Author Playlists

James Sturz’s playlist for his novel “Underjungle”

“My new novel, Underjungle, is a tale of love, loss, family, and war—set entirely underwater. So War and Peace, but three-thousand feet deeper. And considerably shorter.”

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.

James Sturz’s novel Underjungle is inventive and profound, a masterpiece of unique storytelling.

Ned Bauman wrote of the book:

“Not many of us would have the audacity to write a novel where the only human character is a corpse decomposing on the ocean floor, but in Underjungle James Sturz has met this challenge in dazzling fashion. To get a more intimate view of the world under the waves you’d probably have to become fish food yourself, so instead I recommend this profound and unclassifiable novel, a mind-expanding Aeneid of the seas.”

In his own words, here is James Sturz’s Book Notes music playlist for his novel Underjungle:

My new novel, Underjungle, is a tale of love, loss, family, and war—set entirely underwater. So War and Peace, but three-thousand feet deeper. And considerably shorter. And maybe a little funnier, too. It’s also the story of a sentient ocean species who discover a sunken human corpse, the effect the discovery has on their civilization, and the questions it raises about their world and ours.

Naturally, Underjungle is a book about the water. Not just the ocean—although it’s about that, too—but what it’s like to live in a fluid realm. Everything in your world—minerals, food, mates, ideas, and songs—would surround you. They’d flow to you, just like the currents, saturating and engulfing you, until you became a part of their movement, too. My hope in writing Underjungle was that if I could show readers what it’s like to inhabit the ocean world, they’d love it and want to protect it, without feeling they’re being told what to do. There will never be any real conservation if the ocean is only something we study. Our relationship with it needs to be more intimate. The ocean needs a love song. And also sometimes a lament.

This playlist consists of 11 songs, plus two full albums, that remind me what it’s like to be in the ocean, whether I’m at its surface or its depths, or somewhere in between, diving down or even sinking. So many of us flock to the ocean, even just to stare at it dreamily, a vast and mysterious environment, full of barely understood life. I’m not going to say the creatures in my book are real, but they’re real enough. I call their species yc. It’s the Mongolian word for water, which happens to sound like “us.”

“Oceanía,” Abraham Cupeiro and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Maybe Björk’s “Oceania” was the obvious choice for an initial song, but I’m starting with this lesser-known Cupeiro composition, played on a mix of modern and nearly forgotten instruments, including an Iron Age war trumpet that sounds surprisingly like a whale. It’s from Cupeiro’s album Pangea, and it immediately plunges me down to the ocean’s depths. When all the earth’s landmasses were pressed together, I suppose the ocean might have felt even larger and even more of a place where you could dissolve and disappear.

“Little Water Song,” Ute Lemper

Ute Lemper’s album Punishing Kiss blew me away the first time I heard it in 2000, including its first track, written by Nick Cave, about a woman being drowned. I was living in New York City, and I heard Lemper perform it at one of the many Greenwich Village concert spaces that no longer exist. What I always find surprising is the passion Lemper brings to the song’s first haunting lines: “Under here, you just take my breath away/Under here, the water flows over my head/I can hear the little fishes.” The sea is a place of wonder and beauty, where everything is washed clean, but that doesn’t mean it’s innocent. By the song’s end, Lemper sings just as powerfully and eerily of those same little fishes swimming into her body.

The Sinking of the Titanic, Gavin Bryars Ensemble

I promise I won’t stick to darkness for this entire playlist, but another album that stuck with me after I first heard it—on the “New Sounds” radio show by John Schaefer, probably in the mid-‘90s—was this 61-minute composition by English composer Gavin Bryars. Originally written in 1975, Bryars rewrote it after the actual Titanic was located, introducing fragments of interviews with survivors, Morse code signals, pinging sonar, the creaking of bending metal, and snippets of the compositions being played onboard, and then recorded it all in an abandoned water tower, so that everything would reverberate. It’s chilling. And yet it’s mesmerizing and beautiful. I listened to it periodically while I was writing Underjungle, and then again when the Titan submersible’s disappearance was in the news.

And now I’ll go a splash lighter:

“What the Water Gave Me,” Florence + The Machine

We start on the surface each time we enter the water. Sometimes that’s where we stay, floating on our backs or bobbing carefreely in the surf. But other times we dive—or at least I do, and I feel myself plunging and sinking. You don’t even need to kick once you’re deep enough, because then gravity takes you. When I sink, if I’m not distracted by the fish I see around me, I sometimes hear this song’s lyrics floating in my head: “Lay me down/Let the only sound/Be the overflow.”

Music from The Octopus Teacher, Kevin Smuts

When I first started writing about the ocean as a journalist, including what it was like to scuba dive reefs around the world, one of the challenging things was to avoid making my stories play-by-play—I kicked here, dived there, and then there, too…it gets boring quickly. But it’s hard to introduce characters, because aside from captains and divemasters, the available ones are mostly fish. So one of the things I loved about this documentary was how captivating Craig Foster’s story was—how well he was able to construct a storyline. Of course, there was also the stunning underwater footage and the spellbinding soundtrack by Kevin Smuts. Perhaps “Sick from the Pressure,” “Pretty Extraordinary Things,” and “Octopus Joy” are my favorite tracks, but my recommendation is to listen to all 33 of them. It’ll only take you 77 minutes.

“Calypso,” John Denver

At some point, all stories set in the ocean need origin stories, and I have two: snorkeling as a boy in the bathtub of a New York City apartment, and going to my first concert with my parents and sister in sixth grade to see John Denver perform at Madison Square Garden (the Starland Vocal Band was the opening act). But if I can add a third, it’s sitting in front of an old black-and-white TV in my bedroom, watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” and then “The Cousteau Odyssey” after that, and dreaming of boarding the Frenchman’s enchanted ship.

“Oceanic Feeling,” Lorde

When we think about the water, we often think of our first experiences with it: seeing it sparkle, lap, and flow. And then we enter it tentatively, amazed at how good or strange it feels. And because those experiences happen in our youth, they often occur alongside our parents and siblings. So when I listen to this song, even if it’s about life at the surface, it makes me smile, exactly because of the lyrics: “When I hit that water/when it holds me/I think of my father/Doing the same thing/when he was a boy.”

“La Mer,” Charles Trenet

Does the shoreline have an anthem? If so, it’s “The Sea.” Nothing puts me in front of it—with the exception of actually being in front of it—more than this song, which also puts me in a place of simplicity and happiness, where life is carefree, which it sometimes takes a Frenchman to espouse. Bobby Darin recorded an English-language version of Trenet’s song with different lyrics, which appears in the end credits of Finding Nemo. But you know what? It’s not as good.

“The Sea,” Morcheeba

And if you need another version of “The Sea,” I recommend this trip-hop one from the English group’s album Big Calm. Does it matter that an electronica band’s instruments would all fry underwater? No, it doesn’t. Lead vocalist Skye Edwards croons: “I left my soul there/Down by the sea/I lost control here/Living free.”

“Starálfur,” Sigur Rós

The song I really wanted to add to this playlist was “S.S. Hangover,” a collaboration between Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson and Icelandic composer Kjartan Sveinsson, better known as a member of Sigur Rós. I saw the piece performed live at the Venice Biennale in 2013. It consists of a brass sextet in formal dress playing inside a refurbished 1934 wooden fishing boat (with S.S. Hangover painted on its hull), as it sails around Venice’s Arsenale on a path to nowhere. I watched it, rapt, as the melody repeated. I never wanted the voyage or performance to end. But since I can’t find it on Spotify, the next best choices are Sigur Rós’s “Starálfur,” used in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, or “Sæglópur,” used in James Wan’s Aquaman and Julie Taymor’s The Tempest. The two titles mean “Staring Elf” and “Lost at Sea.”

“Of Killers and Clarinets,” David Rothenberg

In 2022, I finished writing Underjungle, ran my first marathon, and joined the Explorers Club. At one of the Friday socials in New York (they call them “Frolics”), I met David Rothenberg. It turns out we both write about undersea life, although in his case it isn’t limited to books. “Of Killers and Clarinets” is one of eight tracks on his 2022 album Who Knows Why Whales Sing. It’s gurgling water, whale songs, and Rothenberg on clarinet. If you like, you can listen to it while reading the 2023 edition of his book Whale Music: Thousand Mile Songs in a Sea of Sound.

“Water No Get Enemy,” Fela Kuti

The tenor and baritone saxophones and trumpet immediately grab me when I hear this song. And then the piano joins in, along with the drums, maracas, claves, and a little background shouting and whooping that eventually turn into lyrics delivered in West African Yoruba and pidgin English. Back and forth, Kuti sings about the omnipotence and necessity of water in everyday life, and then a chorus accompanies him, until his entire orchestra is singing. The song was used as the title of a 2020 documentary about the impact of surfing in Liberia, but I can imagine my underwater characters just listening to this song, marveling at what they’ve suddenly realized is sonically possible, and then wondering about the album’s title, Expensive Shit. I think it would make them chuckle.

“The Swimming Song,” Loudon Wainwright III

I’ll end this playlist with an easy and happy entry, played on two banjos. We can dive as deep as we’re able, we can frolic in the surf, and we can swim or float on the surface. But mostly we can appreciate the water, and we can love the water, too. Wainright’s joyous and endearing lyrics come with a satisfying twang: “This summer I did swan dives/And jack knives for you all/And once when you weren’t looking/I did a cannonball.”

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James Sturz grew up in New York City, snorkeling in his bathtub and pretending the living room shag carpet was finger coral. Now based in Hawaii, he has covered the underwater world for The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine, Outside and Men’s Journal, among many publications. His fiction and journalism have been published in 18 countries and translated into nine languages. He graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell University and is a PADI Divemaster, free diver, and Explorers Club Fellow. His first novel, Sasso, was set in the caves of Basilicata, Italy, very far from the water.

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