Writer and broadcaster Octavia Bright is no stranger to a set of headphones, as co-host of Literary Friction, a literary talk show on NTS and podcast platforms.
The show has seen 1.1 million downloads since its launch 10 years ago, and is a regular audio fixture for the Stranger Collective team.
Away from the mic, her ‘fiercely brave’ debut non-fiction book This Ragged Grace is set for publication in 2023 and explores her recovery from alcohol addiction, interwoven with her father’s experience of Alzheimer’s. Bright also writes poetry, non-fiction, academic texts, news articles and features.
A busy woman. So what role does music play in her creativity and what tunes does she switch on, to help her switch between?
“I'm incredibly sensitive to music so I tend to be quite careful about what I listen to and when, but it inspires me constantly.”
It’s the start of your creative working day. What do you do first?
I’m pretty disobedient with myself so routines are not really my thing. Sometimes I get my laptop immediately on waking and start writing in bed before I can get distracted, sometimes I get out for a walk and grab a coffee, sometimes I get sucked into doom scrolling (the worst). I hear to-do lists are useful and I do write them sometimes, but I tend to lose them immediately so who knows if they help! The one thing that happens every morning without fail though is a cup of tea.
At what point in your day do you turn to music?
I prefer to write and read in silence so music is always associated with a break, and often movement too – a walk, or sometimes I stop to dance for a bit and shake up my muscles, remind myself I have a body. If I manage to do a yoga class at the start of my day that usually involves some ambient music, too.
Do you have a go-to track that gets you going and motivates you to start?
I have quite an obsessive temperament so tend to get stuck on a particular song for a few weeks and listen compulsively until I suddenly can’t bear it and have to find a new one! Eventually – after a long break – they all feel like old friends and listening lets me time travel to whenever they were flavour of the month. Over the summer it was the solid beat of Body by Megan Thee Stallion and right now it’s the gorgeously upbeat and optimistic sound of D’Angelo’s Sugah Daddy, to lift me out of my winter blues.
Where do you write? Do you have an office, a specific room or a space or place you find yourself to be most productive?
I find I need to mix it up, sometimes writing in bed, sometimes on the sofa at 5.30am when the whole street is silent and I have space to think, sometimes a café with background noise and company is helpful. I also write a lot on my phone when I’m on public transport – there’s something about it being an in-between place and time that I find really mentally freeing.
Is music an important part of your creative process and if so, why?
It really changes depending on what kind of writing I’m doing. When I’m writing journalism or academic work music doesn’t play a part directly, though I’m always very conscious of the music and rhythm of language. This most obviously comes into play when I’m writing poetry and when I’ve worked as a librettist in direct collaboration with musicians, thinking really specifically about how sounds translate into song. When I’m writing fiction I tend to use music as a way into a particular mood or scene, the same way I might use a particular image to focus my mind on what I’m trying to get across.
How do you listen? Headphones or out loud? Online or old school?
Headphones when I’m out, on my trusty Minirig speaker at home. I used to have an old hi-fi that I rigged up (it even had a minidisc player!) but I gave it away when I last moved flat. I love vinyl and have a few records that are very special to me but my record player broke and I haven’t managed to replace it yet.
Do you have different types of music you listen to, to achieve different results?
I’m incredibly sensitive to music so I tend to be quite careful about what I listen to and when, but it inspires me constantly. There’s a lot of classical music that I find so transporting and moving that I can only really handle it in a concert setting where it’s contained to the experience of listening live. I have a playlist called ‘workingworkingworking’ that’s a mixture of instrumental electronic tracks like Preben Goes to Acapulco by Todd Terje and soul jazz tracks by Les McCann that I put on when silence is hard to come by or I’m doing the more admin heavy and less creative bits of my job. Emails in silence are dreadful!
Is the music you listen to for work different from the music you listen to recreationally? If so how and why?
Oh definitely. There’s a whole world of music that I could never listen to while working but that I love to immerse myself in when I’m walking the city, or going dancing, or even just cleaning my house. I love to walk around London to something really heavy and bassy. Dancing has always been a really important part of my life (something the pandemic really messed with) and I will dance to all kinds of music – funk and soul, RnB, electronica. I learned flamenco so artists like Diego El Cigala or Ojos de Brujo are always on my dance playlists.
How did you listen to music while writing This Ragged Grace?
I’m still writing it and yes very much so – it’s a memoir and each chapter is set in a different year and a different place so music is a brilliant way of getting back in touch with how things were at that specific time. For example, chapter two is set in New York in 2014 when I was playing a lot of Grace Jones, so I’ve been listening to the song The Apple Stretching to get me in the mood, and for chapter three (set in London in 2015/16) it will be Joan as Policewoman and Grimes, who I was very into then.
What one song or album can you rely on to get you writing?
Honestly it changes all the time and totally depends on my mood. A couple of years ago it was Whokill by Tune-Yards, for a while it was Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub) by Groove Armada. At the moment it’s nothing in particular, I’m all over the place!
"If you are feeling listless or bored this track will shake you out of your complacency.”
Suntoucher – Groove Armada: “In between handing in my PhD thesis and doing the viva I went to Cornwall and walked for four days on the Southwest coastal path, listening to this on repeat. I listen to it whenever I want to get back in touch with that time of deep focus and reflection, it always takes me back to my time among the Cornish foxgloves.”
The List – Moonchild: “The sound of this track is so warm and comforting, so smooth, but the chorus (‘Don’t wanna feel the way I do / It’s just what I’m going through’) is a helpful reminder that all things pass.”
Tout ceci ne vous rendra pas le Congo – Baloji: “If you are feeling listless or bored this track will shake you out of your complacency. Heavy metal riffs, beautiful chanting, Congolese drums, it’s an incredibly rich sound and tells the story of a world outside your own head and your own experience. Baloji is a Belgian-Congolese hip hop artist and this track comes from his incredible autobiographical album Hotel Impala. The poetry of his lyrics blows me away every time.”
Dean Town – Vulfpeck: “There is something really peppy and upbeat about this instrumental track that always cheers me up and helps me focus.”
Don’t Waste My Time – SAULT: “If I fall into a pit of procrastination I use this song to get me out.”
Do It Today – Maximum Joy: “When I want to feel lifted I stick this on. It always makes me want to stand up and move my body, shake it all out a bit and reset my brain.”
Bra – Cymande: “Its soaring saxophones and chorus of ‘But it’s all right, we can still go on’ can be really helpful when I feel stuck.”
Peaches – The Presidents of the United States of America: “Honestly this song makes me laugh every time I listen and reminds me not to take myself too seriously. It came out in 1996 when I was about nine, and I remember hearing it on the radio then and have treasured it ever since. I also love peaches. Maybe one day I too will move to the country where I will eat a lot of peaches.”
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