The Last Thing You’ll Hear: A Chilling Tribute to the Power of Music

Jan Dunning writes about the power of music & her latest YA novel, The Last Thing You’ll Hear. You can listen to The Last Thing You’ll Hear playlist on Spotify today.

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It was only when I got into music that my teenage life started to make sense. I was an awkward teen, always a step behind in terms of confidence, experience – in figuring out who I was. But at the age of sixteen, I discovered music, and everything changed.

Suddenly, every weekend was devoted to hunting down rare seven-inch records, or pouring over the pages of NME, reading album reviews and scouring listings for gigs. Not a week went by when I didn’t see some band play live, while evenings at home were spent creating mixtapes for my friends; carefully curated playlists to hook them in, making them as obsessed as me.

Music gave me an identity: I was a fully signed-up indie kid.

I’m still into music – though not so slavishly these days – and I’m (almost) over my dream of being in a band. But when it came to writing my second YA novel, there was only one subject for me.

The Last Thing You’ll Hear is a contemporary thriller, with sibling rivalry, obsessive fandom, toxic cults, and an enigmatic music guru who exploits two musical sisters in an attempt to lure teens to his sinister festival, Enrapture. But at its heart, it’s a tribute to the power of music; a nod to music’s role in helping me navigate those dark teenage days.

I hope it resonates. So many teens ‘find’ themselves in music – in a lyric that speaks to them or a riff that gives them chills. Music expresses what we – shy, awkward, confused, tongue-tied – desperately want to say but can’t.

But writing about music was hard. People said it would be difficult, but I brushed their warnings away. Surely something so powerful would translate across art forms? But it wasn’t that simple. For my story to work, I had to find the words that would capture the magic of a melody or the addictive pulse of a beat… or that feeling when you’re standing in a field at dusk, waiting for your favourite band to come on stage, knowing the next moment will change your life.

I researched. What makes a song an anthem? Why do DJs withhold the bass? Why do some songs give us chills, while others leave us cold? By focussing on the emotional and psychological impact of music – how music affected my characters and influenced their actions – I had to trust the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest.

You might assume I listened to music as I wrote. Some writers do, but not me. The moment music plays, my attention drifts away, tuned in to the bass, the lyrics, the beat. I wrote in silence – although that’s not to say that I didn’t have music constantly in mind. In fact, I had fun deciding which songs to mention, which band names to drop. Every example in the book is included for a reason – perhaps there’s a clue in a song title, a layer of meaning in a lyric – or maybe they’re included simply because I love them and I want to share them with others, like making my mixtapes of old.

You can download the playlist for The Last Thing You’ll Hear on Spotify. Twenty songs by twenty artists, in the order they appear in the story. It’s a pretty eclectic mix. The story opens on a party, where Wren, my protagonist, watches as her sister Lark sings karaoke. Lark has an incredible voice – ‘a range to die for’ – and Wren, as a singer-songwriter herself, is so consumed by envy she can hardly look. I needed readers to believe in Lark’s talent, so as well as describing her trills and runs and otherworldly tone, I made her cover songs by Ariana Grande and Beyoncé – not necessarily my favourites, but songs that require such vocal dexterity, readers would understand her ability – and empathise with poor Wren.

The first time we meet Spinner – a DJ with a troubled past, and even more troubling attitude – he plays Indeep’s ‘Last Night a DJ Saved My Life’. It’s a choice that sums up his arrogance and ambition. But his music changes when he’s mentored by guru-like producer Adam, and we get a glimpse of Adam’s sinister influence and his mysterious music festival Enrapture.

Protagonist Wren is indie-kid me, but with way more skill on guitar! When Wren and best friend Danny busk to raise money for festival tickets, the fangirl in me came to the fore! Wren gleefully namechecks The Smiths, The Kinks, Pulp, Radiohead, Belle and Sebastian – older bands I love for their amazing songwriting skills – plus modern muses Hozier, Laura Marling, Phoebe Bridgers and more.

Three songs are central to the story and have particular resonance for me. In one scene, Wren reminisces about listening to ‘The Sound of Silence’ by Simon and Garfunkel and how the song gave her chills. As well as being spine-tinglingly beautiful, the lyrics are spectacularly on point for my story. I’d have quoted them if I could, but legalities didn’t allow… I hope readers will listen to the song and spot the connections. In another scene, Wren plays ‘Yesterday’ alongside her musician Dad. I also played Beatles songs with my dad – him on guitar, me singing or playing piano. My dad is profoundly deaf and he’s the inspiration for Danny in the story, a musician who wears hearing aids. I chose ‘Yesterday’, not just because it’s moving, but to throw up subtle questions about nostalgia. Change can be terrifying, and it’s tempting to pine for times gone by – but fear of the future is an idea Adam uses to lure innocent teens to his festival.

If my book was a piece of music, then the climax after the crescendo is the Enrapture festival itself. It’s here that Adam wants Lark and Spinner to perform ‘Lullaby’ – a dangerous piece of music that will lull the crowd into a trance, ready to be indoctrinated into his cult. This was perhaps my biggest challenge – how on earth to convey how this eerie, haunting melody might sound?

Luckily, I had an epiphany. While listening to the late nineties Massive Attack album Mezzanine, the song, ‘Teardrop’, came on. It so perfectly combined terrifying menace with the crooning, hypnotic beauty of Elizabeth Fraser’s vocals, goosebumps rushed up my arms. ‘Teardrop’ immediately became the template for the sinister, seductive song in my book.

So, dive into the story, download the playlist, let the music move you. Will you be able to resist?

You are entering a state of Enrapture…

Listen to The Last Thing You’ll Hear playlist on Spotify now

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The Last Thing You’ll Hear

Have you ever been so obsessed with someone that you start to lose yourself? Wren and Lark are rivals first and sisters second, so when mysterious music producer, Adam, and his DJ prodigy, Spinner, come to their small town, the game is on to impress. Lark is soon taken under Adam’s wing, but as she’s pulled deeper into his web, distancing herself from friends and family, Wren starts to suspect that there’s a more sinister side to Adam. And when the sisters get a chance to perform at Enrapture the most talked-about festival of the summer, suddenly there is a lot to lose… Can Wren put her own ambitions aside to save her sisters life? One thing’s for sure: after this summer, nothing will ever be the same again.

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