Kill your bangers: Notes on making a soundtrack for a novel

The art of the score.

Alphacolor 13 / Unsplash

The best soundtrack to most novels is just the pleasing rustle of pages turning. But in the streaming age it’s not unheard of for authors to share a playlist to accompany their books. If nothing else it’s a fun bonus for the avid fan, and might even give the reader an insight into the thoughts and intentions of the author. Or just how bad their taste in music is.

My debut novel, Johnny Ruin, is about a man who takes a road trip through his own mind with Jon Bon Jovi. It’s a sad and frequently funny story about heartbreak, grief, and depression.

While I was writing the book, I thought a lot about what it sounded like. Even though the book features Jon Bon Jovi (by way of the narrator’s imagination), I knew it wouldn’t sound like his band. Not entirely anyway.

I already run a weekly mix tape newsletter. I’m not saying my taste is great, but I make playlists out of habit and enjoy the challenge of putting together a great set of songs. So when I started writing this novel in the summer of 2015, I started compiling a playlist to go with it.

When writing, I tend to listen to instrumental music. Lots of classical, film scores, and ambient stuff. This definitely had a big influence on the kinds of songs I chose for the soundtrack.

The eventual playlist has existed in a dozen versions over the past 18 months, with some songs present the whole time, and others not being locked in until the last minute.

Here’s the soundtrack I made for my novel, Johnny Ruin:

Side A

1. The Big Ship by Brian Eno
2. Atmosphere by Joy Division
3. I’m On Fire by Chromatics
4. Yes by Chromatics
5. Olympians by Fuck Buttons

Side B

6. Small Memory by Jon Hopkins
7. Cykler by Gustaf Spetz
8. Opus 26 by Dustin O’Halloran
9. Hope There’s Someone by Antony and the Johnsons
10. Wake Up by Arcade Fire

You can listen to it on Spotify.

Or on YouTube.

I think these ten songs distill best the tone of the novel, without being too on the nose, or too well known for something else. The risk of using popular songs is that they already have other contexts. They come with baggage.

Not that there aren’t popular songs in my playlist, but I think the tracks I chose manage to compliment the text without making you think about Levis jeans, or Apple products, or the famous scene in that blockbuster film.

As with all my mix tapes, distilling a mood into just ten songs (the perfect number) was no mean feat, especially with a novel of multiple moods.

Much like editing a book, editing a playlist requires patience, distance, and a bit of a ruthless streak. You have to ask yourself, is this here because I love it, or because it fits perfectly? How does it sound with the other tracks?

I’ve listened to the mix hundreds of times in the past year, interrogating every choice. In the end, I left songs by beloved musicians like Sigur Ros, Ludovico Einaudi, and The Cure on the cutting room floor.

Kill your bangers, as they like to say.

Some of the songs I ended up choosing are referenced in the text, others just capture something in a particular scene. Not that I quote any lyrics, Bon Jovi or otherwise. You have to pay for using quotes in books, and it’s expensive.

Mostly I wanted songs that wouldn’t distract me while writing, or distract you while reading. If I used Bon Jovi songs, you’d be too busy singing along to read the book. Or, I would have been too distracted to write it at least.

Some authors go as far as giving song suggestions by chapter or by scene. I’m not going into quite that level of detail. I don’t want to lead too much. I think it’s important for you to feel what you want to feel while reading.

The playlist is 35 minutes long, which is a good length to listen to in one sitting, before you take a bathroom break or grab another coffee.

So have a listen. And why not read the first chapter while you do.

P.S. I need your help! My UK publisher, Unbound, lets readers decide what books to publish. So please consider making a pre-order, it’ll really help me out. Here’s the link:

And for the fans, you can find my Bon Jovi playlist here.

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