By Stephanie Gemmell
Musicians seem to be storytellers by nature, conveying complex feelings and ideas through song. Unsurprisingly, musicians and songwriters can also be talented authors, narrating their own life stories to share their experiences with their fans and other artists.
While there are countless great music memoirs, a few excellent books stand out for their artistry and candor. In no particular order, I chose to highlight 10 music memoirs for their openness, honesty, and skillful storytelling. These books also reflect their authors’ unique wisdom about music, artistry, and life, all conveyed through each artist’s distinctive voice.
In originally setting out to write about music memoirs, I was confident that I would find gems of wisdom, artistic insights, and memorably descriptive scenes in these books—and I was eager to share them with friends and other readers. But I did not anticipate how the sheer depth of inspiration and unrelenting honesty in these books would convey powerful and overarching truths about music, art, and life that greatly surpass any single individual’s life story.
In no particular order, the first five books I selected are Sting’s Broken Music, More Myself by Alicia Keys, Not Dead Yet by Phil Collins, Prince’s The Beautiful Ones, and Bono’s recently published Surrender. In a future article, I will focus on Billy Idol’s Dancing with Myself, The Seekers by The Doors’ John Densmore, Kim Gordon’s seminal Girl in a Band, Possibilities by Herbie Hancock, and Mo’ Meta Blues by Questlove.
In their own unique ways, these books leave you with a knowledge that creating music—or creating any form of art—is an ongoing journey that coincides with the journey of your own life. For this reason, each thing we create is somehow in pursuit of what we ourselves are seeking, and each individual piece of art or music becomes a little fragment of our journey—beautiful and unfinished.
I realize that these may be lofty ideas, but I set out to write a neat little listicle on music memoirs and instead found myself thinking about life and creativity in brand new ways. I hope these books can be as impactful and empowering for you as they ended up being for me.
Broken Music by Sting
Sting’s memoir, published in 2004, benefits from the same insightful and artistic command of language that permeates his songwriting. The book begins with vividly detailed anecdotes from his childhood and effectively recounts his creative evolution as a musician as a young adult. Sting’s depictions of his earliest gigging experiences, playing jazz with more seasoned musicians, and his beginnings as a songwriter especially reflect his self-awareness and humility. Sting is also adept at descriptive writing, depicting the scenes of his life from childhood onward and offering dynamic portrayals of his relationships with friends, relatives, and collaborators. He is particularly humble and self-effacing in describing his musical ambitions as a young adult and the formation of The Police as a punk rock trio in London. Notably, Broken Music centers on Sting’s musical path and the experiences that defined his early career, rather than focusing on The Police’s major international success.
This book captures a musician’s journey—inwardly and outwardly—reflecting real doubt and uncertainty at some moments, and artistic discovery, innovation, and confidence at others. Sometimes, like Sting’s music, his writing manages to balance all of these feelings, all at once. Sting’s memoir ultimately conveys his deep and evolving love of music and its impact on his life. Broken Music is an engaging, sincere, and artful book from beginning to end, representing Sting as a singular musician and artist.
“The Police set begins at ten to eleven and is finished on the stroke of the hour. It blisters along at such a pace—no gaps between the songs, defying the audience to be critical or appreciative, as if we don’t give a fuck either way, and then we’re off before they know what’s hit them. When we burst into the dressing room we’re all laughing as if we’ve just pulled off a successful bank raid.” — Sting, describing an early gig with The Police in Wales
More Myself by Alicia Keys
Alicia Keys’ memoir, published in 2020, builds on the artistic vulnerability expressed through her songwriting style and her 2004 poetry collection Tears for Water. In a somewhat unconventional style for memoir, More Myself synthesizes Keys’ own autobiographical narratives with contributions from other individuals in her life. This structure ultimately serves the book well in terms of content, pairing Keys’ self-aware observations with commentary from her family members, mentors, and collaborators. Keys’ narrative style is direct and she uses a format similar to a braided essay to present specific, momentous anecdotes from throughout her life.
In discussing her creative process, her internal doubts, and the development of her artistic identity, Keys’ narrative voice remains humble and approachable. Keys balances her trademark authentic tone with an unmistakably deep love of music and true reverence for the artists that inspire her. Alicia Keys’ passion for music and her gratitude for her path as an artist remains palpable from the beginning of her memoir to her last word.
“When you’ve chosen the right path for yourself, you usually know it immediately. The choice just sits right in your spirit. You’re not second-guessing your decision or thinking about turning back. You realize there are challenges ahead, but you’re not looking over your shoulder, wishing you’d gone left instead of right at the last fork in the road.” — Alicia Keys, recalling the moment she changed labels early in her career
Not Dead Yet by Phil Collins
In his 2016 memoir, Phil Collins is blunt about the roots of his career as a drummer in London before joining Genesis as drummer. Collins synthesizes an attention to detail in recounting his memories with a casual wit that makes his narration especially welcoming, to the extent that it’s easy to forget you’re reading the memoir of a legendary artist. Collins’ internal monologue is especially vivid in describing his gradual, hesitant shift to singing following Peter Gabriel’s departure from the band. The specific anecdotes of performances, especially his early concerts as vocalist, vividly integrate Collins’ own perceptions of himself as a performer with the perceived perspective of audience members.
One of the most powerful and unexpected turning points in the book comes as Collins bluntly details his near-death struggle with alcoholism in his 50s and the grueling path to recover. For all of his successes as a songwriter and frontman, Phil Collins still describes himself as simply “a drummer,” and he expresses his gratitude for artists who cite him as an inspiration—and there are many.
“Peter, Mike and Tony’s background is a world away from mine. Our schooling, class, family—on paper, we couldn’t be farther apart. For all of early Genesis’ gigging and recording experience, they’ve been somewhat cloistered. I’ve been schooled in the rough and tumble life of a gigging performer and musician. I’ve been on the stage in London’s West End, a regular down the front at the Marquee, the drummer for an almost comically diverse array of groups, bands and combos. I have ducked and dived through swinging sixties Soho, and I have the energy, momentum and enthusiasm to prove it.” — Peter Gabriel describing his origins in becoming drummer for Genesis
The Beautiful Ones by Prince
Published posthumously in 2019, Prince’s The Beautiful Ones includes the memoir the artist had begun to write prior to his passing in 2016, along with a scrapbook of images Prince began to collect when he was nineteen, and his original treatment for Purple Rain. In his introduction to the book, editor Dan Piepenbring recounts his first interactions with Prince—the artist’s assessment of the state of the music industry, his tangible hope of eradicating racism, and his excitement about writing a book that would tell his story in his own words. Piepenbring also describes the decision-making process with respect to the book’s assembly following Prince’s death, and his careful consideration of Prince’s original intent and goals for the book.
The Beautiful Ones includes Prince’s handwritten notes for his memoir, opening with his vivid memories of his parents, his first kiss while playing “house” with his childhood friend Laura, and his appreciation for the uniqueness of his name from the time he first learned to write it in kindergarten. Prince’s narrative voice is artful yet casual, intentional yet authentically unguarded. He tells his own origin story, with ownership and wisdom. “Music is healing,” Prince writes. “Some secrets r so dark they have 2 b turned in2 song 1st b4 one can even begin 2 unpack them.”
“Many artists fall down the rabbit holes of their own imaginations & never return. There have been many who decry this as self-destruction, but 👁 prefer the term FREE WILL. Life is better lived. What path one takes is what sets us apart from the rest. Those considered ‘different’ R the ones most interesting 2 us. A vibrant imagination is where the best songs R found. Make-believe characters wearing make-believe clothes all 2gether creating memories & calling it Life.” — Prince, in his handwritten opening for The Beautiful Ones
Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story by Bono
In this much-anticipated new release, Bono explores the narrative of his life and the evolution of U2 through the lens of 40 songs written and released by the band. Surrender is one of the few books I have made the effort to purchase on its release date, and I was glad that I did. Each chapter invites you into a specific, tangible moment from the beginning. Bono’s writing throughout the book, unsurprisingly, conveys a sense of rhythm and melodic movement, offering the same quality of honest storytelling present in his songwriting. The hand-drawn sketches that accompany each chapter also offer another lens into Bono’s internal creative impetus—somewhat raw, inspired from all directions, constantly in pursuit of something immaterial. Bono’s descriptions of his thoughts and dreams, even during childhood, stand out just as vividly as the scenes and interactions he depicts. The evolution and strengthening of his relationship with his wife, Ali, is a particularly powerful thread woven artfully throughout the book, as through Bono’s life.
Through each of the many narratives Bono shares—ranging from moments recording and performing with the band, to his first time meeting David Bowie, to his early experiences getting involved in the activism that continues to define his career—his words convey a sense of responsibility, an unflinching passion for his art, and immense respect for the power of music. Even at 550 pages, Surrender reflects that Bono still has more to experience and discover, and much more to write and sing. The “one story” at the core of Surrender is far from over, and Bono seems to leave us with the feeling that we are writing it with him.
“We wanted to fuse with our audience in the way no punk band had been able to. And as the singer, I had to create that fusion, to make a chemistry set of the crowd, by rubbishing the very idea they were a crowd. This was not just a nucleus of unstable atoms banging into each other; this was a gathering of sentient beings who for those few hours every night played the most important role in the drama, transporting the band and therefore themselves to some place neither had been before. Finding some moment that none of us had occupied before, or would ever again.” — Bono, describing U2’s early goals with respect to forming community with their fans through the collective experience of their concerts
STEPHANIE GEMMELL is a writer and composer currently living in Pennsylvania. Her writing has been featured in Just Place Chapbook, Capitol Letters, The Ekphrastic Review, The Rival GW, and in the poetry anthology Falling Leaves published by Day Eight. She also attended the 2021 Glen Workshop as a poetry and songwriting fellow. She recently graduated summa cum laude from George Washington University with a BA in Religious Studies and minors in Journalism and Psychology. Her work is motivated by the unique power of art to ask meaningful questions and inspire authenticity.