So I want to be completely transparent with you before we go any further. I used to be in a band. And I used to date musicians. Nowadays, I’ve retired my guitar and my musician boyfriends, and yet musicians still fascinate me. Clearly, I’m not the only one intrigued by them, as there are many, many books about musicians. But if you’re looking for the best books, start with these ten must-reads. I’ve divided them into nonfiction and fiction so you can easily find your new favorite.
Nonfiction Books About Musicians
The Beautiful Ones by Prince
Of course Prince needs no introduction, but he’s going to get one anyway. Prince was an American singer-songwriter who played many instruments and was considered a guitar virtuoso. He has many popular songs in his catalogue, including hits like “Purple Rain,” “Kiss,” and “When Doves Cry.” Did you start singing just reading the titles of those songs? Because I did. Prince is one of the greatest musicians of his generation, and here we get his story, from childhood to superstardom, in his own words. This memoir was published posthumously and includes a heartfelt introduction from editor Dan Piepenbring.
Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon
When I was a teenage girl in a band, Kim Gordon was my hero. And even if you don’t know who she is yet, she’ll be your hero, too, by the time you finish reading this book. Kim Gordon is a founding member of Sonic Youth and Free Kitten, and she’s a feminist icon. In Girl in A Band, Kim Gordon not only speaks on her own personal experiences playing alternative rock in the 1980s and 1990s. She also reflects on what it’s like being a woman in the male-dominated music industry. Gordon’s memoir is a personal journey that also feels like an empowering feminist manifesto.
Acid for the Children by Flea
Flea is an Australian American musician who is probably best known for being the bassist and one of the founding members of the alternative rock band The Red Hot Chili Peppers. This memoir is a unique look into the musician’s life. Instead of focusing on his later years, here Flea reflects on his youth. Flea writes about his upbringing, moving from Australia to the United States, his stepfather introducing him to jazz music, and meeting Anthony Kiedis, who would become his bandmate in The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Jay-Z: Made in America by Michael Eric Dyson
This is a musical biography unlike any other you’ve read before. Jay-Z is an American rapper, songwriter, record executive, entrepreneur, and producer. And yes, he’s also Mr. Beyoncé. This biography is the story of Jay-Z, from hustling to rapping to executive boardrooms. But it’s also the story of America. Author Michael Eric Dyson examines Jay-Z as a poet and an activist, in addition to all of his other accomplishments. And Dyson looks at how America’s economic, racial, and social injustices helped shape Jay-Z’s career and his art.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
Unlike the other nonfiction on this list, this last book is not a biography or an autobiography about one specific musician. In his essays, Abdurraqib examines popular music and musicians, from Bruce Springsteen to Carly Rae Jepsen to Chance the Rapper, and relates their work to his life experiences. These essays cover topics like being a Muslim in America, growing up Black in the 1990s, death and grief, and much more.
Fiction Books About Musicians
Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro
In this collection of short stories by acclaimed author Kazuo Ishiguro, music itself becomes a character. This book contains five interconnected stories about music and musicians: a singer past his prime who’s desperate to have comeback, a man who is only valued for his taste in music, a singer-songwriter who becomes involved with a married couple, a jazz musician who turns to plastic surgery to help his career, and a cellist who meets an older woman who claims to be an excellent cellist herself. In each and every story, Ishiguro writes about characters who live and breathe music.
White Tears by Hari Kunzru
White Tears is a literary horror novel starring blues music and two young musicians who are obsessed with blues. When one of them accidentally records someone singing in the park, they decide to post it online, claiming that it’s the long-lost recording from a 1920s blues musician called Charlie Shaw. But then a collector contacts them to let them know their recording is real, the two musicians suddenly find themselves at the center of a true ghost story and murder mystery. Kunzru’s novel is a chilling story that examines the history of music and racism in America.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is inspired by a true story. In Peru in 1996, hundreds of civilians were held hostage at Japanese ambassador’s residence. Patchett reimagines that story in an unnamed South American country. A world-famous soprano has been invited to sing at a birthday party of a visiting Japanese industrial titan. But just as she starts her performance, a band of 18 terrorists invade the mansion and take all of the guests hostage. The hostages are from many different countries and have very different life experiences, but as their days in this hostage situation stretch into weeks and months, they all find comfort in music.
We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix
Musicians: how far would you go to become famous? Would you sell your soul? How about the souls of your band mates? In Grady Hendrix’s We Sold Our Souls, that’s exactly what happens. Back in the 1990s, the heavy metal band Dürt Würk was on a trajectory to stardom. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, their lead singer decided to go solo. Now, former guitarist Kris Pulaski works a thankless job as the night manager at a Best Western, and she wonders where her life went wrong. Turns out former Dürt Würk lead singer Terry Hunt (now known as Koffin) made a deal with the devil at the expense of his bandmates in order to become a rockstar himself. Now Kris must reunite with her former band members to confront the man who ruined their life and fight to get their souls back.
The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu
For the last title in this list of books about musicians, let’s go back. Way, way back to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his sister Nannerl in The Kingdom of Back. All Nannerl wants is to be remembered, but in 18th century Europe no one is interested in a female composer. To make matters worse, Nannerl’s brother Wolfgang is incredibly talented, and others are beginning to notice. Nannerl thinks her chances of becoming a famous musician are starting to dim, but then something strange happens. A mysterious stranger from a magical land appears to her, and he has an irresistible offer. He can give her the fame and acclaim as a musician that she’s always desired. But what will it cost her?