Chaney Kwak’s Playlist for His Memoir “The Passenger”

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In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Chaney Kwak’s The Passenger is a candid and thought-provoking blend of memoir and travel writing.

Afar wrote of the book:

“For fans of The Perfect Storm, In the Heart of the Sea, and Bill Bryson on his sassiest days.”

In his words, here is Chaney Kwak’s Book Notes music playlist for his memoir The Passenger:

On the surface, The Passenger is a nonfiction book about a cruise gone wrong, centered around a luxury oceanliner without a working engine in the middle of a freak storm. But inside its suspenseful (and comic) shell, The Passenger is a deeply personal memoir about how I stopped waiting for the lifeline to drop from the sky to rescue me. It’s about working up the courage to leave a damaging situation.

This playlist turned out to be very Nordic-heavy, which seems fitting since most of the book’s action takes place off the coast of Norway. If I wanted to focus on the natural disaster aspect of the book, I’d probably pick huge symphonies about thunderstorms. If I wanted to focus on my family history of immigration, I’d probably find songs from the Korean diaspora.

Instead, this soundtrack lyrically and musically reflects The Passenger’s attempt at understanding the cost of hiding heartaches. I wanted to make the kind of playlist I’d want to listen to while on a trip—but hopefully not on another ship in distress.

Edvard Grieg – Lyric Pieces, Book 1 Op. 12: No. 1, Arietta

Grieg wrote 66 short piano pieces, published over the span of 34 years, and this melody was the very first one to appear in the first volume. It was also among the Norwegian composer’s favorites that he’d return to over and over to reference in his other works. It’s diminutive yet contains so many possibilities, and moving without being twee: something I hope my slim book aspires to be.

Northern Lights – Kate Boy

I was on the cruise because a magazine hired me to write a feature article about aurora borealis. But what are we really chasing when we set out to look for northern lights? A few days before the ship lost power, I did see them for the first time. The moment was fleeting and illusionary, like a crush.

Harps – The Sea and Cake

My friend Nick has introduced me to so many cool bands, including this band. He thought of a particular passage from The Passenger about a piece of cake I ate during the storm. (Sea and cake, get it?) Beyond the literal (and accidental) connection to the band’s name, the song’s repetitive beat reminds me of riding waves, and I love how the summery, dreamy words hint at something wistful with “there was a romance; we’ll make it up. It was the truth; I couldn’t let go of the part I never knew.”

Albatross – Sambassadeur

I often tear up when this song turns up on shuffle, right from the getgo with “Once I had it figured, once I knew exactly what to do; and I didn’t really plan to start over once again.” While breezy and bright, it hits close to home. I know too well what it’s like to go off course and drift powerlessly.

Strangers – Sigrid

In an interview, Norwegian pop star Sigrid says her favorite songs are “always the ones that makes you wanna cry and dance at the same time”—like Robyn’s Dancing on My Own. I’m with her. “Our story’s after the end / Like strangers, perfect pretenders / We’re falling head over heels / For something that ain’t real”—haven’t we all been there, ugly crying?

You Don’t Have a Clue – Röyksopp feat. Anneli Drecker

The eerie vocals evoke the sound of a rising windstorm. I get stuck on the line, “I know you’re just pretending / You’re hiding from yourself.” I just can’t decide whether I identify with the speaker or the listener of those words.

Ocean – Goldfrapp

It’s such a moody, dark song that haunts you like a vengeful spirit. It is menacing, “coming for you” like a raging monster erupting from the hadal abyss. I hope The Passenger warrants the drama of this grudge track.

Deep Water – Portishead

A musical equivalent of the eye of the storm, this short piece is achingly beautiful and spooky. There’s calm beauty in resignation; I, too, found solace in letting go during the 27 hours following the engine failure on the ship. Paradoxically, it’s when I decided I had no choice that I felt empowered to make the hardest decision of my life. I think many of us came to those crossroads during the lockdown.

Our Hell – Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton

“That’s why I tried to save you / But it can’t be done / It can’t be done” is how this grey, muted, low-pressure system of a song ends, like the relationship I describe in my book.

Émigré – Alela Diane [American]

I met Alela during our artist residency at Caldera Arts in rural Oregon. She composed this song and shared an early draft with the other residents. Her voice is simply gorgeous, which makes the tragedy described in the song all the more devastating.

There’s More to Life Than This – Björk

There’s a section in The Passenger in which I go into the men’s room and get spooked by how all sounds got sucked out once the door closed, as if that pristine white room transported me out of that ship. For her album Debut, Björk recorded this track live while moving from the hall of now defunct Milk Bar to outside and even into a bathroom stall. You feel that airtight sound for a few seconds, and it’s brilliant.

Winterbreak – MUNA

I wish I had something intelligent to add to the refrain that goes “This is the love that we won’t get right / Still if you said that you wanted / I know I’ll always have one more try.” I don’t.

Sunday Morning – Acid House Kings

If you don’t listen to the words, it may sound like a pretty little tune. “You don’t love anyone, not even yourself / I am not so sure whether I, I like the new you” may read hackneyed. But combined, this song cuts deep; it takes me right back to the beautiful, ordinary Sunday morning when I finally mustered the courage to break up. My ex simply came and sat next to me on the kitchen floor and held my hand. We knew it was over; we were thankful and devastated.

OPEN SEA – ionnalee

The heartbeat-like rhythm grows stronger as this song builds up, and there’s plenty of optimism. But I also love the ambivalence churning under the sunny ocean skin.. I think Sigrid would agree this is another track you can dance to while crying.

King of Letting Go – Sondre Lerche [Norwegian]

Finally, another Norwegian artist to round out this playlist—and musically the most upbeat track. Ultimately, I think of The Passenger as a hopeful story of letting go and setting yourself free. To gain that recklessness, you have to make sacrifices. I want to celebrate them.

Chaney Kwak has been traversing the globe for more than a decade to write about food and travel. His work appears regularly in newspapers such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, as well as magazines such as Condé Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, and Travel & Leisure. Mr. Kwak teaches nonfiction writing at the Stanford Continuing Studies program and lives in San Francisco.

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