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The Five Songs Project
I’m not sure if it was because it was the tail-end of winter, when everything inside of me was bursting to have later evenings, longer days, bare feet, and open windows that invite the delicate scent of flowering trees into your living room. Or maybe it was because it was my birthday, which is always the time of year that holds a monocle up to my eye and makes me look at my strange little life and my strange little habits with a sharper focus and a more furled, squinky-eyed Mr. Peanut expression than normal.
Whatever the reason, something inside of me had been ticking for a long time, and one sunny day in February, I decided that I needed a deliciously big, challenging, artistic project that would consume me night and day until some kind of inspiration (or delirium) breathed a little giddy energy into the doldrums of my 9-5 existence.
A colleague and friend of mine, Debby, had recently told me something that I thought was downright profound. A friend of hers was battling a serious illness overseas, and because she lives so far away from him, she presented him with an idea and a challenge in lieu of dropping by his house with chicken soup. The challenge was to come up with his favorite songs-- to really think about what his favorite music was, and to decide which songs were the closest to his heart.
I was deeply touched by Debby’s idea. What a gift, I thought, to give your friend a fun distraction that would serve many purposes during a difficult time. It’s something that you could turn on and off whenever you needed to get lost in the vast realm of your imagination. Plus, it’s a genuinely positive, motivational, and sweet subject to immerse yourself in. And best of all, thinking about your favorite music inevitably leads to some of the most nostalgic, hilarious, moving, and love-filled moments of your life. Music is linked with every family member, every friend, and every phase of your lifetime… so thinking about your favorite songs is synonymous with thinking about the people you love. It struck me as a wonderful thing to daydream about when you’re dealing with something difficult.
“Debby,” I said, “you’re a genius.” With her gracious permission, I borrowed her idea and turned it into a creative project to share with my friends whose lives have especially been linked to my own through music.
I took a deep breath before plunging into an email invitation:
“Dear friends (wait—do you have some water nearby? Because you’re about to embark on one helluva novel):
I want to do something joyful and thought-provoking to keep the economy's icy grip on our hearts at bay. So, for whatever stress or conundrums or existential uncertainties you may be faced with right now, I would like to offer a Birthday Present en masse to you, my dear friends, who are the best presents a girl could ask for.
There's a catch. A *big* catch. You have to earn this present.
As most of you know, I have an exasperating habit of expressing my love for my *favorite* (fill-in-the-blank) things about once every 20 minutes. But in that moment, I always mean what I say-- right then, it is my favorite, and I'm so filled with affection for whatever it is that I can hardly see straight. I've spent the past 3 years or so really, really thinking about 'favorites'... what's close to people's hearts, and why, and how long they stay there. It's a subject that never fails to inspire me.
SO. Here's where you and your en-masse birthday present come in.
The rules are simple, but the task is almost impossible:
Pick your 5 favorite songs. Share your 5 favorite songs with me by Friday the 13th. Include an explanation of why you chose each of those 5 songs.
Your definition of 'favorite' is up to you... but think carefully. You have all genres, all years, all artists, all albums, and all reasons to pick your 'favorites'. #1 might be your favorite jazz piece because the rhythm and lyrics and counter-melody blow your mind. #3 might be the motown song that was playing when you first kissed the love of your life. #5 might be Hanson's MMMbop, but it just makes you want to take your clothes off and dance in your skivvies in the kitchen every time you hear it.
If you're anything like me, the biggest challenge is that your 5 favorites will change every day... or ever hour. But at some point you'll have to pick.
Here are the most important rules:
1. Take the challenge seriously enough that you let yourself really think about it... think about it in the shower until your fingers get pruny...think about it at work until your boss calls you out
2. Stop thinking when you get frustrated. Come back to it again only when it's fun.
3. These can be as deep or ridiculous as you want them to be
Extra, double, kiss-you-on-the-lips bonus points if you also share what the experience of choosing your 5 favorites was like. How much did you think about it? How did this experience make you feel? What other memories were triggered in the process*?? (*I'm a Proust lover, remember) Why do you love music so much? Or, why is it important to not know why you love it sometimes?
It's an impossibly overwhelming task.
But this cd is going to be spectacular… epic… dare I say, the best CD ever.
with love and squalor:
2. (this space deliberately left blank)
4. (coffee ring)
My friends had to weigh their options.
“I will accept any absurd challenge,” Erik wrote. “Always have. Always will.”
The drawback: sheer torture for two weeks as they agonized over which songs to choose, and then having to bare their souls to me at the end. Not to mention the sleep deprivation and the weight loss.
The perk: At the end, each of them would get the mother of all mix CDs, with 95 new (and old) songs to add to their collections, as well as a delicious treasure trove of liner notes that would let us peek into each other’s creative sides, music libraries, and nostalgic memories.
The initial reaction from most of my friends was a burst of enthusiasm. It seemed like a lot of us were experiencing an end-of-winter funk, and it was fun to have something to put our energy into.
“I would love to be in on this! P.S. I rode the bus this morning with Kevin Spacey and was listening to an interesting song at the time,” Jessie replied.
“I’m in,” Steve Weave e-mailed from British Columbia. “Today I’m at my son’s school teaching kids to scratch in the sounds of whales over Stevie Wonder-- I’ll forward you some photos. And I’ll get you the five songs soon.”
As the two week deadline approached, I started getting a flood of emails from my friends… some shaking their fists angrily at me for how insanely consuming the task was, and some sharing their torment over how difficult—impossible—the challenge was.
My friend Justin wrote to me from work over his morning oatmeal--“Jane, um, I can say this because we are friends. I think I hate you.”
“Impossible, as you say, but who doesn’t love a good dance with failure? Here are my five songs, I leave the mess in your hands,” Karsten wrote from the doldrums of the Chicago winter.
Brian was one of the few who chose a theme—he told me that it was so hard to narrow down his favorite songs that he went with his ‘five favorite songs with interesting lyrics’ (he claims it might be the only time that “Ian MacKaye of Embrace has been put into a compilation along with Paul Simon”).
Tom’s reaction was the most serious—he listened to me explain the project with wide eyes over a mug of tea as he quietly nodded his head, realizing immediately how many thousands of songs he was going to have to mentally categorize. But he took on the challenge, and for the next two weeks, would drop by my apartment with some PBRs and an iPod full of that day’s song contenders so we could flop on the couch and zone out to music. (He later disappeared for about three days while he re-wired the speakers in his basement to be sure that his decision would be made under optimal listening conditions.)
Meredith sent in her top five before realizing that her favorite rendition of one song was actually the version that we’ve sung together since we were kids, so with three hours to go before the deadline, I booted up the sound booth at my office. Once we got our laughter out of our systems, we sang 2-part harmony a capella of a hymnal used in “Little Women” called “For the Beauty of the Earth”.
With about 40 minutes to go until the deadline, Steve emailed some compassionate advice. “Let's be frank,” he said. “By the looks of your email list, you have about 20 people. That's 80 CDs, darlin'. Shipping, covers, liner notes, etc. Hell, you might as well start a label for this compilation. So my advice, make yourself a cd and send your friends a list of the songs that they can find themselves.”
His insight couldn’t have been more accurate… as the emails started rolling in with song titles and explanations, ranging from one sentence to two pages (my own—I’ve never been known for brevity), I realized with a gulp and a brief bout of flop sweat just how much work I was in for.
Weeks—now months later—I don’t even know how many hours Tom and I have spent looking for, organizing, importing, and tweaking all of the files and notes for these mix CDs, which took close to 13 hours just to burn. Not to mention the hundreds of hours I added to the project due to wandering off in search of chocolate cake.
I think I did technically start a label.
As tedious as the process was, and as much as I never want to see an MP3 file again, it was deliciously fun.
So here I am, three months later, at the tail end of the challenge-- teetering on completion as soon as I finish gluing 20 participant biographies, 95 sets of lovingly-written explanations about each song, and 5 CDs into 20 hardback books (that were at the end of their life in the library’s ‘please take these books home’ sale).
When a friend shares a mix CD (or back in the day, a glorious mix tape) with you, each song takes on a new, special meaning. When tracks are put on a CD for you with love, you can’t help but to love them too—or at least I can’t. I feel like on some level, mixes from the people you love actually let you into the experience of their circadian rhythm—the ebbs and flows that they have throughout the day, and the soundtrack that’s playing for them when they feel like dancing, when they fall in love, when they’re lonely, when they’re lost in thought.
Getting this many songs (and the meanings attached to them) from my friends and family was very meaningful to me, and I went through the whole gamut of emotions as I sat down and read them all en masse.
Coryn chose Cat Stevens’ “I Love My Dog” because it reminds her of her dog Lily. “She is the most amazing thing that has come out of our time over here, which is saying a lot since it’s been an adventure of a lifetime,” she wrote from England.
Karsten included “Smells like Content” by The Books because “this song just wraps itself around me-- it's one of the few songs that I've ever loved that I'm still somehow quietly obsessed with. The instrumentation churns with a certain sereneness, like an underground river.”
Meg wrote that “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills & Nash just “makes her feel like she can do anything” when it comes on the radio, and I got choked up when I read Jamie’s description of “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys—“I hear Saturday afternoons with my dad, him telling me, ‘listen to the harmony, Jay,’ with reverence in his voice. I hear myself at age 11, awkwardly trying to learn the french horn solo by ear. I hear the most precious, beautiful love song.”
My friend Laura works in addiction counseling, so she chose Elliot Smith’s “Big Decision” because “the pace, the tone, the lyrics, everything about it is a very true representation of ‘addiction’ in music form, and it's my instant shot of empathy and understanding before I set off for a day of work.”
Thad pulled my heartstrings when he included “Gypsy” by Stevie Nicks, because we’ve always joked that one day we would get married, and I will wear a dress with long, flowing, Stevie Nicks-esque sleeves while Tom releases one-winged doves above us from the church belfry (I still assert that those are the lyrics Nicks sings… “just like the one winged dove / sings a song, sounds like she’s singing / oooh, oooh, oooooh yeahhhh).
Noah told me that the song “Ma Fleur” reminded him of “the vigilant effort we put into building up our most valuable muscle; the heart. And when I fall in love, it feels like I'm building my heart for two people.”
I learned something about every single person who submitted music to me, including my parents, who told me they chose John Denver’s “Sunshine on My Shoulder” because it was playing on their car radio the day they got engaged on a mountain peak in the Adirondacks.
I learned that my friend Peter conquered his fear of getting hurt in romantic relationships with the help of Rachel Yamagata’s “Letter Read,” and that Robin feels a chord strike in her Southern roots every time she hears Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “soulful… gritty and dusty cover of Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’.”
During the project, I received a lumpy, lovingly-taped package in the mail from Canada—Steve’s songs had been bounced around customs for a while and had finally made their way to Boulder. It was then that the Five Songs Project took a surprising twist.
I need to make a quick detour for a little back story. Several years ago, I was puttering around the kitchen one night around 3am feeling sorry for myself. I turned on the movie channels, and found myself sucked into that 80s movie “She’s Having a Baby” with Kevin Bacon.
At the end of the movie (SPOILER ALERT!), the Kate Bush song (if you’ve seen the movie, you’re probably shouting this song title at your screen right now before I can even say it) “This Woman’s Work” comes on as Kevin Bacon is standing in the world’s most melodramatic spotlight in the hospital waiting room, anxiously wondering if Elizabeth McGovern and their baby are going to be ok, and he’s having flashbacks about their happy memories together as the song’s drama quotient and volume start going through the roof, and... ok, so you know the one I’m talking about.
Of course, as any estrogen-producing human who’s been eating chocolate ice cream and watching 80s movies in the dark would be, at this point I was sobbing and blowing my nose on the sleeve of my pajamas every time Kate Bush’s voice cut in… “Oooooh-hooooooo…. I know you have a little life in you yet… I know you have a lot of strength leeeeeft”
The next day, still a little puffy-eyed, I headed to Tom’s and babbled on and on about what a sad little kitten I was because of my quarter-life crisis, and how that damn Kate Bush song kept me up all night crying… so Tom convinced me to get out of my funk by visiting my friend Jessie in NYC, and off I went.
During my trip, Jessie’s boyfriend ended up putting me in a cab with his (hang in there for a second while my storytelling takes a turn for the geriatric) sister’s husband’s best friend Steve and Steve’s wife Tracy. (Oof, I know what you’re thinking-- this is getting painful. Hang in there. )
Our conversation went as follows:
Them: “Hello. You must be our friend’s wife’s brother’s friend.”
Me: “Um. I like the movie Spinal Tap.”
Them: “… we named our son Nigel after seeing that movie!”
Me: “Ok. We’re friends.”
We spent an adventurous day together in the city and stayed in touch, but it wasn’t until now, when I read their song notes, that the weird coincidences started stacking up about that fateful encounter in New York.
Steve’s first song: “This Woman’s Work” by Kate Bush. The song that inadvertently set me in motion on my NYC adventure.
Steve’s second song: “He Likes Me,” by a musician named Tom Wilson, whose record “All American Boy” had been the source of so many funny evenings with Steve and his friends that Steve became penpals with Wilson, and they agreed to meet in person in Manhattan (which they did, six days before I met Steve in a cab).
I can’t resist sharing the notes I received about the Canadian and the musician meeting for the first time: “Steve and Tom hit it off, and Tom tells them all about how he got lucky whereby a producer from Letterman was sent out to scour the New York record stores for the strangest music he could find. One of three albums picked for the show was Tom's, containing the song ‘Lesbian Seagull’. The producer of the then currently-in-production film "Beavis and Butthead do America" happens to be watching Letterman, and decides it's the perfect song to end the film. Tom goes on to fight David Geffen himself over the use of a shotgun sound during the song in the film version-- something he believes is a form of gay bashing. He wins, gets it switched and is a hero to the gay community.”
I find it completely bizarre and deliriously wonderful that two ‘80s musicians—Kate Bush and Tom Wilson-- were responsible for me taking Tom’s advice of going to New York, visiting Jessie, and meeting Steve and Tracy. And Steve and Tracy chose Kate Bush and Tom Wilson songs years later when I asked them, as well as Tom and Jessie, to send me their favorite music.
I realize that this coincidental story might not be mind-blowing to others, but it really delighted me, so a couple months ago I spent an entire evening online until I had tracked down Tom Wilson. I sent him an email about how the five songs project, and how he had been partially responsible for this crazy coincidence. I told him how endearing I think his song “He Likes Me” is (whose lyrics include: “he likes vitamin C, Earl Gray tea, and me! // He likes Egg McMuffin, turkey stuffin’ and meeeee!”). Then I confided in Mr. Wilson that the five songs project was really important to me because, as he surely understood, music is a huge element of close friendships— whether it’s the music that you and your friends always sing along to in the car, or the music that you put on when you all stay up until 4am talking, it’s a big part of the nostalgic, wordless, mutually shared experience of friendships.
I ended my email by saying that one of my best friends was about to have a birthday, and could I please somehow buy an LP of his record from him in time to give it as a gift? Because in the many nights I’d just spent lying on my couch enveloped in music and thinking about the various lyrics—about loss and courage and following your dreams, and love, in all of its complicated forms-- I had realized, with a wave of complete surprise and fear, that I seemed to be head over heels for this friend, who had been one of my best friends of ten years.
I told Mr. Wilson, as simply as I could manage, that I needed the earnest sweetness of the “He Likes Me” LP to try to navigate the nerve-wracking leap I was about to make. And, if he wouldn’t mind, I could really use a little lucky magic dust sprinkled over the record before if it was sent from Manhattan, if it wouldn’t be too much to ask.
He replied to my email with a very lovely note, saying that he was amused to have a rush order on a 1982 LP, but if I was willing to pay the $10 rush fee, he was more than willing to help me with my daunting task.
The record arrived in the mail right on time, with a sweet note wishing my friend a happy birthday.
So, the five songs project ended up changing my life a little bit.
It made me the sappiest person who’s ever lived, first of all, because I’ve been a big grinning, teary-eyed, nostalgic, giddy mess ever since I started working on it.
It brought me closer to many of the kindred spirits in my life by learning things about them that I might not have ever known otherwise.
It helped me celebrate one of the biggest loves of my life—music. And I celebrated it with the people who I studied cello with for 15 years, who taught me how to sing, who snuck me into my first concerts and who hugged me at midnight every New Years Eve for the past five years with one of our favorite bands playing in the background.
It also gave me the Mister-Peanut-Monocled focus and courage to take the leap and date one of my best friends, who’s now the proud owner of a Tom Wilson record, and who’s sitting next to me as I write this in the warm evening light of spring, eating popcorn and laughing at a TV show we stumbled upon on called “Ghost Adventures” (or as he thinks it should be called, “Ghost Yellers,” because all they’re doing is walking into rooms and yelling, “hello?!? Are there any spirits in this room?!”)
The five songs project didn’t just bring the world’s best mix CD into my life—it brought me a little bit closer to the people I love. When someone lets you into their music, they let you into their heart, too.
I told you I’ve been really sappy lately.
As sappy as a Kate Bush song in the midst of a 1980s movie montage…
I know you’ve got a little life in you yeeeeeet
(cue Kevin Bacon standing in a pool of light, wearing scrubs)
I’ll end this rambling love ballad with some truly lovely words that I will pass on to any of the music-loving, hopeless romantics out there like myself… from Tom Wilson’s last e-mail to me, in regards to his song "He Likes Me":
“Good luck. P.S. He still likes ‘rain and thunder, Stevie Wonder and me’. We celebrated our 35th in November.”
Cue romantic exit music, and fade to black.