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In the eighties, they used to make mixtapes with cassettes.
To make one, you would stick the original cassette with the song you wanted into one side of the stereo & a blank one into the other & press the “play” & “record” buttons simultaneously. That song from the original would then be recorded on the blank as it played. Three, four, five minutes would pass. You would hit the “pause” button exactly when the song ended, change the original cassette, repeat twenty times over, & out of the hundreds of rewinds & tape hisses would emerge a cobbled-together tapestry of songs.
This is why mixtapes are such a labour of love – because they had to be made in real time. It’s hard to imagine an age where one was unable to assemble a playlist in a matter of seconds like how you would on Spotify but yes, there was. Before iTunes & digital streaming, it wasn’t uncommon to spend hours ruminating on the perfect sequence of songs and compiling them for a certain mood, a certain season, a certain someone. Why do you think there have been so many movies made & books written about mixtapes? They are soundtracks to the beat of love unraveling, stitched together by fictional characters.
In the film High Fidelity, the main character Rob (played by John Cusack) summed up my feelings about a good mixtape when he said this: The making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many do’s and don’ts. First of all, you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.
Rob was right – it is a delicate thing, especially when they’re made as gifts. The best mixtapes were the ones embedded with coded messages, not unlike song titles. A good mix didn’t just say: Here, This is For You, but also Hey, I Love You, or This Is Who I Really Am, or This Was How I Felt That One Hot Summer Night When I Was Thinking of You but You Didn’t Have a Clue.
The word “mixtape” was foreign to me for a long time because I was born in a time of discmans & their accompanying CDs – yes, those long-gone, shiny circles of music. When I was eight or nine, the first iPod had not been invented yet & I spent most of my school allowances at HMV, picking up whatever looked interesting & rushing home to stick it into my CD player & listen to the delicious morsels of music under the sheets (as detailed in this long spiel about my love for Fleet Foxes).
The first time I ever heard the word “mixtape” was when I was at a sleepover with my friend Liz (who loved The Dresden Dolls & The Academy Is & who was always introducing me to interesting music) & we were falling asleep in the attic after a night of eating too much pizza & watching bad chick flicks. After hours of dancing to Cobra Starship (!), we finally collapsed, exhausted, our bodies splayed out on the floor. She put on this CD at a low volume & this amazing, piano-driven rock started to play, & as we drifted to sleep, I asked her what it was & she whispered drowsily, The Mixed Tape…
Where are you now? As I rearrange the songs again This mix could burn a hole in anyone But it was you I was thinking of
Since hearing that line in Jack’s Mannequin’s record Everything in Transit, I don’t think I’ve stopped making mixtapes, whatever form they may take. When I was thirteen & broke during Christmas, I bought blank CDs by the dozen & make a “mixtape” for each of my friends. I’m sure most of them went unlistened to, but I loved making them all the same, loved the gentle whirring of the disc in my dad’s laptop, designing album covers with magic markers while I waited for it to burn, the click of the CD tray as it delivered its gift to me twenty minutes later, warm & complete.
Where are you now?
As I’m swimming through the stereo
I’m writing you a symphony of sound As I’m cutting through you track by track I swear to God this mix could sink the sun But it was you I was thinking of
When I was eighteen, a good friend moved to Australia for college. We had grown up together & shared common tastes in television shows & music & when she told me she was really leaving, I was happy for her but also quite morose. I was in that stage in my life where all my friends were making major life decisions, some of which scattered them across continents. Anyway, in December that year, she called to wish me happy birthday & we ended up speaking for a bit. I had missed her terribly & knew she had missed me too.
Finally, as we reluctantly said goodbye over the static of international airwaves, I thought I heard her say “I made a mistake!” before the line went dead & for the rest of the week, I wondered what mistake she had made… Was it her decision to leave Singapore? Did she want to come back? It wasn’t until I received a square package postmarked Australia a few days later that I realised that what she had really meant to say was this: I made a mixtape (for you).
“Sentimental music has this great way of taking you back somewhere at the same time that it takes you forward, so you feel nostagic and hopeful all at the same time.”
― Nick Hornby, High Fidelity
& then finally, there was that time when I took a music composition module in university which turned out to be an “experimental” soundscaping class. The professor was a hippie who wore long, white linen shirts and whose eyes lit up when he talked about John Cage or Steve Reich. He was also a terrible teacher & had the tendency to drone on or get lost in the middle of his sentence, never to find his way back again. It’s a true miracle I managed to pass the class since I was asleep most of the time.
Once though, he told us about how composers would create “incredible masterpieces” by locating sounds they liked in certain tapes & painstakingly splicing the portions by hand – literally cutting & pasting sounds together to create an auditory landscape. This avant-garde work had to be precise & sometimes took months, all to create pieces of “music” that sounded like noise to me. In that moment, I remember feeling crestfallen because it seemed like those new pieces, like the hundreds of mixtapes I had made over the years, were not new per se & were just combinations of things that already existed. You’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing…
The question of whether I would ever create something original haunted me all the way till I started to write in earnest. All the same, many poems & songs later, I arrived at the inevitable conclusion that everyone comes to when they set out to create something original – that we can’t, not really. But it’s quite alright, isn’t it? Artistic expression is but a combination of observation & imitation & influence. & we too, are undeniably made out of a thousand, indelible impressions from our pasts, & music is just a tiny slice of this inconceivable miracle that defines our humanity.
& where are you now?
& this is my mixed tape for her
It’s like I wrote every note
With my own fingers
Console yourself with this, dear reader: that we are more than the sum of our parts.
Even as I make playlists on Spotify today, some of them two hundred songs long, I try to think of what it was like for the original makers of mixtapes, how slow & torturous, but also how rewarding it must have been to find oneself in the immersive process. Sometimes the magic of music is lost on us because it has become so easy. But I won’t forget – no, I won’t.
I am from a time past, I fade onto squares of film, I am a mixtape…
Light ended the night, but the song remained And I was hiding by the stair Half here, half there, past the lashing rain And as the sky would petal white Old innocent lies came to mind As we stood, congregated, at the firing line
Night ended the fight, but the song remained And so I headed to the wall Turned tail to call to the new domain As if in the sight of sea, you’re suddenly free But it’s all the same… Oh, but I can hear you, loud in the center Aren’t we made to be crowded together, like leaves?
On 16th June 2017, Fleet Foxes released Crack-Up, their first full-length album in six years. I have just finished listening to it in its entirely in my bedroom, under the covers & with the lights off, & I am flush with feeling & memory. Music has such a powerful transportive ability; it can take you anywhere, anyplace, if you let it.
Listening to Third of May / Ōdaigahara brought me back to almost a decade ago when I wandered into HMV at City Hall & was drawn to this slim, paper sleeve with the most intriguing cover – a composite of two strange images, gothic yet modern, speckled with neon spots of colour & the notion of motion, like a technicolour medieval film framed within a 5″ square. I was reeled in even by their name, the “f” consonants light & fleeing on my tongue. I imagined their songs would feel like smoke, slipping seamlessly out of a room & back in again. I bought the five-song EP on a whim, not knowing how much this record was going to change me & how I related to music. I was only fifteen years old.
I remember listening to Mykonos for the very first time, not unlike how I just listened to Crack-Up, plugged in & with my eyes squeezed shut in the dark, & even though I had not been to the tiny Greek island (I still have not, but I am hopeful), I felt all at once wrecked & known. I thought, perhaps if I could write a song like that someday that could make someone feel so intensely (like how Mykonos was for me), all that time spent saturated in music – all the hours & days of intent listening & furious writing & practicing the guitar – would not have been wasted… No, they wouldn’t have been wasted at all.
And you will go to Mykonos With a vision of a gentle coast And a sun to maybe dissipate Shadows of the mess you made
I didn’t know much about folk music then, but Fleet Foxes made me feel like it was okay to be into the folk music that I did know about – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills & Nash – & not feel so ridiculously old-fashioned about the music I was dreaming about making one day. If you are a curious person, music is like an infinite series of rooms waiting to be discovered – genres & artistes cascading into another – & Fleet Foxes was my backdoor to modern folk acts like Bon Iver & Laura Marling & Feist. I learnt how to harmonise by singing along to White Winter Hymnal, how to finger-pick by practicing with Ragged Wood, & about the intricacies of arrangement by listening to Grown Ocean & Helplessness Blues. I listened to Quiet Houses when I was becoming somewhat disillusioned with the Junior College literature syllabus & marveled at how poetry could be derived from six words, sung over & over in majestic crescendos:
Lay me down… Darkening… Come to me…
Nearly ten years later & having a little experience in music-making, I still find myself crying whenever Oliver James comes on, & I inevitably wander back to my shelves again to pick through the weathered record covers. In Sun Giant, the only thing you’ll find in the sleeve besides sparse album credits & the CD itself is a lengthy note jokingly credited to Thomas Jefferson but actually written by Fleet Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold. It is essentially a long preamble about the magic of music but it holds so much truth & remains relevant to my existence till this day. I don’t know if Pecknold is a religious man, but this piece of writing speaks to me deeply about my faith & I suppose to a greater extent, the expression of that very faith – worship. The music of Fleet Foxes has inadvertently taught me how to host my sense of wonder well, & along with it, whatever gifts God has chosen to bless me with.
Here are portions of that note:
Sometimes when driving, or riding the bus, or walking around some park, I will try to get an image in my head of what the land around me would have looked like 400 years ago. The same hills, the same landscape, but in my mind I’ll cover it with nothing & wonder what it was like to be the first man to chance upon it. This is always useless to me. There is so much wonder in this world, but I always have trouble getting past our influence, our disasters & clumsy systems. & even in those places where there is some real beauty, like down at Golden Gardens or on the Olympic Peninsula, or in my grandparents’ cabin in Wenatchee when it’s deep in snowdrifts, all I have to do is take one look at the skyline in the distance, or the cement path I’m walking on, or the white car parked in the gravel driveway to take me out of the tenuous illusion & put me back in reality.
We are constantly tethered to some safety line. There is always a lantern, or a map, or a screen, or a cell phone. These things guarantee that whatever experience we’re having is just an attempt at connecting to something foreign & old, that it’s not real, no matter how real it looks. We’ve sketched out a new world over the old & they are in two separate universes. The old is lost despite the remnants of the everyday. If properly prepared, one could live entire decades indoors, in a world of their own creation.
A very smart & gifted friend of mine told me once that music is a kind of replacement for the natural world that, before civilisation or whatever, the world must have seemed a place of such immense wonder & confusion, so terrifying in a way, unthinkably massive & majestic. & that feeling of mystery & amazement, is somehow hardwired into us. Once the world became commonplace, mapped, & conquered, that mystery left our common mind & we needed something to replace it with & then came along music. I think she’s right, music is magic to me, transportive & full of wonder in a way that I have trouble getting from the natural world. All the human things that make the natural world so hard to connect with just aren’t there with music… Music to me is just as awe-inspiring as the world maybe once was, & I just love it a lot.”
Another one, & a lasting favourite.
In that dream I’m as old as the mountains Still is starlight reflected in fountains Children grown on the edge of the ocean Kept like jewelry kept with devotion In that dream moving slow through the morning
Wide-eyed walker, don’t betray me I will wake one day, don’t delay me Wide-eyed leaver, always going…
I’m going away to leave you I’m going to leave you in disgrace Nothing in my favour Got the wind in my face
I’m going home hey, hey, hey, over the hill Over the hill
hey, hey, hey, over the hill
(Over the Hill – John Martyn)
Covers are a tricky thing. On one hand, you adore the song. This is an absolute fact and necessary prerequisite because it obviously meant enough for you to choose it to cover, & the last thing you’d want to do is to butcher the song that holds so many tender memories for you. On the other hand, to do it the exact same way with the same instruments & arrangements & harmonies would be to remain at a creative standstill, to be trite & spiritless.
So therein lies the question – how does one pay proper homage to the artist & the work of art & at the same time take it a step further?
Well, I’ve got no clue. I just know that it happens occasionally when the right people are all in the right place at the right time. Michael Kiwanuka, Ben Howard & band, The Staves & Ben Lovett (Mumford & Sons) covering John Martyn’s 1973 hit Over The Hill on the Austin to Boston tour is a perfect example of that rare moment – slowed-down, wistful, evocative & yet distinctive from the original. It sounds like a kind of yearning, doesn’t it? Like a natural beckoning. I’m going home… hey hey hey, over the hill.
Here’s another fantastic cover of one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands ever.
Half of the time we’re gone but we don’t know where & we don’t know where Here I am The only living boy in New York…
“As itinerant musicians, we find ourselves here quite often, saying farewell again & again… After all the road is just one long goodbye.“
I’ve been listening to The Staves a lot lately (something about their music resonates in this season) & a music producer friend of mine recommended that I watch this documentary chronicling their 2012 American tour with Ben Howard, Nathaniel Rateliff & Bear’s Den because it “outlined the reality & the romanticism of music-making & touring”. So I did, & it was just that: filled with powerful moments, featuring in equal measure the rapturous music & the people who made it, all twenty-five of them.
The story is simple: In 2006, Ben Lovett (Mumford & Sons) & Kevin Jones (Bear’s Den), frustrated by the lack of live gig exposure for talented singer-songwriters founded the concert promoter, music label, & recording house Communion, & began planning these fantastic single shows & tours all across the US & the UK, bringing lesser-known artistes & their music to all sorts of venues – concert halls, chapels, bars, rooftops, friends’ backyards, & so on. Austin to Boston charts the 2-week, 10-show, 4000-mile journey a bunch of bands take across America in 5 Volkswagen vans, one journey bleeding into another.
“When I think of Ben Lovett, I think of time travel. Old factory dreamer.”
(Gill Landry, tour driver)
“You know, this is a hard tour. People are exhausted. Everyone’s just pulling together & there’s no hierarchy & everyone’s just here because you feel part of something & that’s kind of embodied by the vans, you know, that’s like symbolised by the vans. We’re not in some big corporate tour bus or whatever. We’re in these little shitty little vans. Communion is like a camper van. It doesn’t work very well, it’s disorganised, it breaks down all the time but it still feels really nice when you’re in it. You know what I mean?”
(Kevin Jones, Bear’s Den & Co-founder of Communion)
I think that touring in buses or vans is something of a time past in this age of plane travel, but I get what they mean, even with my little experience in this field. Music is always a magical thing, but music shared with strangers (who become new friends, & then family) across time & space becomes a transcendental experience. You know what I mean, don’t you, the swell? The perfect moment. I am always chasing it, & always finding it in unexpected places.
“I like moving. I think it’s nice to always have a base & go back to it. Always in transit & kind of popping through places. Sometimes it’s really cool & sometimes it’s frustrating, but most of the time it’s a blessing. You get to see places like this… I’ll probably never come here again. You get those little moments where you’re like, ‘memory photo’, & then you move on. I don’t know what it is… I think anyone on this trip will tell you it kind of gets in your blood.”
In this documentary though, it is not hard to find the perfect moment because the music is just so good… Ben Howard, the “indie snob’s John Mayer” & crazy, creative savant, ripping up the stage every night with his leftie-Fenders & wonderfully talented friends India Bourne & Chris Bond. & then there is the folk genius that is The Staves, who evoke mountains of tenderness with a single other-worldly, soaring harmony. With their songs, Emily, Jessica & Camilla render every room vibrating, every person speechless.
“When I first heard The Staves, it was like being called by sirens from across a dark & silent sea. It’s hard not to be struck by their beauty when they walk on the stage… but when their harmonies set in, you’re done. You’re just done.”
& there was the unexpected treat – the storytelling of Nathaniel Rateliff, so full of raw pain & truth, the only artiste I had not heard of before this documentary but whose music & stories struck me the most & made me cry. & of course not to leave out Bear’s Den, the youngest of the ragtag crew, with their deep, blossoming vocals & strings.
Between Gill Landry’s (Old Crow Medicine Show, The Kitchen Syncopators) deep drawling narration & the distinctive direction & cinematography by James Marcus Haney (No Cameras Allowed) – an interweaving of gritty, b-roll footage, lens flares, high-contrast stage shots & intimate warm lighting – Austin to Boston captures the bittersweetness of old-fashioned touring perfectly, the grime & the splendour of being on the road, the friendships forged & the euphoric moment of a note sang well & sweet.
“& the same way it came together, it parted. Since this tour has ended we’ve crossed paths many times & many places. Sometimes you can be quite far down a road you didn’t even know you were on. The draw of touring can be so strong that years can pass before you even stop to question why you’re even doing in the first place. Why make all those miles to perform to total strangers in far-off towns? Why leave all your loved ones behind to live out of suitcases & shit hotels & the back of vans? I suppose the answer I give myself is because it’s a damn good time. & so the road is one long goodbye & here we are, again… again… again.”