In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Maggie Smith’s You Could Make This Place Beautiful is a powerful memoir of loss and the healing powers of beauty.
Booklist wrote of the book:
Smith opens her heart like a book, dog-earing moments both painful and joyous…Smith’s conjuring of beauty through pain and her special blend of vulnerability and encouragement go down like a healing tonic.
In her own words, here is Maggie Smith’s Book Notes music playlist for her memoir You Could Make This Place Beautiful:
My new memoir opens with an epigraph by Emily Dickinson: “I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.” I looked for years, and through chapters and chapters, without knowing what I’d find. Writing a memoir is a kind of cartography. It’s like finally seeing a map after visiting multiple discrete places in the world and having no sense of how close they are to another. When you see the map, though, you’re able to contextualize and make connections. You can see where you’ve been.
I listen to music constantly, even while writing. The songs become part of the weather; they help set the tone for the work. On my Spotify, you can find all of my public playlists, including a few for my recent books: Keep Moving, Goldenrod, and You Could Make This Place Beautiful. The YCMTPB playlist is there, along with a rollerskating playlist—“Quarantine Skate Club”—mentioned in the memoir. I annotated a handful of songs on my Substack, but I’m bringing in some new tracks here. I’m thrilled to share some of the songs that kept me company while I was out with lanterns, looking.
“Little Movies,” Aaron Lee Tasjan
I sing this part of the Aaron Lee Tasjan song to myself a lot: “But you don’t know I have seen the ending / Still I cannot look away.” “Little Movies” is gorgeous and dreamy, the way Elliott Smith and Brian Wilson songs are gorgeous and dreamy, with plenty of reverb. Thematically, the song felt like a good fit for the memoir playlist, too, because of the sections of the book on narrative itself: plot, character, setting, foreshadowing. The stories of our lives are rarely as neat as the narrative arc would have us believe.
“Picture of My Dress,” The Mountain Goats
When you tweet something about your wedding dress, you really don’t think John Darnielle is going to see the tweet, and you definitely don’t think he might be inspired to write a song about a divorced woman taking a road trip with her wedding dress. But life is full of surprises, some of them devastating, some of them marvelous. This song was a marvelous surprise. (Fun fact: My actual wedding dress didn’t have spaghetti straps. It was strapless. Another fun fact: I’m a vegetarian now, but in high school, I absolutely put extra mayo on my BK chicken sandwiches.)
“What Led Me To This Town,” The Jayhawks
I’ve been a Jayhawks fan since their record Hollywood Town Hall. I listened to them in high school, college, graduate school, and all these years later they’re still a band whose music I turn to often. Tomorrow the Green Grass and Sound of Lies are my two favorite records, but this song is from Smile, a close third. I love the soaring chorus: “Blue lights are shining over my life.” The song speaks to me because I’ve lived in the Columbus, Ohio, area my whole life. My kids were born in the same hospital as me, and so was my mother. In the memoir I write about the beautiful and painful parts of being rooted in a place.
“I Used to Write in Notebooks,” Rhett Miller
No spoilers here, so I won’t mention how Rhett Miller shows up in YCMTPB, but I will say this: I’ve been a fan of his solo records and his band Old 97s for many years, and I now consider him a friend. If you’re wondering, “Isn’t Maggie’s son named Rhett? Is that because she loves Rhett Miller’s music?” Yes. And yes. Also, full disclosure: I still write in notebooks. Prose I might draft on screen, but poems always begin with pen on paper.
“Now or Never Now,” Metric
Big Metric/Emily Haines fan here. This song has been on my running playlist since 2019. There are a few Metric songs on that playlist, including “Combat Baby,” but this one felt like a kind of anthem when I was going through a bitter divorce. I’d been in that relationship since I was 23 years old, almost 19 years of my life, but who was I now? What was mine? These words helped propel me through the streets of my neighborhood: “Because everything that’s under my skin/ Where I end and begin/ Still belongs to me.”
“Honey in the Wild,” Annie Nero and Josh Kaufman
I can listen to this song on repeat—can, and have, because I find it so calming, especially because of the birdsong woven into the track. (I write a little about birds and birding in the memoir.) This song is from For the Birds, a 20-LP box set of bird-inspired music and poetry, with proceeds benefiting the National Audubon Society. Some of my favorite musicians, actors, and poets are part of this project—Ross Gay, Tilda Swinton, Florence Welch, Toni Colette, Ada Limon, Ocean Vuong, Elvis Costello, Karen O, and Greta Gerwig—but the box set is so swoonworthy, I haven’t even had the courage to remove the shrinkwrap. You can stream the whole shebang.
“Graceland,” Justin Townes Earle
This was one of the lullabies I sang to my daughter Violet when she was a newborn. I was so crazed with lack of sleep that I started singing her any song I knew the words to. I’m not sure why “Graceland” came to mind, but I went with it. I slowed the song way down from Paul Simon’s bouncy original, and at that slow tempo, sung nearly at a whisper to a fussy baby, it was even more melancholy. It’s a divorce song, after all. Prescient, maybe? This cover by the late, great Justin Townes Earle is the version I listen to most often. Sometimes my son still asks me to sing him this at bedtime.
“Always Love,” Nada Surf
Matthew Caws of Nada Surf is one of my favorite singer-songwriters, and he’s also just a genuinely kind and wise human being. A few years ago, we were listening to Nada Surf here at home, as we do frequently, and my then-seven-year-old son said, “They sing a lot about love.” And then: “It protects you.” Love protects you. All kids are poets, I swear. I write a lot about love—and a lot about magical thinking—in You Could Make This Place Beautiful.
“Rainbow Connection,” Kermit the Frog
My teenage daughter made me a looooooong Spotify playlist called “hey mom.” It’s hours and hours of my favorite songs, or songs that remind her of me, and I wrote about it for the Washington Post. This is the last song on it, from The Muppet Movie. My kids tease me that all it takes is a frog with a banjo to make me cry, and I probably deserve that. Another thing that made me cry: my daughter making me my own playlist and adding this song to the end of it. I’m Gen X, so making mixes/playlists is a love language.
“Poetry,” Victoria Williams
Those of you who remember making actual mixtapes (like, on blank cassettes) know how important it was to have a stable of very short songs to fit at the end of a tape. Why let the last two minutes be blank when you could shoehorn in any number of brief songs by Guided By Voices, or “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” by The Smiths, or “This…” by Firehose, which clocks in at a cool 1:42? Back in my mixtape days, “Poetry” by Victoria Williams was a go-to. “Everything is poetry,” she sings. Yes, ma’am.
Maggie Smith is the award-winning author of You Could Make This Place Beautiful, Good Bones, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, Lamp of the Body, and the national bestsellers Goldenrod and Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change. A 2011 recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Smith has also received several Individual Excellence Awards from the Ohio Arts Council, two Academy of American Poets Prizes, a Pushcart Prize, and fellowships from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has been widely published, appearing in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Best American Poetry, and more. You can follow her on social media @MaggieSmithPoet.