2020, Out West: Somewhere on the road between New Mexico and California. All photos by the author. 

We Soundtrack Our Lives in Order to Live

The Kings of Leon records add tempo to my memories and sharpen the visions of the girl I once was.

By Allison McWhite 


2015, Virginia

I was eleven at my first rock show. My stepfather taught me everything I knew about music. Whatever he played, I would convince him I loved.  Wherever he went, I would convince him I had to go too. I was fifteen when I learned how to drive by taking him between our house on Nadia Loop to the corner store less than a mile away. He would be too inebriated, and I would be too excited by the prospect of operating heavy machinery. With every ride, Kings of Leon played on the radio, and in exchange for not telling my mother, he’d buy me a single pack of Reese's. Eyes just barely above the dashboard, I sang with him. I wanted to see the world through him, through the music. Picking up the pieces of the world I know.

2016, Virginia

When my sister went through her first heartbreak and then found hope again through a boy with kinder tendencies, we drove down the parkway in her 2000 Acura TL with the windows down. Heartbreak’s rolling down the window. The AC didn’t work but we convinced ourselves we were setting the scene. I hit play on “Comeback Story,” turned the volume dial as far right as it could go to greet the chorus and yelled, “THIS IS FOR YOU.”  It was the kind of air you could only find in early spring and every gush of warmth felt new, touched by us first. Race isn’t over until the finish line. This was the beginning of saturating the memories of others with their music. My token of this carried me and I hope it carries you. I hope you remember me just like I remember them.

2018, New York

I sold my car and moved to New York when I decided I could have a say in the things that happened to me. I changed last names and cities in an attempt to believe this. I wasn’t sure how much I believed in the decisions I was making, but the story was unfolding faster than I was and I had to keep going. Pretty little girls, ain’t showing no signs of stopping. I always surprised myself then. How far I could take the truth. Walking up Broadway, on the way to my apartment that I would tiptoe in and out for years to come, I always sang “17,” track seven off an album filled with grandiosity and a begging to be contradicted. I wasn’t seventeen anymore but I felt like it, I felt like an overambitious child who needed her mother to bring her down. Working at a firm on Wall Street that had no business hiring me, but I was a convincing act and quick learner. Nobody knows, nobody sees. Double majoring in politics and foreign policy like I was going to save the world. The boy in my life was a man, and I spent evenings at events with people who all seemed to be in on a joke I pretended to understand. I was afraid of nothing but myself.  A lot of people ask me about this time, how I managed it. You can’t help anyone that doesn’t believe in luck and good role playing. She’s only seventeen. I’m not as brave as I used to be. I’m too young to feel this old. 

2018, New York: A flower stand I passed on those many walks down Broadway 

2019, France and Thirteen Countries

Bargaining with God again, I left New York. I thought I could outrun grief and serve it dessert. I had a belief that if things didn’t go as planned, I could take myself somewhere new and it wouldn't be too late. The world felt more manageable when I was controlling the scenery. Act like you mean it. I don’t remember wanting anything except momentum and enough hope to get me to the next place. I taught myself chess on a fourteen-hour ride from London to Amsterdam. Sailed the Mediterranean with travelers I’d met days before. Walked miles in new cities until my feet bled and had hours-long conversations with anyone who would humor me. Desperate to feel life and hear stories of it. Desperate to believe in it. Grief had morphed my understanding of time. I was convinced that if I stopped for even a moment, it would all slip. I could feel the tilt any time I tried. I just wanted to know if I could go home. I was at the peak of a mountain I hiked through the night in Southeast Asia when I knew I had enough. You’ve got a story you never tell. I know of more hiding places in the Brussels airport than in my own childhood home. I came back to New York just in time to leave it again.

2019, France: View from the doorstep of my apartment in France

2020, Out West

I was crossing New York state lines with a boy I’d met three weeks prior. The world around us had fallen to a hush and all we wanted to do was drive. I remember saying I wanted to see California. I took to driving to see what I could find. I remember how he stuck his head out the window on 95 going south, balancing the steering wheel with his right arm as we sang “Tonight.” How effortless he made everything look. How accessible the world looked. How distinct the yellow glow from the highway lamps were on his face. How I saw that entire summer through magnetizing yellow and orange hues. Days on the road felt dreamlike and infused with possibility. Falling in love over the open road and no one to witness it for miles. Closer to the brink with every acceleration. Give me something along the way. Give me something along the way. Two weeks later we crossed into Nevada and got married. We sang every song off every Kings of Leon record, driving towards the California desert.  The last thing we ever did together was drive to New York, final glances through the passenger door window, the same way I had greeted him just two years before. Gone was the girl that recognized love and let it take her anywhere. Tonight, somebody’s lover is going to pay for their sins.

2020, Out West: Somewhere on the road between New Mexico and California

2023, Richmond

On a summer holiday weekend in a town where everybody knows your name and the bikers are sweethearts up close, we were at a cafe playing cards, drinking whiskey and coffee after watching a band from New York I knew that knew me too. A collision of worlds that I always remember in slow motion. Running from the venue doors to the car, slamming dollar bills against the oak tables, climbing the staircase and looking over my shoulder for him. Decelerated scenes flickering in my mind, conveniently skipping over the truth. In a city neither of us lived in, with no anticipation of finding each other but doing so anyway, the night was laced with anonymity and chance. A kind of anticipation that could only exist outside of our real lives. We danced foolishly on stools and filled a balcony on Franklin Street with storytelling and admissions, melodies of the echoing world inside slipping between our words. But it’s just tonight. We were in the backseat of a car singing “Manhattan.” Eyes parallel. Clear line of vision. Hook, line, and sinker. Gonna take your hand, Gonna drive you home. I've always loved people I could never touch, not really. The night always ends before my fingers make contact. Don’t make a scene dear, everyone’s been here at least once before. I can only write about him because I don’t know him. People are always taller on paper.

2023,  New York

I’m editing this entry in New York, after three years of trying to get it right. The opening strums of “Fairytale” play as I write. This song holds me through it all, a signal of times changing. I’ve spent my early twenties chasing airplanes and new addresses. I couldn't imagine a life without a multitude of identities, lived twice for good measure. I was too curious about the outcome of things to ever be close to stopping until one day, the question of where I'll be tomorrow was no longer seductive. $15 on pump seven and a sense of familiarity, please. There will be a time out there on the line when you know you’ve had enough. This line right here reminds me how they’ve always been a step ahead. Somehow anticipating my needs, knowing that I’d hear it one day and breathe a sigh of relief, knowing I can rest now. I carry a constant longing for the life I used to live and the people I infused that life with on the way to the next place. The characters I played and learned to love. When I write about that time, I talk about myself like I’m admiring an old friend. Her restlessness and a ferocity so foreign to me now, it couldn't have been me. Until I tell the story again, and my throat swells with a certainty that it was. A sureness has taken residency within me between then and now. A sureness that came out of the dissolution of my marriage, out of the desire for real life. What I’ve never been able to admit above a whisper: that maybe I’d have more if I wanted less. Waiting for the warm to come.  I can’t wait to see what you find.


I have always been senselessly sentimental and the music in my life has only aided this irrational way of moving through the world. I think of something my friend Harper said to me while we were in Woodstock this fall because I didn’t want to stitch a pair of black trousers I had ripped the night I got five stitches in my head, the night I refused to let the cab drive to the emergency room before I queued the right song: YOU’RE TOO SENTIMENTAL FOR YOUR OWN GOOD.

The Kings of Leon records have been shrinking and expanding with me through time, adding tempo to my memories and sharpening the visions of the girl I once was. Their compositions have become the mile markers of my life, my only real proof of time. I can’t remember my life without remembering the music. Growing up, I got to decide what records I bought, which artists I sought out, but not with them. They felt given to me, that day in the car with my stepfather. Like my life couldn’t begin until right then. Who else could score my life? The answer to this is hard to keep up with as I age, finding more albums and artists to trust my life with, all up for the job, but Kings of Leon hold an unwavering stake in the story of my adolescence, an exchange made a decade before I knew what I was doing. Their records serve as the mausoleum housing the girl I once was. I’m still fifteen behind the steering wheel and I’m still falling in love out west. When I miss how the air felt in the car that day with my sister, I take the record out. When I wonder what it’s like to be seventeen and unafraid, I take the record out. We soundtrack our lives in order to live.

2023, New York