May 6, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Francesca Giacco's novel Six Days in Rome is an engrossing and moving debut.
Elissa Schappell wrote of the book:
"Giacco's debut is an intimate, entertaining, clear-eyed evocation of a disillusioned young female artist's coming of age amongst the ruins of Rome and like her heart-broken narrator, very good company."
The original idea that fueled my debut novel, Six Days in Rome, was more of a challenge to myself: what if I could write a narrative that, in the span of a few days in a foreign city, came to encapsulate an entire life at a pivotal moment? What if I could imagine someone who experienced traveling alone the way I did, my past and present selves all living within me at the same time?
While I prefer to write in silence, music was a powerful tool when I was imagining the characters and memories and conversations that make up my novel. In the months I spent on initial drafts, I assigned songs to different phases of my narrator’s life and her relationships, started sketching out a soundtrack in my mind that had the power to transport me to wherever she was.
When I hear any of these songs now, I'm taken back to that time, when this story felt porous in the best way, when the right music at the right moment brought it to life.
I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love with You - Tom Waits
At the beginning of the novel, Emilia, my main character, hears a line of this song (The night does funny things inside a man) through a car window as she crosses the Tiber, and remembers Waits sharing a cigarette with her dad, another famous musician. In my mind, the two of them are kindred spirits and close friends - it seemed an interesting way to introduce music and fame and creativity, all important elements of this story.
Some Unholy War - Amy Winehouse
An ode to fucked-up devotion, beyond sense and reason. Emilia feels her own version of this pull for Michael, the man who was supposed to be with her in Rome. I can imagine her listening to this alone in her apartment, parsing out how it all went wrong, for the hundredth time. This is a stripped-down version of this song, and really lets Amy Winehouse's hurt, haunting voice shine.
Tower of Song - Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen was the inspiration for Emilia's father, an aging, compelling rock star. This song really captures some pieces of Cohen that drew me in: humor (I ache in the places where I used to play), hubris (I was born with the gift of a golden voice), and defiance (they don't let a woman kill you in the Tower of Song). His charisma is on full display here, too.
I Forgot to Be Your Lover - William Bell
This would be playing in Michael's apartment, maybe on vinyl. Listening to it leaves me with the same impression he does - beautiful words, delivered convincingly, but with the suspicion there's nothing behind them.
One for My Baby (And One More for the Road) - Frank Sinatra
When I hear this, I see a New York dive bar, somewhere like Jimmy's Corner or Parkside Lounge, dark whether it's day or night. There's warmth in Sinatra's delivery, but weariness, too. The way the piano and his voice fade out at the end fills me with something between ennui and nostalgia. For what, I'm not sure. Emilia would play this on a jukebox, given the option.
Worst in Me - Dana Williams
I'm a sucker for a song that celebrates going back to (or staying with) someone, with the full knowledge they're bad for us. Who knows what that says about me. This song isn't asking the lover in question to change or even consider their behavior, just acknowledging the steady damage it's doing to the singer. Emilia clings to Michael for much longer than she should, despite the pain it causes her. There's a sick, contrary romance to this kind of attachment.
Hard Place - H.E.R
And if I have to choose / my heart or you / I'm gonna lose - that really sums it all up.
You Can't Always Get What You Want - Rolling Stones
Emilia and her family listen to this during dinner in Greece, on a trip to celebrate her parents' anniversary in the place where they met. It's a meal full of well-worn tensions and some surprises, too. Listening to a song like this with parents always makes me wonder what they were like as younger people, how they've changed and mellowed (or not, in Emilia's case).
Midnight Train to Georgia - Gladys Knight and The Pips
Emilia and Michael dance to this song at a wedding. There's a line that hits so beautifully and also makes me sad whenever I hear it -- I'd rather live in his world than be without him in mine.
I Know - King Princess, featuring Fiona Apple
Here, the playlist takes a moody detour, as Emilia does. I've loved Fiona Apple since I was a sullen thirteen-year-old, and this cover (with Fiona singing backup) really captures the anger and petulance inherent in feeling powerless.
Tell Me More and More and Then Some - Nina Simone
Aside from Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone is the only artist who appears twice on this playlist - here and with a Cohen cover later on. I love the need present in this song, the commitment to bad behavior and complete lack of self-consciousness in the face of it. When wrapped up in a destructive relationship, as Emilia is before she travels to Rome, it can be easier to revel in the mess than to consider how to get out of it.
When she sings "you know how I love that stuff" near the end, it gets me every time.
Fuck it I love you - Lana del Rey
The title says it all.
Pink (Live & Acoustic) – LÉON
So plaintive and honest it's almost embarrassing. But beautiful, too. All the things we'd love to confess when we're heartbroken, but so rarely do. I associate this song with a particular break-up of mine, so maybe it's inevitable that it feels right as the soundtrack for Michael and Emilia's final conversation.
Curls – Bibio
An exhale. To me, this song marks the place in the playlist when Emilia leaves New York and Michael behind and lands in Rome.
I'll Be Fine – Palace
I can picture Emilia wandering around Monti, stopping into a café for an espresso, watching the people around her, while this plays. The guitar is sweet and light and optimistic, a nice break from the heaviness she’s running from.
So Long, Marianne - Leonard Cohen
This song has urgency, an immediate momentum. I based Emilia’s parents’ relationship on the one between Cohen and Marianne Ihlen (if they’d stayed together), and these bittersweet lyrics describe their attraction and dysfunction so perfectly.
Greek Song - Rufus Wainwright
There's something very Mediterranean about this song, as the title suggests. It summons up warm terracotta stone, late, wine-filled lunches, and easy attraction. This played in my head while imagining the hilltop above Rome where Emilia meets John, an American expat, by chance. And no playlist of mine would be complete without Rufus Wainwright.
I'll Come Too - James Blake
A light, airy, sexy reminder to be open to possibility. This song cracked open the connection between John and Emilia, when I was trying to understand what, beyond basic physical attraction, was drawing them to one another. Sometimes it's as simple as saying yes to someone or something at the right time.
Fool for You - Snoh Aalegra
A gorgeous evocation of feeling as if you know someone already, even though they’re new to you. John and Emilia share this, as they circle each other.
Hallelujah - Jeff Buckley
"Chaos," Emilia's father's hit song (that's more or less born from a poem she wrote as a child) was written with "Hallelujah" in mind. Aside from being one of Leonard Cohen's most recognizable songs, it's so all-encompassing, superlative, and requires focus - I almost need to take a deep breath before listening to it. It's biblical, erotic, excessive. And Jeff Buckley once called his cover a seven-minute orgasm, so there's that.
A Whiter Shade of Pale – Rhye
Another cover, of many on this list. This version has an almost religious feel to it, appropriate given all the Catholicism that surrounds Emilia in Rome. There’s something timeless about this arrangement, too. Like it’s a story that’s been told many times, never losing its meaning.
Suzanne - Nina Simone
Nina effortlessly makes this very famous song her own. One of the questions I try to answer in the novel, particularly in the dynamic between Emilia and her father, is how and why one person’s creative instinct can inspire another. So, it makes me happy to hear such a different, joyous version of “Suzanne,” sung with such confidence.
All This Time – Sting
There is mention of ancient Rome in this song, but more than that, it explores religion and fate in that irreverent way Sting has. Present-day Rome can seem absurd in similar ways: the combination of chaste and carnal almost everywhere you look. I've always seen it that way, and I imagine Emilia does, too.
Hungry Heart - Bruce Springsteen
This song immediately puts a smile on John's face, and it does the same for me.
Nearer to You - Emily Sage
All atmosphere: the overwhelming feeling of new love, or at least infatuation. This song is sumptuous, easy to get lost in.
Glasshouses - Maribou State
There's an ease and peace to how Emilia feels in Rome, with or without John, that's personified in this song. It's a hopeful note to end on.
Francesca Giacco is a graduate of Barnard College and the MFA program at Columbia University. She lives in New York. Six Days in Rome is her first novel.