Samantha Leach’s The Elissas is much more than personal memoir, the book examines the social pressures affecting young women with intelligence and clarity.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
“An intimate, moving narrative peppered with harsh statistics, love, angst, and the author’s own admirable vulnerability.”
Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Quietly Hostile author Samantha Irby about her writer’s routine. When the conversation made its way to music, and whether or not she writes with any playing, her answer spoke to the depths of my soul. “I listen to the same song until it blends into a wall of noise,” Irby told me. Though I had never articulated it so poetically, that’s more or less what I’ve been trying to achieve with music ever since I first started writing. Listening to the same few songs — which, more often than not, are off Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago album — until they fade into the background. Letting the melodies create something like a forcefield around me, barely visible but always there.
Not all of the songs below help me to achieve that state. Some of them are more of the “pump up” variety. Using them to drop into certain emotions, perspectives, periods of time, and memories. But together these were the collection of songs that powered me through my ruts, frustrations, and ultimately, the completion of The Elissas.
Wild Horses by the Rolling Stones
Before I learned just how difficult it is to secure the rights to a Rolling Stones song, “Wild Horses” was meant to be the epigraph to The Elissas. Particularly the lyrics,
Is easy to do
The things you wanted
I bought them for you
You know who I am
You know I can’t let you
Slide through my hands
Wild horses Couldn’t drag me away
Wild, wild horses Couldn’t drag me away.
“Wild Horses” is the song most synonymous with my grief over Elissa. It’s what I listened to, repeatedly, in the months after she first died. And eight years later, when I sat down to write The Elissas, the song was what dropped me into that headspace fastest, allowing its rhythms to lure me back to the page. But I think my relationship to the song can best be summarized by a line I wrote in a freshman year creative writing course: Wild Horses ran on a loop and swallowed me whole.
L.G. FUAD by Motion City Soundtrack
The track that served as the soundtrack to my MySpace page; mine and Elissa’s favorite throughout our eighth grade year. By middle school we’d gotten into “emo music” and Motion City Soundtrack and Taking Back Sunday were the bands we loved the most. But something about the severity of “L.G. FUAD’s” lyrics — and even just the title, an abbreviation of let’s get fucked up and die — felt like the answer to our angsty, disaffected prayers.
Young And Beautiful by Lana Del Rey
As I wrote The Elissas, I often thought about what music Elissa would’ve liked had she still been alive today. Time and time again, I came back to Lana Del Rey. I imagine that Elissa would’ve been obsessed with Born to Die (as I had been), and would’ve fallen in love with A$AP Rocky after they released their “National Anthem” video. (Also guilty.) But when it came time to write to Del Rey, there was no escaping “Young And Beautiful.” The big, bold, brassiness of it. The quite literal preoccupation with youth and beauty. It just felt like the physical embodiment of Elissa in Del Rey’s discography.
Champagne Supernova by Matt Pond PA
So much of my The Elissas playlist falls under the category I call “The O.C. soundtrack stolen valor.” The O.C. couldn’t have loomed larger in mine and Elissa’s adolescence. Josh Schwartz, the show’s creator, grew up in Providence, Rhode Island and went to the same school and temple we did. The series redefined the concept of appointment television for us, and after each episode I’d log onto iTunes (or whatever music platform I was using at the time) and download every song they’d featured. I’ve always been a sucker for covers, and this one really stuck with me over the years. Is it embarrassing to admit that I might like it more than the original?
No Love by Eminem
This was the song that allowed me to access Alissa. The song came out around the time the three girls were at Ponca Pines and Alissa found the lyrics —throw dirt on me and grow a wildflower — to be a metaphor for her life. The lyrics were included in the speech that was read to Alissa at her graduation, were written all over her Facebook page, and came up time and time again in the conversations I had with her family and friends. So when I’d kick off a chapter centered on Alissa, I’d often play the song to get into her mindset.
Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana
During Alyssa’s time in California, she became obsessed with Nirvana. As I write in The Elissas, “Same as Alyssa did, in her god worship of Kurt Cobain and his commitment to drugs. Molding herself in his image. Telling friends she didn’t think she’d make it to thirty, and that she wasn’t even entirely sure she’d want to.” While I’m not sure if it was the music itself she loved, or just the image of Cobain as the patron saint of despair, but listening to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” allowed me to capture the emotional state Alyssa was in while she was at Sober College.
Across the Universe by Fiona Apple
Sometime during the writing process, I started feeling burnt out by the music I was listening to. So I begged a friend of mine, Vogue writer Keaton Bell, to make me a new playlist and he did not disappoint. He included songs like “Lost in the Supermarket” by The Clash, “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus and Mary Chain, and “Change” by the Lightning Seeds. But it was Fiona Apple’s “Across the Universe” that ultimately got me back in my groove. Did I mention that I like covers?
For Emma by Bon Iver
At some point in college I picked up the habit of writing to Bon Iver. I’m not the kind of person who can write to just ambient noise, but Bon Iver’s music feels close enough to that I can essentially tune it out. (Not that I want to! I love Bon Iver! Justin Vernon, I promise I mean this as a compliment.) Over the years I’ve come to rely on For Emma, Forever Ago as my secret weapon. The thing that I put on when I need to get down to business, and something about the album compels me to write. So thank you, Justin Vernon!
Samantha Leach is the entertainment editor at large at Bustle. She has also written for Glamour, Elle, NYLON, and many other publications. The Elissas is her first book.