I’d like to invite you to play a music game. It’s called #songrelay, and it’s how I fell back in love with music.
I’m a music lover. That’s not unique. People are music lovers by default. Just watch any baby when their mother sings a lullaby. Play a good song to a group of people, turn down the lights, and we might as well be dancing around bonfires again.
It’s not rocket science. We’re wired to enjoy music together.
I can’t separate the songs of my life from who I am as a person. “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac takes me back so quickly that if I close my eyes, I can place myself exactly in the moment when I first heard it, laying half asleep in my childhood bed, door cracked, Stevie Nicks’ voice drifting in from the record player in the living room. When Turtle’s and Peaches were both sold out of Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” it was the second single “Crimson and Clover” playing over and over (and over) on my Fisher Price toy record player that put me to sleep. The first two Fugazi songs on the mixtape that Justin gave me in 9th grade when I woke up to what pure creative expression was all about. The History of Punk Rock According to Jimi, made for Kesime, and dubbed for me from a copy of a copy. That time I checked to see if my tape deck was broken when I first heard My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. Suzanne Vega’s “The Queen and the Soldier,” on a tape that Anna gave me in high school, that still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. The DJ mix called “Orange” that Jim made, that Summer gave me, and that led me to spend the last 20 years trying to track down the original songs (play this one at .75 speed). The hours and hours writing songs in the stairwell with Seth and Jeff. Those years I toured the States in The Jealous Sound, and was lucky enough to play alongside bands that I was also a fan of. That time I spent 7 years writing an album of my own. The playlist I had to put together for my Dad’s funeral. The beat goes on…
Sometimes my life feels like one long mixtape, flowing from song to song, with surprising turns, weird time signatures, dips into darkness, triumphant crescendos, and sublime harmonies that pull emotions out of me that I didn’t know existed.
Over time, my relationship with music changed. If I wasn’t getting mixtapes or mix cds from friends then I would have to work much harder to keep finding new music that I loved. No one was saying “you gotta hear this” on the way to school. No friend’s record collections to peruse, much less record stores to visit. I tried to keep up with the music blogs back in the heyday, but that was a lot of snark to wade through. Half of those blogs made me feel like Beth from Diner.
Finally, one day I realized that I’d been listening to the same 4 or 5 albums for years, and that didn’t really sit well with me. I felt like a part of myself had withered away.
So I tried something new. A few years ago I started making collaborative playlists with people at work. It was fun. We’d all dump a bunch of songs into a giant playlist. I think we made it to about 100 songs or so. I found out about Courtney Barnett, Now Now, Alvvays, and Beach Slang this way (Thanks Mike A, Divya, Reid and Josh!). But the experience felt more like going to a library than listening to a great mixtape. I could scan the new adds and take a listen, but I never just pressed play and held on tight.
Algorithmic playlists are similar. They’re getting better, but still a bit soulless. The music that sticks with me always comes recommended from a friend. Or it’s been burned into my memory because I was sharing a moment with someone. I rarely fall in love with a song from a 300 track playlist of stuff I’ve never heard.
In 2016 I made a new friend, Steve, and our shared love of music, “get-to-know-you-games,” collaborative playlists, and hanging out on a couch drinking wine evolved into a mixtape game. We started adding structure like rules, themes, and track limits. We’d play free association mixtape games, we’d play the game live and “in-the-round” while hanging out with friends, or we’d play it over the course of a week on messaging apps during breaks. I was obsessed, and I started playing the game with new friends. I’d be meeting people for the first time, and getting to know them through the mixtape game. I’d be getting to know old friends even better. I introduced mixtape friends to other mixtape friends. At this moment I’m playing with Steve, Jango and Mike, a friend that I’ve never actually spoken to, but I can tell you all about what he was listening to in high school, and which song his kid loves at the moment.
When I make mixtapes with friends, finding connections between songs becomes finding connections between people. Music is the glue.
These days I’ll feverishly chase down a song that is new to my ears like it’s the answer to some long lost secret of the universe. I’ve sparked the annoyance of many a barista when I’ve asked,“who is this,” and inevitably they reply, “I don’t know, man, Discovery Weekly probably.” I’ve learned to keep Shazam close.
These days when I reach for my phone it’s not to check my social feeds. I’m looking for the perfect song. One that will create a magical connection to the song before it. A song that says, “I get it.” A song that won’t break the flow. A song that says “you’re up!”
I’ve been playing this game now going on 4 years, non stop. It’s weird how fun it is, and how much I look forward to it every day.
Want to play?