IN MARCH, I sublet my room to go cover South by Southwest for an alt-weekly I’ve been freelancing for. The entire music world converged in Austin, turning the normally chill city of food trucks and swimming holes into a haywire carnival of artists, label heads, industry execs, bloggers, and attendees swooping in on the free beer and stacked showcases.
I lost my wallet on the plane, stayed with a stranger who turned out to be wonderfully understanding as well as generally wonderful, and met a ton of real people who, up until then, I had only known as Twitter handles, URLs, and MP3 tags.
The music world is a highly transient thing. Bands go on tour several times a year, to share their music, see the world, and find like-minded communities. When you’re just starting out, tour is never really sustainable — at best you break even. At worst, your car breaks down, someone steals your gear, you come home more broke than when you started out and discover you’re now out of a job. SXSW is a funny microcosm of that. One moment you’re a buzzband being hailed as the future of music, showered with praise and drink tickets and effusive Tweets. Hours later, you’re back to being a bunch of kids sitting on a bench in a sketchy part of East Austin with nowhere to stay for the night.
In August, I threw all my things in storage and went on a month-long drive around the states for a music documentary I’ve been working on. I can’t drive, so as the blue dot on my iPhone map crept ever westward, I sat in the backseat, zoning out and watching the American landscape go by. I learned that US-70 is the most beautiful road in America and US-50 is the loneliest. I learned that everything I need fits into a duffel bag. I learned not to be so precious with my habits, that cartoon characters aren’t the only people who can get away with wearing the same thing for days at a time. It was an election year. I learned that there are places in the US that I could never understand, and, driving through the Midwest’s dried-out plains, Utah’s abandoned roadside towns and hokey tourist traps, and Nevada’s endless nothings, I wondered how it could be possible that all of this was all the same country.
The musicians we met were more than understanding of our shared old-car-and-Old-Spice smell and the slightly manic look in our eyes. They suggested waterfalls to visit and Goodwills to stop in.
In a way, I’ve never quite come home from that last trip. I made it back east but I’m still crashing on couches, still carrying a toothbrush and a stick of Old Spice in my backpack at all times, still picturing Seattle and Denver when I’m walking through New York and Boston. Maybe that’s why this playlist of my favorite travel songs of 2012 (in no particular order) feels like the most important top 10 list I’ve made all year. It just feels like home.
Hurray for the Riff Raff – “Look Out Mama” (Look Out Mama)
We met Hurray for the Riff Raff on the levee in the 9th Ward of New Orleans on the Day of the Dead, and although both the time and the place contributed to the ghostly vibes in the air, it was Alynda Lee Segarra’s captivating voice that gave us the shivers.
Alynda Lee, lead singer, told us about her wandering days — hopping trains all over the country, stopping for a bit, then always moving on again — then played the title track off their new album Look Out Mama, which is about finally settling, not in her home city of New York, but in her chosen home of New Orleans.
Hearing Hurray For the Riff Raff’s perfect mix of backwater blues and folk Americana is enough to get me thinking about the tension between staying and going, and the back roads and the marshes and the New Orleans shimmer-heat.
Swearin’ – “Movie Star” (Swearin’)
I first saw PS Eliot play in 2011, at the annual punxtravaganza known as The Fest, in Gainesville, Florida. As our friends in Allston were being hit by a freak October snowstorm, my road trip buddies and I parked our Camry in our Couchsurf host’s driveway, threw on our cut-up t-shirts, and headed straight for the PS Eliot show to jump out the energy tensed up in our car-cramped legs. We couldn’t believe we actually got to Florida. It took us less than two weeks to plan a three-week trip — we didn’t have much money or much of a game plan, but we did have restless leg syndrome and low expectations, which proved to be enough.
PS Eliot has since broken up and the Crutchfield sisters have gone their separate ways — Katie’s open-heart poetry to Waxahatchee, Alison’s direct garagepunk to Swearin’. Both have been on heavy rotation this year, but Swearin’ delivers the punk reassurance I need so badly. In 2011, when I told my older, more put-together friends at the theater I was working at that I was going on a random three-week road trip to the South, they told me I was crazy. I told them it would be fine. If it had been 2012, I would have quoted them the last few lines of “Movie Star”:
- “You and me don’t earn much pay,
- but you and me got enough to get away,
- if we want to.”
Young Magic – “Night in the Ocean” (Melt)
Young Magic’s sound is not what you might typically call “world music,” but that has more to do with the absurdity of “world music” as a genre than with Young Magic’s globetrotting cred. The band members grew up in Indonesia and Australia, met in New York, and recorded sounds along individual travels to locations as far-flung as Mexico, Brazil, Iceland, Germany, and the UK.
Their debut album, appropriately named Melt, is a combination of those travels, experiences, and recordings. The disparate influences are hard to pin down, but the overarching feeling is always one of wanderlust, and the psychedelic headspace it inspires.
Levek – “Terra Treasures” (Look a Little Closer)
Levek’s music is not ostensibly about travel, but the Florida band’s beautiful bossanova-inspired jams meander through foggy territory, surrealist landscapes on the way to distant cities. With more than a passing similarity to “America”-era Simon & Garfunkel, Look a Little Closer is one of the more pleasant travel companions you could hope for.
Digits – “Where Do You Belong” (Where Do You Belong?)
When you’re a solo performer and not a full band, travel is a two-sided coin. There are endless opportunities to be taken and connections to be made when you’re far from home, but being out there on your own can get lonely.
As a Toronto-based musician who has recently lived in London and Berlin, Digits knows all about this. The title song on the dark R&B-inspired synth-pop album asks questions like, “Do you know where you’re going?” and “Have you lost your way?” — questions I don’t claim to know the answers to, but, judging from the anxious synths, neither does the narrator.
Lower Dens – “Propagation” (Nootropics)
“Propagation,” off this year’s Nootropics, was largely written in the back of the Lower Dens tour van while on the road, and that’s how it feels, sprawling and expansive and completely hypnotizing.
Parquet Courts – “N Dakota” (Light Up Gold)
Parquet Courts paint a two-minute ode to North Dakota with images like “Feudal beginnings / amber wave looseness / post-Nordic grinning / tired and toothless,” and the verdict, “Cigarette advertisement country – wild and perfect but lacking something.”
It’s the audio equivalent to an Alec Soth photo, which somehow makes me really want to get back on the road.
Hop Along – “Tibetan Pop Stars” (Get Disowned)
In “Tibetan Pop Stars,” the narrator is the one stuck at home while her lover gets to travel the world. It’s an old theme, but when Frances Quinlan misses someone, it’s no meek “girl pining at the window” sort of longing, but a screaming, thrashing, desperate frustration.
When, at the climax of the song, Quinlan finally screams “Nobody deserves you the way that I do,” she channels all the helplessness of being left behind into a scream that can carry over from Philadelphia to India, where her lover is “seducing Tibetan pop stars and crashing motorcars.”
Dan Deacon – “USA III: Rail” (America)
Dan Deacon’s America is all about — you guessed it — America, specifically the cultural and physical landscape. Rail in particular is about a five-day trip Deacon did from Seattle to New York. As he said in an interview with Pitchfork:
I started thinking about the train — a beautiful, antiquated, romantic way of traveling, over Christmas. It would be incredible. And it was. The train was empty. Traveling through Washington and Montana, you looked out the window on either side, and there’s no sign of thought or humanity, just pure, unadulterated earth. You hear the driver call through the train constantly. The progressive nature of it — seeing the landscape shift — is what that track has. The different timbres shift and grow, and then there’s a big shift, like when the city you’ve seen growing in the distance is finally there. “USA” is the embodiment of that mindset.
The Babies – “Wandering” (Our House on the Hill)
Despite our best attempts, travel so often ends up being less about discovering places and more about discovering yourself. On “Wandering,” Kevin Morby sings honest, simple lyrics about wandering and wondering over meandering, sometimes ominous guitar strumming.
By the time Morby sings “Become what, become what, become who you are,” it’s already clear that for all of its songs about getting lost and seeing the country, Our House on the Hill is concerned about finding your way in the world in a way that extends beyond road maps.