July 18, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Nada Alic's brilliant debut story collection is smart, funny, and keenly observed.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"This sharp and biting debut story collection is tailor-made for millennial women. Alic imbues each story with humor and a keen talent for precise observation, all with a nonjudgmental wink as her characters traverse our twenty-first-century culture."
My debut story collection, Bad Thoughts, is a satirical journey into the depraved and feral insides of a woman’s psyche. I wanted to portray women characters as more than just ethereal beings preoccupied with beauty, love and virtue. We can also be gross, cruel and embarrassing! Some of my favorite songwriters live in that in-between, singing sparse ballads and upbeat, folksy songs about blood and psych wards. Unlike the smooth nothing of anesthetizing pop music, I’m drawn to lyrics that are sticky and unexpected; like humor in a sad piano ballad or a pop song about being miserable.
My love of music predates literature by like a decade, so the influence it has on my life and work is so deep that it’s mostly subconscious at this point. I wasn’t aware of the connection while I was writing my book, but I now realize that I probably chose to write a story collection because it structurally resembles an album. I was also very attuned to the rhythm of my sentences while writing and would often sacrifice beautiful words for simple ones in service to the flow. I think we all know that musicians are the superior artists, and the rest of us are just inventing complicated ways to get at a truth they can access directly. (I am clearly at peace with this.)
The following playlist is a real mixed bag of songs that either evoke a certain mood or theme in the book, had some special meaning to me during that period of time, or were just on in the background as I stared at my screen for months/years. It’s not exactly a curated playlist as much as it’s a musical diary that only makes sense to me. My aim here is to confuse you into being intrigued enough to buy my book. I hope it works?? Enjoy!
Designer - Aldous Harding
That visionary shimmer
Do not lose your young eyes
Laughing at good work with your ugly son
Give up your beauty
Like the characters in my book, Harding is elusive and self-possessed; a real trickster archetype.
Her free association lyrics might seem random, but there is an intuitive, cosmic order to it all. It’s like Zen koans; expansive enough to include a multitude of interpretations, she invites the listener to become an active participant in sense-making. She plays this game on multiple levels; on one, it’s fridge magnets, on another it might be the story of your life. “Designer” just stuck with me. It’s so funny, but also sweet, and spooky. I remember writing out the lyrics on my notes app, “You bend my day at the knee,” for some reason I know exactly what that feels like. To me, the knee is 3pm, when I’ve exhausted the writing part of my mind and I feel nervous for no reason.
Muscle - Issy Wood
Tell me I couldn't make you happy
If I changed everything about me
Much like her paintings, Issy Wood’s songs feel like she’s letting you in on a joke, but she won’t let you in all the way. “Muscle” is feel-good and upbeat, but a little sinister. It reminds me of the protagonist in my story, “Edging” a desperate and delusional woman who goes to great lengths to please her fickle, emotionally-distant boyfriend. In the song, she proclaims that she’s getting tougher (as if trying to convince herself) then backslides by saying “maybe I just want too much.” It’s that maddening internal back and forth that comes with trying to get someone to notice you while trying to appear cool. The bodybuilder is a perfect allegory. Big muscles require effort, revealing an insecurity and a vanity that undermines the whole “big strong man” facade. The hubris and machismo is all an act.
Dizzy - Bedouine
Close my eyes and my mind starts to crawling
It sets it sights on something, it starts gnawing
The never-ending scroll
Imagined conversations take their toll
Bedouine (Azniv Korkejian) is one of those preternaturally talented artists who embodies a genuine effortlessness, both as a performer and a songwriter. The songs she writes sound like they came fully formed out of the ether, made to be sung only by her. Her music was especially meaningful to me while I wrote the book because Azniv invited me to join her on her European tour in the fall of 2019 for a couple of weeks as an opener. I read some of my short stories to mostly confused Germans, and I spent a lot of time in trains sitting backwards, trying to write, and mostly trying not to throw up. I was in a very raw, liminal place in my life on that tour, where I mostly felt like caterpillar goo, so getting to watch her command the stage each night was deeply formative for me. I chose “Dizzy” from her album Bird Songs of a Killjoy because of its frenetic, Alice in Wonderland fever-dream quality, building until it breaks, only to build up again. It’s kind of the perfect song. It captures the way my mind races sometimes just before bed, and if I let it play out, some grand realization or insight is revealed to me, as a treat.
Psych Ward - Okay Kaya
I listened to Okay Kaya’s album Watch this Liquid Pour Itself a lot while I was writing the book. She sings about topics like mental illness, mediocre sex, and being Mother Nature’s bitch. The first line of “Psych Ward” is so brilliant, “you can peel an orange however you please in the psych ward,” she sings with playful, deadpan delivery. The music video for this song is equally haunted and lofi, featuring a group of psych ward patients dancing awkwardly and twirling around a stripper pole. Musically, the song feels celebratory and triumphant, finding light and joy in the most unlikely of places.
Over and Over - Wet
This is one of those short, non-song songs, and the dreamy, hypnotic quality of it makes it more of a mantra. Over and over she coos, like a lullaby. It’s like what writing feels like: repetitive, trancelike, unreal.
I Can Help - ELKE
And suddenly, I see a white glow from the west
And it tells me insurance won't cover that
I can’t remember when I first came across ELKE but I spent a lot of time being very into her music and aesthetic and general vibe from afar and we eventually became friends because that’s how energy works (also we both live in LA and have mutual friends.) In the music video for this song, ELKE is rotating on a giant cut-out clock and dancing around in a white room that reminds me of a children’s TV show from the 80s. It feels very theatrical, psychedelic and nostalgic. She describes the song as, “an ode to the somewhat dystopian life we all seem to have accepted as comfortable, myself included.” That sort of perverse adaptability to bear the unbearable is something I tried to channel through my characters: a woman joins a reality dating show with the hopes of becoming famous enough to get the attention of her estranged father, another woman performs for her security camera believing that her boyfriend is monitoring her, another woman blows up her life as she awaits an email. Deranged women characters who are emotionally threadbare and just acting like it’s totally fine are my kind of women! Sometimes all you can do is laugh, and keep going.
Lemon - Local Natives (ft. Sharon Van Etten)
And the LA River makes you laugh
You say, why's a gutter got a name like that?
My husband Ryan plays in the band Local Natives and he wrote this song about me so what, you think I wasn’t going to include it?? I did nothing to deserve this, by the way, as far as muses go, I’m contributing very little to the role. I remember Ryan playing the early version of this song for me in my living room and to see it evolve over the years into a duet featuring Sharon Van Etten was so surreal. Ryan is one of the most talented, hardest working artists I know and being around him and Local Natives as they wrote, recorded, and toured multiple albums was the best education I could’ve ever gotten as an artist. Ryan’s baseline level of discipline and humility borders on asceticism, and it really motivates me to show up for myself as a writer. Ryan is like my reverse muse in that I love and respect him too much to ever put him in my work.
No Golden Throat - Lizzy Mercier Descloux
You can barely make out what she’s saying in this song but it doesn’t matter because it’s so fun and wild and silly. I got really into Lizzy Mercier Descloux in 2016-2017 and I remember going to Lake Arrowhead for a week alone to write and my best friend came up to visit me for a day. We took some mushrooms and walked around and I was listening to this song in headphones and it felt like she was inside my head, like this Cheshire cat, guiding me down the path which had become so funny and alive. The rocks were sentient and hilarious, the trees looked like droopy old men, and this song colored the entire experience. I love the part where she sings, “Hello! So what! Yeah! Go on!” and you can hear how much fun she’s having with it.
Dodirni Mi Kolena - Zana
I have this very private, very intense love of Croatian/Balkan folk and pop music from the '80s and '90s that is mostly rooted in nostalgia and homesickness, and almost no one in my life can relate. I think it’s important to have things that are just for you and no one else, so I’m fine with it. In the '80s new wave, synth-pop song, “Dodirni Mi Kolena” (Touch My Knees) Serbian artist Zana rattles off a list of demands to her lover, “Make me a coffee! Make me a sandwich! Don’t be a child! Give me your car and your apartment keys!” It feels very transgressive and punk, especially for an era dominated by sexy pop stars like Severina (who later went on to cover the song and made it a hit).
528Hz Miracle DNA Repair Dolphin Dreams
This is a bit of a departure and I don’t even know if it counts as a song, but whatever, this is my playlist and I make the rules! A lot of my writing deals with thoughts and thinking about thoughts, so the natural evolution of that is getting beyond thought, or at least the surface level static. Sound frequency meditation allows me to explore the depths of my own mind in a new way. Binaural beats and isochronic tones can help induce a brainwave state that taps into different parts of yourself. Alpha and theta have a dreamlike quality and are helpful for generating ideas without the influence of the ego. That’s where sudden insights come in the shower or while driving, or that brief moment of clarity after you’ve just woken up and you’re still in that twilight state. It all originated with Robert Monroe’s astral projection tapes in the 1970s, but it’s now fairly mainstream and you can find millions of binaural beats on Youtube and elsewhere. I went all in and purchased an EEG headset to record my brainwaves during meditations, so I can see what different sounds do to my mind. Anyway, the 528 Hz can allegedly repair DNA, and usher in the new Age of Aquarius. I don’t know if any of it is true, but it’s very relaxing.
Nada Alic is the author of Bad Thoughts and a forthcoming novel. Her story "The Intruder" was shortlisted for the CBC Short Fiction Prize 2019, "My New Life" was published in No Tokens Journal. She lives in Los Angeles.