“Willy,” Joni Mitchell
Willy is my joy, he is my sorrow
Now he wants to run away and hide
He says our love cannot be real
He cannot hear the chapel's pealing silver bells
But you know it's hard to tell
When you're in the spell if it's wrong or if it's real
When asked, which is admittedly infrequent, this is my favorite Joni Mitchell song. The lyrics capture a struggle that I felt mirrored my narrator’s: this push-and-pull between two people that love one another despite better judgement and despite circumstance. And then I even went so far as to pull my own character, Willie, straight from the song, changing only the spelling. My debt to this song is huge. I think Nora, my narrator, is speaking from the same place as Joni when she says of her Willie, “I want to trace him on the surface of the moon. I want the night to be lit with his name.”
“Drinkin’ Problem”/“How I Love That Man”/“Stealing Kisses,” Lori McKenna
All of Lori’s music is tremendously heartfelt, and this is the trifecta of songs I revisited over and over again in drafting “Scottsdale.” In story-world, I bet Nora has worn through a few of Lori’s records. There’s a simplicity to her lyrics that allows for the most distilled and heartbreaking songs. “Drinkin’ Problem,” for example, which dances around every last country music pitfall with ease. “The book I been reading says we need to work this out,” she sings. “We need to talk about our problems and we got ‘em.”
“Stealing Kisses” is a song that makes me think of Gladys, “her husband and his empty highways.” This song has been on every mix CD I’ve made since I first heard it. It’s a guarantee. Nobody with two ears and a heart walks away from this song unmoved. It’s just not possible.
But it’s “How I Love That Man,” a song I don’t believe Lori has officially recorded, that was so helpful for me in my own creative process. I am singlehandedly responsible for half of these views:
With his arms around me, I forget everything
Sometimes I wish my memory served me better
And I know that redemption is a powerful thing
But I don’t give a damn
How I love that man
It was this chorus in particular that made Nora’s motivation crystallize to me. With enough repetition, I came to understand what it is to stay when you possibly maybe probably should go. (See: the human condition.)
“Good Woman,” Cat Power
There’s no one who can capture loss and longing quite like Cat Power, and she’s at her best in “Good Woman.” I think it’s one of the finest songs ever written. So simple, so understated. And what else do you need to know when she sings, “I want to be a good woman/and I want for you to be a good man.” This song says everything I set out to say in regard to Willie and Nora’s relationship. If I’ve expressed it with half the grace that Chan Marshall has here, I count my lucky stars.
“Fruits of My Labor,” Lucinda Williams
Come to my world and witness
The way things have changed
'Cause I finally did it, baby
I got out of La Grange
Got in my Mercury and drove out west
Pedal to the metal and my luck to the test
Baby, sweet baby
It’s no soundtrack worth listening to if you don’t have Lucinda Williams on it. So much of her repertoire offers itself, but it’s this one in particular, “Fruits of My Labor” that I had on repeat as I wrote the end of my story. It’s a song that I imagine Nora hears on the way to Wichita as the story closes, off to look for Willie one last time. There’s grief, anger, but also a sense of relief to be had both in this song and on that drive.
Vincent Scarpa is a graduate of Emerson College and the 2012 Norman Mailer College Fiction award winner. His stories have appeared in various publications including Baltimore Review, Monkeybicycle, and plain china: Best Undergraduate Writing 2011. He tweets @vincentscarpa.