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February 9, 2021

Madeleine Watts' Playlist for Her Novel "The Inland Sea"

The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts

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.

Madeleine Watts' smart novel The Inland Sea is a stunning and eloquent debut.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Australian writer Watts punctuates her eloquent debut with deep-seated anxiety about climate change . . . The prose is consistently rich and loaded with imagery. Watts’s bold, unconventional outing makes for a distinctive entry into climate fiction."

In her words, here is Madeleine Watts' Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Inland Sea:

The Drones – I See Seaweed
I’ve always felt that this song was the musical analogue to The Inland Sea. ‘I See Seaweed’ is the opening song on an album that came out in 2013, which is the year the novel is set, a song about rising seas and a missing woman and complicity. I See Seaweed reminds me intensely of Sydney in 2013, and it accompanied me on a lot of moody walks. It is a beautiful song, articulate and composed in the beginning, gathering menace, and then it turns calamitous. It is a very intense song, and kind of how the novel feels if you read it all in a sitting or two.

Mondo Rock - Come Said the Boy
This is a perfect Australian surf-rock song. It captures something so specific about how Sydney feels in summertime, and has an accompanying music video, filmed at Maroubra Beach at dusk, which I have watched many, many times. I spent a lot of time at Maroubra Beach growing up, and both the song and the music video give me a powerful nostalgia hit whenever I’m homesick for Sydney. I listened to ‘Come Said The Boy’ all the time as I was writing the book, and it basically soundtracks every scene set at the beach (of which there are many).

Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra – Some Velvet Morning
This song helped me through the summer of 2017 when I got completely stuck on the structure of the book. I ended up changing the organization completely, shortly after writing an essay for The Believer about this song, which starts as an orderly duet and becomes an increasingly intense, rapid, perverse fever-dream of a song.

Twerps – Dreamin’
The novel is set in 2013, and there were certain songs that I listened to often to capture the ‘mood’ of Sydney in the early 2010s while I was writing. When I lived in Sydney at that period I walked everywhere, and this song accompanied me all over the city on many of those walks.

Jack Ladder– Hurtsville
Like Twerps, I listened to a lot of Jack Ladder when I lived in Sydney. This song in particular reminds me of the melancholy of the Australian suburbs in winter. ‘Hurtsville’ is the title song of a 2011 album of the same name, and when it first came out I misread the title. I thought it was named Hurstville, the name of a southern Sydney suburb. It’s not, but ever since I’ve associated this song and the whole album with the sleepy, wintery moods of my suburban adolescence.

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band - My Head is My Only House Unless it Rains
I consumed a lot of early 1970s music and film while I was writing the book, and ‘My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains’ is one of the songs that really dug its way into my brain. It’s a very haunting love songs, and I listened to it particularly when I was writing scenes that were very emotionally vulnerable.

Rowland S Howard - Dead Radio
This is my favourite song. The song to end all songs. Lyrically and rhythmically, it’s a kind of perfect analogue to what I want all my writing to feel like. Often when I start writing I turn this song up really loud and settle back into that feeling before I open up a document or put words on a page.

HTRK - Blue Sunshine
I listened to HTRK the whole time I was writing the book, because their music shares the kind of mood I often wanted the book to have. I have a strong memory of seeing them perform this song – which had not yet been released – at the At First Sight festival in 2013, right before I left Sydney. In 2019, right when the book was being sent off to the printers, HTRK played a show in New York and I got to see them again. At the end of the night I bumped into the lead singer outside the venue and tipsily spilled my guts about how much their music had meant to my little Australian book.

Slowdive – Rutti
This song was a kind of soundtrack to the first year I lived in New York in a railroad apartment with my friend Alex, the year when I really started writing properly, and taking myself seriously as a writer. That was the year I wrote some of the very first sentences that are still in the book.

Yo La Tengo – Double Dare
There’s a lot of time spent by the water or at the beach in The Inland Sea. I didn’t go back to Australia at all during the years I was writing the book, and maybe as a consequence I became hopelessly in love with Southern California and being on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. This song is entwined with all my memories of the beach in Carlsbad, CA, the closest proxy I had for all those years to the Sydney beaches I was writing about.

Pavement - Cut Your Hair
‘Cut Your Hair’ is used as a kind of refrain all through The Inland Sea. The protagonist grows up hearing it playing on the radio, and takes the lyrics very seriously, not realizing that they’re tongue-in-cheek until she’s older. I’ve always liked the song, and partly it’s a tribute to the way the radio station Triple J functioned in my '90s childhood, and it’s partly about how the way you remember things can be completely undone as an adult.

The Triffids – Stolen Property
The Triffids album, Born Sandy Devotional, was one I listened to all the time as I was writing. It’s another example of something that I wanted the book to sound like. It was also very present in my mind that Born Sandy Devotional, which is intensely evocative of Australia, was written and recorded by the band, who originated in Western Australia, when they were living in London. I was writing about Sydney, living in New York. It’s a perfect example of the kind of art you make about your hometown – full of nostalgia and homesickness – when you’re far away from it.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Magneto
I am a big Nick Cave fan, and I could have included ten to twenty of his songs that are woven into the fabric of The Inland Sea. But Skeleton Tree was the album came out when I was in the middle of writing the book, and I have intense memories of lying on the floor next to my desk listening to ‘Magneto’ over and over and over again when I was meant to be finishing the first draft of the book.

Neil Young - Revolution Blues
I love the Neil Young album On The Beach, which this song is on, and there’s something about the chaos of the early 1970s this song captures that made it a very frequent repeat-player on my phone while I was writing the book.

Marine Girls – Fridays
A very sweet and vulnerable and conversational song about staying in while everyone is out, this song evokes a very potent feeling I associate with my early twenties, a feeling I was often trying to capture in the novel.

Kirin J Callinan – Landslide
At a certain point it became evident to me that I needed to begin and end the novel in the water. I don’t know if the realization coincided with the week of summer in 2017 when I was listening to this song on repeat, but the repeated line, “God is in the water” feels very entwined with those parts, as though it would soundtrack the ending of the book if it were possible to do such a thing in prose.

Don Henley - The Boys of Summer
This is such a wonderful soaring, '80s jam about the melancholy of summer and the passing of youth, and I was playing it on repeat the summer of 2017 when I was really struggling with the book. I think I was trying to channel a lot of that sad-summer melodrama into the re-structuring of the novel.

Mazzy Star - Take Everything
I was listening to this song on repeat the day I finished the novel in August 2018. I was staying at the apartment of an old teacher in Red Hook who had generously leant me his place so that I could plough through the very last work uninterrupted, and when the book was at last done and I’d emailed it off, it was mid-afternoon. I took a beer up onto the roof. It was incredibly hot and I hadn’t eaten much, and from the roof you had one of the best views in New York, all the way north across Brooklyn, south to Staten Island, and Manhattan all in front of you. I meandered around the roof drinking cold beer on my own for hours, happy as a loon, and listening to Mazzy Star.

Madeleine Watts grew up in Sydney, Australia and currently lives in New York. She has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, and her fiction has been published in The White Review and The Lifted Brow. Her novella, Afraid of Waking It was awarded the Griffith Review Novella Prize. Her non-fiction has appeared in The Believer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Literary Hub. The Inland Sea is her first novel.

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