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August 30, 2018

S. K. Perry's Playlist for Her Novel "Let Me Be Like Water"

Let Me Be Like Water

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, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

S. K. Perry's debut novel Let Me Be Like Water is a remarkable depiction of loss and grief.

The Guardian wrote of the book:

"A wonderful debut novel about how we find our feet again after a bereavement. It's one of the best evocations of the grieving process I've read and is written in a fluid engaging style that draws you in to the protagonist Holly's world."

In her own words, here is S. K. Perry's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Let Me Be Like Water:

This was such a great challenge! Music is a huge part of how I write; for example, my characters all have favourite songs in my research files on them. Film also plays a big role in my writing process; often I feel like I’m trying to capture what the reader is watching (rather than reading) and so there’s often music playing in the background of a scene in my head. In this playlist I’ve tried to soundtrack Let Me Be Like Water, which is about a young woman (Holly) whose partner (Sam) dies suddenly. The book is set in the first year of her grief. She runs away to Brighton and starts life over again, slowly trying to come to terms with life without Sam.

Tempo Giusto - Chopin, played by Yuja Wang
Often, I write with piano music on in the background. I had piano lessons very briefly as a child and was absolutely terrible at it. My piano teacher would sharpen pencils and put them under my palms to jab me with if I made a mistake. I think it put me off learning an instrument for life, but it didn’t put me off the way a piano sounds, which to my untrained ears, is almost tidal: the sweep and flow of the notes building into song. Frank - a retired magician who takes Holly under his wing - loves piano music; Chopin is what he listens to if he needs reviving in some way. This piece, played by the magical Yuja Wang, is my favourite. I can imagine him sat in his chair, rock buns in the oven, letting it wash over him.

Really Love - D’Angelo
Although Let Me Be Like Water is a book about grieving, it’s also a love story. My city - London - is hot for just a handful of weeks each year. When the sun’s out, we spill outside with it, listening to music, eating and drinking long into the night. For me, this song captures what it is to meet and fall for someone in a hot summer. It’s in this sultry haze I imagine Holly and Sam first falling in love. Whilst Gina Figueroa’s whispered monologue voices some initial reservation, when the strings start to flicker, the song’s funk-influenced groove pulls you in deep. All you want to do is dance by the canal-side as the sun sets, hip-to-hip with your love.

Seaside - The Kooks
I really wanted this book to feel very specifically located in Brighton; it’s a seaside town on the south coast of England (very different to New York’s Brighton beach, where I went for the first time this year to ride the Cyclone and stroll the boardwalk). Our version has a funfair too, but the beach is rocky and wilder. Brighton is a queer epicentre, a hub for environmental activists, and a tourist trap in the summer. It’s a town I’ve loved deeply from a very young age, on a bit of coast that seems to wrap you up and make you feel better. The Kooks are a Brighton band, and this little song is an invitation to the go to the sea.

Mountain - Genevieve Dawson
One of the things I tried to capture in the book is the sheer monotony of grief. It’s like a migraine you can’t get rid of: the pain sharp and dull at once, lasting and hurting. The unusual 11/8 time signature in this knotty song churns around and around, feeling both surprising and repetitive. The lyrics strain at themselves, with Genevieve’s voice layering meanings into the refrain. It’s a circular, lingering song full of longing and memory that catches the continuous build and recede of grief, perfectly.

Daniel - Bat for Lashes
Bat for Lashes has been very much claimed by Brighton’s live music scene, where Natasha Khan studied music and then wrote and gigged her early songs, as Holly starts to do in the book. It’s another of those nostalgic love songs, that feels so apt for the late teens/early twenties first great love that Sam was for Holly.

Graceland - Paul Simon
We often feel such shame around other people seeing our pain; being witnessed in it can become caught up in what hurts about it. There’s a lyric in this song - ‘losing love is like a window in your heart; everybody sees you’re blown apart’ - that took my breath away when I first heard it. Holly tries so hard to be fine, to seem fine, to keep on going. But her grief is burnt all through her; everyone can see it. There’s a kind of acceptance in this song that works against the shame of deep emotion, and that was something I wanted to try and weave through this book, too.

White Ferrari - Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean is one of my favourite vocalists. On this album the vocals are often very exposed, with hardly any instrumental. Instead he seems to use layers of sung melody to echo or breakdown the words; sometimes you can’t make out what is being repeated, and this amplifies the sense of loss and longing that infuses his vocals. But there are moments of total musical clarity, and in this song it happens halfway; ‘I care for you still and I will forever, that was my part of the deal’ cuts straight through, and to me - at the core of this sad, beautiful song - it’s an affirmation that what lives in the heart remains even after a relationship is over. This is Holly’s experience with grief; she wants it to stop hurting but she also doesn’t want to let her love for Sam be gone. I imagine this song playing as she hurls stones into the sea, or sits on the beach at night while gulls soar and everyone else sleeps.

Every Weekday - Camera Obscura
This Camera Obscura album is lyrically full of the sort of sad and exciting chaos that encapsulates what a lot of my friends experienced living in a city in their early twenties. Drinking too much; working a bunch of jobs; whirlwind flatshares with loads of people crammed in, coming and going all the time; not eating or sleeping properly; and tons of amazing womxn friends to pull you on and indulge you in your introspection. Let Me Be Like Water is as much about friendship as anything else, and this song - about the amazing friends who won’t let you down - is for Ellie and Mira for seeing Holly through.

Killing Me Softly - Fugees
This is maybe the best cover version of any song ever. Lauryn Hill’s voice is so distinctive and powerful; it feels like she’s talking straight to you during the verses, and singing for her life in the chorus. Holly spends a lot of her time in Brighton running. I never run - not even for the bus; there’ll be another one - but I did walk all her running routes while I was writing the book. 90s hip hop made up the soundtrack for lots of these trips, and it’s what Holly and the group play for their long cycle trip to the Balcombe viaduct. When I’m by the sea I want to listen to hip hop. Being by myself, shut into my headphones and watching the waves crash; it’s my perfect afternoon.

Adorn - Miguel, and Diamonds - Rihanna
Holly loves clubbing. The book is set in 2012/2013 and these songs were everywhere! This is definitely what she’s dancing to with Duane, Danny, Sean, Ellie, and Mira.

Cold Sweat - Tinashe
There’s quite a lot of sex in this book. After Sam dies, sex becomes complicated for Holly as she tries to rediscover her body, and explore what it’s like to be intimate and vulnerable both on her own and with somebody new. This song - gloriously sensual with its clear, slightly breathy lyrics and slow, insistent, high hats - is both sexy, and lyrically complicated. It encapsulates both the great sex Holly has with Sam, and the way her sexuality hurts and twists about, without him.

Someone Great - LCD Soundsystem
Repetitive, with its driving, peppy beat, this is another song that encapsulates the ongoing, never-ending feeling of grief. It’s a track you can get lost in; turn it up really high and it carries you with it. All the self-destructive behaviours Holly engages in - exercising too much, getting high, pushing at all her boundaries - I imagine her being driven through them all while this song bounces on. And there it is, still, the loss, as the two refrains pulse over and over: ‘and it keeps coming’ / ‘when someone great is gone.’

Goodbye, Porkpie Hat - Charles Mingus
Written as an elegy for Lester Young, ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ was later given words when Charles Mingus collaborated with Joni Mitchell, as well as in an earlier version by Rahsaan Roland Kirk. But the original, with just the instrumentation, is in turn celebratory - telling of a life jubilantly lived with its bursts of saxophone - and gently mournful: softer, melancholy sounds tinging it with sadness. This is Gabriella’s song, another of Holly’s friends and rescuers, who carries her own, older, grief, integrated into a life she’s living well. I see her chopping onions and dancing to this tune with Holly in her kitchen.

Ain't No Sunshine - Bill Withers
This song is so loving and lonely. It’s the end of my playlist because it’s what the book is about. Loving deeply, and then a great, heaving loss, as if all the sunshine has gone.

S. K. Perry and Let Me Be Like Water links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

BookPage review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

KMUW interview with the author
Spread the Word interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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