In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Kyle Lucia Wu’s novel Win Me Something is a poignant and nuanced debut that is impossible to put down.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
“Impressive. . . . expect subtle surprises as Willa’s relationships evolve in a satisfying accumulation of carefully drawn small moments that build toward her understanding, even acceptance, of both an imperfect world and herself.”
In some ways, Win Me Something is a book that deals in silence, in not knowing the words to bridge a distance, and in finding loneliness when you wish for companionship. But like Ocean Vuong says, “loneliness is still time spent with the world,” and Win Me Something is also about time spent in the world, about figuring out how it works and how you work within it.
When I think about Willa, the main character in the book, and this year of her life, I think of the long walks I used to take in New York. There’s a particular feeling that occurs when you are not in the rhythms of everyone else, when you’re working jobs outside of normal office hours. You’re never alone in this in New York, which is comforting, but you’re still not the majority. In my early twenties I would leave jobs like nannying, catering, hostessing, coat check, and be too wired to go home, but too weary to meet up with friends, or maybe I had no one to meet. I’d walk as long as I could and catch snippets of conversations held over cigarettes, music pumping from bars, one side of a cell phone argument, blasts of air conditioning on warm nights––signs of life, pockets of energy, all the way home. There was a way in which this didn’t feel lonely to me; it felt like I was walking home alongside everyone else living their lives on the sidewalk. I made this playlist for Willa to listen to when she gets off work, circling the streets in search of something she can’t quite describe, with this playlist in one ear and New York in the other.
1. Happy, Mitski
This one verse always guts me: “I was in the bathroom, I didn’t hear him leave / I locked the door behind him and I turned around to see / All the cookie wrappers and the empty cups of tea / Well I sighed and mumbled to myself again, I have to clean.” Again, you have to clean; a mundane low following a temporarily high. I love that the song can’t really make up its mind over whether it’s tentative or tough, an intentional back-and-forth. (If you haven’t watched the music video, brilliantly directed by Meagan Houang, you should.)
2. Devil Town, Bright Eyes
I couldn’t make a playlist adjacent to loneliness without a little Bright Eyes, patron saint to sad suburban kids. Willa probably would have gone with Lua or Land Locked Blues as a teen but I like the alienation of this Devil Town cover, and think it’s a fitting anthem for anyone who looked around their hometown and wondered why they were the outcast.
3. Maps, Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Michelle Zauner, AKA Japanese Breakfast, talks in her memoir about how seeing Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs perform was life-changing, to see a biracial Asian American woman like herself tearing things up. “Karen O made music feel more accessible, made me believe it was possible that someone like me could one day make something that meant something to other people,” she writes in Crying at H-Mart. I think Willa would have felt the same way.
4. Same Mistakes, The Echo-Friendly
“My friends are all adults / I’m still a teenage girl.” This synthy ode to not feeling like you’re growing up on the right schedule is the perfect backdrop for a moody evening walk.
5. SUGA’s Interlude, Halsey
The surprisingly harmonious mix of sorrow-tinged piano, Halsey’s delicate vocals, and Suga’s tender rap bring to mind the mix of Bijou, childlike but wise beyond her years, and Willa, grown, but pierced with longing for a childhood she didn’t have.
6. Between the Bars, Madeleine Peyroux
I first heard this song with the Metric cover, which isn’t on Spotify, but this cover by Madeleine Peyroux is even more haunting, the last line of the following verse like a promise you’re not sure you want kept: “People you’ve been before /That you don’t want around anymore / That push and shove and won’t bend to your will / I’ll keep them still.”
7. forever rain, RM
RM’s wishing for a rainy day for both a respite from others and because the relentless noise of rain feels like company. “I wish it’d rain all day…‘cause in the rain people are busy minding themselves,” and then, “When it rains I get a little feeling that I do have a friend. Keeps knocking on my windows, asks me if I’m doing well.” This dual wish strikes me as something that feels so apt for a certain loneliness: the fluctuation between wanting to be left alone, because you’ve been let down so much in the past, and the wish for company, of any kind.
8. Moon River, Frank Ocean
I like that there are a few covers on this playlist because I love the way covers can breathe life into old stories, ones we thought we knew. Frank Ocean’s cover of Moon River changed the meaning of the song for me. We can always change the stories we tell about ourselves.
9. The Truth Untold, BTS
There’s such a sad, soaring want here. The lyrics circle around the trap of concealing yourself, refusing to open up because you fear others will be turned off by the ugliness of your humanity. “Bloomed in a garden of loneliness / A flower that resembles you / I wanted to give it to you / After I take off this foolish mask.”
bloomed in a garden of loneliness: my book’s alternate title.
10. Modern Love, David Bowie
Bringing the energy up a bit! In an early version of the book, Willa skipped home singing this song after pretending to be Nathalie at the bar, feeling emboldened by her performance. I think of Modern Love as the perfect skipping-home-from-a-bar-feeling-invincible song.
11. Little Babies, Sleater-Kinney
I think Carrie Brownstein has said this song is about the relationship of the band to their fans, but when Sleater-Kinney screams “I’m the water i’m the dishes i’m the soap / I will comfort make you clean help you cope”? Anyone who’s cared for a child feels that.
12. Lions and Tigers, Asobi Seksu
“Send the kids to the garden,” this song begins. It’s playful, like Willa and Bijou heading around the city on a good day, but also wistful and at a distance, like Willa knowing it all won’t last.
13. Late Bloomer, Jenny Lewis
This song is like its own coming-of-age story, starring a girl who’s “furious and restless,” a late bloomer away from home, enamored by an older woman… I love this whole album, but see this one on Willa’s playlist the most.
14. Your Best American Girl, Mitski
I’ll end with a song that I feel is infused into the pages of Win Me Something because I listened to it so often while rewriting my novel at a writing residency at Millay Arts, the time that finally got me an agent. Willa would love the resigned yet triumphant, “I finally do,” of this song, and want to find herself in that certainty. I’m happy we both open and close with Mitski, my queen. You don’t always need to have traveled far in a journey, just to have looked at things from an angle that changes them. (And watch the music video!)
Kyle Lucia Wu is the author of the novel Win Me Something (Tin House).