There are certain records that I listen to that instantly bring back memories and emotions from a certain time and space. You’re the same, right?
It might be a parent’s favourite from childhood that makes you feel loved; or a teenage obsession that stirs up a rebel spirit you’d worried had melted away with age. We all have albums that we wrap around us like cloaks to protect us in times of emotional distress, or that make us feel the heat of a past summer’s sun on our arms as soon as they start playing.
Last year, I spent a lot of time listening to specific records over and over again to bring me some sort of normality during a bizarre time.
Here’s a short piece I wrote about it for Sunday Miscellany.
You can listen to the piece on the RTÉ website.
Refuge of the Records
2020 has been a discombobulating year. Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, the habitual routines in our lives have been upended. As a journalist, I found myself working at home for the first time in a decade, with no colleagues to turn to in person and say ‘isn’t this all so strange?’. Alone and watching the news cycle churn, my mind felt like a blackboard scribbled with unintelligible messages. Every day, I’d need to take a deep breath and wipe off the layers of chalk. To help me do this, I turned – and still turn – to music.
Usually my ear must be tuned to the stream of news stories that are developing across Ireland and beyond. But on my own in my spare bedroom-cum-office, I discovered that there were snatches of time where I could listen to a song. And so certain albums became a portal for me to escape for a few minutes from the weird world I now found myself living in.
As March turned to April, I sought out a 2012 Rufus Wainwright album I hadn’t listened to in a long time, called Out Of The Game. ‘‘I’m out of the game/I’ve been out for a long time now,” sings Rufus on the title track. Though it’s about his romantic life, the lyrics spoke to what I felt back in the spring. I was out of the game of the life I knew, and I hadn’t been asked for my permission. No more doing what and going where I pleased – my world was now the smallest it had ever been. But in Rufus’s mellifluous trips up and down the musical scale, I found gulps of joy. He’s the child of two musical legends – Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III – and brings with him his own stories of heartbreak and recovery.
When he sings, I feel the weight of his experience telling me it’s possible to make it through difficult times – and, crucially, embrace the happy moments too. Out Of The Game, with its pop hooks, jaunty piano and operatic sense of scale, brought me relief. I’d belt out the songs in my office, with no one to hear me but the seagulls outside my window. Each time I sang, I felt a burst of emotions escape from inside me like balloons into the air. When they had floated away, I’d return to the news.
As we moved into the summer, Tori Amos’s 1992 debut album Little Earthquakes provided a different form of musical escapism. Just when it was becoming clear the ‘coronavirus situation’ was less temporary than we had believed, I found myself obsessed with this record, which is all about the power in owning difficult emotions.
Tori Amos is someone who tosses the listener her beating heart with every song. Her work is enchantingly vulnerable and bloody. I’d sing along to the album’s opening track, Crucify, with its lyrics about being ‘in chains’, and feel the punch of the metaphor. When she sang about looking for a saviour, even as an agnostic I knew what she meant – and I also realised there wasn’t one coming along any time soon.
Like with Rufus Wainwright, there’s a drama to Tori Amos’s music. Drama was in the headlines all around me, but I didn’t want to be smothered by it. With Tori Amos I got to rise above it all, and sing with her as she railed against forces outside of her control.
From Tori, I gravitated towards Joni. Joni Mitchell has long been the patron saint of a person wanting to exorcise their emotions. As I noticed leaves starting to speckle with the touch of autumn, I leaned on her to get me around the tight corners of uncertainty that every week seemed to bring.
I focused on her 1976 record Hejira, which was mostly written during a 3,000-mile trip she took from Maine to Los Angeles. It’s said that sometimes Joni Mitchell dressed in disguise while driving alone on the trips that informed these songs, which made me wish I could don a wig and slip away from 2020, back to 2019, to times I didn’t realise were actually the simple ones. Hejira is filled with imagery of highways, motel rooms, and flying high. This album helped me escape in my mind; to float away on Joni’s sweet and steely voice to a time in the 1970s when I didn’t exist, with a road stretching out before me and an expanse of desert to either side. Musically, Joni Mitchell’s album Hejira is full of space, and yet there are strange nooks and crannies in there too. It’s imbued with the element of surprise that jazz brings with it. Each twist of the bassline is a lesson in acceptance.
Searching for themes among the albums that have brought me solace this year, three stand out: escape, change, uncertainty. In turning to people who are part of the musical pantheon, I’ve found comfort in knowing I’m one of millions they have connected with. Rufus, Tori and Joni have reaffirmed the ability music has to touch me deeply, and to anchor me in place. To bring me, as Joni would sing, to refuge – even if just for a handful of minutes.
I’m not on the road Joni was as she wrote Hejira – on that dusty highway going from east to west. When I look ahead, the tarmac is obscured by fog. But I have voices with me who promise support. When things are uncertain, those are the voices you need to hear, carrying you along. And when they come in the form of a perfect pop song, all the better.