‘I watch old westerns while the spuds are in the oven’: creative people on how they relax
Val McDermid, author
When I want truly to wind down, it’s a chance to read something fresh and unfamiliar. The risk is the possibility of being let down by a writer – we all have bad days – or, conversely, being sucked into something so compelling that I emerge with nerves completely jangled. So usually I go for old favourites. Not that they won’t surprise me with things I’ve never noticed before. But for most of the read, I know exactly where I am and what’s coming next. Jane Austen’s Emma; Reginald Hill’s On Beulah Height; Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island; Iain Banks’s The Crow Road; Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage – they all work their magic on me.
Max Richter, musician
Some creative works operate on our consciousness like a time machine, or like Star Trek’s transporter deck; they have the ability to take us out of our everyday lives and give us a glimpse of something else. They seem to do something to us subliminally, something we can’t easily describe, and that something feels good. It can be hard to pin down why this is so, and that in itself is part of the pleasure of Missa L’Homme armé sexti toni by Josquin des Prez. On a technical level, Josquin’s music is mind-bendingly sophisticated, but we don’t need to know anything about Renaissance contrapuntal technique to enjoy the magical sonic architecture he constructs. To me, it feels like a beam of light straight from the 16th century, shedding a little light on our troubled times.
Irvine Welsh, author
I’m generally pretty relaxed and very rarely suffer from stress. I see my role as more of a “stress enabler” in others. The last thing I would do if I was stressed would be to read a book. I’d rather write one.
Grace Chatto of Clean Bandit, musician
I often find myself listening to the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4. At first, I am usually wondering what time it is, but then, because often I’m on the other side of the bed and I can’t be bothered to turn it off, I just listen and it becomes very relaxing. I think it’s something to do with not understanding it and just hearing words that sound nice, and also because it is so repetitive. In terms of music, it depends on what kind of stress it is. If it’s a heartbreak-related stress, I like to listen to Lauryn Hill’s Forgive Them Father the most, especially the harmonies. If it’s a Clean Bandit-related stress, there are smooth things they play on Classical FM that can help, such as Barber’s Adagio for Strings, or there is a choral version of it too that is very relaxing.
Interview by Michael Cragg
Jackie Kay, author
I like returning to the familiar to unwind – rereading is like rewatching an old movie. You’ll always find something you haven’t found before, but the mix of the familiar and the new helps you to relax.
Books that I’ve returned to several times? Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, anything by Toni Morrison but particularly The Bluest Eye and Sula. The short stories of Anton Chekhov and Katharine Mansfield: they are like a shot of caffeine taken before a nap. Their tautness demands complete concentration and so, after reading one and being immersed in its world, letting go is a piece of cake.
On the other hand, I find books designed to help relaxing an enormous wind-up because all the time my mind will drift when I’m supposed to be practising mindfulness or something. Those kind of books actually make me anxious.
Alan Sparhawk of Low, musician
The sort of music I listen to when I relax really depends on who I am around. If we’re on tour in the van, I’ll put on some reggae. You can be engaged with it or drift off. It is normally pretty positive and uplifting, so that’s always a good spirit to let in.
Weirdly, sometimes if I want to relax, I put on extreme metal. It’s a bit like surrendering – it provides a bed for all that residual darkness inside. I’d only ever do it alone, but I feel as though I am being sensitive to myself by letting it absorb me.
Then there is Alice Coltrane. She has a song called Turiya that is otherworldly – she plays the harp in it, and it is so musical and ecstatic and pure. Her intent really flows through. You feel like, where did this music come from? That music is good for me when relaxing is crucial and I really need an antidote. It’s magic.
Interview by Poppy Noor
Jacqueline Wilson, author
When I am lazing around in my pyjamas, I reread the novels of my favourite author, Anne Tyler. She writes such absorbing, wise, tender books, devastatingly acute about human nature – and wonderfully easy to read. I might go back to an early novel such as Celestial Navigation, pick up a well-thumbed masterpiece such as Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or reread her latest book Clock Dance. She never fails.
Kelley Deal of the Breeders, musician
I don’t really turn to rock music if I want to relax because it’s kind of like my work. If I start listening to music, I’ll start deconstructing it and thinking: “Why did he put that snare hit right there?”, which is stressful in itself. But for myself and my cat, whenever I need my house to be lovely and stress-free, I put a classical radio station on. My cat likes me to leave it on when I leave the house too, because we both agree that it is the best. Why? With classical music, you just can’t guess where it’s going to go next. Perhaps it’s because I don’t know as much about classical music, but with a pop song you can always tell. I like how classical music takes me on a journey.
Morgana Robinson, actor
To relax, I like to watch something that feeds the soul and makes me feel all warm inside. Anything with David Attenborough gets a big thumbs up. So do dark comedies such as Search Party (I’m obsessed) or Inside No 9. To wind down from a stressful week, it has got to be something like Dave Chappelle or Ali Wong, preferably with a nice bottle of red. On Sundays, we like to watch old westerns while the spuds are in the oven: cowboys and pretty palominos – who could ask for more?
Olly Alexander of Years & Years, musician
The album I’d want to listen to with a cup of coffee at sunrise would be Blue by Joni Mitchell, or Jeff Buckley’s Sketches for my Sweetheart the Drunk. I also have this playlist on Spotify called “I feel sexy” that is great for relaxing. It is all R&B throwbacks such as TLC, Aaliyah and 3LW. Sometimes I just want to go back to what I listened to as a teenager – not because it was a better time, just that you have such strong connections to those songs. As a young gay man, I was really grasping around at what I could identify with, and for me it was these female musicians. I like it more now because I can try on this element of confidence or sexiness with it that I wasn’t able to when I was younger.
Antonia Thomas, actor
My ultimate comfort TV has to be David Attenborough, with his calming voice, or any wildlife show. I adore animals, and like most children wanted to be a vet and spend my days caring for them. So the idea of watching people going to sanctuaries and helping wildlife thrive or just observing them in their natural habitat is a huge de-stresser for me.
Nikki Amika-Bird, actor
When I am losing my sense of humour, I turn on RuPaul’s Drag Race for instant fun and frivolity. Underneath the sequins and glitter is a touching message about self-belief in times of adversity.
There is something really comforting about watching the preparation of food, and Chef’s Table adds adventure and travel into the mix. And I recently discovered Succession, about the power struggles of the mega-rich Roy family. Horrifying and hilarious in equal measure, all the characters are so stressed out it makes your own stresses seem small in comparison.
Akala, musician and author
I have trouble sleeping and try to avoid technology where possible. I also read, and listen to calming music every day. When I start to overthink things, or believe I am way more important than I actually am (a leading cause of stress in all of us), I read a verse from the Tao Te Ching, which is said to be the wisest book of all time. It helps to remind myself what an insignificant speck of dust our entire solar system is, let alone me. This helps me to regain perspective.