Thursday, June 21, 2007

What's Alan hearing?

I'm actually giving "Top Chef" a try this season, but I was out last night eating actual cuisine instead of watching it, so a post on that will have to wait until tomorrow. So in between watching summer programming for work and fleshing out my next "Freaks and Geeks" post, it feels like the time is right for another open thread question:

What music helps get your creative juices flowing?

I'm the kind of guy who has trouble doing any kind of task without some secondary audio or video stimuli. Can't drive without the radio on (usually with a podcast or audiobook these days), can only be bothered to clean up a room if I have the TV on in the background, etc. Writing is especially tough in this regard, because I need songs that are going to make me feel inspired in some way, without distracting me from the thoughts I'm trying to form.

For the first few weeks of this "Sopranos" season, I was struggling to find the right artist/album/playlist to have on as I was writing each Rewind column. Then, around episode 3 or 4, I chose "Boys and Girls in America" by The Hold Steady and the writing came faster and easier than it had for any previous episode. So for the rest of the season, my ritual would be the same: watch the show, talk about it with my wife for a few minutes, think some more on my own, then hunker down in my favorite chair, plug in the headphones and cue up the opening chords of "Stuck Between Stations." Usually I'd have the bulk of the column (first draft, anyway) done before I had to switch over to one of the other two Hold Steady albums. Like a superstitious athlete, I ain't trying another playlist on deadline until this one fails to prevent writer's block.

So that's what's carrying me at the moment. Whether you write, draw, analyze, invent, whatever, is there a particular artist or type of music that helps you get the job done?

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm actually disappointed to hear that you're watching Top Chef instead of Project Runway.

As I recall, you usually avoid Runway and give the fashion writer the opportunity to write about it.

As somebody who doesn't give a damn about fashion, I find Runway endlessly fascinating. (And I hate Top Chef!)

Alan Sepinwall said...

I care a lot more about food than I do about fashion.

Dark Tyler said...

Dude, I love The Hold Steady!

That said, whenever I sit down to writer something that demands my full attention (and because I have the exact same condition you describe, absolutely needing some music in the background) I usually go with whatever I have recently added to my iTunes, excluding any full albums by people I really love. Shuffling through Top 40 stuff is at the same time giving me something to listen to, while at the same time is not that distracting because it is just, you know, MTV music. Win-win.


Also, Project Runway is the single best reality show ever. I'm a straight guy who knows absolutely nothing about fashion, and yet this thing is the most addictive thing on TV. What the frak?

Alan Sepinwall said...

I don't want to let the discussion get derailed by this point, so I'll say what I always say about Project Runway: I admire the hell out of it, but I don't care about the subject matter, at all. I'm sorry.

Jefferson said...

Right now, I have some Dilana and Storm Large tracks playing on YouTube / iTunes in the background. Plus Storm just came out with a new EP/CD called Ladylike, Side One which is available on iTunes. May not exactly get the creative juices flowing, but more nostalgia from a year ago.

Dark Tyler said...

Sorry about that. The "What the frak?" in the end was referring to the show's quality, not to your opinion about it! :)

RP said...

Nice to encounter some other fans of The Hold Steady. Saw them in L.A. last month; great show. Jesse Malin covered them last night in L.A., too.

As for music to write by, today's press releases are being hacked out to an iTunes mix which includes Arcade Fire's "Neon Bible," The Hold Steady's "Boys and Girls in America," half of Okkervil River's "Black Sheep Boy," Warren Zevon's "Excitable Boy" reissue, a half-dozen tracks from Tom Waits' "Orphans" box set, a little Lucinda Williams, some obligatory Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen, Jesse Malin's "Glitter in the Gutter" (although "Fine Art" and "The Heat" were better), Nick Cave's "Lay Me Low" track (to the consternation of the colleague who sits outside my office), the title track to Cat Stevens' "Tea for the Tillerman" (yes, I like "Extras"), much Pearl Jam and Elvis Costello, and, last but not least, as always, plenty of Bruuuuuuuce.

Anonymous said...

I'd never heard of The Hold Steady, so I looked them up on Youtube and found one of their videos. For some reason now all I can think about is Kevin and his band Scrantonicity.

Anonymous said...

I'm a writer too, and I like to cue up the piano-based music and pretend I'm playing along.

Jenn said...

It depends on the writing, for me -- when I'm working on creative pieces, in particular, I find that songs that have a "storyline" are often the most helpful; so Ben Folds music is pretty good. Recently, I can't get enough of Arcade Fire's "Neon Bible" album -- lots of instruments and rhythm changes, but also some great lines that just set my mind spinning.

Great question (and great blog, since this is my first comment).

Dark Tyler said...

I find Arcade Fire impossible to hear while reading/writing. Every time one of their songs comes up, I instinctively stop writing/reading and start paying attention to the lyrics. I saw them in London in April; I cried while they were playing "Ocean of Noise". Such powerful music.

Lily Allen, yeah, perfect music for writing. And what about Regina Spektor? Her more jazzy moments help keep me inspirational when I write. You just can't produce crap when her sounds are inside your ear.

Craig said...

Alan, you might enjoy Loudon Wainwright's "Strange Weirdos," a sort-of soundtrack to "Knocked Up."

David J. Loehr said...

Depends on the work. With creative writing, it's usually some jazz, preferably Roy Hargrove or Christian McBride, maybe Matt Lawson or (early) Miles Davis, occasionally some classical, but mainly music that I can't sing along with. If I'm outlining, that's different, I'll listen to music that works thematically with whatever I'm writing.

For design work, it's more eclectic, sometimes Bruce Cockburn, Barenaked Ladies, Pink Martini (a small group in Oregon, they're delightful and literally all over the map), Paul Simon (alone and with Art), Beatles, or again maybe music that's directly tied into the project. If it's a show where I've already designed the pre-show music, I'll usually listen to that to get in the mood.

One of my actress friends just went on a month-long tour and used Arcade Fire's new album as a way to calm down after each show; it was not a good tour, childrens' puppet theatre with tough crowds and small venues, a long story. But she's gotten me interested in them as a result.

Carrie said...

Nowadays when I write I usually just listen to my iTunes on shuffle -- lots of Old 97s, Ryan Adams, Alejandro Escovedo, Wilco, etc. (Can you tell I like alt-country?) But back in school when I would write screenplays and scenes I would always, always, always listen to Dave Matthews Band. Something about their music just made the words flow. Granted, this was back in 2000 so take that recommendation with a grain of salt, but there it is.

Kat said...

I've been hearing a lot about The Hold Steady, I'll have to give them a listen.

What I listen to when I'm writing always depends on what kind of writing I'm doing. When I write fiction I tend to favour folky, earnest music. One favourite is Feist. I just got her new album. I love to hear songs for the first time while I write.

I usually just put iTunes on shuffle if I'm working on a blog entry or a paper for school, and skip through whatever comes up. I like a lot of mellow-ish stuff, and lately I'm loving Brett Dennen and Camera Obscura. It changes all the time.

Rick said...

When I'm working I need music that is loud, fast and hooky. Listening to something like Acarde Fire or Wilco doesn't seem to work because I tend to zone out. Lately I've been listening to this band The Long Blondes (their new record is called "Someone To Drive You Home"). They sound like punk-era Blondie and do a great job at keeping me zeroed in.

And for the sake of talking music on a TV-blog... everyone should listen to the LCD Soundsystem cover of "All My Friends" by Franz Ferdinand. It's the best song I've heard in months.

JMags said...

Put the radio on and listen to either the Joey Reynolds Show or Coast to Coast with George Noory.

stevie said...

I find music that's nearly storytelling to be best for writing: Ryan Adams/Whiskeytown, The Hold Steady, Belle and Sebastian...stuff that could easily be a novel in music form. Oh, and the Rolling Stones.

Julie said...

I'm the same way about secondary noise in the background while I work. For me, I have an XM Radio hookup in my office. I'm all over the map as to what I like to listen to during the day and it gives me options. A little CNN in the morning, then some alternative from the 90's to get me through till lunch. Afternoon is sometimes a combo of talk radio and newer-release stuff. Great question. I'm gonna download some tunes from these suggestions tomorrow.

Kristin said...

The Next Food Network Star is actually pretty entertaining. Never tried Top Chef. Look forward to hearing if it's worth my time someday...

Did you hear about Boston Rob's new show? With the *lovely* name of "Tontine." Something about a 100-day race with $10 million as the prize.

TL said...

The Hold Steady is the best band around. You must catch them in concert if you haven't already.

As far as other bands, second the new Arcade Fire (never got into Funeral so much, but mostly because the opening track was so great that I'd keep listening to it and never make it any further). There's a 9ish disc bootleg with a live recording of every song played on the Springsteen/Seeger Sessions tour if you're a fan. A friend gave me a few CDs of The Apples in Stereo which are pretty good. I'm mezzo-mezzo on the new Bright Eyes, Fountains of Wayne, and the Shins (although I'm a minority on that last one).

Anonymous said...

Clearly not your blog's strong suit. Get back to tv!

Alan Sepinwall said...

I'm mezzo-mezzo on the new Bright Eyes, Fountains of Wayne, and the Shins (although I'm a minority on that last one).

Fountains of Wayne is my favorite current band, but for some reason their stuff doesn't do it for me when it comes to writing. Maybe if I put together a playlist of their best stuff, I don't know.

Jim Monaghan said...

Podcasts & books? I was sure you listened to WDHA for inspiration. ;)

Not sure how inspirational they might be, but the latest from Snow Patrol, the Fray and Glen Phillips have been consistently in the CD player in my car for weeks.

velvetcannibal said...

Excellent question. I agree with those who say the emotional tone of the music affects their writing, but I do have a few old reliables that I use:

The Kinks- Ultimate Collection. The songs are short enough, it keeps moving, and it works for me.

David Bowie, the Romeo & Juliet soundtrack, Billie Holiday, Garbage, Bjork, Beck, Gipsy Kings.

With rare exceptions, I can't write to newly discovered (by me) music. The songs have to be so ingrained that I focus in and out as I'm working and take breaks during my favorite parts.

Tosy And Cosh said...

I can't listen to anything with lyrics while writing. It's not just a matter of listening to the words, either - I can't listen to operas in other languages either. So for me it's either classical music (Mahler, Beethoven, John Adams, Philip Glass) or film scores (I come back often to the scores to A Beautiful Mind, The Hours, and Lost while writing a lot).

Withnail said...

When doing creative writing, I just put Lou Reed's "Street Hassle" on repeat. Works every time.

Taleena said...

I second Pink Martini, they're great. I also love Me First and the Gimme Gimmeies.

I am happy to see you are giving Top Chef a go. This season seems to have brought back a quality level present in the first season that was not in evidence in the train wreck second season. That is, these chefs seem to have a level of professionalism.

Plus I went to high school with one of the contestants and it is a strange blast from the past.

Homertojeebus said...

Alan,
I am currently "putting the needle back" on a track from the "Rize" soundtrack called "Break it on Down(Battlezone)" Even if you don't like hip-hop, you gotta love this song, it's very cinematic.
I listen to a lot of very different stuff, but for inspiration, I like music that has that same cinematic quality, like Wendy/Walter Carlos, The Who, "Double Uh-Oh" by George Clinton, "Sleepwalk" by Richie Valens.

Homertojeebus said...

By the way, Alan, I am currently watching 3 cooking competish shows, Top Chef, Hell's Kitchen, and Next Food Network Star. For me, this is the perfect marriage of genre and subject matter. Of the 3, HK is the least well-produced, but we get a kick out of Gordon and call each other "donkeys" for a few days after each ep.

Figgsrock2 said...

I must admit I find it hard to write to the Hold Steady--I just want to get up from the keyboard, pump my fist and sing along.

I have found myself doing quite a bit of work to the new Wilco album. I think it works so well because I find most of the songs strangely uplifting and comforting.

filmcricket said...

I'm impressed by all the people who can listen to music while writing. I suppose I could have classical music or opera on but I don't, usually, and anything else would be too distracting. I can't have any music with lyrics on while reading either. Most of my music listening these days happens to-ing and fro-ing from work.

Margaret said...

I prefer the silence that only happens in the dead of night when all the house is asleep. This includes telephones, delivery people, and the sounds of my neighbors with their big trucks that they leave idling for 20 mintues at a time. So, music, which must exist always in the background during the rest of the day, and especially in the car, is also sleeping while I write.

On the rare occasions when I do have music, it should be wordless.
Joe Satriani.

The rest of the day it's Jack Johnson, the "Zen Cafe" series, and a multitude of choices on XM sat. radio.

PLEASE give Joe Satriani a listen, if you don't know his works, Alan. And listen to several since all his pieces are different - some hard, some quiet, some rockin' - absolutely every color from one of the greatest living guitarists ever.