Jenny Slate is a chameleon. In the past decade, the comedian/actress has been a horny tween dweeb, a lovestruck Pomeranian, a whistleblowing scientist, and—much to the internet’s delight—a one-eyed shell with shoes on. But in her first book and her debut Netflix special, both recently released, the only character Slate plays is herself.
Her essay collection, Little Weirds, is a portal into her delightfully offbeat mind. While Slate’s writing is often whimsical—she describes herself as a homemade Parisian croissant desperate to be paired with jam, as well as “a spirit of many translucent tones”—its underlying current is one of grief and heartache. “Recently, my life fell to pieces,” Slate writes early on, acknowledging her divorce and a subsequent high-profile breakup. “This book is me putting myself back together so that I can dwell happily in our shared outer world.” She reconstructs herself through tender-hearted stories that range from an account of a transformative trip to Norway to a list of mundane activities that can foster joy.
These intimate exercises in healing are continued in her stand-up special, Stage Fright, which opens with Slate walking onstage to Robyn’s “Missing U,” a song that epitomizes the uncertainty of recent loss. “I, like everybody else on planet Earth, love Robyn,” she told me recently by phone. “But when Honey came out, I listened to a lot of interviews with her and was inspired by the deep dive she took to get herself to the creative place where she could make that album. I really connected to the aim of making work that way.” In Stage Fright, Slate’s goofy, candid bits about first dates, barre workouts, and ghosts are interspersed with heartfelt at-home footage featuring her parents and siblings. The result is the rare comedy special that prizes intimacy over perfectly crafted jokes.
Snug in her “nice old house by the sea” on Massachusetts’ South Coast, Slate shared the music that kept her afloat while she wrote Little Weirds: contemporary folk favorite Joan Shelley, Australian indie-folk duo Luluc, and Brooklyn songwriter Mutual Benefit.
Mutual Benefit: “The Hereafter”
I don’t go to a lot of concerts. I’ve always preferred to listen to music alone by myself in my house. A lot of times, I listen to songs because an image strikes me immediately when I hear them, and that helps me with my work or my mood. I listened to this song over and over after it popped up on my Spotify because it felt like an instrument coaxing nature to bloom, or like somebody who was breathing evenly during a very good rest. This song’s active observation of nature’s smallness, paired with a sense of acceptance, feels really good to me. Acceptance doesn’t mean that you turn away from what has occurred: You look at what happened and catalog it as you need to. This song feels like being at peace.
Joan Shelley: “Stay on My Shore”
I had the pleasure of meeting Joan when she came to Cuttyhunk Island and played at my fiancé’s writers’ residency. I admire her songwriting, and her voice is just so golden and satisfying. I’ve been going through a long period lately of needing to calm down after the frenzy of writing and performing a lot. Joan’s music feels like a lullaby but urges me to stay awake in the present moment. This is a song that I listen to a lot when I need to be soothed. I know that it’s being sung by a strong, smart woman.
I love when nature is the focus of art and in my own work, I love using nature as a metaphor and a backdrop for my emotional state. I also love that in Joan’s song, when she sings, “Stay on my shore/Don’t desert me,” the speaker is as big as a coastline or a beach. I love that something big and powerful can still need to request that they won’t be abandoned. That is a real throughline for me in my own life experience. I think we all feel good when we see expressions of beauty that include our struggle, because it means that it’s all part of something greater, and that’s wholesome. When I listen to songs like this, I calm down enough to try to sort out what has really occurred for me. Usually when something is busted up, we think an aggressive or explosive force must have shredded it. But there are many, many ways to disassemble.
This song makes me feel like I’m a bell that’s being rung. I listened to it a lot with my fiancé this summer and it will definitely be one of those songs that I hear for the rest of my life and think, Oh right, this is the song from that summer when I went to go live with the man I love. I guess the lyrics don’t match that experience—it’s a really, really, really sad song—but the rhythm and the singing feel so energized to me. Maybe it’s also that sad things don’t always make me sad; sometimes they make me feel very grateful.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork