Sound Effects: 20 Must Read Books About Musicians
When reflecting on books about musicians, I think of the ones that highlight what a daring life it is. Writers are generally not present when people are reading their books. Painters don’t have to stand beside their art in a gallery. But musicians do their tough, creative work and get feedback in real time, for better or worse. That feedback loop between audience and musician generates an incredible and rare energy. It’s certainly why live music was among the things I’ve missed the most in the past few years. I sought it out as soon it felt safe to do so. Whether you’re a live music person or not, books about musicians are consistently fascinating attempts to catch lightning in a bottle.
If you know me, you know I’m a broad church both musically and bookishly. I don’t stick to any one genre of music, though I have my favorites. And I love to read as widely as possible — across genres and age ranges. So if I’m choosing must-read books about musicians, there’ll be fiction and nonfiction. We’ve got comics and YA. And you know there will be plenty of music genres represented. There are plenty of great books about music theory, the history of music scenes, and cultural analyses of music’s influence. But today we’re focusing on the musicians themselves. Let’s get to know a few.
Kiss & Tell by Adib Khorram
There’s something in me that is forever powerless against a good boy band. Ultimately, I have to honor that starry-eyed tween still living inside me. Kiss & Tell is a sweet YA story about a boy band star named Hunter struggling to maintain an image as a perfect queer role model. He’s been forced into this role because of a messy public breakup and pressure from his label. But there’s a romance brewing between Hunter and Kaivan, the drummer for the band Hunter’s touring with. How will the two of them deal with the pressure cooker of celebrity culture?
The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin by Kip Wilson
If seeing the show/film Cabaret filled you with a creeping dread that made the run-up to World War II incredibly visceral, you should read this book. It’s a historical novel in verse, following the journey of Hilde, an orphan who finally finds her place in Berlin’s queer community. She also finds romance with cabaret performer Rosa at Café Lila. But creeping fascism threatens their countercultural space. You will no doubt find similarities between the events of this book and events in the current day United States.
American Royalty by Tracey Livesay
Here’s a romance premise to top them all: Reclusive Prince Jameson agrees to plan the tribute concert for the Queen’s late husband. An American rapper named Duchess would be perfect, right? But he discovers too late that her music is actually sexy and raunchy. The Queen can’t handle another scandal. But Duchess, AKA Dani, needs this exposure. And Jameson and Dani have the hots for each other, of course. Romance dictates this all ends well, but how?
When You Get the Chance by Emma Lord
Mamma Mia! is peak cinema and I will brook no arguments. Emma Lord knows this, which is why When You Get the Chance takes its inspiration from the pinnacle of movie musicals. In a conceit that will make Elder Millennials and Gen-Z crumble to dust, aspiring Broadway star Millie tries to find the identity of her mother using her dad’s LiveJournal from 2003. Like its cinematic forebear, she has three viable suspects, and her quest to find her roots promises to also bring her back to herself.
Heartbreak Symphony by Laekan Zea Kemp
Heartbreak Symphony tackles really tough topics — grief, the effects of immigration policies, and mental health, to name a few — but it keeps a song in its heart. Aarón Medrano is trying to deal with the grief for his mother that has manifested as a hallucination of his favorite pop star. He has to push past it to audition for a prestigious music academy. Meanwhile, Mia Villanueva’s stage fright is threatening to torpedo her musical aspirations. When the two find each other, they learn to face their fears and chase their dreams together.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
I love, love, love books that are written as fictitious oral histories. There are a number of novels of this style about musicians, and this one is a true gem. It delves into the story of a Afro-punk duo, a white British man and a Black American woman. Sure, it’s got the sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But the exploration of the racism that tore the duo apart is what makes this novel chilling and unforgettable. It’s also one to listen to if you enjoy audiobooks!
Can’t Take That Away by Steven Salvatore
Tales of teens finding their voices and being defiant are always a source of much-needed energy in a world bent on wearing marginalized people down. Carey, a genderqueer teen, finds the courage to audition for the role of Elphaba in their school’s production of Wicked despite the lingering pain from past homophobic incidents at school. Carey and their newfound love interest Chris stand up to the discrimination Carey’s faces in a fierce and inspiring way.
Beating Heart Baby by Lio Min (July 26)
This book is a big ol’ love letter. To indie music and Los Angeles. To young queer people and anime. And if you’re up for having your heart broken and put back together again, you’re in for a real treat. Santi bungled his internet friendship with Memo after inadvertently letting one of Memo’s songs leak. Years later, Santi is at a new school and is finding his place within the marching band. But prickly Suwa has doubts in Santi. As it turns out, their painful pasts are intertwined…
West Side Love Story by Priscilla Oliveras
Mariachi music! Where I live now, I don’t get to hear it very often. But I always enjoyed a surprise serenade in a taqueria full of people in San Francisco or a subway car full of people in New York. So this romance, a Romeo and Juliet story of feuding mariachi families and star-crossed love, is right up my alley. The charming San Antonio backdrop is perfect for the swoony story of Mariana and Angelo forging a happily ever after out of decades of betrayals and rivalries.
The Frontman by Ron Bahar
The choice to pursue music over a more stable career is always a tough one. The main character of The Frontman, Ron, is the child of Israeli immigrants living in Nebraska. His parents would prefer he study medicine and marry a Jewish girl. But Ron is hiding his non-Jewish girlfriend from his parents. And while he is passionate about medicine, he also loves playing in his friend’s band. This coming-of-age tale is full of angst and heart in equal measure.
Black Card by Chris L. Terry
Navigating the world as a biracial person puts people in difficult spots constantly. Even the music a biracial person makes is going to be subject to intense scrutiny. This satirical novel follows a narrator’s quest to win back his “Black card.” He dives into stereotypes. He’s a punk musician, but he’ll rap at an all-white country music karaoke night if that will seal the deal. The author writes with authority on matters of identity, examining both race and the ties between music and identity.
Redbone: The True Story of a Native American Rock Band by Christian Staebler
If you are an MCU fan, you certainly know Redbone’s biggest hit “Come and Get Your Love.” That Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack really found some old bops. You might assume Redbone was a one-hit wonder, but their story as an all-Native band is much richer than that. Their dedication to the American Indian Movement that started in the late ‘60s took priority over commercial success in music. Read this graphic history for a fascinating intersection of musicians and civil rights movements.
Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms by Kira Thurman
For many people throughout history, the German identity has not included Black people. This compelling book investigates that notion, by profiling Black musicians who learned to perform German identity through the nation’s music. This challenged listeners unsure if these musicians were the true stewards of culture or dangerous outsiders. As a book that shows the way categories like race and gender come to be made and unmade, it’s a truly fascinating work.
Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads by Nick Hayes
So what was Woody Guthrie up to before he put that infamous “This machine kills fascists” message on his guitar? Before making it to New York and writing his most famous folk standard “This Land is Your Land,” he traveled around Oklahoma and Texas learning American folk music. This graphic novel uses sepia tones to capture his time among the Depression and Dust Bowl-ravaged landscape.
150 Glimpses of the Beatles by Craig Brown
While there are countless books about the Beatles, this offbeat little book is perfect for the Beatles fan who thinks they already know all there is to know about the Fab Four. In kaleidoscopic fashion, this book aims to find new angles on the Beatles, with vignettes taken from everyone from Tom Hanks to John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi. And if you like Craig Brown’s slightly madcap style, check out Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret.
Everything I Need I Get from You: How Fangirls Created the Internet as We Know It by Kaitlyn Tiffany
I read this book thinking it was going to be a book about the internet. In truth, it’s a book about One Direction. Still, it’s a rare book that can transfix me examining a topic I have almost no prior knowledge of nor any particular affection for. This book takes a fascinating look at 1D’s fandom, showing paths into music appreciation I had never before considered. Can you imagine becoming a fan of a band after reading fanfic about them? Maybe you can, but this book opened my eyes for sure!
Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest by Hanif Abdurraqib
Always read what Hanif Abdurraqib is writing, is a credo to live by. As a longtime fan of A Tribe Called Quest, this book really thrilled me. The book contextualizes Tribe’s jazz-infused rap not only within music history, but in other spaces, including the author’s own life. Having a soundtrack cued up is always advisable when reading books about musicians, but Abdurraqib has also provided two Spotify playlists to accompany this book.
Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride
The Godfather of Soul. The hardest working man in show business. James Brown is as much a legend as he is a man. But National Book Award winner James McBride goes deep to find the man behind the myth. James Brown is a complicated figure, one whose reputation is marred by his history of domestic violence and alleged sexual assault. This book does not try to smooth over Brown’s image. Instead it investigates the forces that made him and the impact he had on the culture.
Chasin’ the Bird: Charlie Parker in California by Dave Chisholm
Books about jazz musicians adapt well to graphic formats, I believe. Certain art evokes jazz music for me. Likewise, listening to jazz can splash paint on my mind’s canvas. I appreciate books that don’t try to cover an entire person’s life. This book, about jazz great Charlie Parker, imagines his time in Southern California, when he and Dizzy Gillespie brought East Coast bebop west. This turbulent time in the Bird’s life is captured with heartbreaking beauty and complexity.
Glenn Gould: A Life Off Tempo by Sandrine Revel
Glenn Gould is such a fascinating musician to me. When I listen to his recordings, I really appreciate his physical presence in them; they’re lively but not pristine. Because he was a loner and had traits labeled “eccentricities,” people have sought to understand him. This book does not try to capture him using chronological time or consistent artistic style. With close observation, you’ll appreciate the idiosyncrasies of the book, along with Gould’s life and music.
The hits don’t stop there. We’ve got more of the best books about musicians, and I rounded up nonfiction about music as well. If you like to hear from the musicians themselves, please have as many music memoirs as you’d like. So keep a song in your heart and a book in your eyeballs, friends.