and manifests physically through my fingers on the keys. Most recently I felt this watching Geri Allen at The Village Vanguard and also listening to Marilyn Lerner’s cd Cuba. I love Threepenny Opera and I love Teresa Stratas’s album of Kurt Weil songs. In terms of lyrics Bertolt Brecht and Joni Mitchell are so combined and embedded in how I put words together that it would be impossible to overstate their presence. I have always hated pop music and find it unbearable. The newest music that I own and enjoy is Santa Cecilia. I also listen to Beth Ditto.
Maureen T. Seaton
Seaton is the co-author (with Denise Duhamel) of Caprice.
When I blast music and sing along on the highway I’m often stuck in the seventies—young wife and mom, no time for song, head in the sandbox—reclaiming Eagles, Isleys, Stevie Wonder and Nicks. And when I play keyboards (mostly in my dreams), it’s Debussy. And when I dance slow with my sweetie, it’s Luther. And if I were stuck on an island (Manhattan) with infinite battery power and Two Boots Pizza, it would be Pat Metheny. Or Laura Nyro. Or anyone with a cello. I’d be dead without music. It’s how I write everything.
Smith is the author of [insert] boy.
If I’m being real, I am only a poet because I can’t sing that well. Music was the first poetry I knew and is still my best medicine and realest language. When making my first collection, I listened to the music of K. Raydio constantly. I was so caught up in her silky smooth voice, her attention to bare, deeply human lyrics, and her ability to make 1 song a hymn, a dirge, a party anthem, and a healing in a 4-minute span. She is my best muse, my queer sister in this unending world.
Thomas is the author of Butcher’s Road.
As with the literary genre I embrace (Horror), the music that inspires me is often dismissed, mocked, or fundamentally misunderstood. Though I listen to some pop, and I have a clichéd predisposition toward show tunes and opera, the music that accompanies and influences the creation of my work is the oft-maligned category of heavy metal (with a lot of industrial and grunge thrown into the mix).
When I was fourteen or so, I attended my first concert. After a bland and tedious opening act, the lights went down, and thirty minutes later, the tone of the evening changed dramatically. The drums. The guitars. That voice. I found myself, metaphorically speaking, in the middle of a lightning storm–all flash and thunder–but instead of feeling threatened by the tempest I found it invigorating. It was powerful and theatrical and spoke to the darker tendencies of humanity, not to celebrate or promote them, but to reveal them as naturally occurring elements of a complicated, often disturbing world. Perhaps on a different level, the fact that the lead singer was hot and dressed head-to-toe in leather added to my thrall that night. The band was Judas Priest, and though I had been a fan of hard rock prior to attending the concert, all other music sounded thin and banal after that night’s experience. Subsequently, I discovered Iron Maiden, Queensryche, Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Stone Temple Pilots, Disturbed, and dozens of other acts that created the soundtrack I needed to sit alone in darkened rooms writing stories about the supernatural and damaged humanity. The musical forms I prefer often share an emotional pallet with horror and dark fantasy, and like those literary siblings the beauty, subtlety, and resonance of the individual works can be overshadowed by the genre’s reputation or a misinterpretation of the artist’s intent.
Whatever the case, I’m not here to defend or promote metal. We all embrace the aesthetic modes that speak to us and excite us. Some folks want to be “Walking on Sunshine.” I prefer to “Walk in the Shadows.”
As an example of the sonic muse that keeps me company while I write, this recent cover version of “The Sound of Silence,” performed by Disturbed, will do nicely.