I started listening to music again, properly, in the last year, and it makes me feel I got a piece of my soul back.
I’m not musical, but songs mean a lot to me.
Everyone’s musical, some people insist – usually kind musicians. That’s what she said at first; but then she heard me try to sing. I used to think it was because I wasn’t singing loudly enough; so I sang louder in Sunday School. The girl behind me – her name was Tasha – she said, Please stop singing. It was the first time she’d spoken to me. An early humiliation. I aced all the tests at school, but not the Instrumental Music Program. To my great horror but little surprise, it was two others from my year who went off to learn the trumpet.
I had an early crush on Amy Grant and her adult contemporary pop songs – some upbeat, others melancholy. This was 1991, I was ten, and I was weird, because adult contemporary was my thing – Amy Grant, Bryan Adams, Jimmy Barnes. (Strangely, I also spent hard-earned $21 – three months savings – on a MC Hammer tape which I never came to like. What was I thinking? I liked the Addams Family Groove at just the wrong moment. I’d heard he was a Christian, and thought my parents would be pleased; then I started singing a line I did not understand about a ‘glass dildo’. MC Hammer’s Christianity did not completely infuse his lyrics. I think I only recently, in this last move, got rid of that tape.)
I got back into music in year nine. Perhaps I was partly conforming, but I was also genuinely attracted to the anger of Metallica. It had little swearing, and so my parents were remarkably tolerant. Is it possible, at fourteen, to not regard lines like TIME AND SPACE NEVER ENDING /DISTURBING THOUGHTS, QUESTIONS PENDING /LIMITATIONS OF HUMAN UNDERSTANDING as being equally profound as the great poets?
My taste evolved, growing to the Smashing Pumpkins and then Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, The Cure and Joy Division. I spent my childhood savings on a great five disc CD player when I moved out of home at eighteen. What a glorious machine it was! What deliberation deciding what soundtrack to my life to create before the days of itunes!
The CD player broke just before I got married, which is maybe just as well, because she’s a violist with a perfect ear who prefers silence and tells me L. Cohen is out of tune. It seemed to me Triple J stopped playing anything decent, too, that it had become overwhelmed by urban music, beats and gimmicks, and lost most of the alternative rock I liked. What’s more, I’d exhausted the eighties.
So there were lean years. But this last year, I’ve had a laptop which plays music quite well and been better connected to the internet, meaning I have bought too many songs on itunes. I have discovered new music on Radio National’s Inside Sleeve and occasionally Triple J. There’s this group of women singer-songwriters whose work my wife and I have come to like together – Holly Throsby, Regina Spektor, Sarah Blasko and recently Ane Brun and Lisa Mitchell.
The two albums I have had playing on relentless rotation (wait, this is an inept metaphor when I mean on itunes) as I write my novel are both by Mazzy Star. Their gently sad music makes me feel I’m underwater, or falling into a lull. It has a beautiful ache which never quite resolves. “Fade Into You” is representative – but then every song is. This sums them up well:
Their fuzzy guitar workouts and plaintive folky compositions are often suffused in a dissociative ennui that is very much of the 1990s, however much their textures may recall the drug-induced states of vintage psychedelia.
Music for writing really, or perhaps a certain kind of dinner party.
In that first flush of music mania as a ten year old, I used to create a weekly (sometimes daily) top twenty – the songs I thought should be in there. Amy Grant’s “Every Heartbeat” broke every record by staying number one for twelve charts, even as it sank in the real chart. Now I have real, annual charts, the most played songs of the year that’s been. Yet it is distorted by background music on repeat. No chart is perfect. Here are the songs I played the most in 2012, one per album:
|1||Fade Into You||Mazzy Star||1993||39|
|2||Warm Jet||Holly Throsby||2008||29|
|3||Flowers in December||Mazzy Star||1996||28|
|7||The Last Party||The Hampdens||2008||22|
|8||I Awake||Sarah Blasko||2012||21|
|9||Get Free||Major Lazer||2012||20|
|10||Youth in Trouble||The Presets||2012||20|
Nathan, I can relate to so much of what you say. In primary school I was the only person asked not to sing in the choir (just to mouth the words) because my singing was so bad. The small dash of talent has all been due to grit and determination as like you I was blessed with not an ounce of musical talent but a deep love of music. Nyree has far more natural musical talent than me. You are musical you are not tone deaf you probably have very little control over your vocal chords (I’ll guess you’re not good at imitating other peoples voices) if you heard your own voice singing you’d think it was rubbish it’s just really hard to hear it while you’re singing. It’s taken me since I was 12 pretending to be Freddie Mercury in my bedroom until now (28 years later) that I feel confidentish about singing In front of people. At 18 I started playing guitar estimating I’d be ok at it by 28.
Also I too owned a 5 disc CD player. I still remember listen to Jeff Buckly and then Rage Against The Machine and back again and thinking it sounded like they were recorded in the same room. Turned out they were both recored and produced by Andy Wallace.
While you’re on a roll have a read of the David Bazan lyrics for “Hard to be”, “when we fell”, “in stitches” I’ll make you a David Bazan mix CD if you’re curious.
Nathan Hobby said:
I hadn’t heard the vocal chord theory… maybe there’s something in that. Good on you for persisting! Be glad to have a David Bazan mix CD – thank you.
I love this post! If people let me, I would talk about music all day.
The crush on Amy Grant and MC Hammer are each worthy of their own full post!
I quite like singing but generally for my own amusement because I know I have not put in the effort to be good at it. Unlike Trudy my wife, who has the skills to start singing a harmony to some old hymn that she has never heard before. I play the drums.
My access to music technology has also had its ups and downs. In the mid-80’s my sister purchased a ‘hi-fi’ system that included a CD player. It was the talk of our primary school. Later in life, my brother and I were playing CDs through a discarded external CD-ROM drive plugged into the speakers of a broken record player cabinet.
I feel in a musical lull myself. I annually buy the MOJO magazine review of the past year in music. I purchased the review of 2011 in the Sydney airport just before we came to Cambodia. I obsessed over the reviews but it took me a full year to actually listen to any of the recommended music and realise I didn’t like any of it!
Moving to Cambodia gives a changed perspective on music. All the teenagers here LOVE Korean pop. None of them understand Korean language, but the music, dancing and fashion in the music videos draws them right in.
I am hunting through music shops in the markets for local music. Khmer 60s garage bands! Thai Funk! Non-First Language Retro! A category I can get into!
Nathan Hobby said:
Tim, thanks so much for some highlights of your own music autobiography. I can only imagine the thrill of that CD player of your sisters. It uses a LASER! Doesn’t it sound so much better?
I left out saving up for a CD player in the mid 90s, it taking too long, Dad telling me that that tape players would always be around because you can’t record on a CD, and so me buying a a double deck tape player when that was not what I really wanted at all.
Are you getting into the Korean pop yourself? What do you think’s going on that you didn’t like any Mojo’s picks?