I’ve been fortunate to spend more than a couple of Thursday nights over the last two years in an underground bar in downtown Phoenix listening to people pour out their hearts at Bar Flies. Sometimes the people on stage have been friends, occasionally they’ve been strangers, and more than once, they’ve been personal heroes of mine.
Sometimes I’m there just to listen, to spend a few minutes wrapped up in someone else’s life. But often I’m there with a job to do. Situated with Grasher behind the soundboard, I’m there to pick the songs that play after a reading ends, to signal the end of one story and the start of another.
It’s something of a dream gig.
I’ve always soundtracked my own life. In high school, I’d make mixtapes, each song selected to inspire or enhance whatever teenage feeling I was experiencing. These days, I sequence together long Apple Music playlists in advance of road trips, hoping the adventurousness of the music will set the pitch for my own experiences.
But being handed the reins to soundtrack someone else's story is a responsibility, and I don’t take that lightly. If you’ve ever been to one of these evenings at Valley Bar or listened to the podcast, you know the level of quality I’m talking about. Sad, funny, moving, embarrassing, terrifically weird – those are the kind of stories I’m talking about. The songs have to match.
Here’s how it works: A couple weeks before the event, Bar Flies bosses Amy Silverman or Katie Johnson send me the theme of the evening and the individual stories. I sit at the desk in my office, a repurposed high school chemistry table, replete with decades of chewed gum stuck to the bottom of it, drink coffee, and read. I usually read the stories a few times, trying to focus not just on the specifics, but the overall feeling the story inspires. I’m hunting for imagery, for scenery, and for vibe.
Just as there’s no single way for a story to tie to the impressionistic themes Silverman, Johnson, and guest curators come up with, there’s no single formula for picking songs.
Sometimes I tie the song directly to the story, playing on a riff or a tossed off joke contained therein. Sometimes I play a song mentioned during the story, though not often, as I’m wary of being too on the nose. If a story’s sad, I might select a song that offers the crowd a little uplift. If the story’s a total crack-up, I might pair it with a slightly melancholy number, as that particular combination is my aesthetic ideal. There are times when I take the exact opposite approach, following devastating story with a similarly mournful song, or a riotous story with something hilarious.
Things can get complicated at a read-through. Listening to a storyteller share their story, I sometimes realize that I’ve got the tone all wrong and there’s a last-minute scramble in my head to fix my misstep.
Now and then, I’ll get a look from a reader that reveals how completely I’ve missed the mark, and there’s some frenzied collaborative action in the moment to get that cue where it needs to be.
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Sometimes an author will say, “Can you just play ‘Moonlight Mile’ by the Stones?” or “I was really hoping for ‘Alone Again, Naturally,'” and in those moments I don’t argue, as an author’s sense about these things is almost always right.
I’m sure the process sounds amorphous. It is.
It’s a thin line you walk selecting songs to accompany someone’s most revealing words. The music’s there to enhance, not distract. I think of these songs as a punctuation mark at the end of a well-told story. If I’m doing my job well, I’m soundtracking that special moment a story sits with you. Soundtracking the sharing of a truth.