Kevin Barry’s Spotify playlist: ‘State of Independence by Donna Summer always ended the night’

Check out the Night Boat to Tangier author’s playlist of songs he’s been listening to lately

Most of my music listening these days happens in a state of incarceration: my house used to be a Garda station, and the shed out the back is an old stone outbuilding that was used as a holding cell. So I lock myself in there and try to write. There are definitely days when it feels like I’m serving a sentence, so the music helps.

The 20 songs here are pretty representative of what I’ve been listening to over the last few months while I’ve been working on plays and a screenplay and some stories. I’m also bracing myself to start a new novel shortly.

Often, when I’m concentrating on the work, the music should ideally be lyric-free. The first act on the playlist, The Master Musicians of Jajouka, are not exactly a band – they’re kind of a guild in the village of Jajouka, in the Rif Mountains in Morocco, and they perform concerts that last for weeks. It’s hypnotic, all built from percussion. They’re great first thing in the morning, when you’re trying to get yourself worked up.

I suppose I listen to black music more than anything, whether that's reggae, jazz or 1980s soul-disco such as Odyssey. And of course you have Sly and the Family Stone, who I've been listening to since I was a teenager

There’s nothing to suggest it on this list, but I listen to more jazz than I used to, a lot of Bill Evans and Miles Davis. This is probably a symptom of my advancing years. I do have certain mainstays, musically: man and boy, I’ve listened to dub reggae. Lots of it. I still buy the records all the time, and I’m always searching for rarities, obscurities. As with The Master Musicians of Jajouka, you can listen to it or not listen to it, but it’s a presence in the room, an atmosphere. My first novel, City of Bohane, was very heavily influenced by dub reggae, old Trojan Records box sets.


I go through periods when I try to listen to mainly new stuff and buy Wire magazine and all that to try to keep on top of what’s coming out. But I’ve talked about this with musician friends – there’s just so much really good music coming out, it’s tricky to try to curate it for yourself.

I did get one brand-new track on here, which is Back Trace Dub by Fish Go Deep. They're two producers in Cork, Greg Dowling and Shane Johnson, who I knew from the legendary Sir Henry's nightclub in the 1990s. Their new record that's just been released, This Bit of Earth, is very dubby, very spare. It's a step away from their house-music roots – it's really cinematic and lush.

Talking about film music, I listen to soundtracks to get a mood in the room. It can help with the writing. Musica Poetica from Gunild Keetman is the main theme from one of my favourite films, Badlands, the Terrence Malick classic from the 1970s.

I’m a lifelong devotee of Marianne Faithfull. She’s recently come out with a terrific record of spoken word she made with Warren Ellis of the Bad Seeds, doing versions of poems by Keats and others. It sent me back listening to some of her earlier work. The album Broken English is probably the most famous, and The Ballad of Lucy Jordan never gets old for me: it’s just this great anthem of yearning and regret – it’s glorious. I sometimes tune out of lyrics but not on this song.

I listen to country music quite a bit, or in phases at least, so there are a couple on this: Kinky Friedman with My Shit’s F**ked Up, which is in his trademark hang-dog style, and Harlem River Blues from the late Justin Townes Earle – it’s just a great, uplifting stomp of a song, despite the darkness of its lyrics.

I’ve always loved classic girl bands such as The Ronettes, and Be My Baby is of course pop gold, with all these amazing operatic teenage emotions bursting from every bar of it. I suppose I listen to black music more than anything, whether that’s reggae, jazz or 1980s soul-disco such as Odyssey, who are on here with Inside Out. And of course you have Sly and the Family Stone, who I’ve been listening to since I was a teenager.

When you put together a list like this, it does stray into memoir. The Groove That Won’t Stop is Detroit techno from about 1990, which I would have been very involved with at the time, and which still sounds very fresh. Some friends used to run a nightclub in Salthill in Galway called Wiped – which was a fair description of our condition in those days – and State of Independence by Donna Summer was always the last song of the night.

I ended the list with Heartbreaker by Dionne Warwick. Her voice just stops me in my tracks, always and forever. Whenever she comes on in the holding cell, I'll sit back from the keyboard and turn up the music. – As told to Shilpa Ganatra

Kevin Barry is the author of Night Boat to Tangier, Beatlebone, and City of Bohane; he joins the panel Writing from the West as part of Cairde Sligo Arts Festival, from July 3rd-11th, 2021