Kat Chow is a reporter and writer. She was a founding member of NPR’s Code Switch team, and her memoir, “Seeing Ghosts,” is available now. In it, she traces three generations of her family’s story from China and Hong Kong to Cuba and America, all along asking what it means to reclaim her family’s story and reckon with the debilitating, lonely grief of her mother’s sudden death. We asked Kat to make us a playlist to accompany the memoir, which is available now.
Read her song picks, and reflections, below.
In high school, I spent so much time wheeling around the suburbs of Connecticut in my mother’s old minivan. Often late at night, often with no purpose or destination in mind. Driving became a way for my teenage self to feel independent and to escape my house, which had become wild and overgrown with my family’s belongings — and memories of my mother, who had died suddenly a few years earlier.
I like to think of this playlist as a mix tape of songs I listened to (or would have listened to, if they were out in the world then) during those drives. These songs looped while I wrote some passages of my memoir, “Seeing Ghosts.” And though “Seeing Ghosts” spans decades of my family’s history and is more a story about generational loss rather than grief itself, many of these songs evoke the mood of that teenage era: a little melancholy and playful, but ultimately full of so much hope. In the book, I write:
“On my way home from hanging with friends or school, I drove the same route you took from the barn, my left foot bare and tucked under my right leg and my shoes kicked under my seat. After midnight, Route 2 to Wethersfield was dependably empty. I let its stillness comfort me. The Glastonbury woods and the Connecticut river snaked black underneath the pavement and the concrete bridges. On summers, I rolled down the windows and crooned along to whatever CD that Kiah or another friend, Meg, had burned me. In many of these moments, I felt calm and contemplative, and the loneliness that often registered instead felt right. I would miss these moments later in life; how freeing it felt to be by myself, with so much in my future feeling like a possibility.”
Listening to this song helped me channel the mood at the beginning of “Seeing Ghosts” — an uncertain longing. Those opening lyrics always get me: “I don’t know what to do without you / I don’t know where to put my hands / I’ve been trying to lay my head down / But I’m writing this at 3 a.m.”
This cover is just so gorgeous. It makes me think of “Seeing Ghosts’” first title, “As Deep As The Ocean,” a reference to a phrase of endearment that my mother used to tell my sisters and me: “I love you as high as the sky and as deep as the ocean.”
In my mind when I hear this song: those late-night car rides with friends, windows down, end of summer. Everybody’s singing along, nobody can hit those high notes and nobody’s taking themselves seriously.
Years ago, my friend Stephanie sent me this song after we spent hours talking about complicated families and how there can still be tenderness within that hurt. I found so much comfort in this song.
Okay, okay, we’re getting into teenage-angst territory, I know. But I listened to this song on repeat in high school. It was on a CD that a friend had burned for me.
Such a haunting lament about how everything — a place, a person — shifts no matter what.
I love this song’s dreaminess. Somehow, it’s almost 30 years old. So, so many drives on Route 2 in Connecticut playing this late at night.
I’ve always been drawn to the contradiction of this song — upbeat yet somehow gloomy. I think Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath summed it up well when she called it a “bummer of a happy pop-dirge” that she wrote when she was trying to make a love song.
I associate this song with senior year of high school, when I’d just decided I was leaving Connecticut for Seattle. A friend burned me a CD with this song, and it became this (in retrospect, earnest) summer anthem.
The teenager in me always appreciated the literal invocation of “funeral.” And, I don’t know, maybe a lot of teenagers who liked alt-rock in the mid-2000s would appreciate this, too?
I loved this song as a teenager because it felt a little epic and hopeful. Especially this part: “We’re just a million little gods causing rain storms / Turning every good thing to rust / I guess we’ll just have to adjust.”
Probably one of my favorite songs sung by Jenny Lewis. It’s very nostalgic of being 17.