Music Monday: A Collective Reflection of Making Mix Tapes

Monday, June 24, 2013

Recently a friend remarked I really wish you had been into music when you lived here (Washington, DC). It would have been a blast to go to shows together. While I can't undo the past, I wholeheartedly agreed with her sentiment. Over the past year I have immersed myself in music; discovering new artists and bands, writing about what I like on this weekly feature, and attending live shows whenever I get the chance. This I owe, in large part, to my friend Katie, who, right before I moved from DC, not only invited me to a sweltering summer concert, inspired me with the idea of hosting a music swap. Something I had never done before. (And if we're being totally honest, here is where I confess that up to that point in my life I had actually never made someone else a mixed tape.) But the great thing about doing something you haven't done before is you get to experiment and make all kinds of mistakes, so that the next time, and the time after that are even better than the first.

That first playlist I created was basically a schizophrenic list of songs I liked. A little of this and a little of that. There wasn't a theme and I certainly didn't approach the process with any thought to how the songs would fit together. In my mind, simply liking songs meant they could all be mashed into one compilation. Oh how much I had to learn. Our second swap was a seasonal one and was probably my least favorite to put together. It's not that I don't like Christmas music, it's just that I'm kind of a Humbug when it comes to how long I can listen to it—three weeks is usually my max, sometimes four if I really push it. I knew going into the swap that while I'd certainly receive great mixes from my friends, in reality I would only listen to them during one month of the year. By the time our third exchange rolled around I finally felt like I knew what I was doing. I collected songs for several weeks on one master list, then I'd move things around in iTunes, tweaking and refining until all the songs flowed into one another. Intentional curating heightened the experience and for that reason it was definitely my favorite mix to create. In addition, we invited other to participate, which meant we each received five CDs, rather than two. (PLUS I put it all onto an 8tracks mix for you. You're welcome.) Last week we finished up our final exchange for the year. The summer swap turned out to be an exceptional round as well and it made me reflect on the entire process of how music shapes our lives. How songs carry memories and how they help us convey our stories, both large and small. A couple of the stand out moments for me during the past year included, being introduced to The Decemberists, which I know is a little ridiculous since they've been around for over a decade...but, yeah, whatever. Also, I discovered that this cover of Into the Mystic simply can't be played at a high enough volume. Of course I could go on and on about everything else I loved about this experience, but instead I'll let you hear from the other folks that made this all possible—the two friends with whom I started this journey. I hope you'll enjoy reading some of their thoughts.     

Being the least musically inclined of the bunch I always approach the initial playlist draft with a bit of trepidation. Will I be able to find music that is both unique and appealing? What if I repeat what others send out? What if no one likes it? But I love the challenge of finding songs that fit together, that convey the theme, my mood and personality. And I love getting a glimpse into the lives of my friends (and as we've had guest participants, total strangers) through their track choices.

There are always mixes that stand out in each round, compilations I seem to identify with more.  But there's usually at least one track that wins favor from each mix. Sometimes the songs stand as an anthem of their own, while others have lead me on quests to discover everything those artists have done.  (Here is where I confess I've fallen madly in love with Frank Turner.)

I think my favorite mix to make was Christmas, because...well, it's Christmas! And my favorite to receive was the first. It was the inaugural event, so the choices were limitless and it was the only one we exchanged in person, which made it a little different than the others. But you can’t knock receiving actual mail delivered straight to your door. 
And then, just as we were getting the hang of swapping amongst ourselves we invited others to participate, so there was an added level of anticipation. They were the wild cards. Who knew what to expect? But there was no reason to fear—friends with great musical taste were certain to have more friends with great taste. Of all the compilations we exchanged (a total of 13) we ended up with only one song duplication and two or three artist repeats.

Looking back, the compilation that I have played the most is Katie's spring mix. The soulful bluesy tunes and handclaps make the perfect background for any activity and I never get to the point where I think “Geez, I think I’ve heard this song six times now,” I simply start clapping along.

In addition, there are two songs I can't stop listening to, that have perfectly echoed my own thoughts and dreams and will forever call to mind certain emotions and people. The first is Rivers and Roads by The Head and the Heart (found on Katie’s first compilation), and the second is To Travels and Trunks by Hey Marseilles (found on Miranda’s spring mix). And my favorite newly discovered artist? Again, Frank Turner.
This has been such a fun musical adventure. Life gets in the way and I don’t get to discover new music as often as I would like so it’s nice to have a reason to HAVE to focus on new music every now and then. And make some new friends in the process!
The Giving:
One of the great things about creating and sharing music mixes or playlists is that they allow you to tell a story, maybe even the story of what is happening in your life at the moment, without the awkwardness and messiness of doing it first person style. When I'm putting together a new playlist, whether one that has a stated theme, or a mix I just want to give to a specific person, my first step is always the massive brainstorming and dumping of music; any and all songs that I think fit the theme, I drag into an empty playlist on my computer. And music that "fits" can mean a whole lot of things. Will the listener already have this song? Will they even like this song? All this can be a tad bit nerve wracking when you are sharing music with folks that already have a music collection of breadth and depth. After all the dumping comes the editing. Some songs don't really fit after all, so they are taken off the list, I will randomly hear some new songs that fit better, so they are added, and then there are the physical restraints of only being able to fit so many songs on a CD. I rearrange the order of the songs, almost compulsively, until I can hear and feel that the flow of each song into the next song is exactly how it want it to be, until the story I want to tell with these dozen songs is complete. All this arranging is probably my favorite, and yes, at times, neurotic, step in the playlist process. Underling every song are patterns of sounds and lyrics and hand claps and emotions, and memories that I have attached to the song and the fun and toil of a mix is getting all these hundred different things in each song to work together with every other song on the list, so they are one whole beautiful beast instead of just a collections of pieces . . . at least in my head, which I do understand is often the only place that the connections between some songs make sense. Sometimes the perfect playlist will come together in an hour or two and sometimes it will takes weeks for it to all fit together. Then before that final "burn playlist to disc," I listen to my little musical story as a whole a couple times, usually one of these listens is done while laying on the floor with my eyes closed, but I like to be dramatic. 

The Receiving:
On the flip side, the very happy flip side, of music sharing is the receiving of the music. I love getting shiny new mixes, not only because, "hey, new music!", but also I get to see a little bit of the stories that my friends are living. It's honestly like the giddiness of cracking open a brand new book, oohhh, what is going to happen next? I love that first glimpse of the playlist, scanning over the songs and recognizing bands I already love and articulating the names of new bands that will soon dominate my vocabulary. I loved (yep, there is whole lotta loving going on) this last round of summer music swapping. Almost all the songs I gave or received seemed to be connected to happy memories of past summers, a rousing testimony that music can preserve little bits and pieces of life and let us hold on to them and relive them whenever we need them. There is also something wonderful about getting music from someone you know, like in real life, as opposed to just hearing a song on the radio. There is a lot of music out there, and even though I like to talk high and mighty about music I adore, I know there is so much more out there. There are genres that I may not have been exposed to or had prior bad experiences with (show tunes, I'm looking at you) and there are so many bands and musicians that just haven't made it onto my radar yet, so it is great to have a network of people curating the best things to listen to. And when someone personally picks out a song they want to share, you, or at least, I, tend to be more open to it. Music is such a huge portion of who I am, and think the same is true with a lot of my friends, so sharing music really is sharing a little piece of you or I or us, and I think that it is brave and beautiful on all accounts. And what I love with Miranda's music group is that there is such a variety of songs and genres being shared that I feel gaps and holes in my own music appreciation have been mended and filled. And maybe with that comes the realization that a song of the bossa nova persuasion really does belong on almost every playlist. 


  1. I'm so grateful I got to be a part of all of this. Truth.


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