CNF Features Writing

In Search of Tone? Make a Playlist

By Jason Kapcala

photography by Tom Brennan

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me: I’m a huge music fan. In fact, an essential part of my writing process involves creating a playlist for every project. Music, of course, works in tandem with many everyday activities. It pumps us up while we work out, keeps us from growing bored on long car rides, provides emotional heft to the scenes we watch on television and in movies. However, for a writer, music can also serve as more than mere accompaniment or a fun diversion. Curating a playlist can be a generative technique for writers who struggle to establish and maintain tone over the course of a lengthy manuscript.

Painters have long copied the masters as a method of teaching themselves technique, and young writers often turn to their favorite authors when honing their craft. While reading other writers is a valuable habit, one that can expand a writer’s voice, this may not be the most effective approach to establishing tone in a narrow or targeted sense.

Before going further, it’s worth drawing a distinction between voice (a writer’s larger stylistic footprint that follows him or her from piece to piece) and tone (the stylized mood a writer cultivates specifically within a single piece of writing). Consider the difference between the climate and the weather—one is a prevailing long-term condition, the other a variable atmospheric state at a specific moment in time. With an exercise such as compiling a playlist, we are interested in teasing out and establishing the right tone for our project, not developing our overall voice as a writer. Within this context of drafting a manuscript, there are potential pitfalls to directly aping another writer. For instance, even if you steer clear of direct plagiarism, you run the risk of inauthenticity, of being unoriginal, when you crack open, say, The Catcher in the Rye, and then attempt to mimic Salinger’s distinctive voice.

On the other hand, one does not listen to “Jolene,” and then write a story collection that sounds derivative of Dolly Parton. That’s because, when you let music influence the tone of your writing, you work across art forms. So many of the cues that make music emotionally resonant are nonverbal, and many factors contribute to a song’s atmosphere and mood. Rhythm, timbre, intensity, instrumentation—all play a part in how we experience music. So, unless you copy lyrics directly (which I don’t recommend!), you can’t really co-opt a musician’s voice.

When curating a playlist for each new project, I look for music that locks me into a mindset, one that is generative, and those triggers may differ from project to project, depending on the tone of the book I’m writing. I resist the urge to select music according to a literal theme. (For instance, writing a crime novel, I would not seek out every song about cops and criminals that I could find.) Likewise, I don’t simply fill a playlist with all my favorite tunes. Rather, I seek out association, some experiential quality that “feels right” for the project at hand. It’s hard to define other than to say that the music embodies the same disposition that I hope to establish in the writing—it twists the atmosphere into focus.

Once I have established a playlist (and, yes, I do continue to expand and change my playlists throughout the writing process), I avoid crafting the storyline to follow the lyrics or the topic of the songs. (For instance, I would not listen to a song like Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and then write a story about “the chicken man” and the night he was blown up along the Jersey Shore.) The point of the playlist is not to provide me with content but to stir me, to help me capture and sustain a mood. So much of the writing process happens in the subconscious, a low hum as we go about our daily lives, and the right music can encourage this phenomenon, even when (or especially when) we are away from the page.

Below, I’ve listed the songs that kept me company recently while I worked on my rust belt noir, Hungry Town. This playlist is not a soundtrack—the songs do not accompany the novel or serve to endorse it in any way. Rather, these tremendous tracks jumpstarted my creativity during the writing process and helped me to write my way into the minds of the characters, most of whom are voiceless outsiders trapped by circumstance, poverty, and addiction. Listening to these songs made it easier for me to bring that unforgiving steel town to life.

“Hungry Town” by Chuck Prophet

Contains one of my favorite lines in all of music: “The Devil eats for free in a hungry town.” Yes. Yes, he does.

“Channel 9” by Go Go Market

The languorous rhythm is reminiscent of swaying hips and the curl of a smoldering cigarette. 

“Used to Be a Cop” by Drive-By Truckers

A down-and-out police officer peeks through his ex-wife’s window . . . 

“In State” by Kathleen Edwards

“I know where the cops hang out,” is the sort of threat that carries a lot of weight in a town where everyone knows everyone.

“I’ll Take Care of You” by Mark Lanegan

Imagine a smokey lounge where two damaged strangers might trade empty promises. 

“Homemade Blood” by Chuck Prophet

Homemade blood always bleeds heavier than commercially manufactured blood.

“Righteously” by Lucinda Williams

Music critic Stephen Deusner once affectionately described Lucinda Williams’s voice as the slurred speech of someone who has drank “too many cold Coronas in some lost honkytonk.”

“Swingin’” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

In the music video, actress Robyn Tunney wanders into an old diner with a bandaged wrist and an orange tabby cat. I wanted to know her backstory, so I wrote it.

“Cleaning My Gun” by Klamka

No one’s voice compares to Chris Cornell’s, but this nightclub jazz cover by Polish band Klamka feels lost to time.

“Lived in Bars” by Cat Power and “Make It Home Tonight” by Jenn Grant

Codependency casts a long shadow in these two tracks.

“Not Dark Yet” by Bob Dylan

It isn’t dark yet—but you know the rest.

“Mood” by Richard Buckner

Speaking of mood . . . I don’t have any idea what the lyrics mean, but I feel the urgency.

“Rise” by Chuck Prophet

Like an old-school gangster flick full of characters born into darkness—and then the directive: “Rise, you broken children. Rise.”

“Pendulum” by Pearl Jam

The ominous feel of this swinging pendulum is almost Poe-like in its intensity.

“Fill Me Up” by Linda Perry

This weary ballad about overindulgence feels . . . strangely uplifting?

“Ow” by Stephen Moccio

The somber ache of this piano meditation on pain evokes rainy nights and the solitude of a forgotten town at the end of another lost highway.

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Jason Kapcala is the author of the 2022 novel Hungry Town and the 2017 short story collection North to Lakeville. His writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and has been published in magazines and journals, including Cleaver, Four Way Review, Long Story Short, Saw Palm, Summerset Review, Prime Number, and The Good Men Project. He grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania and now lives in West Virginia.

I'm a fiction and CNF writer, an editor, and a blogger. I earned an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and am the associate editor of Parhelion Literary Magazine out of Richmond. An Ohio native, I'm at work on a novel and short stories set in the Rust Belt, and I hype Midwestern authors at my blog, Rust Belt Girl.

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