Author Playlists

Dmitry Samarov’s playlist for his book to whom it may concern

“This book came together as a side effect of my discovering collage during lockdown.”

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Dmitry Samarov’s to whom it may concern is a clever combination of collage and prose, past and present. As always, Samarov melds art and writing to magnificent results.

In his own words, here is Dmitry Samarov’s Book Notes music playlist for his book to whom it may concern:

This book came together as a side effect of my discovering collage during lockdown. While digging through drawers for ephemera to cut up and reconfigure, I started rereading some old letters. Then I decided to answer one from the present, though it was from the ’90s. I bought a Soviet-era notebook and filled it with collages made of cut-up letters and kept writing responses until I had as many as letters in the English alphabet.

I considered having someone else publish this but then found a printer in my neighborhood in Chicago who could make the book with full-color images for a price I could afford and pulled the self-publish trigger once more. So, as a result, no Amazon or Ingram or any other mass warehouse distribution deal. If you’d like a copy, this is the place.

Stream my playlist on Apple Music.

“Walk On”—Neil Young

So much of what I found in my nearly forty-year-spanning archive of letters was about misunderstanding and misapprehension. Perhaps it’s the gap between when they were written and the person I’ve now become, but I was often left with the impression that, whoever the sender, they had little idea of who the recipient was. Neil Young is known as a world-class shit starter. This song is one the best “who me? what did I do?” songs I know. If all these allegedly dear people didn’t truly know me then I must have convinced them somehow that I was someone very different. Neil probably thinks it’s always someone else’s fault, but I don’t.

“The Letter”—The Box Tops

One of the beautiful—and rapidly disappearing—pleasures of receiving an envelope in your mailbox is the sense of urgency it fills you with. It can change the direction of your entire life. I guess an email can do that too but it just doesn’t resonate the same as pen on paper. Perhaps it’s too on the nose to include this song in a playlist for a book of letters but I don’t know any other that dramatizes this emotion as well.

“Wuthering Heights”—Cécile McLorin Salvant

I never read the Brontë novel or was much of a Kate Bush fan but this cover just kills me. Letters between lovers are often about wondering what the other is doing and thinking and desperate attempts to bridge the distance separating the two writers. Emotions out of all proportion to any kind of reality.

“Idiot Prayer”—Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

I forgot I was capable of operatic over-emoting but on evidence of more than one missive in my collection, my correspondent’s answer to whatever I’d written her sometimes approached murder ballad terrain. I could find a Nick Cave song for almost any occasion but doomed love and goodbyes are specialties of the house.

“Be What You Are”—Cairo Gang

Over and over in my letters I read about wishes of what might have been or apologies for things gone wrong. Maybe because these are primarily from and to a young person, there’s rarely acceptance of the mess and flaws and baggage we all carry. This is another goodbye song but more than that it’s about being clear-eyed. I could’ve used that kind of insight in the past but we don’t get to choose when the revelations come.


Letters more often than not are about longing and missing. Almost every Acetone tune but especially this one is like pining away made manifest. It goes on and on and on. Wallowing in the feeling is what letters are all about.

“Chelsea Hotel #2″—Leonard Cohen

I wonder how many young fools checked into the Chelsea Hotel to try to playact this song, but I know at least one.

“Love Sick”—Bob Dylan

Many letters are about missing me but many others are about being over having anything to do with me. This is a great song about holding opposite feelings at once and how almost anything in the external world can remind us of whatever inner turmoil we’re going through.

“Heartbreak Hotel”—John Cale

When I was about eighteen I went to hear Cale play and his version of this song rearranged something in my head. How you could use the exact same melody and lyrics and communicate completely different emotions. It was a valuable early art lesson.

“Crazy”—Gnarls Barkley

So many letters are postmortems, reassessments, or desperate attempts to hold on to something that’s slipping away. This song makes those moments sound like a celebration. Turning the tables as a way of coping. I wish I could be this hopeful, even decades later, but it remains completely aspirational.

“I Don’t Want U”—Blonde Redhead

Rejection—whether on the giving or receiving end—runs through the letters like an active ingredient. That desire to wrap one’s head around the cold fact of someone not wanting you anymore is a thing few ever truly get over.

“Stay”—Cat Power

Another incredible cover, but in this case, I didn’t even know the original. “Cover” is the wrong name for what gifted interpreters make of others’ hits anyway. Singers make songs their own no matter who wrote them. Another song about wanting what will never be.

“Your Funny Moods”—Skip Mahoaney & The Casuals

Sometimes you have to admit it’s time to give up and leave. This song is a symphony to that. Many letters are about the acceptance of the end of an affair. But then something or someone will remind you of the ex and it sets you back, no matter how over them you’ve convinced yourself you are.

“She’s Gone”—Tindersticks

The idea that someone is better off away from me is super familiar. The attempt to control the narrative of how things ended is at once futile and necessary. 

“I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)—Chet Baker

Putting up a brave front even when you’re destroyed inside is key to survival. many of my letters detail the steps of moving on but, looked at a certain way, the fact they were written to an ex means the move is far from complete. The need to tell someone whose life you once built yours around that you’re doing just fine without them is kind of proof you’re still a mess, no?

“Lance Jr.”—Courtney Barnett

What we want or get from someone else often has nothing to do with what they have in mind for us. People use each other all the time. It’s not necessarily the worst thing in the world.

“In This Hole”—Cat Power

I used to hear this song on repeat through the closed bedroom door of someone I had very complicated feelings about. She’s been dead years now but whenever I hear it she comes right back.

“You Destroyed My Heart”—King Princess

Letters can be like pep talks for the writer. Sometimes you have to write out all kinds of wishful thinking to try to make it real. Telling the person who ruined your life what you want and need is a strange but common way of picking up the pieces.

“Disco 2000″—Pulp

Admiring a woman from a distance for years without doing a thing about it is a thing I know too well. This is one of the best “friend zone” songs I know.

“Fuck You”—CeeLo Green

The name of the song says it all. I have dozens of letters that say this in hundreds of words where CeeLo managed to do it in just two.

“Crappy Dreams Count”—Moin

Over and over the thing we want is lousy and we know it but we want it anyways. That contradictory thing is what separates us from most other animals. I don’t even know what Moin meant by the title of this song but this is what it made me think of.

“Sudno (Boris Ryzhy)”—Molchat Doma

I found out about the Russian poet Boris Ryzhy sometime during lockdown. He led me to this Belorussian band that set one of his poems to music. Sudno means Vessel and the vessel Ryzhy means is the one carrying us through our lives. It’s melodramatic, death-obsessed young person’s piece of business that matches the timbre of more than a few of my letters.

“She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger”—Purple Mountains

Few songwriters have had a bigger impact on me than David Berman. This song from his last record perfectly describes how and why paths diverge after a breakup. That thing of watching someone thrive after they leave is as familiar as the lines on my hand.

“Goodbye (She Quietly Says)—Frank Sinatra

I’ll let Frank have the last word. This is what most of my letters boil down to. A way to reckon with someone that will soon no longer be part of my life. It’s bittersweet but there’s no way around it. If you haven’t had to do this, I’m not sure you’ve lived.

Also at Largehearted Boy:

Dmitry Samarov’s playlist for his essay collection All Hack
Dmitry Samarov’s playlist for his book Music to My Eyes
Dmitry Samarov’s playlist for his novel Old Style
Dmitry Samarov’s playlist for his book Paint By Numbers
Dmitry Samarov’s playlist for his essay collection Soviet Stamps
Dmitry Samarov’s playlist for his book Where To?: A Hack Memoir

For book & music links, themed playlists, a wrap-up of Largehearted Boy feature posts, and more, check out Largehearted Boy’s weekly newsletter.

Dmitry Samarov writes dog portraits and paints book reviews in Chicago, Illinois.

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