Rachel Joyce: the songs that saved me

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce is about a record shop owner haunted by his past, and how music can save us all. Here the author shares the songs that have helped her through tough times

I'm Not In Love by 10cc

Sometimes, though, if you feel broken, you do not wish to cheer up. You are sad and you want to be sad. If you are going to heal, you need a piece of music that is so spectacularly sad, it is even sadder than you are. I wore out my 45 single of I’m Not In Love when I was sixteen. It got so cracked and bumpy the thing was unplayable. But did that stop me? Of course it didn’t. I was sixteen. My boyfriend had dumped me for my best friend, and she (my best friend) was wearing the blue knitted scarf I had previously worn, and I felt alone and betrayed. The only time I was happy was when I was listening to that sad, sad song.

The same happened later with Brian Wilson’s Caroline, No, and Bonnie Raitt singing Too Soon To Tell, and Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where The Time Goes? and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. They are all brilliantly sad songs, big enough to contain the sorrow of a small country.

Sonata No. 1 in G Minor by Bach (solo violin)

And then there is a classical piece I found when I was sixteen that I still carry round with me. One of the best healers.

The only way I could afford new music when I was a teenager was to borrow it from the record department of West Norwood library. I took out Bach’s Sonatas because I liked the picture on the cover (a woman laughing with her violin and also flicking her hair, like someone on an advert for Elnett hairspray). As you listen, you find there is room to breathe; it gives a feeling of what people call divinity, a state of serenity and tranquillity. You sense that Bach has been very lonely in his time, and very frightened, and has used his music to make peace with those feelings. It is full of poise and therefore hope. 

Heyr Himna Smidur (Icelandic hymn)

I was writing The Music Shop for a long time, and whenever I travelled, I made sure I found the local record shop. This next choice came from a brilliant store in Reykjavik called 12 Tónar. It’s worth jumping on a plane to Iceland just to visit. (If you do, tell Larus I sent you.)

Larus told me that everyone in Iceland knows this hymn, so I suppose it must be a bit like The Lord is My Shepherd. (I have to come clean now and make it very clear I can’t sing. I have not one musical muscle in my body. My husband, who is a musician as well as several other things, says that is nonsense, everyone can sing, but that is because he has never actually heard me. Whenever I have to sing and he is next to me, I pretend I am so busy doing something else – like adjusting my buttons, for example, or being incredibly moved – that I have completely forgotten to come up with any sound.)

So this hymn gets me – it really gets me – because all those male voices come together unaccompanied to sing one message. Help us. It’s the diametrical opposite of an army going to war, or a man on TV telling you life is for winners. Watch a clip on YouTube: men in stiff white shirts and dicky-bird ties, standing so solemn and tall; and yet what they produce, what binds them together, is this exquisite, beautiful plea for mercy. It holds you like a hundred hands.

Avarandado by Joao Gilberto

Researching music for my novel, I came across this next track by accident, and it’s up there now in my medicine cupboard. The only prerequisite is that I have to listen to it a) with headphones and b) in a comfy place – such as bed – and preferably lying down.

This is like being sung to by something inside you. It’s so intimate and soft-voiced, you can hear him buzzing Zs and slurring Ss. I listen and it’s like being in a trance, or falling asleep as a child in the back of the car, very safe but also not really belonging anywhere except a good, dark place.


Go! by M83

Healing is not always a quiet business. My last remedy is French electro pop: Go! by M83 (though frankly Shalamar, Chic, Todd Rundgren, Graham Parker & the Rumour’s Hold Back The Night would do just as well). Because sometimes you just need to play something wildly happy. And dance.

When I listen to these pieces, I feel the world is in harmony. I hear notes travelling together, all different kinds, and I know there is a place where such a thing is possible. Whether it’s a soprano voice reaching so high that my throat fills with stones, or 10cc singing that I am right to hurt so much because they hurt too, music can give the feeling of having lived through a whole life. It reminds us – broken as we sometimes feel, or lost, or angry, or full of fear – of a place that is nothing to do with words, and nothing to do with differences. A bigger place, that holds us all.

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